I’ve been working on this for along time, and the idea is still evolving, so please be patient. Constructive comments are welcome.
I want to do away with the word “audience.” Instead, recently, I’ve been using the word “experiant” to signify the individual attending or taking in a performance, live or otherwise. (Performance here is very broadly construed, but in my initial thinking applied primarily to the arts.) I want to move towards a new language that makes no assumptions on the part of the person(s) experiencing something–a painting, a lecture, a play, a film, a concert. More commonly used terms, including “audience” and “viewer,” are unfortunately not only inherently limited in their scope, but also inaccurate for many people. While Spanish has its publico,* English lacks a good word for someone experiencing an event that does not explicitly require the use of certain senses, which that someone may or may not have or use. In English, “the public” has additional connotations that go beyond experiencing something to indicating a shared, possibly class-based demographic, and this baggage makes it similarly inappropriate. “Audience” both assumes an ear-hearing public and places emphasis on a normalized kind of hearing, not taking into account various forms of Deaf hearing. “Viewer” likewise assumes and requires eyesight in order to be an appropriately functioning term.
Experiant assumes nothing on the part of the individual. Unlike “participant,” it requires or prescribes nothing in terms of ability or disability, or action on the part of the individual. Clearly, experiant has some limitations. If I write of someone ear-hearing music, zie is still an auditor. If I write of an individual seeing a painting with zir eyes for the first time, that person is still a viewer. But if I write about the people who go to a play, then experiant may be just the right word: after all, an eye-seeing person with hearing disabilities may be experiencing the play through SL interpretation, as well as all of the other visual elements of the production; and a person who does not use ear-hearing may still experience and enjoy music through other forms of embodied hearing and visual signifiers. An individual who has visual disabilities experiences these kinds of events differently, often using ear-hearing to understand motion on stage or at a concert, or through the descriptions of an interpreter or companion. The term is, I believe, appropriate for film and other kinds of cultural experiences as well: not everyone who reads my work necessarily uses eye-seeing or ear-hearing to experience the film scores I analyze in my work, and it would be inappropriate for me to assume that film-goers are always ear-hearers or eye-seers.
I also want to mark the difference between what English and ESL instructions term “naive” and “knowledgeable” or “experienced” and their application to “experiant.” These terms are most often used in regard to reading: someone is a “naive” reader and might miss metaphor or deeper meaning (Pamuk describes a “completely naive reader” as one who “always reads texts as an autobiography.”** See also http://www.beaugrande.com/UniversityStudentsNaiveReaders.htm). In film, there is the concept of the naive or experienced “viewer.” I think this can easily be translated into concepts of the “naive experiant” and the “knowledgeable experiant” (to avoid the somewhat silly-sounding “experienced experiant”). Just as we would previously have said that a student who has never seen, read, or heard Shakespeare comes to a film of Hamlet as a “naive viewer,” we would now term zir a “naive experiant.” The term works as well for music and what is casually termed “visual art.”
Or is this going too far? Is calling someone an “audience member” or saying that “the audience hears….sees…..the Lone Ranger gallop away” ingrained and colloquial to the point that new language isn’t necessary?
* My thanks to Rosemary Feal for pointing this out to me.
** Guest Book Review: “The Naive and Sentimental Novelist,” by Oronte Churm (http://tinyurl.com/86tqtww)