An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 3

One of the highlights of the symposium “Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street” is the chance to experience some of my favorite artist-theorist-architect-programmer-activist friends engage in agonistic embrace on stage at the Walker. Here is the opening salvo (not to be confused with Di-Salvo).

How should I explain the idea of agonism to my neighbor across the street?

Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition A new book and deck of cards by Marisa Jahn explores the productive possibilities of agonism, a relationship built on mutual incitement and struggle.

Warren Sack: “Agonism” is the ancient Greek word for a contest with a prize. In the sense we are using it, is a way of understanding life and politics as a game or contest.

Marisa Jahn: My neighbors do in fact ask me what agonism is. But then I like to throw it back on them. I say, “ok, let’s play a game. When I say agonism, you say…” I’ve gotten all sorts of answers. One person said, “Paradise Lost.” Lucifer wrestling the angels. A physiologist responded that the agonist is a contracting muscle; the antagonist is the muscle that returns the limb to its natural state. A techie person was reminded of the symbiotic relationship between the fig wasp and the sycamore tree. A musician likened agonism to noise. As in, harmony is control, order. Noise is the sum of sounds; it fluctuates between harmony and cacaphony. Noise is difference, polyphony, epistemological and political pluralism.

Mark Shepard: I don’t think you should explain agonism to your neighbor – better to enact it through engaging her – with empathy and respect – on an issue you disagree.

Carl Skelton: There is a variant of agonism, which most people think of as how open-source software happens: an idea gets proposed in an initial form to the widest possible group. Of the many who find fault with it, a small minority will actually propose an improvement, which is then subjected to the same process, except that the original proponent gets to weigh in as a critic. Anybody who cares enough to keep the idea moving owns it. Over time, competing variants and improvements are adopted and discarded by ad hoc groups which themselves persist, peter out or mutate over time.

Carl DiSalvoAgonism is the truth that your neighbor already knows – legislation doesn’t *solve* anything, the conflicts continue regardless, it’s just the nature of politics.

How does agonism express itself in your practice as an artist?

Mark Shepard, artist comp, structures for dischord

Marisa: If agonism merely describes a condition in the world, then expressing agonism through artwork in fact paints reality more aptly and with greater complexity. Agon makes things fun! Agonistic art practices “work” by coming in through the backdoor to solve problems and intrigue using a different kind of logic.

Carl D: My practice is about creating spaces for an agonistic pluralism to flourish, for creating spaces where we can participate in conflicting values and practices towards the composition of new social conditions and structures.

Mark: As an artist I maintain an agonistic relationship to the discipline of architecture. My work exploits the tensions between architecture and media art with respect to how space is conceived, constructed, organized and interpreted within technologically mediated environments.

Warren: Much of my work as an artist is concerned with politics and publics, and I consider what would it mean to make political metaphors material.  For example, we talk about debates as though they are scored like boxing or wrestling contests, but of course they are not.  What would happen if we devised a scoring system for debates?

Warren Sack, Agonistics: A Language Game

Carl S: Nothing ever gets finished, but you never run out of room for improvement.

We’re clearly living in a fractious time. How can agonism help us?

Courtesy Carl DiSalvo

Carl D: Like any theory, agonism is a tool to think with. So it gives us a way to understand what we mean when we use terms like democracy and politics. From this, we might begin not just “think about” but also “do” democracy differently.

Marisa: Paying attention to agonism helps us reframe how we see struggle. Instead of regarding it as a symptom of a bad or messy or contentious situation, we can instead see agonism as a symptom of an environment that is strong enough to withstand difference and adversity.

Warren: As many theorists have pointed out, our culture is increasingly “gamified.” People tend to think of many everyday actions as moves in a game.  For instance, what does it mean “to make a move,” “to make a play,” “to play around,” “to call someone a loser”? If indeed, all the world’s a game and all the men and women merely players, then what is this game we are playing and how could it be otherwise?

Mark: One would hope that agonism offers a way to come to terms with extreme ideological differences – not resolving them, but at least making the debate more tolerable.

How do we foster a space for dissensus, critical dialogue, and debate?

Marisa: Promote and commit to diversity! This may mean doing the work to figure out how you are going to outreach to people from a different point of view or ilk, subjecting ourselves to uncomfortable situations; and building conditions to foster a sense of tolerance and difference. Listen to who’s not speaking and see why not; create a space where this differential is foregrounded. Understand that you can hold difference; understand when compromise sacrifices particular points of view and when compromise strengthens alliances.

What are you most looking forward to about the Discourse and Discord symposium?

Carl D: The opportunity to have these conversations in public, and to disagree about them.

Mark: The opportunity to encounter and test different ideas on agonism through the various formats planned.

Carl S: The chance to try a few things I’ve been working on, and to find out what might be possible in re-making Hennepin avenue, which seems to have a lot in common with a lot of other urban environments that need some love in North America and Europe.


An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 1

An Introduction to Agonism: Volume 2 

Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street

Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition (download)

What is the frictive rub between agonism and consensus?

Find out at Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Streetan upcoming public symposium from April 12 – 14 copresented by the Walker Art Center and Norther

via Susy Bielak

Discourse Karaoke Playlist

Discourse Karaoke is part of Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street, a public symposium copresented with the Walker Art Center.

