Emancipated performers

by craigepplin

Last week I reread Jacques Rancière’s The Emancipated Spectator (2009) for a chapter in my book manuscript “Late Book Culture in Argentina.” The segment I’m working on is about Vivi Tellas’s Proyecto Archivos, which informs another project that I’m writing on. In any case, I think that Rancière’s book helps explain some of the theories implicit in Tellas’s work.

The Proyecto Archivos sounds simple. It consists in finding “theatricality outside of theater” and staging it. The participants in this misplaced theater are non-professional actors who, once on stage, use a sparse set to act out what they do on a daily basis. They portray everyday sorts of encounters: a visit to the doctor, a  series of conversations between Tellas’s own mother and aunt, the social dynamics of a driving school. I remember seeing the last of these in 2007. The “bad” acting was perfect because so many experiences in our daily lives (or at least in my daily life) feel like that. Rehearsal is just the thing itself.

Rancière helps me think about this. The Emancipated Spectator draws on his earlier work The Ignorant Schoolmaster (1991). The starting point of this book is the experience of Joseph Jacotot, a teacher whose professional life straddled the French Revolution and its aftermath. He began teaching with rather conventional ideas:

…that the important business of the master is to transmit his knowledge to his students so as to bring them, by degrees, to his own level of expertise. Like all conscientious professors, he knew that teaching was not in the slightest about cramming students with knowledge and having them repeat it like parrots, but he knew equally well that students had to avoid the chance detours where minds still incapable of distinguishing the essential from the accessory, the principle from the consequence, get lost. (3)

This educational paradigm, Rancière posits, is analogous to the theatrical paradigm in western culture. If education is based on the always mobile barrier separating master from student–for the master not only knows more, but knows also how to know more–then theater is based on the “paradox of the spectator”: “there is no theatre without a spectator…. But according to the accusers, being a spectator is a bad thing.” This is the case because, first, “viewing is the opposite of knowing” (ignorance) and, second, because “it is the opposite of acting” (passivity). The goal then, which has been elaborated variously over the past century, is to abolish spectatorship (2-3). The problem, however, is that to do so leaves the original system of oppositions (“the collective and the individual, the image and living reality, activity and passivity, self-ownership and alienation” (7)) intact.

Rancière finds a way out of this limiting paradigm in the same place that Jacotot does: through affirming equality of knowledge as an axiom. To do so is not to say that everyone is equally intelligent on all matters. Rather, it is to say that the intelligence of, for example, the master is the same kind of intelligence of the student. “There are not two sorts of intelligence separated by a gulf. The human animal learns everything in the same way as it initially learnt its mother tongue, as it learnt to venture into the forest of things and signs surrounding it…” (10). This formula amounts to a denial of the possibility of ascending not to another degree of knowledge, but rather to another type of knowledge. Everywhere, all knowledge is experiential, empirically acquired. We sniff and feel our way over the terrain, acquiring knowledge all of us in the same way (and all of us, I would extrapolate, in the same way as other species and beings).

Where I find these ideas helpful for thinking about Proyecto Archivos is in the common conviction that experience yields something of value and that nothing of value is acquired except through concrete experience. The subjects on stage in Tellas’s have nothing to say (“I have nothing to say, and here I am saying it,” said John Cage), but there they are: on stage, saying something. What they represent is not so much their own lives, but rather the fact of living: of living something non-transcendent but full of passions, the way we all live. Their lives are theatrical in the same way that all our lives are theatrical, significant in as much as all lives are meaningful, different in degrees but not in kind. They never ascend, only move over the stage (the earth). They are not spectators, because that term disappears here, and they are not performers, because that one does too. They dissolve, rather, into the solution of the common.