The Branding of Bonds*

Gilles Deleuze, in "Postscript on the Societies of Control":

The socio-technological study of the mechanisms of control, grasped at their inception, would have to be categorical and to describe what is already in the process of substitution for the disciplinary sites of enclosure, whose crisis is everywhere proclaimed. It may be that older methods, borrowed from the former societies of sovereignty, will return to the fore, but with the necessary modifications. What counts is that we are at the beginning of something.

Three years ago, Chicago Cubs baseball fan Steve Bartman committed a blunder of monumental proportions when he snatched a fly ball destined for the stands. The mistake was critical since Chicago's Moises Alou had a chance to reach into the stands and make a play on the ball for a key out that would have nearly sealed the game and a spot in the World Series, which the Cubs hadn't won since 1908. Rattled, the team eventually lost the game and the series, continuing the championship drought.

As I suggested at the time, Bartman's gaffe constituted "an operational failure of the panoptic gaze." The same technologies that ensure spectator docility at a sporting event also constitute the apparatus of spectacle that is so important economically. Put another way, Bartman was trained to internalize two truths: first, to sit down in your seat at a game unless standing up to cheer in an appropriate fashion; and second, to try and catch a fly ball when possible for its sign-value as ball and for the possibility to get seen on TV. With one out in the top of the eighth and the Cubs nursing a 3-0 lead, these two truths came into direct opposition with one another.

So an older method, borrowed from the society of sovereignty, was leveraged to resolve the anomaly, though with the necessary modifications: Bartman needed the spectacle of public torture and death: however, since we could not literally kill Bartman, we instead used the ball in simulation as the proxy by which the public spectacle of torture and execution could be enacted. And hopefully everyone learned their lesson.

* * *

Today there is a new lesson. It has to do not with the bounded space of the stadium, but rather the space within one's body. Generally, we are discussing claims to a "natural" body and chemical compositions that might challenge such a natural state. Specifically, we are discussing Barry Bonds and allegations that steroids, HGH or other illicit doping methods allowed him to break Major League Baseball's all-time record for home runs.

It was anticipated that the record-breaking ball would be somewhat depressed in value given the allegations leveled against Bonds, and would only fetch about half a million dollars. The ball ended up selling for $752,467 — substantially more than expected, but a far cry from the $3 million Spawn creator Todd McFarlane spent in auction to land Mark McGwire's record single-season home run ball.

The Bonds ball was purchased by urban streetwear entrepreneur Mark Ecko, who offered baseball fans the ability to decide what to subsequently do with it by voting online through the web site Fans were offered three choices in the vote: bestow the ball intact to Cooperstown; brand the ball with an asterisk before sending it to Cooperstown; or blast the ball into outer space.

Courtesy of Mark Ecko

Over 10 million votes were cast. The result? Brand the ball with an asterisk before putting it on display forever at the Baseball Hall of Fame.

If we can consider the Bartman ball as acting in proxy for the simulated spectacle of torture and execution, should we not extend our analysis to consider the Bonds ball as a proxy in a similarly spectacular fashion? And if so, what does the collective desire of baseball's voting fans to have the proxy branded reveal in this analysis?

Once again, in administering mechanisms of control older methods return to the fore, but with the necessary modifications. The branding of human beings has a long and varied history, most notably to mark slaves as a form of property or to identify and punish the criminal. Later, as the practice of branding extended to domesticated livestock, the presence of a brand on an animal often constituted prima facie proof of ownership.

While baseball holds a special and important place in the topography of American collective consciousness, the nation's historical legacy of slavery holds perhaps an even more important place in its collective subconsciousness. We might suggest that the desire to brand the record-setting baseball is a collective expression of that subconscious awareness — Bonds should be branded (in simulation).

From now on, the presence of an asterisk on cowhide — the scarlet punctuation, as it were — will be considered prima facie evidence of guilt in the absence of hard physical evidence. But it will also serve as a reminder of ownership: the career home run record (and indeed all of baseball history) does not belong to Bonds but rather to The American People. Moreover, it is the body of Bonds himself (and indeed all other baseball players) that is symbolically owned by The American People, a lesson that will be internalized by every future visitor to Cooperstown.


