The Sporting Life
A new book denounces competitive athletics as "a global plague." Scott McLemee pulls no punches.
It always feels awkward to find that a publisher has sent me a new book on sports. As someone who escaped the sort of small Texas town where high school football is a sacrament, I’m averse to following athletics of any kind, unless watching professional bowling on TV every so often counts, which it probably doesn’t. The only other exception that comes to mind is an abiding fascination with Muhammad Ali. (But at this stage, Ali is as much a minor figure in world history as he is a major one in the sweet science of fistics.)
So when a sports title arrives, I seldom look at it. But a book denouncing the entire athletic-industrial complex as a quasi-fascist form of social engineering and capitalist brainwashing? That stands out as a departure from the norm, anyway.
Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso), published in France last year, appears in English on the cusp of the Summer Olympics. It happens that the first three of its 19 essays are devoted to the Olympics, with particular emphasis on the ones held in Berlin (1936) and Beijing (2008). Perelman sees the official rhetoric of international goodwill as so many flowers covering the chains of oppression. Everyone involved in the spectacle becomes complicit with the regimes hosting the event.
Even to a defiantly unathletic nerd, that seems like going overboard, and it's hardly unrepresentative of Perelman's perspective. The games are just episodes in the rise of “an unequaled social, political, and ideological power … spreading across the planet like a pandemic” -- so that “the everyday lies of billions of people” become “contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief.”
Quelle horreur! But it gets worse. The author is a professor of aesthetics at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense, as well as an architect. “Art, as the main product of the imagination or as visualized thought,” he writes in another essay, “and games as free enjoyment of the human body, are being tendentiously supplanted by sport in the role of the sole activity, the sole theater of permanently visualized invention and pleasure.”
If hyperbole were a footrace, Perelman could outrun Achilles. He also enjoys the gift of endurance. An appendix to the book reprints “Twenty Theses on Sport,” first published in 1975. The rest of the book consists of glosses and elaborations of its arguments. Perelman indicates that “Twenty Theses” was a collectively authored text, from the twilight of the far-left intellectual activity inspired by the events of May ’68. He makes a brief reference to how badly the French Communist Party took this intervention. (I wish he’d said more about that. It bears mentioning that L’Humanité, for many years the CP’s official organ, still prides itself on being one of the first newspapers to have a sports page.)
The critique that Perelman et al. framed in the mid-1970s was very simple: Organized athletics were just one more aspect of social alienation, serving only “to fill the masses’ minds with trivia to keep them from thinking about political struggle.” Perelman’s two essays on the structure and function of the modern stadium play variations on the stupefaction thesis. The first of them is devoted to restating -- a number of times, and in various registers -- the point that the crowd in a stadium gets so noisy during a game that you can’t hear yourself think. (Others have noticed this, of course, but without drawing out the dystopian implications, and certainly not at such length.) The second essay, presumably written some years later, offers sundry Baudrillard-esque reflections on the Jumbotron.
The 20 theses are succinct, but Perelman develops them, or at least expands them, at some length, often through a mode of description it is tempting to call “hysterico-phenomenological.” His first essay on the stadium is perhaps the best illustration of this method:
“The mass completes the living circuit specific to the place, and its surface (the spectators in the stands) become an outer ‘skin’ twitching and rippling with the whole range of emotions, blotched too with eruptions of neurosis. As with the visual, so with the aural: during the game, the energies of increasingly energized spectators are released in surges of sound, a mass wave-form surface like a sticky liquid, rising and falling in volume with the emotional state of the mass. The spectating mass in the stadium ‘builds’ itself into a profoundly unified ‘architected’ surface, in symbiosis with the concrete and steel frame whose vibrating and rippling skin it has become, with a liquid, slick sound-surface animated by a living emotional wave….”
Let me interrupt to say that this excerpt is in many ways typical of the whole book, given both its repetitiveness (for the ellipses, read “plenty more of the same”) and the evident strain on its metaphor’s coherence (the “sound-surface” is both slick and sticky).
