Jean Baudrillard, 1929-2007 | Coining a ‘worldwide currency’ for football violence


Spectators struggle for their lives at the Heyselstadion, Brussels, on 29 May 1985. Baudrillard’s essay on Heysel emphasizes the event’s inevitability: “What no police could ever guard against is the sort of fascination, of mass appeal, exercised by the terrorist model.”

Paris | Little evidence exists of Jean Baudrillard‘s rooting interests in football. The French philosopher, who died Mar 6 (see the Guardian obituary), left behind a corpus of cultural reflection. To him belonged clear-eyed, if not always clearly worded, explication of concepts such as hyperreality and simulation—with the latter implying more than Arjen Robben flopping around on the left-hand touchline.

Given Baudrillard’s birth city of Reims, we can imagine the young man following results of the club during his early university and teaching years. The run of results between 1949 and 1962—eight league and domestic cup trophies, with two losses to Real Madrid in the first and fourth finals of the European Cup (1956, 1959)—may have garnered attention from one so drawn to the notion of mediated experience.

Baudrillard

But we have no clues to such interest, only the tracings in Baudrillard’s work in translation and in the citations of English-speaking academics. Naturally, Baudrillard’s fascination with the media spectacle and with the growing separation between Western life and authentic experience relates directly to modern football, which over time has become a phenomenon to be observed—consumed—rather than appreciated as play. In The Transparency of Evil (Verso, 1993), Baudrillard writes, “Sport itself … is no longer located in sport as such, but instead in business, in sex, in politics, in the general style of performance” (quoted in T. Bar-On, “The Ambiguities of Football, Politics, Culture, and Social Transformation in Latin America,” Sociological Research Online 2 [1997]: §1.1).

In the same work, Baudrillard devotes a chapter, “The Mirror of Terrorism,” to the deaths of 39 Italian spectators at Heysel Stadium in Brussels before a 1985 European Cup final between Juventus and Liverpool. As one might expect from an original, not a derivative, thinker, Baudrillard connects the behavior of Liverpool supporters, blamed for attacking the Italian fans before collapse of a perimeter wall led to the deaths and hundreds of injured, to seemingly unrelated social and political data: to the “state terrorism” of Margaret Thatcher‘s England that, in its crushing of miners’ strikes in the north and disregard for fundaments of working-class life, including football, created pre-conditions for such violence (see Andrew Hussey, “Lost Lives That Saved a Sport,” The Guardian, 3 Apr 05).


In The Transparency of Evil, Baudrillard alludes to televised matches played before empty stands. In The Perfect Crime (Verso, 1996), he would argue that such technologies move beyond alienating humans from their surroundings; they are “expulsions of man.”

Baudrillard does not absolve Liverpool fans of blame or deny the reality of the suffering, but looks at a bigger frame. He sees the violent urges of the spectators, cut off from practical means of changing their situation (“no longer participants in their own lives,” in one of Hussey’s phrases), as an inevitable consequence of wishing to become an actor in life. The stage, naturally, must be one of the mass-scale “pseudo-events,” the Liverpool fans’ actions turned into simulacra, given “worldwide currency by television, and in the process turned into a travesty of itself.” Baudrillard continues in The Transparency of Evil:

“How is such barbarity possible in the late twentieth century?” This is a false question. There is no atavistic resurgence of some archaic type of violence. This violence of old was both more enthusiastic and more sacrificial than ours. Today’s violence, the violence produced by our hypermodernity, is terror. A simulacrum of violence, emerging less from passion than from the screen: a violence in the nature of the image. (75)

Four pages on, Baudrillard contrasts the events at Heysel with a match more than two years later. Real Madrid and Napoli contested an early-round European tie in 1987 within a nearly empty Estadio Santiago Bernabéu. Madrid fans were barred due to earlier transgressions. The scenario is familiar to us in the present, the death of a policeman amid fan rioting in Sicily in early February, for example, having persuaded Italian authorities to stage numerous matches within silent grounds. Events such as Heysel lead, in Baudrillard’s thought, to “terroristic hyperrealism,” in which “real” events occur in a vacuum, with no witnesses, but broadcast on massive screens. Baudrillard would draw heavy criticism for applying a similar course of thought to the first Gulf War in 1991, which he said “did not take place,” except as media event. With regard to football, Baudrillard continues:

This phantom football match should obviously be seen in conjunction with the Heysel Stadium game, when the real event, football, was once again eclipsed—on this occasion by a much more dramatic form of violence. There is always the danger that this kind of transition may occur, that spectators may cease to be spectators and slip into the role of victims or murderers, that sport may cease to be sport and be transformed into terrorism: that is why the public must simply be eliminated, to ensure that the only event occurring is strictly televisual in nature. Every real referent must disappear so that the event may become acceptable on television’s mental screen. (79)

A constant element in the philosopher’s writing on football and more momentous concerns is the notion of distance: a separation between reality and its representation, that is, the screen, whether computer or television, that deadens life and creates a persistent metaphysical problem: What is real? What is the real football? Is it the football in which we participate or that we watch on TV? Bar-On in his essay confronts the difficulty in the Latin American context, in which the widely available “secular lord of the masses” (that is, televised football)—the “pagan communion”—has supplanted the ludic, or playful, ideal of games.


