Virtuous Basketball

Paolo Virno, A Grammar of the Multitude: For an Analysis of Contemporary Forms of Life, p. 55:

Each one of us is, and always has been, a virtuoso, a performing artist, at times mediocre or awkward, but, in any event, a virtuoso. In fact, the fundamental model of virtuosity, the experience which is the base of the concept, is the activity of the speaker. This is not the activity of a knowledgeable and erudite locutor, but of any locutor. Human verbal language, not being a pure tool or a complex of instrumental signals (these are characteristics which are inherent, if anything, in the languages of non-human animals: one need only think of bees and of the signals which they use for coordinating the procurement of food), has its fulfillment in itself and does not produce (at least not as a rule, not necessarily) an "object" independent of the very act of having been uttered.

I would submit that the athletic basketball body also moves to fulfill itself and not to produce baskets as objects independent of the very act of having been scored. One might counter that it is the linguistic form of basketball itself — its space, time, rules, its structures-in-assembly — that provides the necessary cause for athletic bodies to produce the effect of baskets in the first instance. But this linear approach to the linguistic question does not tell the full story: athletic bodies were moving, interacting, communing, conversing long before James Naismith and his peach baskets captured them towards productive end on a court.

And this movement, which Virno might characterize as the potentiality of the utterance and which still exists in all forms of the game, whether improvisational pickup or elite-level league play, comes phenomenologically prior to any movement that is channeled towards the productivity of the basket. Hence, our participation in the game of basketball (never our consumption alone) must also be considered virtuous and inherit all of the characteristics of virtuosity that Virno wishes to ascribe to the figure of the Speaker.

smooth capital secretes striation

17 Days in Beijing

"Each individual and collective human level has its own peculiar 'quantum' mode; various forms of undecidability in logical and signifying systems are joined by emotion on the psychological level, resistance on the political level, the specter of crisis haunting capitalist economies, and so forth. These modes are fed back and fed forward into one another, echoes of each other one and all" (Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, p. 37).

Written by Elaine Ho and Sean Smith, 17 Days in Beijing: Screen of Consciousness on the Micro-political is a proposal for issue 40 of PUBLIC. Please read the full text at the Encounters and Leftovers blog.

Pickup and Profiling: A Note on Aesthetics

A while ago I briefly mentioned the relationship of sign equivalence that exists between the sports uniform and the human epidermis in a pickup basketball game of shirts and skins. This equivalence exists despite the fact that many pickup basketball games are multi-racial and colours on the skin team feature pigmentations of multiple hue, while those that play on the shirts team are wearing a panoply of colours, patterns and cuts of fabric. Yet it is almost never a problem to identify one's teammates and opponents in these games. This is because the identification is not so much a visual identification with colour, as exists in the more rigidly binary league structure of the game, but rather with texture and its play with light that gives the flesh a luminescence different from that of fabric. Further, there is a tactile contouring facilitated with vision that identifies the shape of the naked athletic body as distinct from the clothed one.

In Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Brian Massumi offers us a more in-depth means of thinking through this sensory identification:

The separation of the visual field must in some way coexist with its interconnection with other sense fields. Although "coexist" is the wrong word. "Co-attract" is better. In actuality, the senses cofunction. But for that to be possible, there must be virtual purity of each sense separately, as well as a virtuality governing its cofunctioning with the others: differentiation and integration go together. You can't have one without the other.

A simple example. We can see texture. You don't have to touch velvet to know that it is soft, or a rock to know that it is hard. Presented with a substance you have never seen before, you can anticipate its texture. Of course, this ability to see new tactile qualities depends on past touchings of other textures and movements providing continuous visual-tactile feedback. You have to know texture in general already before you can see a specifically new texture. But that doesn't change the fact that once you can generallly see texture, you see a texture directly, with only your eyes, without reaching (p. 157).

In military affairs, once the uniform of modern warfare cedes to the non-uniform of fourth-generation warfare (4GW) skin again becomes a signifier, but this time colour returns to makes its presence felt. At a surface level, biased human relations identify brown skin, for example, as potential threat and increases the level of "security" at the various checkpoints that ensure the integrity of the flux (customs checks, airline terminals, stadium gates).

Automated tracking and facial scanning programs, though perhaps blind to the same ethnic biases, also use the colour of skin as a signifier and catalyst for action, albeit in a slightly different fashion. The pigmentation is converted, pixel by pixel, to a grid of numerical colour coordinates, the whole of which are plotted and compared to databases of comparable profile information. In contrast to the human security checkpoints described above, the sensory modality of the facial scanning programs is far more haptic, with the eye of the camera merging with the tactile qualities of the database and the frisson of texture as the data file in question (profiled individual) resonates with the data files stored in the security archive (known criminals or "persons of interest").

Flows and Consumer-Rhythms

In a much earlier sportsBabel post discussing baseball legend Ted Williams and his cryogenesis, I summed up the critique with the following passage: "Baseball, fighter pilots, motor oil: all the rich symbolism of industrial-age corporeality disintegrating into information, signaling the decay of the American Empire and freezing it for the posterity of future history. The triumph of modern capitalism, rational science, and abstract individualism have led us to the logical end point where the only economic and social need left to be served is to supersede the limits of our human bodies. We have trouble accepting the fact that we die. We are hysterical about aging. Surely human ingenuity can overcome these limits? Yet ne'er shall The Greatest Generation understand the ecology of this brave new world it has set us towards and thus it seeks solace in the warm nostalgic embrace of the simulated (re)creation of history."

