Chess, Language, Gender and Power

As discussed earlier regarding the archivization of chess movements, we view a gradual shift over 400 years from a formal old English means of documenting games to a descriptive chess notation, a form of information compression that leverages the striating architecture of the chessboard and representational alphanumerics to convey much the same information in a far more economical fashion. To refresh:

1614: The white king commands his owne knight into the third house before his owne bishop.
1750: K. knight to His Bishop's 3d.
1837: K.Kt. to B.third sq.
1848: K.Kt. to B's 3rd.
1859: K. Kt. to B. 3d.
1874: K Kt to B3
1889: KKt-B3
1904: Kt-KB3
1946: N-KB3

Today, most of the chess world has standardized on the even more compact algebraic notation, which would render the above example as "Nf3". There has clearly been a shift away from a more elegant, ornamental prose account of the action to a radically compressed form of information, in which alphanumeric characters describe the essential components of the movement in question. In descriptive notation, action is archived using the rank of the piece in question and its final resting place on the grid, spatially relative to the King or Queen pieces (ie. N-KB3 means "knight moves to the third rank in front of the bishop on the King’s side of the board"). In the even more compact algebraic notation, on the other hand, a move is recorded using the rank of the piece in question and the grid coordinates of the final resting space (ie. Nf3 means "knight moves to the f3 square on the chessboard grid").

This evolution notwithstanding, the goal, two-fold in nature, remains the same: precisely track movements in space and time during a contest and, in doing so, create an archive of those movements. "f3" is strictly a spatial referent and "Nf3" is a movement tracked in space and time, archived with an economy of language to complement the economy of movement that Foucault analyzed so well in other spaces of disciplinary power — factory, school, hospital, barracks, prison.

In the context of gender and power, however, the consequences of this evolution are not trivial.

In Birth of the Chess Queen, Yalom makes a very convincing argument that the queen becomes the most powerful piece on the chessboard due to the rise of queens as essential figures in the courts of medieval Europe. Other historians suggest the rise of long distance battlefield artillery as providing the cultural impetus for such a shift in the game. Likely it's a combination of both factors. As the archiving language of chess compresses over the past four centuries, the way that gender and power referents are written into the archive has changed considerably. Where once there was a King and Queen, now there is only a K or a Q. And the archiving of the King who owns a particular spot on the board — or another piece that is coded in relation to the King — is reduced to simple inscribed alphanumeric grid coordinates.

In other words, while the underlying power structures represented and embedded in the model of chess — particularly the complex gender relations between King and Queen that emerged in the medieval European version of the game — have remained reasonably unchanged during the last 400 years, the language used to archive the game has inexorably been stripped of gender and power referents — data frugality eliminates the possibility for "commands," "owne," and "His."

According to Kittler, since 1880 "literature no longer has been able to write for girls, simply because girls themselves write" (GFT, p. 174). He doesn't mean here that women had written themselves into being, as the French feminist thinker Hélène Cixous wishes, but that in joining the second industrial wave as office stenographers and typists women were thrust into the mechanics of writing as a livelihood. It is no coincidence that the information compression of the chess archive approaches its limit around the same time that the typewriter/woman machine emerges in industrial society. Kittler continues: "The typewriter cannot conjure up anything imaginary, as can cinema; it cannot simulate the real, as can sound recording; it only inverts the gender of writing. In so doing, however, it inverts the material basis of literature" (GFT, p. 183). In the context of our chess discussion, we are left with the question of how to read this inversion of writing and gender and the emerging immateriality of the textual archive as the discrete alphanumerics of the typewriter sublimate into computerized data networks.

Two interpretations suggest themselves. Optimistically, the computer-human symbiosis facilitates (qua Haraway) a form of post-gender relations. While we shouldn't look at these acronyms ahistorically — clearly they have deep, meaningful gender histories — in the contemporary moment we can read in the simple alphanumeric signifier of K or Q an absence of gender. For all intents and purposes, the language of the modern chess archive becomes blind to gender and power referents; objects are visioned, mapped and archived in space and time and with each discrete movement thereafter plotted anew. The gender and power referents that are imbued in the game very early on disappear in the creation, maintenance and modernization of the chess archive. When the computer reads these alphanumeric characters in the archiving and transmission of the game, the simulation of the game, and even the playing of the game against human opponents, it is blind to gender and power as it has no sense of this historical tradition.

On the other hand, what if computers and computer networks are fashioned in a combination of hierarchy and meshwork (cf. DeLanda) that reproduces existing gender/power structures, and the computer disregards gender and power relations as in the first scenario? This ahistoric understanding by the computer is perhaps doubly dangerous in that there is a social mindset created of post-gender normativity despite a structural reality that suggests otherwise.

Hockey and the Aesthetics of Speed

Max Ryynänen, a philosopher based in Helsinki, writes about sport and the aesthetics of speed on his blog, The Art of Ice Hockey:

In his dromology, philosophy of speed (and visual culture) Paul Virilio discusses speed and acceleration as dominant aesthetic phenomena in today's world. … Landscapes roll outside of car windows, the aesthetics of contemporary films and TV programs is based upon a high speed (action, fast cutting), and information runs through virtual highways within seconds when something important happens. … Speed has strangely, though, not gained as much more relevance in sports as in other fields of culture. Visuality is the key to understanding trends in contemporary sports.

With regards to his brief analysis of hockey and speed, I wanted to add the following comments: First, the size of the NHL ice surface is much smaller than those used in European and international hockey, which compromises the ability for athletes to achieve peak speed while skating. In turn, we have more collisions and more seating for the owners of capital.

