This book is a set of five essays in response to Ranciere's earlier work "The Ignorant Schoolmaster." All of these pieces are tied together by Ranciere's attempt to overcome the dyad so often associated with modernist aesthetics of passive spectator/active seer. The title essay extends the concept set forth in "The Ignorant Schoolmaster" by suggesting that the knowledge gap between the educated teacher and the student should be given up in place for an "equality of knowledge." The goal of this is not to turn everyone into a scholar, however. As Ranciere says, "It is not the transmission of the artist's knowledge or inspiration to the spectator. It is the third that is owned by no one, but which subsists between them, excluding any uniform transmission, any identity of cause and effect" (15). This is by far the most cogent and understandable of the essays in the collection, and it offers an interesting suggestion in rethinking the space between the actor and viewer, teacher and student, or any other relationship. However, it struck me as the kind of idea most at home in the world of theory, one that might not be well-translated into praxis.
The second essay, "The Misadventures of Critical Thought," Ranciere criticizes the traditional role of the spectator by claiming that it, even though a mode of criticism itself, it "reproduces its own logic." He looks at photos from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Vietnam, by Martha Rosler and Josephine Meckseper. Some people do not want to view these graphic photographs, however that very refusal perpetuates and continues the logic of the war in the first place. Therefore, a critical stance toward the image needs to shift away from this approach toward the uncoupling of two logics, "the emancipating logic of capacity and the critical logic of collective inveiglement" (48).
The last essay, "The Pensive Image," sustains a further opening up between the formalist opposition of the active and passive. Ranciere argues for a shift - again, what he argues to be an emancipating shift - away from the "unifying logic of action" toward "a new status of the figure" (121). The end of pensiveness (of being, literally, "full of thought") lies between narration and expression, one the mode of the active artist, the other of the passive spectator who fixes upon the artistic vision in order to impart to it a kind of reality.
Like a lot of (post)modern Continental writing, Ranciere's writing can be elliptical, and his arguments somewhat hard to follow, perhaps because they are difficult to sustain, however engaging. I chose this because it was short enough and seemed like a suitable introduction to his body of work. The essays were interesting and provocatively argued, but sometimes they seemed less than original: for example, the title essay really seems to add nothing to the old breaking apart of the bipolar opposition of active and passive in theatre, art, and political conscientiousness; it recapitulates it nicely, but imports nothing new to the conversation. Those looking for ways to re-imagine issues in contemporary aesthetics will find something new here (as well as penetrating discussions of the poetry of Mallarme and the films of Abbas Kiarostami), but it will unnecessarily frustrate the casual reader.