Speed is the Essence of (Simulated) War

In Speed and Politics, Paul Virilio notes:

The maneuver that once consisted in giving up ground to gain Time loses its meaning: at present, gaining Time is exclusively a matter of vectors. Territory has lost its significance in favor of the projectile. In fact, the strategic value of the non-place of speed has definitively supplanted that of place, and the question of possession of Time has revived that of territorial appropriation (p.133, italics in original).

In this passage I am reminded of the evolution of various strands from the pre-modern rituals of folk football, and in particular, how the American version of football has obsolesced (in a McLuhanist sense) the more globally-preferred version of the game, soccer. The genius of Mike Leach at Texas Tech is in how he rethinks space and time on the football field, most notably in how he uses his air force to dilate, and thus gain possession of, game time.

So, to paraphrase the Sun Tzu quote that Virilio cites at the beginning of that chapter, "Speed is the essence of (simulated) war".

Smooth and Striated Space in Games

This week I have an article appearing in the U.K.-based Leisure Studies Association newsletter on the theme of New connections - new directions: current research in leisure studies. My paper is titled "Dispatches from the sport performance archive" and brings together some of my work on chess notation, baseball jerseys, and RFID tags in running.

The first paragraph of the chess section reads:

While volumes have been written about chess’ greatest players and games, or about opening and endgame theory, I would like to invert this analysis and anthropomorphosize the playing pieces themselves: the King, his Queen, and all of the feudal subjects that comprise his political economy; perfectly opposed uniforms of black and white, as essential a form of othering as can be; an 8×8 square grid system that serves to partition space into functional areas; ranked pieces, each with various movement possibilities and constraints; all under the watchful gaze of the human chess player, the promise of God to ensure the moral power of the throne. Without much trouble, one might consider the structural model of chess as an ideal instance of Foucault’s disciplinary power.

Picking through Deleuze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia this morning, I come across this passage in the 'Treatise on Nomadology':

Let us take a limited example and compare the war machine and the State apparatus in the context of the theory of games. Let us take chess and Go, from the standpoint of the game pieces" (p.352).


The rest of the passage really is beautiful, though. I will take the liberty of reprinting it here in full:

Chess is a game of State, or of the court: the emperor of China played it. Chess pieces are coded; they have an internal nature and intrinsic properties from which their movements, situations, and confrontations derive. They have qualities; a knight remains a knight, a pawn a pawn, a bishop a bishop. Each is like a subject of the statement endowed with a relative power, and these relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, that is, the chess player or the game's form of interiority. Go pieces, in contrast, are pellets, disks, simple arithmetic units, and have only an anonymous, collective, or third-person function: "It" makes a move. "It" could be a man, a woman, a louse, an elephant. Go pieces are elements of a nonsubjectified machine assemblage with no intrinisic properties, only situational ones. Thus the relations are very different in the two cases. Within their milieu of interiority, chess pieces entertain biunivocal relations with one another, and with the adversary's pieces: their functioning is structural. On the other hand, a Go piece has only a milieu of exteriority, or extrinsic relations with nebulas or constellations, according to which it fulfills functions of insertion or situation, such as bordering, encircling, shattering. All by itself, a Go piece can destroy an entire constellation synchronically; a chess piece cannot (or can do so diachronically only). Chess is indeed a war, but an institutionalized, regulated, coded war, with a front, a rear, battles. But what is proper to Go is war without battle lines, with neither confrontation nor retreat, without battles even: pure strategy, whereas chess is a semiology. Finally, the space is not at all the same: in chess, it is a question of arranging a closed space for oneself, thus of going from one point to another, of occupying the maximum number of squares with the minimum number of pieces. In Go, it is a question of arraying oneself in an open space, of holding space, of maintaining the possibility of springing up at any point: the movement is not from one point to another, but becomes perpetual, without aim or destination, without departure or arrival. The "smooth" space of Go, as against the "striated" space of chess. The nomos of Go against the State of chess, nomos against polis. The difference is that chess codes and decodes space, whereas Go proceeds altogether differently, territorializing or deterritorializing it (make the outside a territory in space; consolidate that territory by the construction of a second, adjacent territory; deterritorialize the enemy by shattering his territory from within; deterritorialize oneself by renouncing, by going elsewhere …). Another justice, another movement, another space-time.

The Golden Ball

Beaded with sweat, under the glare of the stadium lights and the softer Berlin twilight, his head gleamed like a golden ball …

Zidane Headbutt

Prefix-Serial Number

Ayn Rand's Anthem, with its protagonist Equality 7-2521, and to a lesser extent, George Lucas' THX 1138, with its eponymous protagonist, are meant as cautionary screeds warning against the excesses of collectivist society. But the prefix-serial number technique used to identify humans in these stories is not the exclusive domain of a de-individualizing state apparatus, fictional or otherwise.

