Theatrokratia: Platonic noise between Jacques Rancière and Seth Price

On discovering, almost too late, that Jacques Rancière will be speaking at Ohio State today, I reread the first published version of his essay “The Emancipated Spectator”. Rancière delivered the lecture, in English, on August 20th, 2004 at SommerAkademie in Frankfurt and it would later be published in Artforum in 2007 and then in the book The Emancipated Spectator, published by Verso in 2010.

Yet before appearing in the pages of Artforum, the lecture was published, with the caveat UNCORRECTED LECTURE MANUSCRIPT, in the volume Continuous Project #8 in 2006. Continuous Project was a collective group comprising artists Seth Price and Wade Guyton, art historian Bettina Funcke and designer Joseph Logan.

The book Continuous Project #8 was published in 2006 as part of an exhibition in Paris as part of a residence spent at Cneai (the Centre national de l’estampe et de l’art imprime). The black and white, basically imageless book, as the editors note in their introduction, went against the art world’s celebration of the image, as ‘art magazines and books are packed with photographs, advertisements, glossy colors’. Even the cover of the book is remarkably drab.

After the introduction, you encounter the table of contents:

As you can see, following Rancière’s lecture was a poem by Seth Price. It runs as follows, in this handwritten form:


Reading Price’s poem after the lecture, which has the memorable moment at which the philosopher juxtaposes an exchange between workers about their Sunday routine and Plato’s Republic, I wanted to make some sense, if that’s possible, of the image of “the undifferentiated scrum of noise”. I was immediately transported to the moment in the Laws when Plato describes the whistling, hissing and obsequious applause of the theater-going public as theatrokratia, the ‘dictatorship of spectatorship’ (Laws 3. 701a3). Simon Critchley has revisited this moment in the Laws and dubbed it a ‘Society of the Spectacle’ after Guy Debord. Yet within Rancière‘s lecture, Debord appears as a representative of the spectacle as the ‘reign of vision’. But what happens to noise? Of course, there is a vital place for noise in Rancière‘s political and aesthetic thought. Here is Hito Steyerl on this precise topic:

Jacques Rancière has beautifully shown that…to distinguish between noise and speech [is] to divide a crowd between citizens and rabble. If someone didn’t want to take someone else seriously, or to limit their rights and status, one pretends that their speech is just noise, garbled groaning, or crying, and that they themselves must be devoid of reason—and therefore exempt from being subjects, let alone holders of rights. In other words, this politics rests on an act of conscious decoding—separating “noise” from “information,” “speech” from “groan,”…

A comparable differentiation appears to operate in Price’s poem between lawyers and the law as instrumentation through words, while their opposite is “the undifferentiated scrum of noise”. But, at the same time, I can’t help but wonder if the encounter between Rancière‘s lecture and Price’s poem is not repeating the same gesture. The philosopher’s lecture followed by the artist’s slap-dash poem appears to be a remake of the former’s juxtaposition of the story two 19th century workers, conversing about their Sunday activities of spectatorship and Plato’s account of how in his ideal state all people had to do one thing and had no time for such idle speculation and tale-telling.

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