The book is a 'critique of' critique of the spectacle, described as the belief that the bombardment of images and spectacles has rendered democractic subjects passive and ignorant. Rancière sees this as a reaction to the breakdown of cause and effect in artistic intent, and relates it to the Victorian idea that the “fragile brains” of poor people were too easily influenced by and unable to comprehend consumer society. He argues that spectators are inherently active participants who interpret and recontextualise what they see to create meaning, and thus that art can map out a new 'topography' of possibilities for society regardless of the artist's intent.
The paradox of the spectator is defined thus: theatre cannot exist without spectators, but spectators are necessarily passive and ignorant. Theatrical theory has approached this paradox in two contrasting ways:
By using the metaphor of an ignorant schoolmaster who teaches “something that [he] does not know himself”, Rancière argues that the spectator is necessarily an active participant, interpreting what they see in the context of their existing knowledge.
Critical thought is exemplified by ironic melancholy on the left and fervent anti-democracy on the right, both arguing that any attempt to combat their “beast” merely empowers it. This comes from the Victorian belief that the “fragile brains” of poor people are incapable of comprehending consumer society: that they “do not know how to transform acquired knowledge into activist energy”. An emancipatory critique should instead try to break from this pattern, allowing for dissensus and the vision and action of people otherwise thought of as “without qualities”.
Through examples from art and philosophy the author attempts to sketch a shape of a dissensual “aesthetic community”. A point that comes up repeatedly is the separation between artistic intent and form, and the audience's political understanding of a work. Two examples are given of the indirectly political nature of art:
The classical use of intolerable images is: seeing the image prompts political understanding in me, and so I take action to stop this thing. Critique of the spectacle privileges the voice over images, positing that the bombardment of intolerable images has failed to cause political action because democratic individuals lack the knowledge to understand them. The author instead argues that images can be political tools: they “do not supply weapons for battle”, but “perhaps” create a new and unintended landscape of understandings and possibilities in their audiences.
A pensive image is a transitory one, one that draws attention to the “zone of indeterminacy between thought and non-thought, activity and passivity, […] art and non-art”. The aesthetic break from representational art is often described as the “happy model of the autonomy of art” free from representation, or else the “tragic model of the 'sublime'” where ideas are divorced from reality. Against this is the pensive image, representational yet having “tension between several nodes of representation” and resisting clear understanding.