Michael Jordan, Inc.: A Pro Forma Statement

"It's not about the shoes."

It's not about the shoes, but at the same time it is about the shoes.

Though Michael Jordan and his shoes are likely the most mediated athlete-technology hybrid in history, very little of his appearance as text has been of the critical sort. One notable exception is Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America, a collection of essays edited by David Andrews, the head of the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland. The volume represents the work of many well-respected scholars in critical sports studies as well as contributions from cognate disciplines by luminaries such as Norman Denzin, Douglas Kellner, and Michael Eric Dyson.

"It's about knowing where you're going."

The book explores the social, economic, political, and technological issues surrounding Jordan and his corporate relationships (Chicago Bulls, NBA, Nike and Gatorade, etc.) and their effects on American and global cultures. While one cannot say that Jordan ushered in the age of what we currently understand as globalization, nor that globalizing processes "made" Jordan, it can safely be stated that a trialectic relationship between sport (MJ, Bulls, NBA, Dream Team), media companies, and corporate sponsors (notably Nike) assembled in a perfect storm (what Manuel DeLanda might consider a chaotic attractor in social non-linear dynamics) to exponentially accelerate the Jordan Effect to planetary proportions.

"Not forgetting where you started."

While Jordan the basketball phenom arguably arrived when he hit the winning jumpshot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, Jordan the postmodern spectacle arrived (or took off?) with the television ad campaigns to introduce his new, personalized Nike basketball shoe. Playing prophet to the coming phenomenon of Jordan was Spike Lee as the character Mars Blackmon, who uttered the immortal phrase of the consumerist 1980s: "Money, it's gotta be the shoes!"

Thus was launched the trajectory of Air Jordan.

"It's about having the courage to fail."

Though Michael Jordan, Inc. covers a wide swath in its many contributions, I would like to briefly discuss a topic that might be considered a coda to the original collection or perhaps a pro forma look at a future beyond the temporal bounds of the book's subject matter — specifically concerning the materialities of athletic body and media representation and how these flows intersect with the immateriality of data networks.

The vast potential and primary problem with sign value creation in the sport-media-sponsor trialectic mentioned earlier is that it is fundamentally rooted in the body athletic — in the body's ability to move through space rhythmically with teammates and competitors, to manufacture positive outcomes from routine sets and plays, and to hack creative possibilities from the continual unfoldings of these positive outcomes. The body is vectoralism's greatest strength and greatest weakness.

"Not breaking when you're broken."

But the body ages. It is organic. It wrinkles and withers and grays and slows and expires and decomposes. For an athlete, muscles become less elastic, bones more brittle, joints less lubricated, and metabolism less able to burn lipids.

Michael Jordan's body ages, despite the spectacle that precedes him, produces him, and perpetuates him. And while the creative hacks of the body athletic are not the only way to generate sign value in the sportocratic economy, Jordan's ability to do just that was bound to organically decline.

"Taking everything you've been given … and making something better."

Couretesy of MJ to the Max/NBAThis is not to say that the machinations of spectacle haven't attempted to arrest the aging process. A growing repository of images and information can be continually recombined to provide the illusion of youth. And media materialities that allow for space and time axis manipulation may be leveraged to this end as well.

Indeed, one need only look back to the 360-degree mocap recreation of Jordan's famous foul line dunk in Michael Jordan to the Max to see how material, embodied performance can be spatiotemporally dilated for spectacular purpose. While Jordan was too old at the time of the movie's production to dunk spread-eagled from the foul line, particularly with as much ease as the final cut shows, greenscreen techniques and clever 3-D computer animation slowed down the sands of metabolic time.

"It's about work … before glory."

But while the usefulness of a body may be prolonged for the creation of sign value, a limit is eventually reached after which new sign value must be created with the same body in other ways (nostalgia) or else a new body is required. With Nike, we witness a steady trend of working the corporeal Jordan out of the sign value creation process.

Recall the campaign a little over four years ago that featured Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Warren Sapp — Jordan's student, designated hitter, and alter ego, respectively. Resample: "As MJ's flesh becomes weak, no longer available to produce meaning for Nike and its image-signs, the distilled essence of his excellence — his aura, that invisible Air of Jordan — transcends the body and morphs or transmogrifies into the bodies of his disciples."

