Free online reading
AGON IN NIETZSCHE’S THOUGHT:
THE ENCOUNTER OF PAIRS IN THE INNOCENT GAME OF BECOMING
The concept of agon (contest, conflict, struggle) in Nietzsche’s works is foundational. Nietzsche studied the ancient Greek culture thoroughly. It would not be an overstatement to say that agon in Nietzsche functions as a compass that leads one to other fundamental Nietzschean ideas. As such, it reveals itself as a constellation of various concepts -it adopts different masks-and informs especially Nietzsche’s early to middle period. Thus, a discussion on agon inevitably leads to a discussion on affirmation, otherness, pairs or ‘dichotomies’, transfiguration, expression, truth, art, body… Agon informs Nietzsche’s philosophising style and language as well –as he embodies and exhibits it as an ‘anti-philosopher’ whose rhetoric is agonistic. This paper will focus on why and how agon is a foundational concept in Nietzsche’s works (primarily his early to middle period) and attempt to conceive agon through Nietzschean dualities as constituted by affinities as well as differences. First, I briefly present the historical context of agon, Nietzsche’s Heraclitan understanding of it, and agon as drive. Then, I discuss perhaps Nietzsche’s most enchanting agonistic pair, the Dionysian and the Apollonian, in relation with the ‘dichotomy’ of appearance and reality, as well as agon as the encounter with the Other, in the context of affirmation and negation. Finally, I focus on Nietzsche’s agonistic philosophy praxis.
I. Agon As Hellenic Wisdom, Heraclitan Strife, and Drive
Burckhardt (1999) describes the agonal age in ancient Greek culture as the period between the end of the Dorian migration and the end of the sixth century B.C. This period saw the agonistic spirit dominate all parts of Greek culture, including education, religion, philosophy, sports, and art. The competition and conflict of individuals transferred violence, aggression, pain and suffering into a cathartic affirmation of life. Contestants became immortal heroes through poetry and honour statues. For Burckhardt (1999), in ancient Greek society, as competitiveness was not directed towards military efficiency, gymnastics was not the cause but rather the result of agon. Without military efficiency as the sole aim, the idea of contest was directed towards attaining the invincible body through rigorous discipline and training. In this sense, the agonistic spirit which became channelled into sports and art was the surplus of war-making.
Agonistic spirit not only permeated gymnastics or games, but also philosophy, music, drama. Contests brought together all people and reinforced a sense of place and community. They took place in ceremonial, ritualistic, and joyful Panhellenic festivals that included music, dance, poetry, and encompassed various elements of the rich culture “such as re-birth, gratitude, reverence, and ancestral rites, within the context of the spectacles of games that were shows of strength and greatness, but often had elements of cruelty” (Tuncel, 2013, p. 16). Agon as the mechanism of meaning-making, supplying the fuel of a rich culture, reconciling cruelty and ecstasy, war and art, laughter and pain, was healing, motivating, creative, and overall, life-affirming –thus, Nietzsche as the philosopher of affirmation and transvaluation, sought to harness and utilise agon’s deep-rooted and nondepletable philosophical wisdom.
In fact, Nietzsche saw the development of pre-Platonic philosophy “as unfolding through philosophical contest, depicting the cosmos as a site of struggle between forces or elements” (Acampora, 2013, p. 5). He was preoccupied particularly with Heraclitus, the philosopher of fire and strife. For Heraclitus, the world “is a mixed drink which must constantly be stirred” and “The world is the game Zeus plays… of the fire with itself” (quoted in Pearson and Large, 2016, p. 108). Heraclitus’ concept of ‘becoming’ permeated Nietzsche’s writings, and his understanding of agon is likewise affirmed as an ‘innocent becoming’: “the dust cloud of the Olympic battle and the flash of divine spears – a coming-into-being” (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 109). For Nietzsche, “the contest endures in all eternity” and “everything that happens, happens in accordance with this strife, and it is just in the strife that eternal justice is revealed” (ibid, p. 108). The Heraclitan approach was an affirmation, as “he had no reason why he had to prove (as Leibniz did) that this is the best of all possible worlds. It is enough for him that it is the beautiful innocent game of the aeon” (p. 112). Nietzsche sees this as “a wonderful idea, welling up from the purest springs of Hellenism, the idea that strife embodies the everlasting sovereignty of sprict justice, bound to everlasting laws” (p. 108). This is Hesiod’s good Eris transformed into the cosmic principle; it is the contest-idea of the Greek individual and the Greek state, taken from the gymnasium and the palaestra, from the artist’s agon, from the contest between political parties and between cities – all transformed into universal application so that now the wheels of the cosmos turn on it (ibid).
