In The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière challenges traditional theatrical and conceptual binaries separating spectator and actor, active and passive, seeing and knowing, experience and thought, action and reaction, acting and thinking, teaching and learning. Where Brecht and Artaud, despite their differences, assume a pre-constituted subject to be molded, challenged and incorporated within discourses, Rancière assumes a subject in a constant state of creative becoming. For Rancière, the locus of meaning is not to be found within a widening or narrowing of the gulf dividing these dichotomous terms, but rather in the gaps or interstices themselves, which serve to dismantle such dichotomies.
For Rancière, distanciation is affirmative insofar as it permits fissures of logic and indeterminacies to arise. Distanciation between binary terms is not to exacerbated as with Brecht’s epic theater or critiqued and closed, as in Artaud’s theater of cruelty (as well as the more recent political theater, such as Debord’s critique of spectacle, influenced by variations of these approaches). Eschewing a master discourse in which the artist conveys superior knowledge to a passive and ignorant spectator, Rancière writes:
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 (“The Emancipated Spectator” in ArtForum 279).
For Rancière, spectatorship is normative, quotidian and never unique to artistic milieus. Viewing is always already active, because we constantly select from our field of perception and the purview of reality that which interests us. Rancière’s political theater does not encourage a proletariat without agency to recognize their situation and do something about it. Instead it promotes an understanding that everyone has something to add to the conversation and viewpoints to be expressed. Artist and spectator become equal participants in the verification of images and concepts.
Rancière assumes agency and inveighs against notions of hidden machines keeping the disenfranchised down or mechanisms creating a world of hollow and meaningless simulacrum. Instead, he favors “dissensus” as a sensible field of possibilities with obvious ties to Deleuzian rhizomes and folds. For Rancière, bodies (singular or collective) are emancipated when they defy their roles or functions, reveal their capacity for creative adaptation and defy strict causal logic.
Dissensus and dis-identification mark indeterminacy as the key ingredient to emancipation as the evasion of social, cultural, artistic and ethical prescriptions and proscriptions. Rancière critiques representational regimes of aesthetics and thought, challenging traditional roles for artists and spectators. For him, the artist must become passive, learning anew how to look, as spectators in turn become active. Participating in a process of rupture, “The aesthetic community is a community of dis-identified persons” (The Emancipated Spectator 73). In his interview with Fulvia Carnevale and John Kelsey, Rancière continues:
For me, the fundamental question is to explore the possibility of maintaining spaces of play. To discover how to produce forms for the presentation of objects, forms for the organization of spaces, that thwart expectations. The main enemy of artistic creativity as well as of political creativity is consensus—that is, inscription within given roles, possibilities, and competences.
Pedro Costa organizes such spaces and provides an alternative to stultifying pedagogy. In Vanda’s Room, for example, a film with no conventional narrative or plot, whose protagonists are the disenfranchised junkies, immigrants and chronically unemployed residents of the Fontaínhas slums of Lisbon, slows reality and reveals images of intimacy that the presence of a camera would usually preclude. The film is comprised of austere, long, immobile takes, in close- and medium-shots, meticulously framed, lit and composed to reveal the meaningfulness of the quotidian. The camera often lingers in spaces after they have been emptied, and the primary action of the slums’ destruction is heard, but rarely seen, which allows us to apprehend the inhabitants’ reaction to their situation before we know the background or can make judgments.
Costa refuses to tell the audience what or how to think. The indeterminacy Rancière promotes becomes apparent in the film’s uneasy position between fiction and documentary. Costa further blurs the boundary distinguishing life and art, creating a landscape to further obfuscate the artistic and the political. The deliberate and meticulous Vermeer-like compositions reveal spaces not of nobility but of imminent destruction. The role of the “actors” is also ambiguous, as their performances seem too oblivious of the camera to be natural but too visceral to be performances. The film is based on mutual respect as Vanda and her neighbors tell their own stories and Costa, as the title reminds us, maintains the singularity of their experiences. Costa, like Rancière, focuses on the creative meaning immanent within existing situations rather than transcendent ones that would necessitate a transformation of social relations.
Vanda and the others are clearly aware of their fate. They are simply awaiting the moment at which they will have to react to it. Vanda tells one of her interlocutors, “I’m not sleeping. I’m listening.” The characters possess knowledge of the world and their place in it, even if their outlook is rather grim. “Where will we end up?” one character asks. “The cemetery.” Yet the shared moments of commiseration and the incessant need to decorate remind us that this is their story in which we can participate.
Certain problems and issues arise with such an approach. Rancière contends that the ignorant schoolmaster “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 11). However, such an egalitarian discursive strategy would seem to privilege nothing and allow everything, and the capacity or willingness of Costa’s protagonists to “venture” is limited.
While Costa does not imbue his characters with agency, instead revealing the agency they already possess, this sense of agency is a limited one subject to romanticized and aestheticized images that will only be viewed by a limited audience in art and independent theaters. Moreover, a capacity to speak openly, honestly and articulately about one’s situation does not necessarily make that situation any more tolerable or pleasant. Similarly, while Rancière is right to challenge the idea that art should (or can) dictate thought and action, in focusing on “life and its possibilities”—the possible as much as the actual—it is not entirely clear how much is possible or what means, if any, are available to augment those possibilities.
Nevertheless, Rancière’s concept of the “intolerable image,” which cannot be viewed without anguish, reveals an ongoing encounter with these issues. Representations of the real are displaced by creation of fictions, “different realities, different forms of common sense—that is to say, different spatiotemporal systems, different communities of words and things, forms and meanings” (The Emancipated Spectator 102). These disruptions perhaps become a legitimate means for incremental change and new possibilities of what can be seen, thought and performed.