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The political dimension of dance : Mouffe's theory of agonism and choreography

Book Contribution - Chapter

This article explores the political dimension of contemporary dance, focussing on the theory of agonism as it is developed by the political theorist Chantal Mouffe. Contrary to other models of agonism, Mouffe's work is constructed around a definition of agonism that implies a certain degree of antagonism that can never be eliminated. This view explains that agonism (a we/they relation in which the two sides are adversaries) is always threatened by antagonism (a we/they relation in which the two sides are enemies). Given that 'the task of democracy is to transform antagonism into agonism', I will argue that Mouffe's agonistic model of democratic politics enables the possibility of understanding how art, and dance in particular, is able to contest and transform the dominant politics, its hegemonic institutions, sedimented social practices and prevailing representations that mobilise antagonistic relations. Once we have acknowledged that antagonism is inherent to every social construction, we must recognise that the articulatory power of dance manifests within the context of counter-hegemonic struggle. It is precisely a continuous struggle between complying and contesting forces, between hegemonic and counter-hegemonic forces, that enables a dynamic, transforming and creative power of dance. It is here that the political dimension of art is constituted. In order to support this argument, I will first turn to the quasi-transcendental philosophical trajectory developed by the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, before then turning to examine post-foundational politico-philosophical thought, which emphasises the indispensable moment of exclusion in the construction of any social practice, and the dimension of the impossibility of absolute foundation or grounding. This is of particular relevance to Mouffe's agonistic model of democratic politics which proposes the disarticulation and transformation of dominant socio-political discourses around we/they relations. For Mouffe, democratic politics begins by acknowledging, rather than suppressing, antagonistic relations within the practice of hegemony. Insight into Mouffe's political theory provides the basis for revealing the political dimension of art and, moreover, will permit an understanding of it in terms of counter-hegemonic struggle. In the final section, I will envisage dance practice from these philosophical and political standpoints with the aim of articulating choreography in relation to the sphere of contestation such that it may be understood to contribute to the transformation of democracy and society as a whole. In this regard, what I will be calling agonistic encounters and agonistic objectifications in dance performances will be the articulation of partial and contesting systems of relations allowing different realities to be materialised in the same space.
Book: Performing antagonism : theatre, performance and radical democracy
Series: Performance Philosophy
Pages: 251 - 272
Publication year:2017