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

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)

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