Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis: Henry Jenkins & Nico Carpentier (Part III)


Let me thank you again for your role in shepherding me through the process of receiving my honorary doctorate -- a process literally straight out of Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries. I should note that I still wear the gold ring given to me in a ritual which “marries” me to my discipline. My wife of 35 plus years has been surprisingly understanding about this arrangement. She said that she has suspected such a relationship for years and is just glad to get it out in the open.

Seriously, as always, I found your remarks provocative and generative. You are right that the series has largely taken the idea of an “era of crisis” at face value. Certainly, as an American, raised with notions of “exceptionalism,” I was thinking about our own crisis in democracy, a term which I do not take as overstated. I certainly have seen many presidents in my lifetime whose positions and policies I found objectionable, but this is the first president who I felt was systematically undercutting the norms and institutions upon which the prospects of democracy in America depend. I came of age politically with Nixon and Watergate, but whatever threat Nixon posed, I always had a sense that the system of checks and balances was working to right things again, including with some degree of bipartisan cooperation. Republicans were willing to call out Nixon but have been much slower to call out Trump. We are seeing institutional politics fail to hold Trump accountable and we are seeing participatory politics struggling from within with the influence of the alt-right.


That said, I share your sense that the crisis we are discussing is a global phenomenon with the rise of authoritarian or authoritarian-leaning leaders in countries around the world. While there is definitely a U.S. bias in the mix of participants in these exchanges, I am also proud that we saw insights here from scholars situated in or at least focused on Latin America, Eastern and Western Europe, Asia, and the Middle East, offering us models of how cultural and political resistance is playing out around the world. And you’ve added several other important examples to the mix with your wide-reaching opening statement.

As always, we arrive at similar points with somewhat different terminology. You want to distinguish between interactions and participations, and we’ve discussed these terminologies before in our earlier exchange. For me, interaction is too close to interactivity, and in my work, I try to draw a distinction between interactive technologies and participatory cultures. I might be prepared to use the term, expressions, for some of what you mean by interactions, but there’s some loss here, since many talk about self-expression and I still want to keep our focus on the social exchange of meaning and the formulation of public opinion, even where expression may be closer to what we mean than participation, especially in the context where both neoliberal discourse and progressive critique of neorealism keeps wanting to pull us back towards individualism and privatization. To me, a central element of participation is that we participate in something larger than ourselves, however we want to imagine what it is we are participating within. At the current moment, participation pulls us towards the idea of networks, communities, collectives, in ways which we can not stress enough. At heart, a discussion about participation is a discussion of the potentials for collective intelligence and collective action. 

Surely part of the issue here is the relationship between expressions/interactions and political participation. This is in part why I started my opening salvo with my reference to Huszar’s distinction between talk-democracy and do-democracy (although I also want to stress that do-democracy depends heavily on the formation of public opinion and above all, the emergence of what you describe in your post as participatory ethics). If cultural and educational interventions, as you suggest later in your post, are important tactics for keeping alive the prospect of democratic participation, then we must have a model which takes us from the exchange of meaning to the formulation of public opinion to the capacity to act on those shared opinions in ways that influence core decision-making processes. Part of what keeps my hope alive even in an era of global crisis is that I am seeing examples where this circuit is being completed.  For example, a group of high school students, impacted by a school shooting, are able to work together to spread the word via networked technologies, form alliances with other young people of diverse backgrounds across the country, mobilize through public rallies, expand their access to mass media, and lobby effectively in order to get more than 200 state and local gun control laws passed in under a year’s time.


This brings us to the paradox you discussed here: “the increasing levels of participation and the decreasing levels of control over the levers of societal power.” At the local level, the #NeverAgain movement has been highly successful, but at the national level, the stranglehold that the National Rifle Society has over Federal gun policy does not seem to be weakened by this movement, even as the organization is ripe with internal conflicts and in the midst of a financial crisis. Here, we see an enormous gap between public opinion which overwhelmingly supports gun control and national policy which resists even the more common sensical efforts to regulate who has access to military grade weapons. 

The concept of the civic as I described it in my opening post depends on shared meanings, norms, identities, and visions and these exchanges are most apt to emerge through what you are describing as interactions on a more casual, informal, and frankly, more local level. These exchanges occur within communities as they start to work together to address common concerns, and to me, this requires identifying and sustaining a sense of civic connections with each other.  In Huszar’s sense, this is “do-democracy,” as democratic values and ethics are embedded the practices of everyday life. Often, at the most local level, when the problems are how we are going to fix potholes or deal with schools that are failing our students, successful working through problems together provides the foundation for mutual trust.  

From my American perspective, it is important to note that these shared civic imaginations have historically often depended on exclusions and marginalizations, a false consensus can arise when the most diverse segments of the population are not invited to the table or worse, held down by the majority of the population. And so, a key question for us right now is how we may build a culture which is both more diverse and more participatory/democratic at the same time. In fact, the right-wing leaders in our country have won power by playing up distrust amongst different segments of the American public and damaging the credibility of institutions, such as the free press or educational institutions,  which have the potential to work towards shared understandings.  