Nietzsche, like Heraclitus, conceives the idea of strife as a mechanism at the heart of all naturalistic processes, as something inherently present in existence and phenomena. Thus, all the participants in this strife-as-innocent becoming exhibit different masks of one principle; indeed, they are one and the same, all are one. For Heraclitus, cosmos is the stage of the ongoing conflict of opposites. The never-ending cycle of existence and non-existence is repeated, and a new world is born out of the cosmic fire: “The period in which the world hurries toward the conflagration and dissolves into pure fire Heraclitus characterizes, with notable emphasis, as a desire, a want, or lack; the full consumption in fire he calls satiety” (p. 110). But here, Nietzsche asks a fundamental question: “Is not the entire world process now an act of punishment for hubris? The many the result of evil-doing?” (p. 111) The Heraclitan ‘antidote’ for the threatening hubris is ‘play’ –another idea that informs the Nietzschean (affirmative) agon:
Not hubris but the ever self-renewing impulse to play calls new worlds into being. The child throws its toys away from time to time – and starts again, in innocent caprice. But when it does build, it combines and joins and forms its structures regularly, conforming to inner laws (ibid).
This is an intrinsically aesthetic view of existence that understands the translation of the oppositional tension between pairs as a necessity. In this context, play is the ultimate ‘act’ and the immanent justice – a definition that is also operative for the concept of Nietzschean agon. And just like the play of the child, it is free and spontaneous – it has certain purposes, rules, but its design is flexible and creative. Acampora (2013) writes that Nietzsche’s interpretation of the Heraclitean framework allows for the idea of ‘necessity’ that makes the struggle possible, but simultaneously accepts the idea of chance that shapes the agonistic process as creative play, rather than the design of a divine being. Nietzsche writes:
Every moment devours the preceding one, every birth is the death of countless beings, procreating, living and murdering are all one. Therefore, we have the right to compare the magnificent culture to a victor dripping with blood, who, in his triumphal procession, drags the vanquished along chained to his carriage as slaves (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 90.)
In this context, what Nietzsche ultimately maintains is a truly Heraclitan perspective that doesn’t focus on ends or solutions but the process: it understands the totality of phenomena as changing, moving, and evolving multiplicities. Acampora (2013) points out that for Nietzsche, the Heraclitan image of the playing child does not merely have an aesthetic function but also empirical value, as we do not experience the world as static and can observe change empirically. Thus, this is not a stable, passive, dormant reality but the Heraclitan agonistic expression of life in motion: we participate in the flux of existence.
In Homer’s Contest, Nietzsche asks (apropos of Hellenic agonal genius): “What does a life of combat and victory want?” (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 96). Following this question, he writes that for us to understand this, we must first maintain that (unlike the Orphic culture and/or the pre-Homeric abyss) the Greeks interpreted the idea of contest as something pleasurable and understood Eris and envy differently. Again, what we see here is the spectre of affirmation at the heart of agon. There are two Eris goddesses, the Hellenic culture acknowledges both, and embraces not the action of a struggle-to-the-death but the action of the contest. The Greek is envious and does not experience this characteristic as a blemish, but as the effect of a benevolent deity: what a gulf of ethical judgment between him and us! (ibid, p. 97).