As we have seen earlier, this sort of administrative numeration of the human body, fixing it in space and time, evolved independently though concurrently with the state. In sport, the stitching of numbers on baseball uniforms — granting us DiMaggio5, for example — was not some grandiose ideological experiment in collectivism, but rather an administrative decision based on rationalism and a capitalist profit motive.

The specific origin of uniform numbers in baseball appears to be a matter of considerable uncertainty, though there appears to have been some cross-pollination of the practice with other team sports played at the cusp of the 20th century, such as football, hockey, and basketball. Bill James contends that the Cincinnati Red Stockings experimented with uniform numbers as early as 1883, but an absence of corroborating testimony casts doubt upon its veracity. The National Baseball Hall of Fame asserts in its online exhibit that the Reading Red Roses of the Atlantic League intended to use uniform numbers in 1907, though wanting for photographic documentation it is uncertain whether or not this actually occurred. However, the exhibit also features a photo from 1909 that shows José Mendez of the Cuban Stars in a uniform with a number emblazoned on the left sleeve. What is known for certain is that in 1929 the Cleveland Indians and New York Yankees became the first National League teams to wear numbers on their uniforms for an entire season, and by 1932 the practice had become standard across all of major league baseball.

With the league-wide adoption of numbers on uniforms, we see Foucauldian administration at its sporting apex: every athlete in the game under the watchful gaze of the managers and umpires who governed the proceedings, each partitioned into productive spaces on the field, each an easily-identifiable "object of information, never a subject in communication" (D/P, p. 200) for which performance was to be accounted, analyzed, and archived. For the owners of capital, the referential index of these objects also provided an attractive ancillary revenue proposition:

Get your program! You can’t tell the players without a program!

Today, it is not the American state that creates and sustains Jordan23 (or AK-47), either. Rather, it is a vectoral elite (ie. Nike) that seeks to control the production, storage and transmission of valuable signs of consumption. And instead of this providing ancillary revenues, the control of these signs becomes the primary reason for existence.

Information, once it becomes a form of property, develops beyond a mere support for capital and for a pastoralist class belatedly aware of the value of increased productivity for its rent rolls. It becomes the basis of a form of accumulation in its own right (Hacker Manifesto #190).

We might suggest, then, that the prefix-serial number identifier must be questioned less as a method of state-sponsored de-individualization than as a strategy of information compression in a highly-saturated media-sphere and a technique for creating economically-valuable signs.

Manufacturing Consent

"The privileged realm of electronic space controls the physical logistics of manufacture, since the release of raw materials and manufactured goods requires electronic consent and direction." — Critical Art Ensemble, The Electronic Disturbance, p.17 (via Wark's Hacker Manifesto)

With the false start mechanism (gun+blocks+clock+circuitry+camera) used in the 100-metre sprint and races in other high performance sports, we also see the requisite of electronic consent in order for the race "production" or "manufacture" to begin.


bloodIt was Magic Johnson who provided the moment when blood entered the North American sportocratic zeitgeist. Before that time urine had been used for doping tests, though it was a substance viewed as excretory, or an external waste byproduct of the body athletic. When Magic tested positive for HIV in 1991, on the other hand, at a time of mass hysteria, ignorance and/or misinformation about Acquired Immuno-Deficiency Syndrome, his blood — not excretory, but still circulatory — became the object of frantic concern:

Is it possible that Magic is gay?
Could our blood mix in the hardwood fray?
Should he be allowed to return to play?
I say, No Way … not in my NBA.

Of course, Magic did return to the NBA and provide the perfect Hollywood ending to the HIV story when he shone in the 1992 All-Star Game, notching 25 points and 9 assists to take home the MVP award.

From that time forward, however, the blood of an athlete became permissible as an object of information that could be rendered visible for all to see.

This is not to suggest that blood had never been a part of sport previously. To the contrary, some amount of blood spilled during an athletic contest has always appealed to a particular form of masculinity, and for that blood to be on your person, whether it originally belonged to you or your opponent, was a mark of manhood, a badge to be worn proudly rather than with fear. Today's athletes, on the other hand, must wear their blood type like a scarlet letter.

While blood doping and blood sampling for anti-doping purposes was quietly making its presence known in the late 1980s, it was Magic's "contamination" that ultimately normalized this invasion of the body to ensure the truth component of competition. Today, the World Anti-Doping Agency has declared it legal to draw samples of blood from an athlete to ensure the purification of the body from which it was removed.