Hybrids, Mutants and Replicants

In The Will to Technology and the Culture of Nihilism, Arthur Kroker remarks:

"If molecular biology can adapt so quickly to the epistemological possibilities of the order of the transgenic, it may be because the spectre of transgenics originates less in the order of science than in culture" (p.30).

And has sport not contributed to this epistemological awakening? As a site of cultural (re)production, is sport not implicated in this normalization of the will to technology?

The hybrid, the mutant, the replicant: transgenic variants all seen in the crucible of the high performance athletic arena or dreamt of in the sportocratic laboratory.

Muybridge

Eadweard Muybridge, Animal Locomotion Plate 99, 1887

Ever since Eadweard Muybridge's Animal Locomotion photos and the subsequent dawn of biomechanics, the body athletic has been considered a problem in Newtonian physics: forces, levers, torques, velocities and accelerations, each describing a specific movement. As a result, of course, the athlete comes to be viewed as belonging to an Erector Set of body parts, from which ideal collections and assemblages are regularly imagined, particularly in the context of high performance sport. "If only he had an arm to go with those legs." Or, metaphorically: "I wish I could put this guy's heart in that guy's body."

In the absence of such an Erector Set, however, we seek out the mutants. Forget standard endo-, meso- and ectomorphs. Instead, sport offers the hyperexaggeration of bone, fat and muscle: vomiting pygmies bouncing prettily around gymnastics apparatus, or the wraiths of endurance racing, bodily annihilated, trudging inexorably toward the finish line to a drumbeat cadence of footsteps; hypermuscular bodybuilders, football players and wrestlers straining at the skin; and the lipidinal masses that have accelerated to the point of polar inertia,

best visualized as a vicious, lazy, profoundly ignorant, perpetually hungry organism craving the warm god-flesh of the anointed.

Personally I like to imagine something the size of a baby hippo, the color of a week-old boiled potato, that lives by itself, in the dark, in a double-wide on the outskirts of Topeka.

It's covered with eyes and it sweats constantly. The sweat runs into those eyes and makes them sting. It has no mouth, no genitals, and can only express its mute extremes of murderous rage and infantile desire by changing the channels on a universal remote.

Or by voting in presidential elections.

(Gibson, Idoru)

Replication has also long been manifest in the sportocratic imagination, its genealogical roots reaching back at least to the mechanical reproduction of baseball cards and bubblegum. But these flattened, lifeless representations lack sufficient dynamism for a culture hell-bent on its own immortality, and so we begin to animate the images by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated as a derivative of baseball's industrial production process. At the cusp between biomechanics and the age of simulation, Strat-O-Matic becomes the link in the helical chain connecting Branch Rickey and scientific management in baseball with Billy Beane, the sabermetric revolution and the third wave eugenics of baseball performance.

In that time, a whole industry has emerged around so-called "fantasy sports". But the fantasy these games deliver isn't to be like the pros, as is purported. It is rather a fantasy of cloning, a fantasy of pro athletes, Sea Monkeys and Monopoly recombined into one alluring hybrid, a fantasy of ownership. Play capitalist and own your own sports team, though the vectoralist still retains class power.

The "authentic replica" sports jersey offers another example of the "spectre of transgenics" in a hyperreal sportocratic culture: replication of the star athlete via an equivalence embedded in the code of the extended skin – all in the context of a post-industrial capitalism of signs and symbolic exchanges. In this case, the fantasy is of becoming-clone, the successful and particular cloning of a purebred stock.

Presumably, then, the inauthentic replica of a cheaper jersey carries an equivalence to the bastard laboratory experiments that preceded the birth of Dolly the Sheep?

Finally, we may discuss sports videogames and virtual worlds, which also allow us the potential of becoming-clone. As with fantasy sports, this is once again made possible by repurposing the data stocks and flows generated during games, but the stakes have increased, since no longer do we rely on static photographs but rather advanced body-xeroxing technologies such as motion capture, green screen, and biometric scan.

