The Emancipated Spectator

April 29, 2010

The Algerian-born Jacques Ranciere, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Paris Saint-Denis, is the latest in a long line of "new" French philosophers. 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.

Today, his philosophical contributions in important works such as The Politics of Aesthetics, The Future of the Image and, now, The Emancipated Spectator, are embraced by distinguished literary theorists including Kristin Ross and the Marxist philosopher Slavoj Zizek. 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".

Interrogating the assertion that the spectator is inert, he examines the contradictions involving the active and the passive. "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."

Clearly, 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. But how should we interpret his philosophically specific contribution regarding the contemporary image?

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?

For any critical assessment of Ranciere's theoretical work on the spectacle must allow for bodies and actions, gatherings and audiences that are no longer what they were in Debord's time, with the important theoretical and practical difference being that almost no one today believes that the society of the spectacle can be reversed or used against consumer capitalism.

It is thus not the chasm between the active and the passive that matters in the present period, but the demise of the difference between reality and its simulation, that gives rise to the inactivity, aesthetic unresponsiveness and political insensitivity of the masses. 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.

Certainly, the television of the postmodern era is neither spectacular nor any longer recognisable in isolation given the chaos besieging this medium and its "message": insubstantial, dispersed, and like the scattering of light from an infinite array of points, television has become our reality.

The Emancipated Spectator

By Jacques Ranciere. Verso, 140pp, £12.99. ISBN 9781844673438. Published 25 January 2010

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