In the six months following Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street, a symposium co-presented by the Walker Art Center and Northern Lights.mn last April, we’re thrilled to report that agonism, or relationships built on incitement and mutual struggle, is fueling yet another event tonight at The Cooper Union, called Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition. Titled after the reader that artist Marisa Jahn edited and designed for Discourse and Discord, Jahn has pulled together an illustrious line-up of speakers for the NY launch, some of whom are contributors to the book (downloadable here), including Cornel West, Carl di Salvo, Anjum Asharia, and others. To help celebrate from afar, we thought we’d share the introduction to Pro+agonist, “The Ballad of Black and Blue,” written by Jahn in the colors of a good bruise.
Black: Don’t use big words around me!
Blue: But “agonism” is one syllable shorter than “antagonism.”
Black: Why don’t you just use “antagonism” since everybody knows what that word means?
Blue: Well they’re slightly different. “Antagonism” refers to oppositionality, but “agonism” refers to empathy bound up with opposition—a mutual excitement or struggle.1
Black: Okay. And what’s in this notion that people don’t already know? Why put together a book about it?
Blue: You mean, why bother?
Blue: Well, okay so you might agree that there is a great deal of attention—politically, philosophically, culturally—on agreement, concord, consensus. Harmony’s important, but sometimes what gets occluded, tucked away, ignored, or smooshed out is the role of disagreement, discord, dissent, and dissensus. If you repress the dark you aren’t aptly depicting reality.
Black: So, you’re saying that an agonistic perspective is more empirically responsible. It lays claim to a brand of realism.
Blue: That’s a good way of putting it.
Black: It also makes me think of struggle. Like Nietzsche.
Blue: Yes. A lot of theorists who write about agonism refer to Nietzsche who believed that struggle forms the kernel of our existence. To the extent that this is true, you can imagine that on a political level, repressing agonism, or misrepresenting it, can lead to full-on strife later on down the road.
Black: I agree! I’m the one who’s always trying to get you to get mad at me. It would be so healthy. The other day you started to get testy with me but then, much to my disappointment, it just seemed to work itself out too soon . . .
Blue: Well, it’s been hard. Despite your encouraging that, we are both conflict avoidant. Sometimes I try to escalate conflict with you but it’s tough. I try.
Black: Wait, but how come you’re having such a tough time picking fights then if you say you’re an agonist?
Blue: No, no. It doesn’t really work like that. No one’s an agonist, or at least that’s not the common usage of the word. Agonism exists as a dynamic that many say is a productive or important thing to foster.
Black: Okay, like in the American legal system. You have the public defender that represents the accused. Then there’s the prosecutor, who is beholden to justice. The prosecutor’s job is to make a decision whether to prosecute based on the evidence and notions of justice. The defense attorney on the other hand tries to exonerate his/her client regardless of the facts but within the boundaries of ethics. But this seems more antagonistic because it is based on adversity.
Blue: Well, actually, you raise a good point. Antagonism is to enemy as agonism is to adversary. Think of an adversary like this: you’re playing a game of tennis, and it’s only a good game if you have a worthy opponent. The person you’re playing against is an adversary, but not an enemy.2You respect them if they have good push back.
Black: Okay. So it’s about mutuality. Like the counterpoint within a musical score.
Blue: Hmm. That’s interesting. I’ve been playing this dinner party game where I explain a little bit about agonism. Then I say, “When I say agonism, you say . . .,” and then we have a go-around to see what people come up with. It’s a good Rorschach test, and people have such surprising answers.
Black: Ok, let’s play. When I say agonism, you say . . .?
Blue: Well, one person said, “Paradise Lost.” “Lucifer wrestling the angels.” Then a physiologist responded that the agonist is a contracting muscle; the antagonist is the muscle that returns the limb to its natural state. Then a techie person was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between the fig wasp and the sycamore tree. A musician likened agonism to noise . . .
