Monday, 17 January 2011

Agon and Antagonism

I have been thinking today about a distinction made by Chantal Mouffe, the distinction between 'an enemy' and 'an adversary', between agonism and antagonism. How, exactly, are we to make this distinction? Is it the result of a differing attitudes on the part of the people involved, or simply the context in which a relationship takes place?

What ethical and political consequences follow from this distinction? Can we have a society without 'adversaries'?




  1. Isn't it desire and the competition it consequently drives that creates an adversary in society?

    Removing desire is more of an enlightenment concept I think, and now with no utopian end in sight our society is somewhat fuelled by it.

    And in fact the only ends that seem reasonable are cataclysmic ones, thus making the competition for the last scraps of resources becomes even more ferocious!

  2. Well from what I can tell from a bit of quick research on this distinction between 'enemy' and 'adversary', it seems that 'adversary' is someone who in a liberal democratic system you disagree with but believe in their right to different opinions and through that discourse create new institutions for social progress, whereas 'enemy' is someone who you are totally incompatible with, someone you just want to destroy.

    That at first sounds like a really nice distinction as it seemingly allows for people to recognise that there could always be opponents of democracy who are 'enemies', people who don't recognise the 'rules of the game' and that these 'enemies' willfully exclude themselves from the democratic process by not allowing for adversarial progress.

    However I think once you dig a bit deeper there are a lot of implicit presuppositions within that concept of 'enemy', and they are almost exactly the same presuppositions that haunt Habermas' concept of 'tolerance'. Mouffe asserts that they 'exclude themselves' from the democratic process by not recognising liberal democratic political discourse while still allowing for cultural/ethical difference.

    The problem is that fundamentalists do not understand the political/cultural division and can't conceive of it, surely God/s' will is totalizing? Therefore to the fundamentalist it is Mouffe who is forcing homogeny onto the fundamentalist and the fundamentalist could only view this as being excluded merely for being different, not willfully excluding herself.

    The political/cultural division is a specifically European Enlightenment division so, just as 'tolerance' is, the concept of 'adversary' and 'enemy' can only get Mouffe so far before she comes up to her own lack of understanding of difference.

    Maybe I'm wrong and that's too harsh, but those Occidental presuppositions do seem to be there.

  3. And just to make clear, I'm not saying that we must think of theories which will allow discourse with fundamentalists, I'm not sure whether we should or not. All I wanted to highlight is that there are Enlightenment Occidental presuppositions within Mouffe and that you can't say 'they exclude themselves' when it's actually you excluding people without realising it.

    I guess a question is 'should we attempt to empathize with fundamentalists?'

  4. If I’m allowed to crudely summarise; Mill's On liberty separates the distinction between enemy and adversary. An enemy is someone 'harming' someone, in terms of the ‘Harm principle’ and an adversary is someone using there liberty of free speech.
    The individualism or 'adversary’s' help to maintain a progressive society. Enemies are individuals with a Weltanschauung. I think we should always entertain an advisory in the Socratic sense.
    From this, it is the context in which a relationship takes place. Even Socrates was put to death for incessant questioning. Maybe we are adversary’s as long as we don’t question too much and enemy’s when we do.