The Emancipated Spectator

By Stefan Szczelkun, 17 August 2013

This is a set of five essays that follow up themes of the equality of intelligence formulated more than 25 years earlier in The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1981) and Proletarian Nights (1981). See my previous blogs (reposted from


Chapter 1 The Emancipated Spectator


The first chapter is directed at 'theatre'. He notes that from at least the time of Denis Diderot's Entretiens sur Le Fils Naturel" (Conversations on The Natural Son, 1769) the spectator was represented in writing as; "separated from both the capacity to know and the power to act" p.2. There was a myth instituted through discourse that the spectator was 'passive'. To remedy this passivity Bertold Brecht (1898 - 1956) and Antonin Artaud (1896 - 1948) attempted to create forms of theatre with only "active participants as opposed to passive voyeurs" p.4. Such theatre attempted to embody the living community. The Living Theatre, founded 1947 by Julian Beck, was a continuation of this project. Ranciere points out that they were reacting against a phantom created by Humanist discourse and not a real world condition, the audience can never be 'passive'. [1]


Later in a similar mode Guy Debord takes the idea of this passivity further and suggests that 'The Spectacle' alienates everyone from life itself. The basis of this, following Ludwig Feuerbach's critique of religion, is that non-separation is required in order to live authentically by responding directly to your own desires [2]. Debord persuasively argues that consumerism manages our desires to the extent of alienating us from our power of judgement. Ranciere sees in Debord's labelling of spectators as passive, unthinking and stupid the same Humanist strategy of stultifying the public he had previously identified in education. He pokes fun at the way that the 'struggle against the society of the spectacle and in particular detournment is included in all critical art agendas, and is taught to be conducted in 'standardised forms'. Ranciere does not see a structural opposition between collective and individual, image and lived reality or, activity and passivity. Consumerism may be banal but it does not follow that consumers are powerless idiots. Collectives are made of individuals, images are always a part of the use of our sensory abilities, and contemplation may look 'passive' but it is always mentally active.


He sees these left-field theories as perpetuating the idea of a public that are presumed to be 'ignoramuses' by an intelligensia. If The Society of the Spectacle tells us anything at all, it is to underline the message about our own inability. "It thereby constantly confirms its own presupposition: the inequality of intelligence". p.9  In fact all humans will take a unique path from what they already know to what they do not yet know if given an environment where this is possible. A person will translate experience into words and then test the statements that result. p.11. This of course follows on directly from Jacotot's theory espoused in The Ignorant Schoolmaster.


Does the desire to reduce the distance between the spectator and the art, that has become de rigour, serve only to create that distance? Ranciere argues that it does, by reinforcing or creating "embodied allegories of inequality." p.12. The class basis of this is underlined: "In the past, property owners who lived off their private income were referred to as active citizens, capable of electing and being elected, while those who worked for a living were passive citizens, unworthy of these duties."… "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." p.13 


Viewing is a routine human activity, an activity comprising of selection, comparison, interpretation and of making connections. And it is part of a process that inevitably leads to the viewer creating something of her own, even if it is a negation; a turning away, yawning or choosing another path. As he says spectators are "only ever individuals plotting their own paths in the forest of things, acts and signs that confront or surround them." p.16


What each individual has in common is the fact that their intellectual journey is unique and it is this very uniqueness that is the basis of our sense of community. We should not see our expressive power 'embodied' by designated others but accept it as the normal everyday capacity of each of us as individuals, in the same way that the power to speak is an equal ability learnt by all humans. p.17 This reminds me of Raymond Williams idea that 'culture is ordinary' and with Joseph Beuy's 'Everyone is an artist'. Culture works through an "unpredictable interplay of associations and dissociations." p.17. The implication is that as soon as the process is planned or designed as a process of cultural reception with an effect in mind, it leads to something that is no longer a place where each individual is using her intelligence to make their own aesthetic judgement. This point is core to the argument in The Emancipated Audience. However individual freedom as a core value does not mean he espouses 'bourgeois individualism'. Ranciere's understanding of community recognises it as an amalgam of myriad individual intelligences.


He surmises that by the Sixties the use of Marxist ideology had led to two requirements from its adherents:


1. To teach an understanding of the system to those (ignoramuses) who suffered from it in order "to arm them for struggle".

2. Ironically the elite Marxist scholars and cadres were themselves ignorant of the struggle; so they have to go amongst the workers, who they regard as ignoramuses, in order to educate themselves.

