Participation Now

Pondering participation

Is there a profound contradiction between subjective expression and effective political deliberation, such that the first type of participation should be described as superficial? 

Mike Mowbray
17 December 2013

Emphasis on broad social participation in media production, envisioned as a corrective or (utopian) alternative to broadcast models, really came into its own in the 1960s – a decade for which “participatory media”, as Zoë Druick phrased it, might be presented as “a representative semantic figure”.

An iconic text in this regard, Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s 1970 essay ‘Constituents of a Theory of the Media,’ which combines a strong dash of technological utopianism with a more considered account of the capacity-building and potentially transformative collective work of participatory media production, sets the stage for later work. There, Enzensberger, on the one hand, points to the technical potential of emergent communication technology as ‘reversible,’ allowing the juxtaposition of transmitter and receiver roles. On the other, he envisions a “mass self-regulating learning process” facilitated by the networked organization of a plurality of individuals and groups, and rooted in “productive work and learning processes” in which could be generated “a new kind of political self-understanding and behaviour”. 

In this context we may begin to differentiate superficial modes of participation from intensive modes. In a superficial mode, participation is reduced to the possibility for each and all to circulate contributions to an imagined communicative agora, as in the case of some incautious accounts of networked and mobile communications technologies. Jean Baudrillard, critiquing Enzensberger in the 1980’s, warns that a merely technical switching of transmitter/receiver roles is likely to produce no more than “a kind of personalized amateurism, the equivalent of Sunday tinkering on the periphery of the system.” “[T]he possession of a TV set or a camera,” is, in the ideological milieu of a consumer capitalist society, “no more significant than the possession of a refrigerator or a toaster.”

Such critiques of technological determinism, and of the failure to account for ideological barriers to the achievement of radical-democratic communicative ideals, find a particular contemporary expression in the work of Jodi Dean. Dean has sought to describe how ‘communicative capitalism’ both produces and thrives upon “a fantasy of participation” in which our individual desire to see our contributions take a place in the circulation of content online works to displace real world struggles, an effect which both “secures and protects the space of ‘official politics’,” and stands as a disavowal of “a more fundamental political disempowerment.” Even though we may be cognizant of how far short of agonistic or deliberative ideals (and political effectivity) our social media behaviour falls, we nonetheless act as though compelled to make our online presence known; the technology acts as a fetish, “helping us understand ourselves as active”.  

This vision of superficial ‘participation’, or the fetish of the ‘contribution’, is familiar to me too from my interest in the underground press of the 1960s and 1970s. Historian John McMillian notes a contrast in the US underground press between two models of organization: one in which communal, anti-hierarchical forms of organization and collective production were the norm, and another in which papers acted as ‘clearinghouses’ making their pages available as a site for the relatively unmediated diffusion of hip and movement perspectives.

In the latter case, advocates bristled at the assertion of any need for collective accountability or editorial standards tied to judgments of quality or political considerations – embracing an intransigent expressive individualism. The ideological parallels are perhaps apparent between the latter mode and the way in which the ‘contribution’ stands in metonymically for the participatory ideal in the context of a new media environment four decades later that “enables millions not simply to access information but to register their points of view, to agree or disagree, to vote, and to send messages,” one in which, as Dean puts it, “[t]he sheer abundance of messages […] is offered as an indication of democratic potential.

Clearly, as Nico Carpentier has argued, “the signifier ‘participation’ hides many different meanings”. Polemical critiques of the notion, such as Dean’s or those of the Marxist media theorist Christian Fuchs, who warns of the “idealiz[ation] of small-scale production” alongside the fetishization of the contribution, focus our attention on very real problems in how we seek to identify clearly the nature and normative (political) value of participation in different contexts.

The polemics at least have the virtue of calling upon us all to attend to two interrelated levels of impact that alternative media projects might have: 1) subjective individual and immediate group-level impacts for participants in production, and 2) broad social and political impacts related to public-formation, group representation, political deliberation, contestation and social movement formation/mobilization.

Unpacking these problems (such as how to reconcile normative commitment to intensive modes of participation with large-scale representative politics) would require a much longer intervention – but I hope that drawing them out in this way is at least a spur to thinking about them!

Works cited

Baudrillard, Jean. 1972/1981. “Requiem for the Media.” In For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Saint Louis, MO: Telos Press. 

Dean, Jodi. 2008. “Communicative Capitalism: Circulation and the Foreclosure of Politics,” in M Boler (ed.), Digital Media and Democracy: Tactics in Hard Times. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press. 

Druick, Zoë. 2010. “Participatory Media: Lessons from the 1960s.” Jeunesse: young people,texts, cultures 2(2): 120-127.

Enzensberger, Hans Magnus. 1970/1974. “Constituents of a Theory of the Media.” In The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics and the Media, edited by Michael Roloff. New York: Seabury Press. 

Fuchs, Christian.  2010. “Alternative Media as Critical Media.” European Journal of Social Theory 13 (2): 173-192. 

McMillian, John. 2011. Smoking Typewriters: the sixties underground press and the rise of alternative media in America. New York: Oxford University Press.

This contribution has been commissioned for an editorial partnership between openDemocracy and Participation Now, a project that aims to support exploration, innovation and debate about contemporary forms of participatory public engagement. Participation Now is an Open University project supported by OpenLearn, the Creating Publics project in the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, and the RCUK-funded Public Engagement with Research Catalyst project. Explore the initiatives here.


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