The crisis of liberal democracy has given rise to attempts to think the political in non-representational terms, such as by focusing on agonism. But it remains unclear exactly what it means to characterize the essence of the political in terms of conflict. A huge gap separates Schmitt’s conception of the enemy, from Rancière’s disagreement, and from Connolly’s pluralism. To understand the divergent conception of agonism, I will pursue a short genealogy of agonism to show how it enters the academic discourse of the 19th century. The pivotal figure who links 19th century agonism to recent articulations is Nietzsche, who under the influence of Greek thought based his conception of agonism on instrumentality. By contrast current versions of agonism reject instrumental calculation following the “critique of instrumental reason.” What is at stake in this difference? I will show that the repression of instrumentality in the different versions of agonism in the 20th century is intertwined with a notion of the sacred. And I will sketch what it would be like to have a notion of agonism without the sacred.
Dimitris Vardoulakis was the inaugural chair of Philosophy at Western Sydney University. Some of his books are Freedom from the Free Will: On Kafka’s Laughter (2016); Stasis Before the State: Nine Theses on Agonistic Democracy (2018); Spinoza, the Epicurean: Authority and Utility in Materialism (2020); and The Ruse of Techne: Heidegger’s Magical Materialism (2024). He is the co-editor of the book series “Incitements” (Edinburgh University Press) and the new journal Philosophy, Politics and Critique. He is currently serving as the chair of the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP).