Agonistic Interpretation?

Sometimes you read a book and think: this is so centrally relevant to what I have been thinking that I cannot believe I’ve missed this all this time. Chantal Mouffe’s book Agonistics. Thinking the World Politcally (London: Verso 2013) was such a book for me [1].



Mouffe in effect argues that negativity and opposing views ‘can never be overcome’ (p. 130). She asserts this in contrast to a liberal tradition, which believes in ‘universal consensus based on reason’ (p. 3). Rather than dismiss passion and conflict as ‘archaic’ (p. 4) and thus inferior, as liberalism does, Mouffe holds antagonism as ‘constitutive’ (p. 130) and central to democracy (e.g. p.7ff). Antagonism means, Mouffe writes, that there exist conflicts without rational solution and a pluralism in which not all views can finally be reconciled (p. 130).



Enter ‘agonism’. This may be most simply understood as a healthy version of the potentially destructive antagonism. In agonism there are ‘adversaries’, not enemies as in antagonism. Adversaries share democratic principles but otherwise have conflicting views (p. 7). And that’s okay because everyone ultimately recognises the legitimacy of their opponent’s demands (p. 138) even if there can and will never be a full reconciliation. The point is, the concept of agonism embraces plurality. ‘Agonistic’ thus is the adjective that describes the confrontation between adversaries and their different views within a context of mutual respect and acceptance (p. 7).



Importantly (and now I’m beginning to inch my way towards interpretation), Mouffe argues that because the many differing views can never be reconciled, any order that emerges is always hegemonic: it is a matter of what has, for the time being, become the dominant view, and therefore any order is contestable, exclusive, and only one of many orders that are possible (p. 17).


The Hegemonic Struggle

Mouffe therefore talks about the ongoing hegemonic struggle (p. 14), which is the struggle to unsettle the existing hegemony and build another, and so forth. For this process to work peacefully it is important that structures and opportunities are created that allow the process to be ‘agonistic’, that is, opportunities that make sure that people see each other as adversaries, not enemies, and have a respectful debate about their differing views.


Agonistic public spaces

Mouffe contradicts the view that public spaces should be spaces where people arrive at a consensus (p. 92). Rather, Mouffe argues that public spaces should be agonistic: not only should they be spaces where conflicting views are voiced without seeking an (impossible) reconciliation (p. 92), but they should also make ‘visible what the dominant consensus tends to obscure and obliterate, in giving a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony’ (p. 93).


Agonistic Interpretation

And so I arrive at ‘agonistic interpretation’. I have for a while argued that interpretation is not about messages and objectives of whatever kind, which are achieved by, for example, persuasive communication. Rather, I have been suggesting that interpretation is about creating an infrastructure to allow people to continue to create heritage. And I have suggested that interpretation is fundamentally about representation. It should aim at making visible the wider representational dynamics in society and history [2]. I have often called this ‘telling all sides of a story’, which is why Mouffe’s description above about ‘agonistic public spaces’ just enthused me. Agonistic. A concept that recognises the hegemonic order of societies, the pluralism of reality, the impossibility of consensus, and the consequent suppressive nature of the liberal-rational claim [3]. Agonistic is the political, it is an action and a process that has real socio-political consequences. As Mouffe asserts, the disarticulation of a hegemony (read: make visible) is not the end goal, it must be followed by rearticulation (read: facilitate, enable creation): a new order (p. 74). And agonism is at the heart of making this possible.


Mouffe’s ideas in this book mirror much of Laurajane Smith’s critique of the Authorized Heritage Discourse (AHD) in Uses of Heritage (London and New York: Routledge 2006), only related to society and politics, not heritage. Smith’s book was another of those books that made me think I had been living in a dark cave for years. But what my engagement with Smith’s ideas hadn’t given me was a proper handle on what to call this interpretation that isn’t communication, education, or thematic, or persuasive. Earlier in the year, at the Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen, I presented my take on interpretation as ‘Critical Heritage Interpretation’, and discursively it undoubtedly is.


But agonistic! I think I may have just found the label for the kind of interpretation I think we all should be doing.




[1] I owe huge thanks to Lena Johansson at the Swedish National Heritage Board, who recommended this book to me after a presentation I gave at this year’s Interpret Europe conference in Mechelen.

[2] For example here and here.