Simultaneously with the affirmative core of agon, we see a redoubling of the Hellenic genius in agon’s egalitarian character –there is an equilibrium in agonistic encounters. For Nietzsche, the determining characteristic of Hellenic competition is that “it loathes a monopoly of predominance and fears the dangers of this, it desires, as protective measure against genius – a second genius” (p. 98). There was also a certain balance/harmonious tension in the contesting individuals themselves as their “selfishness was lit, as well as curbed and restricted” (ibid). This, too, reveals a Heraclitan understanding of opposites/opposite qualities co-existing in a productive process. And this tension of opposites created more liberated individuals – Nietzsche writes: “Modern man, on the other hand, is crossed everywhere by infinity, like swift-footed Achilles in the parable of Zeno of Elea: infinity impedes him, he cannot even overtake the tortoise” (ibid). Without the Homeric transvaluing power to define and affirm pain, all we have is night and horror. We also encounter this affirming, framing, limiting dynamic in The Birth of Tragedy, in the Apollonian force.
As one sees in the question “What does a life of combat and victory want?”, Nietzsche acknowledges the repetitive character of agon (e.g. in continuous war-making). He points out that there is a sanctioning of a right in cruelty. In the explosive moments of pain and cruelty, the psychohistorical burden of being a human is channelled. He asks: “Why did the Greek sculptor repeatedly have to represent war and battles with endless repetition, human bodies stretched out, their veins taut with hatred or the arrogance of triumph, the wounded doubled up, the dying in agony?” (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 96).
Nietzsche’s understanding of agon is in this context can be conceptualised as relating to drive more than will. It is something akin to the death drive, understood as something more enduring and persistent than will. Indeed, one sees this vein in Nietzsche’s thoughts about the Darwinian evolutionary theory. He held Roux’s opinion who argued that it is not the case that all of existence (or even existence itself) is actively, willfully, pursuing preservation. What one finds are expressions of strength and thereby the experience of power, as Nietzsche puts it, the feeling of power. In some cases, but certainly not all, preservation might be the result but not the goal of this effort (Acampora, 2013, p. 99).
Death drive is the excess of death over life, which Freud conceived as ceaseless repetition. Žižek (2012, p. 237) describes it as “a repetition that insists beyond all dialectical mediation”, and explains the difference between Freudian (death) drive and Schopenhauerian Will:
while the Will is the substance of life, its productive presence, in excess over its representations or images, the drive is a persistence which goes on even when the Will disappears or is suspended: the insistence which persists even when it is deprived of its living support, the appearance which persists even when it is deprived of its substance (ibid, p. 884).
Agon exhibits the libidinal enjoyment as it acts as the spectacle of the death drive, which is not a concept that is opposed to libido but the transfigured form of it. There is a constitutive gap which distinguishes the drive from instinct … [such that the drive is] always derailed, caught in a loop of repetition, marked by an impossible excess. Eros and Thanatos are not two opposed drives that compete and combine their forces (as in eroticized masochism); there is only one drive, the libido, striving for enjoyment, and the ‘death drive’ is the curved space of its formal structure. (Žižek, 2010, p. 305)
In the site of agonistic drive, the oppositions (agonistic dualities) mirror one another, and grudge, lack, and jealousy are affirmed by way of being deemed as a gift of the good Eris –thus, cruelty, suffering, evil, are transvalued as constructive emotions and concepts. For Tuncel (2013) revaluing the harmful as the useful is a grounding theme in Nietzsche, and one sees it as realised through “transfiguration (Verklarung) of war into agon or transformation (Obertragung) of reaction against eternal destruction into something sublime” (Tuncel, 2013, p. 82). Tuncel here understands the Nietzschean and Freudian sublimation as akin to one another. Indeed, sublimation can play an important role in conceptualising agon. For Assoun (2006), similarly, the concept of sublimation is expressed meticulously by Nietzsche in a passage from Nachlass that exhibits a clear affinity with Freud:
When an instinct becomes intellectual, it acquires a new name, a new trait and a new evaluation. It is often opposed to the older instinct as its contrary… A number of instincts, for example the sexual instinct, are susceptible to a great refinement (Verfeinerung) by the intellect (love of humanity… Plato thinks that the love of knowledge and philosophy is a sublimated sexual instinct). Alongside it remains its old and immediate action (Nietzsche, 1897, quoted in Assoun, 2006, p. 98).
However, Assoun also sees an agonistic relationship between Nietzsche and the concept of sublimation, as “from Daybreak to On the Genealogy of Morals, Nietzsche never does anything else but try to outwit the process of sublimation” (ibid, p. 161). Freudian sublimation stops where it is ‘useful’ for the civilisation, but Nietzsche’s agonistic sublimation process is about diagnosing the symptom of Kultur through its sublimations and reject it as a construct.
II. Agonistic Pairs
In The Birth of Tragedy, we follow Nietzsche as he reveals and explores two of his most enchanting devices, the Apollonian and the Dionysian. These ‘opposed’ forces as dream (Apollonian) and intoxication (Dionysian), find their ultimate aesthetic expression in attic tragedy and reflect the meaning-making potency of Hellenic wisdom and culture.
The agonistic interaction of the Apollonian and the Dionysian is marked by the limiting, interpretative, and individuating image-maker Apollonian and the chaotic, destructive, and abyssal Dionysian.
Apollo stands before me as the transfiguring genius of the principium individuationis, through which alone true redemption in appearance can be attained, while under the mystical cry of exultation of Dionysus the spell of individuation is burst apart and the path to the Mothers of Being, to the innermost core of things, lies open (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 73).
Nietzsche writes that there is a “tremendous opposition which stretches like a yawning abyss between the Apollonian plastic arts and the Dionysian art of music” (ibid, p. 74). The Apollonian makes meanings, the Dionysian threatens to destroy them, or rather, the Dionysian is essentially pre-meaning or beyond-meaning. Kristeva defines the Dionysian as “dissolution into a dancing, singing, and poetic animality” (Kristeva, 1984, p. 79) – this dissolution is the disintegration of the symbolic order. The Dionysian reality is interpreted and conveyed by the Apollonian mask, thus, appropriated. For this reason, the pair’s agonistic relationship is characterised by repression that must be active in the transmission of chaotic reality. The Apollonian tames the Dionysian, and transforms it into manageable, pleasurable language. The Apollonian, thus, provides the consoling, pleasurable illusion and fantasy, as it provides meanings through interpretation of pain – human pain is affirmed. Without the borders that image-creating Apollo provides, humans are forever surrounded by eternity. It may be an erroneous approach to perceive Nietzschean dualities as intrinsically conflicting, as an agonistic relationship is never merely about conflict, it is also about reconciliation, co-existing and harmony. As such, the Dionysian-Apollonian pair and their productive tension represents, among other things, an encounter of chaos and order, pain and pleasure, Eros and Thanatos, excess and castration, disintegration (unity) and individuation.
The Dionysian is in conflict with the semblance, it resists being ‘owned’ and there are always parts of it rejecting interpretation, and the Apollonian must fight this rejection with its artistic, inventive, disruptive language (which we see in poetry). In the context of difference, agon may be interpreted as the imitation of the Dionysian reality through an Apollonian mask. Derrida sees the difference between Dionysus and Apollo (between ardor and structure) as a crucial element of culture: It “cannot be erased in history, for it is not in history”, it is rather “the opening of history, historicity itself” (Derrida, 1978, p. 34).
If we must say, along with Schelling, that “all is but Dionysus,” we must know—and this is to write—that, like pure force, Dionysus is worked by difference. He sees and lets himself be seen. And tears out (his) eyes. For all eternity, he has had a relationship to his exterior, to visible form, to structure, as he does to his death. This is how he appears (to himself) (ibid).