Yankee StadiumRecruiting StationGas Pump

While there is a definitive shift in all forms of sports media towards a dissolution into a single information stream, we should not confuse this together with the historical progression in sports media from newspaper to telegraph to radio to television to videogame and internet as if it were a linear evolution with each successive stage obsolescing the one prior. Each medium in fact persists (though perhaps in slightly modified form with the subsequent advent of newer media forms) simply because it serves a particular rhythm and its attendant ritual as, for example, with locals at the Corner Bistro in New York who casually flip through scores and standings in the newspaper sports pages on a weekday afternoon while idly scanning the Yankees-Red Sox tilt on the YES network.

This is desirable for sporting capital: to sell the same original stream of information not so much to different consumers, but to different consumer-rhythms. In other words, when the original stream of information, images and identities leaves the production space of the stadium to become a television broadcast, web page, fantasy sports league, etc., it is not simply a break in the flow in the sense articulated by Deleuze and Guattari, but also a break into various distinct rhythmical outputs.

Of course, in the business of sports media (vectoralism) this is but a primary consumption; individual consumers in resonant harmony with one particular consumer-rhythm or another are themselves packaged into "audiences" for distribution to third-party corporate sponsors. As such, these latter sponsors have the opportunity to purchase across rhythms, or to select specific rhythms for their advertising campaigns.

Embodiment and Exaggeration

The Matrix was half-right in its metaphor: though the relationship is symbiotic, we are not producing electricity for the Machine but are rather producing — through activities such as fantasy sports, online casinos and internet stock trading — a non-rational agency for the Machine that pulses information forward and backward as a continual, rhythmic flow. (The fact that both electricity and information are representable by the zeroes and ones of binary code is, however, not insignificant.) This collective intelligence is known as "the market" and is the basis of the information age of capitalism.

Or, as DeLanda suggests: "We might just be insects pollinating machines that do not happen to have their own reproductive organs right now."

But as much as anything, sport provides a reminder that embodied, serial labour is not dead in this emerging information age of capitalism. The vectors of archive and telesthesia are layered on top of the embodied capital production that manufactures its information. Though salaries are indeed inflated well beyond the relative earnings of most other classes of worker due to the attendent celebrity spectacle so entwined with the volumetric diagram of biopolitical production, we should understand that professional and quasi-professional "amateur" sport provides an excellent laboratory through which to examine the dynamics of material and immaterial labour precisely because of this exaggerated formal structure.

Diagonals, Pulses, Politics

In a discussion last year with Constantin Petcou, Doina Petrescu and Anne Querrien titled "What makes a biopolitical space?", Antonio Negri tackles the question of urban space as a potential site for opposition and resistance. Key to his analysis is the city as the site of intersection between the "political diagonal" and the "biopolitical diagram":

The biopolitical diagram is the space in which the reproduction of organised life (social, political) in all its dimensions is controlled, captured, and exploited – this has to do with the circulation of money, police presence, the normalisation of life forms, the exploitation of productivity, repression, the reining in of subjectivities. In the face of this, there is what I call a "political diagonal", in other words the relation that one has with these power relations, and which one cannot but have. The problem is to know what side you are on: on the side of the power of life that resists, or on the side of its biopolitical exploitation. What is at stake in the city often takes shape in the struggle to re-appropriate a set of services essential to living: housing; water, gas and electricity supply; telephone services; access to knowledge and so on (emphasis added).

Though his understanding of political action as always being intimately interwoven with the space of biopolitical production is important, Negri's problematic choice of metaphor gives the analysis as a whole the appearance of being overly reductionist and binary. Purportedly contra the biopolitical space of lines and vectors and the subjectivities produced therein, Negri's concept of the "political diagonal" is essentially just another line or vector, bisecting or cutting in two ("know what side you are on"). Though the political diagonal works counter to the grid of biopolitical production or the biopolitical diagram, it certainly seems to do so within the same geometry and logic.

Resistance is more nuanced, supple and contingent than that. And thus in contrast to Negri I think we need to consider the political as rhythmical, as pulsing+expanding-contracting, as beating like a heart. This focus on the pulse or rhythm would more fully appreciate the potential for minor practices at the level of the microsocial, which is the preferred approach of Negri's interviewers. Further, if we are to think of political action in terms of pulses or rhythms our analysis then demands an even more granular approach, moving not only from the level of the social to the microsocial but to the level of the individual body itself.

The biorhythms of the individual body are continually played out against the collective rhythms of the microsocial or social, as well as against other rhythms produced by the biopolitical diagram such as work and leisure in their institutionalized forms. The alignments between these rhythms are not reducible to binary outcomes of either/or, but rather result in varying degrees of harmony that may or may not lead to political actions, though if so, are realized along a full spectrum of intensity.

All of which is why sport, above other forms of physical culture, may be so crucial to this particular understanding of politics: precisely because the individual body (eg. athlete), the microsocial (eg. team) and the social (eg. fans at stadium) — read in terms of sporting pulses or rhythms — lie at the intersection of work and leisure, of discipline and creativity, of body as robotic labourer and body as playful hacker, all increasingly within a contested urban milieu. Hence, if we consider sport as the site of a politics located at the borderspace between the work-model and the leisure-model by exploring the rhythms and frequencies of the body, the microsocial and the social, then perhaps we have a lens through which we can see the political anew in cognate areas outside of sport.