Michael Jordan, Inc.: A Pro Forma Statement

"It's not about the shoes."

It's not about the shoes, but at the same time it is about the shoes.

Though Michael Jordan and his shoes are likely the most mediated athlete-technology hybrid in history, very little of his appearance as text has been of the critical sort. One notable exception is Michael Jordan, Inc.: Corporate Sport, Media Culture, and Late Modern America, a collection of essays edited by David Andrews, the head of the Physical Cultural Studies program at the University of Maryland. The volume represents the work of many well-respected scholars in critical sports studies as well as contributions from cognate disciplines by luminaries such as Norman Denzin, Douglas Kellner, and Michael Eric Dyson.

"It's about knowing where you're going."

The book explores the social, economic, political, and technological issues surrounding Jordan and his corporate relationships (Chicago Bulls, NBA, Nike and Gatorade, etc.) and their effects on American and global cultures. While one cannot say that Jordan ushered in the age of what we currently understand as globalization, nor that globalizing processes "made" Jordan, it can safely be stated that a trialectic relationship between sport (MJ, Bulls, NBA, Dream Team), media companies, and corporate sponsors (notably Nike) assembled in a perfect storm (what Manuel DeLanda might consider a chaotic attractor in social non-linear dynamics) to exponentially accelerate the Jordan Effect to planetary proportions.

"Not forgetting where you started."

While Jordan the basketball phenom arguably arrived when he hit the winning jumpshot in the 1982 NCAA championship game, Jordan the postmodern spectacle arrived (or took off?) with the television ad campaigns to introduce his new, personalized Nike basketball shoe. Playing prophet to the coming phenomenon of Jordan was Spike Lee as the character Mars Blackmon, who uttered the immortal phrase of the consumerist 1980s: "Money, it's gotta be the shoes!"

Thus was launched the trajectory of Air Jordan.

"It's about having the courage to fail."

Though Michael Jordan, Inc. covers a wide swath in its many contributions, I would like to briefly discuss a topic that might be considered a coda to the original collection or perhaps a pro forma look at a future beyond the temporal bounds of the book's subject matter — specifically concerning the materialities of athletic body and media representation and how these flows intersect with the immateriality of data networks.

The vast potential and primary problem with sign value creation in the sport-media-sponsor trialectic mentioned earlier is that it is fundamentally rooted in the body athletic — in the body's ability to move through space rhythmically with teammates and competitors, to manufacture positive outcomes from routine sets and plays, and to hack creative possibilities from the continual unfoldings of these positive outcomes. The body is vectoralism's greatest strength and greatest weakness.

"Not breaking when you're broken."

But the body ages. It is organic. It wrinkles and withers and grays and slows and expires and decomposes. For an athlete, muscles become less elastic, bones more brittle, joints less lubricated, and metabolism less able to burn lipids.

Michael Jordan's body ages, despite the spectacle that precedes him, produces him, and perpetuates him. And while the creative hacks of the body athletic are not the only way to generate sign value in the sportocratic economy, Jordan's ability to do just that was bound to organically decline.

"Taking everything you've been given … and making something better."

Couretesy of MJ to the Max/NBAThis is not to say that the machinations of spectacle haven't attempted to arrest the aging process. A growing repository of images and information can be continually recombined to provide the illusion of youth. And media materialities that allow for space and time axis manipulation may be leveraged to this end as well.

Indeed, one need only look back to the 360-degree mocap recreation of Jordan's famous foul line dunk in Michael Jordan to the Max to see how material, embodied performance can be spatiotemporally dilated for spectacular purpose. While Jordan was too old at the time of the movie's production to dunk spread-eagled from the foul line, particularly with as much ease as the final cut shows, greenscreen techniques and clever 3-D computer animation slowed down the sands of metabolic time.

"It's about work … before glory."

But while the usefulness of a body may be prolonged for the creation of sign value, a limit is eventually reached after which new sign value must be created with the same body in other ways (nostalgia) or else a new body is required. With Nike, we witness a steady trend of working the corporeal Jordan out of the sign value creation process.

