Chapter 2 The Emancipated Spectator – ‘The Misadventures of Critical Thought’


In this chapter Rancière distances himself from both modernist and postmodernist criticism which he believes are simply two sides of the same coin (Location 608). He dismantles postmodern/post-critical approaches by suggesting that they draw on the same logic as the arguments they are trying to oppose. These discussions will not lead to emancipation and so, Rancière proposes, we need to sidestep them to achieve emancipation. The chapter also introduces ‘dissensus’ which is another key concept for Rancière.

Following Marxism, emancipation ceased being about ‘the construction of new capacities’ (594) which is what Rancière believes it ought to be about.

Emancipation, for Rancière, is based on a redistribution of the sensible i.e. a change in ‘what could be seen, thought and done’ (Loc. 636).

The possibility of emancipation was opened up in the 19C as a result of the ‘proliferation of reproduced texts and image, window displays in shopping precincts and lights in public towns’ had a transformative effect on ordinary people (Loc 623). This social change threatened to lead to the emancipation of the people but was quashed by (pseudo-) scientific discourses and critiques of consumer society. Ordinary people were deemed incapable of looking after themselves and so needed elites to guide them. Elites became focused on maintaining people’s belief that they needed guidance. In this context, ‘Lamentation about a surfeit of consumable commodities and images was first and foremost a depiction of democratic society as one in which there are too many individuals capable of appropriating words, images and forms of lived experience’ (Loc. 630).

Rancière argues that we need to reject these assumptions and believe in the capacity of the people.

Instead of focusing on reality vs unreality or our own subjection we should think about ‘scenes of dissensus’: ‘What there is are simply scenes of dissensus… What ‘dissensus’ means is an organization of the sensible where there is neither a reality concealed behind appearances nor a single regime of presentation and interpretation of the given imposing it obviousness on all’ (Loc 664).

Dissensus changes what can be seen, done, thought and who can do it. It is about recognising the capacity of everyone.

Thoughts and Questions arising from this reading:

Is there a role for criticism in the process of emancipation or is criticism simply a tool of the elite used to make people think that they need guidance? Does he, without explicitly saying so, rule out art criticism as a tool for emancipation?

Is it possible to imagine a criticism which would empower people in ‘appropriating words, images and forms of lived experience’ (Loc. 630). Is this part of a ‘defence’ of the value of Arts and Humanities?

Dissesnus is, as I read it, about not fixing interpretation. Of allowing and embracing multiple interpretations and certainly not imposing an interpretation from above.

‘To reconfigure the landscape of what can be seen and what can be thought is to alter the field of the possible and the distribution of capacities and incapacities’ (Loc. 664) Is this a role that criticism and/or cultural production can play? If so, criticism and cultural production is empowering.

He notes the way in which criticism relates to and is shaped by political context. What can/should critics do about this? Presumably we are as implicated in this as our predecessors were.

If the definition of democracy has changed other definitions have changed too. More accurately perhaps they are inherently unstable and prone to change depending on context and time e.g. what is considered left-wing and right-wing. Is emancipation always the same?

There is a passing reference to Bourdieu in the chapter which points to a difference of opinion in the thinking of the two men. What is the relationship between Bourdieu’s thinking and Rancière. Bourdieu also sees criticism as the product of elites and elite institutions.

At the end of the chapter Rancière writes: ‘As I have said, these are unreasonable hypotheses’ (Loc. 667). Why does he end on such a pessimistic note?



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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