PARTICIPATION | Lost innocence

Posted on 27/10/2010

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Communities everywhere seem to be angry – Murray Darling Basin, Adelaide Hills, Carseldine … Interestingly though, many people arrive at consultation meetings, only to proclaim they weren’t consulted.  When they say ‘we want to be consulted’, what exactly are they saying, what exactly are they wanting? Is it about ‘due process’ or something else? And so, there is a paradox that people want consultation but do not necessarily trust the bodies who undertake it. As I watch the media coverage, I can see that the anger is palpable, the anxiety is all consuming, and that trust has all but evaporated.

Hot on the tail of the surge of inspiration and goodwill to humankind that resulted from the Unlimited AP Design events, I sit in a ‘community conversation’ to address some local issues, specifically community aspirations about the future of disused university campus which has been vacant for about 22 months. The state government also announced, without consultation, the day prior to this event, that it would be transforming the campus into a government node to accommodate about 1000 public servants. Thus, sending many into a tail chasing spin. After hearing the message of the many doers at the Unlimited event, I felt assailed by many of the panic button reactions. The politics of anxiety and fear are so overwhelming, so stultifying, so closed. From beneath that anxiety, the contradiction implicit in self-interested-public-mindedness, emerge propositions informed by needs from across the district – a different kind of environmental, community and education hub. Rather than resist change – because it is clear that things cannot stay as they are – there is a gradual opening up to other opportunities that support these community ideas. However, when ‘community conversations’ don’t delve deeply and don’t pave the way for a more generative and creative process, a process that stimulates and challenges, the opportunity for co-design is lost.

Communities and community groups, in my experience, can be at their best when they engage and when they collaborate, when they address issues in their breadth and complexity, in a practical and hopeful way. Such a process reveals the complexity and productivity of this discourse rather than establish a truth or ‘realpolitik’. It’s not enough to just frame these outbursts as resistance. In the end, it feels a little like part of a bigger culture war, fundamentally about the meaning and reproduction of the suburban landscape, about what does and doesn’t belong and about the recursive set of relationships between places, politics and communities.

What this causes me to rethink – despite the co-creative pleasures to be had at the Unlimited event – is the discourse of participation and collaboration. What of co-option and consent? This rethinking was provoked by a book by Markus Miessen, which is titled The Nightmare of Participation.

Miessen proposes a post-consensual practice and this has given me cause to reconsider some of my ideas about the role of participation in synoikismos. There is a certain naivety in thinking that it is possible to appeal to conventional models of participation, inclusion and good intentions. He addresses the paradox of participation as creating “a common ground where activists must cooperate with the very states, armies or militias they originally sought to confront”. Miessen suggests that participation results in a closed system where choice is diminished. From this description, it is abundantly clear that the soft politics of participation may simply serve to quell resistance. Instead of being invited in or summoned to the table, Miessen proposes participation as a way to enter politics and forcefully enter an existing discourse. In this conceptualisation, participation is intervention, disintegrated and disassociated, yet is still able to “prepare the ground for productive internal struggle” through creative intellect and a will to generate change. Conflict, he seems to argue, is an enabling force. What underlies this work is a critique of democracy – this critique plays out by undoing the innocence of participation and, therefore, those other social constructs of public and community.

This is a complex and difficult argument because, as Miessen’s admits, the turn away from democracy might be misread as ‘crypto-facism’. However, at one level, Miessen is proposing other forms of political agency and changemaking. Perhaps problematising those things upheld as virtuous and interrogating the power relations within them may lead us into alternate ways of thinking about participation, community, communication and culture.

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