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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].

 

Antagonism

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).

 

Agonism

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).

 

Hegemony

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.

 

 

Notes

[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.

 

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In a recent meeting, my PhD supervisors asked me: Is interpretation missing the point by focussing on messages?

That interpretation is about communicating messages is a conventional wisdom in the field.  Distinct messages are inherent in the definition of interpretation as a ‘mission-based communication process’ [1], and they are the basis from which we measure knowledge gain and attitudinal/behavioural change [2].  Expressed as objectives, we consider messages to be the core of any properly planned piece of interpretation.  In another guise, messages are also our interpretive themes, and I’m not even going to start to list the many books and studies that have persuasively argued the case for themes [3].

I establish objectives and themes in every one of my interpretation plans.  I scorn plans that don’t have either, and I have done so for years.  And yet, for years, I have also argued that interpretation is facilitation.  I have stated over and over again that interpretation is not a one-way street of imparting knowledge, or worse yet, educating our visitors. Now I wonder if on some level my practice – despite my best intentions – does actually miss the point I’ve been making.

When visitors tell me during my current research that they want ‘facts’ presented in an accessible way, and facts that equally represent both sides, then what they may try to say is that actually, they want just the opposite of predetermined messages (unless, of course, your message is a simple, ‘here’s the dough, now go and bake your own bread’).  Similarly, any meaningful theme, able to be expressed in a single sentence, may also sail right past visitors’ desire for an overview and orientation, and the ability to find their own space within the event narrative.

So while themes and objectives are without the shadow of a doubt the perfect and most effective way to get across a message, and help us be clear about what it is we want to achieve, I’m beginning to wonder whether they steer us toward focussing on achieving the wrong thing altogether.  Am I, by holding on to SMART objectives (especially of the learning kind) and snazzy themes, in fact hindering the very facilitation that I want interpretation to be?

I’m not sure yet, but the answer is probably a conditional yes.  We’ll probably still need objectives to prevent us from going all over the place, but the objectives are likely to have to be more focussed on the interpretation, rather than any expectation of what our visitors should know/feel/learn. And as for themes?  My instincts tell me that heritage events do have a core, a key characteristic, even if it is as vague as ‘a tragic battle’.  This, however, should probably be treated more as a context and cradle for engagement, and not as a message for visitors to ‘take home’ and remember.

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