- The Politics of Participation in Documentary
Empower those who are powerless; make the invisible visible; give a voice to the voiceless—so go the platitudes that have shaped the common sense of documentary advocacy projects for decades. These phrases perform a double maneuver by constructing their subjects through lack and then mandating an intervention to rectify that deficiency. The interventionist gift is extended as a well-intentioned expression of ignorance and arrogance. For example, in her book Curated Stories: The Uses and Misuses of Storytelling, Sujatha Fernandes argues that the Afghan Women's Writing Project constructs Afghan women as living in a primitive society that silences them before inviting these women to "speak out" in forums intended for Western readers. Erasing Afghan women's local activism, including that against US imperialism, Western workshop facilitators impose their own conceptions of freedom and gender equality as universal storytelling principles that women must learn to liberate themselves. The resulting narratives of individual empowerment disarticulated from structural context perpetuate orientalist fantasies that rationalize Western interventionism. It is only by preemptively depriving Afghan women of "a voice" that they can then be accorded one on Western terms.
Documentary advocacy projects further instrumentalize the discourse of participation in order to gain political and epistemological legitimacy. Inviting [End Page 1021] people to collaborate in their own representation with varying degrees of autonomy, such projects promise their subjects empowerment and celebrate their engagement as a revolutionary act. In the 1990s, Saidiya Hartman influentially demonstrated how processes of reform and recognition can choreograph scenes of subjection that perpetuate the oppressions they claim to end.1 More recently, Herman Gray has elaborated on Hartman's insights in his effort to understand why the cultural politics of representation seem to have failed to deliver on their promise of social justice despite the proliferation of media cultures that champion diversity.2 Today, amid the growing accessibility of media production technologies and the hegemony of Web 2.0 platforms that solicit user-generated content, participation has developed into a pervasive cultural logic and arguably has even been elevated to an ethics. But this participatory culture only promotes diversity insofar as it diversifies markets; it nurtures engagement as a euphemism for consumer loyalty and a source of lucrative data. This condition supplants the media regime in which visibility equaled power and proliferates a new technique of power that operates through what Gray describes as the "incitement to media visibility."3
The books under review challenge the politics of representation that mistake visibility for empowerment, representation for justice, and participation for authenticity. Spanning a range of disciplines and historical and geographic contexts, the authors model a variety of approaches to the critical study of participatory media. What they share is a concern for the ways that recent advocacy projects endow self-representation with the currency of truth, extracting those truths from subjects in predetermined forms at the expense of their own political interests and desires. Self-representation functions as a truth claim in itself by promising that a text will be less mediated than other forms of representation on the basis of its subjects' participation. This fallacy elides historical realities, institutional priorities, and aesthetic proclivities, not to mention the constitutive characteristic of media: mediation. Fernandes, Pooja Rangan, and Rebecca Schreiber all insist that mediation demands our attention most when it seems not to be happening at all. Working from a Foucauldian understanding that contemporary power is not merely repressive but also generative, they attend to the scenes of cultural production, instruction, performance, and curation where documentary meaning is negotiated. In doing so, they interrogate the terms of subjects' participation in advocacy projects, revealing them to be premised on relations that they theorize variously as...