Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assemblage, Transversality and Participation in the Neoliberal University

Academic journal article Environment and Planning D: Society and Space

Assemblage, Transversality and Participation in the Neoliberal University

Article excerpt

Experimental participation

The history of participatory development is far from straightforward and cannot be retold through a single historical narrative. But one recurrent concern does seem to arise for many: just how experimental can participation actually be given the strictures of institutional practices; and, in particular, how can we produce novel theory and practice given the often constraining structures of international development, university, funding metrics, and others (Askins and Pain, 2011; Kesby, 2007; Kindon et al., 2007; Kinpaisby, 2008).To this end, a raft of critical papers have, for example, emphasized the inabilities of participatory approaches to challenge institutional donor power relations (Cooke and Kothari, 2001); how participation reduces development to therapeutic intervention but often maintains wider social inequalities (Williams, 2004), or reflects the collapse of meaningful radical politics (Chandler, 2014). Some critiques have gone further and foregrounded the 'dark side' of participatory development; constituting it as an oppressive governmental rationality where empowerment, consensus-building and stakeholder management often makes life worse for the disenfranchised (Flyvbjerg, 1998; Yiftachel, 1998). But equally, this diversity of debate also recurrently brings out more experimental approaches that play with this darker side as well, fueling critical literatures about what participation means, how it can be more positively theorized and practiced in novel ways (Askins and Pain, 2011; Gerlach and Jellis, 2015; Kanngieser, 2012, 2013; Yuval-Davis, 1999). In particular, as Kanngieser (2013) saliently points out, the desire to generate more experimental approaches to participation not only takes experimental practices as objects of research, but also often as legitimate practices and methods for undertaking research itself (see also Askins and Pain, 2011; Gibson-Graham and Rolevink, 2009).

Such approaches call for a reappraisal of the politics of participation that is sensitive to the precarious space it inhabits. This does not displace the dark side of participation as much as supplement participation with a potentiality that subsists within the participatory encounter (Cahill, 2007; Kesby, 2007; Kindon et al., 2007). If such critical scholars recognize the contingency of participation's depoliticizing effects, then so too are its radical potentials precariously situated.

In this paper, we draw upon Felix Guattari's work on transversality and to develop an understanding of participation that does not build from a narrow conception of subjectivity which is constituted in deliberative terms of consensus-building (Habermas, 1984), or ongoing agonistic confrontations between different political identities (Laclau and Mouffe, 1985); but rather foregrounds more open and experimental participatory assemblages. Guattari's emphasis upon experimental engagement with affective relations that structure everyday life, and importantly the social, cultural and technical machines that mediate these relations, enables us to think the politics of participation in a way that is more sensitive to the precarious space it inhabits. Through an extended, theoretically oriented reflection on one author's experiences coordinating an experimental participatory project with Caribbean fisherfolk (1) in the 1990s and 2000s, we attempt to show that participation is lodged between affective, transversalizing relations that hold out the possibility for other ways of life, and the depoliticizing machines that structure these relations. In our reflection, the fisherfolk project's possibilities for an affirmative biopolitics emerged through, and were eventually suffocated by, the overcoded demands of neoliberalizing universities. With the term 'overcode', we are signaling how signifying chains of neoliberal governmental rationalities, structured around data, fundability, impact, solutions and other buzzwords, straitjacket the meaning and value of participatory work. …

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