The politics of collective attention

Knowledge in motion 1 Jan 2007English

item doc

Imagine we are in a small theatre venue somewhere in Western Europe. It's 8.30 pm, the lights are dimmed, the performer steps in the direction of the proscenium, takes his or her place behind a lectern and starts talking. That's all that seems to happen in the eyes of all those present. Yet, something different also happens, and it is most of the time overlooked by those who are looking at a stage. Precisely because their sensory attention is absorbed by the action on the stage, those present do not notice that the attention of every single spectator disappears in a collective gaze (which of course includes ‘a collective ear’ when text or music is used). How to understand this gaze or, more generally, this condensation of collective sensory attention? As an autonomous social medium that fundamental for every sort of live performing art, besides for instance the medium of text in the theatre or the body-as-medium in dance. This medium is per definition a temporary and contingent product that emerges again and again - or not! - during a performance.
Dance or theatre makers do of course anticipate public attention during the preparation and the rehearsals of a piece. They try to direct or steer this simultaneously desired and feared medium by means of the timing of a performance and all kinds of rhetorical devices (such as joking, insulting the public or just going on stage naked) . Yet the simultaneously constitutive and contingent nature of the collective attention during a live performance cannot be stimulated or controlled: the risk of ‘going live’ is the risk of being confronted with the black hole of scattered attention or a distracted audience.  A proverbial attention cloud does or does not emerge, and when it does, it has only partially foreseen effects, Although this attention is anything but unmediated (a point to which I will return at the end of this essay), the condensation of the different individual perceptions into an autonomous quasi-reality is a temporal event in the strict sense: a passing moment in time. During a particular performance, this often happens several times, always with different outcomes, so that it is probably more appropriate to speak of a series of events and, consequently, of an inherently instable medium.

The social medium of collective sensory attention is not just the passive sum of the different individual perceptions, but an active, even transformative, quasi-reality. Evidently, the individual attention of every single member of the audience contributes to the emergence of a collective gaze (and/or a collective ear). The elements of the medium do indeed consist of individual perceptions, but their mutual couplings generate an autonomous surplus effect. It is reminiscent of the productivity of interaction effects in so-called complex systems, but one could as well refer to the semantic and rhetorical autonomy of a simple phrase in relation to the words that are its constituent elements. The media autonomy of collective attention is confirmed by its capacity to transform, for instance, some simple steps on a stage into meaningful movements, or to change a relatively long-lasting silence of the performers into a profound statement. Also, as every spectator knows, the momentary collective attention may greatly influence individual perception. Simultaneously, it is itself largely influenced by the overall way the audience behaves. Indeed, neither individual concentration nor the emergence of a collective attention is possible without the silence and adequate behaviour of those attending a performance.