"I am not Michael Jordan," they chorused, even though they had become Him.

"And what's inside of you."

Two years later, the "2nd Generation" campaign would feature video footage of young basketball players replicating the signature moves (creative hacks) from Jordan's career. This was possible because the DNA of Jordan — or more correctly, his memes rather than his genes — had seeped into the network and emerged as the fittest for survival.

The implied message in both of these texts was a liberation for Nike (and its consumers) from the shackles of Jordan's fleshy prison. Become light!

Or, at minimum, add to the product life cycle and the unit life cycle a mean time before failure for the athletic motor of sign value creation.

"It's doing what they say you can't."

An important component to this erasure of the corporeal Jordan is that sponsorship through the Jordan Brand is spread across many different sports. Basketball, baseball, gridiron football, and boxing, which constitute to a large degree the entire history of sport in modern America (and its attendant racial history), are dissolved in a postmodern moment of sport as engine for the new vectoral order of intellectual property production and consumption (with race, as Andrews points out, becoming a "floating racial signifier").

This erasure of the corporeal Jordan continues in the latest major Nike campaign, "Become Legendary". The feature ad spot is fascinating in that the 60-second commercial is composed almost exclusively of old amateur video footage of current Jordan Brand athletes. There are two minor exceptions: first, a shot of a contemplative Ray Allen in his new Celtics uniform at the beginning of the spot; and second, a still photo of Chris Paul in his Hornets uniform, which needed to be established because the archival footage used for him was of such poor quality, although the backstory behind the video — Paul scoring 61 points after his grandfather, with whom he was close, passed away at age 61 — was of such high value that the video ought to be included.

These two contemporary exceptions notwithstanding, it is the archive that ironically provides the vector of erasure.

"It's not about the shoes."

For a generation cynical about the tacit promises made in the 1980s and 1990s, namely, that shoe consumption would grant one equivalent talents to those of the star endorser, "It's not about the shoes. It's about what you do in them" turns the responsibility back to the consumer. Arguably, not one of the athletes in the "Becoming Legendary" spot — Ray Allen, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, Terrell Owens, Andre Ward, Richard Hamilton, Joe Johnson, Marvin Harrison, and Carmelo Anthony — would be considered freakish athletes by the standards of professional sport, but rather those who took moderate athletic gifts and maximized them through hard work.

"It's about what you do in them."

That said, the clause "in them" provides a reminder that even though responsibility has been turned back to the consumer, one's chances in competition certainly improve if sporting a pair of Nikes. So we have a historical referent — Mars Blackmon imploring that it's gotta be the shoes — that serves not only as the entry point to situate this level of the contemporary assemblage but simultaneously as the departure point from which to negate that historical position. We have a reversal of implied obligation from producer to consumer. And, though the erasure of the corporeal Jordan is almost complete, Nike never has to compromise the original message, which is to buy the shoes.

"It's about being who you were born to be."

The scratchy and grainy original home video footage and the editing that reinforces this particular material condition of production — what N. Katherine Hayles would refer to as a "technotext", a text that foregrounds the inscription technology used to produce it — is consonant with a generation that has spent its entire life on camera — in photos, videos, home movies, webcams, cell phones, etc. That there exists video footage of these professional athletes as teens and that clips have been detached from these archival texts to be remixed into a new assemblage paid for by a transnational corporate sponsor does not seem to this generation at all unusual.

Today's youth are used to cutting, pasting, sampling — of disassembling and reassembling other — as their central mode of communication and, dare we say, overarching ontology. And in this commercial, we witness evidence of a reversal from industrial capitalism: while the mining of metals ultimately provided the infrastructural base for industrial manufacture, the post-industrial manufacture of spectacle and its concomitant commodity marketing ultimately provide the basis for the mining of data archives from which sign values may be extracted — presumably at lower marginal cost to the manufacturer — and then assembled anew.