The agonistic Dionysian/Apollonian pair is redoubled, in this context, in Kristevan semiotic/symbolic: Kristevan semiotic is, like the Dionysian, preoedipal and presymbolic, whereas the symbolic is representative and castrating. Nietzsche’s ‘Mother of Being’, the maternal site of the semiotic makes use of the poetic language, which for both Nietzsche and Kristeva, is redeeming –it is as far as we can go; the edge of the castrated order of language. Dionysian poetic language desires (and is able) to abolish a signifying unity, and this is its primary conflict with the Apollonian: This tension is between the “stasis (the closed nature of the signifier) and expulsion (the multiplicity of signification)” (Prud’homme and Légaré, 2006).
Poetry is the insertion of the semiotic into the symbolic. The appearance of the semiotic is a rupture in the symbolic. Insofar as it is a rupture, it is revolutionary. The symbolic, however, admits Kristeva, is never completely destroyed. Compare this to Nietzsche’s suggestion that poetry points to the ‘double-phenomenon’ typified in language, the tension between tone and gesture (ibid). However, (contra Schelling) all is not Dionysian, as superficiality or treasuring the appearance is not to be criticised or held as epistemologically less significant for Nietzsche, as he writes, “to stop courageously at the surface, the fold, the skin, to adore appearance” (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 38), “We are in the realm of representation, no ‘intuition’ can carry us further” (Pearson and Large, 2006, p. 164), “Perhaps we will recognize then that the thing-in-itself deserves a Homeric laugh, in that it seemed to be so much, indeed everything, and is actually empty, that is, empty of meaning” (ibid, p. 166), “What is ‘appearance’ for me now? Certainly not the opposite of some essence: what could I say about any essence except to name the attributes of its appearance! Certainly not a dead mask that one could place on an unknown x or remove from it!” (p. 212), and ‘Dialectics is the only way of attaining the divine being and getting behind the veil of appearance’ – this is asserted by Plato as solemnly and passionately as Schopenhauer asserts it of the antithesis of dialectics - and both are wrong. For that to which they want to show us the way does not exist. - And have all the great passions of mankind not hitherto been as these are, passions for a nothing? And all their solemnities – solemnities about a nothing? (Nietzsche, 2005, p. 478).
For Acampora (2013), Nietzsche’s contest with Socrates is characterised by the attempt to reinstate the significance of Schein. The Socratic legacy valued intelligibility over appearance which “came to be regarded not only as epistemically deficient (e.g., the Republic’s Socrates who suggests that poetic images are thrice removed from the truth) but also as morally defective (corrupting)” [p. 89]. For Nietzsche, Schein is innocent play and a type of truth. Thus, there is a fundamental error in understanding the appearance and the thing-in-itself as radical opposites. Drawing a conclusion about the nature of being requires that we understand that this painting -that which we humans call life and experience- has gradually become, is indeed still fully in course of becoming, and should thus not be regarded as a fixed object on the basis of which a conclusion as to the nature of its originator (the sufficient reason) may either be drawn or pronounced undrawable (Nietzsche, 2007, p. 20).
Thus, for Nietzsche, Schein is the vessel to obtain truth. As in contest, it is not about one contestant being right and the other wrong; they both embody truth, error, illusion: The Apollonian mask simultaneously hides and shows the Dionysian. Apropos of the appearance/reality pair, Žižek (2012) writes that in Beyond Good and Evil, Nietzsche seems to advocate two conflicting epistemological positions. We have “the notion of truth as the unbearable Real Thing-as dangerous, lethal even, like directly gazing into Plato’s sun” and we also have the postmodern approach that values appearance over reality, “ultimately, there is no final Reality, only the interplay of multiple appearances” (Žižek, 2012, p. 47), so appearance/reality should not be understood as a conflicting pair. [This -pseudo- opposition is, in Badiou’s terms, “the passion of the Real versus the passion of semblance” (ibid, p. 47)] Žižek questions how to interpret these conflicting positions. For him, Nietzsche is not simply inconsistent – he maintains that there is a Real: “this Real, however, is not the inaccessible Thing, but the gap which prevents our access to it, the ‘rock’ of the antagonism which distorts our view of the perceived object through a partial perspective” (p. 48). In this regard, Nietzschean truth -which we cannot access directly, without perspectival distortion- is “the very Real of the antagonism which causes the perspectival distortion itself” (ibid). Thus, truth according to Nietzsche, is not the site of a thing-in-itself, but the very gap or passage which separates one perspective from another, the gap (…) which makes the two perspectives radically incommensurable (…) There is a truth, and not everything is relative-but this truth is the truth of the perspectival distortion as such, not a truth distorted by the partial view from a one-sided perspective (ibid).