Ranciere who was part of this '68 generation comments: "For me, as for my generation, neither of these endeavours was wholly convincing" p.18. However, his own version of 'going amongst the workers' was to research working class activity and writing of previous century. He did glean some useful education about workers from these archives and his findings are published as 'Proletarian Nights: the workers dream in C19th France'.


"These workers, who should have supplied me with information on working conditions and forms of consciousness, provided me with something altogether different: a sense of similarity, a demonstration of equality."  "They disrupted the distribution of the sensible which would have it that those who work do not have time to let their step and gazes roam at random; and that the members of a collective body do not have time to spend on the forms and insignia of individuality." p.19.  He realised above all that "there was no gap to be filled between intellectuals and workers". p.20. [3] 


Was he still seeing things from the intellectual point of view? There may not be a gap between the intelligence of the intellectual and that of the worker but in other ways the gap between workers and intellectuals is sometimes a chasm from an autodidacts point of view. To be bridged - for the worker to get the fruits of his thinking published - s/he needs to give attention not only to a particular quality of prose, but also the references of a 'good' education and ideally one that is thoroughly grounded in the classics. This is made all the more difficult by being accompanied by a crushing lack of entitlement that is all to easily reinforced in literary and academic circles.


An emancipated community is a community of narrators and translators p.22


Art should problematise the presuppositions that maintain the system of stultification.


Chapter 2. The Misadventures of Critical Thought.


He now gets down to discussing actual examples of artworks. First he discusses the political photography of Josephine Meckseper (b.1964) and the photo-collage of Marther Rosler (b.1943). He thinks that their power to effect change is undermined by presuppositions about the unthinkingness of the population and an assumption that shocking people out of an assumed turbidity can motivate them to change the system. In fact he goes on to argue that such images are an integral part the hierarchial society they set out to undermine. They did not equip anyone with the tools or knowledge they needed to dismantle the system. They only reinforced the system of 'abrutir'. [4]


"On the one hand, the old leftwing denunciation of the empire of commodities and images had become a form of ironic or melancholic acquiescence to this ineluctable empire. On the other, activist energies have turned to the right, where they fuel a new critique of the commodity and spectacle whose depredations are re-characterised as the crimes of democratic individuals." p.33. A bit later he comments that leftwing "melancholy feeds on its own impotence". 


He accuses Pierre Bourdieu of typifying workers as fully occupied by their struggle against economic misery and fragmenting community whilst the "individualist desire for autonomous creativity" is only attributed to young bourgeois. p.35. What he had learnt from the archive was the untruth of such stereotypes. Ranciere is all for 'disordering' the semiotic class distributions mapped by Bourdieu in his influential 1979 study; 'Distinction: a social critique of the judgment of taste'. He thinks that  this kind of norm finding sociological research will reinforce stereotypes rather than challenge them. The process of cultural emancipation starts with individual or small groups of artists who do anything but obey these norms of taste. It is in the fracturing of the patterns of class identification by those who do not fit the norms, that emancipation may be found. Although it is often made more complex and opaque by an aspirational semiotics that is discussed in more detail below. 


He describes the hard left argument that denounces democracy as a market affair and comes to the conclusion that such political critiques of neoliberalism have "little impact on patients whose illness consists in not knowing themselves to be sick". p.40. "The current disconnection between critique of the market and the spectacle and any emancipatory aim is the ultimate form of tension which, from the start, has haunted the movement for social emancipation," p.42. The left is fixated on particular ontologies of work and the worker that suit the market down to the ground. "Social emancipation signified breaking this fit between an 'occupation' and a 'capacity'." p.42.  He does then make positive suggestions of new directions for left activity. Social emancipation might be achieved by "the dismantling of the old distribution of what could be seen, thought and done." p.47. The capacities we would like to evolve do not 'belong to any class, but… belong to anyone and everyone.' p. 43. He argues that Marxists too often operate within the humanist machinations to reproduce ignorance and powerlessness and treat people as imbeciles. "To treat incapacities, they need to reproduce them indefinitely" p.47/8


The systems mechanistic functioning is obvious to all even if it cannot be articulated in the terms of critique. In the politics he proposes:


It would be assumed that the incapable are capable; that there is no hidden secret of the machine that keeps them trapped in their place. It would be assumed that there is no fatal mechanism transforming reality into image; no monstrous beast absorbing all desires and energies into its belly; no lost community to be restored. What there is are simply scenes of dissensus, capable of surfacing at any place and at any time. p.48.