Blue: As in, harmony is the reconciliation of musical temperaments. Noise is broader than harmony and contains it. Harmony is control, order. Noise is the sum of sounds; it fluctuates between harmony and cacophony. Noise is difference, polyphony, and epistemological and political pluralism.3
Black: Okay. But what would you say? When I say agonism, you say . . .?
Blue: —Racism. Xenophobia. Othering.
Blue: Well, you know that I’m half Chinese and half Ecuadorian. For “mixies” like me, we crave heterogeneity. I see agonism as a process of encouraging differences, pushback, and adversity.
Black: So for you, agonism is to heterogeneity, adversity, and difference, as antagonism is to homogeneity, enmity, and sameness—
Blue: —and if society doesn’t embrace agonism then it can easily go down the path of xenophobia and racism. Here’s an example. When I was younger, I happened to be hitchhiking through Court D’Helene, Idaho, during the height of a white supremacist convo. On top of being brown, or at least kind of yellow, I looked to them like their stereotype of a lesbian—shaved head, torn jumpsuit. There were a couple of times when people would pull up to me on the road and spit at me, and ask me why I hated men; even if I was holding hands with my then-boyfriend. There was a refusal or inability to recognize me as a person or subject.
Black: You were reduced.
Blue: Yes. I was perceived to be a foreigner so distinct that they could not possibly relate. I was made to be a scapegoat. But identity, which is composed of a set of contingencies, isn’t fixed or immutable. We change over time; identity is relational.
Accepting alterity—or the notion of the other within4—there is the key notion upon which an agonistic democracy is founded. Dissensus is a mechanism that fosters this.
Black: “Dissensus”? There you go again.
Blue: Come on, this one I know you know what I mean. Consensus is the process by which everyone agrees; dissensus is the process by which the differences are not dissolved but done so in a way that a decision can still be made.
Black: So, there’s more slop in dissensus.
Black: Yeah—a bigger margin of error, more wiggle room. More room for difference, as you might say.
Blue: Exactly. Ideally, dissensus involves an agreement that doesn’t neutralize the particular points of view.
Black: Is there a name for this set of differences that can’t be neutralized?
Blue: The “differend” is Jean-François Lyotard’s way of describing that thing left over at the end of a division that can’t be squared away. It’s that nugget or residue that remains at the end of the equation, the irreducible thing that exists between incommensurate language games.5 Some would say that we can think of this remainder as an indicator of a true agonistic democracy.
Black: What a metaphysical conceit!
Blue: Yeah, right? Okay, so, a second group says that this first group problematically fetishizes agonism as an end in itself, and what’s more important is to focus on the reconciliation of difference. For example, they might say, “Listen. Talking about difference is important but the tendency is to end up squabbling forever and ever. Let’s get on with things, agree to disagree, and focus on structures that enable concord that benefits the many. Let’s not let a few exceptional cases compromise what is just.”
To this, the first group might respond and say, “Oh, you liberals! This is how you end up hogging all the power. What we are trying to do is accept the provisionality of hegemony, and make it so that we can more easily take turns with this power. But you want to neutralize things by repressing the exceptional cases. Don’t you know that perhaps, in fact, these exceptions are often those that we should pay the most attention to?!6
Blue: Nothing. I’m gonna let that one slide.
Black: You mean, “provisionality of hegemony”?
Blue: Okay, okay. I know what you mean I just like giving you a hard time. But let’s go on because what I want to know is this. It seems like both Camp One and Camp Two both have valid claims—
Blue: —Camp Three might say something like this: “An attentiveness to the particulars of identity is essential but we can’t build a society on that abstract idea alone. If we did, it would be politically volatile. We need to come to consent on certain issues because if not, we can’t come up with public policies. If we can’t do that—if we can’t codify anything—how are we supposed to carry out justice or enact democracy?” So, this third camp feels that we need to build and politicize pathways between the two perspectives.7
Black: Hmm. So, I see that almost like a series of spokes.