As seen in the agonistic relationship/interaction of Nietzschean dualities, agon is essentially based on an encounter with the Other. In Nietzsche, the pairs (which are often interpreted as separate individual forces) can be seen as residing in the site of a minimal difference – which for Zupančič (2003) is the product of Nietzschean affirmation. Minimal difference can be understood as the branching of a singular concept, a meeting of Two. Nietzsche writes:
Here I sat, waiting—not for anything— Beyond Good and Evil, fancying Now light, now shadows, all a game, All lake, all noon, all time without all aim. Then, suddenly, friend, one turned into two— And Zarathustra walked into my view (Nietzsche, 1974, p. 371).
Exploring Nietzschean dualities, Zupančič (2003) states that the Nietzschean affirmation finds its most powerful voice in the Dionysian. For her, in the fight against the ‘spirit of gravity’ (which she considers as one of the major fronts of Nietzsche’s philosophy) there is a struggle against “affirmation as acceptance, as ‘shouldering’, taking upon oneself, facing up to whatever comes along”, and an authentic Nietzschean affirmation can only be an “activist of becoming (…) not a function of being” (p. 135). (This is similar to Deleuze’s understating of the properly Nietzschean affirmation as not affirmation as acceptance but as creation.) This is the reason the Dionysian Yes “is a Yes that knows how to say ‘No,’ and can put negation in the service of the force of affirmation” (ibid, p. 136):
In order for the negation itself to become a mode of affirmation, two affirmations are needed: the affirmation itself has to be redoubled; the affirmation itself needs to be affirmed. Affirmation itself has to become the object of affirmation. This is the Nietzschean theory of double affirmation, a theory that endeavors to mobilize Nothings(ness) or negativity in the form of Nothing(ness) as interval or minimal difference of the same (ibid).
One sees a similar minimal difference in the Heraclitan idea of cold being a degree of warmth. Exploring this properly Nietzschean idea, one grasps the ‘not quite’ or ‘nearly’ as the “the minimal difference between two things, the exact measure or the shortest path between two things; it is the very articulation of a doubleness, of the figure of the two” (ibid, p. 17). The branching of the one principle, for Zupančič is best seen in the Nietzschean ‘midday’, which is the moment of the shortest shadow, the moment of a split when One becomes Two. (“Midday; moment of the shortest shadow; end of the longest error; high point of humanity; INCIPIT ZARATHUSTRA” [Nietzsche, 1997, p. 24]). The encounter with the Other, involves a separation within/of the same.
And what is the shortest shadow of a thing, if not this thing itself? Yet, for Nietzsche, this does not mean that the two become one, but, rather, that one becomes two. Why? The thing (as one) no longer throws its shadow upon another thing; instead, it throws its shadow upon itself, thus becoming, at the same time, the thing and its shadow. When the sun is at its zenith, things are not simply exposed (“naked,” as it were); they are, so to speak, dressed in their own shadows (Zupančič, 2003, p. 27).
It is the site of the shortest shadow Nietzschean agonistic pairs occupy: The Apollonian and the Dionysian, appearance and reality, good and evil all throw their shadows upon one another, and are separated by the shortest possible distance and their division is not a separation but rather an encounter with the Other, characterised by minimal difference.
Agon happens on two sites: the site of life-world and the site of self, which is also the body, the site of our singular existence. In this sense, it occupies the site of minimal difference between ‘us’ (as entities minus our bodies) and ‘us’, thus, the body represents the site of the minimal difference where the agonistic relationship between ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ occurs. In contest, individuals realise their bodily self as an entity belonging to ‘outside’, as well as to ‘inside’.
