Thursday, June 13, 2013

The Discus Throw and the Public Sphere

Yunus Tuncel, Agon in Nietzsche. Milwaukee: Marquette University Press 2013. $29.00, ISBN 978-0-87462-823-4 271 pp. + index.

This new book by my New School colleague Yunus Tuncel is the most authoritative and revelatory study of the concept of agon in Nietzsche so far. In his previous book, Towards a Genealogy of Spectacle, Tuncel, within a more general discussion of spectacle,  went into ancient sports and competitions in themselves; here, he concentrates on their manifestation in the works of Friedrich Nietzsche; along with the recent work of Herman Siemens, this is the major study of the subject. . Nietzsche used agon to represent an active spirit of conflict that for Nietzsche avoided the sterilities of bourgeois transcendence, including not just modernity and Christianity but the givens of the very classical philology in which Nietzsche had trained. 
            Agon, meaning conflict, is emblematically tied to Nietzsche’s thought and all subsequent uses of it—such as Harold Bloom’s in the influence books, are thoroughly Nietzschean. (I remember smiling when I saw that Bloom’s Anxiety of Influence had been translated into Modern Greek, with anxiety being rendered agonia). But it is often misinterpreted as simply meaning conflict or competition. Tuncel argues that agon is not a universalization of war, a rendering of all phenomena in the spirit of a Schmittian ‘state of emergency,’ but rather a “transfiguration of war.” (91) It is interesting to note that (unlike in the twentieth century) the Olympic games went on for the entire course of the Peloponnesian War, though Sparta was banned from the 89th Olympiad, shades of more recent Olympic boycotts. Even as nearly every city-state in the Greek world took one or another side, the contest that existed in a “chiasmatic relation” (91) to war — both like and unlike it — held steady.
For Tuncel, agon is not indeed so much about one-on-one combat but about multiplicity: as expressed in polytheism, human-animal hybridity (as seen in the metamorphoses and apotropaic totmes of Greek mythology, art, architecture), and the differing political configurations (monarchies, tyrannies, oligarchies, democracies) that coexisted within the overall umbrella of Greek culture. Tuncel, following Nietzsche, does not romanticize agon, reminding us that most of the games the Greeks played were “cruel and violent” (70). Indeed, latent throughout Tuncel’s exposition is a link between agon and agony, the arena of athletic competition and the amphitheater of tragic drama being the two public spaces where contests took place that resembled war but in the aforementioned chiasmatic relation.
            Yet if athletics was a way to have physical combat, and all its frightening, dynamic, and cathartic implications, in a clearing-space outside of war with its literal life-and-death struggle, agon is not just diversion, and despite its similar contrastive qualities, is very different from ‘play’ in the Derridean sense. Early on in Thucydides, we find the historian's great rendering of Pericles’ Funeral Oration, where the Athenian statesman raises the richness of Athenian culture (as opposed to Spartan) by saying that Athenians have meaningful leisure time, they have space in their life for sports and games, that while still able to perform well in war, war is not their life as opposed to the regimen of Sparta.  Yet Pericles was still seeing athletic contest as meaningful to society.  Whereas today, sports, for all people’s involvement with them, is a form of ’getting away from it all’ and, importantly, a place where, in the US for instance, Democrats and Republicans can find common ground talking about the World Series, and so on. In the ancient world, sports did not mean getting away from it all; it meant taking an irreducible sense of conflict and struggle and, in the deepest sense of the word, aestheticizing it. This is why, if we take stock of what truly mattered to the Greeks, Pindar (a poet extensively mentioned by Tuncel in both books) becomes nearly as important as Homer.
       Just as sports and political consequences were not cordoned off from each other, the same was true of sex. The recent headlines generated by the coming-out of basketball player Jason Collins as a gay man demonstrate how sports has been seen as a sex-free zone, that what goes on within the arena is for us as asexual as it is apolitical. For the Greeks, on the other hand, male sexuality, at least, was very much in play, and part of the drama of agon is its partaking not just of the energies of war but those of sexuality, of bodies in close juxtaposition to each other, soliciting both Eros and Thanatos.
