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?


A gesture is a form of communication between individuals, but also an expression of embodiment unique to each individual. We know this already: gait, the form of gesture held as a primary example by Giorgio Agamben in his "Notes on Gesture," may be implicated algorithmically in apparatuses of surveillance that capture, inscribe and identify each of our methods of walking through quasi-public spaces. Our gestures, whether they are purely functional (to roll a cigarette, to shoot a basketball jumpshot) or strive to approach the sublime aspects of both play and virtuosity (the dance of bodies in improvised sport), are singular expressions of our being-in-the-world that may sometimes also be shared in processes of communication or co-emergence.

If we can suggest that the postmodern era features docile identities to match the docile bodies of the modern era, then to maintain the liberatory possibility of continually inhabiting and passing through the confines of identity-constructs we must possess the ability to assume the gestures of another individual. Or, to lean on a rather impoverished term, one must be able to speak and translate between different body languages.

Of course, this process of inhabiting the gestures of another individual already existed with actors in the theatre and cinema, a fact which assumed a particularly salient fascination and fetishization during the latter stages of an industrial capitalism that attempted to strip away all forms of physical literacy not serving to maximize economic efficiency or minimize political insubordination. In the age of post-fordism, however, it is gesture — both functional and virtuous — that becomes the motor for sign value creation and the approaching consequence of pure equivalence in exchange this implies. Whether the expression of one's own singularity or the performance of another, the control society leverages a moebius strip of surveillance and spectacle in its attempt to appropriate and exploit gesture.

Perhaps the negative space of the gesture, most clearly expressed in Erin Manning's elaboration of the tango, offers a solution to this paradox of embodiment and representation? As she articulates in her book Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, the tango is a continual negotiation between two dancing bodies, one of which leads the other during performance while at the same time always being led. Never a perfect replica of the other's body in negative space, for there is always a zone of approximation, a zone in which the unspoken remainder of negotiation resides, a zone of fuzzy logic or error. Nonetheless it is a replica faithful enough, a micropolitics considered and reconsidered, a document for one to archive in the muscle memories of negative space and its processes of embodied forgetting.

If the cinema emerges from the coupling of image and theatre, so too does the tango emerge from the coupling of sculpture and play. Sometimes skin, but always flesh.

The problem with Manning's tango is that it is usually a two-person dance, or a predominantly binary form of gesture and communication: the several is neglected. Perhaps pickup or improvised team sport may be where the tango-as-dance becomes multiple? Pickup sport fragments and fractalizes the binary relation of the tango's negotiation into part-subjects and many-relations that wholly adequate themselves to a field of potentiality emerging in real-time. That such activity itself forms a competitive endeavour remains secondary to this a priori phenomenon of coming together in sport.

As mentioned earlier, the tango and its negotiations are primarily haptic forms of gesture and communication that may be contrasted with a State power relation operating in a more optic sense of individualization and surveillance. But Foucault reminds us that

the Panopticon must not be understood as a dream building: it is the diagram of a mechanism of power reduced to its ideal form; its functioning, abstracted from any obstacle, resistance or friction, must be represented as a pure architectural and optical system … a figure of political technology that may and must be detached from any specific use (1977, p. 205).

Hence the abstract diagram that optimizes the function of the prison also allows, with the necessary modifications, for the optimization of the factory, hospital, school or stadium: the capillarization of power enabled by this abstract diagram may be translated from one space of discipline to another. Even as these sites of enclosure are in a general state of crisis and permeability, the abstract diagram survives by adapting its striating function and leveraging haptic techniques in the service of administrative vision.

Similarly, though in contrast, we should acknowledge that the tango is itself not simply a form of dance that enjoys a particular haptic negotiation between bodies and a particular resonance in Argentina. The tango may also be a Russian martial artist surfing the waves of channeled aggression flowing-toward from one or many opponents. It may also be a number of self-determined and networked communities more or less simultaneously playing pickup basketball in Canada, China, Macedonia, Poland, Uruguay and the United States.