BECOME LEGENDARY

This is not the only mining that will take place, however, and here we may examine more closely the pro forma portion of this corporate outlook. Though the technology and techniques are still in their relative infancy, we should extrapolate somewhat to vision where the emergent ubiquity of online communication takes us.

It is not a significant leap to suggest that vast databases of photo and video imagery combined with the facial recognition technology blossoming in security applications will be used by Nike and others to identify new motors of sign value production in a hybrid of spectaclesimulationsurveillance. Scan for the swoosh, process through neural network analysis, and the future robot historian will identify Jordan by a few degrees of separation as one of the most powerful nodes in the history of netspace.

In the process of becoming legendary, this is how a posthuman religion is born.

Cheery Kool-Aid

I have discussed the sports uniform many times as a particular semiotic technology designed to discipline or homogenize athlete identity. The uniform also allows fans to easily identify members of "their" team on the field of play and cheer accordingly. But what happens when the fans themselves are given a uniform upon entry to the sports stadium — do they not succumb to the same homogenizing tendency?

Courtesy of Toronto Raptors/NBA

This homogenization occurred during Thursday night's Game 3 quarterfinal matchup between the Toronto Raptors and Orlando Magic. For their first home date of the playoffs, Raptors' management handed out a "free" red t-shirt to every fan as part of its "Are you RED-Y?" campaign. But don't think that this is simply a question of a fan exercising agency in choosing whether or not to wear the shirt. As Dave Perkins of the Toronto Star notes, house-abetted peer pressure can be a powerful influence.

The customers were gifted upon entry with red T-shirts from the corporate partner that has its name on Flying Bolt Field. Pre-game, the scoreboard showed any customer who dared not wear the new gang colours. Boos would cascade until the miscreant drank the Kool-Aid and suited up.

With the athletes, there is a numerical inscription on the uniform that serves to identify and index each player — to the spectator, to the opponent, to the statistical archive, to the network. For the fans in their new uniforms, on the other hand, there is not even this meagre individualizing element. Save for the corporate logo emblazoned on each shirt, it is literally a kaleidoscope of skin colour, hue and tone dissolved down to a red matte for perceptual optics. A mass or multiplicity (a "sellout" of 20,023…!) perhaps, but not a multitude.

Shoe Capital and Trash Vectors

It might appear patently obvious to identify the desire for a capitalist firm to reduce waste on the manufacturing shop floor, which allows for more efficient production that keeps costs down and ultimately yields increased profit margins. But this only considers the stage of production as a linear process that begins with product design, advances to work-in-process, and ends with finished inventories and order fulfillment. Increasingly, companies have become interested in the consumption and post-consumption phases of what we might refer to as a unit life cycle that emerges to complement the classic product life cycle of consumer marketing. The managerial interest in the phase of consumption primarily constitutes the field of customer relationship management (CRM) and is not very interesting on its own. But the latter phase, post-consumption, is also attracting concern and will be examined here in the case of Nike.

Nike Reuse-A-Shoe Sorting - Courtesy of Nike

Nike has a program that is an important component of its Let Me Play community initiative called Reuse-A-Shoe, which for the past fifteen years has collected and recycled old athletic shoes. Currently, the shoes that are accumulated through this program are broken down and reconstituted in a proprietary process to create a blend of tiny rubber pellets called Nike Grind. The compound is then used, for example, to surface or refurbish new and used basketball and tennis courts, an example of converting material excess or post-consumer waste into social capital.

Trash Talk - Courtesy of NikeBut what if these recycled shoes weren't just being used to refurbish sportscapes in acts of "charity"? What if these ground up shoes were being used to create new Nike shoes? This is exactly what has happened with the recent release of Nike's Trash Talk basketball shoe, a product designed to be "the first performance basketball shoe made from manufacturing waste" — scraps on the factory shop floor as well as a portion of Nike Grind.

The shoe is endorsed by Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, whose identity-vehicle or pseudonimage indicates a well-developed social conscience, though he does not talk trash on the basketball court (hence the irony of the endorsement). Given his environmental passion and the desired goals of the shoe, the potential semiotic synergies are significant. And of course, this is all about signs, for we have moved into the age of vectoralism.

