The Problem with the Nightmare

Markus Miessen
The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis
as a Mode of Criticality)
(Sternberg Press, 2010)

Markus Miessen has been working on dismantling the notion of participation for a while now. The Nightmare of Participation (Crossbench Praxis as a Mode of Criticality) (Sternberg Press, 2011) comes after Did Someone Say Participate? An Atlas of Spatial Practice (MIT Press, 2006) and The Violence of Participation (Sternberg, 2007). The term has become a buzzword and its meaning has become skewed. Miessen wants his reader to end up devaluing both the word and the practice. Group-minded projects, he contends, are dangerous, mostly because they tend to amount to a rehash of tired concepts. Using the architect as an example throughout, Miessen compares idealizing participation with the changing role of the architect: Once one had control of the functionality of a building, while now, a committee makes plans, and an architect deals with surfaces. In Miessen’s words, “Sometimes, all-inclusive democracy has to be avoided at all cost.”

Miessen’s process is refreshing. Take, for example, one of his conservative asides: “It seems the more we talk about sex, the less sex we actually have.” Writing in a genre heavily represented by his leftist counterparts, Miessen takes on the voice of stubborn practicality. Within the world of social theory, it’s radical. He critiques styles of rebelliousness that he says the world has been clinging to since the 1960s: Protests and sit-ins where everyone willing was invited have proven to be limited in effectiveness. This is why I picked up the book: I want to know what could change the way people think about change. And I, like Miessen, want the voice of progress to sound less inclusive and more personal, more independent: I’m tired of reading what “we” have to “consider.”

But by the end of The Nightmare, I’m not sure what Miessen’s version of “participation” even means. The word has become abstracted, not defined. An epilogue by Carson Chan, one of many other voices Miessen has included in this volume, lists some of the book’s failures, including my biggest concern: “If Miessen’s point is to celebrate non-consensual forms of generating knowledge, the contributing voices in the book seem to suggest the opposite.”

Perhaps the aversion I feel towards Miessen’s style of arguing (which Chan describes as “more insistent than rhetorical”) is exemplary of the trouble brought up by his thesis. Miessen has a way of cutting off a train of thought before it can take flight. Authors, artists, and architects are given ample space in quotes and interviews, but, Werner Herzog-like in his documentation, Miessen gets the last (staunch) critique. It’s entertaining, but ends up bringing up more questions than answers.

Sometimes, delightfully, the structure of this book matches its assertions pertaining to current popular behaviors. For example, we are told that “[k]nowledge and the production of knowledge is not fueled by accumulation, but editing and sampling.” And so, when the book quotes Seinfeld’s George Costanza and Sex and the City’s Charlotte York alongside Josef Bierbichler, I sense that the only way Miessen can imagine the future of art and education is by collaging signifiers of the present. He both criticizes and utilizes this technique of juxtaposition via superhybridity, but this tension doesn’t bother me: We all feel at once uncomfortable with and involved in the future. Miessen admits to being biased in the selection of his book’s sources: friends, popular television, a project he was himself involved in. This is the artist practicing what he preaches, bringing the personal to the spotlight.

The book does bring up quite a few interesting dilemmas: Funding, as a form of participation, for example, is extremely dangerous, especially when it deals with knowledge: the more commercialized our educational systems become, the less agency our educators have.

But the holes in his argument are more notable than their claims. Miessen argues that today’s “Web generation” has done well to stay away from any trademarks of rebellious activity with which we’ve been familiarized. But just as Miessen congratulates anyone taking strides away from 1968’s dream of liberation in search of 2011’s, he loses focus. For example, there is no mention of the Internet itself (as is pointed out by Chan). I wonder: Would the anonymity now available to us encourage or put an end to this problematized form of participation?

Miessen’s inclination to stop participating is natural: Many of us would rather tune out than turn on. We are offered little advice for dealing with this instinct. And instead of highlighting individualism, the extensive quotations and interviews included look unmistakably participatory. Chan urges that the reader’s own doubts serve as “intellectual labor pains” that create the needed “individual outsider”—in other words: Miessen’s thesis is lacking because he wants us to fill in the gaps. In order to understand the nightmare of participation, the logic goes, one must participate. And I’d probably want to, if it didn’t sound so elitist. After the conversation, I feel left out.


Natasha Stagg