The United States Drug Enforcement Agency has recently completed the largest performance-enhancing drug crackdown in U.S. history. 50 arrests, 26 underground labs raided, millions of dollars in cash and product seized. But it was this passage that caught my attention in Shaun Assael's ESPN article (emphasis added):

The investigation also focused on message boards where advice is traded about obtaining raw materials, as well as on the Web sites that help the labs sell finished products to the public. Hundreds of thousands of e-mails were intercepted, according to Dan Simmons, a San Diego-based special agent for the DEA. Simmons said that no professional athletes have been implicated so far but that the e-mails are being compiled into a massive database of names and are being analyzed.

. . .

In an interview, David Howman, the director general of the World Anti-Doping Agency, said that he expects to learn if the names of any athletes attempting to qualify for the Olympics are in the database. Howman said that he is working closely with the DEA, and veteran BALCO investigator Jeff Novitzky of the Internal Revenue Service, to make sure that any legal hurdles are cleared so that WADA can get that access.

Does it not seem odd that WADA — a sports organization — would have this degree of access in a U.S. criminal investigation? Consider the mission statements of the three organizations:

U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency

"The mission of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) is to enforce the controlled substances laws and regulations of the United States and bring to the criminal and civil justice system of the United States, or any other competent jurisdiction, those organizations and principal members of organizations, involved in the growing, manufacture, or distribution of controlled substances appearing in or destined for illicit traffic in the United States; and to recommend and support non-enforcement programs aimed at reducing the availability of illicit controlled substances on the domestic and international markets."

U.S. Internal Revenue Service

"The IRS is a bureau of the Department of the Treasury and one of the world's most efficient tax administrators. In 2004, the IRS collected more than $2 trillion in revenue and processed more than 224 million tax returns. … The IRS Mission [is to p]rovide America's taxpayers top quality service by helping them understand and meet their tax responsibilities and by applying the tax law with integrity and fairness to all."

World Anti-Doping Agency

"The World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) is the international independent organization created in 1999 to promote, coordinate, and monitor the fight against doping in sport in all its forms. Composed and funded equally by the sports movement and governments of the world, WADA coordinated the development and implementation of the World Anti-Doping Code (Code), the document harmonizing anti-doping policies in all sports and all countries."

* * *

While sport operates as a striated space on smaller geographical scales, we might posit the preceding as an example of the legitimization of sporting Empire in a smooth space of control.

In the passage of sovereignty toward the plane of immanence, the collapse of the boundaries has taken place both within each national context and on a global scale. The withering of civil society and the general crisis of the disciplinary institutions coincide with the decline of nation-states as boundaries that mark and organize the divisions in global rule. The establishment of a global society of control that smooths over the striae of national boundaries goes hand in hand with the realization of the world market and the real subsumption of global society under capital (Hardt & Negri, Empire, p. 332).

RIP: Ken Danby

Courtesy of Ken Danby

At The Crease
Ken Danby
1972, egg tempera
28" x 40"

Blind Light (2007)

<!–a series on antony gormley and the origin of "tactile burden", in no particular order–>

I have already discussed two of Gormley's pieces that explicitly concern optic vision in general and the surveillant gaze in particular. Certainly, given my own research interests, this contributes to my favouring these specific works for review. But it is the next work I wish to examine that provided the eureka moment for me in terms of conceptualizing the idea of tactile burden, and it arises not due to the absence of vision, but rather light/vision amplified to such a point that it renders (nearly) sightless.

Consider two poles of blindness. One involves the absence of light and the consequent darkness that renders one incapable of seeing. The other involves the total intensification of light on the retinal receptors such that one is blinded by the sheer intensity of the light and has a visceral reaction, which forces closure of the eyes to get relief from the pain (as when looking at a sunny sky after being in a dark room). In Blind Light, Gormley finds a third way between these two poles of blindness by creating a pain-free immersive environment of lightness that becomes a de facto visible sightlessness.

