Limits of Participation
What follows is one of two short essays published to frame “Re:Group: Beyond Models of Consensus,” an exhibit at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center in New York City that, through a series of installations, examined participation as a dominant paradigm structuring social interaction, art, activism, architecture, and the economy (the exhibit also served as the umbrella for the second incarnation of the Collaborative Futures book sprint). To honor their philosophical differences and avoid subsuming conflict in pursuit of consensus, the curators of Re:Group released diverging statements. We've included the second statement, which presents a forceful critique of “participationism” to highlight one strategy, uncompromising as it may be, for retaining the heterogeneity inherent in any collaboration.
These days everyone—individuals, corporations, governments and DIY punks—idealizes participation. Many believe that when horizontal structures of participation replace top-down mechanisms of control, hierarchy and authoritarianism, this will eliminate apathy and disenfranchisement. While we acknowledge that distributed systems are proven and powerful tools for dismantling certain monolithic structures, we question an unalloyed faith in participation. As co-curators of the show we fought the temptation to simply celebrate the subversive potential of networked collaborations. Instead, we sought to critically analyze the contours of this emergent ideology, and to re-evaluate refusal, non-engagement, antagonism, and disagreement as fundamental to a participatory framework.
We are all the time besieged to Participate! Choose! Vote! Share! Join! And Like! And yet, we are all, already, integrated into structures of participation (whether we “like” it or not). We worry that a veneer of engagement only obscures deep flaws in the participation paradigm. Too often, it seems, progressives believe that power operates exclusively from above, that command and control emanate from some centralized, closed authority. It is no wonder that many latch on to notions of openness, transparency, and participation as radical ends in themselves; however we must not fetishise process over product.
Participatory frameworks are not in and of themselves politically significant, nor is power limited to distant and impersonal structures. Power is diffuse and distributed, operating through us and on us; participation therefore can turn into a vector for dominant ideologies as easily as it can liberate.
If participatory frameworks are to have any meaningful political consequence or activist import, they must intervene on some object, to operate in service of an end. Conflict is a necessary result of such collaboration, and a key driving force within it. Current conversations around participation idealize harmony and unison, but we ask whether synthesizing perspectives and valorizing consensus might actually subsume dissenting viewpoints, through the tyranny of compromise and the rule of the lowest common denominator. From this view, we fear a disavowal of power rather than an honest discussion about it.
And so we pass on politesse, and draw a line in the sand. We aren't interested in raising questions, exploring models of participation or experiments in collaboration. We take a position: that participationism plagues us. More than dismantling or distributing power, we've invisibilized and extended it. An intervention is in order, and we offer practices and programming that contribute to this conversation: foregrounding the contours and boundaries inherent in participation, the contradictions and conflicts in a fruitful collaboration.
—Not An Alternative, 2010