Recall the campaign a little over four years ago that featured Carmelo Anthony, Derek Jeter and Warren Sapp — Jordan's student, designated hitter, and alter ego, respectively. Resample: "As MJ's flesh becomes weak, no longer available to produce meaning for Nike and its image-signs, the distilled essence of his excellence — his aura, that invisible Air of Jordan — transcends the body and morphs or transmogrifies into the bodies of his disciples."

"I am not Michael Jordan," they chorused, even though they had become Him.

"And what's inside of you."

Two years later, the "2nd Generation" campaign would feature video footage of young basketball players replicating the signature moves (creative hacks) from Jordan's career. This was possible because the DNA of Jordan — or more correctly, his memes rather than his genes — had seeped into the network and emerged as the fittest for survival.

The implied message in both of these texts was a liberation for Nike (and its consumers) from the shackles of Jordan's fleshy prison. Become light!

Or, at minimum, add to the product life cycle and the unit life cycle a mean time before failure for the athletic motor of sign value creation.

"It's doing what they say you can't."

An important component to this erasure of the corporeal Jordan is that sponsorship through the Jordan Brand is spread across many different sports. Basketball, baseball, gridiron football, and boxing, which constitute to a large degree the entire history of sport in modern America (and its attendant racial history), are dissolved in a postmodern moment of sport as engine for the new vectoral order of intellectual property production and consumption (with race, as Andrews points out, becoming a "floating racial signifier").

This erasure of the corporeal Jordan continues in the latest major Nike campaign, "Become Legendary". The feature ad spot is fascinating in that the 60-second commercial is composed almost exclusively of old amateur video footage of current Jordan Brand athletes. There are two minor exceptions: first, a shot of a contemplative Ray Allen in his new Celtics uniform at the beginning of the spot; and second, a still photo of Chris Paul in his Hornets uniform, which needed to be established because the archival footage used for him was of such poor quality, although the backstory behind the video — Paul scoring 61 points after his grandfather, with whom he was close, passed away at age 61 — was of such high value that the video ought to be included.

These two contemporary exceptions notwithstanding, it is the archive that ironically provides the vector of erasure.

"It's not about the shoes."

For a generation cynical about the tacit promises made in the 1980s and 1990s, namely, that shoe consumption would grant one equivalent talents to those of the star endorser, "It's not about the shoes. It's about what you do in them" turns the responsibility back to the consumer. Arguably, not one of the athletes in the "Becoming Legendary" spot — Ray Allen, Derek Jeter, Chris Paul, Terrell Owens, Andre Ward, Richard Hamilton, Joe Johnson, Marvin Harrison, and Carmelo Anthony — would be considered freakish athletes by the standards of professional sport, but rather those who took moderate athletic gifts and maximized them through hard work.

"It's about what you do in them."

That said, the clause "in them" provides a reminder that even though responsibility has been turned back to the consumer, one's chances in competition certainly improve if sporting a pair of Nikes. So we have a historical referent — Mars Blackmon imploring that it's gotta be the shoes — that serves not only as the entry point to situate this level of the contemporary assemblage but simultaneously as the departure point from which to negate that historical position. We have a reversal of implied obligation from producer to consumer. And, though the erasure of the corporeal Jordan is almost complete, Nike never has to compromise the original message, which is to buy the shoes.

"It's about being who you were born to be."

The scratchy and grainy original home video footage and the editing that reinforces this particular material condition of production — what N. Katherine Hayles would refer to as a "technotext", a text that foregrounds the inscription technology used to produce it — is consonant with a generation that has spent its entire life on camera — in photos, videos, home movies, webcams, cell phones, etc. That there exists video footage of these professional athletes as teens and that clips have been detached from these archival texts to be remixed into a new assemblage paid for by a transnational corporate sponsor does not seem to this generation at all unusual.

Today's youth are used to cutting, pasting, sampling — of disassembling and reassembling other — as their central mode of communication and, dare we say, overarching ontology. And in this commercial, we witness evidence of a reversal from industrial capitalism: while the mining of metals ultimately provided the infrastructural base for industrial manufacture, the post-industrial manufacture of spectacle and its concomitant commodity marketing ultimately provide the basis for the mining of data archives from which sign values may be extracted — presumably at lower marginal cost to the manufacturer — and then assembled anew.


