Sunday, April 22, 2007

Back on Barthes

Not to tromp all the way back to the beginning, but I was just re-reading Barthes for my research paper, and a few things struck me...
What I am really interested in is the use of 'spectacle' to describe that which is in the liminal space between real and fake, sport and drama. “What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplifications of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering… “ (27). The identification as spectacle connects to the Jenkins' view of melodrama; it implies hyperbole, legibility, action. However, what I find interesting in the concept of spectacle and its application in wrestling is that spectatorship is defined as passive; it is the act of looking and therefore explicitly not the act of acting. But in wrestling the symbiotic performative relationship between performers and fans defies the exclusivity of either role.

I was reading Ranciere's "The Emancipated Spectator" this week (it's in the March ArtForum) where he builds on theories of theater and spectatorship posited by Brecht, Artaud, and Debord among others. At the core of the talk is the impassible gap between performer and spectator, the idea that there is reciprocity in the relationship, but never coincidence. Instead of being a proponent of 'activating' the audience through direct engagement or demanding response from them in designing for specifically for collective engagement, Ranciere suggests that: "Spectatorship is not a passivity that must be turned into activity. It is our normal situation...We don't need to turn spectators into actors. We do need to acknowledge that every spectator is already an actor in his own story and that every actor is in turn the spectator of the same kind of story" (Ranciere in March 2007 ArtForum, p.279). Wrestling, as a medium, seems to be a perfect explanation of this proposition; indeed, the fluidity between spectatorship and performance is always in flux. The fans are often acting in the performance, as much as the performers are often acting in reality.

Foucault opens 'Discipline and Punish' with a description of the public application of torture to the body of a criminal. He then writes : "Among so many changes, I will consider one: the disappearance of torture as a public spectacle. Today we are rather inclined to ignore it; perhaps, in its time, it gave rise to too much inflated rhetoric; perhaps it has been attributed too readily to a process of 'humanization', thus dispensing with the need for further analysis" (Discipline and Punish, p.7).
But wrestling is exactly 'torture as a public spectacle." But without the actual torture, mostly. Watching wrestling takes on all the issues of the public torture session, all its lessons of power, justice, vulnerability, and formalizes them in a way that allows for the safe engagement with Ranciere's more fluid, active ideas of spectatorship.


Laury Silvers said...

Kate, yes!

I am so sorry we did not get to meet. I think we have similar theoretical concerns. I would have been glad to have the chance to chat in person.

Take care

david everard said...

Hi Kate!
I enjoyed your comment!

Just out of curiosity, have you considered the possibility that Barthes' use and meaning of the term 'spectacle' is mainly concerned with Aristotle's placement of it in his 'Poetics'!

I only bring it up because my students always mention in their papers and I thought it might help you in yours!

Aristotle's 6 elements of theatre in order of importance:


Aristotle places spectacle last because it relies more on 'stagecraft' than on writing!

Just a thought! good luck on your research paper!

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

Interesting tack on torture, and the reenactment thereof, as spectacle...I wonder what it means, though, if (as many of our theorists have argued, even if it's more problematic in the present) that the face--the innocent--is often the one on the receiving end?

Sam Ford said...

Kate, you raise a lot of interesting questions in this post that I hope play a part in your continued research. Barthes is one of the first major scholars to take a look at pro wrestling, and so much that has followed him has taken that "spectacle of excess" approach as a foundation.

You raise interesting questions, though, about where Barthes' theory here grants autonomy and agency to the spectator. Barthes, after all, is the one who wrote of "the death of the author," so it is not outside his scope to consider the importance of a spectator-driven text. In his approach, though, he seems to believe wrestling has no ambiguity, that it has no subtlety. It's certainly very visual and over-the-top, but the subtlties come in a different sort of nuance, I think.

Another problem I've had with Barthes is that he was looking at the equivalent of an indy "spot show," a one-time show, rather than wrestling as a serial narrative. He writes about how every moment is immediately intelligible and disconnected from one moment to the next, but this defies both the "psychology of booking" Ole Anderson writes about, the serialized nature of pro wrestling shows, and the psychology of building the single match by telling a story.

katejames said...

Thanks for the comments.. Laury, do get in touch if you ever make it to Boston, it would be great to meet you at some point!

David, I hadn't considered the Aristotle tack... it's certainly interesting that plot comes first in that hierarchy, and spectacle last. (Especially since Barthes was looking at a spot show rather than serial wrestling stories, as Sam points out.)

'Stagecraft' seems a diminutive label for spectacle on first impulse... I'll definitely look at 'Poetics', thanks fo the reference!

david everard said...

Hi Kate,

Here's the quote by Aristotle on 'spectacle' from the 'poetics' and please remember his is a description of tragedy, and not as the renaissance scholars mistakenly thought, a prescription!

Its not an exact translation, but its close enough!

"Spectacle depends more on the art of the stage machinist than on that of the poet"