What is participation?

I’m greatly enjoying Christopher Kelty’s recent book The Participant which is an enormously creative reflection on participation from a philosophical and anthropological perspective. What endears me to it so much is it clear sense of the ontology of participation which it sustains without remaining stuck at the level of ontology. He treats participation as:

  1. A concept
  2. A procedure
  3. An experience

It’s the latter sense of the experience of participation which resonates so much with Pierpaolo Donati and Margaret Archer’s relational realism. As Kelty describes the experience of participation on pg 3:

Finally, and most obscurely, participation is also an experience of a peculiar kind: it is the experience of becoming a collective. It is neither a strictly private, personal experience nor a fully collective, anonymous one. Neither the memoir nor the statistic can communicate it. Experiences fade. The immediate, emotional, affective experience of participation is intense and meaningful in the moment, tattered and incomplete in retrospect. The experience of participation, I maintain, is not accidental but essential to the power of participation—but it is also the aspect least likely to be preserved, strengthened, or taken seriously.

We’re familiar with participation being something that we do but Kelty provides us with a rich sense of participation as something that we are: a participant. This is a state which is “neither simply personal, nor simply collective, but a blurring of both” and “[t]here are endless names for different collective kinds that can provide such experiences: society, assembly, community, network, culture, association, team, neighbourhood, platform” (pg 19). This captures the relationality of participation, such that we recognise the participant as suspended between the individual and the collective. We become who we are, in part, through our participation is collectives but these in turn become what they are, through the participation of ourselves and others. As he puts it on pg 17:

A person experiencing contributory autonomy is not submerged within a collective or dissolved by virtue of his or her participation, but remains a coherent part of the whole—always available for contribution to another collective elsewhere. The collective is not identified with the individual or sustained as such, but is more like a container or medium within which individuals are encompassed temporarily.

This sense of relational becoming, making something together through our shared orientation towards collective concerns, easily gets lost if we attempt to proceduralise participation. However as Kelty observes, succesful experience of participation often produce an impulse towards procedure: we found it valuable so want to scale it up and expand its scope, bringing other people in but in the process changing the character of what moved us in the first place.

He suggests we can usefully see representation in contrast to participation. There’s a principle of substitution at work in representation because its held that not everyone can and/or should participate. In this sense representation is predicated on exclusion from the collective, refusing the possibility of participation on logistical grounds. These grounds might be accurate but this framing helps us see how whatever reactionary consequences we might perceive in particular instances of ‘populism’ (a term I’m still uncomfortable with) there’s nonetheless a participatory impulse inherent in critiques of representation.

I’m reading this book in order to help understand the meaning of participation on social media. This is easily dismissed as a pseudo-cartharsis in which “no one listening, and no really cares”  but this fails to grasp the novelty involved. The immediacy with which messages can (in principle) be exchanged, with anyone about anything from anywhere, mean there is real participation as we enter into relations with other. The problem is those relations are often fleeting, endlessly reproduced in service of what Richard Seymour calls The Twittering Machine. As Kelty puts it on pg 17-18:

This feature of contemporary participation is perhaps most clearly evident in the platforms of social media engagement: it is in these contexts that an individual is asked to be an individual who participates in an infinite series of collectives, mediated by algorithms that display the outlines of these collectives according to opaque procedures and interests—outlines that shift faster than human perception or consciousness can apprehend. What on the surface appears to be an overflowing surplus of sociality or collectivity might be just the opposite: not alienation or isolation, but an unsupportable demand to contribute to a constantly shifting, unending collectivity.