Notes from Babel: ‘To win a World Cup you must be at your most virtuous’

Prior to that, I had started an undergraduate thesis on sports video games and what I perceived to be tendencies towards a form of “virtual sport.” Though the project didn’t really go anywhere institutionally, it provided the seeds of content months later when I first became aware of this medium called a “blog.” Nine years later that germ of an idea is still present, though since that time has woven through politics, aesthetics and indeed a theory of blogging itself. The embodiment of communication remains key to this day.

For me, sports are gestural languages. They each have their own rules of grammar and conventions of style for various audiences, and they each have their forms of slang, regional dialect and poetry. When we move in athletic competition we are very much speaking to one another even if we don’t utter a word. Certainly this is what we are being sold on television! And so yes, in my formulation of a “sporting multitude” I am very influenced by [Michael] Hardt and Negri, and definitely Deleuze and Guattari, but more specifically I am thinking of Paolo Virno and his understanding of the virtuosity of the public speaker as central to the emergence of the multitude as political potential.

In my view, if sport is a gestural language then to be virtuous is not simply to be “the best” at any particular sport, but is also and always that attempt by anyone to become an artful public speaker of sporting gesture. This should be understood relative to one’s own abilities and prior performance, and contingent upon the relations one has with the other athletes in that particular unfolding of time. To create as an athletic body, in other words, is to move towards the emergence of a sporting multitude.

PA: What is the gestural language specific to soccer? In what way do these gestural elements differ in a championship like the World Cup that gathers different nations together, rather than in a league with different professional clubs and franchises?

SS: This may sound banal, but if we are to approach this question from the phenomenon of embodiment, it is that the game is played almost entirely with the feet. For a human species whose opposable thumb is purportedly one of the central features distinguishing it from other animals, this is quite remarkable. To borrow the terms of Johan Huizinga, the modern theorist of play, it is as if Homo Ludens, or Man the Player, invented a form of gestural language—using feet, chest, head, etc.—specifically as a rejection of the hands and arms that seem to characterize our everyday being as Homo Faber, or Man the Maker.

Of course our feet and legs are also what propel us around the pitch. The game is played at such pace today that it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish differential qualities of gesture at the club level, but when you have an international competition like the World Cup one can still notice regional “dialects” of soccer, such as the Brazilian ginga.

Because gesture is embodied and volumetric it still retains a spatial or geographical quality—one’s entire formative years are spent learning this regional dialect, which becomes most visibly manifest to an international audience every four years in World Cup competition. When these athletes play together as professionals during the interim, particularly in the increasingly cosmopolitan top European leagues, they are not really learning new ways of speaking with the body, but rather honing game skills, match fitness and strength. Some of the art form is lost in favour of a more technical soccer production.

It is also important to note that these histories of sporting gesture are complex and political. With Brazilian ginga, for example, the fluid means of moving about a soccer pitch emerges from a highly colonial relationship between wealthy white players and poorer black players. If any black player made contact with a white player, even if initiated by the latter, they would either be penalized or dismissed from the game and thus the development of an embodied movement style in which one could artfully carry the ball without ever touching an opponent. The particular flip of sporting Empire is that today Nike sells ginga to a worldwide audience as part of an exotic television marketing campaign.

PA: Speaking of which, it looks as if the World Cup will be the biggest global televised sporting event so far, in terms of viewers, licensing, contracts, etc. You have written about sports as screen, as televisual, as computational—how would you apply these concepts to the actual event that is the World Cup in South Africa?

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