This is not the only mining that will take place, however, and here we may examine more closely the pro forma portion of this corporate outlook. Though the technology and techniques are still in their relative infancy, we should extrapolate somewhat to vision where the emergent ubiquity of online communication takes us.

It is not a significant leap to suggest that vast databases of photo and video imagery combined with the facial recognition technology blossoming in security applications will be used by Nike and others to identify new motors of sign value production in a hybrid of spectaclesimulationsurveillance. Scan for the swoosh, process through neural network analysis, and the future robot historian will identify Jordan by a few degrees of separation as one of the most powerful nodes in the history of netspace.

In the process of becoming legendary, this is how a posthuman religion is born.

Shoe Capital and Trash Vectors

It might appear patently obvious to identify the desire for a capitalist firm to reduce waste on the manufacturing shop floor, which allows for more efficient production that keeps costs down and ultimately yields increased profit margins. But this only considers the stage of production as a linear process that begins with product design, advances to work-in-process, and ends with finished inventories and order fulfillment. Increasingly, companies have become interested in the consumption and post-consumption phases of what we might refer to as a unit life cycle that emerges to complement the classic product life cycle of consumer marketing. The managerial interest in the phase of consumption primarily constitutes the field of customer relationship management (CRM) and is not very interesting on its own. But the latter phase, post-consumption, is also attracting concern and will be examined here in the case of Nike.

Nike Reuse-A-Shoe Sorting - Courtesy of Nike

Nike has a program that is an important component of its Let Me Play community initiative called Reuse-A-Shoe, which for the past fifteen years has collected and recycled old athletic shoes. Currently, the shoes that are accumulated through this program are broken down and reconstituted in a proprietary process to create a blend of tiny rubber pellets called Nike Grind. The compound is then used, for example, to surface or refurbish new and used basketball and tennis courts, an example of converting material excess or post-consumer waste into social capital.

Trash Talk - Courtesy of NikeBut what if these recycled shoes weren't just being used to refurbish sportscapes in acts of "charity"? What if these ground up shoes were being used to create new Nike shoes? This is exactly what has happened with the recent release of Nike's Trash Talk basketball shoe, a product designed to be "the first performance basketball shoe made from manufacturing waste" — scraps on the factory shop floor as well as a portion of Nike Grind.

The shoe is endorsed by Phoenix Suns guard Steve Nash, whose identity-vehicle or pseudonimage indicates a well-developed social conscience, though he does not talk trash on the basketball court (hence the irony of the endorsement). Given his environmental passion and the desired goals of the shoe, the potential semiotic synergies are significant. And of course, this is all about signs, for we have moved into the age of vectoralism.

That the vectoralist class has replaced capital as the dominant exploiting class can be seen in the form that the leading corporations take. These firms divest themselves of their productive capacity, as this is no longer a source of power. They rely on a competing mass of capitalist contractors for the manufacture of their products. Their power lies in monopolizing intellectual property — patents, copyrights and trademarks — and the means of reproducing their value — the vectors of communication. The privatization of information becomes the dominant, rather than a subsidiary, aspect of commodified life. [As Naomi Klein suggests in No Logo,] "there is a certain logic to this progression: first, a select group of manufacturers transcend their connection to earthbound products, then, with marketing elevated as pinnacle of their business, they attempt to alter marketing's social status as a commercial interruption and replace it with seamless integration." With the rise of the vectoral class, the vectoral world is complete (Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, #032).

This brings us back to the Reuse-A-Shoe program, which "collects worn-out athletic shoes of any brand from a variety of sources, including end of life shoes collected through a variety of recycling programs, special events at Nike or other stores, shoes that are returned to us from retailers due to a material flaw and even counterfeit shoes" (emphasis added). Why would Nike incur the cost of recycling used products for the companies it competes against or for criminal counterfeiters? This seems totally irrational.

