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

Posted By Sean Smith On 24 May 2010 @ 22:17 In Arts,Language,Media,Teaching Resources | 1 Comment

Editor’s note

The following is the transcript of an e-mail conversation between writers Sean Smith and Peter Amdam. It was originally written in English and translated for Josimar [1], a soccer magazine from Norway that, launched in 2009, treats the game’s culture and politics.

For most of the 21st century Smith has logged his working notes and research on sport theory at sportsBabel [2], a site that “examines the aesthetics, politics and poetics of sport and physical culture.” As evident below, he is interested in technical developments in sport and in its consumption, which leads to reflection on the postmodern spectator. Smith’s commitment to praxis as well as theory comes through in his annual promotion of Global Village Basketball [3], a Web-aided melding of pickup results from Poland to Serbia to the USA that illustrates the potential of “sporting multitudes.”

Unlike his theoretical forebears—who have football as first sporting reference—Smith draws from an amalgam of influences as fan and participant. He started playing soccer as a youngster. In sportsBabel’s career Smith has commented on the BBC’s innovation [4] in 1927 of supplying a numbered grid system to aid listeners before the first live football broadcast. He also writes [5] about the documentary Heysel ’85: Requiem for a Cup Final [6], one of the touchstones in postmodern meditations on violence and sport.

Smith’s interlocutor, Amdam, is an independent editor and writer based in Oslo. His essay “All Poems Are Too Beautiful: Some Notes on Jean-Luc Nancy, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Claire Denis” will be published in fall 2010.

Canadian artist Patricia Reed created this digital print on flag fabric—a linear pastiche of all recognized national flags. The result is “an imbroglio of nation-state graphic ideology” with a “black whole” in the center. (Pan-national Flag [7] © 2009 Pia Fuchs—Reed’s German pseudonym. Image courtesy of the artist.)

PA: I would first like to situate you and your current project. Where are you coming from? What brought you to this combination of sports and critical theory? What is the basic proposition behind your concept of “sporting multitude”? It seems heavily informed by [Gilles] Deleuze, [Félix] Guattari and [Antonio] Negri—combined with a notion of sport/play/war that has its own conceptual history.

SS: First and foremost, I am coming from a trajectory of embodiment. I was an athlete long before I was ever aware of or interested in critical theory, playing at different skill levels with different roles and sets of relations to teammates and competitors. I’ve played a number of different sports over time, but I seem to have gravitated towards more open-ended team sports such as soccer, hockey and particularly basketball.

I had been interested in the theory of communication for some time, especially the emerging “new media” that was very much making its presence felt in the universities. I had read a fair amount of [Marshall] McLuhan [8] and a little bit of [Jean] Baudrillard, but otherwise didn’t have much background in critical theory since my first two degrees were in kinesiology and business management. So when I first picked up [Michel] Foucault [9] in graduate school I was fortunate to have had a phenomenological experience of the disciplined athletic body from which to begin approaching his thought.

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 [2], 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 [10] 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?

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 [11], 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 [12] parent company, Saab (whose corporate motto reads “It is a human right to feel safe”). The American artist and theorist Jordan Crandall [13] 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 [14] 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 [15] 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.

That said, it is important that if we are still to watch the World Cup on television we do so as critical spectators. Will the dark history of Robben Island [16] be sanitized for television through the positive associations offered by sport, for example, much in the same way that the dark history of Tian’anmen Square [17] was sanitized for the 2008 Beijing Olympics? If there is to be any political potential whatsoever it must grow from a critical awareness of one’s own engagement with the media.

PA: Who do you root for in soccer? Virilio, one of the key thinkers of modern technology and its speed, admits that he actually hates technology. Do you really like sports of postmodern corporate spectacle such as the World Cup?

SS: Of course I like these sports! To win a World Cup you must be at your most virtuous, your most highly attuned, as a poorly played match just won’t be good enough. If you have played the sport at any level you can appreciate what is on display. I don’t really root for any particular team, however, which can be quite liberating as it allows me to simply marvel at skilled and artful play.

It is very fascinating to live in Toronto, one of the most multicultural cities in the world [18], during the month of the World Cup. One diasporic community after another parades through the streets with every win by their home nation, honking horns and flashing team colours and waving flags from their cars. The collective joy that can emerge from a sporting competition is truly impressive.

But the romance and nostalgia of these sporting nationalisms can perhaps blind us to the broader processes of imperialism at work today. These new processes are still very much rooted in identity and spectacle, though in more fluid ways than ever before. And if we always see the world in terms of binary competition, as we do with sport, we will fail to understand the shades of grey that lie in between—not to mention the potential of our being-in-common with one another, on the field of play or simply in the world.


  • Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena (London: Verso, 1993).
  • Jordan Crandall, Drive (Berlin: Hatje Cantz Verlag, 2003).
  • Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on the Societies of Control,” October 59 (winter 1992): 3–7.
  • Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
  • Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. A. Sheridan (New York: Penguin, 1977).
  • Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, Empire (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (Boston: Beacon Press, 1950).
  • Sylvère Lotringer and Christian Marazzi, eds., Autonomia: Post-political Politics (New York: Semiotext(e), 2007).
  • Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2002).
  • Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man (New York: New American Library, 1964).
  • Paul Virilio and Sylvère Lotringer, Pure War, trans. M. Polizzotti (New York: Semiotext(e), 1997).
  • Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life (New York: Semiotext(e), 2004).

1 Comment (Open | Close)

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

#1 Comment By Dylan Tooby On 28 May 2010 @ 12:28

Great article. Keep the good stuff coming.

Article printed from The Global Game: http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog

URL to article: http://www.theglobalgame.com/blog/2010/05/notes-from-babel-to-win-a-world-cup-you-must-be-at-your-most-virtuous/

URLs in this post:

[1] Josimar: http://josimar.no/

[2] sportsBabel: http://www.sportsbabel.net/

[3] Global Village Basketball: http://www.globalvillagebasketball.net/

[4] BBC’s innovation: http://www.sportsbabel.net/2007/11/sensory-interplay.htm

[5] writes: http://www.sportsbabel.net/2005/05/remembering-heysel.htm

[6] Heysel ’85: Requiem for a Cup Final: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VnCz4CbSMII

[7] Pan-national Flag: http://www.aestheticmanagement.com/pan-national-flag/

[8] [Marshall] McLuhan: http://www.marshallmcluhan.com/main.html

[9] [Michel] Foucault: http://www.michel-foucault.com/

[10] Nike sells ginga: http://www.nike.com/nikefootball/teams/brazil?locale=en_US

[11] TRACAB: http://www.tracab.com/

[12] defence and security contractor: http://www.saabgroup.com/

[13] Jordan Crandall: http://jordancrandall.com/main/index.html

[14] Autonomist: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Autonomism

[15] Brian Massumi: http://www.brianmassumi.com/

[16] Robben Island: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robben_Island

[17] Tian’anmen Square: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tiananmen_Square_protests_of_1989

[18] one of the most multicultural cities in the world: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_Toronto

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