One encounters a case of Nietzschean minimal difference in Deleuze (2002), via his interpretation of the agonistic opposition between the ‘carrier’ and the ‘creator’: Zarathustra, as the prophet of Dionysus is, for Deleuze, ‘pure affirmation’ but also “carries negation to its highest point, making of it an action, an agency that services he who affirms and creates. The Yes of Zarathustra is opposed to the Yes of the donkey, as creating is opposed to carrying” (Deleuze, 2002, p. 83). We have the No of Zarathustra on one side, and the No of nihilism on the other –their agonistic relationship is described as aggressivity vs. resentment. For Deleuze, “transmutation signifies this reversal in the relation of affirmation-negation” but transmutation occurs at the close of nihilism: “We had to get to the last man, then to the man who wants to die, for negation finally to turn against the reactive forces and become an action that serves a higher affirmation” (ibid). Thus, before the sublation of negation or the transformation of negation to affirmation happens, the tension of the relationship between affirmation and negation needs to be maximised and serve as the fuel to carry us to nihilism, to the edge of the cliff, and then the productive progression to affirmation occurs.
III. An Agonistic Philosopher
Nietzsche’s agon is not limited to creativity or art; he develops it as a mechanism to understand life, reality, and human nature as agonistic struggle. This exploration leads him to form his later concepts such as will to power, Amor fati, and eternal return.
For Tuncel (2013), the connection between agon and the Nietzschean eternal return and Amor fati, lies in the idea that the individual must accept the return of both good and evil, in order to elevate him/herself: embracing the dictum of Amor fati, entails the acceptance of what is given in physis, whether that is in one’s own being or in being in general, lies at the foundation of agon: one trains, struggles, and grows according to one’s own nature and according to nature herself that is struggle (contest is one of the ways of placing individuals in the social hierarchy according to their nature) (Tuncel, 2013, p. 45).
Thus, the affirmative character of eternal recurrence and Amor fati can be understood as belonging to the idea of agonistic circulation of all becoming, as well as the individual’s own struggle in the historical moment as a product of nature.
Likewise, ‘will to power’, ‘overcoming’, and ‘Overhuman’ are intrinsically agonistic ideas that rely on desire, pleasure, struggle, pain, striving, hierarchy, victory: they are nourished by the agonistic tension of resistance. Tuncel (2013) writes that Nietzsche’s agon praxis is composed of his contest with the ‘value-creators’, Zarathustra’s contest as judge and contestant, and Nietzsche’s contest with his readers. Nietzsche’s attacks on Socrates and Plato (as value-creators) are widely known. Zarathustra’s contest is analogous to Homer and “Nietzsche makes Zarathustra create the spirit of competition among his disciples as he urges them to compete. He is the judge of agon and the prize set for the victor is the achievement of an Overhumanly status that he is teaching” (ibid, p. 191). Finally, Nietzsche’s contest with readers manifest itself in the language he uses, with his riddles, symbols, and metaphors that he presents to his readers (as through Zarathustra). Also, the agonistic rhetoric is inherent to Nietzsche’s writing:
To read things like ‘Dante: or the hyena which poetizes on graves,’ ‘George Sand: or the milch cow with the ‘fine style,’ or to have Kant described as the ‘typical idiot’ (not to mention the even more notorious ‘idiot on the cross’), can indeed produce an amazement, a kind of jolt— this being one of the fundamental elements that makes Nietzsche Nietzsche (Zupančič, 2003, p. 3).
