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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 tested that 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. That participation 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 requires the creation of a common ground from which participants can interact. It needs a clearly defined goal that 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.


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