Issue #70 March 2024

The subject of politics of visibility in Jacques Rancière and Peggy Phelan

Mask of a Satyr (200–100 B.C.)

Theatre is always an encounter between the spectator and the performative element. Theatricality recognizes the subject in the process; it is a process of looking at or being looked at. It is an act initiated in one of two possible spaces: either that of the actor or that of the spectator (Feral 98). It is important to clarify that the actor can be represented by any performative element that is observed by the spectator and tells the story. Due to the increased influence of technology and vast experimentation in performance art, now more elements can act/perform, taking away the exclusive right that belonged to the human body. In such a way, the spectator appears as the other for its object of observation as much as the performative element is the other for the spectator. Here the performative element is charged with encoded symbolic structures and presents them to the audience, while the spectator interprets them through their own systems of knowledge and experience. The paradox of the actor is also the paradox of the spectator – to believe in the other without completely believing in them (Feral 100). Theatricality results from perceptual dynamics linking the subject of seeing with its object. The gaze creates the condition for theatricality, according to Feral. Undoubtedly, this can be seen as not an inclusive statement that excludes a spectator who is blind or has a vision impairment. Hence, I argue that the condition for the theatricality to happen is not the gaze itself but the gaze as the ability to perceive. Theatre happens when the spectator is able to perceive it according to their own senses. Thus, visuality in this essay should be treated not as an act of seeing but instead as an act of perceiving, making one seen means making one open for perception.

In this essay, I will discuss visibility politics. I will attempt to show that, in fact, Jacques Rancière and Peggy Phelan, when they argue on representational visibility and political power, both are calling for the same act – an act of refusing to self-identity with prescribed identifications. The subject has to get free from the identifying, objectifying gaze – through the process of subjectification.

The transcendental world was seen through a dualistic lens within the ancient thought that culminated in Plato’s philosophy. For Plato, the ignorant masses were living in a world of appearance, while only the philosopher had access to the world of essence. Thus, the ignorant always need a guide who possesses the truth. Here the philosopher takes the role of the critic and asks the question of how to access the world of truth. The problem here is that the critic does not know the truth but self-posit it. In opposition to Plato, Kant attempts a turn, a Copernican turn. Instead of asking how to access the truth, Kant asks how the world of truth appears to us. In other words, what are the conditions for the truth to be known? Hence, Kant argues that the truth can only be conceptualized through self-reflexivity and concludes with an impossibility of accessing it. Here the reason represents the barrier to the truth. In short, before and with Kant, there was always a gap between the world of essence and the world of appearance. Only Hegel manages to see that only within the intertwined dialectical mediation of the world of essence and the world of appearance does the gap and both worlds emerge. Here Hegel performs an ontological turn – the reason becomes the solution. Hence, truth formation happens somewhere between the critic and the ignorant.

Both Plato’s and Kant’s approaches are fragmentary and limiting in that politics and aesthetics never merge into a theoretical unity. Dmitry Khaustov explains that Rancière sees Plato as an aesthete politician who creates a legendary picture of an ideal society with a firmly set separation of the sensual. However, Rancière reserves a separate concept of the police, underlying the Platonic divide of the sensual. “The police is essentially a law, usually implied, determining the proportion or non-participation of each part. The police, then, is primarily the order of bodies, which determines the division between ways of being, doing and speaking, according to which such and such bodies are attributed by their names to such and such a place and such and such a task, this is the order of the visible and intelligible, according to which one activity is visible, and the other is not, some words are perceived as speech, and others as noise. The police are not so much the ‘discipline’ of bodies as the rule of their display, the configuration of occupations and the properties of the spaces where these occupations are distributed.” (Rancière 1995, 55). Politics, in Rancière terms, stands correctly as the opposite of Platonic mythopoetics in action. Its task is dissensus, discord in the legal division of the sensible, and the construction of its new forms (Khaustov 2019).

Rancière’s book, The Emancipated Spectator, extends the debate with Plato to a full field of vision and spectacle, integrating dissensus into the conventional critique of the spectacle and translating Plato’s debate to Brecht and Marx. Rancière formulates the initial dilemma concerning the spectator in an attempt to characterize the general model of reasoning on which we are used to evaluating the political implications of the theatrical spectacle: there is no theatre without a viewer, but at the same time, being a spectator is bad (Rancière 2008, 7). First, looking is the polar opposite of knowing. The viewer stands in front of the theatrical representation and is unaware of the process by which it was created, as well as the truth that it conceals. Second, passive observing is the inverse of acting. The spectator remains immobile in their seat. They are uninterested. Being a spectator implies losing both the ability to know and the ability to act. Rancière refers to Plato here: the observer, as a subject of appearances, does not know but imagines. Moreover, in the old good Marxist tradition, Rancière reminds us that after Marx (The Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach), the world should not be explained or imagined but changed, indeed here, with the participation of the emancipated spectator.

