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

SS: Baudrillard and [Paul] Virilio have each written about the postmodern televisual spectacle, suggesting in their own unique ways that the fan at the stadium has become obsolesced in favour of the spectator at home. And given the nearly instantaneous distribution of television signals from major sporting events to almost anywhere on the planet, it is hard to argue.

But I reject this perspective. The globally distributed World Cup television signal that will be broadcast from South Africa this summer functions by converting the experiential qualities of live action to the synthetic perception of digital code, via the multiple camera perspectives available to the television producer. It cannot possibly convey the affective resonance that exists in the complex and holistic interplay of gesture and flesh between athletes and fans at the stadium. To invert Virilio, those at the stadium are still “right” in that they offer the television audience of synthetic perception witnesses to legitimate the existence of the event, as well as the appropriate codes one should perform at home in response.

However, I am more concerned with the situation that exists when these television cameras begin to communicate with one another. This is what we see with 3D visualization and match-analysis systems such as TRACAB, which will be used for the World Cup this summer. To produce econometric analyses of sporting output this system uses video-signal processing technologies derived directly from its defence and security contractor parent company, Saab (whose corporate motto reads “It is a human right to feel safe”). The American artist and theorist Jordan Crandall refers to this type of apparatus as a body-machine-image complex—with images that track bodies in motion rather than simply represent them. With TRACAB and its perfomance-analysis techniques, sport thus appears bound to war in ever new and unique fashions.

We often forget that this is labour we are describing, given the lavish salaries earned by those athletes we watch on television every weekend. Millions of dollars are invested and the stakes are extremely high, hence the appeal to management of a service such as TRACAB. We spectators ought to be mindful, though, of how such techniques for maximizing efficiency in soccer today might come to bear on other labouring classes as the cost of such analysis falls tomorrow.

PA: Concerning event, multitude and political potential: what, if any, are the forces and energies that can be activated through this year’s World Cup event? In what way can a more post-operaist, post-structural theory of sports be better fitted to bring such a potential into being, as opposed to regular old-fashioned sociological ones that seem to be prevalent, at least here in Europe?

SS: Without succumbing to a political prescription for what is an exceedingly complex question, I will suggest that an important component of the Autonomist struggle concerned a refusal of the conditions of work in increasingly computerized and automated factories. Though it is certainly not the same thing, Deleuze and Guattari remind us that the television spectator is also a worker today—producing information, producing packaged audiences, producing subjectivities for the consumer society and so on.

As far as sport is concerned, the increased skilling of athletic labour combined with emerging forms of sedentary information-work in economically advantaged countries creates a gap in gestural potential or physical literacy. It is this gap that serves as the lever for capital to sell sponsorship back to the television audience. While I don’t suppose there will be a refusal of the World Cup in quite the same fashion as with the Autonomists, we can still play! We, too, can witness the gestural qualities of soccer and express virtuosity with others on a local basis. Brian Massumi writes a very beautiful passage about the relational becoming of players on a soccer pitch, which for me suggests the potential of something more in terms of community. Politics remain a primarily local phenomenon.

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