On Massumi's Logic of Relation: Field

Courtesy of Priscilla Monge, Liverpool Biennial

priscilla monge
outdoor installation

Continuing our translation of Massumi's soccer ball to sportsbabel's basketball with a brief discussion of the space of play and how it conditions the field of emergence before any retrospective coding by official rules.

So what is the condition? Quite simply, a field. No field, no play, and the rules lose their power. The field is what is common to the proto-game and the formalized game, as well as to informal versions of the game coexisting with the official game and any subsequent evolution of it. The field-condition that is common to every variation is unformalized but not unorganized. It is minimally organized as a polarization. The field is polarized by two attractors: the goals. All movement in the game will take place between the poles and will tend toward one or the other. They are physical limits. The play stops when the ball misses or hits the goal. The goals do not exist for the play except tendentially, as inducers of directional movement of which they mark the outside limits (winning or losing). The goals polarize the space between them. The field of play is an in-between of charged movement. It is more fundamentally a field of potential than a substantial thing, or object. As things, the goals are signs for the polar attraction that is the motor of the game. They function to induce the play. The literal field, the ground with grass stretching between the goals, is also an inductive limit-sign rather than a ground in any foundational sense. The play in itself is groundless and limitless, taking place above the ground-limit and between the goal-limits (Parables for the Virtual, p.72).

Here I would like to emphasize Massumi's point about play taking place above the ground-limit, for it is important not to allow his analysis (or our understanding of it) to privilege a planar perspective of the field of potential. Some time ago I mentioned how a shift in the dimensions and trajectories of certain sports consequently shifted the strategies used to excel in competition and hence the types of athletic bodies that were desirable for competition purposes.

Perhaps in no sport was this more true than in basketball, whose goals that charged the field of ludic potential are located ten feet off the ground, by dint of James Naismith's balcony-affixed peach baskets over a century ago. As arguably one of the first modern sports to be invented wholly indoors, basketball was from the outset intimately bound to the built architectural environment in which it emerged.

For the longest time the primary skill required for success in basketball was a certain marksmanship that allowed one to quickly determine trajectories and shoot the ball into the basket. Height was certainly favoured, but only insofar as it allowed those shot trajectories (and corresponding rebounds of missed attempts) to be shorter and more precise.

Dunking, however, changed the sport forever. While a genealogy of the dunk as a particularly Afrocentric form of cultural expression needs to be accounted for here, suffice it to say in the meantime that while it originally favoured the extremely tall player the athletic skill set changed to favour the quick, explosive leaper: Earl "The Goat" Manigault, Connie "The Hawk" Hawkins, and Herman "The Helicopter" Knowings. Julius Erving, Dominique Wilkins, Michael Jordan, and Vince Carter. James White, Justin Darlington, and Guy DePuy, to name but a few of these artists.

With dunking, the athletic body itself assumed a ballistic trajectory in order to stuff the ball into the goal both efficiently and emphatically. Any understanding of the dunk as an expressive art form in its own right must acknowledge this a priori corporeal basis of the athletic agent. Afrofuturism?

Young Basketball Court - Global Village Basketball 2009

Put two teams on a grassy field with goals at either end and you have an immediate, palpable tension. The attraction of which the goals and ground are inductive signs is invisible and nonsubstantial: it is a tensile force-field activated by the presence of bodies within the signed limits. The polarity of the goals defines every point in the field and every movement on the field in terms of force — specifically, as the potential motion of the ball and of the teams toward the goal. When the ball nears a goal, the play reaches a pitch of intensity. Every gesture of the players is supercharged toward scoring a goal or toward repelling one. The ball is charged to the highest degree with potential movement toward the goal, by its position on the field, by the collective tending of the team homing in for a score. The slightest slip or miscalculation will depotentialize that movement. When that happens, a release of tension as palpable as its earlier build-up undulates across the field (Parables for the Virtual, p.72).

The "field" of basketball is the court, or at least that space of play in the proto-game that may be deemed a court. It, too, is a field of potential that is induced by the opposing goals at either end of the rectangular enclosure. But basketball, in a fashion far more pronounced than in soccer, can be played in more informal variations on a single goal or basket (or with three goals for that matter).

This does not negate Massumi's point about the inductive potential of the polarized goals to catalyze the field of play, but rather underscores its very importance: when opponents play pickup basketball on a single basket, they are able to do so precisely because the second basket is imagined to exist for both offensive and defensive players alike.

And once one can imagine the existence of a second basket, it becomes less of a stretch to further imagine the existence of baskets elsewhere around the world.


3 responses to On Massumi's Logic of Relation: Field

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  1. Kalle says:

    The most common form of informal soccer during recesses in swedish schools (if the data of my research is generalizable) is playing on one goal. Could this be linked to the increasingly stylized top-level soccer-play in Champions´League and Nike Commercials? Moreover, passes and inlays proved to be insufficient maneuvres, given that you aimed for your team to score. So why did they (the skilled player of the schoolyard soccer-field) persist to do so? Means without an end? :)

    Maybe they solely wanted to demonstrate that if this should have been a real game, they would own (since their couldn't permeate the war machine-like cluster, that was the most typical figuration on the field)?

    By the way i've just learned about Agambens gesture, though i've only read about it in René ten Bos. The most beautiful imperative in a long time:

    "The point is to completely change the world without violating or harming it, that is, you change the world by affirming it."


  2. sportsBabel » The Imagined Architecture of Homo Transludens says:

    [...] others joined the game from municipal parks or playgrounds. One mother used toy baskets and chalk to sketch a scaled-down outline of a full court in her driveway on which local pre-school children could participate. Meanwhile, absent a ball to play with, two [...]

  3. sportsBabel » Proposition for an Exploded Foosball Table says:

    [...] the open expanses of rural thought to the gridly confines of the city. The artists create a small football pitch within the space least populated by trees (though there were still several). Each player is [...]