[3] Which is of course also at the root of much of contemporary interpretation philosophy that aims at ‘educating’ people toward certain desired goals: the suggestion is that through rational through, aided by good interpretation, people will arrive at the ‘right’ understanding, and the ‘right’ appreciation. But to elaborate this here would go too far.


8 thoughts on “Agonistic Interpretation?

  1. I’m wondering if ‘agonism’ is simply a different vocabulary for describing liberal-rationalist viewpoint suppression.

    When it is said that public spaces should give “a voice to all those who are silenced within the framework of the existing hegemony” — does all really mean ALL?

    Isn’t there still a presumption that SOME voices deserve to be silenced, marginalized, dismissed, delegitimized and excluded? They may be called “unreasonable”, “hateful”, “un-[national]”, “uninformed”, “immoral”, “criminal” or “crazy”. They may be called agents of “the elites” or agents of “the enemy”. All sorts of names are invoked to justify excluding SOME voices.

    Very few people are willing to provide space for voices which they hold in contempt. This may sometimes be done briefly, to show how “open minded” one is, but if the undesired voices actually start gaining strength from the exposure, then the space is withdrawn. Liberal-rational suppressive hegemony is quickly reasserted.

    If ‘agonism’ mean true ‘freedom of speech’, then that is one thing. But if it really means ‘freedom for those dissenting voices which we, from our position of privilege, have deemed worthy and acceptable’, then it is just suppressive hegemony under a different name.

    Perhaps there is a case to be made in favor of suppressive hegemony. But I think it is better to make that case frankly and directly.

    1. ‘Agonism’ does not describe an attitude against any viewpoints, and therefore it is not ‘liberal-rational viewpoint suppression’. It is rather a description of a state in which all viewpoints are debated and precisely NOT suppressed. But ‘debating’ a viewpoint does not mean ‘embracing’ it. Mouffe isn’t suggesting that based on agonism there would be no more hegemonies. There would still be dominant viewpoints, and those who hold them do so because they think they are right. Just as you describe. Only Mouffe argues that rather than sliding into antagonism, which casts those holding different viewpoint as ‘enemies’ whose views and voices must be ‘excluded’ and ‘suppressed’, as you write, agonism is the healthier option, the only one that offers peace, because here the rights of others are respected and their views engaged with in a respectful debate. But unlike liberalism, Mouffe recognises that there is no chance for consensus at the end. And that liberalism denies the inevitability of conflict is Mouffe’s main critique of it. Critique, not suppression.

      What you write is compatible with the arguments put forth in support for thematic interpretation, and interpretation as persuasive communication: there are certain views we don’t want visitors to walk away with, and therefore we’re applying interpretation in such a way to influence their attitudes and behaviours, or, as several participants at AHI’s recent conference wrote, ‘get people to do what we want’ (see #ahiconf16). And supporters of thematic interpretation usually also justify this with an underlying moral argument: ‘SOME voices deserve to be silenced’, because they are ‘hateful’, ‘immoral’, ‘criminal’, ‘crazy’, is what you wrote.

      Well, I wholeheartedly disagree. And thematic interpretation is far from making the ‘case frankly and directly’. It hides and silences voices that interpreters (!) disagree with and does not even make that act of silencing visible – never mind the ‘disfavoured’ voices themselves. Supporters of thematic interpretation are okay with that. I’m not. Which is why I am trying to disarticulate (so Mouffe) the existing hegemony of thematic interpretation.

  2. An interesting blog Nicole – I especially like the idea of agonistic interpretation as opposed to “objective” which really is a tautology I think. I heard Laurajane Smith give a paper on intangible values and tangible heritage in Melbourne last month – Australian ICOMOS & National Trusts – still thinking through her argument. Been also thinking a lot about Nina Simon’s relevance in relation to values and what is referred to as intangible heritage as part of the preparation for the paper I gave there. Also provocative paper & workshop by Franklin Vagnone (NY – co-author of the Anarchist’s Guide to Historic House Museums) and I welcome the ‘rather radical’ notion of positive argument/conflict in interpretation. Rarely see that – like no cultural institution can take a stand on anything.

    1. Thanks, Lesley! It certainly feels like there are beginning to be more voices in interpretation that want more than stimulate a process of meaning-making within desired parametres set by interpreters. It’s a great development, even if there is still a long way to go.

