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Participating with objects

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True names have existed for millennia and can be traced through many cultural histories. What is the relevance of this process of correctly naming to practices of empowerment?

Tehseen Noorani
4 September 2013

“…the name is the thing…and the true name is the true thing. To speak the name is to control the thing.” Mr. Underhill, in  Ursula le Guin, (1964) The Rule of Names. 

On Sattins Island, to name something correctly – to speak its ‘true name’ – is to achieve absolute power over it. What Ursula le Guin explores in her short story of Mr. Underhill, and through her more expansive Earthsea trilogy, offers insights for analyses of mastery and power. Those of us interested in participatory democracy can feel uncomfortable with the idea of using labels to differentiate in general, as though doing so somehow disturbs a presumption of equality or sameness between us. Often our attention is on bringing together, uniting and emphasizing commonalities we share.

However, if naming has power, perhaps rather than refusing to name, we should incorporate a deeper appreciation of the power of naming into our understanding of how participation ‘works’. The idea of true names offers a clue – they only ‘work’ because they accurately describe a thing – whether a person, an animal, an object or a relation. True names have existed for millennia and can be traced through many cultural histories. What is the relevance of this process of correctly naming to practices of empowerment?

To participate is to act together, and creating knowledge is a vital aspect of acting – we experiment with what we can do and through this we learn and grow. Most of us would agree that participatory knowledges emerge through dialogue and contestation between actors. By reflecting upon naming, as a process that involves differentiating, distancing and the creation of boundaries, we can explore the mechanics of the dialogues that drive such processes. From the perspective of an agent of participation, rather than seeking to unite with others, learning and experimenting requires objectification, the creation of boundaries both between and within selves, and ultimately coming to name parts that work upon each other in moments of participation.

Let us explore these ideas a little more, and then think through some examples. If to ‘objectify’ means to treat as an object, this includes endowing with the corresponding power of an object. We might say that the process of objectification is about creating objects that have the power to ‘object’. They have boundaries; they push back. This is the beginning of a relationship that yields knowledge. In a sense this is obvious – without objects we cannot act, for acting implies both to act upon something, and to be acted upon by something. To be provoked, be advised by and control others; to shape, steer, break and make requests of others – all these permutations presuppose a distance that distinguishes subjects of participation from the objects that they encounter.

Objectification begins by being able to name the ‘other’. Once we distinguish that which we can act on – and which can act on us – from ourselves, we are able to interact with it, developing our relations with it in a dance of agency – first we affect it, then we register how it affects us back, and then we affect it again and so on.[i] Naming is a powerful tool of participation because it is a way of creating an object and/or fixing the boundaries between subject and object. We often get to know objects by engaging with them and learning more about their limits. Like how children play with their toys, we understand and trust an object only once we’ve broken it, thereby overstepping its limits. Taking such a material approach to knowledge helps to avoid opposing the world ‘out there’ with the mind ‘within’, but instead to focus on the project of better understanding the relations in which we find ourselves always and already participating. The goal is not for all parts to become equally powerful by flattening out relations of power. It is for the parties to be able to work upon one another, creating more powerful relations, increasing both individual and collective capacities to affect and be affected.

Wittgenstein demonstrated that there is no such thing as a private language; to communicate is necessarily to connect. We develop our shared languages in many ways – naming a mutual concern; naming an illness, condition or affective state we resist; naming ourselves as a point of resistance or transformation; naming that thing between us (‘thank God someone said it!’) and other such objects that can then be worked upon; naming the boundaries of these objects; naming our strengths and capacities; naming the safe space where we can do our work. In this sense, participation is not just about naming ourselves as a given or emerging unity, but about working upon the myriad differences outside, between and within ourselves. It is about the creation of somethings, just as much as it is about the emergence of someones. The act of naming delineates, defines, bounds and distinguishes what can be worked upon and with. From fantasy to folklore to the rules of democratic parliaments, all cultures are full of examples of how naming something allows us to get a hold over it. In pursuit of equality we may prefer to not make distinctions, but this can be dangerous. To refuse to name can leave certain influences unacknowledged and thereby obfuscated. It is important for participatory interventions to be designed in ways that enable all of us to be able challenge the claims to equality that prevent effective knowledge construction.

