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spectator John Berger opened his well-known BBC television series Ways of Seeing (1972) by noting that ‘it is seeing which establishes our place in the surrounding world.’ His comment stresses the most important presupposition about the activity of spectators: spectating creates and reinforces our social, political, and even bodily place in the world. In the late nineteenth century new media technologies, especially the cinema, called attention to the role of the audience in creating meaning — not merely understanding messages. As Walter Benjamin expressed it in the 1920s, ‘Then came film and burst this prison-world asunder by the dynamite of the tenth of a second, so that now, in the midst of its far-flung ruins and debris, we calmly and adventurously go travelling.’ The cinema expressed the spectators' desires to see more and go farther.

This conception of the spectator is a relatively recent invention, because before the late nineteenth century most analyses focused on the aesthetic object rather than the specific mechanisms of reception within each individual spectator. For example, to modern readers Aristotle's discussion about catharsis might seem to focus on spectators, but his interest was in particular dramatic strategies rather than in the importance of seeing per se. Likewise, Bacon and Locke opened the Enlightenment's interest in spectating by arguing for a visual accounting of the world, but the Enlightenment movement sought edification from objects in the world — not by studying how people view the world.

In the twentieth century, the new interest in how spectators understand was epitomized in research for the US Pentagon during World War II. The army commissioned behavioural studies of how well soldiers understood and accepted military propaganda. In those studies, researchers showed propaganda films (like the ‘Why We Fight’ series directed by Frank Capra) to new US Army inductees, to determine what effect the films had on the new soldiers. The studies initiated ‘media effects’ research. The films sought to convince soldiers that this was indeed a ‘good cause’ in spite of enormous opposition to entering the war and significant pro-German sentiment. The studies concluded that the soldiers did not understand the films and were left bemused. The films contained too much historical contextualization for the audiences to understand, and the researchers argued that the messages needed to be simplified. Before these studies, the role a spectator played in the creation of meaning was considered secondary to the actual message. After these studies, the role and experience of spectators became a major concern of social scientists and of many humanities disciplines as well. Scholars, like John Fiske, now investigate precisely how particular audiences get the ‘wrong’ message, but a message that is particularly useful for local socio-political needs. The spectator is seen as having an active role in creating meaning, rather than functioning merely as a passive viewer.

Examining popular notions of the spectator's role throughout the twentieth century, we can see a shift from a bodily, social experience to an isolated visual experience. One of the earliest examples of the earlier type of bodily spectating was Hale's Tours, which appeared in the late nineteenth century. Hale was an American fireman turned impresario; his spectacles and tours began as part of exhibitions and World's Fairs. In his Tours, the spectators would enter a pavilion and buy a train ticket; they then entered a railroad car which was open on one side. The train moved back and forth on uneven tracks in a dark tunnel. The wall facing towards the open side was a continuous screen. As the train began to shake, the films showed the countryside or city streets. Often a tour guide would lecture during the adventure. The unevenly laid tracks heightened the illusion, which was so overwhelming that frequently passengers would yell at pedestrians to get out of the way. One passenger who went to the same show week after week was quoted as saying that he was waiting to see if the conductor would make a mistake so he could see a train wreck. Strangely, the films were shot both from the cowcatchers and from other locations on the train; these different views were then edited together without regard for a continuous point of view. The visual films taken alone make no sense, but in the context of the entire bodily experience, the spectators did not notice the cinematic discontinuities.

Although cinema heightened the awareness of the spectator's activities, it also effaced previous spectacles that involved more synaesthetic and bodily experiences, though theatre-going was still a social, group experience. As television became the dominant medium, the popular concern was that the spectator had become more passive and isolated. In the last decade of the twentieth century, with new technologies that stress ‘virtual realities’, interactivity, and connections through telecommunication, our view of the spectator's role is again undergoing a shift to a more bodily, social, active role.

While the twentieth century saw the rise in the importance of the spectator, the present century will introduce new formations of spectating that go beyond ways of seeing immersive bodily interactions. The sense of sight will no longer be synonymous with spectating, and socio-political control through participation will become much more specific to individuals and particular demographics. The notion of ‘the’ spectator may be superseded by ‘a’ spectating situation, and the emphasis on a singular response to a mass media visual spectacle will appear anachronistic.

Craig Saper


Staiger, J. (2000) Perverse Spectators: the practices of film reception. New York University Press, Chicago.
Taylor, M. C. (with a forward by Jack Miles ) (1997) Hiding.Univerisity of Chicago Press, Chicago.

See also cinematography; illusions; virtual reality.
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Spectator. The most famous periodical of Anne's reign appeared daily between March 1711 and December 1712, and was briefly revived in 1714. It was reprinted regularly throughout the 18th cent. Professing to be ‘above party’, the Spectator's essays on social, moral, literary, or philosophical themes, mostly written by Addison and Steele, subtly promoted Whig values, Macaulay's portrait of a Tory being clearly influenced by the character of Sir Roger de Coverley.

J. A. Downie

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spec·ta·tor / ˈspekˌtātər/ • n. a person who watches at a show, game, or other event. DERIVATIVES: spec·ta·to·ri·al / ˌspektəˈtôrēəl/ adj. ( rare ).

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spec·tate / spekˈtāt/ • v. [intr.] be a spectator, esp. at a sporting event: an entire defense starts to spectate like fans in the stands.

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