Any situation can be cracked open from the inside"... "Collective understanding of emancipation is not the comprehension of a total process of subjection. It is the collectivisation of capacities invested in scenes of dissensus. p.49. 


What does this mean? I take it to mean that we should focus on a collectivising praxis to make the best of our capacities and resources rather than hoping people will sign up to a single tightly formulated ideology. I would see this as elemental as our basic human abilities.



Chapter 3 Aesthetic Separation, Aesthetic Community


He proposes three propositions about the seemingly contradictory terms, community and the individual. This is a key Ranciere's theme - exploring the seeming contradiction between the unique sensibilities of each human and our need to be social beings and co-ordinate our actions.


1. The phrase 'Separes, on est ensemble' comes from a seemingly non-political poem by Stéphane  Mallarmé. The poet claimed that the romantic and personal crisis in the poem was referring to a wider social crisis. The same crisis was the context of the 1884 painting by Seurat - 'Bathers at Asnières' - is a "the painterly conjunction of high art and leisure". Urban class struggle had reached an interesting point in which a substantial amount of leisure had been achieved by collectivised labour. The factory is seen in the background but in the foreground a figure is doing nothing by a river. The tension between our existence as communal beings and our need for solo contemplation is shown but for Ranciere this is too prescriptive and in effect neutralises the liberative potential of leisure. Later he points out: "Seurat evinced both the enigmatic potential of popular bodies that gained access to 'leisure' and the neutralisation of that potential." p.74. Certainly the main figure at the centre of the Bathers seems depressed, but I never saw it as propagandist. 


2. He then describes a contemporary art project 'I and Us' that was made on a working class estate in contemporary Asnieres by the art group Campement Urbain. The need expressed by the inhabitants in this stressed area was for a place of contemplation, a place to be alone. I.e. a break from the stress of being together to be individual, a space for contemplation.


3. Finally a passage from Deleuze and Guattari's 'What is Philosophy?' (1991) is quoted at length.  His summary is that this is about the link between "the solitude of the artwork and human community" p.55. "For the complex of sensations to communicate its vibration, it has to be solidified in the form of a monument. Now the monument in turn assumes the identity of a person who speaks to the 'ear of the future'." p.56 


Ranciere points out the Left's dream of a community in harmony, as against the goal of a community of dissensus and struggle, is a utopian one. Dissensus here is the inevitable 'conflict' or 'tension' between the essentially different sensory worlds of two or more individuals. This has been forgotten by 'the modernist dream of a community of emancipated human beings' p.60. The 'intertwining of contradictory relations' can itself produce community. "The paradoxical relationship between the 'apart' and the 'together' is also a paradoxical relationship between the present and the future." p.59


He claims these three propositions define an 'aesthetic community in general', which is a 'community of sense' rather than one of aesthetes. An artistic dissensual community can produce the 'anticipated reality' of a wider community. Representation (or mimesis) requires a 'concordance' between the sensory regime of one person and another - between the artist and the spectator. The radical tradition from Rousseau to Debord has seen a gap at the heart of 'the mimetic community', a gap between stage and audience, between spectacle and consumer. Ranciere's way of neutralising the gap is to hold out that any reader has a unique subject position and so will make a specific interpretation which is all her own. This produces a necessary distance between the intention of the artist and the interpretation of the reader or viewer.


"Free appearance is the product of a disconnected community between two sensoria - the sensorium of artistic fabrication and the sensorium of its enjoyment". p.64. He analyses this disconnection between the object as intended and its appreciation in J.J. Winckelmann's classic 1764 discussion of the Belvedere Torso and the paradoxes it throws up. p.64. [5].  A similar engagement is made with Schiller's thoughts on the freedom possible with art, in his contemplation on the incomplete classical sculpture Juno Ludovisi. p.69.  “We abandon ourselves in ecstasy to her heavenly grace, her celestial self-sufficiency makes us recoil in terror” [6].


Our 'aesthetic sensorium' as expressed in artworks is then marked by the loss of a destination or social purpose for art. p.70. Social emancipation is an aesthetic process. It calls for the 'dismemberment' of the sensory regime of the body that has been instituted as a classist belief system since Plato made his formulation that the souls of rulers are made of gold and the souls of artisans are made of iron. p.70.


