Acampora 2002 – philosophy professor at Hunter College of the City University of New York (Fall, Christa Davis, International Studies in Philosophy, 34.3, “Of Dangerous Games and Dastardly Deeds”, http://christaacampora.com/uploads/news/id18/Dangerous%20Games.pdf)
The agonistic game is organized around the test of a specific quality the persons involved possess. When two runners compete, the quality tested is typically speed or endurance; when artists compete, it is creativity; craftsmen test their skills, etc.. The contest has a specific set of rules and criteria for determining (i.e., measuring) which person has excelled above the others in the relevant way. What is tested is a quality the individual competitors themselves possess; and external assistance is not permitted. (This is not to say that agonistic games occur only between individuals and that there can be no cooperative aspects of agonistic engagement. Clearly individuals can assert themselves and strive against other individuals within the context of a team competition, but groups can also work collectively to engage other groups agonistically. In those cases what is tested is the collective might, creativity, endurance, or organizational ability of the participating groups.) Ideally, agonistic endeavors draw out of the competitors the best performance of which they are capable. Although agonistic competition is sometimes viewed as a "zero-sum game," in which the winner takes all, in the cases that Nietzsche highlights as particularly productive agonistic institutions, all who participate are enhanced by their competition. Winning must be a significant goal of participation in agonistic contests, but it would seem that winning might be only one, and not necessarily the most important one, among many reasons to participate in such a competition. In his later writings, Nietzsche appears to be interested in thinking about how the structures of contests or struggles can facilitate different possibilities for competing well within them. In other words, he questions whether the structure of the game might limit the way in which one might be able to compete. His study of slavish morality illuminates well that concern.
II. Dastardly Deeds
The so-called "Good Eris," described in "Homer's Contest," supposedly allowed the unavoidable urge to strive for preeminence to find expression in perpetual competition in ancient Greek culture. In On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche seeks to critique Christianity for advocating a kind of altruism, or selflessness, that is essentially self-destructive, and for perverting the urge to struggle by transforming it into a desire for annihilation. Read in light of "Homer's Contest," Nietzsche's Genealogy enables us to better grasp his conception of the value of contest as a possible arena for the revaluation of values, and it advances an understanding of the distinctions Nietzsche draws between creative and destructive forms of contest and modes of competing within them.
Nietzsche's On the Genealogy of Morals, a Streitschrift—a polemic, a writing that aims to provoke a certain kind of fighting—portrays a battle between "the two opposing values 'good and bad,' 'good and evil'." Nietzsche depicts slavish morality as that which condemns as evil what perpetuates the agon—namely, self-interest, jealousy, and the desire to legislate values— but rather than killing off the desire to struggle, slavish morality manipulates and redirects it. Prevention of struggleis considered by Nietzsche to be hostile to life: an "order thought of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle between power-complexes but as a means of preventing all struggle in general—... would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness" (GM II:11). "The 'evolution' of a thing, a custom, an organ is [...] a succession of [...] more or less mutually independent processes of subduing, plus the resistances they encounter, the attempts at transformation for the purpose of defense and reaction, and the results of successful counteractions"(GM II:12). For Nietzsche, human beings, like nations, acquire their identity in their histories of struggles, accomplishments, and moments of resistance. The complete cessation of strife, for Nietzsche, robs a being of its activity, of its life.
In the second essay of the Genealogy, Nietzsche identifies the notion of conscience, which demands a kind of self-mortification, as an example of the kind of contest slavish morality seeks: "Hostility, cruelty, joy in persecuting, in attacking, in change, in destruction—all this turned against the possessors of such instinct: that is the origin of the 'bad conscience'" (GM II:16). Denied all enemies and resistances, finding nothing and no one with whom to struggle except himself, the man of bad conscience:
impatiently lacerated, persecuted, gnawed at, assaulted, and maltreated himself; this animal that rubbed itself raw against the bars of its cage as one tried to 'tame' it; this deprived creature... had to turn himself into an adventure, a torture chamber, an uncertain and dangerous wilderness — this fool, this yearning and desperate prisoner became the inventor of the 'bad conscience.' But thus began the gravest and uncanniest illness... a declaration of war against the old instincts upon which his strength, joy, and terribleness had reached hitherto (GM II:16).
