Gestures Sacred and Profane

Two temporal vectors

Notes from sportsBabel, September 2008:

Structurally, late modern sport operates along two primary temporal vectors: it is at once the eternal recurrence of a particular sporting history wrapped in the warm folds of nostalgia (or better, what LCD Soundsystem might call borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered century) and a continual preparation for contagion, processing, incarceration and trauma.

Somewhere in between this implicated past and future is the now of consumption.

Ceci n'est pas une pipe

Presidential Fist Bump

The micropolitics of contagion

This past weekend I was at a college basketball game in Toronto. Like many other cosmopolitan cities with a mobile corporate class, an ethnically and culturally diverse population, and readily-available vectors of connection by land, air and water, Toronto has become a locus for the swine flu virus that has been spreading around the world. The discourse networks that link (and compress) the city are continually relaying locally-relevant information concerning H1N1 contagion, diagnosis and prevention. A strange mixture of fear and apathy hangs in the air.

As with those from every other walk of life, athletes are being hit by the virus and forced into varying degrees of illness and quarantine. Sporting contests have become a threat matrix of opportunity for contagion with the other. There was a moment of hesitation after this particular game ended, the players shuffling as they remembered the directive not to shake hands with the other team. Instead, each competitor was able to "fist bump" his opponent in a respectful post-game gesture.

Are we witnessing what Paul Virilio might have called the pollution of proactivity?

A personal history of the fist bump

Fist bumping appears to be a relatively new phenomenon. The awkward attempts by courtside celebrities in recent television narratives suggest as much, anyway, and Barack Obama's hip gesture with Michelle Obama the night he claimed the U.S. Democratic Party nomination more clearly punctuates the unfolding text. But I can personally remember a culture of fist bumping in basketball as early as 1995, when I transferred schools and began playing for a new university team, and I am quite certain that the phenomenon predates my own ethnocentric bias.

In other words, it is not new.

Notably, the first team I played for was pretty monoculturally white, while the second team was much more ethnically and culturally diverse, drawing players from across the country and internationally, including such cosmopolitan cities as Toronto or Montreal. The processes of negotiating alterity on the court and in the locker room and into the more diffused conduits of the campus town were more readily present for me than they had been on my earlier team. Handshakes — a form of touching — became a particularly important factor in these negotiations. And the fist bump was one of these significant tactile forms for me, at first primarily between myself and certain Afro-Caribbean teammates, before diffusing to include my relations with almost everyone else on the team.

At that time the fist bump was performed as a form of gestural communication between the players and not by spectators or "consumers" of the sport, whether televised or no. Basketball provided a vector of exchange distinct from that of the market. A temporary community was formed. In this sense, it is to President Obama's credit that he laces on a pair of shoes every once in a while and plays the game himself.

Digital, contagions

Notes from sportsBabel, August 2009:

Of course, when we play pickup basketball (or any other form of physical culture, for that matter), we sweat. This is the fact of our very being-in-the-world as athletic bodies.

Sweat bears a paradox, though: it is at once a positive form of olfactory writing or inscription that signifies our athletic poiesis, and a liquid-haptic vector of waste, filth, toxin, or contagion.

This does not prevent us from touching the other, however, in our sweaty athletic-becoming. The abjection secreted by this paradox commingles-with and washes-through those bodies one comes into contact with during production and passage. So long as both of us are sweaty, it doesn't matter. This is as true in sport as it is in labour as it is in sex.

But what if one's hand was dry? Would the desire to touch the other player's sweaty palm remain?

This is not a post about fisting

This is not a pipe - Magritte

Holy space

Upon expressing my surprise that the basketball players were fist bumping their opponents to prevent the spread of swine flu, I was informed that the local Catholic Church was doing something similar, replacing the handshake of peace between fellow parishioners with the bump of a closed fist. Not having seen it in person myself I wasn't certain, but this blog post seems to suggest that such a virus prevention strategy is indeed emerging in the church's holy spaces. Peace be with you, accompanied by a fist bump.