He notices in his archival researches of proletarian writing that the books that are recommended between artisans are not necessarily those engaging with social issues and are more likely to be stories of romantic characters that were not designed by their authors as inspiration for the working class (e.g. Goethe, Chateaubriand, Senancour). These "trigger new passions, which means new forms of balance - or imbalance - between an occupation and the sensory equipment appropriate to it." p.72. So such reading is not providing "rhetorical explanation about what must be done". Rather it provides: 


A multiplication of connections and disconnections that reframe the relation between bodies, the world they live in and the ways in which they are equipped to adapt to it. It is a multiplicity of folds and gaps in the fabric of common experience that change the cartography of the perceptible, the thinkable and the feasible. As such, it allows for new modes of political construction of common objects and new possibilities of collective enunciation. p.72


"An emancipated worker is a dis-indentified worker". It seems to me that giving up on a working class identity is often confused by the false dis-identifications of upward mobility which are caused by the success of oppressive messages which have made the identity of being working class unbearable. Not only due to present conditions of immiseration, but because the definitions of becoming that it allows are constrained to the 'shoulds' from our presumed souls of iron. It is not a matter of finding an alchemical solution to this de-valuation, like magically becoming middle-class gold-stars through educational certification, more it is the realisation that all human intelligences are of equal. 


Although Ranciere critiques class while rarely mentioning the word, he stops short of any insight into the affective dimension of class, by which I understand as the emotional toll exacted by class oppression. He does not go into that kind of knowledge or the way that trauma can be a barrier to knowledge. Affects that impact on people fundamentally tend to happen at an impressionable age - and the false idea of an inequality of intelligence and status fostered by the school system is one of the most poisonous. I recently heard this described by a middle class woman as a daily pencilling of the lines that separate, until the division was etched into her being. 


Ranciere insists, as we have heard, that art cannot be designed to emancipate and that emancipation cannot be prescribed. Emancipation must be self-wrought or it is not emancipation. The aim of political art is often taken as the creation of "an awareness of political situations leading to political mobilisation." p.74. However Ranciere claims that "there is no straightforward road from the fact of looking at a spectacle to the fact of understanding the world; no direct road from intellectual awareness to political action." p.75. 


The most malign presence in my non-career in Art was around the constellations of the white cube. I still think that an empty neutral room should be useful for making propositions public and discussing them - but the macro frame of Art wasn't something that freely welcomed this sort of use. Its wall of selectors ensured that what happened within the white cube space was not too dissident. Ranciere does not go into how the imperial gallery system operates to stultify the public and this omission has resulted in him being feted by the artworld.

"It's not every day that the art world decides to adopt a new philosophical leading-light, so judging by the list of international art institutions and universities at which Ranciere has presented previous versions of these essays, its clear that he has become the latest French thinker to make the crossover from the academy to the artworld." JJ Charlesworth Art Review, January, 2010

"Perhaps because he foregrounds the traction of symbolic transformation on material change, Rancière’s work has been most readily absorbed into contemporary art discourse." Anthony Iles and Tom Roberts, 'From The Cult of the People, to the Cult of Ranciere', Mute vol 3 n.3, 2012

The recent institutionalisation of political art that is meant to make us aware of the dominance of the commodity form, the rule of the spectacle or the glamour of power, is a joke because, as Ranceire reminds us, "Nobody is unaware of these things". p.76. He refers to the work of artists Rene Francisco, Lucy Orta and Bai Yilou. "In all these instances, critical mediation is replaced by direct anticipation of 'being together' in 'being apart'."  He suggests the solution to the problem of didactic political art is work that expresses the 'tension between being apart and together'. As an example he looks at work by Anri Sala called 'Dammi i colori' which is in effect critical of a work of political art. Another example is Pedro Costa's In Vanda's Room (2000): "The system gives the humble the small change of its wealth, of its world, which it formats for them, but which is separated from the sensory wealth of their own experience." p.81. This sounds like a call for working class artists to represent and document the 'sensory distributions' of their own people and to have the local network of spaces to exhibit in. Even so, there is not to be a predictable outcome for the viewers if we artists are to respect their equality of intelligence and freedom of mind.


