K is for (Reading, Reviewing, Responding to) Rancière

| April 29, 2014

Wait, are we emancipated? Are we a community? I just don't know OMG WATCH OUT FOR THAT SHARK!!!

(If The Emancipated Spectator had a theme song, it would be “Alone, together”…)

For those that found the text too dense and the references a bit opaque, you may want to read some of these secondary sources to contextualize Rancière’s arguments and critiques. Below are some less impenetrable reviews of the Emancipated Spectator. I’ve called out some of the more important points and themes (in bold).

Here’s a clip of Rancière speaking about the importance of emancipation and emancipatory struggle. Hearing his voice helps humanize his dense written prose.  He really talks like that!

Times Higher Ed: The Emancipated Spectator (John Armitage, April 29, 2010)

  • Ranciere, who has risen to fame recently in the English-speaking world through his conceptualisations of critical theory and aesthetics, separation, community and the contemporary image, is a “post-Marxist”, even though he co-authored the seminal Reading Capital with the Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser in 1968.
  • The Emancipated Spectator is intended to improve our comprehension of art and deepen our grasp of the politics of perception.
  • Here, Ranciere’s principal theoretical argument is that the position of the spectator in contemporary cultural theory is reliant on the theatrical idea of “the spectacle”, a concept the author employs to describe any performance that puts “bodies in action before an assembled audience”.
  • For Ranciere, the masses, exposed to what Guy Debord in 1967 called “the society of the spectacle”, are usually understood as passive. Consequently, poets, playwrights and theatre directors such as Bertolt Brecht have tried to convert the inert spectator into a committed aesthete and the spectacle into a political presentation.
  • Ranciere’s alternative perspective on the effort to emancipate the spectator questions the attempt to traverse the abyss that divides activity from passivity by asking “if it is not precisely the desire to abolish the distance that creates it”.
  • “Emancipation”, writes Ranciere, “begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting: when we understand that the self-evident facts that structure the relations between saying, seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection.”
  • the concept of the spectator and her emancipation from the society of the spectacle is vital to Ranciere’s post-Marxian explanation of the tradition of critical art theory and the aspiration to incorporate aesthetics rather than separation into communal life.

Armitages’s main critique:”The key problem with The Emancipated Spectator is that, for all its impressive concern with the political analysis of art and the use of imagery, it never asks the crucial question about the position of the postmodern spectator: emancipated from what?…. No longer the spectators that the society of the spectacle needs, the masses’ “emancipation”, perhaps through theatricalised anti-globalisation street protests, has by now been predicted by a world in which fake pursuits are already integrated into the essentially passive routines of the mass media.”

Marx & Philosophy Review of Books: The Emancipated Spectator (Jeremy Spencer, 2010)