Emancipation arises when we challenge the antagonism between sight and action and see that the conditions that structure the relationship between assertion, sight, and action belong to the domination and submission structure. Emancipation begins when we understand that to see also requires to act – dissensus. The emancipated spectator acts. They observe, select, compare, and interpret. They reflect on and put in conversation what they see with many other things they had seen on other stages and places. In such a way, the spectator participates (does not create it by themselves) in the performance and truth-making processes (Rancière 2008, 16). Thus, the spectator is both a detached and active interpreter of the spectacle. Emancipation is a strife, a dissensus, a rupture of the a priori identity of truth and the teaching subject, given in a paradoxical critical argument (Rancière 2008, 17).

Rancière follows Hegel and sees the logic of emancipation as based on the notion that truth is not in the certain one’s pocket but somewhere between the teacher-critic and the ignorant, somewhere in the subject, somewhere in the object, and so it may be termed objective (Khaustov 2019). In contrast, truth in Plato and Kant, in the strict sense, is subjective and tautological. Furthermore, this implies that the critic’s position is no longer favoured. The critic loses dominance as the spectator is liberated, but at the same time – and this is arguably the essential point – the object itself is liberated. When the spectator becomes a subject of visibility politics, they are emancipated, and so is the object they see – the performative elements. The task of equalization is to expose criticism, enhance the object, and free the viewer, and the outcome is the equality of minds (Rancière 2008, 20).

Furthermore, the notion of the subject does not arise by coincidence in Rancière. He argues that criticism of the subject is irrelevant as long as there are groups that are denied the status of a subject – workers, women, immigrants and others. One would think that the desire of these groups to find themselves as a subject is a “trap” (I am referring here to Foucault), a result of the influence of ideology and nothing more than an illusion. Here, Rancière, in contrast to identity politics theorists, favours the word subjectification over identity. Identification is a component of the police order that gives everyone a place and time in social space, establishing duties, statuses, and expectations. However, and this is Rancière’s central point, the demands of social groupings fighting for their rights are not private but universal (Rancière 1999, 101). In this respect, universality takes on an original meaning in Rancière. Political universality is not contained in the individual and not in the citizen. The universality of the claims of the marginalized who want to be recognized as a subject lies in the fact that by demonstrating the wrongness underlying their non-recognition (or rather ignoring), they thereby challenge the justice of the entire social order that ignores them (Pertseva 128). To make one visible (possibility for perception) is to act. The subject is characterized by the fact that in the existing order of time and space, they can act as a disruption and form a subject that will be incompatible with the order and thereby will already challenge it: “Political subjectivation is the ability to generate such polemical, paradoxical scenes that allow you to see the contradiction between two logics [of police and equality], positing existences that are at the same time non-existences” (Rancière 1999, 103).

The subject concept is especially important since equality only exists in a singularized form, which cannot be the identity – part of the police order. Another point arises concerning identity; as a preliminary stage, subjectification necessitates disidentification – the need to break with the status that society assigns to this or that group and, more importantly, with the place that it is assigned in the current social context. Because resistance is the same producing force as power, the subject is the consequence of the production process that precedes emancipation rather than a self-sufficient instance. Instead of reflexivity, the subject’s relationship to the other becomes crucial, to the degree that the subject must be seen as such (perceived as subject) in order to become a subject. One must become a subject of visibility politics. When individuals who were not included in the police order appear as subjects, the contradiction of the part and the whole is realized, cancelling the characterization of identity (Pertseva 133).

Most political art practises establishing relationships with their audiences using the classic educational paradigm of effectiveness, which posits the presence of a continuum between the production of pictures, gestures, words, and their perception, as well as the viewer’s actions (Rancière 2008, 59). Further, Rancière points to the fact that art is liberated and emancipatory when the subject rejects the authority (performative element) of imposed pictures, gestures, words, and their imposed perception. Art practices are not tools that create forms of consciousness or mobilize energies at the behest of politics, as it were, external to them. Instead, they construct a new landscape of what is seen, said and done (Rancière 2008, 84). Rancière’s spectator is emancipated to the extent that, simply by showing the activity of interpretive perception, they thereby already remove the traditional oppositions of activity/passivity. By the way, at this point, Kantian aesthetics is shaken when there is freedom of interpretation. We can no longer talk about the universalism of aesthetic judgment, which was at the center of Kant’s attention.

