Department of Theatre and Film
Book Review: THE EMANCIPATED SPECTATOR
Jacques Rancière. Trans. Gregory Elliott. New York: Verso, 2009.
Frank P. Tomasulo
The work of Jacques Rancière, the prolific French philosopher, aesthetician, pedagogue, and political thinker, has had a bit of a renaissance in cinema studies circles, as evident by (1) recent volumes devoted to his work, such as The Political Thought of Jacques Rancière: Creating Equality by Todd May and Philippe Deranty’s Jacques Rancière: Key Concepts; (2) his inclusion in the pantheon of film theorists in Film, Theory and Philosophy: The Key Thinkers by Felicity Colman; (3) assorted other translations and analyses; (4) the inevitable Rancière blog; and (5) numerous international conferences and seminars, as well as a special symposium at the Columbia University Seminars on Cinema.
His earlier Film Fables and The Future of the Image have been extolled by everyone from Cahiers du cinéma to Slavoj Žižek. These earlier volumes elucidated a cinematic consciousness, intent on establishing that we are all responsible for our own performativity in the world and for the politics we make of “emancipated” experience; according to Rancière, “Every spectator is already an actor in her story; every actor, every man of action, is the spectator of the same story” (17). His two earlier books note that the role of the viewer in art and film theory often revolves around a theatrical concept of the spectacle. Likewise, the masses subjected to the society of spectacle have traditionally been seen as aesthetically and politically passive; in response, according to Rancière, both artists and thinkers have sought to transform the spectator into an active agent and the spectacle into a performance.
As a follow-up to The Future of the Image, The Emancipated Spectator takes a different approach to this attempted liberation. Beginning by asking exactly what we mean by political art or the politics of art, Rancière looks at what the tradition of critical art, and the desire to insert art into life, has achieved. Has the decades-long militant critique of the consumption of images and commodities become, instead, a melancholic affirmation of their omnipotence?
Unfortunately for cineastes, this follow-up volume shows little concern for the cinema spectator per se, or at least not enough for the author to read and/or cite the relevant and extensive literature on the subject. Indeed, most of the five chapters in this short book are devoted to theater, painting, performance art, and photography; any gleanings about and applications to motion pictures must be extrapolated by the reader. Even so, this sort of intellectual exercise may be worthwhile for film/media scholars, in that the text-spectator question may never have been adequately resolved, replaced as it was by “the historical turn” in cinema-media studies during the 1980s and 1990s.
So, Rancière’s proposal here, to “reconstruct the network of presuppositions that place the question of the spectator at the heart of the discussion” (2), is always a useful endeavor. However, the passivity versus activity of movie viewers has been contested for decades, with the debate running the gamut from the “monkey see, monkey do” school to the “free-will” and/or “resisting” paradigms. Even Rancière’s thesis – that “emancipation begins when we challenge the opposition between viewing and acting,” because “seeing and doing themselves belong to the structure of domination and subjection” (13) – is hardly news. Nor is his notion that “critical interpretation of the system has become an element of the system itself” (37).
Likewise, Rancière’s ideas about an active “emancipated spectator,” intellectually and ideologically freed from the shackles of mainstream commodification and right-wing reification, have been around at least since the days of Piscator, Brecht, and Artaud. For Rancière, such emancipation involves “blurring the boundaries … between individuals and members of a collective body” (19). In short, “Individuality for all!” (35).
Although his emphasis on live theater as “a community site” may seem promising from a progressive point of view, Rancière concedes that the conditions of reception of film and television are different from those in the theater (16), noting that “neighborhood cinemas have been replaced by multiplexes that supply each sociologically determinate audience a type of art designed and formatted to suit it” (81). Spectators must become “active interpreters, who develop their own translations in order to appropriate the ‘story’ and make it their own” (22). Again, this is ground well plowed by Barthes, Eco, and many film theoreticians in the 1970s and 1980s.
The most formidable and original piece here is the title essay, which examines the relationship of the spectator to his/her community, suggesting that there are not distinctive modes of spectatorship, only “equivalent rights” to spectatorship, with “no gap between to be filled between intellectuals and workers, … actors and spectators” (20). The other essays cover roughly the same terrain: the idea that most theories of art, theater, and film depict recipients as aesthetically and politically passive and that artists and thinkers must transform the spectator into a committed agent and the spectacle into a communal performance. This may be a “twice-told tale,” but it is worth repeating.
In the concluding chapter, Rancière advocates for a “pensive” spectator, derived from a pensive image (122). This entails “something in the image which resists thought” on the part of both the artist and the spectator (131). His exemplar of such pensiveness is Jean-Luc Godard's Histoire(s) du cinéma, because its video montage detaches images from the habitual business of storytelling to valorize “the fraternity of metaphors,” images detached from narrative to “fashion a different ‘history’” (130).
For those who can extrapolate messages about cinema from Rancière’s verbiage about art in general (and theater in particular), perhaps this variation-on-a-theme volume will provide valuable new lessons or at least a refresher course on film viewing to cinema scholars. If nothing else, the author’s call for a militant individual and collective spectator who can resist the snares of passivity and despair in the face of powerful consumerist spectacles may help maintain morale in the face of a co-opted and fractured contemporary “aesthetic community” (57). Emancipated spectators of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but your 3-D glasses!
In the final analysis, Rancière’s pleas may be just more/mere words about rebellion, perhaps inspired by Louis Aragon’s claim that “each time there is a revolution, the grammar has to be changed first.” Similarly, Annette Michelson’s notion of the “radical aspiration” suggested that changes in the aesthetic dimension could result in change in the material world. These vulgar Brechtian pronouncements may not tell the entire story of the revolutionary efficacy of art and/or intellectuals insofar as (in my opinion) social transformation happens in the streets, not in museums or on movie (or iPod) screens. Perhaps Eve Democracy (Anne Wiazensky) had a better sense of historical determinism when she acknowledged (in Godard’s One Plus One) that “there is only one way to be an intellectual revolutionary and that is to give up being an intellectual.”