That the vectoralist class has replaced capital as the dominant exploiting class can be seen in the form that the leading corporations take. These firms divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power. They rely on a competing mass of capitalist contractors for the manufacture of their products. Their power lies in monopolizing intellectual property — patents, copyrights and trademarks — and the means of reproducing their value — the vectors of communication. The privatization of information becomes the dominant, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of commodified life. [As Naomi Klein suggests in No Logo,] "there is a certain logic to this progression: first, a select group of manufacturers transcend their connection to earthbound products, then, with marketing elevated as pinnacle of their business, they attempt to alter marketing's social status as a commercial interruption and replace it with seamless integration." With the rise of the vectoral class, the vectoral world is complete (Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, #032).

This brings us back to the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which "collects worn-out athletic shoes of any brand from a variety of sources, including end of life shoes collected through a variety of recycling programs, special events at Nike or other stores, shoes that are returned to us from retailers due to a material flaw and even counterfeit shoes" (emphasis added). Why would Nike incur the cost of recycling used products for the companies it competes against or for criminal counterfeiters? This seems totally irrational.

Invert the analysis. Instead of recycling being a process at the end of a linear chain of events, post-consumption, consider the Reuse-A-Shoe program at the beginning, as part of its supply chain sourcing. The fact that competitor and counterfeit running shoes are accepted into the supply stream of raw goods underscores the material equivalence between virtually any athletic shoe product. Accepting competitor running shoes allows Nike to gain social or material benefits at a lower cost.

Additional gains may be illuminated, however, when viewed from the vectoral perspective. Though there may be a material equivalence between competing running shoes, their differentiation lies in the sign-value associated with any particular product design or, more importantly, with the logo emblazoned on the shoe as part of that design. So when Nike accepts the shoes of its competitors for the Reuse-A-Shoe program, it is not only acquiring a scarce supply of used running shoes, but is in effect removing the sign-value of its competitors from circulation in a semiotic economy.

Is this a mutation in the parameters of competition for the athletic footwear industry? Will adidas develop its own competencies in sourcing a supply of shoes, post-consumption? Does a demand for such sourcing create new barriers to the athletic footwear market for later entrants, such as Under Armour? And perhaps more importantly, given the intellectual property issues discussed above, do athletic footwear companies begin to introduce End User License Agreements (as seen, for example, with proprietary software products) that dictate and control precisely (in conjunction with embedded RFID tags and/or barcodes) what consumers may and may not do with their running shoes?

Taken one at a time, needs are nothing; there is only the system of needs; or rather, needs are nothing but the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which "consumption" takes up the logical and necessary relay from production (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society).

And this is where the mutation occurs. While production creates a system of needs for the worker class that is realized through individualized acts of consumption, it is no longer a linear process as Baudrillard suggests in this passage. Consumption likewise creates a system of needs for the vectoral-capital class interest that is realized through individual-corporate acts of production, an extended helix of production consumption prosumption that constitutes an entirely new project of domination for the vectoral ruling interest.

Equalization

A little over a year ago, the New York Times published a story featuring the National Football League's policy of sending each year's Super Bowl losing team's pre-fabricated championship merchandise to charities in Africa. At that time, I took Virilio's concepts of negative interactive potential and the logistics of perception as the basis to interrogate this initiative: while positioned as altruistic by the NFL's marketing machine, I suggested an alternative reading that revealed the NFL as neo-colonial in its attempt to dump the unwanted excess of semiotic energy on the "technologically dark" African continent.

Courtesy of Worldmapper

To illustrate the "technological darkness" that makes Africa such an ideal place to dump semiotic energy and convert material goods to social capital, I present the equal area cartogram for world internet users recently released by Worldmapper. An equal area cartogram, also known as a density-equalizing map, proportionally resizes each country and continent according to the variable being mapped. In terms of internet usage — the medium that might allow, say, the jersey of a losing Super Bowl team to be re-sold on Ebay — note that Africa almost disappears. Equalizing, indeed.

viriliolympicontagion

While memes rage out of control along the Olympic Torch Relay route ("Images contaminate us like viruses." - Virilio), athletes from national teams around the world are consulting with epidemiologists and taking vaccinations in preparation for the Games in China later this summer. Is this not relevant to the question of the Olympics (not to mention major sport-for-development projects such as Right to Play) as a site of international exchange through sport, where peaceful truces are temporarily enacted and the boundaries of the nation-state temporarily cease to matter — except, of course, during every event?

