It seems that this March was a strange month. Around me, many friends went through something emotionally challenging, and I can add myself to the list. Indeed, for a few weeks, me and my partner suffered from terrible insomnias, leading to challenging days where we cruelly lacked energy and motivation. Sleepless nights can occur to anyone and at any given time, but this last period felt special, as if the stars had something to tell us… forcing us to acknowledge our state of mind, to be attuned, and sometimes even, to make changes.
Why, now? We’re sadly celebrating a year of Corona in our lives, but, at the same time, we learned how to live with it. So what has changed? I suspect an unconscious anxiety of returning to normalcy. Indeed, here in Israel, most of us have just been vaccinated and therefore soon able to go back to concerts, shows, friends, restaurants… in short, we are a few miles away from our big release. And all this, at the time of Passover (Pessah), the Jewish festival commemorating the Hebrews’ liberation from slavery! As a matter of fact, I was born on the first day of Pessah and therefore I feel very concerned and drawn to the concept of ‘freedom’.
And ‘freedom’ is a fashionable topic, lately. Trying to find inspiration for this text, I turned on my beloved radio France Inter and its rich programmation for ideas. I fell upon the interview of the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, known for being rather disobedient, precisely on the thematic of human rights and liberties in Corona times. For him, our current era is a time of consent and consensus, understandable when facing a sanitary threat. Given the exceptional circumstances of a life-endangering situation, it is only natural that we will consent to limitations or regulations reducing our freedom. I agree with Rancière, and I accept the restrictions because I feel they are here to protect us. Nonetheless, I don’t welcome with pleasure the need to show a green passport to be able to live freely.
Where the philosopher’s input interests me the most, is in his analytical and critical perpective on our current context, stressing out, for example, the pick of words in the expression ‘social distanciation’. Sadly, the latter has now entered the Corona vocabulary, being used and over-used by our leaders, and for Rancière, it delivers the wrong message. Indeed, it is clear that the danger of contamination comes from being very close to people physically, thus a ‘physical distanciation’ between bodies should be respected—this is far from what ‘social distanciation’ implies or suggests. Again, it is all in the nuances.
Actually, Rancière underlines that the concept of distanciation refers to a technique in Bertolt Brecht’s theatre, the distancing effect (Verfremdungseffekt). The technique consists in ‘distancing’ or ‘alienating’ the audience through different devices and preventing the viewers from empathizing with the story, being too involved emotionally or lost within a narrative. Brecht viewed his method as a tool to help spectators question and understand social contexts and relationships which, in his eyes is the main mission of the theater.
To accomplish the distancing effect, Brecht used many techniques: integrating moments of explanatory captions screened on stage, actors stepping out of their character and addressing the audience, decors that suggested no specific or familiar landscapes, or actors rearranging the set and exposing the backstage. Another example would be the narrator telling the crowd what was going to happen before it happened, limiting the emotional reactions. Unveiling the mechanisms of theatre served to remind viewers that they were participating in a performance.
Concluding the programme, Rancière cannot help but smile at the irony of using the same word ‘distanciation’ for opposite meanings: once, as a technique used as a protest tool in Brechtian theatre, and nowadays, as a consented reality of keeping our distance from each other.
I always thought performing arts were difficult to watch, and I enjoyed much more acting in a theatre group than seeing plays. I actually wonder if, perhaps, my reluctance to theatre as an audience, does not come from the discomfort of being that analytical observer. Yet, today I miss the possibility of being a physical audience and see a live performance.
Let’s therefore welcome the light at the end of the tunnel, and buy our tickets for the next Brecht’s play. We need it!
Until then, happy Passover,
> Jacques Rancière’s interview is here (in French)