The Jethart Ba’ game of Jedburgh, Scotland, held each year on Candlemas, recalls the violent 16th-century precursor of playing street football with severed English heads. Such games, writes T. Bar-On, offer an “immediate, mystical encounter[,] providing spiritual nourishment for the repressed desires, forces, and mutations in humanity.” (jedburgh-online.org.uk)

Participation in a live street football match has fallen in importance in comparison to the glamorous performances of human gods on television. Wielders of power in hyperreal society benefit from this loss of human agency, according to Baudrillard. Mark Perryman, author of Philosophy Football (Penguin, 1997), quotes from Baudrillard’s In the Shadow of Silent Majorities (1982): “Power is only too happy to make football bear a facile responsibility, even to take upon itself the diabolical responsibility for stupefying the masses.” Baudrillard is pictured, in fact, with a contented expression, wearing the T-shirt bearing the slogan, produced by Perryman’s “Philosophy Football” concern. Perryman expands on the Baudrillard doctrine, as it finds expression, at left back, within Perryman’s mystical XI:

With every half-decent team copying the moves of their wealthier betters, football pretty soon looked the same from park-side to Premier elite. Jean lofted the ball into hyperreality in sheer frustration: the only thing that was real any more was what could be copied. A passing commercial manager’s ears pricked up. Rubbing his sweaty palms, he headed down to some fly-by-night backstreet factory to start churning out replica kit by the barrow-load. Suddenly you weren’t little Joe Brown racing down the wing for the Cub Scout First Eleven, but David Beckham, well, at least according to the name and squad number on your back. (31–32)

The contrast could not have been starker on Feb 22 as Dave G., or “Dave the Walker,” stumbled on the annual ba’ game in Jedburgh, Scotland, as part of his length-of-Britain trek from Land’s End to John o’ Groats. None of the participants wore team colors, but were divided according to centuries-old custom as “Uppies” and “Doonies.” The town, says Dave, seems “at war with itself. Shop windows in the high street are boarded and rain-soaked youths are splattered across the streets. People are running wild. Screams reverberate. It’s carnage” (“Day 39: Byrness to Jedburgh,” I’m So Dave, Mar 1). Such is the primordial violence, “more enthusiastic and more sacrificial” than the simulacra of today.

The ba’ games are not televised.

Update

Miller

“I was born in Jedburgh as an uppie and will die an uppie!” writes Tam Miller on Sept 18. “I live and work in Jedburgh and play the Ba’ game.” He points out that injuries in earlier days resulted from kicking the ball through the streets; the game now is played strictly with the hands. Thus, it is called “Hand Ba’.” Pridefully, Miller writes that a Jethart Ba’ sits on display at the Scottish Football Museum at Hampden Park, Glasgow, near the Scottish Cup trophy.

About the Author

John Turnbull founded The Global Game in 2003. He was lead editor for The Global Game: Writers on Soccer (University of Nebraska Press, 2008) and has also written on soccer for Afriche e Orienti (Bologna, Italy), the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the New York Times Goal blog, Soccer and Society, So Foot (Paris) and When Saturday Comes. His essay "Alone in the Woods: The Literary Landscape of Soccer's 'Last Defender' " in World Literature Today was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Also for World Literature Today he edited a special section on women's soccer, "World Cup/World Lit 2011," before the Women's World Cup in Germany. The section appeared in the May-June issue. His next project is a book on soccer and faith.

Comments (3)

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  1. Jethart Ba' player says:

    The Jethart Ba’ game may look like carnage to the untrained eye. I’m a local ba’ player in Jedburgh, and you will find there is a mutual repect between ba’ players and that the game polices itself. Violence is very rare.

    It looks rough-and-tumble but there are a great deal of tactics, skullduggery and bluffing going on all around you if you know where to look. There is quite a lot of skill involved on the ball-handling side.

    There are some great photos on the Scran Trust website that capture the ba’ game, http://www.scran.ac.uk/database/results.php?PHPSESSID=njp0vjcrhii1li9lm0n9q9jsr2&QUICKSEARCH=1&search_term=jedburgh+ba+game.

  2. [...] Until one attempts to enter the labyrinth and pay obeisance to the database’s ultimate authority—to the control that the unreal wields over the real—there is no succor. At the level of the soul, one learns the truth behind Jean Baudrillard’s description of modern technologies as “expulsions of man” (see 12 Mar 07). [...]

  3. tam miller says:

    Some more pics and this year’s video thanks to the Scotsman. There was a massive interest from press and TV crews this year … no idea why.

    Some pics here:
    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/7246549.stm

    Video here:
    http://news.scotsman.com/scotland/Having-a-Ba39-in-Jedburgh.3781198.jp

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