Second, most people only ever get to see the world's best hockey players in mediated form via television. When one goes to the stadium for the first time (or if one doesn't often get the opportunity), the comment upon seeing the athletes live is inevitably something like: "I can't believe how fast they are!" In other words, the TV apparatus slows down the action from an aesthetic perspective. Not only does class and sport spectatorship intersect as a spatial issue (sitting at the stadium versus sitting at a remote location), then, but also as a temporal issue (seeing the speed of athletes live versus seeing a visually-altered speed of athletes on TV).

Third, Ryynänen points out the paradox that hockey games from an earlier era looked faster on television than those of today. This paradox might be explained (following Virilio) by developments in the technical apparatus of television production and consumption: the resolution and frame rate of television cameras and receivers are much faster now at a lower marginal cost. In the past, with poorer quality video, the players were relatively too fast for the cameras to keep up with them. Today, despite faster players, the speed of TV has now leapfrogged to the point that it arrests players in motion, so to speak, making the game look slower than it used to look when watched on television. In this, we echo Kittler's remark that time axis manipulation is at the core of much mass media entertainment.

Evoking Potentials


[Aside] Yesterday I was in at a medico-scientific establishment for what is referred to as an evoked potential test, which basically hooks a bunch of wires to you to test optic, auditory and sensorimotor nerve conductivity. Given my theoretical readings of late — Kittler, Massumi, Virilio — I was naturally as interested in the process as I was in the outcome. Watching the diagnostic screen during one of the tests I couldn't help but notice how noisy one set of results looked. The technician replied that one of the biggest problems during these tests is trying to remove "muscular artefacts" from the results. In other words, muscular activity runs counter to the visioning of the nervous system. I found that poignant for some reason.


The other notable thing that stuck out for me concerned the location of those spots on my scalp that would have electrodes attached to them. Once found, they were marked with a bright red grease pencil. The other use for grease pencils that immediately comes to mind is in marking celluloid film before splicing — before editing went digital, that is. A grease pencil marks the location of film cuts, which are then recombined to form a moving picture; in the evoked potential, meanwhile, a grease pencil marks the location of electrical current cuts, which are then redirected through a diagnostic apparatus to form a moving picture of my nervous system.


The Nuclear Outcome(s)

Friedrich Kittler begins Gramophone, Film, Typewriter by pointing out that what we have referred to here as the military-industrial-entertainment complex is currently in the process of laying millions of feet of fibre optic cable, for it is the communication technology best capable of withstanding (unlike copper wire) the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear bomb.

Optical fiber networks. People will be hooked to an information channel that can be used for any medium — for the first time in history, or for its end. Once movies and music, phone calls and texts reach households via optical fiber cables, the formerly distinct media of television, radio, telephone, and mail converge, standardized by transmission frequencies and bit format. The optoelectronic channel in particular will be immune to disturbances that might randomize the pretty bit patterns behind the images and sounds. Immune, that is, to the bomb. As is well known, nuclear blasts send an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) through the usual copper cables, which would infect all connected computers.

The Pentagon is engaged in farsighted planning: only the substitution of optical fibers for metal cables can accommodate the enormous rates and volumes of bits required, spent, and celebrated by electronic warfare. All early warning systems, radar installations, missile bases, and army staffs in Europe, the opposite coast, finally will be connected to computers safe from EMP and thus will remain operational in wartime. In the meantime, pleasure is produced as a by-product: people are free to channel-surf among entertainment media. After all, fiber optics transmit all messages imaginable save for the one that counts — the bomb (p. 1).

Meanwhile, the threat of nuclear escalation and the resultant doctrine of Mutually Assured Destruction also ensured that real warfare would morph into a cultural parallel. Numerous sports scholars (for example, Rob Beamish and Ian Ritchie) have detailed an overall Cold War conflict by sporting proxy and the concomitant rise of state-sponsored doping programs to technologize these warrior-athletes. The Olympic Games provided the operational theatre for this proxy war: capitalism versus communism, live on television.

We might locate the symbolic climax of the modern sport project in the two Summer Olympic Games that took place in Moscow (1980) and Los Angeles (1984). Not only did these games augur the eventual dissolution of the superpower binary with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, but they also marked the introduction of the truly corporate Olympics, with the Los Angeles Organizing Committee fully showcasing the spectacular potential of the Olympics as a cultural property sponsored by transnational capital. And from this backdrop of Cold War sport and state-sponsored doping programs emerged Ben Johnson in 1988 and the subsequent formation of the World Anti-Doping Agency.

We are reminded of Deleuze and Guattari's formula for the State capturing the nomadic war machine for its own purposes: "The State has no war machine of its own; it can only appropriate one in the form of a military institution, one that will continually cause it problems" (A Thousand Plateaus, p. 355). But then as the athletic bodies deterritorialize post-Cold War to seek the newfound Olympic riches, and the nation-state formation yields to Empire, the stakes change and restricting speed or circulation of movement becomes of central importance.

It is ironic that the nuclear bomb, in its undetonated form, yields the technological lineage most responsible for the dematerialization of the human body as well as the lineage most responsible for its material recombination in the name of speed (which may be one and the same thing when viewed as a problem of semiotics). Further still, we should note that these (binary) strategies of nuclear deterrence are ultimately reduced to a universal system of security and control over the interior and exterior spaces of said bodies.