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.

Lightness and the Tactile Burden

"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the problem of flow, particularly the movement-flow of bodies. Sport, in its rational industrial form, poses a body that is broken down by disciplinary technology before being reassembled in pursuit of maximal production efficiency and minimal political insubordination. This isn't just in a metaphorical sense: the disciplined sporting body is formed in a process of enclosure, surveillance, spatiotemporal constraint and discursive construct directly analogous to the processes of labour production in the factory.

We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there's a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports - surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding - take the form of an entering into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting into orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort (Deleuze, 1995).

The surfer, on the other hand — surfer of waves, surfer of electromagnetic transmissions, surfer of relational databases and other networked information-constructs — begins to shed the weightiness of the rigid modern body in favour of a light, flowing postmodern body, a body that desires expressivity in its many forms. Skateboarders, concrete kin to the surfers of liquid waves, similarly desire expressivity as emergent from the body. While the control society attempts to herd these surfers into so-called skateparks in the same way that it enclosed athletes from an earlier era into the ludic factory of the stadium, the street skater resists this herd mentality. S/he cuts across the lines of stratification that define a city to open new spaces and opportunities for expression.

Iain Borden refers to the cultural practice of street skateboarding as a "performative critique of the city" in which the skater contours and cantilevers through, over and around the interesting architectural features of a particular urban core. In Shaun Gladwell's short video "Storm Sequence" (2000), the subject is a skateboarder on a concrete platform who performs tricks while pounding ocean swells and grey-skied backdrop signal an impending storm. The video (8:35 in duration) has a washed out appearance, as if reflecting the spray of the surf or the clouds pregnant with rain; the subject's dark clothing completes the atmospheric effect.

Storm Sequence - Courtesy of Shaun Gladwell

Given the spartan stage for the piece and the absence of architectural nuance, the skater's potential for performative critique appears to be neutered. But Gladwell slows down the moving image to make the concrete pad a dance floor on which the skater gracefully executes his ballet on a board and accompanies the image with a droning atmospheric soundtrack seemingly slowed down to match its tempo. In turn, the critique becomes a performative response to the ocean waves rumbling in syncopation with the ballet.

The skater experiences the ecstasy of flow in an embodied, haptic sense as the machinic connections form an assemblage: foot-skateboard, wheel-concrete, hybridbody-oceanswell. But for the remote observer, connected only by the gaze of the camera, there is no such ability to comprehend the ecstasy of flow; a radical reduction in the speed of the moving image and the spatiotemporal reconfiguration this implies are necessary to even begin to suggest that embodiment.

To the untrained eye, most skateboarding moves occur too quickly to appreciate the sophisticated interplay between body, board and sporting landscape. By slowing the video down to 40 percent of its original speed, Gladwell at once creates a heavy atmosphere laden with shades of grey while allowing the untrained observer — not uncoincidentally a surfer in the hyperaccelerated cognitive sense — to participate in the corporeality of the skater's lightness.

But is heaviness truly deplorable and lightness splendid?

The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.

Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.

What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?

Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?

Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.

Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.

(Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)

We might borrow Kundera's reformulation of the dilemma between weight or lightness and insert it into our discussion of corporeality and contemporary sporting cultures. If lightness is granted privileged status in the binary, as Parmenides does, then we must logically seek to cast off the weightiness of the body in favour of a (transcendent) lightness. Do we not accomplish this each time we plug into the ecstatic (and narcotic) electronic circuitry of sport consumption (television, radio, videogames, web fantasies, etc.)? Perhaps, but we must ask to what degree we are truly light in doing so. Is it the lightness to experience synaesthesia without ever having to move the body? Or if we do move, are our movements constrained in such a way that obstruct true lightness?

We exist in a hybrid state of here and there. Acceleration to the light-speed of the data networks entails the subordination of a plugged-in carcass made of muscle, fat and bone in favour of an extension of the nervous system into a virtual nexus of connectivity. Interface to non-space. Case, the protagonist of William Gibson's Neuromancer, yearns for such a jacked-in existence as an escape from "the prison of his own flesh". But he is pale, wraith-like, and rolls over to piss in a chemical toilet when in the matrix. Is this the lightness that we desire, the lightness of collective consciousness weighed down by the meat-anchor?

Or should we desire to invert the relationship between the two, and let the heaviness (and immanence) of the body create the potential for lightness to emerge?

One thing is for certain: we will never fully escape from our bodies by uploading our consciousness into the matrix. The matrix is created by bodies. Moving bodies, stationary bodies, shopping bodies, sporting bodies — if the matrix is a global neural net, then bodies are the mitochondria that provide the motor of its sustenance, the deltas that resonate data-constructs, and the multi-sensual fuel for creativity.

We are touched, but we do not touch. Our bodies are imaged, modeled and situated in medical-scientific discourses, but we do not know a kinaesthetic sense of self. Fortunately this sense is only atrophied and not yet vestigial.

In "Storm Sequence," Gladwell attempts to rescue the carcass of the meat-body from its withering state of affairs by making it an active part of the surfing logic of late capitalism. We might consider his challenge to be as weighty as the earlier sporting body that the surfing body obsolesces, or we might flow with the incoming waves and consider it simply as an expression of mere life — the bearable weightiness of being. Even Case accepts his embodiment in the end.

This is a call to embrace our tactile burden.

