Unleaded (Ode to Ted Williams)

Take Me Out To The Ballgame

"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" (sportsBabel, Sept. 2003).

Unleaded (assemblage)

signal, noise, emphasis

Deleuze and Guattari, Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, p. 370:

"But on the other, the schizorevolutionary, pole, the value of art is no longer measured except in terms of the decoded and deterritorialized flows that it causes to circulate beneath a signifier reduced to silence, beneath the conditions of identity of the parameters, across a structure reduced to impotence; a writing with pneumatic, electronic, or gaseous indifferent supports, and that appears all the more difficult and intellectual to intellectuals as it is accessible to the infirm, the illiterate, and the schizos, embracing all that flows and counterflows, the gushings of mercy and pity knowing nothing of meanings and aims (the Artaud experiment, the Burroughs experiment). It is here that art accedes to its authentic modernity, which simply consists in liberating what was present in art from its beginnings, but was hidden underneath aims and objects, even if aesthetic, and underneath recodings or axiomatics: the pure process that fulfills itself, and that never ceases to reach fulfillment as it proceeds — art as 'experimentation'."

* * *

In my most recent post I jotted down a few notes on what I perceive to be the emerging outlines of a sporting imperialism, following the work set forth by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri in Empire. I wanted to give emphasis to how far-reaching and powerful this form of imperialism is, and so I used the rhetorical flourish of hypertext markup language to communicate this (<em> being the markup tag for "emphasis" — often italicized — in HTML).

My goal was to communicate the expression "sporting <em>pire," a bringing-together of two different languages into one word without dissolving the tension between them.

1. Wordpress
However, to do this within the Wordpress publishing interface required me to "escape" the angle brackets so that it would not confuse the browser into thinking I wanted the following text emphasized — which I did by using the "escape codes" for the brackets, &lt; and &gt;.

Sporting Empire - Wordpress

2. sportsBabel
Because I had escaped the characters properly, my browser was notified that this was not in fact markup and "sporting <em>pire" was rendered exactly how I wanted.

Sporting Empire - sportsBabel

3. Feedburner
As with almost every blog and social media application today, when I publish a post it generates a syndication feed so that my content can be ported to other applications or communication services. My feed for sportsBabel is syndicated by the Feedburner service, which is owned by Google. After generating an XML file that was then processed through Feedburner's system, everything still looked as it should.

Sporting Empire - Feedburner

4. Google Reader
Here's where it gets interesting. I import my sportsBabel feed into Google Reader — a service from the same company! — and this "news aggregator" treats the <em> as an HTML markup tag and renders everything after it as italicized. And yet Google Mail, a different service owned by the parent company to which the same feed is emailed, keeps it intact as above.

Sporting Empire - Google Reader

5. Facebook
I also import my feed into Facebook, with each blog post becoming a new Facebook Note. This allows me to share my work with a diverse audience as well as leverage the Facebook "tagging" feature with friends. When this particular post was imported, however, the <em> was treated as HTML by Facebook and stripped out, simply leaving "sporting pire."

Sporting Empire - Facebook

Is this how an Empire declines and falls, one stone at a time: through language, translation, portmanteau, hybridity and (sportsbabelist) glossolalia? Or does this fragmentation and recoding of linguistic flows actually signal a strengthening of Empire's grasp?

notes on sporting <em>pire: hybrid form

We have suggested already that Sporting Empire is an aspect of broader Empire, the seductive new vision of global political economy crafted by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, which is constituted by a polycentric and fluid mesh of power featuring nation-state actors in shifting alliances with supranational organizations, transnational corporations, and certain humanitarian non-governmental organizations. No one actor can unilaterally seize power in a globalized world, according to Hardt and Negri, and thus a fluid network of inter-actor relationships emerges to modulate the global political order.

Shifting our analysis of the assemblage from Empire proper to those more particular elements that comprise sporting imperialism allows us to highlight some of the specific governing bodies and corporate organizations that constitute its meshwork of political economy, as well as highlight the competitive interplay between them that is such an important component of Hardt and Negri's analysis. Sporting Empire may thus be understood as those agents of capital and state who, acting both in and out of alignment with each other, collectively move the imperial sporting meshwork along a particular topology through time.

The Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) is one such governing body that exerts a substantial influence in the movement of the meshwork, rivaling the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in terms of global sporting power. FIFA and the IOC are constituted by the greatest number of member organizations, directly or indirectly represent the greatest number of athletes worldwide, and host the two biggest sporting events in terms of audience and spectacle, the World Cup and the Olympic Games.

(As an aside, the spectacle and corruption that constitute both FIFA/World Cup and IOC/Olympic Games suggest immediately that neither a single-sport nor a multi-sport approach presents itself as inherently superior in any movement towards a sporting multitude.)

The World Cup is the biggest tournament of the most important sport on a global basis in terms of participation and audience. Years are spent in qualifying rounds before the field is whittled to a final group of teams, representing thirty-two nation-states, that will compete for the title of world's best. Based on the ritual importance of the tournament itself, the television audience it accrues, and the corporate sponsorship that follows, the economic significance of making the tournament's final cut of teams seems substantial. Indeed, for the 2010 World Cup to be held in South Africa each team will be guaranteed $1 million for appearing in the tournament, with overall prize monies totaling $420 million. This is in addition to the economic stimulus that media, advertising and consumable industries would receive in the country of each competing team, based on the extremely popular (and populist) satellite-distributed television broadcast feeds.

So one can imagine the national angst and sense of injustice borne by the supporters of the Republic of Ireland when a handball-abetted pass by France's Thierry Henry to William Gallas for the deciding goal — spotted by the television cameras of sporting spectacle, but not by the match officials themselves — knocked the Irish side from qualifying for the World Cup. They would not make the final thirty-two teams and its opportunity to reach the pinnacle of football capitalism. They wanted justice from FIFA.

A statement from the governing body read: "The Football Association of Ireland today confirmed that it attended an hour and a half meeting, at its request, with Mr Sepp Blatter, President of FIFA on Friday in Zurich. A lot was discussed at the meeting and at one stage the FAI asked if Ireland could be accommodated into the World Cup 2010."

This comment hints more of feudalism than capitalism, the lords of football lands in the FIFA realm being granted audience to plead with the King, does it not?

Courtesy of Getty Images and ESPN.

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

Deleuze suggested as much was possible in 'Postscript on the Societies of Control' (which Hardt and Negri argued further in Empire) — that such hybrids of political economy could create the fluid waves upon which contemporary bodies and subjectivities form and are formed. "The socio-technological study of the mechanisms of control, grasped at their inception, would have to be categorical and to describe what is already in the process of substitution for the disciplinary sites of enclosure, whose crisis is everywhere proclaimed. It may be that older methods, borrowed from the former societies of sovereignty, will return to the fore, but with the necessary modifications" (emphasis added). The sovereignty of FIFA and other governing bodies of sporting imperialism seems manifest as hybrids of earlier forms. This hybrid identity further suggests a fluidity between the terms of relation, which sporting imperialism appears to leverage towards modulating its own form in the service of control. As Deleuze continues: "What counts is that we are at the beginning of something."

(from chapter one in "body+politics: towards a sporting multitude," a work-in-progress doctoral dissertation for the european graduate school of media and communications)

Silence is Golden

Imagine the scenario: It is the gold medal game of the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympic hockey tournament, Canada versus USA. The archrival Americans have just scored the go-ahead goal with under a minute to play in the third period. The goalie is pulled for an extra skater, there is a frantic rally as the seconds tick away, but the Canadians cannot bang the puck into the net and time expires. Canada Hockey Place seems quiet as a morgue, until a vocal minority can be heard beginning to cheer:

U-S-A! U-S-A!
Fight, fight, fight…
with Miller Lite!

Somewhere in between the initial shock of losing the game and the collective gnashing of teeth that will accompany the forensic aftermath, it suddenly dawns upon Canadians that these vocal American fans in attendance are gleefully chanting a corporate branded cheer. And for weak beer no less — talk about adding insult to injury!