chapter 4 The Intolerable Image


The mere viewing of shock images intended to reveal the 'sordid truth' behind the 'brilliant appearances' of the spectacle is, Ranciere claims, merely in complicity with the system and achieves little or nothing. Harsh realities and the facade of glamour are two sides of the same coin. He points out that there is still a literary prejudice against the image and its presumed ability to dupe the spectator or embroil him in the glamourised gaze. "We must challenge these identifications of the use of image with idolatry, ignorance or passivity." p.95


He discusses Alfredo Jaar's 1994 work on the Rwandan genocide 'Real Pictures' and in particular his work called 'The Eyes of Gutete Emerita'. (An image used as the books cover in the edition I read) "The traditional thesis is that the evil of images consists in their very number, their profusion effortlessly invading the spellbound gaze and mushy brain of the multitude of democratic consumers of commodities and images." p.96. What we see on the mainstream media, according to Ranciere, is mainly the faces of rulers, experts and journalists telling us how to interpret images. But even that somewhat dated idea suggests that we do not choose what to watch and he starts to fall foul of his own critique. It is now possible to bypass a lot of this with selective viewing of the personal networks of imagery. "The system of information does not operate through an excess of images, but by selecting the speaking and reasoning beings who are capable of 'deciphering' the flow of information about anonymous multitudes." p.96.

Is it rather that images are rationed when they offer too many images of say, mass revolt? Images are held back if their immediacy seems dangerous. Recently I saw a BBC live video feed of a riot during the September general strike in Greece. The images were live and the newreaders seemed very edgy about their responsibilities to make the right response to the events in Syntagma unfolding live on camera.


He suggests we must overturn "the dominant logic that makes the visual the lot of multitudes and the verbal the privilege of the few." p.97. Although this appeals to me it is complicated by the oral verbal also being the lot of multitudes and on the other hand the growing literature on visual cultures. "An image never stands alone. It belongs to a system of visibility that governs the status of the bodies represented and the kind of attention they merit." p.99. Working class artists are likely to find themselves outside the game. Only a few can emerge into the light of publicity through the chicanery of selective filters.


After the diagnosis he gives his prescription: "The point is not to counter-pose reality to its appearances. It is to construct different realities, different forms of common sense - that is to say, different spatiotemporal systems, different communities of words and things, forms and meanings." p.102.  Well enough but most artists would think they are doing this. In fact even the episode of Dr Who that I watched recently could fit that description.


The current scepticism is the result of a surfeit of faith. It was generated by the disappointed belief in a straight line between perception, affection, comprehension and action…" "The images of art do not supply weapons for battles. They help sketch new configurations of what can be seen, what can be said and what can be thought and, consequently, a new landscape of the possible. But they do so on condition that their meaning or effect is not anticipated. p.103


As an artist I think it is almost impossible not to anticipate a communicative reception. My video of London's J18 demo in 1999 recorded the events of that day chronologically with an attention to the visual expressions of dissent. There is no voiceover to direct peoples interpretation but what I chose to record reflects an intention to communicate.


He looks at a photographic series entitled: 'West Bank' or 'WB', by Sophie Ristelhueber to illustrate the idea of a 'resistance to anticipation'. The idea is to evoke curiosity and attention without any 'strategic schemata'. The tension between seeing and thinking when effects are uncertain is productive of new fresh thinking. Did Ristelhueber not anticipate this? Isn't it just that she's sophisticated enough to know that an obvious image of a 'checkpoint' would not evince the more complex response that her image does?


We are left with many questions. Does a documentary with a voice-over give too much interpretation? Can such a didactic form still ask you to think about something, rather than telling you? Does the selection of what to shoot, how long to shoot it, what sort of shot to use, still constitute a selection and so a way of directing the viewer how to think about something? Of getting the viewer to see the world in a particular way. My hunch is that we should not be concerned so much about the artworks as the frames and spaces in which they are seen. 


What I see in Ranciere is a persistent gnawing away at classism whilst also carefully keeping his place in the dominant stage with neo-classical references and clever word play. When Bourdieu admits that extreme expressions of class disgust had been censored from Distinction he says: "one cannot objectify the intellectual game without putting at stake one's own stake in the game -- a risk which is at once derisory and absolute" (p.163). 


