In his analysis of the modern observer, Jonathan Crary explains, at a certain time, that he prefers to use the term observer instead of spectator: “I chose the term observer mainly due to its etymological resonance. Unlike spectare, the Latin root for spectator, the root of observer does not literally mean “to look at”. Spectator also transports specific connotations, especially in the cultural context of the 19th century, that I prefer to avoid – namely the reference to whom is a passive member of the audience of a show, art gallery or theatre” (CRARY, 1992:5). Contradicting even the general tone of his thesis, Crary treats the differences between observer and spectator as mere differences of conceptual figures and chooses the one that best applies to his arguments. Nevertheless, both spectator and observer (if we analyse them in detail) are two important positions of the experience that is necessary to take into account. The key point, in Crary’s analysis, is the idea that the observer (like the reader) is not only a function that concerns the specific field of images, or art, but rather a central position in the Western experience, whose permanent reorganisation (through visual devices, allegories, arenas, images, paintings, sculptures, architectures and other techniques) has really vast and complex implications, both in interior fields of subjectivity and in exterior fields of politics and other human relationships.
The problem resides in the fact that the same optical devices that seem to perform a better observer (cameras, microscopes and telescopes) also optimize a better spectator, passive beneficiary of the images produced. Observer and spectator are therefore not two mere functions to be chosen as synonyms. They are two of the most important positions of the modern experience, connected by what Jacque Ranciére calls – the paradox of the spectator in the text The Emancipated Spectator
The paradox of the spectator may also be placed in these terms: never like in modernity did one go so far in denouncing of the ignorant passivity of spectators. It strongly echoes with strong criticism of Plato to the spectator, that passive and ignorant sufferer of a show that only understands with an empirical vision. But also never like today so many positions of experience were reverted to the position of subject-spectator. More and more we spend our life sitting down, from chair to chair, from sofa to sofa: from the school benches to the computer chair at work; from the cinema to the television sofa. In car and plane trips, in concert halls, in the seats of the stadiums and in front of the Internet … everyday life is being lived changing positions of the spectator.
Guy Debord was one of the strongest voices in the expansion of the criticism and the demonization of the figure of the spectator: “the more man contemplates the less he is”. The position of spectator centres the experience on vision and vision separates and externalizes. This is for Debord the essence of the spectacle and it has as a consequence the inauthenticity of the human being. Remember that the “bad look” (evil eye) is that of the devil and comes from the Greek daiwn, which means “that which divides”. While the “good look” reunites, the “bad look” divides and separates human beings.
The overcoming of the spectator is central in Brecht as well as Artaud who pursued a constitution of the theatre outside the optic relationship. A theatre without spectators or even with spectators transmuted at the time in active participants of a collective performance. The term performance is in fact one of those that leads the fight against the culture of optic subject-spectator. It was adopted both in the performing arts as well as in the plastic arts and seeks to go against the spectators’ attraction for laziness in the viewing of a spectacle aiming for an active and participating experience as observers.
Is the solution for the cure of this “disease” (laziness) in expulsion of millions of passive spectators to the outside of their powerful spectacle devices (stadiums, televisions)? Or is it that criticism not understanding the complexity of the position of the subject-spectator is letting it evolve in underground paths and out of control?
Hanna Arendt was in the last decades one of the rare voices, in counter-trend, who searched to deepen the reflection about the spectator’s experience. Her coordinates of thought about the subject allow us to understand why it is that the subject-spectator became such a strong position of modern experience.
Between The Human Condition and The Life of the Mind, Arendt debates with Cato’s sentence that closes the first book and starts the second: “Never is he more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself”. 
Arendt notices that the word theoria emerges from the Greek word for spectators – theathai. This existence of an older meaning of the word, Arendt detects it in Diogenes Laërtius’ words: “Life is like a festival; just as some come to the festival to compete, some to ply their trade, but the best people come as spectators (theatai), so in life the slavish men go hunting for fame (doxa) or gain, the philosophers for truth” (ARENDT, 1978:105). What is unusual in this Diogenes sentence is the importance given to the earthly spectator in detriment of the heroic feat (fame). Nobility of the gesture of “spectator being” is for Arendt an enigma similar to Cato’s sentence. A noble and important action should be associated to the spectator being (theaths) that justifies having a supreme importance for the Greeks. But what important action is achieved by only “watching”?
Arendt therefore understands that the “non-active participation”, of those who only observe, allows the exercise of a function that became fundamental in the Greek polis – the exercise of judging. Judging not only the actors in the festival, but people in life, organised as we stated previously, in a representative living (understanding life as an enormous stadion where one acts for the Gods and for their judgment).
This means for Arendt that if theoria is what is produced by these spectators, than the thinkable end of theory (theatai) is more like the judgements of events than the contemplation and articulation of eternal and necessary truths. This interpretation of “theory” is closer to logos and of the sense ends up really clarifying how this matrix, centred on the visual, can be a driving force of experience. The exhilarating magic of theatrical representation (later achieved by the novel and the cinema) is that of being able that one individual, sitting on steps of stone, guided only by his eyes and ears and by his thought, is able to be “inside the play”. This strange connection (being “outside” and being “inside”) , the experience of the immersion of the spectator (in another present parallel to his present time) is so strong in modern times that do not stop appearing devices based on it.
Is it, echoing Cato, that we are never as active as when we are spectators? In the discussion with Lessing about Selbtsdenken, (own thought), Arendt defends another way of thinking – the independent thought (disinterested). The independent thought is not of the individual who, isolated, looks at the world in order to “harmonise himself with the world through thought” . Thought does not rise from the individual, but it is what takes him outside of himself: “The individual – that Lessing would say was created for action and not for reasoning – chooses such thought (independent) because he discovers in this thought another way of moving around in the world (ARENDT, 1955:9). This activity, Arendt does not justify by the means and ends to be achieved, but as an end in itself. “Getting out of oneself”, “reporting to”, it is the experience, it is a new beginning, it is an initium that is action so not to lose the thought.
The “disinterested thought” the getting out of oneself is completed in the position of the spectator as long as it is optimized by the full performance of the thought. Zizek calls this intense experience of the spectator, interpassivity.
The problem is that in the position of subject-spectator opposite forces act. Between the visual laziness of those who see soap operas or the intense performance of those who, are also motionless sitting on the sofa, watch an intellectually demanding David Lynch film conflicts the entire experience of the spectator. Man is never as active as when he is stopped but it is also possible that he is never annulled as much as on the sofa in front of the television. The battle is not won overcoming the spectator. It is fought in interpassivity. Echoing Cato it is a decisive battle because it is one of thought.
It would be arrogance to attribute to pre-historic art the responsibility of the birth of the spectator’s experience. The images carved on the stones and painted in the caves may even be taken as a device of spectacle because the past is always generous in receiving the forced interpretations of the present. What matters is that they are currently, still images endowed with strong potential of interrogation. Therefore they become one of the most valid challenges placed on the subject-spectator and on the deepening of the interpassive experience.