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Cayley Sorochan | The Participatory Complex

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In my thesis project, The Participatory Complex, I examine how participation has emerged as an ideological concept. Over the past 15 years, interest in ‘participation’ as an ideal mode of social relation has proliferated across a wide expanse of cultural, economic and political spaces. The currency of the concept is in part related to the spread of digital network technologies and the opportunities for interactivity and user-generated content that they enable. In a context in which participation is restructuring social relations in a variety of spaces that at the same time are not incompatible with the core elements of capitalist exploitation, the status of participation as a radical concept must be questioned. My dissertation explores how participation functions ideologically in three different domains including social movements, the workplace, and arts and culture.

    In chapter one of my thesis I describe my approach to ideology critique. In order to approach participation as ideology, I draw on the Lacanian psychoanalytic theories developed by Slavoj Žižek. Instead of delineating ‘good’ or ‘genuine’ instances of participation from those that could be considered false or inauthentic, I argue that regardless of whether or not participation involves democratic processes it implies a particular structure of enjoyment that maintains similarities across disparate practices. While ‘participation’ in the electoral system or reality entertainment implies very different practices and levels of control over process than does participation in an Occupy Wall Street general assembly, all three practices mobilize similar values in the construction of desire. What interests me is not so much the concrete practices of participatory decision making, which vary widely and differ in effectiveness from context to context, but on the moments when participation is accepted as an ideology and the negative consequences this may pose for radical organizing at the level of political subjectivity.

    In the remainder of chapter one I map out the implicit values invoked by the term. The ‘participatory complex,’ as I define it, may include: a valuation of activity over passivity; the privileging of procedure or structure over end goals; a desire for immediacy and anti-representational attitudes; the privileging of face-to-face encounters or bodily co-presence; an orientation towards inclusiveness and pluralism; a will to consensus; and discourses of empowerment through personalization. Drawing on these values of the participatory complex, in the remainder of the dissertation I seek to articulate the particular fantasies of participation that fueled each of my chosen sites, along with their symptoms, in order to clarify the limits of participation as a discourse of radical transformation.

    In chapter two, “Participation in Activism,” I analyze three sites of social movement organization: the adoption of the Port Huron statement by Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in the early 1960s, the Occupy Wall Street (OWS) general assemblies of 2011, and the weekly congresses of the Coalition Large de l’Association Syndicale pour une Solidarité Étudiante (CLASSE) during the 2012 Quebec student strike. These three sites involved participatory decision-making structures and were guided to varying degrees by participation as an ideological principle. The aim of this chapter is to present conflicting histories of participation as ideology within activism, the first situated in democratic theory and fueling both SDS and OWS, and the second situated within syndicalist thought and motivating the practices of the CLASSE. I argue that in the case of OWS particular participatory values produced an understanding of politics that was primarily dialogical rather than antagonistic. OWS exhibited a structure of enjoyment oriented towards uncovering hidden operations of power within the movement itself, which ultimately undermined its ability to mobilize against economic inequality. In the case of the Quebec student strike, participation remained a core component of organization, yet at the level of ideology, it was overshadowed by syndicalist principles of direct action, solidarity, organization based on distinctly defined common interests, and the maintenance of a permanent relation of force with the government. These principles appear to have tempered participation as ideology enabling CLASSE to pose a significant challenge to the politics of austerity.

    In chapter three, “Participation at work,” I analyze two sites of participatory production practices: the lean production model of work team participation introduced into the North American auto industry in the 80s, and the open conference phenomenon of “bar camps” that began in the IT industry in 2005. The primary purpose of this chapter is to relate the valuation of activity in participation to that of productivity in capitalist enterprises, and to explore the contradictions that ensue if participation in this context continues to be understood as a liberating concept. Here I research the history of participation as a management technique that attempts to overcome fundamental divisions in relation to class interests. The predominant characteristic of participation as ideology in this domain is an image of social and economic transformation that bypasses or contains outright antagonism and conflict in favour of personal growth, education, and communication. Bar camps exemplify the logic of participatory knowledge production and dissemination, allowing me to explore the ideological dimensions of network politics in a context that involves both market and non-market applications of knowledge. This site is an example of the explicit extension of participatory social structures from online to offline “face-to-face” spaces that nevertheless remain highly integrated with online technologies.

    Chapter four, “Participation in Crowd Culture,” treats the popular trend of city festivals, including the yearly all-night art event, Nuit Blanche as it has unfolded in Montreal. In relation to cultural events, participation is a concept that indicates a blurring of the lines between production and consumption, audience and performers, spectatorship and exhibitionism. This elision results in new notions of audience as the crowd itself becomes central to the meaning and enjoyment of the event. Here, participation generally indicates an opportunity to contribute, to express oneself, or the chance to integrate into a network or community. Through this site I explore the function of participation in the neoliberal model of the creative city. The image of the urban subject that emerges – always connected, seeking stimulation, actively contributing to culture and the economy – may help to define the contours of the new expectations and demands surrounding civic participation.

    The concluding chapter poses the question as to the nature of a meaningful political act in the context of participation as ideology and seeks to elaborate the ideal subject of participation implied by this ideology. In order to clarify the anti-political operation of participatory tropes and to suggest an alternative framework for interrogating the ideological foundations of networked culture, I explore a number of philosophical approaches to the concept of the “act.”