Invert the analysis. Instead of recycling being a process at the end of a linear chain of events, post-consumption, consider the Reuse-A-Shoe program at the beginning, as part of its supply chain sourcing. The fact that competitor and counterfeit running shoes are accepted into the supply stream of raw goods underscores the material equivalence between virtually any athletic shoe product. Accepting competitor running shoes allows Nike to gain social or material benefits at a lower cost.

Additional gains may be illuminated, however, when viewed from the vectoral perspective. Though there may be a material equivalence between competing running shoes, their differentiation lies in the sign-value associated with any particular product design or, more importantly, with the logo emblazoned on the shoe as part of that design. So when Nike accepts the shoes of its competitors for the Reuse-A-Shoe program, it is not only acquiring a scarce supply of used running shoes, but is in effect removing the sign-value of its competitors from circulation in a semiotic economy.

Is this a mutation in the parameters of competition for the athletic footwear industry? Will adidas develop its own competencies in sourcing a supply of shoes, post-consumption? Does a demand for such sourcing create new barriers to the athletic footwear market for later entrants, such as Under Armour? And perhaps more importantly, given the intellectual property issues discussed above, do athletic footwear companies begin to introduce End User License Agreements (as seen, for example, with proprietary software products) that dictate and control precisely (in conjunction with embedded RFID tags and/or barcodes) what consumers may and may not do with their running shoes?

Taken one at a time, needs are nothing; there is only the system of needs; or rather, needs are nothing but the most advanced form of the rational systemization of productive forces at the individual level, one in which "consumption" takes up the logical and necessary relay from production (Baudrillard, The Consumer Society).

And this is where the mutation occurs. While production creates a system of needs for the worker class that is realized through individualized acts of consumption, it is no longer a linear process as Baudrillard suggests in this passage. Consumption likewise creates a system of needs for the vectoral-capital class interest that is realized through individual-corporate acts of production, an extended helix of production consumption prosumption that constitutes an entirely new project of domination for the vectoral ruling interest.

Future Perfect: Tense

In sport sponsorship, there is almost always a contractual obligation between the athlete and sponsor in which the former bears the brand marks of the latter during most, if not all, public appearances or press conferences. To the best of my knowledge, there is no industry standard template regarding image rights, but rather specific provisions are contract dependent.

This had dramatic implications in 1992 when professional athletes were first allowed to compete in the Olympics. Reebok was the clothing sponsor for the entire U.S. Olympic team, which meant that any American athlete who won a medal would wear the official Reebok track suit on the medal podium. But the "Dream Team" of NBA basketball players was creaming everyone in sight and Michael Jordan (among others) let it be known that as a Nike endorser, he wouldn't wear the Reebok uniform on the podium and would instead skip the medal ceremony. For someone whose recognizability at the time rivaled that of the Pope, this was scandal. But eventually a compromise was reached in which the Nike athletes stood alongside their teammates on the medal podium with U.S. flags draped over their shoulders to cover the offending Reebok logo.

Clearly, the hotly-contested athlete image rights are key to the value of immaterial intellectual properties. For the visioning economy to extract this value, the (two-dimensional) surface of the athletic body must continually be photographed, while images of body volumes have assumed increased significance as well. But what about the interiors of athletic bodies and the flows that pass into, through, and out of them? Will they become subject to the vision machine? Though this control of the athlete is already happening to a degree in the context of anti-doping practices, we might wonder if such visioning will ultimately contribute directly to the pancapitalist profit motive?

As mentioned already, the extended skin of the athletic uniform is sponsored; the actual skin may become sponsored as well (tattoos representing gambling or casino web sites?); and professional sports teams have insured various athlete body parts to minimize investment risk. Now I am wondering about a related, but slightly different proposition: What if the intellectual property under consideration was DNA?

The NBA currently runs mandatory workshops for all rookie players in which they learn about various risk factors and occupational hazards, among them the "nefarious" women who use various methods to try and get impregnated during one-night stands in order to sue/extort for palimony at a later date. Now these women are ultimately doing it for the money, but what if instead of getting pregnant they were trying to save the ejaculate for copying or resale? Does the sperm of world-class athletes have immense revenue potential? If a black market grows for this type of service, how long before capital moves in to capture the rents?