  • Rancière discusses critically Marxist and postmodern social and cultural critiques. He is familiar with and sensitive to modernist, avant-garde and contemporary art, theatrical performance, photography and cinema while seeking to displace the oppositions that structure the debates that surround them: activity and passivity; individuality and community; ignorance and knowledge.
  • The spectator emerges as a paradoxical figure in critical thought. Although the spectator is condemned as the ignorant and merely passive voyeur of seductive images there is no art or theatre without her. The passive spectator who takes pleasure in images while ignoring their production and the reality they conceal is taken to represent the betrayal of art’s political efficacy and to display her own alienation and ‘self-dispossession’. The inactive spectator is supposed to vanish with the abolition of art and theatre as spectacle and the restoration of its essence as a ‘living community’. However, in Rancière’s defence of the status of the spectator, the oppositions and equivalences that structure the critique of the spectator and of theatre are in reality relations of inequality, domination and subjection.
  • Rancière makes the point that theorists can suppose that what the spectator feels or understands will be what was intended for her by the artist. The emancipation of the spectator might begin with the realisation that viewing actively transforms and interprets its objects; what she sees, feels and understands from the performance is not necessarily what the artist thinks she must.
  • He rejects this ‘logic of straight, uniform transmission’ from one mind to another to insist upon the creativity of the spectator. Drawing on ideas developed in his earlier The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (1991), Rancière identifies what he means by an ‘emancipatory practice’ of art. The artist should be more like ‘the ignorant schoolmaster’ who ‘does not teach his pupils his knowledge, but orders them to venture into the forest of things and signs, to say what they have seen and what they think of what they have seen, to verify it and have it verified’. The emancipated spectator, like these pupils, possesses the capacity to translate and interpret, to make new associations and disassociations from the spectacle she views.
  • Thus, for Rancière, emancipation does not arise from the critique of consumer society, an approach which he suggests is paternalistic and elitist. Rather, it blurs the boundaries between looking and doing, the roles of specialist and amateur, student and teacher, and means for the proletarian, seizing hold of aesthetic experiences and the pleasure of spectating.
  • Rancière considers the aesthetic not as the utopian principle of articulating the sensuous with the conceptual… but instead as a process of ‘dis-identification’.
  • Rancière recasts the critique of the passive and ignorant spectator: workers who become spectators disturb the given distribution of the sensible to which they are fitted.
  • What Rancière names as the ‘aesthetic break’ designates a break with ‘the regime of representation or the mimetic regime’ (60). Representation or mimesis means an inherent and unambiguous concordance between different kinds of sense. Critical thought has tended to connect the power to produce ethical or political effects with the character of the autonomous artwork itself. This idea of their connection has remained the model for political art, Rancière argues. The ‘aesthetic break’ is understood as a break with the regime of primarily mimetic representation upon which political art has depended, whether that means the reproduction of commodities or consumer spectacles or the photographic representation of atrocities. The `aesthetic’ names the break in this continuity between representations and their supposed social and political effects. In the immediacy of theatre and forms of relational visual art there is no separation between performing actors or artist and the audience.
  • Political art revealed that commodity and market relations lie behind beautiful appearances and are their truth. It aimed to disabuse the spectator and induce a sense of complicity, guilt and responsibility in her. As archetypal means of achieving those ends, Rancière cites Brecht’s theory and practice, the political montage of German Dada, and the American artist Martha Rosler’s series, Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful, 1969–1971 that juxtaposes photographs of luxurious petty-bourgeois interiors cut out from House Beautiful magazine with images of the Vietnam War from Life magazine.
  • Rancière is critical of Brechtian distanciation as a way of making political art. He doubts the pretentions to political efficacy of strategies intended to express repressed desire or render palpable class domination. He sees no reason why the ‘clash of heterogeneous elements’ and the sense of strangeness that photomontage evokes should either help the spectator understand the nature of domination or determine her political decision to change the world. He is critical of a political art and aesthetics that presuppose an uncomplicated transit between modes of artistic production (collage, photomontage) and the subjective determination to act politically.
  • The Emancipated Spectator argues that the artistic procedures of the avant-gardes did not produce politicised and revolutionary ideologies and practices but were sustained by them.
  • Rancière wants a new practice of political art that reworks ‘the frame of our perceptions and the dynamism of our affects’ and generates new forms of political subjectivity. He is critical of art that wants to emancipate its spectator because it presupposes ignorance and passivity. He defends an aesthetics in which the artist does not transmit superior knowledge to an ignorant and passive spectator. Rancière’s emancipated spectator actively interprets and translates the image offered to her. Rather than a transmission of knowledge, the image emerges as an alien entity that the artist and spectator verify together.
  • Political art, for Rancière, is not the practice of revealing the concealed reality of domination and exploitation behind the appearances and images of consumerism or demonstrating yet again the omnipotence of the commodity.

Spencer’s main critique: The politicized aesthetic that emerges from this book perhaps precludes a thorough and satisfying engagement with the actual practices of collaborative and relational art; the critique of the spectacle more or less exhausts the ambitions of political art for Rancière.


Mute: The Emancipated Spectator (Stefan Szczelkun, August 17, 2013)

Chap 1:

  • Ranciere sees in Debord’s labelling of spectators as passive, unthinking and stupid the same Humanist strategy of stultifying the public he had previously identified in education. He pokes fun at the way that the ‘struggle against the society of the spectacle and in particular detournment is included in all critical art agendas, and is taught to be conducted in ‘standardised forms’.
  • Ranciere does not see a structural opposition between collective and individual, image and lived reality or, activity and passivity. Consumerism may be banal but it does not follow that consumers are powerless idiots. Collectives are made of individuals, images are always a part of the use of our sensory abilities, and contemplation may look ‘passive’ but it is always mentally active.
  • He sees these left-field theories as perpetuating the idea of a public that are presumed to be ‘ignoramuses’ by an intelligensia. If The Society of the Spectacle tells us anything at all, it is to underline the message about our own inability. “It thereby constantly confirms its own presupposition: the inequality of intelligence”. p.9
  • … all humans will take a unique path from what they already know to what they do not yet know if given an environment where this is possible.
  • Viewing is a routine human activity, an activity comprising of selection, comparison, interpretation and of making connections. And it is part of a process that inevitably leads to the viewer creating something of her own, even if it is a negation; a turning away, yawning or choosing another path. As he says spectators are “only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them.” p.16
  • Culture works through an “unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations.” p.17. The implication is that as soon as the process is planned or designed as a process of cultural reception with an effect in mind, it leads to something that is no longer a place where each individual is using her intelligence to make their own aesthetic judgement. This point is core to the argument in The Emancipated Audience.
  • He surmises that by the Sixties the use of Marxist ideology had led to two requirements from its adherents:
    1. To teach an understanding of the system to those (ignoramuses) who suffered from it in order “to arm them for struggle”.
    2. Ironically the elite Marxist scholars and cadres were themselves ignorant of the struggle; so they have to go amongst the workers, who they regard as ignoramuses, in order to educate themselves.
  • An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators p.22
  • Art should problematise the presuppositions that maintain the system of stultification.