Bad conscience functions in slavish morality as a means of self-flagellation, as a way to vent the desire to hurt others once external expressions of opposition are inhibited and forbidden. "Guilt before God: this thought becomes an instrument of torture to him" (GM II:22). In that case, self-worth depends upon the ability to injure and harm oneself, to apply the payment of selfmaltreatment to one's irreconcilable account with God. It is the effort expended in one's attempt to make the impossible repayment that determines one's worth. xi The genuine struggle, that which truly determines value for the ascetic ideal is one in which one destructively opposes oneself—one's value increases as one succeeds in annihilating oneself. Slavish morality is still driven by contest, but the mode of this contest is destructive. It mistakes self-inflicted suffering as a sign of strength. The ascetic ideal celebrates cruelty and torture—it revels in and sanctifies its own pain. It is a discord that wants to be discordant, that enjoys itself in this suffering and even grows more self-confident and triumphant the more its own presupposition, its physiological capacity for life decreases. 'Triumph in the ultimate agony': the ascetic ideal has always fought under this hyperbolic sign; in this enigma of seduction, in this image of torment and delight, it recognized its brightest light, its salvation, its ultimate victory (GM III:28).
Slavish morality, particularly in the form of Pauline Christianity, redirects the competitive drive and whips into submission all outward expressions of strife by cultivating the desire to be "good" xii in which case being good amounts abandoning, as Nietzsche portrays it, both the structure of the contests he admired in "Homer's Contest" and the productive ways of competing within them. It does not merely redirect the goal of the contest (e.g., struggling for the glory of Christ rather than competing for the glory of Athens), rather how one competes well is also transformed(e.g., the "good fight" is conceived as tapping divine power to destroy worldly strongholds xiii rather than excelling them). In other words, the ethos of contest, the ethos of the agon is transformed in slavish morality. xiv
III. Dangerous Games
Moralities effect contests in two ways: 1) they articulate a structure through which the meaning of human being (e.g., excellence, goodness, etc.) can be created and meted out, and 2) they simultaneously cultivate a commitment to a certain way of competing within those structures. By cultivating not only a desire to win but a desire to compete well (which includes respect for one's competitor and the institutions that sets forth the terms of the engagement), xv we can establish a culture capable of deriving our standards of excellence internally and of renewing and revaluing those standards according to changes in needs and interests of our communities. This is the legacy that Nietzsche strives to articulate in his "Homer's Contest," one that he intends his so-called "new nobility" to claim. If the life of slavish morality is characterized by actions of annihilation and cruelty, Nietzsche's alternative form of valuation is marked by its activity of surmounting what opposes, of overcoming opposition by rising above (erheben) what resists, of striving continually to rise above the form of life it has lived. As a form of spiritualized striving, self-overcoming, must, like Christian agony, be selfdirected; its aim is primarily resistance to and within oneself, but the agony—that is, the structure of that kind of painful struggle—differs both in how it orients its opposition and in how it pursues its goals . Self-overcoming does not aim at self-destruction but rather at selfexhaustion and self-surpassing. It strives not for annihilation but for transformation, and the method of doing so is the one most productive in the external contests of the ancient Greeks: the act of rising above. Self-overcoming asks us to seek hostility and enmity as effective means for summoning our powers of development. Others who pose as resistances, who challenge and test our strength, are to be earnestly sought and revered. That kind of reverence, Nietzsche claims, is what makes possible genuine relationships that enhance our lives. Such admiration and cultivation of oppositionserve as "a bridge to love" (GM I:10) because they present a person with the opportunity to actively distinguish himself, to experience the joy and satisfaction that comes with what Nietzsche describes as "becoming what one is." xvi
This, Nietzsche suggests, is what makes life worth living—it is what permits us to realize a certain human freedom to be active participants in shaping our own lives. xvii
Agonists, in the sense that Nietzsche has in mind, do not strive to win at all costs. Were that their chief or even highly prominent goal we would expect to see even the best contestants hiding from their serious challengers to their superiority or much more frequently resorting to cheating in order to win. Rather, agonists strive to claim maximal meaning for their actions. (That's the good of winning.) They want to perform in a superior manner, one that they certainly hope will excel that of their opponent. In other words, the best contestants have a foremost commitment to excellence, a disposition that includes being mindful of the structure through which their action might have any meaning at all—the rules of thecontest orgame. xviii
What makes this contest dangerous?xix
