Academic journal article About Performance

Rich Kids Can't Cry: Reflections on the Viewing Subject in Bali

Academic journal article About Performance

Rich Kids Can't Cry: Reflections on the Viewing Subject in Bali

Article excerpt

Why do authences still seem so elusive? After all, vast sums are spent on surveying, measuring, interrogating and even monitoring authences. One problem is that the term has such diverse and contradictory referents that it resembles an empty signifier. So different theoretical frameworks define authences in different and incommensurate ways. The outcome is a Babel of strident and conflicting claims. What additional complexities arise when we study other peoples as authences, where presuppositions vary as to what spectacle, theatre and media do, what watching entails, and so how viewing subjects understand their experience? I draw on detailed ethnography of Balinese to examine how theatre spectators and television viewers reflect on their practices. So doing indicates how culturally and historically specific our supposedly objective and universal analytical categories are. I concentrate primarily on television authences because the theorising on mass media authences raises questions about live' authences and because Balinese, at least up to the 1990s often used theatre to evaluate television watching and vice versa. I address two questions. Why has the study of authences proved so problematic? And what can we learn from the participants' own understandings?

A THEORETICAL INTERLUDE

One way to think of media and performance studies is hermeneutically as the problem of the surplus of meaning, which cannot be contained at the point of production, distribution or reception. Because it is difficult to know much about how people engage with, use or ignore what they watch, much armchair theorising is devoted to pre-interpreting the range of possible received meanings so as to circumvent undecidability and contingency. Between production and reception closure is achieved through positing devices, such as "the text" or "ideology" and "interpellation" (Althusser 1971) or "preferred readings" (Hall 1980) respectively. Crucially, each postulates the key to fixing meaning through abstractions in effect interpretable only by scholars, so neatly anticipating not only what is actually going on, but also how the participants themselves understand this. For this reason, detailed ethnographic study of production, performance and reception is less a supplement to a corpus of questionable knowledge, but a fundamental challenge. In what follows, I outline why £the authence' is a critically useless, if necessary, fiction; and then explore some possibilities of ethnography.

To what does 'authence' refer? While spectators in theatres, concert halls and sporting venues are notionally identifiable, broadcast authences have proved slippery. Are religious congregations, meetings, witnesses of an accident or an argument authences? And what happens if non-manifest entities are the primary authence like Bakhtin's superaddressee (1986) or Balinese gods? What kind of object are authences? And which properties essential, which contingent?1 Are they objects at all or relationships? Grotowski's definition of theatre (1968, 32) "What takes place between spectator and actor" suggests the latter. Relationships are situational, context-dependent, variously understandable by participants, so kaleidoscopic and unpindownable.2 Should we therefore conclude that argument about authences largely reduces to slippage between divergent usages?

The issue of reference is important. The philosopher Quine has famously argued that theories are underdetermined by evidence (1953). That is, theory is so powerful that different theories can explain any set of facts. Conversely facts are too weak fully to determine explanations. Even if the term 'authence' had an unambiguous reference, people's activities can be made to justify contradictory explanations or interpretations. So whether spectators are active or passive, agents or victims, depends in significant part on the analytical framework employed, rather than on unequivocal evidence. To complicate matters, authences are often a means to access something else: what people, or particular social categories (the working classes, women), think or feel; how cthe text' or ideology works upon the bourgeoisie or the masses and so forth. …

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