Agonism in Theory and Design

Taking its title from a chant used by protestors, the documentary This Is What Democracy Looks Like captured the 1999 World Trade Organization (WTO) demonstrations in Seattle, Washington, combining video footage from over a hundred individuals with narrations from participants (Friedberg and Rowley 2000). During these demonstrations, thousands of people—including members of labor unions, school teachers, and environmental activists—gathered in the streets of Seattle to oppose the policies of the WTO. The varied forms of demonstrations reflected the varied positions of the people who participated. Some groups organized marches and carried signs, others performed theater in the streets and drum circles in parks, and some engaged in civil disobedience. To declare that such a cacophony of voices and actions "is what democracy looks like" is bold and, to many, confusing and alarming. Such scenes run counter to North American ideas about democracy, which is exemplified by town meetings, party caucuses, and elections. But this chant declares that democracy is not simply order and rationality displayed in voting, structured decision making, and legislating, but that it also and necessarily is contentious affect and expression.

Within political theory, the notions of agonism and agonistic pluralism provide grounding for the idea of democracy as intrinsically contentious and thereby also provide a basis for understanding adversarial design and what it means to talk about design doing the work of agonism. Agonism is a condition of disagreement and confrontation—a condition of contestation and dissensus. Those who espouse an agonistic approach to democracy encourage contestation and dissensus as fundamental to democracy. In this way, an agonistic democracy is different from more formalized practices of deliberative democracy that privilege consensus and rationality. Much of the motivation for theories of agonism is to work against "third-way" and "centrist" politics, which tend to emphasize rationality and consensus as the basis for democratic decision making and action.4

Theories of agonism emphasize the affective aspects of political relations and accept that disagreement and confrontation are forever ongoing. For political theorist Chantal Mouffe, this is a consequence of what she calls the "paradox of democracy": we strive for a pluralism that we know can never be achieved. As she states (Mouffe 2000b, 15-16),

What is specific and valuable about modern liberal democracy is that, when properly understood, it creates a space in which this confrontation is kept open, power relations are always being put into question and no victory can be final. However, such an "agonistic" democracy requires accepting that conflict and division are inherent to politics and that there is no place where reconciliation could be definitively achieved as the full actualization of the unity of "the people." To imagine that pluralist democracy could ever be perfectly instantiated is to transform it into a self-refuting ideal, since the condition of possibility of a pluralist democracy is at the same time the condition of impossibility of its perfect implementation.

Agonism is a condition of forever looping contestation. The ongoing disagreement and confrontation are not detrimental to the endeavor of democracy but are productive of the democratic condition. Through contentious affect and expression, democracy is instantiated and expressed. From an agonistic perspective, democracy is a situation in which the facts, beliefs, and practices of a society are forever examined and challenged. For democracy to flourish, spaces of confrontation must exist, and contestation must occur. Perhaps the most basic purpose of adversarial design is to make these spaces of confrontation and provide resources and opportunities for others to participate in contestation.

Agonistics: A Language Game is a computational media project by Warren Sack (2004) that illustrates the qualities of agonism by engaging players in a state of agonistic conflict (figure 1.3). In this project, online discussion forums become the shared space in which agonistic conflict takes place. In Agonistics, players post messages to online forums with the goal of entering into dialog with other players. In the game or contest, winning occurs by having your own ideas promoted and taken up by others in the discussion forum. In addition to the textual qualities of the project, there is a visual component in which participants are represented as icons on screen, arrayed in a circle. Custom software designed and written by Sack tracks the relative standing of a player 's posts in the overall catalog of posts. As a player 's ideas and perspectives gain ground in the discussion forum (that is, as others reference them), the player's icon moves away from the periphery and toward the center of the circle. One way to have your idea referenced by others is to take a controversial position, thereby provoking response. In this way, the game and the software that makes it possible

Figure 1.3

Warren Sack, Agonistics: A Language Game exhibit, 2002, gatepages/artists/sack

reward the production and maintenance of contestation. A player of Ago- nistics cannot destroy other players, and a player does not want to antagonize the field of discourse so that the exchange ceases, for that would result in a player's standing being diminished. Rather, the game is designed such that a player needs to keep the conflict alive to win. This requires constant and ongoing articulation and expression to produce positions that will sustain the conflictual exchange.

Agonistics: A Language Game demonstrates a key notion of agonism (particularly as developed by Mouffe)—the difference between enemies and adversaries. Mouffe' s theory of agonism draws heavily from political theorist Carl Schmitt' s formulation of the political as a state of conflict that is based in a distinction between friends and enemies (Schmitt 1996). But rather than framing the conflict as among enemies that seek to destroy one another, the term adversary is used to characterize a relationship that includes disagreement and strife but that lacks a violent desire to abolish the other. In this way, agonism reveals its roots in the Greek agon: "a public celebration of games; a contest for the prize at those games; or, a verbal contest between two characters in a Greek play" (OED 2008). Shared among the historical and contemporary meanings of agonism is a notion of a particular kind of conflict that is not merely symbolic. It has social, material, and experiential consequences but does not result in the annihilation of the other.

Whereas Mouffe uses the term adversary to describe the character of relations between actors and positions within an agonistic democracy, I use that term to describe the character of designed artifacts or systems. In labeling an object as adversarial, I mean to call attention to the contesta- tional relations and experiences aroused through the designed thing and the way it expresses dissensus. Labeling an object as adversarial also shifts the grounds for critique. It requires that the description and analysis of the object bring to the fore the way that its designed qualities enable or model the productive and ongoing questioning, challenging, and reframing that typifies agonism.

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