Can't you see Nike, in the age of database-powered dating services and recombinant genetics, prospering in the insemination brokering service?

It's happened for years in the horse racing business.

What are the racial implications of the marketing and sale of high performance athlete DNA? ("If you want a white child, you may choose from these athletes; black athletes begin on page 5 of the catalogue. I'm afraid you can't have Michael Jordan's size and jumping ability with white skin — we don't have the technology to blanch DNA at this time.")

From there, what about the vat-grown eyeballs and assorted body organs suggested by Gibson in Neuromancer? What template are they built upon — perhaps snippets of an athlete from the Nike stable (in shades of hooks' "eating the Other")? Can the genetic qualities of Jordan's muscle fibres be synthesized with the antibody capabilities of one's own cells to create a new marketable class of personalized products (cf. CAE)?

Sponsorship just uses the arena or the billboard — or the surface of the athlete — as a vector for sign communication. As such, it is not very interesting in and of itself. A more interesting proposition is to ask what new vectors will transmit the sign, for it is the sign that is the source of power and wealth in the immaterial economy. DNA is one answer and must be examined in any critical futures analysis of the sportocracy.

The Homeless World Cup

Homeless World Cup

Yep, that's right: homeless people from nations around the world brought together to play in a soccer tournament. I'll let you work through the complexities and contradictions embedded in this event at your leisure, though I will highlight the ironic state of affairs that saw the game between Ukraine and Kazakhstan decided by video replay.

Replay — "The network infrastructure has insinuated itself into professional sport so pervasively that it no longer simply influences the latter, but rather, via league legislation, exists structurally as part of its games."

Re: Play — "The problem is that it normalizes the use of instant replay technologies during our non-structured play. Instead of the beauty of creative and unscripted shinny with its messy rules and rule interpretations, we are taught that participation in the surveillance society is the only legitimate path to truth."

Now? Not even a homeless world cup of soccer is immune from this complicity.

In The Foothills Of Buda

Nike in Budapest

Speaking in Sung

In Understanding Media, McLuhan uses the metaphor of Narcissus to explain the almost hypnotic/narcotic effect that electric technologies have upon us — that is, we are almost hypnotized by our own reflections emanating from the "changing same" surface of the electronic media pond.

To continue the metaphor, I've often considered the DJ-as-archivist to be the individual that stirs up the sediment pooled beneath the water's surface. Sometimes you get muddy water, but sometimes the light reflects/refracts in the most beautiful way on the shifting particles/digital artifacts floating in solution.

*     *     *

In Archive Fever, Derrida notes that the meaning of the word "archive" comes from the early Greek, in which city magistrates or authorities — the archons — were granted "hermeneutic right and competence" to interpret the official documents stored within the arkheion. "The citizens who thus held and signified political power were considered to possess the right to make or to represent the law" (p.2).

Nike can pay $250,000 for the rights to use the Beatles' "Revolution" as the soundtrack for a shoe commercial in 1987, while almost two decades later DJ Danger Mouse must illegally use Beatles samples to create The Grey Album — and then circulate it via the Internet's "samizdat of sound" (cf. Miller) to share with others. If the DJ is archivist or gatekeeper to a sonic past and its potential futures, then we must view the act of repurposing samples as an attempt to seize control of that hermeneutic right to interpret — even if at first glance the issue is presented as an economic battle over musical IP and royalties.

The storage of information may be as valuable as its transmission, and the archive is a vector through time just as telesthesia is a vector through space. The whole potential of space and time becomes the object of the vectoral class (Wark, A Hacker Manifesto, #318)

As Chris Cutler points out in his essay, "Plunderphonia", samples can now be manipulated to the point of non-recognizability before insertion into a song. So why want to be recognized? Put another way, if Miller tells us that "today, the voice you speak with may not be your own," the question should be "why not?".

Because we — or at least the hackers — are literally fighting against a vectoral class (if we ride with Wark's framework) for the political right to communicate, to make the law, to exist and participate in a democratic society. To do so, we need the right to speak freely, in all senses of that word. We stand on the shoulders of giants, and we must also speak through their voices.