The whole thing sounds preposterous, no?

But is this not the direction we Canadians are heading right now with the recent campaign by Pepsi and Hockey Canada to create a "new cheer" for the 2010 World Junior Hockey Championships in Saskatoon?

Isn't the real prize for the sponsors buried in a hope that the cheer will gain sufficient traction with those present in Saskatoon and the rest watching on television that it continues well after the World Juniors are complete? Continues, say, two months later for the really big event, the Vancouver Winter Games? That the Pepsi hockey cheer will perhaps cascade down from the rafters of Canada Hockey Place as our teams skate toward an Olympic gold medal?

If so, this comes perilously close to the textbook definition of "ambush marketing," the deliberate attempt by one corporate entity to associate itself with an event for which another company has purchased exclusive rights to sponsor. Coca-Cola, Pepsi's chief rival, is one of the TOP-level sponsors of the Olympic Movement, which grants it exclusive sales and promotion opportunities at all Olympic events and venues until 2020, including this February in Vancouver.

With corporate sponsorship and television broadcasting revenues providing the lion's share of its income (nearly 90%), one does not stretch in using the term "draconian" to describe the lengths the International Olympic Committee will go to protect this financing. So powerful is the IOC and its cadre of sponsors that the Canadian government even introduced federal legislation (Bill C-47, the Olympic and Paralympic Marks Act) that makes ambush marketing and other infringements of official sponsor intellectual properties for financial gain a criminal activity.

But "word-of-mouth" cannot be a criminal activity, can it?

Of course, corporate sponsorship at the stadium has been around for over a century. And there is even some precedent for a cheer involving a branded product, as Miller Lite's iconic "Tastes great! Less filling!" see-saw chorus between groups of fans has illustrated. But never before have we witnessed, through invention, the very words and rhythms a sports spectator uses to cheer so explicitly bind patriotic nationalism to a transnational corporate sponsor.

EH! O' CANADA - GO! Start practicing it. After all, it is now our duty to do so as "true" Canadian hockey fans, is it not? If everyone else at the arena is using the cheer, can it be so easy for one to refuse?

Let us understand how this will play out. Promotional campaigns over the next month will teach us the cheer and introduce appropriate consumer behaviour responses. If the Canadian juniors happen to win their tournament the television ads will intensify, with fresh visuals of players and fans celebrating the victory. The G of the Gatorade bolt logo and the circular Pepsi logo will punctuate the GO! at the end of each cheer. It will feel natural to get caught up in the subsequent tide of emotion and carry the cheer right into Vancouver for the Olympic hockey tournament, only the most important Canadian television event in recent history.

And Pepsi holds "royalty-free, irrevocable and exclusive" rights to this cheer in perpetuity. Forget word-of-mouth, then: we are describing a calculated corporate ventriloquism of the highest order.

This should not be considered a slight against Joan Buma, the Grimsby, Ontario native whose cheer was selected over thousands of other entries to win the contest. Clearly, as she points out, she just wanted to share her passion for our national hockey teams as best she could. Nor is this a question of supporting the men and women who lace up their skates to represent the Maple Leaf — of course we should respect such effort and sacrifice in the name of sporting excellence. The question, rather, concerns a particular attempt to subtly modulate, control and profit from the very ways in which we communicate with one another.

Welcome to capitalism in the information age.

Not long ago, the political theorist Paolo Virno wrote that "nobody is as poor as those who see their own relation to the presence of others, that is to say, their own communicative faculty, their own possession of a language, reduced to wage labour."

In this case, however, the labour is unpaid. It is possibly unethical. And frankly, it is unnecessary. We know how to be fans. We have been doing this since time immemorial — long before a corporate-sponsored cheer came along, anyways — and we shall likely continue to do so long into the future.

When confronted with those situations in which our labour is exploited we are often advised to stand up for what we believe, to shout out for justice, to look power square in the eye and make our voices heard. Actions of this sort have historically produced positive results. But such is the paradox that faces the Canadian hockey fan during the upcoming winter months, for perhaps in this particular case the correct strategy will be to say nothing at all.