agonistics: a language game

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\Ag`o*nis"tics\, n. The science of athletic combats, or contests in public games. Webster's 1913 Dictionary The images and actions used as metaphors by Chantal Mouffe and other theorists of "agonistic democracy" can be instantiated literally as interactive, graphical objects and dynamics. This literal instantiation is offered as an online, computer game that can played by posting messages to a public, online discussion forum.


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, 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).



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