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Theater of the Oppressed, Participatory Budgeting, and the Dialectic of Meaning- and Decision-making Public Spheres

April 21, 2012

Public sphere theorists do not properly account for the difference between meaning- and decision-making spheres. As I discussed in my previous post, this distinction was identified by Fraser but has remained underdeveloped. That baffles me, since the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making public spheres is a (if not the) primary axis of democratic practice. It’s what we talk about when we talk about accountability, and it seems like theorists could make better use of the conceptual distinction in order to model democratic practice and structuration.

The difference between these types of public spheres is simple. A public sphere that determines binding and actionable decisions is a decision-making public sphere. Examples include sovereign parliaments, boards of directors, or a conversation among colleagues about where to go for dinner. Meaning-making spheres, on the other hand, may indirectly affect decisions, but they do not produce them. So a public sphere that plays out in the press and other media outlets, as well as lobbying and constituency networks, is a meaning-making sphere that ultimately plays an important role in the decision-making sphere that is a sovereign parliament. Corporate boards of directors also pay attention to meaning-making spheres, especially those constituted by the business press, consumer feedback and opinions, and personal networks comprised of other corporate executives. And those colleagues going for dinner bring knowledge about restaurant options that they’ve perhaps culled from meaning-making spheres including conversations, reviews in the press, online gastronomy fora, etc.

The boundaries of decision-making spheres are, by necessity, much more rigidly constructed than those of meaning-making spheres, which are typically fuzzy and in flux. We can conceive of the latter theoretically, but in most cases can not pin them down in reality. That’s why we must understand public spheres (of both types) within a scalable, modular, and interpenetrated model.

The latest issue of Latin American Perspectives has an article by Ariane Dalla Déa that nicely illustrates the dialectic between meaning- and decision-making spheres, though it doesn’t invoke public sphere theory at all. The article discusses “Representations of Culture in Theater of the Oppressed and Participatory Budgeting in Brazil” and finds that “[b]oth forms claim sociopolitical change as their main objective, and the difference between them is in the possibility of realization of that objective” (54). Participatory budgeting (PB) meetings – as I understand them – are not actually decision-making spheres, but are meaning-making spheres specifically constructed and tightly circumscribed in order to directly inform budgetary decision-making. Here the dialectic of democratic accountability is highlighted and concretely addressed. In Theater of the Oppressed (TO), a meaning-making sphere is constructed from the actors and spectators, and particular emphasis is placed upon their interaction. In most cases, however, it is not tethered to any specific decision-making sphere:

Aside from representations confined to the stage, I have never seen anyone actually acting out a Theater of the Oppressed solution in a community to produce real change. The expression of these experiences seems to be simply an exercise that produces awareness of one’s status in society. Whereas individual experiences in participatory budgeting offer solutions for the community, Theater of the Oppressed works on private issues in isolation from their history and the cultural forces surrounding them and combines an array of individual experiences in ten-minute presentations of fictionalized stories. It is a ritual that carries cultural symbolism. (58)

I’m not sure it’s entirely fair to say that TO is isolated from the history and cultural forces of private issues. I’ve always understood one of the goals of TO to be the elucidation of the links between private issues and historical/cultural/social contexts, with the idea being that participants bring those contexts to the fore through theatrical reproduction (which Dalla Déa discusses as mimesis). So while I’m not as dismissive of TO as Dalla Déa sometimes seems to be (her account is somewhat ambivalent), I agree with her distinction between its role and that of PB:

In the budget meetings, accounts of experiences with lack of services, which tend to carry an emotional load, actually break with a pattern of exclusion in Brazilian society, temporarily eliminating social distance as citizens address their concerns to the agents of power. This is the redressive action of social drama. In participatory budgeting reintegration occurs when the services are delivered to the community. In Theater of the Oppressed there is legitimization when the audience and actors agree that there are possible solutions, but there is no reintegration. One presentation alone does not have the power to take the social drama beyond the stage. (58-9)

This is not to say that TO can not influence decision-making spheres, “but change at this level is slow and may take more than a generation to begin showing its effects at the community level” (59). Agosto Boal, the founder of TO, attempted to speed up this process by more tightly incorporating TO into local governance. “When Boal was elected to the city council in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, he attempted to recreate it by renaming it ‘Legislative Theater’ and attaching it to the new political movement of participatory democracy” (60). Dalla Déa tells us that this attempt was derailed around 2004, when the program was relocated to the city’s communications department, but doesn’t detail how it worked out over the previous decade. I’m not sure that TO is worthy of special treatment, but I can support the impulse to more tightly integrate cultural activity with democratic governance. Without a strong theoretical model for the dialectic interplay of meaning- and decision-making spheres, however, such attempts are likely to be more effective at legitimizing hegemonic structures than effectively channeling citizen participation into decision-making procedures.

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