Thoughts on Rancière – The Emancipated Spectator Chapter 1 ‘The Emancipated Spectator’

In this chapter Rancière examines the relationship between the spectator in the theatre and the events on stage. He compares the relationship between the supposedly passive spectator and the action on stage and the traditional relationship between the schoolmaster and student in which the student is supposed to be trying to acquire the same knowledge that is already possessed by her/his teacher. As is often his approach, he traces how thinking on this subject has developed before leading us to how he differs from existing paradigms.

Rancière proposes that the oppositions that are created between active/passive in the above scenarios are due to perception more than reality. In other words, they are the result of a pre-existing distribution of the sensible: “These oppositions – viewing/knowing, appearance/reality, activity/passivity – are quite different from logical oppositions between clearly defined terms. They specifically define a distribution of the sensible, an a priori distribution of the positions and capacities and incapacities attached to these positions” (Location 187).

Since the passivity or otherwise of the spectator is only a perception then it is possible to reimagine the role of the spectator if we change the existing distribution of the sensible i.e. if we change existing perceptions.

More importantly, however, Rancière argues, is to overcome the dichotomy between “those who possess a capacity and those who do not” (Location 193): “Emancipation 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. It begins when we understand that viewing is also an action that confirms or transforms this distribution of positions” (Location 196).

In other words, emancipation begins when we challenge the existing distribution of the sensible, when we realise that the boundaries between categories are unstable so that the spectator and the student are never ‘just’ passive but are also active, drawing on their own experiences, making comparisons, interpreting etc. “They are thus both distant spectators and active interpreters of the spectacle offered to them” (Location 200).

Emancipation is ‘the blurring of the boundary between those who act and those who look; between individuals and members of a collective body” (Location 285). An emancipated community is one which has embraced these opportunities to be active interpreters (Location 324).

For me this chapter raises some potentially exciting questions and ideas:

  1. The spectator is a participant in constructing meanings which are personal and individual. How does this relate to Stanley Fish’s idea of an interpretive community? What roles can criticism play in this context? It can help to consolidate common responses. Can/does criticism help others to become active interpreters using other responses as a springboard for their own reflections?
  2. Is criticism seen in this context already a contribution to disrupting the distribution of the sensible? In watching the performance and then writing about their interpretation the critic exemplifies the move out of the passive role.
  3. Remember, if it is not possible to control the responses to a performance it is equally not possible to control the responses to criticism.
  4. In Rancière’s argument (Location 222) the text/performance mediates between the teacher and the student or the author and the reader but it is not exactly clear what role the text has / what limitations (if any) it imposes / the extent to which it directs interpretation in his view.
  5. These ideas could have interesting implications for how we teach. How do we put students in a position to be active interpreters?



Author: Dr Sarah Bowskill

Lecturer in Latin American Studies. Expertise in Mexican literary and digital cultural studies. Interested in the politics surrounding the reception, distribution and circulation of literature and cultural production particularly relating to gender studies.

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