Technologies of Control and Infrastructures of Redistribution
Martina Tazzioli and Oana Pârvan, e-flux journal, Issue #123, December 2021
A well-known slogan that emerged from the disability movement during the 1990s goes: “Nothing about us without us.” It stresses that no policy should be adopted without fully involving those who are affected by that policy. Nowadays, it is a catchphrase used across different fields and institutional settings, signaling that “participation” has become a placeholder for inclusion, democracy, and horizontal decision-making processes. Yet, what does “participation” in a given system mean when the epistemic-political codes, the ability to maneuver, and the stakes of the participation are set in advance by the party in control? So-called “participatory programs,” like surveys and other forms of data acquisition, have been used extensively by humanitarian agencies since the 1990s, and more recently have shifted into systems for practicing what I instead call “participatory confinement.”
Modes of participatory confinement in refugee humanitarianism are inflected by clear-cut asymmetric relations between asylum seekers on one side, and humanitarian actors on the other. This initial condition and its trend towards reform by way of inviting participation is reminiscent of the diagnosis of prison reform by Michel Foucault in a lecture he gave in 1976. Furnishing an anticipatory example of participatory confinement, he writes: “There is an attempt to make prisoners themselves participate in devising the very programmes for their punishment, through the prisoners’ councils and so on. This is the idea that the individual, singly or collectively, is meant to accept the punitive procedure.” Nowadays, participatory approaches are center stage on the agendas of international agencies and NGOs in the context of the so-called “refugee crisis” in Europe.