To be engaged in the process of overcoming, as Nietzsche describes it, is to be willing to risk oneself, to be willing to risk what one has been— the meaning of what one is—in the process of creating and realizing a possible future. The outcome is not guaranteed, that a satisfactory or "better" set of meanings and values will result is not certain. And when the contest is one in which rights to authority are in play, even the Nietzschean contest always runs the risk of supporting tyranny—of supplying the means by which the tyrannical takes its hold. Nietzsche is, of course, mindful of this danger, which is why in his account of the Greek agon he finds it important to discuss the alleged origin of ostracism as the mechanism for preserving the openness of contest. xx
Nietzsche claims agonistic institutions contribute to the health of individuals and the culture in which these institutions are organized because agon provides the means for attaining personal distinction and for creating shared goals and interests. Pursuit of this activity, Nietzsche claims, is meaningful freedom. Late in his career, Nietzsche writes, "How is freedom measured in individuals and peoples? According to the resistance which must be overcome, according to the exertion required, to remain to top. The highest type of free men should be sought where the highest resistance is constantly overcome: five steps from tyranny, close to the threshold of the danger of servitude" (TI, "Skirmishes," 38). Nietzsche believes that it is only when our strength is testedthat it will develop. Later in the passage just cited, Nietzsche continues, "Danger alone acquaints us with our own resources, our virtues, our armor and weapons, our spirit, and forces us to be strong. First principle: one must need to strong—otherwise one will never become strong" (TI, "Skirmishes," 38). Nietzsche takes upon himself, in his own writing, the task of 11 making these kinds of challenges for his readers. Nietzsche's critiques of liberal institutions, democracy, feminism, and socialism should be read in the context of his conception of human freedom and the goal he takes for himself as a kind of liberator. Read thus, we could very well come to see the relevance of agonistic engagement as a means of pursuing a kind of democracy viewed not as a static preservation of some artificial and stultifying sense of equality, but as a process of pursuing meaningful liberty, mutual striving together in pursuit of freedom conceived not as freedom from the claims of each other but as the freedom of engagement in the process of creating ourselves. xxi
IV. A Nietzschean ethos of agonism
In a recent essay, Dana R. Villa examines the general thrust of arguments of those advocating agonistic politics. These "contemporary agonists," xxii he claims, largely look to Nietzsche and Foucault (cast as Nietzsche's heir, at least with regard to his conception of power and contest) for inspiration as they make their "battle cry of 'incessant contestation'," which is supposed to create the space a radical democratic politics. These theorists, remind us that the public sphere is as much a stage for conflict and expression as it is a set of procedures or institutions designed to preserve peace, promote fairness, or achieve consensus. They also (contra Rawls) insist that politics and culture form a continuum, where ultimate values are always already in play; where the content of basic rights and the purposes of political association are not the objects of a frictionless 'overlapping consensus' but are contested every day in a dizzying array of venues. xxiii
Villa would commend them for this reminder, but he claims that "recent formulations of an agonistic politics […] have tended to celebrate conflict, and individual and group expression, a bit too unselectively". xxiv
He argues that "Nietzsche-inspired" agonists would do better to look to Arendt's conception of the agon and its place in political life for pursuing democratic aims, because she stipulates "that action and contestation must be informed by both judgment and a sense of the public if they are to be praiseworthy. The mere expression of energy in the form of 12 political commitment fails to impress her." "'Incessant contestation,' like Foucauldian 'resistance,' is essentially reactive." What such a politics boils down to is "merely fighting"; so conceived, "politics is simply conflict". xxv
Placing the expression of energies of the individual, multiplicities of selves, or groups at the center of an agonistic politics that lacks some aim beyond just fighting does not advance the aims of democracy. Without specifying an agonistic ethos that crafts a sense of "care for the world—a care for the public realm," politics as the socalled "contemporary agonists" conceive it cannot be liberatory. Arendt, Villa argues, supplies such an ethos in a way that Nietzsche does not. My goal here has been to argue that Nietzsche does supply us with an agonistic ethos, that despite the fact that the advocates of "incessant contestation" might fail to distinguish agonistic conflict from "mere fighting" or "simply conflict" Nietzsche does. My aim is more than mere point-scoring. I am not interested in supporting a case that Nietzsche's views are better than Arendt's. I do think Nietzsche's work offers conceptual resources useful for amplifying and clarifying agonistic theories that are pervasive in numerous fields, including political science, moral psychology, and literary criticism. If we are attentive to how Nietzsche distinguishes different kinds of contests and ways of striving within them we can construct an ethos of agonism that is potentially valuable not only for the cultivation of a few great men but which also contributes to the development of a vibrant culture. By way of concluding, I shall draw on the distinctions developed in Nietzsche's conception of agon and sketch the outlines of a productive ethos of agonism.
