Argument is war. In their book Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark
Johnson explain how this is metaphorically true. The language we use to talk
about arguments is a language of war. We "attack" our opponents positions
and "defend" our own. We "shoot down" opposing arguments. We say that
claims are "defensible" or "indefensible." We talk of "winning" and "losing"
arguments. In arguing we have "tactics" and "strategies." We are "on target" or
"off target" in our criticisms. We "gain ground" or "lose ground." In fact, it is
not simply that we talk about arguments like this, this is what we do. Lakoff and
Johnson ask us to consider a culture in which arguments are not conceptualized
as verbal warfare, but as collaborative dances: participants are not opponents
but partners and each counter-move is a balanced, graceful response. That
would be a very different world.
Of course the latter is not an alien idea. Philosophers have long
distinguished the constructive, cooperative art of conversation (dialectics) from
verbal combat (rhetoric). However, the problem has often been that -- when the
cool reason of conversation comes in contact with the heated emotion of
argumentation -- rhetoric melts dialectic and we get a shouting match rather
than a reasoned debate. What can be done?
There is an argument about arguments and it has at least two sides. On
one side, the advice given is of a moral quality: To allow reason to prevail over
rage, calm everyone down. Make everyone follow the rules of calm and
reasonable conversation and disallow the shouts and unruly outbursts of the
arguing parties. The other side is neither moral nor immoral but opportunistic.
This side is usually the one politicians listen to when they are running for office
or ruling a state. The other side starts with the assumption that any verbal
interaction will eventually become a shouting match so the best preparation is
voice training and acting lessons, so that -- when the transition to shouting is at
hand -- one can shout loud enough to make one's emotional appeal. The former
is the utopian, Enlightenment ideal of reasoned debate, rational politics,
democracy and verbal diplomacy; the latter is our world, the world of image,
charisma, negative advertising, power politics, and war.
But, if we want deliberative debate, democracy and diplomacy, how do
we get from here to there? Political philosophers have been arguing about
arguing for a long time. Even though the most of this territory is occupied by the
two sides described above, a third "camp" is emerging. (Hmm. There's that metaphor again!)
The third camp tries to break up the fight between the moral
conversationalists and the political rhetoricians by attempting to get everyone
off the battlefield and to reconsider the shape and forms of the field of
engagement. Lakoff and Johnson do this by making us examine the language
we use to describe what we are doing when we argue. Political theorists like
Chantal Mouffe provide us with alternatives by pointing out that -- even if
argument is war -- war is just one form (although a deadly form) of contest
between adversaries. Mouffe's alternative to a utopic, moral, deliberative
democracy is -- what she calls -- an "agonistic pluralism" where agon is
understood as the ancient Greek term denoting "A public celebration of games;
a contest for the prize at those games; or, a verbal contest or dispute between
two characters in a Greek play" (OED).
Political theorists, like Mouffe, interested in the democratic potential of
agonistic contests, oftentimes recast deliberative discussion as a language
game -- in the sense invented by Ludwig Wittgenstein. Moreover, this
reimagining of politics leans heavily on Friedrich Nietzsche's understanding of
agonistics and ancient Greek philosophy. A close look at the writings of this set
of political theorists (which must also include Jean-Francois Lyotard, Michel
Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, and Bruno Latour) rewards one with the following
insight: just as Lakoff and Johnson show how everyday thinking about
arguments draws on a set of metaphorical images and actions, so do these
theorists assume a different set of metaphorical images and actions to describe
verbal contests -- specifically, game like images and actions. Neither are these
images and actions the moral frameworks of, for example, Jurgen Habermas
and other moralists hoping for perfect conditions for communicative interaction.
Nor, are these images and actions the violent ones implied by the
commonsense metaphor "argument is war."
What then are these images and actions? Two sorts of evidence can be
gathered from a close reading of these theorists. One sort of evidence is
articulated in the form of broad outlines or "sketches" for envisioning such a
game. Chantal Mouffe provides an example of such a "sketch" in her article
entitled "Deliberative Democracy or Agonistic Pluralism?": "pluralist politics should
be envisaged as a 'mixed-game', i.e., in part collaborative and in part conflictual
and not as a wholly co-operative game as most liberal pluralists would have it."
More specific, detailed, "diagrammatic" evidence comes from theorists who
provide us with, what Gilles Deleuze calls, "thought images." One such
influential thought images is that coined by Deleuze and Guattari to describe
non-hierarchical forms of knowledge and power; i.e., the rhizome. As
demonstrated by online forums, like rhizome.org, such a thought image can
influence an extensive information architecture. However, even more substantial
than these verbal descriptions are the graphically rendered diagrams that are
sometimes ventured by theorists like Bruno Latour in his book Science in Action,
a Nietzschean look at the agonistic dynamics of presumably democratic,
scientific debate and controversy. Mouffe, Deleuze, Latour and others have
provided us with a reimagining of democratic debate as a contest to link, unlink,
build and dissolve assemblages of people and things.
This essay will be published in the forthcoming exhibition catalogue: Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy,
Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, Editors (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press and ZKM|Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, June 2005).