Karaoke  from a selection of classic and contemporary protest/patriotic/political songs. Duets and larger singing groups are encouraged. Here is a partial list of songs. Start practicing now!

The Beatles, Revolution
The Beatles, Taxman
Black Eyed Peas, Where is the Love?
Black Sabbath, War Pigs
David Bowie, Young Americans
James Brown, Living in America
Buffalo Springfield, For What It’s Worth (Stop Children What’s that Sound)
Johnny Cash, The Man in Black
Tracy Chapman, Talking About a Revolution
Ray Charles, America the Beautiful
The Clash, I Fought the Law
The Clash, Rock the Casbah
The Cranberries, Zombie
The Cranberries, Free to Decide
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Fortunate Son
Creedence Clearwater Revival, Have You Ever Seen the Rain
Billy Ray Cyrus, Some Gave All
Neil Diamond, America
Bob Dylan, Maggie’s Farm
Bob Dylan, The Times They are a Changin’
EnVogue, Free Your Mind
Marvin Gaye, What’s Goin’ On?
Marvin Gaye, Mercy, Mercy Me
Green Day, American Idiot
Lee Greenwood, God Bless the USA (Proud to Be an American)
Woody Guthrie, This Land is Your Land
Billie Holiday, Strange Fruit
Mahalia Jackson, We Shall Overcome
Mahalia Jackson, Black or White
Mahalia Jackson, Earth Song
Michael Jackson, et al. We are the World, We are the children
Janis Joplin, Mercedes Benz
Toby Keith, American Soldier
Judas Priest, Revolution
John Lennon, Imagine
John Lennon, Give Peace a Chance
John Lennon & Yoko Ono, War is Over
Lynard Skynyrd, Sweet Home Alabama
Loretta Lynn, One’s On the Way
Bob Marley, I Shot the Sheriff
Bob Marley, Them Belly Full (But We Hungry)
Bob Marley, Redemption Song
John Mayer, Waiting on the World to Change
MC5, Kick Up the Jams
Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi
Peter, Paul, & Mary, Where Have all the Flowers Gone
Peter, Paul, & Mary, If I Had a Hammer
Pink, Dear Mr. President
Public Enemy, Fight the Power
Rage Against the Machine, Killing in the Name
Helen Reddy, I am Woman
Sex Pistols, Anarchy in the UK
Sex Pistols, God Save the Queen
Bruce Springsteen, Born in the U.S.A.
Standard, Star Spangled Banner
Standard, Amazing Grace
The Staples Singers, Respect Yourself
Edwin Starr, War
T-Rex, Children of the Revolution
Peter Tosh, Legalize It
U2, Year’s Day
U2, In God’s Country
U2, Mothers of the Disappeared
U2, Sunday Bloody Sunday
The Who, Won’t Get Fooled Again
Neil Young, Rockin’ in the Free World

The evening starts with a chalkboard mixer where people pair up with a stranger to discuss the following:

  • Describe a political issue that is not black and white to you. Describe one that is.
  • How do you think race affects politics?
  • Which candidate (local, national, historical) do you most identify with and why?
  • What do you think is the biggest threat to our society?
  • What influences your political beliefs the most and why?
  • Each partner chooses the other’s answer that they think is the most interesting. Each person then writes their answer on a 5 x 7 inch mailing label and wears it for the rest of the evening.

The Third Place Wing Young Huie Photography Gallery is located at at 3730 Chicago Avenue South in Minneapolis. Click here for directions.

Pictures from the opening: AOV3

Discourse and Discord

Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street

Public Symposium

April 12–14
Co-Presented with and at the Walker Art Center

In an era of cultural conservatives and the liberal elite, Occupiers and Tea Partiers, civil uprisings and government crackdowns, perhaps the one point of agreement today is there’s no shortage of disagreement. But if that’s true, then why isn’t there more debate—not online flame wars, not the televised jockeying of political candidates, but live, in-person dialogue?

That question was a starting point for this three-day symposium on agonism in the public sphere. A term unfamiliar to many, agonism describes an approach to politics that embraces difference and disagreement as an important part of democracy. As a series of talks, workshops, actions, and playful experiments, Discourse and Discord aims to explore the structures or “architectures”—whether it’s the built environment, online technologies, songs, or recipes—that can draw people together for genuine dialogue and debate. It also reinforces the notion that democracy thrives on and even requires an agonistic foundation: the friction of varied publics and participation by people of different minds, views, and beliefs.

Join with a range of other unlike-minded people to debate and discuss, disclose and expose—and find out what happens when you move beyond agreeing to disagree.

More information here.

1st Prize: The possibility of a new world order

"This call for ideas is not about perpetuating protests; it is about empowering them."

Storefront for Art and Architecture is making a call for submissions for projects and strategies that offer a new, creative and productive way of spatial occupation for public demonstrations and actions in cities throughout the world. Gathering expertise from the various acts of civil occupation throughout the world during the last months, we ask architects, artists and citizens at large to offer their ideas for enabling acts of communication and action between the civil society and the structures of economic and political power.”

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.