Blue: Right! You might also see these “pathways” that mediate between the particular and the plural as stand-ins for structures—architecture, code, protocol—that embrace difference, and foster productive friction.8
Black: What’s an example?
Blue: Well, for ancients, agon referred to both rivalry in sport and the narrative tumult within Greek tragedy. Whether in sports and tragedy, the agon provides an arc (or telos) to the game.9 Nietzsche writes about how for the Greeks, the feeling of competitiveness is the feeling of life at its fullest.10
Black: So, if through games we then achieve our fullest sense of being11 or even a return to what makes us human, then what’s the role of the game master?
Blue: Lyotard talks about how each game has its own logic, and even within a single game there are different sets of logic. The logic of the game master is different from the logic of the player; they are trying to achieve different objectives, and they are incommensurate. Lyotard points out that we speak and conduct ourselves according to multiple sets of logic, and there is, therefore, no universal logic. In other words, there’s no game master; it’s a role that we take turns assuming.
Black: I like thinking of this process of role taking and role-playing as one that could be quite creative with lots of room for deviation, improvisation, and innovation. I like the idea that the players are inventing the rules as they go along.12
Blue: Taking that idea one step further, we might also think of the process of “code-switching” as a process of creating shortcuts or pathways, which bisect disparate paradigms.
Black: What’s an example?
Blue: The artist Warren Sack created a piece of software that visually mapped the use of certain key terms in political debates. Over time, what he found was that the “winners” were those who could dominate the game by setting the terms of the debate themselves. So, victory wasn’t achieved by playing the game; victory was achieved by playing not-nice—by switching between the role of the game master and the role of the player.13
Black: You could see that as either cheating or unfair. But again, I see that as liberatory: the structures of the game are fungible, and with each play, the agile player expands the terrain of the game.
Blue: Right. The ideal player—the adversary—is one who can also see outside the game, one who delights in “code-switching,” and “sidestepping,”14 and dialectically moving between.
Black: So let’s play. When I say, “an aesthetics of agonism” or “an aesthetics of difference,”15 you say—
Blue: —the delight in surprises, collisions, in-betweenness. You?
Black: I’d say, “mixie.” The acknowledgement that we are contingent beings, that identity is relational, and that one is incomplete without the other.
Black: Hence, the hole running through the center of this book…
Black: So, that’s why agonism is worth bothering about.
Blue: Okay. Fine.
- See Michel Foucault, Michel Foucault: Power (New York: The New Press, 1994), 342.
- See Chantal Mouffe’s essay in this book. Also, see William E. Connolly, Identity|Difference: Democratic Negotations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 164-188.
- See Michel Serres’ notion of noise, dissonance, and parasites in both Michel Serres, Genesis, trans. Geneviève James and James Nielson (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999); and also Michel Serres, The Parasite, trans. by Lawrence R. Schehr, Introduction by Cary Wolfe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
- For a good mapping of differing notions of alterity, see Mark C. Taylor, Altarity, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987).
- See Lyotard’s essay in this book as well as Jean-François Lytoard, The Differend (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1988).
- William E. Connolly, Identity|Difference: Democratic Negotations of Political Paradox. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991), 164-188.
- See John Seely Brown’s essay included in this book.
- McKenzie Wark, Gamer Theory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
- See Nietzche excerpt in this book.
- Hans Gadamer writes, “Play is a structure . . . But structure is also play, because—despite this theoretical unity—it achieves its full being only each time it is played.” See Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second, revised edition, trans. by Joel Weinsheimer, and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004), 116.
- Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, second, revised edition, trans. by Joel Weinsheimer, and Donald G. Marshall (New York: Continuum, 2004).
- See Warren Sack’s essay in this book. Also, http://www.medienkunstnetz.de/works/agonistics/ (accessed 3/11/2012).
- Doris Sommer, Bilingual Aesthetics: A New Sentimental Education (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2004; Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2007).
- Doris Sommer, Proceed with caution when engaged by minority writing in the Americas (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999).