– Autumn/Winter 2010

Events, Works, Exhibitions

Conciliations: Witness and Spectator

Juan A. Gaitán

Rabih Mroué, On Three Posters: Reflections on a video-performance by Rabih Mroué, 2004, video-lecture, still. Courtesy the artist

The spectacle, being the reigning social organisation of a paralysed history, of a paralysed memory, of an abandonment of any history founded on historical time, is in effect a false consciousness of time.

- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle (1967)

In this essay I will put forward the argument that the spectator is the contemporary incarnation of the witness of history. By 'witness of history' I mean the figure who authenticates the narrative by presenting him or herself as both narrator and eyewitness. There are fictional versions of this figure, most famously Robinson Crusoe. There are actual ones, such as Francisco Goya with Los desastres de la guerra (The Disasters of War, 1810-15). More marginal is a short tale by Maurice Blanchot, L'Instant de ma mort (The Instant of My Death, 1994), from which Jacques Derrida extrapolated a brilliant discussion on fiction and testimony. That this witness of history has become a spectator implies not just a proto-objective estrangement of the witness and the events he or she encounters; it also implies the consciousness of a very modern discourse on representation - that of realism - and of a series of mediations that lie between the subject and the world. Today the most conspicuous of these mediations belong to the technologies of mass communication and the spectacle, but history must also be counted: history, not as historical time, but as the spectacle of the unfolding of time in which the present is affirmed as the fundamental act of history. For the present pathology of history is explanation, insofar as the aim of history is not to make sense of itself, but to make sense of

  1. In the script for this performance, Rabih Mroue is designated as actor # 1, Elias Khoury is as actor #2. Actor #2 takes care of all the technical changes throughout the performance: opening doors, changing the videotapes and so on. When not active he is sitting with the audience.

  2. The German word is 'Verfremdungseffekt'. As there is no direct translation into English (typical translations include 'alienation effect', 'distancing effect', 'defamiliarisation effect'), some critics and writers have left it untranslated or, in the case of Fredric Jameson, abbreviated as 'V-effekt'. See F. Jameson, Brecht and Method, London and New York: Verso, 1998.

  3. In this condition, Khoury is the one whose actions reveal the seams in the theatrical machine. Elias Khoury and Rabih Mroué, 'Three Posters', in Catherine David and Fundació Antoni Tàpies Barcelona (ed.), Tamáss: Contemporary Arab Representations, Barcelona: Fundació Antoni Tàpies, 2002, pp.100-14.

  4. Ibid., p.105.

  5. R. Mroué, 'The Fabrication of Truth', in Tamass, op. cit., pp.116-17.

  6. Ibid.

  7. Quoted from Jamal Satti's testimony as it appeared in R. Mroué, Three Posters, op. cit., p.109.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Jacques Rancière, The Emancipated Spectator (trans. Gregory Elliot), London: Verso, 2009.