It seems appropriate, then, to conclude my thoughts with a sample from Baudrillard, who, in his "The Clone or the Degree Xerox of the Species", writes:

Multiplication is positive only in our system of accumulation. In the symbolic order, it is equivalent to subtraction. If five men pull on a rope, the force they exert is added together. By contrast, if an individual dies, his death is a considerable event, whereas if a thousand individuals die, the death of each is a thousand times less important. Each of two twins, because he has a double, is ultimately just half an individual — if you clone him to infinity, his value becomes zero (Screened Out, p.199).

Digital Umbilical

Courtesy of MicrosoftNot long ago I remarked that a practice had most certainly entered the mainstream if Microsoft, one of the world's richest companies, represented it as Office clip art. In that case I was referring to the practice of watching television while exercising on cardio apparatus — the perfect circuitry that is created when body flows to stationary bike and back again, rhythmically complementing a parallel process in which mind flows to telescreen and back again.

When I got my first taste of a commercial fitness club, I was struck by the bank of televisions that faced the cardio equipment area, each tuned to soap operas, sports programs, or 24-hour news channels, depending on the time of day. Data downloads or consumption program patches to make the body production process more profitable, no doubt.

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

But suppose the telescreen was showing a different program. Suppose that the "show" constituted a closed-circuit surveillance of the child care centre at the fitness club? This feature is currently becoming more commonplace in the sportscapes of contemporary fitness and suggests an interesting consequence of the inertia that develops when one exercises on standard cardio apparatus: one is now able to watch one's baby the entire time during a workout.

To understand the gestation of such a development, we must look back to the submarines of WWI, which required the development of vision without sight to detect enemy boats while underwater. Thus, the introduction of active sonar, which functioned by pulsing sound outwards and then measuring the waves that would reflect back from any object within range.

It was after WW2 that a direct descendent of this technology, in the form of ultrasonic sonography, would be repurposed by the medical establishment as a means of looking within the body — to see, among other things, developing foetuses in utero. Already we see the emergence of a digital umbilical delivering information from the baby to its parents and medical authorities, while its organic equivalent runs in parallel from the placenta to deliver nutrient-rich blood. Sound is used to create an image of the baby, the acoustic rendered optic.

To borrow from Virilio, it is military technology and a particular requirement to organize perception in the murky depths of the ocean battlefield that at a later point in time expedites an endocolonization of the human body.

Of course, once the baby leaves the abyss of the womb, light penetrates the darkness, mutating the digital umbilical from one that facilitates an acoustic vision to a more classical (though remoted) optic vision that takes place when the mother is exercising on cardio equipment while watching her loved one via closed circuit camera. Separation anxiety assumes a different form by shifting to the parents, since in the digital sense, the child is yet to be fully born, remaining instead attached to its digital umbilical.

eXperienZ

Re-watched David Cronenberg's eXistenZ last night, an existential meditation on reality and the virtual realities of future videogame worlds. Without spoiling the plot (since this is really a must-watch movie), Jennifer Jason Leigh and Jude Law are the main characters negotiating their way through the chaos that ensues when a focus group for a new videogame is hijacked by an activist intent on killing the game's designer (Jason Leigh).

eXistenZ

Some notes as they relate to sportsBabel:

  • The interface for the game is a very organic animal tissue and umbilicus construct that jacks directly into one's spinal cord via an implanted 'bio-port' — "C'mon Pikul, they do these at the mall. It's like having your ears pierced."
  • The motif of religion surfaces often during the movie, from the fact the focus group takes place in an old church, with the congregation of attendees waiting expectingly in pews; to the title of the game in the movie, transCendenZ, which is published by the PilgrImage company. It reminded me of the religious motif that appears at the heart of Michael Jordan advertising for Nike.
  • Another motif that reappears in the movie is one of hygiene, infection, mutation, etc. Of particular interest is the idea that there is some sort of possibility for hygiene/infection that may permeate the invisble membrane between the digital and the organic, a question I have pondered myself.
  • Finally, we note that Geller (Jason Leigh) is an extremely tactile and sensual woman, demonstrated repeatedly in the ways she touches, caresses or otherwise explores objects and surfaces with her hands. In fact, since the game is jacked directly into her nervous system, she plays with her eyes closed and her hands manipulating the interface as necessary. I see strong resemblances between her and this young man.