Performing Words

Journalism is supposed to stay detached, objective. It’s supposed to report the facts, not get involved in or try to influence the situation being reported. That’s, at least, what I’ve always heard.

There are blatant violators of this conventional standard, such as Fox News. The “journalists” that report for them seem to have no qualms about simply making up facts to fit their political agenda. If they didn’t have power to beguile and persuade so many, their outrageous brand of “journalism” would be pretty funny.

While I would never want to be put in a category that is anywhere even in the remotest vicinity of Fox News and their ilk, I must admit, I too sometimes want to write in a style that poses as journalism, but which is lacking in detachment, or so-called “objectivity.”

I want to engage in a kind of writing you might call “participatory journalism” as opposed to, say, “observer journalism.”

Let me put it like this: I want to be in the revolution, not merely televising it (or, more accurately, in my case, digitally sound recording it). I want to get involved in what I’m writing about and not just monitor it from the side-lines. My part can be big or small, it doesn’t matter, but I want to have some part. Because, if it’s worth writing about, it’s worth doing something about.

Writing itself can be a way to participate creatively in a project, it can be a “performative” of sorts [JL Austin turns in his grave]. I sometimes like to use the moniker “concept-monger” when I do this kind of work.

There is also a kind of participation that comes before any such writing, participation that helps bring a project to life, that nurtures it, and helps get it off the ground. This can be anything from project management or marketing (which usually involves writing) to flyer distribution or ushering.

Or, you know, making banners and getting out on the streets.

Bringing these two ideas together—writing as a kind of performance in itself and practical support that come before any writing—we have something approximating what I mean by “participation.” When a participant in a project in this sense writes something journalistic about that project, then this is what I would call “participatory journalism.” I think this is a different way to write than when one is merely an “objective observer.”

You might think I am relying here on an artificial dichotomy between observer and participant. Observation is, after all, a kind of participation, albeit a more passive kind. Just being present as an observer has an effect on the situation being observed, however small that might be. And reporting on a situation contributes to how things will unfold in the future because in doing so, you are changing what people know, which can affect how they behave.

Journalists who write good previews for performances, for example, knowingly become part of a marketing campaign. By the same token, those who write negative reviews are also trying to influence the behavior of others, though in a different direction. So, you might think, this idea of “participatory journalism” is rather empty, once we start to examine it. It is, at best, a pleonasm.

While it’s true that any kind of reporting is indeed a kind of participation, it’s also true that doing nothing is a kind of participation, though not a kind that contributes very much.

Attending a proscenium style performance, for example, and sitting passively in the audience is equally a kind of participation, but that doesn’t make the event a participatory performance. For that to be the case, the audience must creatively contribute to what unfolds in the performance so that the line between “audience” and “performer” becomes blurred.

Using the analogy of participatory performance as a model, then, we can see how participatory journalism goes beyond traditional, “proscenium style” observer journalism, even if the latter always involves some minimal level of participation. Lines are crossed, boundaries blurred, and the so-called “objectivity” that can only be achieved at a distance gets lost in the mix. The writer gets close, gets involved. Or, maybe she was involved from the beginning and only later decides to write about it.

A question that naturally arises for any activity that attempts to push conventional boundaries is, “But is it still X?” For participatory performance, once you understand its history and how it has evolved out of traditional performance, the answer, I think, is clearly “Yes.” It still counts as performance, even if it’s not always clear who the performers are.

As for participatory journalism, the reason I want to call it journalism, as opposed to personal memoir, or something along those lines, is because the writer’s personal experience is not what is written about. While the subjective experience informs the writing, and that surely is the point, it is by no means the focus.

To see this difference, you can read two pieces I wrote about Cambodian circus Phare Ponleu Selpak. Circus With a Social Conscience, an article I wrote in Thailand, focuses on PPS and their incredible social activism through art, whereas a blog post I added later talks more about my personal experience and how I came to be involved with PPS on their visit to Chiang Mai. Another article I wrote, Glimpses of Nijinsky . . . 100 Years Later also counts as participatory journalism.

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