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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.