Picking up a bit further along, we read that, in a stadium,“The voice of the mass, like an event horizon in space/time, is capable of modifying the place when at maximum intensity.” Here, again, we find an homage to Baudrillard -- in particular to his weakness for making scientific references in ways he didn’t quite understand. The influence of the hyperreal is transmitted by proxy, like a subatomic virus in the mainframe of an ionized genome.
The book's center of gravity, its enabling presupposition, can be found in the second of the 20 theses: “Sport as an institution is the product of a historical turning point. Sport appeared in England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production, at the beginning of the modern industrial epoch.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true. But Perelman is not someone to tolerate a beautiful theory being roughed up by a gang of rude facts. His discussions of the Olympics mention the ancient games one time, very much in passing. Elsewhere, he does allow for the existence of “old-world physical contests like Real Tennis, the many ancient regional variants of football, or the polo-like Central Asian game of buzkashi, played with a dead goat.” (Bukkasi is the national sport of Afghanistan, where the modern industrial epoch is not likely to be welcomed for some time yet, although it now seems to have a small following -- in modified form, sans goat -- in the United States.)
So organized games existed in ancient and feudal societies, and some of them do bear an unmistakable resemblance to the sort of thing now shown on ESPN. Yet “sports as an institution” remains essentially capitalist, because these other athletic endeavors don’t count. “Sports as an institution,” for Perelman, exists only by virtue of globalization, mass media, and the need for commodified leisure-time entertainment. Isn’t that a circular definition? Perhaps, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between dialectics and tautology.
Another dimension of the argument is that sport “is a powerful factor of sexual repression” -- even though the calendar for the French national rugby team offers “a blend of sport and pornography (‘sporn’ for short) displayed in shameless homo-Greco-gigolo style.” At the same time, the modern stadium “engenders the possibility of an extreme confusion between collective orgasm and the individual’s feeling of dissolving, losing, melting his conscious self inside a macrocosm.”
Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes the words “spork” and “Jumbotron” sound even more lewd than before.
Barbaric Sport ends with an open letter, signed by a number of intellectuals, calling for a moratorium on building new sports stadiums in Europe. They represent “an astonishing extravagance of public expenditure,” especially in the midst of an economic crisis: “The cost of building stadiums, then their permanent upkeep and the general maintenance of sites which most of the time are not in use, amounts to colossal financial losses that increasingly tear holes in state budgets.”
The complaint seemed valid -- and familiar. I’d heard broadly similar concerns expressed by my friend Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation and at one point the leftist-columnist-in-residence at Sports Illustrated. When Dave talks about football or basketball, it almost makes me want to follow a team. He’d seen a prepublication copy of Perelman’s book, and I wondered what he’d thought of it.
“The kind of analysis that Perelman provides," he wrote back to me by e-mail, "is honestly just not very helpful in understanding the modern age of sports.” While I’d been distracted by the book’s hectoring tone and conceptual shakiness, Dave focused on its extremely one-sided picture of competitive athletics as monolithic, meaningless, and brain-numbing. He knew better.
“Sports has always had two traditions running through it,” Zirin said, “and we need to be able to understand and reckon with both. It's an institution that can produce a George Steinbrenner but also produce a Muhammad Ali. It's an institution that revels in sexist imagery, but it's also given us Title IX, radical legislation that has changed the quality of life for tens of millions of American women. It's an institution where there are teams called the Washington Redskins and it's an institution where racism has been challenged more visibly than perhaps in any other arena in U.S. society (Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Smith and Carlos.)”
As a contemporary instance, he gave the example of the Miami Heat: “This past year, they did what we are told athletes no longer do, and posed in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin. They used their hyper-exalted platform to try and shape their world. That should be recognized and celebrated.”
And finally, Dave addressed the most nagging problem with the book -- the aspect that had reminded me of how upset the Puritans were when James I issued a proclamation allowing (even encouraging) his subjects to play games on holidays and Sundays, once they were out of church:
“I don't think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn't because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”
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