When does the flip take place? When do the subjects of hierarchical spaces become those of social meshworks? When does alterity curl? When does the fist bump as gesture of solidarity become a generalized strategy of capillarized power? When does it become a micropolitics of response to contagion?

At the threshold of touching, it appears.

Dispatches from the future

"The Panther Moderns allowed four minutes for their first move to take effect, then injected a second carefully prepared dose of misinformation. This time, they shot it directly into the Sense/Net building's internal video system. At 12:04:03, every screen in the building strobed for eighteen seconds in a frequency that produced seizures in a susceptible segment of Sense/Net employees. … Subliminally rapid images of contamination: graphics of the building's water supply system, gloved hands manipulating laboratory glassware, something tumbling down into darkness, a pale splash" (William Gibson, Neuromancer, 1984).

"He managed not to recoil when she took his hand. He was getting information from her. Let her touch him as long as she kept talking" (Octavia Butler, Clay's Ark, 1984).

Dunking as cyborgian ballistics

Notes from sportsBabel, September 2009:

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.

An aside from Planet Lovetron

The year is 1979. Twice within a month, at the mid-way point on a temporal trajectory between Parliament-Funkadelic's Mothership Connection and the novels by Gibson and Butler quoted above, Darryl Dawkins of the Philadelphia 76ers shatters a glass basketball backboard by dunking. If we can say that the dunk is the expression of an athletic body's ballistic trajectory and if the basketball court apparatus is the factory of the professional basketball economy, then does Dawkins not become the nomadic warrior smashing an organ of state striation?

Perhaps like those who smashed clocks and looms before him?

Affirmatively, we want the funk. Can a true choice to engage with the apparatus even be possible in the absence of possibility for such a refusal? Do we not shape the yoke of our existence?

As if channeling George, Bootsy and the rest of the P-Funk connection, Dawkins named the dunk "the Chocolate-Thunder-Flying, Robinzine-Crying, Teeth-Shaking, Glass-Breaking, Rump-Roasting, Bun-Toasting, Wham-Bam, Glass-Breaker-I-Am-Jam." And thus it bears repeating: 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.

Now consider LeBron James (as Business LeBron), who suggested in a recent Nike television commercial that "dunk contests are bourgeois." What relationships would you perceive between these two performers nearly three decades apart? Consider meme and rhythm sciences in the process. Defer judgment.

Consider it a little longer. Just do it.

A third temporal vector?

Do we follow the interwoven threads of an Afrofuturist aesthetics and politics — as laid out by Mark Sinker, Mark Dery, Kodwo Eshun, Paul Miller and others — to locate the relational connections between black science fiction and music? Do we locate similar connections between basketball and Afro-American or Afro-Caribbean forms of music such as jazz, funk, dub, hip hop, rap and jungle/dnb?

Do we see the passage of the pickup basketball player to the league basketball player as what Deleuze and Guattari would suggest is a temporary capture of the nomadic war machine? Do we see the fist bump emerge from being a strictly tactile form of communication to become an object of information for the integrated spectacle? Do we see that in the "surgical space" of the stadium, the fist bump meme has been rendered a carefully-controlled vector of signification?

And when a real contagion (H1N1) generates a new state of fear, do we witness the relatively open-handed gesture of the handshake become the closed yet equally expressive gesture of the fist bump, effecting a flip (of switch, of moebius twist) between the sacred and the profane? Do we suggest the fist bump returns as an Afrofuturist form of the "ghostly DNA" that Gibson refers to in Neuromancer, mutated from earlier variants of Black Power and the raised-fist salute?

Finally, do we presume that Larry, Angelo and Lupus Yonderboy of the Panther Moderns were white?


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  1. sportsBabel » notes on sporting <em>pire: hybrid form says:

    [...] (prostrate before the king, perhaps, but this is not a post about fisting) [...]