Designated Spaces for Designated Imaginaries: The Cruel Optimism of Citizen Participation in Post-disaster State-citizen Dialogues
AbstractEnvironmental disturbances, pandemics, or social crises often lead to the emergence of ‘heterotopian’ spaces (Foucault 1998; Boano 2011), that give rise to emergent debates on alternative imaginations of the future, even utopianism (Solnit 2010). At the same time, modern governance increasingly emphasises the active participation of citizens in processes where these alternative imaginations are turned into actionable plans (Bherer et al. 2016). In particular, the intensity of development needs in post-crisis contexts (Olshansky et al. 2012) can see the prolific spread of participatory spaces designated to facilitate dialogue between authorities and citizens. From creative workshops to citizen committees, however, the results and experiences of citizen participation in these ‘designated spaces’ have remained consistently inconsistent (Davidson et al. 2007; Curato 2018; Cleaver 2001). Drawing on ethnographic research carried out in 2015 and 2016 among individuals who took part in spaces of state-citizen dialogue after the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami, this paper contributes to critical debates on participatory governance by examining the non-critical acceptance of citizen participation as a universal social ‘good’. The paper focuses on the paradoxically high degrees of optimism and voicelessness reported by disaster victims in Tōhoku, arguing that this paradox reflects the wider patterning of dialogue and governance as a form of ‘cruel optimism’ (Berlant 2011), where the optimism represents just another form of voicelessness. The paper concludes that to overcome the ‘cruelty’, more focus needs to be paid on improving the process through which the content of dialogues is determined and shaped together with the citizens in the participatory spaces, rather than used as venues for promising a better future.