We take it for granted that, once the lights are dimmed, the spectators become silent and attentive, thus transforming themselves into an audience. Actually, this crucial pact between performance and audience is a historical and social construct. At least in the West, it is the outcome - briefly speaking - of the bourgeois redefinition of the arts. Historical research indeed shows that during the first half of the 19th century silence and self-restraint did not yet predominate in theatre venues or during music performances. The expectation of genuine bodily self-control and a distanced, primarily mindful attention was only gradually imposed within artistic spaces, first and foremost by the new urban bourgeois elite. They did this because (partly coinciding with the first generations of new artistic professionals) they ‘sacralised’ those segments of theatre, music, sculpture or literature that were considered to embody “the best of mankind” - to use a famous phrase of the British poet and critic Matthew Arnold in “Culture and Anarchy”(1) (originally published in 1869). In this view, participation in the arts became synonymous with “the study of perfection”. The net outcome was a thorough purification of several cultural genres, resulting in the well-known distinction between high (or ‘sacred’) culture and low (or ‘popular’) culture. Thus an all too direct bodily or emotional involvement, for instance booing or interim applause and loudly ventilated encouragements, became taboo during artistic events. In order to contemplate the deeper meanings of a work of art, silence and concentration were a must: only in this way could Immanuel Kant’s famous “interesseloses Wohlbehagen”(2) (disinterested pleasure) - the ‘hallmark’ of every aesthetic experience - be realised. This mode of participation generalised within the new sphere of high culture the modern way of reading a text as the basic model in encounters with works of art. The new bourgeois model initiated equivalence between the arts, silence and self-control, contemplation, and ‘reading the meaning (or decoding the message)’. In contrast a more unrestrained involvement was allowed, even expected, during the attendance of the various forms of popular entertainment, such as the new genre of cabaret or of all kinds of sports events.           
From a broader historical point of view, much can be said for the thesis that the 19th century redefinition of culture continued a much longer process in which first the aristocracy, then the bourgeoisie tried to distinguish itself from ‘the people’ by means of a high level of physical and affective self-control. Or, to paraphrase the famous study by sociologist Norbert Elias(3), the so-called process of civilisation that accelerated during the early-modern period within court circles was continued by the new social elite that took over economic and political power by the end of the 18th century. Yet, with becoming bourgeois in the civilisation process, the primary locus of self-restraint also shifted from the demonstrative showing off of good manners and a refined, highly elaborated public behaviour to the silent participation in the sphere of high culture. The well-known German notion of Bildung legitimised this shift; it was also in Germany that the new religion of Art achieved its first momentum with the Gesamtkunstwerk of Richard Wagner and the Festspiele in Bayreuth.
What happened to the bourgeois model of arts participation? Not-withstanding the discourse on post-modernity and the relative ‘erosion’ if the distinction between high and low culture, silence and self-restraint still the rule in museums or during public artistic events. At a first glance, the basic parameters of this model are also respected by performance artists who joyously appropriate expressions of popular culture. To just one example: in the first version of Jérôme Bel's much discussed The Show Must Go On, the performers illustrate in a very literal way the content of well-known pop songs. Although the number of public laughs elicited, to say nothing of their collective intensity, was much higher than during a regular theatre play or a straightforward choreography, the audience remained seated and did not start to yell along with the songs, let alone start up a party. Like many other artists, Bel crosses the symbolic distinction between high and low culture in his work, yet he conceives and presents this cross-over according to the overall lines of the dominant participation model of emotional self-control and a primarily text-oriented modus of perception and appreciation. One may therefore argue that the performing arts remain modern (not modernist!) as long as they rely on the medium of collective attention as the conditioning frame for the production and the reception of individual works.
Bel's performance work is often associated, and rightly so, with that of Marcel Duchamp, the doyen of avant-gardism. To a large extent, the history of the 20th century avant-garde has been an extended play with, sometimes even a fierce battle against, the passivity of the audience within the different artistic disciplines. This comes as no surprise in the light of Peter Bürger's influential account of avant-gardism.(4) For according to the literary theorist Bürger, who tries to create a common framework for Futurism, Dadaism, Surrealism and Constructivism in an overall way, the historical avant-garde questioned the autonomy of the arts in the name of the possibility of an emancipating merger of the arts and daily life. It is highly instructive that within the traditions of Dadaism and Surrealism, the various attempts to create more direct forms of public involvement again and again drew on popular culture genres, particularly cabaret and comedy. After their renewal during the 1960s and the early 70s, with the work of Living Theatre, which is probably still known best, both traditions went underground and made room within the sphere of the performing arts for more subtle forms of involvement with the overall passivity of the audience (witness Bel's The Show Must Go On and many other examples).

Within contemporary art, the avant-garde dream of the politically liberating potential of a direct merger of art and daily life has become a marginal bet. Yet within the realm of the performing arts, contemporary dance has recently developed a striking reflexivity regarding audience participation and the medium of collective attention. Some artists still question the overall model of passive participation and aim at a more direct bodily involvement. Prototypical examples are the Highway project by Meg Stuart, the various excursions into the field of installation art by Boris Charmatz, or the performances within unusual public settings by Patricia Portela and the Deep Blue collective. In general, these and related projects try to punctuate the so-called fourth wall that distances the spectators from the performers and allows the audience to hide away in the dark. Thus, Thomas Lehmen in Stationen and Meg Stuart Auf den Tisch! placed the audience around a table. Lehmen even completely reversed the roles and asked members of the audience to talk about their professions. Yet the examples of a more direct involvement of the audience are relatively rare and do not illustrate the more general interest within contemporary dance in the medium of collective attention. Does this interest also have a wider political and societal relevance?

