Late night thoughts on ‘The Emancipated Spectator’ ch 1 by Jacques Ranciére

In his critique of theatre and the notion of the spectator, Ranciére, unpicks the tenuous relationship between the performance and the viewer/spectator. He uses the analogy of the schoolmaster in chapter 1 of the book (from a previous book entitled ‘The Ignorant Schoolmaster’). This is understandably a problematic analogy in that the performance is not always meant to be instructional or to transmit knowledge. He mentions that the spectator is ‘separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act.’ There is an assumption here that the spectator hopes to ‘know’ something, rather than simply engage with or enjoy the momentary ‘illusion’ of performance. He also fails to consider the spectator who views, for instance, a piece twice: once for pleasure and twice to decipher deeper meaning or share that experience with another. By associating the ‘scene of illusion’ with ‘passivity’ denies a performance the right to be simply illusory/magical or for the spectator to be simply passive. It asserts the need for an intellectual platform in order for a piece to be appreciated, rather than seeing any piece as a multi-layered ‘experience’ for a multi-type audience.

I am no theatrical expert but when he proposes that: What is required is a theatre without spectators, where those in attendance learn from as opposed to being seduced by images; where they become active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs,’ he again asserts that the piece must ‘teach’ a spectator (or rather no spectator) so they must ‘learn’, but this limits the spectators experience to something merely cerebral rather than tactile, emotional or even spiritual. It generalizes the spectator into a homogenous group rather than something more fluid or mutable.

The idea that the passive spectator is merely a ‘voyeur’ is indeed limiting their capacity to ‘see’ and absorb an experience of a piece. It suggests that passivity is not always a choice and that it should be viewed negatively; yet in choosing to be passive about a certain performance, this in itself is a conscious (or subconscious) decision, whether or not a piece evokes ‘a strange, unusual spectacle, a mystery whose meaning he must seek out’. What if the spectator consciously chooses not to seek meaning?

Much of his proposal suggests that the viewer must indeed be called to decision making, with an ‘evaluation of reasons’ and ‘discussion’ of how he/she arrives at that ‘decision’. However, what is the ‘decision’ that he hopes the spectator should arrive at? Is it the interpretation of the intention of the artist, a meaning the artist hopes to ‘teach’ or convey; or is it merely the spectator’s own reasoning processes which can be entirely divorced from those of the artist? He then goes further, to suggest that another ‘formulation’, is that the ‘reasoning distance’ itself should be abolished. In this sense the spectator becomes participator, thus removing the imaginary and illusory veil between spectator and performance piece. This would rightly mean abdicating ‘the very position of viewer’ and the power or subjection this holds. But is it entirely necessary that the spectator be transformed into performer and vice versa?

It truly is therefore, as he next asserts, a ‘paradox’; or the ‘network of presupposition, the set of equivalences and oppositions that underpin their possibility: equivalences between theatrical audience and community, gaze and passivity, exteriority and separation, mediation and simulacrum; oppositions between the collective and the individual, the image and living reality, activity and passivity, self-ownership and alienation.’ It is for him, the ‘intricate dramaturgy of sin and redemption’ (really a second paradoxical or ill applied metaphor), yet it is not entirely clear who ‘sins’. Is it the performer or the spectator who sins and if so, who plays God? The ‘evil’ is apparently the ‘spectacle’ itself but the theatre can ‘redeem’ itself, when it returns ‘ownership of consciousness’ and ‘activity’ to the spectator. I am assuming the next metaphor is ‘free will’, but before he takes the reader there (as I had hoped), he returns to the analogy of the school master, which again I am not entirely convinced is the most appropriate analogy, for the power play in a classroom is vastly different to that of a performance (although an active learner does indeed learn more than a passive one). Nevertheless, in the classroom there is more than simply a transference of knowledge, as the learner engages not only with the school master but also with his/her peers as well as his/her environment or space. The process of mediation is not simply linear and there are a multitude of other skills conveyed to the learner both consciously and/or subconsciously. Furthermore, there is the demographics of age, gender, status etc. and/or intellectual capacity which will alter the meaning conveyed. For instance, a child with special needs may not understand all the conceptual elements of a lesson but may nevertheless engage with it or experience a sense of enjoyment despite not learning the knowledge transferred or intended learning objective. Similarly, the worthiness of a piece of performance should not be restricted to intellectual or high-brow outcomes, for as in the classroom, other skills, both social and/or emotional may be being conveyed. A joke or snippet of wisdom shared by the ‘schoolmaster’ to his students may be just as ‘meaningful’ as the subject knowledge he wishes to transfer. Similarly, in a performance, comedy or aesthetics should not be denied the spectator, in favour of something more intellectual, requiring reasoning or discussion. Ranciére does go on to state that ‘artists do not wish to instruct the spectator’ but ‘simply wish to produce a form of consciousness, an intensity of feeling, an energy for action’ and then rightly asserts that the performance itself is ‘autonomous’ implying that once it is released by the performer or artist, it is no longer their meaning or intention that is necessarily  conveyed, but instead it has a life of its own and how it is interpreted or consumed by the spectator is free of the restraints of the artist/performer. This notion creates dynamism and a freedom of ownership, however, if it is the intention of an artist to convey a serious meaning to the spectator then this becomes problematic, as in the process of dramaturgical mediation, the meaning can not only be rejected but it can also be distorted. We only have to look at the theatrical spectacle present in politics today to see first-hand how spectators/voters will interpret a ‘performance’ and how this interpretation will be dependent on factors such as age, education, interests and various other contextual elements, resulting in a myriad of viewpoints; some of which are not always desirable.

But returning to the idea of the autonomous spectacle, the relationship between performer and spectator is thus beyond either, for both may play each other’s role and both may interpret the spectacle as a third player in the relationship. This relationship is also not exclusive to performer, performance and spectator but may include other spectators, the space itself or even passed viewed spectacles. Like a learner in a school room, the spectator may: have learned something or nothing; experienced something or nothing; been inspired to take a part of the spectacle away with him/her; create or recreate from the performance something new, generate a second spectacle which may or may not link to the primary spectacle; the possibilities are indeed endless and this is what makes performance art so fascinating.


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