LEARN | You say, I say

Posted on 18/03/2012

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I’m continuing to reflect on the Dialogue, Deliberation and Public Engagement Masterclass. At one point during the three days, I spoke briefly with one of the DDPE leaders about the different approaches to stakeholders or publics that are embedded in professional priorities. For example, it can seem that designers are often focused on users or consumers rather than citizens; artists might tend to address an audience; while planners tend to address a sense of community or neighbourhood. In these multiple publics (or ideas of public) the idea of the citizen can seem to get lost, muffled under a patchwork of other priorities, seemingly institutionally or professionally determined. What makes this interesting is that so much work by designers, artists and planners is directed at producing and preserving the fundaments of civic life – the agora, the public realm, civic culture etc – at a time when such public space is seeping into private ownership.

In the development of public policy or plan, Michel Foucault’s idea of governmentality seems resonant. It’s been years since I’ve read this work and so with reference to Wikipedia, the following definition is offered.

Governmentality can be understood as:

  • the way governments try to produce the citizen best suited to fulfill those governments’ policies
  • the organized practices (mentalities, rationalities, and techniques) through which subjects are governed

As always with Foucault, technologies of power are at the core of this idea in its address of political rationality, government and the subject. In interrogating governmentality, Thomas Lemke (Foucault, Governmentality, and Critique – PDF) explains that “Foucault defines government as conduct, or, more precisely, as “the conduct of conduct” and thus as a term which ranges from “governing the self” to “governing others … Foucault endeavors to show how the modern sovereign state and the modern autonomous individual co-determine each other’s emergence.” Foucault also addesses the question of governing the forms of self-government, structuring and shaping the field of possible action of subjects. This is starting to sound like the kinds of normative engagement and consultation practices that leave communities dissastisfied, even angry.

While there is much more to be said about this concept, it’s not difficult to understand that this has much bearing on the way public engagement happens. In the engagement of users, the consumer or client is produced. In the engagement of audiences, a cultural consumer is produced. In the engagement of community, a public is produced. But want kind of public? And there is, of course, a world of theory that addresses some of these situations. During one session in the DDPE there was a richly textured discussion about the ways in which assisted dying might be discussed at the political and citizen levels. It was in this discussion that I had a realisation that I distrust government – perhaps a slight anarchist tendency – largely because of the ways in which citizens/subjects (as distinct from specific questions) are addressed. So, in the engagement of citizens (civitas), which I regard as a kind of agency, what might we produce?

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