Courtesy of Right to Play International

Can there be true exchange, cultural or otherwise, when one is constantly protecting oneself from the other? Should we suggest that while nation-state boundaries are becoming more permeable to vast tides of human migration, the society of control retains a sense of interior and exterior not only through registration but through an endocolonization of the body that creates striates a prophylactic layer of immunity?

The absence of a visible barrier, on the one hand, or any apparent embracing of the visual signifiers of hybridity, on the other, mask the reliance of imperialist tendencies on this invisible layer of protection between self and potential contagion, a situation that is further exacerbated by the fact that the invisible barrier was erected injected long beforehand and so in the lived moment of cultural exchange its existence is long forgotten.

Can/should/will this liminal space be closed? Perhaps.

But we can be certain that at this summer's Viriliolympic Games this liminal space will constitute the basis of proactivity for the genetic/population bomb accident property form.

Of Heroes, Trebles and the Performative Underclass

A long time ago I decided that sports videogames were the karaoke of the sportocracy, but over time I have come to modify that opinion. It's not that I have eschewed the belief that both karaoke lovers and sports videogame aficionados desire to engage in acts of post-celebrity culture, but that the material specificities of each communication medium as well as the conditions of their production demand a more nuanced analysis.

A sports videogame is not just about supplying the missing body motions for a complete sporting performance, as karaoke is about supplying the missing vocals to complete a musical performance. Looking at the underlying materiality of the latter medium, karaoke first substitutes out the vocal performance for a recorded song so that an instrumental version may be used, which requires the recording technique of laying multiple audio tracks that are subsequently mixed into a final product. For the instrumental karaoke version of the song, the vocal track is deleted from the final output; or, more correctly, it is translated to textual form, adding yet another term in the oscillating recursion between spoken and written signifier.

Second, if we view the final karaoke performance as the "finished product" we note that production is completed at a location remote from where it was begun, what we might consider a spatial-axis manipulation of the performing body that parallels Kittler's observation of the time-axis manipulation properties available with recordable electronic media. This should be qualified, however, by recalling Deleuze and Guattari's assertion that there is no alpha and omega to the production process ("the law of the production of production"), and hence we cannot look at the karaoke performance dogmatically as a finished product. Nonetheless, the very real effects on the human body of this deferred and recombinant performativity force us to consider such a spatial-axis manipulation; not only does technical reproducibility negate the aura of the live performance, as Benjamin points out, it also negates the requirement for a single unitary body to produce this performance.

Courtesy of NOW magazineThird, there is the question of the "finished product" itself. When karaoke singers perform a tune they are only as good as their own voice. In other words, there is no mechanism at work here that can improve talent. For many participants, much of the experience consists in being bad at singing!

Contrast this with the smash hit videogames Guitar Hero and Rock Band. The player of the game doesn't need to be able to play the guitar as well as the original guitarist — or even at all — in order to complete the performance or finish the product to a relatively decent quality standard. Simply by pressing an increasingly complex sequence of buttons on a plastic guitar-resembling interface, the aspiring gamer-musician may approximate the guitar riffs of real-life rock gods. This is what we might describe as prosthetic talent.

From where is this prosthetic talent generated? We should recall an earlier discussion on sportsBabel about body trebling. In sports videogames, which are modeled after the exploits of professional sports leagues, the athletes themselves serve two purposes: first, their league play provides a steadily growing archive of statistics and other metadata — what I originally termed I3, the images, information and identities of immaterial sportocratic production; second, athletes perform "signature moves" for motion capture assemblies, which are then programmatically inserted into the videogame engine.