What’s disappointing to me is the ways that the mechanisms which I have long looked towards for the kinds of expressions that might push us towards a more participatory culture are themselves being used to damage the prospect of a more diverse and more democratic culture. This is what I was trying to get at with my talk of “bad participation,” though I take your pushback against this term in the spirit with which you intended it.  

I am trying to come up with a term which acknowledges that expanding the scope of participation will not necessarily result in progressive outcomes. This does not make participation “bad” per se; it does mean that building a more participatory infrastructure will simply create a new space for struggle where different groups fight over resources and opportunities. But that struggle is more apt to achieve satisfactory outcomes  if we are able to establish a shared set of civic commitments, a trust in the infrastructure and institutions required for democratic governance, and the participatory ethics we both are advocating for. For example, a more democratic culture is apt to emerge if there is a shared commitment to the idea that my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate.  These are to me issues which may be addressed best through cultural and educational tactics, rather than confronted head on the level of institutional or participatory politics. 

I would love to know more about where you see a participatory ethics coming from and perhaps what some of its core principles might be.  


That is a very rich reply, Henry. There is a lot to be said about what you wrote. I'll skip the Uppsala confirmation of your marriage-with-academia vows, although it is tempting to go into this. After all, there is a lot to be said about our complex relationship to academia, but that will have to wait.

I want to start with the focus on the USA, which can be found in a lot of the contributions of the Participatory Politics in an Age of Crisis series. First of all, you are completely right, there is no exclusive focus on the USA in the series. For instance, I very much appreciated the conversation between Arely Zimmerman and Andres Lombana about Colombia. And there is another argument: A call for balance should never be interpreted as a call to cease analyzing the USA. There is obviously a lot to learn from the USA, and some of the analyses are simply brilliant in their depth and insightfulness. But at the same time, we should, in particular when discussing the topics that are now on our agenda, be careful not to create nation-based myopias.

I am deeply concerned by the disruptions of democratic culture that we have been seeing, for years now, in the USA, and the disturbing lack of willingness to defend democracy, with so many people, despite the resistance of so many others. But I would like to argue that this problem, the crisis of democracy, is not restricted to the USA, and that this broad analytical span is important. I'm writing these lines right after the EU parliamentary elections, which took place from 23 to 26 May 2018 (Disclaimer: my opening statement was written before the results came out), and the bad taste in my mouth has not disappeared (yet?). In North Belgium, we had the resurrection of the extreme right-wing party Flemish Interest ("Vlaams Belang"), with close to 20% of the votes in the north of the country, making it the second largest party in Belgium. In France, the former Front National, now called National Rally ("Rassemblement National"), received 23% of the votes, more than any other political party in France. And then there is Italy, with the Northern League ("Lega Nord") receiving 34% of the votes, more than 10% more than the Italian social-democrats, who came in second. Even if the story is more complicated in many other countries (for instance, in Greece, “Laïkós Sýndesmos - Chrysí Avgí”, or "Popular Association  Golden Dawn" lost a significant number of votes, probably to another nationalist party, focusing on the (North) Macedonia issue), what we can see is the institutionalization of racism and nationalism in the West. Even if these parties come to power in only a limited number of cases, in some cases they do, but what is more important is that these parties now have strengthened their capacity to disseminate hatred, de-humanizing forms of othering and toxic leadership models, and are contributing to their normalization (which is even worse). What we also should not forget is that these parties gain strength from each other, also across the Atlantic, and actively reinforce their networks at a more global level.


But these problems are even more global, I would argue. We cannot ignore the impact of the Arab spring (and what became of it), the civil war in Syria, the Iraqi wars, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (and a series of other conflicts all over the world) on the Western crisis of democracy. The harm these conflicts did to the populations in these regions is already horrific enough, but these conflicts have also played a role in the destabilization of Western democracies, not necessarily only by the flows of refugees they caused, but also the inability of the West to care and to display hospitality. I think that my argument here, after what almost looks like a long detour, is that we cannot think about resolutions for the Westerns crisis of democracy without incorporating global justice and peace in these reflections.

The defense of democracy, against the onslaught of antagonism, is thus quite a challenge, to use an understatement. The defense of participation is an important part of this, although it is not the only part. Still, what we now need to be careful with, as defenders of the democratic revolution, is the calls to roll-back participation, because they lead to participation becoming perceived as dangerous. There is a bit of irony here, because, at first, participation was celebrated as a way forward in this process of democratization, while I would argue that we mostly got "stuck" into minimalist forms of participation, and structural power imbalances remained unchallenged. And then these minimalist forms of participation are considered dangerous, consciously or unconsciously, supporting the evolution towards more centralized and elite-based societies.