The Baseball Re-Animator

Promotional material for Baseball Mogul 2008, perhaps the most popular baseball simulation on the market:

NEW Baseball Mogul Encyclopedia - Outputs over 30,000 interlinked HTML pages. Historical leaders tracked in over 70 stats by team and season; hitting, pitching and fielding stats at every level; annual financial records; everything you need to analyze and enjoy your baseball universe.

NEW Database Engine - Records every stat for every player, even after they're dead. Also automatically loads every historical player so you can easily compare your promising rookies to the best players of all time.

NEW Financial Model - Automatically adjusts revenue levels and salaries to the correct level for each era, from 1901 to 2007. And new options give you complete control over your universe: disable free agency, change the inflation rate, or adjust the luxury tax.

NEW Player Development Engine - We examined the career paths of thousands of real players to create more realistic aging and scouting algorithms. Draft day is now more unpredictable — but we've also added the ability to adjust these settings as you see fit.

NEW Physics-Based Simulation - We've combined over 30 years experience writing statistical simulations and arcade-style baseball games to bring you the most realistic baseball experience possible. Now you can follow the path of the ball on screen, with the correct underlying physics. From the effects of weather and friction to the correct spin on each pitch, Baseball Mogul continues to give you the most realistic stats possible, backed by a real-world physics model.

UPDATED Player Database - Includes more than 18,000 players from 1901 to 2007. You can play as any team in any year.

Fast Simulation Speed - It wouldn't be Baseball Mogul if you had to take a bathroom break while the season progressed. Baseball Mogul 2008 can play a full season, including all computer trades and roster moves, in under 30 seconds. We re-wrote the simulation engine and then we optimized it. And then we optimized it again — because baseball should be fun!

To paraphrase: "Were the original archivists of baseball to understand the possibilities afforded by the elegant simplicity of numerical uniform and position inscriptions? No, it would be inconceivable for these keepers of the archive to have known what their archivization of the game would eventually mean."

Central Intelligence

Jeff Ma, ProTrade: "I had inside information — and in sports, there's no SEC."

Ma is excited because ProTrade is about to launch the ability to short stocks on its stock market of professional athletes.

As an aside, for those who don't know what shorting is, here is a quick definition:

A short sale is a three-step trading strategy that seeks to capitalize on an anticipated decline in the price of a security. First, arrangements are made to borrow shares of the security, typically from a broker. Next, the investor will sell the shares immediately in the open market with the intention of buying them back at some point in the future. Finally, to complete the cycle, at a later date he/she will repurchase the shares (hopefully at a lower price) and will return them to the lender. In the end, the investor will pocket the difference if the share price falls, but will of course incur a loss if it rises.

Ma recounts a time that he was out drinking and ran into then-Texas Rangers relief pitcher Esteban Loaiza, who was in town for a game with Ma's favourite team, the Boston Red Sox. He proceeded to buy Loaiza a few drinks, which turned into a few more, and then a few more, until Loaiza was totally shitfaced. Puking his way out of the bar, there was no way Loaiza would pitch well the next day, if at all.

If only there was a way for Ma to capitalize on this insider information …

With ProTrade's new short-selling feature, now there will be. All Ma would have to do today to capitalize on Loaiza's presumed inability to produce would be to sell shares in Loaiza's stock short. When the stock dropped after Loaiza's poor or non-performance, Ma would earn a profit and be rewarded for his intelligence.

In THX 1138, George Lucas visions a society in which citizens may electronically report to a central authority violations of its strict cultural codes — codes generally designed to ensure continued production and consumption from its members. But it appears that Lucas was slightly off: if we have inside information that production/consumption is at risk we need not file a report to a central authority, but rather take that information to the central intelligence of the market — the inverse of a central authority — and sell that person's stock short.

Hardt and Negri: "Perhaps, just as Foucault recognized the panopticon as the diagram of modern power, the world market might serve adequately — even though it is not an architecture but really an anti-architecture — as the diagram of imperial power" (Empire, p.190).

Ticker Tape Parade

Neal Stephenson, the noted SF author, is one of the few who has made the link between the statistics produced during the industrial baseball production process, their subsequent reproduction as part of a baseball telecast from a remote location, and the data that creates the virtual spaces of the internet. In his book In the Beginning…was the Command Line, he writes:

When Ronald Reagan was a radio announcer, he used to call baseball games that he did not physically attend by reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire and were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself in a padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would creep out of the machine and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations. If the count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as he saw it in his mind's eye: "The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter's box to wipe the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep the dirt from home plate," and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper tape announced a base hit, he would whack the edge of the table with a pencil, creating a little sound effect, and describe the arc of the ball as if he could actually see it. His listeners, many of whom presumably thought that Reagan was actually at the ballpark watching the game, would reconstruct the scene in their minds according to his descriptions.

This is exactly how the World Wide Web works: the HTML files are the pithy description on the paper tape, and your web browser is Ronald Reagan. The same is true of graphical user interfaces in general (p.17).

Ronald Reagan mask

But even Stephenson — at least in this passage — draws short of the depth that is possible in the realm of simulation. No longer does the baseball statistic provide for the counterfeit that is radio, as in the days of Reagan the radio broadcaster, but rather it drives the videogame, fantasy game and, most importantly, the sabermetric simulation — all in pre-production.

Just as it is no accident that Reagan the former actor became the American president in the age of simulation, so it is no accident that baseball enjoys a renaissance in an era of networked information technologies.