In order to answer this question, I loosely rely on the recent writings of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière.(5) In his view, every political order implies an always specific distribution of visibility and perceptivity. Some social groups can, others cannot, raise public issues in a legitimate way. This power relationship implies the literal invisibility within the public sphere of various collective and discursive subjects that are not considered to be part of ‘the community’. In contemporary society, this imposition of a particular order of visibility, and even of public attention as such, is first and foremost the work of the mass media in their broadest sense (including advertising, for instance). Mass media communication constructs and reproduces a highly selective representation of life. What is primarily left out of the picture, literally and figuratively, the heterogeneity and autonomy of daily life. Both are precisely the subject of many contemporary dance performances, which tackle issues ordinarily unseen or ‘made invisible’ via various appropriations of daily movements and postures. Mass media communication negates the sheer anonymity of the body naked and clothed at the same time, of the complex feedback between the body as a nameless biological entity and its various articulations according to gender-specific, class-defined or ethnic cultural codes. Contemporary dance takes up this simultaneously generic and mediated body as its primary material, knowing that it is always already colonised, even in the ways it is looked at. This reflexivity necessarily involves specific concepts of representation and participation.
Looking at manifestations of the body overlooked within the spectacle society, this is how one could summarise the subject of those contemporary dance performances that take a more reflexive stance. Indeed, a quite important part of contemporary dance is the general concern to appropriate concepts of visibility or perceptivity and it regards itself, implicitly or explicitly, as belonging to a counter- public. Many contemporary dance productions do not just rely on the medium of collective attention but try to re-articulate it because it is inevitably ‘infected’ by the dominant ways that contemporary mass media communication uses to raise and direct sensory perception. A contemporary dance performance that takes into account this simple fact therefore develops various necessarily risky tactics to re-negotiate the socialised nature of sensory attention. Some of the better known procedures are the use of video cameras and digital images, the slowing down or - on the contrary - the speeding up of movements, the sheer repetition of poses or gestures, and the performance of nearly unperceivable micro-movements. These and related forms of ‘public body work’ try to destabilise the dominant modes of perception, which all of us are familiar with through contact with contemporary mass media. They do not question the bourgeois model of arts participation, but take it up as a possibility to create forms of collective attention that differ from the ones generated by television, Hollywood film, or glamour photography.

Contemporary mass media communication, in the broad sense, has become the primary societal frame for the production of public attention in all societal domains, including politics. This is not surprising, since to raise public attention and to create social visibility is the principal commodity of the mass media system. As such, this system equals an attention regime, a capturing machine that tries to raise, fix and frame sensory perception. The performing arts cannot avoid reproducing or disputing the dominance of the mass media since they work with the very same medium of sensory attention, albeit in a collective and so-called live situation Yet it is not this “live” character as such matters, but the way one deals with the collectivisation of sensory perception - that is: with the principal medium of the performing arts. The decisive point is to take up, or not, the at once contingent and conditional collective attention during a live performance as the possible foreshadowing of a community yet to come - of a togetherness that may allude to the shared visibility within a community without secrets.


Arnold, Matthew: Culture and Anarchy, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006.
Bürger, Peter: Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1984.
Elias, Norbert: The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Blackwell 2000.
Kant, Immanuel: The Critique of judgment, London: Dover Publications 2005.
Levine, Lawrence (1988): Highbrow/lowbrow. The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America, Boston: Harvard University Press.
Luhmann, Niklas (1990): “The Medium of Art”, in: idem: Essays on Self-Reference, New York: Columbia University Press, pp. 215-227.
Luhmann, Niklas (2000): The Reality of the Mass Media, Oxford: Polity Press.
Rancière, Jacques: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1998.
Rancière, Jacques: The Politics of Aesthetics, London/New York: Continuum 2006.
Smithuijsen, Cas (2001): Een verbazende stilte. Klassieke muziek, gedragsregels en sociale controle in de concertzaal, Amsterdam: BoekmanI stichting.

1 | Matthew Arnold: Culture and Anarchy, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2006.
2 | Cf. Immanuel Kant: The Critique of Judgment, London: Dover Publications 2005.
3 | I Cf. Norbert Elias: The Civilizing Process, Oxford: Blackwell 2000.
4 | Cf. Peter Bürger: Theory of the Avant-Garde, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1984.
5 | Cf. Jacques Rancière: Disagreement: Politics and Philosophy, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press 1998, and idem: The Politics of Aesthetics, London/New York: Continuum 2006.