I would add that all this was not helped by the very broad approaches towards participation, where all of a sudden everything became participation. My impression is that whatever (inter)action/expression could be found, it got labelled participation. There is really a need to be much more specific. That's where your question kicks in: In what do we participate? This is, for me, something crucial: Participation is always participation in something. But, predictably, I would add a few other questions (and this comes from the 12-step model of participatory analysis), namely, which actors are involved in the participatory process, what decisions are being made, and how do the disempowered actors gain a stronger power position through this process.

But I would argue that there is also another set of questions, that is equally important. They are three: What makes participation possible? What is the level of participation? And what does participation then do? Or, in slightly different terms: What are the conditions of possibility of participation? What are the participatory intensities of a participatory process? And what are the outcomes of a participatory process? It feels a bit like systems theory, but I think that these three questions are relevant here, because they allow to discriminate between the participatory process and its outcomes. For me, process and outcomes are substantially different, and should be analyzed differently. I do not like to qualify a participatory process as good or bad, but I certainly like to acknowledge that the outcomes of a participatory process can be deeply problematic. Behind this is the idea that the notion of participation is so deeply linked (at least in how I think about participation) with democratic culture that it ceases to exist when we disconnect it from democracy.

In these kinds of discussions, I like radical thought experiments, as they tend to clarify conceptual meaning. And I like to take one sentence from your reply, because it is, I think, an absolutely vital statement: "my participation does not emerge at the cost of excluding other groups the right to participate". But I want to push the argument further with an example (or two). What about the pogrom? Is that a participatory event? What about the lynch mob? Is that participatory? If we look at these horrific social practices, we have to acknowledge that, at the level of collective decision-making, there is actually power-sharing by ordinary people, "taking justice in their own hands". A group of Nazi skinheads that uses an online platform, to collectively plan and implement a murder on a refugee, has the formal (or procedural) characteristics of participation, but I would be very uncomfortable to label it participation. My discomfort is caused by transgression of democratic culture in these examples, which for me, makes it hard to still use the concept of participation.

The alternative way of theorizing this is by including all social practices that redistribute power, even if they are antagonistic, murderous, anti-democratic, and call all of them participation. And then, there is of course the need to distinguish between good and bad participation. But as my previous paragraph indicates, I am not comfortable with the line of argument. I'm curious here, where you stand? How do you deal with these dilemmas, with the issues whether the transgressions or perversions of participation are still participation, or whether they are something else? And what are they then?

And that brings me to the question about participatory ethics, but let me be short here, because that might be something for our next iteration. Still, let me give some basic ideas, which I'll develop further, later on. My starting point on ethics is that the ethical is, like, for instance, freedom, an empty signifier (in the way that Ernesto Laclau uses this concept). This means that the ethical is an absolutely central category in our worlds, but struggled over by diverse normative frameworks, that all want to give it (=the ethical) their own meaning. I think that this is important, as, for instance, in the West, there is an ongoing struggle over the ethical, where different groups argue for an ethics of selfishness. To give you one illustration, the extreme-right in North Belgium uses "Own people first" ("Eigen volk eerst", or, a variation, "Our folks first" ("Eerst onze mensen")) as their key slogan, and I cannot find a better illustration for this ethics of selfishness.

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

Vlaams Belang "Our folks first" slogan 2019 - Belgium

This theoretical position has implications for our discussion on participatory ethics, I would say. We need to engage in this struggle over the empty signifier of the ethical, by developing and strengthening a counter-discourse, a different normative framework, that does, in my opinion, two things. First, participation itself needs to be defined as ethical. And second, social interactions and participations need to be embedded in a democratic culture, driven by, among other models, an ethics of care.


Henry Jenkins is the Provost's Professor of Communication, Journalism, Cinematic Arts, and Education at the University of Southern California. He is the author or editor of twenty books on various aspects of media and popular culture. He is perhaps best known for Textual Poachers: Television Fans and Participatory Culture and Convergence Culture: Where Old and New Media Collide. He is celebrating the paperback publication of By Any Media Necessary: The New Youth Activism, of which he is co-author. His forthcoming books include Popular Culture and the Civic Imagination: Case Studies in Creative Social Change (which he co-edited with Sangita Shresthova and Gabriel Peters-Lazaro), Participatory Culture: Interviews, and Comics and Stuff

Nico Carpentier is Docent at Charles University in Prague; he also holds part-time positions at Uppsala University and the Vrije Universiteit Brussel (VUB - Free University of Brussels). Moreover, he is a Research Fellow at the Cyprus University of Technology and Loughborough University. Earlier, he was ECREA Treasurer (2005-2012) and Vice-President (2008-2012), and IAMCR Treasurer (2012-2016). Currently, he is Chair of the Participatory Communication Research Section at IAMCR. His latest books are The Discursive-Material Knot: Cyprus in Conflict and Community Media Participation (2017, Peter Lang, New York); Cyprus and its Conflicts. Representations, Materialities, and Cultures (2018, co-edited), Critical Perspectives on Media, Power and Change (2018, co-edited), Respublika! Experiments in the Performance of Participation and Democracy (2019, edited), and Communication and Discourse Theory (2019, co-edited).