In other words, we ought to recognize the tango (like the panopticon) as an abstract diagram or general architecture of embodied micropolitics that may, with the necessary modifications, be applied to different forms of coming-together or community. Here, body becomes bodies, the tango's lightness as diagram matched only by the heaviness of the flesh in which it finds embodied form.

Perfect Day, No. 2

Vilém Flusser: "The theory of communication implies the theory of decision and the theory of games. And the theory of games implies art in a new sense."

Resample: "And what now? What of other use-values for the body athletic? Would he coach? Could he create shadows of his legacy from the fading twilight of his career? Or could he reinvent his running (and his body)? He was, after all, only thirty!"

* * *

Perfect Day

Shot Put Final

1. VANNINI, A.	(CAN+ITA)	23.65 (SB)
2. YUTKO, J.	(FIN) 		23.63
3. OKKERT, S.	(SAF)	    	23.47

* * *

Vannini Goes Out A Champion

VANCOUVER (AP) — Her legs were aching. Her back was tightening. Her shoulders were exhausted.

But not too exhausted to lift the Pignataro Cup one last time.

In her final competition, veteran shotputter Autumn Vannini tasted victory in front of a home crowd at Warn Stadium with a season-best heave of 23.65 metres, narrowly defeating teen sensation Jan Yutko of Finland.

It was a bittersweet win for Vannini, who retires after a 12-year career on the international stage. But there will be no regrets for the athlete who during her peak season of 2005 won a jaw-dropping 17 straight competitions.

"The sport has been great to me," said Vannini, clearly emotionally spent as well. "When I was a girl I imagined competing against the best in the world, imagined representing my nations, imagined standing on this podium and seeing my flags raised. And I've been able to accomplish all of that. It's been tough these last few years with the injuries, but I'd be just as happy doing all of this, competing, even if nobody was keeping score and nobody was watching."

On this day, however, they were watching. And cheering. And, on her final attempt, chanting her name before the final throw that vaulted her to victory. The echoes are sure to reverberate at Warn Stadium for years to come.

The Times, Squared

Forty years after the Mexico City Olympic Games, which gave us the Tlatelolco Massacre, the Olympic Project for Human Rights, and the immortal Black Power salute by Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the medal podium …

Sean JohnSean John

"I had no regrets, I have no regrets, I will never have any regrets. We were there to stand up for human rights and to stand up for black Americans. We wanted to make them better in the United States." — Tommie Smith

"Those people should put all their millions of dollars together and make a factory that builds athlete-robots. Athletes are human beings. We have feelings, too. How can you ask someone to live in the world, to exist in the world, and not have something to say about injustice?" — John Carlos

"Ghetto-fabulous! I'm the nigger who started it: I'm the one driving around in the Rolls-Royce with his hat turned, goin' down Fifth Avenue with the system booming in the back. Walkin' into Gucci, shuttin' it down, buying everything at the mother-fuckin' same time. Driving up to Harlem, out to 125th Street, and on my way back downtown goin' and givin' hundred-dollar bills to homeless people. No other nigger out there can say they're ghetto-fabulous; I'm ghetto-fabulous." — Sean Combs

Mimicry Squared

Does the San Antonio fan mimic Manu Ginobili or the Phoenix fan?

Nash Bloody Nose - Courtesy of Getty ImagesNash Mimicry - Courtesy of Getty Images
Ginobili Black Eye - Courtesy of Getty ImagesGinobili Mimicry - Courtesy of Getty Images

Homi Bhabha, The Location of Culture:

"In mimicry, the representation of identity and meaning is rearticulated along the axis of metonymy. As Lacan reminds us, mimicry is like camouflage, not a harmonization of repression of difference, but a form of resemblance, that differs from or defends presence by displaying it in part, metonymically. Its threat, I would add, comes from the prodigious and strategic production of conflictual, fantastic, discriminatory 'identity effects' in the play of a power that is elusive because it hides no essence, no 'itself'."