Miniature Mask, c. 900-400 BC. Mexico, Olmec, 1200-300 BC

The spectator is emancipated when, with their freedom of interpretation, they remove the traditional distribution of the sensuous, which assumes that all activity is on the performance’s side and only passivity remains on the spectator’s side. What is essential here, apparently, is simply the viewer’s effort: not so much the interpretation itself but the claim to this interpretation, which presupposes an understanding of perception as a form of activity. In the case of Rancière, the spectator’s freedom is not centred in a body that can move, not in mobility, as in Foucault, but in the ability to intellectual reflection. At the same time, each unique intellectual journey of the spectator-interpreter resonates with the interpretative activity of other spectators, forming a society that is neither the inverse nor the total of individuals (Pertseva 136).

However, in the case of political subjectivation, as Rancière notes, two occurrences must inevitably coincide: the appearance of the subject and the appearance of a free spectator. To the degree that political subjectivation is the process by which the subject, which was previously invisible due to the existing order of the sensible, becomes visible, it does so only if the spectator, in turn, resists this order. No matter how much the subject desires to be seen, they will not perceive a new object if they stay inscribed in the existing order of the sensible distribution. The subject has to get free from the identifying, objectifying gaze. Visibility is not a trap because the visibility of such a subject – the transition from invisibility to visibility – occurs at the intersection point, and only at the intersection point, of two processes – the equalization of visibility and reason on the one hand and the subjectification of injustice on the other (Pertseva 140). Visibility is a fragile and controversial organization of the visible, adapted in order for the subject to appear in it, to find in it its unconformity with the truth (Rancière 1995, 108).

Emancipation is the prospect of the viewer having a different perspective from the one that was shown. Rancière’s subject of visibility politics can link political and aesthetic emancipation. Nevertheless, so does Phelan’s subject – whom she calls unmarked. She explains that unmarked seeks a value theory for what is not represented within the symbolic order, what cannot be examined within the bounds of the supposed real. Phelan aims to revalue a belief in subjectivity and identity that is not visually representable by situating a subject in what cannot be replicated inside the ideology of the visible. Unmarked investigates the implicit assumptions about the relationships between representational visibility and political power (Phelan 1).

The concept of real is critical in Phelan’s thinking and refers to Lacanian tradition. Here, Lacan, following Hegelian logic, reflects on the real and argues that there is no fundamental division between the imaginary real (how one encounters oneself as the other – perceptual and reflective process) and the symbolic real (how one performs oneself within the symbolic order – interaction through language). Both are dialectically mediated through each other. Phelan argues that the presence of living bodies in performance implicates the real. At the same time, performance’s only life is in the present – here and now (Phelan 146). There is an aspect of consumption in performance art spectatorship: there are no leftovers, and the viewer must strive to take it all in (Phelan 148). Hence the gaze, explains Phelan, is both an image and a word (intersection of the imaginary and symbolic). The gaze takes place through the enunciation of the eyes and the subject’s ability to perceive inside the optics and grammar of the language. (Phelan 158).

The subject of visibility politics does not only see (perceive) but also interpret the here and now within the performance. What they see in the other outside themselves anchors the subject’s vision into the real. Thus, a two-fold process is ensured whereby the thing seen is also iterated in and through language, mediated through the subject and passed back to the other. Before the subject can even begin to interpret and enact, collapsing into the other, the subject needs to convert the juxtaposition of symbols presented to them into some form of semantic coherence. The subject can absorb the fragmented signifiers into a coherent whole and express what is observed via the mediation of the other. The sight antedates language and operates and navigates the realm of recognition. Thus, the subject must first see via a language system before interpreting what is seen. The subject’s interaction with others consolidates their knowledge of the outside world as constituted in and through ideas and representations. As soon as the subject sees, they realize they could be seen too.