Chap 2

  • Ranciere is all for ‘disordering’ the semiotic class distributions mapped by Bourdieu in his influential 1979 study; ‘Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste’. He thinks that  this kind of norm finding sociological research will reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them. The process of cultural emancipation starts with individual or small groups of artists who do anything but obey these norms of taste. It is in the fracturing of the patterns of class identification by those who do not fit the norms, that emancipation may be found.
  • The left is fixated on particular ontologies of work and the worker that suit the market down to the ground. “Social emancipation signified breaking this fit between an ‘occupation’ and a ‘capacity’.” p.42.
  • He does then make positive suggestions of new directions for left activity. Social emancipation might be achieved by “the dismantling of the old distribution of what could be seen, thought and done.” p.47. The capacities we would like to evolve do not ‘belong to any class, but… belong to anyone and everyone.’ p. 43.
  • He argues that Marxists too often operate within the humanist machinations to reproduce ignorance and powerlessness and treat people as imbeciles. “To treat incapacities, they need to reproduce them indefinitely” p.47/8
  • In the politics he proposes:It would be assumed that the incapable are capable; that there is no hidden secret of the machine that keeps them trapped in their place. It would be assumed that there is no fatal mechanism transforming reality into image; no monstrous beast absorbing all desires and energies into its belly; no lost community to be restored. What there is are simply scenes of dissensus, capable of surfacing at any place and at any time. p.48.
  • Any situation can be cracked open from the inside”… “Collective understanding of emancipation is not the comprehension of a total process of subjection. It is the collectivisation of capacities invested in scenes of dissensus. p.49.

Interpretation: I take it to mean that we should focus on a collectivising praxis to make the best of our capacities and resources rather than hoping people will sign up to a single tightly formulated ideology.

Chap 3

  • He proposes three propositions about the seemingly contradictory terms, community and the individual. This is a key Ranciere’s theme – exploring the seeming contradiction between the unique sensibilities of each human and our need to be social beings and co-ordinate our actions.
  • Ranciere points out the Left’s dream of a community in harmony, as against the goal of a community of dissensus and struggle, is a utopian one.
  • Dissensus here is the inevitable ‘conflict’ or ‘tension’ between the essentially different sensory worlds of two or more individuals. This has been forgotten by ‘the modernist dream of a community of emancipated human beings’ p.60.
  • The ‘intertwining of contradictory relations’ can itself produce community. “The paradoxical relationship between the ‘apart’ and the ‘together’ is also a paradoxical relationship between the present and the future.” p.59
  • He claims these three propositions define an ‘aesthetic community in general’, which is a ‘community of sense’ rather than one of aesthetes. An artistic dissensual community can produce the ‘anticipated reality’ of a wider community. Representation (or mimesis) requires a ‘concordance’ between the sensory regime of one person and another – between the artist and the spectator. The radical tradition from Rousseau to Debord has seen a gap at the heart of ‘the mimetic community’, a gap between stage and audience, between spectacle and consumer. Ranciere’s way of neutralising the gap is to hold out that any reader has a unique subject position and so will make a specific interpretation which is all her own. This produces a necessary distance between the intention of the artist and the interpretation of the reader or viewer.

Christine Wong Yap: Interpreting the Emancipated Spectator (January 26, 2010)

  • He explains that the actor-spectator relationship is too much like traditional pedagogy: hierarchical, active v. passive, stultifying.
  • It’s interesting to see contemporary art critical theory (Ranciére’s writings and interview has appeared in Artforum) overlap with radical pedagogy. Ranciére’s description of the conventional schoolmaster sounds like Paolo Freire’s “bank” model, in which students are empty piggy banks that must be filled with knowledge by teachers.
  • Ranciere on theater:
    “…the performance itself… stands as a “spectacle” between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator. This spectacle is a third thing, to which both parts can refer but which prevents any kind of “equal” or “undistorted” transmission. It is a mediation between them. That mediation of a third term is crucial in the process of intellectual emancipation. To prevent stultification there must be something between the master and the student. The same thing which links them must separate them….
  • We have not to turn spectators into actors. We have to acknowledge that any spectator already is an actor of his own story and that the actor also is the spectator of the same kind of story. We have not to turn the ignorant into learned persons, or, according to a mere scheme of overturn, make the student or the ignorant the master of his masters.
  • Spectatorship is not the passivity has to be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamt. There is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point….”
  • “This is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between they who look and they who act, they who are individuals and they who are members of a collective body….”
  • “An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators….”

I see you.