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Agonizing over “Agonism”: Exploring How Difference Can Fuel Democracy

By Susy Bielak & Ashley Duffalo

Agonism. The word can feel awkward and obtuse—even painful. But for months it’s been at the tip of the tongues of Walker staff and colleagues who have been considering it as an approach to a politics that embraces difference and disagreement as important parts of democracy. While the word may be unfamiliar to many, agonism speaks acutely to our current political moment.

The public symposium Discourse and Discord: Architecture of Agonism from the Kitchen Table to the City Street, copresented by the Walker Art Center and Northern Lights.mn, aims to address and unpack agonism, looking at how it works on the ground and what kind of “architectures”—whether the built environment, online technologies, songs, or even recipes—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 between people of different minds, views, and beliefs.

To better understand the term, five symposium participants—Carl DiSalvo, Marisa Jahn, Warren Sack, Carl Skelton, and Mark Shepard—weigh in on agonism.

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

Warren Sack

Agonism is the ancient Greek word for a contest with a prize. In the sense we’re using it, it’s a way of understanding life and politics as a game or contest.

Carl DiSalvo

Agonism is the truth that your neighbor already knows. Legislation doesn’t solve anything. The conflicts continue regardless; it’s just the nature of politics.

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 cacophony. 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.

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

Jahn

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 back door to solve problems and intrigue using a different kind of logic.

DiSalvo

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

Shepard

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.

Sack

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?

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

DiSalvo

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 such as “democracy” and “politics.” From this, we might begin to not just “think about” but also “do” democracy differently.

Jahn

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 strong enough to withstand difference and adversity.

Sack

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?

Shepard

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?

Jahn

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?

DiSalvo

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

Shepard

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

DiSalvo

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

A giant megaphone, made during Futurefarmers’ Open Field residency, 2010

Created on the Walker’s Open Field, the giant amplifier required teamwork and collaboration to support the voice of each individual.

An agonism playing card, from a deck designed by Marisa Jahn

A blue agonism playing card

Jahn’s deck of cards are rendered in black and blue—a reference to bruising, sometimes the result of conflict.

Karaoke at Wing Young Huie’s The Third Place Gallery

As part of the agonism conference, the photographer hosts karaoke at his gallery, which gets its name from a place that is neither home nor work, but serves as an anchor of community life to “facilitate and foster broader, more creative interaction.”