Nietzsche with his agonistic philosophy and rhetoric represents a break with the past philosophies in various ways, but as Alan Badiou (2016) emphasises, his fundamental role as a thinker is not adding his philosophy to other philosophies or introducing programs, but rather announce a unique philosophical act that will destroy philosophy. Nietzsche is agonistic in the sense that his philosophical preoccupation involves transfiguring and transvaluing the given in culture, and produce dynamicity, ambiguity, and creativity in thought. As a philosopher, he contests the will to nothingness and the dark abyss of nihilism: “for Nietzsche, the act is not an overcoming. The act is an event. And this event is an absolute break, whose obscure proper name is Nietzsche” (Badiou, 2016, p. 3). Thus, Nietzsche’s anti-philosophical event is defined by ‘the logic of rivalry’: he is at once the prophet, the actor, and the name, aims at nothing less than at breaking the history of the world in two. I would say that this act is archi-political, in that it intends to revolutionise the whole of humanity at a more radical level than that of the calculations of politics. Archi-political does not here designate the traditional philosophical task of finding a foundation for politics (…) It is the philosophical act itself that is an archi-political act, in the sense that its historical explosion will retroactively show, in a certain sense, that the political revolution proper has not been genuine, or has not been authentic (ibid, p. 4).
Does this not characterise Nietzsche’s quest for a philosophy of the future ? His properly agonistic relationship with philosophy (and human civilisation and culture) informs his creative philosophising process as it explores values, change, human activity, consciousness, ethics, and morality. Agon serves as the scaffold of some of his most influential writings and reverberates through its disruptive language in others, which convey that unique Nietzschean ‘jolt’. He harnesses and utilises the tension of the Homeric wisdom and the creative power of the image-making Apollo.
This essay has explored the journey of agon as a foundational concept in Nietzsche, primarily in his early to middle period. Agon is an encompassing idea in Nietzsche, and it informs various dominant Nietzschean themes, concepts, and preoccupations. It starts out as a product of Nietzsche’s fascination with Panhellenic culture, is then shaped by Nietzsche’s Heraclitan perspective, and permeates Nietzschean pairs, such as the Dionysian and the Apollonian, affirmation and negation, self and the Other, as well as appearance and reality. It is also a contributing or reinforcing idea in Nietzsche’s later works, as he seeks to explore the nature of morality, belief, culture, and civilisation. He not only utilises it as a guiding philosophical idea but also adopts it rhetorically as a philosopher. The resulting panorama of his works and him as a philosopher, thus, values agonal perspective as the creative and exuberant force of human existence as part of the innocent game of becoming.
Acampora, C. D. (2013) Contesting Nietzsche, London: University of Chicago Press.
Assoun, P. (2006) Freud and Nietzsche, trans. Richard L. Collier Jr., NY: Continuum. Badiou, A. (2016) Who is Nietzsche, Nietzsche 13/13, Available at: http://blogs.law.columbia.edu/nietzsche1313/files/2016/11/WhoIsNietzschePLI11.pdf (Accessed: 15 December 2019).
Burckhardt, J. (1999) The Greeks and Greek Civilization, trans. Sheila Stern, NY: St. Martin’s Press.
Deleuze, G. (2002) Pure Immanence, Essays On A Life, trans. Anne Boyman, NY: Zone Books.
Kristeva, J. (1984) Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Margaret Waller, NY: Columbia University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2005), Daybreak, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2007), Human, All Too Human, trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Nietzsche, F. (1974), The Gay Science, trans. Walter Kaufmann, NY: Random House.
Nietzsche, F. (1997), Twilight of the Idols, trans. Richard Polt, Cambridge: Hackett.
Pearson, K. A. and Large, D. (eds.) (2006) The Nietzsche Reader, MA: Blackwell Publishing. Prud’homme, J. and Légaré, L. (2006), ‘The Subject in Process’, Signo Available at: http://www.signosemio.com/kristeva/subject-in-process.asp (Accessed: 19 December 2019). Tuncel, Y. (2013) Agon in Nietzsche, WI: Marquette University Press.
Žižek, S. (2010) Living in the End Times, NY: Verso.
Žižek, S. (2012) Less Than Nothing: Hegel And The Shadow Of Dialectical Materialism, NY: Verso.
Zupančič, A. (2003) The Shortest Shadow, Nietzsche’s Philosophy of The Two, MA: MIT Press.