Due to its sheer theoretical breadth, it is difficult to summarize Chantal Mouffe’s recent talk at the University of Michigan. I have only read short pieces by Mouffe, which include few focused interviews on pluralism and conflict, and participation and politics. As such, Mouffe’s keynote lecture at CLIFF entitled Agonistic Politics: Ethical or Political? was stimulating and challenging in equal measure. She grounded her paper in the conceptual distinction between “politics” and “the political” – wider notions that I continue to grapple with in my own work. In the notes below, I have attempted to outline a conceptual map of the terms and concepts she used, with a disclaimer that each of them warrants additional discussion.
Ontic/Ontological: Mouffe stated that there has been no agreement yet between the very many voices that observe the distinction between “politics” and “the political.” Her own take on these concepts is that the former remains constitutive of the practices and institutions through which a rational order is created, whereas the latter invokes the question of decision-making; it is about conflict for which no rational solution might exist. “Politics,” for Mouffe, operates at the ontic level, whilst “the political” takes form and shape at the ontological level.
Associative/Dissociative: Mouffe further explained that there are two ways in which the issue of “the political” has often been discussed in contemporary humanistic discourse. The first could be called the “associative” view of the political (Arendt and the followers of Arendt), whilst the second could be called the “dissociative” view of the political (her contribution). The associative view sees politics as acting in harmony; it firmly believes in the possibility of universal consensus (Habermas). Against this, the dissociative view is concerned with the dimension of conflict, of antagonism, of the differences between “us/them,” “we/they.”
Antagonistic/Agonistic: The role of democracy, therefore, is not to focus on “us” or “we” alone and assume/propagate universal consensus, but to try and manage the conflict between us/them, we/they, such that both part and counterpart are no longer mutually “antagonistic,” but rather “adversaries” in “agonistic” co-presence of one another, sharing a common symbolic space of group identification (emphasis mine). To manage conflict, therefore, … is to embrace “contingency,” such that neither “we” nor “they” are ever completely dominant or dominated. Contingency implies conflictual politics of active and continuous engagement, and carries with it the potential for transforming liberal democratic institutions. To Mouffe, this is the essence of “radical democracy,” always in flux, continuously producing newer articulations of hegemony.
Throughout the talk, I couldn’t help but connect Mouffe’s remarks on agonistic politics to Harvey’s take on “the right to the city” (not what we should do, but who we are), and her emphasis on contingency to Till’s view of architecture (as a contingent discipline). However, the question remains if a common symbolic and political space is easy to achieve and/or possible to sustain? How can we ensure that agonism never transforms back into antagonism? What role might contingency play in sustaining the proposed adversarial model? These are agonizing ruminations, but for now, I will scribble some more and try and discuss emerging thoughts with Jesús de Felipe Redondo,* who shared this piece with my students last semester.
*Jesús is a post-doctoral scholar in Modern History and a fellow Telluridian at the University of Michigan. His research interests include social movements, social citizenship, social states, and historiography. He was a wonderful addition to my class, especially at a time, when we were discussing notions of participation and social meaning in relation to politics and aesthetics, as politics of aesthetics.