A basic assumption that I make is that the system must manage the media and state cultural institutions well enough to insure that challenges to its survival do not de-stabilise its grip on power. The way this hegemony is maintained is widely known as Ranciere points out. Gatekeepers or managers, patrons and politicians, all contribute to maintaining a status quo, a class system. At the same time they must provide the system with sufficient criticism to inoculate it. 


chapter 5  The Pensive Image


This chapter is the most abstruse and theoretically abstract. It reminds me of Barthes third term of semiotics from Image - Music - Text (1977). [7]. Ranciere writes that an image "contains … a thought that cannot be attributed to the intention of the person who produces it and which has an effect on the person who view it without her linking it to a determinate object."  "This indeterminacy problematises the gap that I have tried to signal elsewhere between the two ideas of the image: the common notion of the image as a duplicate of a thing and the images conceived as an artistic operation." p.107


This 'zone of indeterminacy' also exists between art and non-art, thought and non-thought, and activity and passivity. Photography has often found itself in this zone. He then has a very neat summary of the changing status of photography from Baudelaire thinking it a threat; to Benjamin seeing it as a disruption of the paradigm of Art but in a positive way.  Now exhibited 'photography' takes neither position and instead imitates the modes of art. He refers to Rineke Dijkstra's pictures of Polish girls on a beach (2005). 


The Pensiveness of the image is explored in relation to Roland Barthe's Camera Lucida (1982). This seems to be a power of affecting without a train of rational thought. Ranciere sees Barthe's method in short as to: "Set aside the photographers intention, reduce the technical apparatus to a chemical process, and identify the optical relationship with a tactile relationship." p.110. A photograph by Alexander Gardner's of Lewis Paine in handcuffs is used to discuss ways that the photograph displays indeterminacy. Indeterminacy can be the things we are left wondering about, where we begin to project our own thinking into the photo. Pensiveness is the tension between modes of indeterminacy. 


He then goes on to a comment by GWF Hegel in 'Aesthetics: Lectures on Fine Art' (1835) on a paintings of beggar boys in Seville by B.E. Murillo (c1650). The subject is judged fit for painting and Hegel insists that the important thing is that the beggar boys are doing nothing, and don't seem to care about anything. In this they illustrate the essential virtue of gods, who are made in the image of the ruling class. Is Hegel relating to the aesthetic ideal of detachment and of course the ruling class ideal of doing w.t.f. they like? Or was he simply having a laugh at the expense of the airs and graces assumed by the ruling class? Ranciere comments that his idea of the pensive image is an idea of a sort of inactivity and that Hegel has interpreted the painting for his own uses. 


The idea of pensiveness is first ascribed to Honore de Balzac in his novella 'Sarrasine' (1830) via Barthe's famous analysis in S/Z (1970). Balzac ends his narrative indeterminately by finally leaving the protagonist 'pensive', with the suggestion of a continuing and undefined thought process that goes beyond the narrative. Ranciere goes on to discuss the incidental micro events described in 'Madame Bovary' (1856) by Gustave Flaubert. The micro events are like silent pictures inserted into, but also above, and beyond the narrative. "The pensiveness of the image is then the latent presence of one regime of expression within another." p.124


A contemporary example is said to be the contemplative films of Abbas Kiarostami, like 'Roads of Kiarostami' (2005). Another example is 'Shirin' (2009) a feature film in which the viewer is confronted by the faces of an audience of women watching an unseen film. The audience are therefor left to imagine the events being seen by the women. He then transfers his attention to the electronic screen via Jean-Luc Godard's mammoth eight episode 'Histoire(s) du Cinema' (1998). The pensiveness in this video series is: 1. In the form of an arrested gesture... 2. Which then triggers another story. p.129.  Ranciere analyses this an an 'intertwining' of narrative and 'infinite metaphorisation'.  Godard sees cinema as having "betrayed its vocation by sacrificing the fraternity of metaphors to the business of stories." p.130 [8]


Reviewers Conclusion


The first chapter puts forward the core idea that there has been a myth of peoples passivity generated from the established left which has been a central plank of classism by persuading people of the inequality of intelligence between them and their masters. Ranciere talks about abrutir rather than oppression. The crude idea of the inert masses was disposed of well before John Carey's 'The Intellectual and the Masses: : Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939' came out in 1992. Before that the idea of the myth of the audience as passive victims of the mass media was taken apart by many in Media and Communication studies. See Ien Ang's 1995 summary in which he concludes: "Media audiences are not 'masses' - anonymous and passive aggregates of people without identity. …media audiences are active in the ways they use, interpret, and take pleasure in media products. …We cannot say in advance which meanings and effects media content will have on audiences" (Downing et al. Sage, 1995, p.219). So Ranciere is following a well established media studies trend that he probably contributed to with his earlier writings.