For Phelan, the same as for Rancière, the subject’s freedom is not centred in a body that can move, not in mobility, but in the ability to intellectual reflection. Phelan states that withdrawing from representation altogether is more complex and advocates for making counterfeit currency of our representational economy rather than a total withdrawal. “I am not advocating that kind of retreat or hoping for that kind of silence. In other words, the task is to counterfeit the currency of our representational economy—not by refusing to participate in it at all but rather by making work in which the costs of women’s perpetual aversion are clearly measured” (Phelan 1).

Furthermore, Phelan argues that contemporary culture finds a method to name, and hence border and fix, the image of the previously under-represented other by framing more and more images of that other. Here Phelan claims that representation follows two laws: it always conveys more than it intends and never totalizes (Phelan 2). Phelan aims to broaden current disciplinary boundaries which define the field of the gaze. The excess meaning conveyed through representation serves as a supplement, allowing for various and resistant interpretations. Despite this excess, representation creates ruptures and voids; it fails to portray the real precisely. Close readings of the representation’s logic can engender psychic resistance and, possibly, political transformation precisely because of its additional excess and failure to be totalizing. The real is read through representation, and representation is read through the real (Phelan 2). Phelan’s unmarked is concerned with the broken symmetry between the self and the other and the potential political repercussions. Because the subject cannot perceive the other entirely through the gaze – the total representation is impossible. Representation always shows more than it means: in the supplement, one can see ways to intervene in its meaning (Phelan 4).

Next, Phelan reveals the problem of visibility politics and explains the issue of visibility in terms of identification. Here, a distinction should be made between the practice of having someone visible (identified by the order) and the notion when one makes oneself visible (subjectification). In case of identification, the subject is inscribed into the order, and in case of subjectification, it is more difficult for the system (police – in Rancier’s terms) to ignore them and build a punishing canon. While the need for a more inclusive representational environment has a fundamentally ethical appeal, and while under-represented communities might be strengthened by increased exposure, the parameters of this visibility frequently enervate the potential power of these identities (Phelan 7). Here Phelan explains that progressive cultural activists have worked hard on boosting and widening the visibility in terms of the identification of the marginalized, arguing that representational economies will make under-represented communities stronger. They expect that by such identification, marginalized subjects would feel prouder to be a part of such a community, and others who are not members of such a community will have a better appreciation of the variety and power of such communities (Phelan 7). However, visuality in terms of identification is a trap. Phelan argues that taking the visual world in is a process of loss: learning to see is training careful blindness (Phelan 14).

One has to become the subject of politics of visuality through subjectification. To see and acknowledge the visible is to eliminate as well as absorb visual input, a domain in which what is not visually available to the eye creates and defines what is—much like how the unconscious frames current conscious occurrences (Phelan 14). The subject and the object are differentiated through the visual field and language. Sight is imagistic and discursive (here, Phelan refers to Lacan). The subject expresses through language the perceived image and frames it. The subject sees and is seen, is named, and names through the mediation with the other — the very condition for the subject to become self-aware (Phelan 15). The subject wants to see oneself by gazing at the other. Looking, then, both conceals and discloses the observer (Phelan 16). This dialectical mediation creates the condition for the real to emerge.

Phelan is interested in the political and aesthetic ramifications of the subject’s access to the image of the other (Phelan 18). Again when one sees – one is seen. Here Phelan offers a way to escape the identification in the eyes of the other. “I am talking about an active disappearance, an intentional and conscious rejection to accept the payout of visibility. For the time being, active disappearance typically necessitates some acknowledgement of what and who is missing in order to be successful” (Phelan 19). Although spatial orientation gives a vantage point from which to see the topic, it cannot entirely reflect or screen the subject. Therefore, the refusal of self-identity with prescribed identifications forces the perceiver to see. In other words, the subject, through subjectification, outgrows the prescribed identifications, and at the same time, the subject, by gazing at the visual field through the agency of the gaze, breaks its unity while calling for dialectical mediation. The objective is not to find the observer but to ensure that the provided to be seen is perceived (and of interest) as a result of the perceiver’s inability to be seen (Phelan 20). Because the perceiver cannot turn their gaze, the subject is compelled to perceive themself via the other. By gazing at the other, the subject sees themself.

