Hans Haacke and the Agonism of Presidential Debates

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Hans Haacke, Der Bevolkerung, 1999, Neon lights, dirt, mixed-media installation. Photo by James Wagner.

A highlight of the second half of 2012 has been the presidential debates. It was a rare chance to see President Obama and Mitt Romney fence with words. Part of the excitement came from seeing one candidate land a verbal blow, but the real satisfaction comes from watching the wounded party respond.
Because the debates happen in real time, you can immediate see each parry and pivot. You know if they give hot-headed responses, meek returns, and razor-sharp counters. The candidates spend most of their stump speeches wielding criticism; it is only at the debates that you get to watch them take it, too. This continual back and forth of the debates can become heated, and at times it feels like real blood-sport.
Comparing debates to blood-sport is a useful metaphor only up to a point. I could have compared the debates to wrestling, boxing, or even military combat. The important difference between the debates and combat, however, is that no one is physically hurt in the debate and no one risks their life. This may seem an obvious point, but it is worth noting that there is a marked difference between a verbal disagreement and actually coming to blows. It would have been a very different debate season if each candidate came ready for fisticuffs. Instead, as our democratic law-governed society expects, differences amongst the candidates are reconciled in the realm of discourse.
The philosopher Chantal Mouffe has made this model a cornerstone of her political theory. She wishes to stress a conceptual difference between political antagonism (an open conflict with the possibility of bodily harm) and political agonism, a measured conflict within a democratic society.
The term agonism derives from the Greek αγων (agōn) which means rival. It was a term often used to denote rival poets or playwrights in public competitions. These poets would compete with great intensity, but never mortal danger. Mouffe’s agonism tries to strike a similar balance within the realm of contemporary politics. She believes that agonism is a positive way to think about political interactions in democratic society. This is especially important in societies where a plurality of contradictory viewpoints is present and conflict is inevitable.
Book cover image courtesy booktopia.com.

Mouffe explains in her 2000 book The Democratic Paradox that an agonistic citizen would be like “adversaries being defined in a paradoxical way as ‘friendly enemies,’ that is, persons who are friends because they share a common symbolic space but also enemies because they want to organize this common symbolic space in a different way.”
She adopts this ambiguous idea of “symbolic space” from the French philosopher Claude Lefort. For Lefort and Mouffe, the symbolic encompasses all possible empirical (mise en sens) and ideological psychical forces (mise en scene) that create meaning for political actions.  It is a purposefully and very general definition that hopes to catch all social, historical, and ideological forces that come to bear on our political reality.
An interesting implication of Mouffe’s broad definition of agonism is that political contestation need not occur only in presidential elections, but also in culture more broadly. Since agonism happens at the symbolic level, this leaves Mouffe open to the idea that art, insofar as it works at the symbolic level, can be intrinsically political. This appears to be a fertile idea for anyone interested in the political efficacy of art.
It is easy to see agonism illustrated in the presidential debates. Both Obama and Romney might be considered friendly enemies. They are friends insofar as they share a common symbolic space that respects the electoral process. They are enemies insofar as they want to organize that process in their favor to the exclusion of the other. Their conflict manifests in debates and spoken rhetoric. This is a text-book case.
In fact, almost all of Mouffe’s examples fall along similar lines: agonism manifests as either spoken or written disagreement. This works for many situations, but for the arts, an overly linguistic theory cannot hold. Artworks often function on material, spatial, and affective registers. It is unclear how art without speech or text could actually be agonistic.
Mouffe gives us very little in the ways of examples in which art functions agonistically. In a 2001 interview in Grey Room, she points to one specific work of art she feels was successfully agonistic. For this work, titled Der Bevolkerung, the German-American artist Hans Haacke was commissioned to make a sculpture for the courtyard of the German parliament building the Reichstag.
Haacke responded to the motto found on the front of the parliament building that reads “DEM DEUTSCHEN VOLKE,” which translates into “For the German People.” Haacke mimicked the font and installed a new motto in the building’s courtyard that read “DER BEVÖLKERUNG” or “For the Population.”
This simple word-play exploits the fact that “The German People” is narrow and not synonymous with the broad idea of “the population.” The whole piece turns on a tension between the exclusive and inclusive connotations of these words. Both mottos are directed at the members of the Bundesstag (the German federal legislature) and suggest that they must question their mandate.
In many ways Haacke’s piece is the perfect example of agonism. Its tone is simultaneously critical but also respectful of the Budesstag. The sculpture, like an agonistic adversary, disagrees with the original motto, but without diminishing it.
But it also is important to note that the work is based in text. It fits too cleanly into Mouffe’s highly linguistic presentation and tells us very little about the non-textual in art. This is a short-coming in the theory of agonism: the description is too rooted to linguistic analogies.
Even Haacke’s work has distinctly non-textual elements: it has physical presence on the floor, it is surrounded by dirt from every district in Germany, and that dirt has spontaneously started to grow wild plants. It seems to me that we cannot consider only the text within the art to the exclusion of its other components. If Haacke’s work is to be agonistic, this must include even the dirt he uses and not just the words.
There is something very interesting and attractive about Mouffe’s idea as a way of thinking about art’s political function. If agonism to be a viable theory, however, it must be flexible enough to think about art works in their totality. As is, Mouffe implicitly defines political art as only text-based art.
It is clear from much of Mouffe’s writing that she wants to have a more expansive understanding of what constitutes the field of agonism beyond the merely linguistic. Mouffe clearly intends her ideas to have broader application and to encompass both the physical and psychical determinants of our society.  She simply lacks solid examples to illustrate how this is possible.
Presidential debates are certainly one model of agonism, a spoken one, but this does not preclude the possibility of models using dance, painting, or even wood carving. As a final thought, I’d like to suggest that the question being posed here is best answered by artists: How can political dialogue be realized through non-textual art?