Ranciere directs this analysis at some of my favourite French theorists from Guy Debord to Pierre Bourdieu. Debord's 1967 'Society of the Spectacle', and its idea of a worId transfixed by consumption, was something I almost revered in my twenties.  In spite of the academic groundwork done in the previous 20 years that I was aware of, reading Ranciere's analysis felt like shaking off a long dead leech. Ranciere is perhaps the first higher ranking philosopher to dare confront icons of the Marxist radical left with their, and our, own classism. 


The criticism of Pierre Bourdieu that follows in chapter 2 is something similar to what I wrote less elegantly, back in 1993. Bourdieu does not understand how the stratification of taste that he measures as cultural norms is negated by the actions of autodidacts and other outsiders who do not figure in his sociological surveys. Bourdieu only recognises individual cultural agency by young bourgeois.


The suggestion in Emancipated Spectator is that things like participation art only reinforce the idea that the audience are usually passive receptacles. Ranciere points out that predetermined outcomes cannot be emancipatory because for an artwork to be emancipatory the viewer has to be making judgements based on their own knowledge and experience. (referring back to The Ignorant Schoolmaster).


The idea that individuals need to be thinking for themselves is hardly new and it is to Ranciere's credit that he refreshes it and leads on to a set of philosophical problems about the relation between the individual and the collective. The rest of the book mainly concerns these questions. For Ranciere both conditions are co-terminus without any need for consensus. In fact dissensus is better. Dissensus is almost our natural condition as autonomous individuals in a dynamic state of communication about their inevitably different subject positions. Emancipation is then down to "collectivising our capacities invested in scenes of dissensus". 


In chapter three he uses a phrase from Mallarme, 'Separes est on ensemble', to explore how we can be both individuals that think for ourselves and achieve a liberating 'solidarity' that doesn't flatten our differences. He goes on to discuss how this idea relates to our contemplations on art. He is emphatic that the sensory world of the artist is separate from that of the viewer and that there is no right way to think about art and never has been. Some of the most influential conventional writing about art has been a celebration of interpretation set free of any original intent, use or context. Things that are not used for their intended purposes. 


This is the point at which I start to feel the analysis is unsatisfactory. Up to now my intuition and previous studies make me think he is right about equality of intelligence and what follows, but the idea that the reading of art is separate from any intention of the artist and that artistic intention cannot be at all rhetorical, if it is to be emancipatory, is more difficult. As an artist focused on social change it is difficult to imagine the removal of intentionality from work. Or to be at all precise about how to make work that enables emancipation rather than adding to 'stultification'. 


Recently I saw the 'Seduced by Art' photography and painting show at London's National Gallery. The show opens with Jeff Wall's large 1978 'The Destroyed Room' photograph. Wall is said to use a 'strategy of quotation without direct imitation' and it is implied as a key to reading the whole show. The influence of Delacroix's 1853 painting “The Death of Sardanapalus” is claimed. I'd rather have seen it separate from being told how to look at it. I very much felt that such curatorial guidance was closing off any of my own thought. That is stultification. My own thoughts on seeing this work in reproduction were very different. I did not want to have this framework forced onto my first viewing of the actual print. However I suspect that Wall may have made this claim originally as much as a strategy to have his work shown as Art as something he wished to frame the work with.


Ranciere would say that any situation is readable in an emancipatory fashion if we don't bow down to the strategies of abrutir but engage our minds in an effort to deconstruct the forces that would limit and channel our thinking. This is not easy to do as a lone mind, and I find it happens better in discussion with others. 


Ranciere manages to jiggle my thinking but as an analysis there are too many variables. I feel there is also something missing.


In the final chapter he considers an idea of the 'pensive' image. It seems related to Barthes earlier idea of the third meaning. The Pensive image provides a zone of indeterminacy in relation to which emancipatory thought is possible. This is a more positive way of thinking but is still tentative and incomplete.