Some competitions bring with them entitlements and rewards that are reserved for the sole winner. Nearly all of these can be described as zero-sum games: in order for someone to win, others must lose. Further, if I choose to help you to prepare your dossier for your promotion application for the only available post, I risk reducing my own chances for success. Let's call these kinds of competitions antagonistic ones, in which the competitors are pitted against each other in an environment hostile to cooperation.
We can also imagine competitions that are not zero-sum games, in which there is not a limited number of resources. Such contests would allow us to enact some of the original meanings at the root of our words for competition and struggle. The Latin root of compete means "to meet," "to be fitting," and "to strive together toward." The Greek word for struggle, which also applied to games and competitions, is agon, which in its original use meant "gathering together." xxvi
Practicing an agonistic model of competition could provide results of shared satisfaction and might enable us to transform competitions for fame and status that inform so much of our lives into competitions for meeting cooperatively and provisionally defined standards of aesthetic and intellectual excellence. xxvii
If we can revive the sense of agon as a gathering together that vivifies the sense of competition that initiates a striving together toward, we can better appreciate the unique relational possibilities of competition. Recalling the definitions of agon and competition provided above, from which I tried to indicate a sense of competition that could facilitate a process of gathering to strive together toward, consider another example. When two runners compete in order to bring out the best performances in each, their own performances become inextricably linked. When I run with you, I push you to pull me, I leap ahead and call you to join me. When you run faster, I respond to your advance not by wishing you would run slower or that you might fall so that I could surge ahead. I do not view your success as a personal affront, rather I respond to it as a call to join you in the pursuit. When in the course of running with me, you draw from me the best of which I am capable, our performances serve as the measure of the strength in both of us. Neither achievement finds its meaning outside of the context in which we created it. When two (or more) compete in order to inspire each other, to strive together toward, the gathering they create, their agon, creates a space in which the meaning of their achievements are gathered. When your excellent performance draws mine out of me, together we potentially unlock the possibilities in each. For this we can certainly be deeply indebted to each other. At the same time, we come to understand and appreciate ourselves and our own possibilities in a new way. Furthermore, this way of coming to understand and appreciate our difference(s), and 14 of recognizing perhaps their interdependence, might be preferable, to other ways in which differences might be determined. Although surely not appropriate in all circumstances, agonistic endeavors can provide an arena for devising a more flexible and creative way of measuring excellence than by comparison with some rigid and externally-imposed rule. xxviii
Agonism is not the only productive way of relating to each other, and we can certainly play in ways that are not agonistic, but I do think such an ethos of agonism is compatible with recognition of both the vulnerability of the other and one's dependence upon others for one's own identity. It incorporates aggression, instructive resistance, as well as cooperation, and it is compatible with the practice of generosity. It cultivates senses of yearning and desire that do not necessarily have destructive ends. It requires us to conceive of liberation as something more than freedom from the constraints of others and the community, but as a kind of freedom— buttressed with active support—to be a participant in the definition and perpetual recreation of the values, beliefs, and practices of the communities of which one is a part. Thatparticipation might entail provisional restraints, limitations, and norms that mark out the arenas in which such recreations occur.
At his best, I think Nietzsche envisions a similar form for the agonistic life. Competitive "striving together toward" can be a difficult condition to create and a fragile one to maintain. It requiresthe creation of a common ground from which participants can interact. It needs a clearly defined goalthat is appropriately demanding of those who participate. It requires that the goal and the acceptable means of achieving it are cooperatively defined and clearly articulated, and yet it must allow for creativity within those rules. It demands systematic support to cultivate future participants. And it must have some kind of mechanism for keeping the competition open so that future play can be anticipated. When any one of the required elements is disrupted, the competition can deteriorate into alternative and non-productive modes of competition and destructive forms of striving. But when agonistic contest is realized, it creates enormous opportunities for creative self-expression, for the formation of individual and communal identity, for acquiring self-esteem and mutual admiration, and for achieving individual as well as 15 corporate goals. It is one of the possibilities that lie not only beyond good and evil but also beyond the cowardly and barbarous.
Critiques of consensus miss the mark—our model requires clash and provisional judgments but there’s no final liberal telos to impact turn. This also proves they have no alt because their argument is a critique of the structures that make their critique possible