Making Time at Human Resources: Tavia Nyong’o

Coinciding with the annual meeting of the College Art Association in Los Angeles, The Arts Research Center at UC Berkeley is hosting the offsite working session “Making Time at Human Resources” on February 22, 2012. Participants have been invited to post some brief thoughts on the topic in advance of the event. This guest posting is by Associate Professor of Performance Studies at NYU, Tavia Nyong’o.

I have been mulling the historical and political contexts and consequence of our present fixation with “participation” — as the art world calls it — or “participatory culture” as it is referred to in media and cultural studies. In a well-known essay, Claire Bishop teased out one key assumption: that between participation and democracy. Indeed, participatory democracy, a cherished value of the new left, has received renewed attention due to its presence within the Occupy movement. As just these examples of art-, media-, and decision-making suggest, ‘participation’ concatenates and potentially conflates a wide variety of discrepant theories and practices. It is a more or less unquestioned value that also seems on the way to becoming a dominant structure of feeling. In thinking through this state of affairs, I have been influenced by Jodi Dean’s critique of participation as what she calls a “neoliberal fantasy,” and would even pick up on her cue to connect participation to the genealogy of neoliberal governmentality. To do so would introduce a Foucauldian dimension to the analysis of participation, like governmentality, as “the conduct of conduct.” How do we mold ourselves into docile, useful bodies in the very process of acting out in concerted or networked agencies? For whom do these agencies accrue value (cultural, political, and monetary)? 

I am not interested in wielding Foucault with a broad brush to paint all forms of participation an equal color of grey. But I am invested in a more patient and philosophical investigation into what it is we are doing when we tell ourselves we are participating. And I am equally interested in contemplating the Bartlebyan gesture. Is it still possible, in the era of participation, to “prefer not to”?