We can witness boundary-making in the countless participation handbooks and manuals littering the field of participation. The boundaries or distances between subject and object can be temporal, spatial, material, ideational, cognitive or affective. For instance, the juries of citizens’ juries are separated from the experts that testify before them in specific and time-bound slots. Juries are effective, not in spite of being, but because they are, insulated from the outside world when discussing issues and deepening their shared knowledge-base. Jury members understand themselves as neutral and non-partisan, sorting and sifting the opinions of the other, more interested, parties. The popular participatory technique of Open Space Technology demands that participants find themselves engaged in pedagogic activity at all times, thereby delineating the possibilities of their relationship to their environment – according to the ‘Law of Two Feet’, they must not sit idly. The mental healthcare technique of Open Dialogue illustrates the empowering ‘openness’ that emerges from proscribing - saying where and when the person at the centre of concern cannot be talked about.[ii] Here, rather than speak openly whenever and wherever they want, participants must save their communication about the person experiencing distress for sessions where the person is present. In this way, the safe space of Open Dialogue is maintained only by closing down the possibility of speech elsewhere. In all three of these examples, the arcs of participatory processes both presume and create crucial boundaries. The boundaries are crucial because they prevent collapses into united subjectivities and spaces, while allowing knowledge to be generated by the different components that interact.

One of the challenges of participatory initiatives is that while participants may be equally capable of learning, how much knowledge each participant has at any time will be different. Where this challenge is met, different forms of expertise can be celebrated and most fully be brought into contact with one another. In one UK-based example, members of Bristol’s mental health service user performance troupe, the Stepping Out Theatre Company[iii] spoke about how they have developed a series of strategies and techniques for overcoming difficult problems that emerge in the course of planning and performing – a kind of a science of engaging with, while perhaps not solving, problems – a ‘problematology’. In another example, the Mad Hatters of Bath[iv] reported how a particular member who was prone to highs and lows of mood discovered that they were very good at intensely ‘casing the space’ at participatory events for a few hours, but then would need to rest and recover so as not to burn out. Rather than understand these two groups as correcting or compensating for deficiencies under some kind of ‘deficit model’ of mental distress, we can understand them as creating new techniques and capacities that all of us are able to learn from, adapt and adopt in our own ways. The knowledge they gain is useful to individual members and also to the group as a whole. It is a practical knowledge that exists in a range of capacities.

Participation demands that we keep things open, in order that we may move forward by embracing contingencies as they unfold. However, participatory initiatives that are too open do not achieve very much – at the very least, we might agree on a minimal set of stakes, concerns and/or problems, which then has a crucial grounding role. This suggests an ecological view of participation. Too many objects can leave actors uncertain and reactive. Too few objects can lead to the participatory ensemble being prematurely celebrated as a unity, but one that understands neither itself (including all its internal differences) nor its capacities. The subtle craft of participation requires assembling sufficiently rich ecologies for the various agents of participation to begin building knowledges of their relations and their individual and collective capacities. The goal of objectification is not to simply create objects but to engage them – both to work upon them and to be worked upon by them. We create objects for the purpose of getting work done. As Mr. Underhill explains, naming is not an end, a solution, but a means for us to attain greater control over our situations.

It has been four decades since Argyris noted that in all learning processes, the creation of objects, names and boundaries is generational. First, we work with particular ecologies of relations and objects, and then we overturn them and reinstate better ones.[v] We never fully understand our relations with the objects of experience. They continually surprise us and whenever they do, we wish we knew ‘then’ what we know ‘now’. Objectification is permanently replacing itself as the beginning and the end of cycles of inquiry. Refusing to objectify stalls effective participatory learning by preventing objects from being able to push back. On the contrary, attending to how objectification occurs, through such techniques as separating, forming and testing boundaries, distancing and naming helps us in clarifying and illustrating participation as a craft. Participation then is not simply about opposing reification in the name of something else. The good does not operate according to different laws than the bad. We can begin by recognising that if objectification lurks at the heart of power, then it must also be at the heart of our practices of empowerment.


[i] Pickering, A. (1995) The Mangle of Practice: Time, agency, and science, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[ii] Seikkula, J., Aaltonen, J., Alakare, B., Haarakangas, K., Keranen, J. and Lehtinen, K. (2006) ‘Five-year experience of first-episode nonaffective psychosis in open-dialogue approach: Treatment principles, follow-up outcomes, and two case studies’, Psychotherapy Research, vol. 16(2), pp. 214-228, available at  http://bit.ly/Am67HE <last accessed January 30th 2013>

[iii] Interview with Stepping Out Theatre Company, Bristol, April 2012, see http://www.steppingouttheatre.co.uk <last accessed January 30th 2013>

[iv] Interview with Mad Hatters of Bath, April 2012.

[v] Argyris, C. (1976) Increasing Leadership Effectiveness, New York: Wiley.


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This article is part of an editorial partnership called 'The Struggle for Common Life', which is the outcome of an AHRC funded project led by the Authority Research Network. The editorial partnership was funded by the University of Warwick and Plymouth University.

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