Antony Gormley - Blind Light

Blind Light is essentially a glass box that has been filled with thick vapour and brightly lit with fluorescent light. The glass walls are reinforced so that atmospheric pressure can be increased to one and a half times normal levels. While this makes the air within slightly more thick and tangible, it avoids becoming excessively warm since heat is being wicked out by a venting system, leaving the environment within eerily cool. You are left to wander in the pitch white of the box.

As Gormley himself describes:

Architecture is supposed to be the location of security and certainty about where you are. It is supposed to protect you from the weather, from darkness, from uncertainty. Blind Light undermines all of that. You enter his interior space that is the equivalent of being on top of a mountain or at the bottom of the sea. It is very important for me that inside it you find the outside. Also you become the immersed figure in an endless ground, literally the subject of the work.

When I entered the space, the first thing I noticed is that it wasn't as "heavy" as I'd anticipated, but this was probably due to my preconceived understanding that the atmospheric pressure would be slightly higher than normal; in fact, the environment was slightly thicker. Though my eyes were fully open, the space in front of me was pitch white, so sound assumed new importance. I became attentive to the playful voices of others enjoying the space, which alerted me to their position long before my visual faculty could confirm. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of my time inside was the oily residue on my eyeballs I came to notice: was this a film from the thick vapour in the room or was it instead the normal atmospheric detritus of urban society, only now made apparent in the pitch whiteness of Blind Light? I do not know.

Antony Gormley - Blind Light

So why was I so excited when I saw this piece during Gormley's presentation at EGS? From his early lead bodycase works, through his Domain series, to his Feeling Material series, I witnessed what I perceived to be an increasing dematerialization of the body into the information and data networks that bind the multitude of human bodies together. I have discussed such a dematerialization or outering into the data networks for several years here at sportsBabel, a sample of which I include here:

So, if artists are the antennae of society, detecting problems and shifts and articulating them through their work to the rest of us, then what was next, I wondered. Was there a potential way out, so to speak, for the dematerializing body?

During Gormley's presentation at EGS, Blind Light was the answer.

Theoretically, we might usefully contrast Blind Light with Virilio's concept of the "vision machine." While Virilio's vision machine is a networked collection of cameras, databases and tracking algorithms that is visually impotent in the classical sense, yet sees everything, Gormley's Blind Light constructs an environment in which eyes are wide open and everything is illuminated, yet one sees nothing. In both situations the notion of the tactile is key: the vision machine manipulates data and enables "sight" through the tactile, digital interplay between the senses: a haptic-made-optic.

With Blind Light, by contrast, we are at a point in which the body is completely dematerialized into or merged with its architectural container, the glass box, while bodies also interact within its space; we are at once corporeal and in the network. And for one to navigate the other vision becomes useless: we feel the heavy atmosphere on our skin and in our breathing, we listen for audio cues in the acoustic space, we tread gingerly with the soles of our feet and reach out tentatively with our fingertips. It is tactility, or the interplay between the senses, that allows us to survive the blinding light(ness) of the network.

Hence, tactile burden.


Keeping Pace With Sight

For Benjamin, lithography was a visual technique of representation that allowed for an acceleration — for the visual depiction of daily life to keep pace with printing. Similarly, he saw photography (and later cinema) as a subsequent acceleration that allowed visual depiction to keep pace with speech.

NFL Sunday Ticket

Following Benjamin, we might suggest that the multiplex television viewing experience (in concert with its accompanying stream of meta-data), such as that offered with DirecTV's NFL Sunday Ticket package, allows the visual depiction of sporting life to keep pace in real-time with flashpoint events at distributed geographical locations. In other words, for visual depiction to keep pace with sight.


Edwin Moses they are not. But forget about technique for a second and consider the following as an interesting exercise in the compression of space:

(via panoptican)