Thoughts on being a worthy opponent

Earlier this month the Walker Art Center hosted a symposium on agonism in collaboration with Northern Lights. I only attended a small portion of the week-end’s offerings but even a small dose has been enough to keep my mind active for the past two weeks. And what’s stuck with me is the idea that there is good work to be done in being a worthy opponent, “a thoroughly dedicated adversary.” More on that in just a bit.

The first question is, what is agonism? Maybe you all already know all about it but I had to read and think about it before the symposium. Agonism (Wikipedia)  is “a political theory that emphasizes the potentially positive aspects of certain (but not all) forms of political conflict. It accepts a permanent place for such conflicts but seeks to show how we might accept and channel this positively.” Or, “Discourse among adversaries rather enemies” (Walker web site).

The Walker symposium convened artists, architects, urban planners, and scholars who are taking the conceptual framework of agonism and exploring it in their work. Some of the questions they ask are: Is the design of public space (real and virtual) conducive for dialogue and discourse? If disagreement and conflict will always be with us (and are in fact essential to the democratic process) how do we plan (create physical and intellectual space) for conflict? How can conflict be made most constructive? Most imaginative? And, in what state of preparedness and engagement should one approach conflict given the expectation that through conflict, ideas are often improved?

Among the artworks related to the symposium that you can see online, check these out: Marisa Jahn’s Pro+agonist: The Art of Opposition (available for free download, Jahn’s work is a book and set of playing cards that “explore the productive possibilities of .. a relationship built on mutual incitement and struggle”); and Carl Skelton’s Betaville,  an “open-source multiplayer environment for real cities, in which ideas for new works of public art, architecture, urban design, and development can be shared, discussed, tweaked, and brought to maturity in context, and with the kind of broad participation people take for granted in open source software development.” The Walker’s laudable commitment to digital access means that detailed links to all of the participants’ work is easily found through links to the main symposium web page.

Inherent in the idea of conflict is the existence of an opponent, or multiple opponents. And at the symposium there was mention of what it means to be a worthy opponent. We all have had opponents whose conflicts with us do not strengthen our thinking or improve our ideas, who offer no insights and do not change our minds. But sometime, I’m sure, you’ve had a conflict with someone who did expand your mind and make your ideas bigger and better. What qualities existed in that situation and what was your interaction like?

And now allow me to date myself with this quote from The Teachings of Don Juan: “Without the aid of a worthy opponent, who’s not really an enemy but a thoroughly dedicated adversary, the apprentice has no possibility of continuing on the path of knowledge.”

So what I’ve been thinking about is how this relates to advocacy and civic discourse, about public positions and changing minds. It seems to me that the practice of public and political advocacy is mainly focused on clarifying what you are for, and spending most if not all of your time thinking about how to be for your position. Usually this is done by talking to other people who think just like you do and who already agree with your position. And we excel at this in the cultural sector.

What would happen if we put as much energy, focus, and imagination into the qualities of opposition that we practice? That is, what is the most thoughtful and imaginative way to be against someone else’s position rather than merely for your own? What if we spent more time with people who are against our positions and people we rarely, if ever talk to? People who are the least “like us”? Would our habits of mind change? Would our advocacy be stronger? Would our ideas be improved?  The agonist would answer a resounding “yes” to this last question. That’s what I’ve been thinking about thanks to the Walker.




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  1. Roberto Bedoya says


    Long time no see….. Thanks for your report. You may find the political writings of Chantal Mouffe useful to your reflections. Her book “The Democratic Paradox” is rich and an essay in that book “For an Agonistic Model of Democracy” so smart. It has become an important touch-point to my work. A few years back I wrote for NPN about a key concept in her agonistic model, the work of creating a “chain of equivalences” and how it intersect with cultural policy formation and articulations – arguing that it doesn’t.

    Artists have been rubbing up with the idea of agonism for awhile and I’m so glad to hear about the Walker symposium and I look forward to spending time on the website. As to cultural policy I find that the field is dominated by technocrats and they are so busy with constructing complicity and looking at how agonism operates in our sector is avoided. Most recently I’ve been looking at how race and racism operates in our sector – an “opposite” often treated as an threatening “opposition” to the white racial frame that exist as the norm in field. How I wish the sector would embrace agonism and even more so…take up the work of creating equivalences that knows how to work with differences of opinions, world-views, strategies.

    Again thanks for your words



    • says

      Thanks Roberto. It is good to hear from you! I will look up the essay you recommend. Let me know what you think of the website, which is rich with links to artworks and commentary. The Walker’s Discourse and Discord symposium is one of four public conversations that invite public participation in a larger enterprise called “Plan-It Hennepin.” Plan-It Hennepin is a year-long effort by cultural organizations located on Hennepin Avenue to re-imagine and re-vitalize the Hennepin Avenue corridor, which runs through downtown Minneapolis. The Avenue is not welcoming to people despite its central location and the fact that it serves as home to not only the Walker but a number of historic theaters and other cultural organizations. You can read more about it here.

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