          Nietzsche valued these aspects because, for him, even as agon demonstrated individual excellence and jutted out against the herd mentality he discerned in modern mass movements, he did not want unfettered individuality, and the famous Apollonian-Dionysian dyad of his early masterwork The Birth of Tragedy was an attempt to corral the individual within a more implicated and nuanced sphere of mystery and desire. In the later work, Nietzsche embodies agon more formally: in his practice of aphorism (emulated vigorously by Tuncel) where each saying is a thrust or parry, an invitation to contest. Tuncel's discerning of agon in the very technique of aphorism places a different cast on many of Nietzsche’s later utterances. Rather than pronouncements spoken authoritatively, they are invitations to dialogue: we can disagree with them just as we could, in theory, have striven to throw the discus further than the athlete depicted in the Myron statue. Tuncel illuminates what puzzles the modern reader about the later Nietzsche, that maxims of rapier cogency are interspersed with seemingly preposterous statements. Nietzsche is not closing out a game but beginning it. In taking Nietzsche seriously, we can say—as was said in a very different context—“Credo quia absurdam.”
           Tuncel is an embodied thinker; his thought is lived out in the page. Though philosophically rigorous, his prose sparkles with wit, sprezzatura, and an earned sense of the tentative. My one reservation about the book is there are times he contradicts his own insight, discussed above, and hews too closely to a “Nietzsche” line. For instance, Tuncel says, that, unlike ‘the modern world, for the ancient Greeks spectacle was an event within the larger world of the festival”; one could riposte that Bakhtin saw carnival, certainly at least analogous to the festival as an (early) modern phenomenon, and contemporary instances of spectacles, like rock concerts, are often surrounded by festivals, whether spontaneously at Woodstock or more concertedly at Lollapalooza or the Lilith Fair or Bonnaroo, or even something like Burning Man; all of these are attempts to revive some sort of festival spirit. The difference is, presumably, the state does not sponsor these; but should the state sponsor them? When it is a macro-state, not a city-state, do we really want these things to be so public, so part of the polity? This leads to the other area where Tuncel is too Nietzschean: though not at all sharing Nietzsche’s utter disdain for democracy, explicable in his own contest as a gesture of disdain for bourgeois modernity and false transcendence, he does say that “such concepts as democracy” exist “only on the surface” (234). I would prefer the views of two thinkers Tuncel cites, Chantal Mouffe and Lawrence Hatab, that we can have both Nietzschean ontological pluralism and a ramified democratic commonwealth; though certainly one wants to shy against any dismissal of thinkers just because they do not wholly endorse the particular version of democracy certain countries have now, an error often made when thinkers such as Schmitt, Heidegger, Nietzsche are discussed in general-interest periodicals. Thinkers comparable to Nietzsche—Melville, Emerson, Thoreau, William James, and even the not-exactly populist-Huysmans, Pater, Leopardi, Ortega, Unamuno, Croce—were able to assert idiosyncrasy and celebrate wayward excellence without resorting to explicitly antidemocratic rhetoric as the centerpiece of these assertions. Just as agon simulates war while integrating war’s psychological truth, cannot it also, as it were, simulate democracy while integrating democracy’s psychological truth? In addition, Nietzsche’s agonism can only be sharpened by juxtaposition with quite non-agonistic thinkers such as Tolstoy or, in a different way, Dostoyevsky, who though hardly ‘democrats' in a literal sense did affirm mutuality with the same dignified determination that Nietzsche affirmed radical individualism while jettisoning mere egoism or even subjectivity or voluntarism as we usually employ the terms. An individualism that leads to the Overhuman is, as Tuncel points out, qualitatively different from a narrow and expedient selfishness.
        Tuncel concludes by examining what forces dispelled agon in the late ancient world, and comes up with two: medicine and mime.  Medicine asserted its authority over the body, a clinical and taxonomic one as opposed to the experiential mode of athletics; mime made agon into mere entertainment (as also is thought to have generally occurred with respect to tragic drama). Although the arc of this analysis is Nietzschean—as antiquity lengthened, false transcendence obtruded and fractured dynamic being—the research and insights are specific to Tuncel. Ideally, one might look to Foucualt to address these questions, and indeed the medical and embodiment issues Tuncel brings up solicit both Foucault’s eaerly work on madness and the clinic and his later work on the history of sexuality.
           Nietzsche’s thought is itself agonic, invites agon, and that his aphorisms are intended to generate counter-aphorism, to open debate, not to close it. Nietzsche may not coddle a limp-wristed pluralism, but in the wider arena the way his work is rendered eventually invites counter-thrusts whose ultimate ambit can constitute a deeper pluralism. Yunus Tuncel’s exploration of agon in Nietzsche opens up Nietzsche’s deeper pluralism in a way few books have done before. It shows us that competition—brutal and violent as it may be—is necessary not only to a sense of beauty but also to a fully justified notion of conscience.