What is missing is the idea that it is the exclusive selection of art that leads to particular constellations being brought to public attention. Any set of interests will be unlikely to present art that allows a critical appraisal of its own core supports to be revealed to the public. The sets of interests that present art most widely and influentially are the state and the larger globalised commercial galleries. It is difficult for most of us to see how these interests are manifest within the particular selections of any show. It is difficult for us to see what has been left out from the totality of the field from which the selection is made. It is often through quite subtle absences which we could never be privy to. The whole skill of the state managers of culture is to hide these formations of upper class patriarchal interest with a smokescreen of good taste and the flair that comes with having money to spend on design and presentation.


For me these institutional formations are more important to the abrutir of high culture than the works of artists in themselves. By not attacking these institutions, and in fact relying on their patronage, as pointed out by JJ Charlesworth's short review in Art Review when the book came out, Ranciere is doing the emancipation project a disservice. Taking our attention away from the institutionalised source of cultural oppression and directing it towards more abstract ideas of our perception of artworks. 


Nonetheless, the book still has a message that is inimicable to the interests of those institutions that hosted the talks that led to these very chapters if we keep in mind where he is coming from. My final feeling is that Ranciere is a subversive hoping to, in his own words, crack open culture from the inside'? For those of us for ever on the outside; we perhaps need more of a praxis of contextually disruptive micro-audiences, as well as a macro analysis of arts patronage by capital.



[1] Against this the early musichall audience were moved from sitting around tables drinking into the fixed rows of seats - a late C19th commercialised audience - often seen as a strategy to pacify, but I suppose it could have been a drive to get more paying customers into a space. The bourgeois audience being politely quiet and immobile did not mean that they were mentally passive. However held up as a model for rowdy working class audiences to judge themselves against was used as a way to denigrate the physically active audience and so working class cultural expression.

[2] Feuerbach's 'The Essence of Religion', 1841.


[3] My very short summary of Perry Anderson's account of the academicisation of Marx may be found here 


[4] Ranciere refers to Das Capital as "the Bible of bourgeois scientism". p.32. No wonder the Biennale crowd like Ranciere and the ideological left mistrust him. e.g. Nathan Brown.’s-lesson-ranciere’s-error-and-the-real-movement-of-history.


[5] The Torso is currently in the Vatican Museum and is considered evidence of the high point of classical aesthetics.


[6] Friedrich Schiller, On the Aesthetic Education of Man: in a series of letters, 1794/5. By using these canonic examples of European learning he is of course paradoxically affirming his belonging to the Humanist community of learning.


[7] In 'Image - Music - Text' third level of meaning is posited by Barthes. What we have talked of so far he sees as the 'obvious'. The third level he calls 'obtuse'. It is the zones of meaning that are produced from the relations of signs, from the oscillation between two possible readings, or from a 'spasm of the signifier'. It is the meaning of a movement of semiosis. These obtuse meanings contribute to, often unnamable, atmosphere, quality and emotion-value.


[8]  This is based in the historic nature of film history that saw the use of the script in its capitalisation by the literary capitalist class. Calls for the best writers often accompanied demands for the moral uplift of the industry. The trade press urged the motion picture industry to legitimate itself by producing scenarios penned by well-known writers of fiction and drama. In 1908, for example, the New York Dramatic Mirror ran an article by a 'moving picture enthusiast' who strenuously advocated 'a higher class of authorship in the construction of plots or stories' as opposed to the 'crudest kind of drama' and 'the lowest kind of slapstick comedy' which had hitherto dominated, stories produced by higher-class authors would appeal to the 'more intelligent class of spectators'. (Uricchio & Pearson, 1993 p46) As a form of popular mass entertainment, cinema-going did not generally find favour among the middle class until the advent of sound systems heralded the era of art deco picture palaces in the 1930's. (Gomes, Maryanne. 'The Past As Present: the home movie as cinema of record', m/s 1997).


The inception of sound and the increasingly large sums of money to be made also brought the mass-market film firmly under the control of the capitalist class. They imported their own literary culture by way of the script and the aesthetics of good taste. The Charlie Chaplin films of the 1920's can be seen as a bridge to this period. His influences from working class culture and musichall met a Hollywood system which had an ethos of respectability and taste, and a literary heritage and articulation. Commercial cinema continued to evolve through the 1930's and 1940s with an increasing reliance on scripted dramatic narratives. The content was respectable and sentimental. The illusion of narrative continuity was smooth. There was a sheen of perfection which created an increasing gulf from the self-generated activity of artists and amateurs. This dominance was maintained until there was a resurgence of the vulgar in the form of B-Movie horror, rock and sex genres in the consumer explosion of the 1950's.