But the professional athletes are not the sole motile source in videogame production. In order to get "authentic" movement patterns of athletes in unscripted situations for the game NBA Live, for example, publisher EA Sports brought in a number of anonymous athletes to play improvised pickup basketball in a motion capture studio. In other words, much of the musculature required for the production of these virtual identity-vehicles was outsourced to cheaper labour, from which patterns of movement were abstracted and programmed into the game.

Motion Capture Collage - Courtesy EA Sports

Why is this relevant to a discussion of Guitar Hero and Rock Band? Because a similar economic arrangement is taking place in the production of prosthetic talent for the wannabe home music legend. While most people new to Guitar Hero revel in the opportunity to reprise rock classics that come bundled with the game, such as Foghat's "Slow Ride," the game publishers are increasingly extracting profits from the sale of downloadable expansion packs that are produced and distributed at low marginal cost and high marginal profit. And some of these expansion packs, as an article by Evan Davies for NOW magazine elaborates, are being used to break new talent to the market.

A little while before Protest the Hero's show at the Kool Haus on February 8 in front of a packed all-ages crowd full of the kids you'd expect to find sitting around trying to master GH with their buddies, I board their tour bus. The up-and-coming spasmodic prog-metalcore crew from Whitby recently joined the envied ranks of bands with songs featured in the game.

For a young, hungry band, that's no small beans. In fact, it's a whole lot of big tasty beans, possibly mountains' worth, when you translate the exposure into the lovely, filthy, beautiful corporate cash that comes with it.

. . .

For a smaller band without the resources of the big rock monsters, inclusion in a bonus downloadable three-song pack that includes their song with ones by Atreyu and Trivium bestows the kind of publicity you only get otherwise after your sex tape is leaked online or you bone the governor of New York at 4,300 bucks a pop.

"We're the smallest band of the three, so the fact that their fans are downloading our song because they have to is great exposure," says Miller. "And I've met people who've discovered our band because of GH. It's brilliant, because it forces you to listen to a song until you master it. It's playing in your head whether you like it or not. It's funny how you can get a better relationship with fans and people will like you more because you're in the game."

Interestingly, the intellectual property rights for many of the songs available in expansion packs are not being acquired on a royalty model by the game's publishers. Instead, the publishers purchase the rights to the song and then pay a session band to re-record the music.

Dimitri Coats, singer and guitarist with the hard-rocking Burning Brides, beams with pride when he talks about walking into a store with his mom to show her a demo of his band's song on Guitar Hero.

"The whole thing is hilarious to us, because the version of Heart Full Of Black on the game isn't ours," he says. "They paid to use the song but re-recorded it. That isn't me singing or us playing. It's someone else covering the song. I guess they saved money doing it that way."

In addition to music that is format radio friendly (ie. 3:30 long, vanilla lyrics), future bands wishing to break into the business via the videogame channel will need to develop rock-god guitar riffs that are easily translatable to the Guitar Hero interface — what we might describe as audio signature moves. Ultimately, it is these memes that are purchased by publishing companies and that will persist in the detritus of future music culture.

Much like karaoke before it, Guitar Hero and Rock Band are seductive in their suggestion of carnival-like opportunities to reduce the level of risk required to shed otherwise reticent personalities or repressed exuberance and somewhat make a fool of one's self. The prosthetic talent available in the videogames further reduces the barriers to entry and allows more people to temporarily test drive a new identity-vehicle. But these are not carnivals, at least not in Bakhtin's sense of the word, but rather carefully controlled opportunities for consumption crafted by transnational capital that involve new and very real relations of economic exploitation.

The story [on blogs and tech news sites like kotaku.com] asserts that studio session players re-recording the wailing guitar solos and accompanying instruments, some of them only getting $100 to $150 an hour, are getting scammed. Bear in mind that Activision recently announced an 80 per cent rise in sales for the holiday quarter, translating into sales of $1.48 billion and profits of $272.2 million.

In short, though they share a common basis in desiring-celebrity, sports videogames are less like karaoke and more like music videogames such as Guitar Hero and Rock Band: both sporting and musical forms of videogame use the material capabilities of motion capture and console technology to split the performing body across space in its real and virtual formats; and both rely on a barely visible performative underclass to keep production costs at a minimum.