  3. Thank you for an interesting blog Nicole. Agonistic interpretation as label/concept is useful for professional reflection and development – the way we think about practice and what it can achieve. The language available to describe and talk about practice is vital for our understanding of its possibilities.Thematic interpretation is often used and described as a tool for persuasive communication but it can also be used as a tool for identifying focal points for a discussion or a dialogue on values and different interpretations of heritage. It´s all up to the interpreter. In my opinion, introduction of concepts like agonistic interpretation are more relevant for development of the profession than the dismissal of thematic interpretation.

    1. Dear Eva, I would certainly hope that ideas such as agonistic interpretation help develop the interpretive profession further. Regards thematic interpretation, I would argue that agonistic interpretation is not compatible with thematic interpretation, at least not in the way the latter is currently presented in published literature that I’m aware of. Sam Ham, for example, defines a theme as ‘the main point or idea a communicator is trying to convey about that topic’ (p. 20, ‘Interpretation. Making a Difference on Purpose’, 2013, Golden: Fulcrum Publishing), and others use a similar definition. In other words, thematic interpretation is not about different ideas, as agonistic interpretation would be, it is about one main idea. As such, I do not recognise your second description of thematic interpretation as an approach to fostering a dialogue on different interpretations of heritage from anything I’ve read. If I’ve missed something, please point me to it.

      Of course, any good communication will have an organised approach to presenting ‘all parts of a story’, as I used to say, and such *organisation* certainly is a key pillar in thematic interpretation. However, in all writings on thematic interpretation that I know, this organisation is used in support of conveying the *main idea*, which is the central purpose of thematic interpretation. And here it is incompatible with agonistic interpretation, even if agonistic interpretation shares with thematic interpretation an organised approach to communication.

  4. Dear Nicole,

    no I do not claim that thematic interpretation is described as an approach to fostering dialogue. I agree that “getting through” to persuade often is the purpose both in literature and practice. And yes I think that many interpreters are more interested in contributing to “heritage creation” with a direction than to step back and open up for other perspectives. I still claim that themes CAN be a good starting point for dialogue. Basically, for the profession, I think it´s popularity has to do with the help it provides for (over)enthusiastic interpreters to find a focus, to choose and decide what is most relevant to focus on (and build a story from). Not only to organize but also to prioritize. And yes, in the perspective of the initiator.

    When Ham (2013) talks about “two sides of themes” (p 127) he points out that the interpretations of any interpretation of a theme will differ from the ambitions of the initiator. And that your “zone of tolerance” (p 149), that is how you (the initiator) value the interpretations you will meet if you ask participants, can be narrow, wide or unrestricted. You decide. When you invite a group of people to share an experience of heritage in specific site a theme can be used to help people focus on the preservation of that very site with the result (you hope) that they feel motivated to go home and write appeals – if you only feel happy with that result your ZOT is narrow. OR it can be used as a focus for a discussion or a dialogue on different interpretations – your ZOT is wide. If you are an interpreter with agonistic ambitions, the theme would be used to open a dialogue that welcomes other perspectives in a mutual search for better understanding and the theme itself can be negotiated – your ZOT is unrestricted.

    The facilitated dialogues concept that the US National parks teach use predefined “essential questions” – more value-oriented but not very far from theme statements. The big difference for professional development to me is, as I said, how interpreters reflect on the communication situation, how it develops and what your intentions are. Your idea about yourself as initiator and your (power)relation to the other participants. Who conveys what for whom will depend the context and the participants – you are one.

    To me – development of heritage interpretation as an arena for democratic dialogue matters. Contributions to strengthen democracy are more important and relevant than ever. A professional development of thematic interpretation (with all its advantages) that includes different voices and perspectives is possible. I think that the use of interpretation for persuasion or for dialogue is the big difference to be aware of and consider.


    1. Hi Eva,
      firstly, apologies for not posting and responding to your comment earlier. I’ve only just seen it, as I posted my new post.
      I’m familiar with the arc of dialogue by the NPS, but not intimately. I didn’t register that as a form of thematic interpretation, but if you say the essential questions are close to theme statements and used to capture all possible views then I suppose that is an application of thematic interpretation that would be compatible with agonistic interpretation, at least in its outcome. On the whole though, your reminder of Ham’s zones of tolerance for me simply underlines that agonistic interpretation would be and is something entirely different.
      It is, as you say, a professional choice: what do we think is the best approach to interpretation, and the best philosophy to underpin it? And that’s the path we each must follow. Mine is no longer thematic interpretation, on the basis of its underlying philosophy.

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