Furthermore, that other always seeks for/at themself via the subject (Phelan 23). The designated visual field transcends the subject, just as language transcends the subject’s relationship to it. Phelan explains that “the looker is the “not all” which is left out of the promise of visual plenitude. Seeing is a (false) assertion that the world can be mastered by the gaze and a recognition of the world without oneself” (Phelan 24). Representation nearly always favours the one who looks and seldom favours the one who is seen. Visibility and invisibility are inextricably linked; invisibility polices visibility and hence operates as the ascending component in the binary. Gaining exposure for the politically under-represented without questioning who has the capacity to display is a poor political agenda (Phelan 26). Hence the marginalized have to resist the imposed identification to make themselves invisible for it and, at the same time, through the process of subjectification, make themselves visible for the order.

The other, given to oneself and to others through desire, already appears in Hegel’s thinking. The desire of the other, which can replace the natural object as the goal of our desire, becomes the principle that separates humans from non-humans. According to Hegel, self-consciousness arises only in the struggle for recognition. Therefore, it is initially permeated with the theme of the other, which at the same time humanizes one’s desire and makes one alienate it in external forms. Following Hegel’s logic, Lacan sees the possibility for real to arise and exist only as a recognized real – recognized by others. Ultimately one can be a subject both in own eyes and in the eyes of others, only if recognized as the other by the others. Hence, only whitin the recognized real one can thereby express some truth in the proper and precise meaning of the term.

Let us return to Feral’s idea of theatricality. Theatricality is a process of looking or being looked at (Feral 98). Here again, the spectator appears as the other for its object of observation as much as the performative element appears as the other for the spectator. However, it is essential to remember that according to Lacan, no one is themselves; everyone is the other. By its nature, the other is an image, and therefore it is always associated with an imaginary real. Thus, one imagines oneself as the other (imaginary real) and presents oneself as the other (symbolic real). In the context of visuality, the spectator presents themselves as the other for the performative element, and so does the performative element, presenting oneself as the other for the spectator (the real). This is the key to understanding that the performative element does not see the spectator, and the spectator does not see the performative element directly, but rather both see each other as the other (dialectical mediation). Hence, according to Phelan and Rancière, when one presents themselves as the other, one has to reject self-identity with prescribed identifications and instead go through a process of subjectification and make oneself visible for the symbolic order and therefore disrupt it. Here lies the power of the politics of visuality. The subject has to get free from the identifying, objectifying gaze – through the process of subjectification.

Andrei Ivan Mamal is a director, dramaturg, and designer whose work spans continents, exploring the intersections of identity, history, and social dynamics through theatre. Mamal brings a unique perspective to his craft, informed by a deep academic background, including a Master of Arts in Drama, Theatre, and Performance Studies from the University of Toronto. Co-founder of Etajul 5, an independent theatre in Moldova, Mamal has worked in productions across Canada, Europe, and Japan. His portfolio reflects a commitment to challenging conventional perspectives through critical theory, whether through reinterpreting classical texts or crafting multimedia installations that push storytelling boundaries. With each project, Mamal continues to push the boundaries of artistic expression, inviting audiences to engage with the complexities of the human condition in enlightening and transformative ways.

Works Cited

Féral, Josette. and Ronald P. Bermingham. Theatricality: The Specificity of Theatrical Language. SubStance, vol. 31, no. 2, pp. 94-108. 2002.

Hegel, Georg W. F., et al. Phenomenology of Spirit / by G.W.F. Hegel; Translated by A.V. Miller; with Analysis of the Text and Foreword by J.N. Findlay. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1977.

Kant, Immanuel, 1724-1804, et al. Critique of Pure Reason Kant Immanuel; Translated by Norman Kemp Smith. Macmillan: St. Martin’s Press, London; New York, 1956.

Khaustov, D. Review of “The Emancipated Spectator” by Rancière. In Sygma. 2018.

Lacan, Jacques. Écrits: The First Complete Edition in English / Jacques Lacan; Translated by Bruce Fink in Collaboration with Héloïse Fink and Russell Grigg. Norton, New York, 2006.

Pertseva, Anna. The Problem of Visibility in Foucault and Rancière. In The Philosophy Journal, vol. 8, no 3, pp. 121–143. 2015.

Phelan, Peggy.  Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. Routledge. 1993.

Plato. and Paul Shorey. The Republic / Plato; with an English Translation by Paul Shorey. W. Heinemann ltd, London, 1930.

Rancière, Jacques. Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy / Jacques Rancière; Translated by Julie Rose. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1999.

—. The Emancipated Spectator / Jacques Rancière; Translated by Gregory Elliott. Verso, London, UK; Brooklyn, NY, 2009.

—. On the Shores of Politics / Jacques Rancière; Translated by Liz Heron. Verso, London, 1995.


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