From agonism to the agoratic?


Warren Sack, Agonistics: A Language GameI have to admit that ever since Warren Sack introduced me to some of Chantal Mouffe’s political philosophy with his game Agonistics: A Language Game, I have been enamored of the idea of agonistic pluralism. He wrote in his artist statement for Database Imaginary

In the 1980s, Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau had an idea: why not think about democratic discussion as a competition, an “agonistic” activity, a game? Society is recognized as impossible, as a space of endless contingencies. Establishing precise distinctions between difference and conflict, they articulated a democracy based not on hostilities where parties are enemies to each other, but on “agonism,” where parties are constructively adversarial. This theory accepts that democracy cannot be organized in a well-mannered way without room for confrontations and a multiplicity of voices.

It is an appealing vision: neither chaos nor hive mind but agonism.

In a fascinating essay, Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition, presented at the 48 Degrees Celsius Public.Art.Ecology festival in Delhi, Nancy Adajania, challenges

“Mouffe’s much-cited model of the public sphere, in which, as she says, “the aim of democratic institutions is not to establish a national consensus in the public sphere but to defuse the potential of hostility that exists in human societies by providing the possibilities for antagonism to be transformed into ‘agonism’.”

Adajania argues that

Mouffe’s theoretical sleight of hand is remarkably unhelpful when it comes to addressing the crises, dilemmas and the often schismatic turbulences that attend transitional societies, such as India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia, Thailand, and South Korea, to name only a few. In these situations, the public domain is a scene for the battle among forces whose agenda commits them to mutual exclusion and sometimes even mutual annihilation. There is often radical disagreement on how to interpret the national past and the national future, on how to distribute power and authority, and what the nature of the State should be. In some of these situations, also, positions are taken on the basis of tactical opportunity and short-term gain rather than on that of long-held principle or reasoned conviction; where vote-bank politics, illiteracy, famine and cultivated regional asymmetries prevail, the ground of politics resembles a quicksand more than it does the floor of a debating room. As applied to such complex predicaments, Mouffe’s theories are about as useful as a Lego set to the building of metropolis.

Watching Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Congress take remarkably antagonistic positions in the midst of a generational economic crisis, despite President Obama’s arguably agonistic vision of bipartisanship, one can’t help but think that agonism may not be Panglossian only in the “transitional societies” that Adajania cites.

Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism
Ravi Agarwal, Down and Out: Labouring Under Global Capitalism

In place of agonism, Adajania proposes the model of the agora:

the marketplace that is also a meeting place, a shifting weave of textures of thought, opinion, ideas and convictions; a non-hierarchical space of exchange where thought is multiplied and extended by distribution rather than imparted from a fixed source of authority. The agora of the classical Greek city-state was also, etymologically, the ‘open space’, where merchants, sailors, soldiers, artists, writers, priests, oracles, and madmen congregated and could voice themselves.

In “Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition,” Adajania sketches a nuanced idea of public art within an articulated notion of the public sphere and grounds her arguments in the specific artistic practice of two Indian artists, Navjot and Ravi Agarwal. Whether you buy Adajania’s agora or prefer to play agonisticly, Public Art? Activating the Agoratic Condition is a worthwhile read about experimenting wth art in public places.