The Peace Relay: A Proposal

The Olympic torch relay was begun at the 1936 Olympic Games as a means for the Nazi party to showcase the strength of the German fatherland and gain support for the regime. Since that time it has been, like the Olympics themselves, a more or less political exercise thinly disguised as an act of international solidarity. This politicization was taken to new levels this year as the Beijing Olympic Committee staged their torch relay on an unprecedented scale, traversing 137,000 km and six continents over 129 days and adding to the sponsorship of the relay itself by Coca-Cola a sponsorship of the torch proper by Chinese computer corporation Lenovo.

As Virilio notes: "[S]overeignty no longer resides in the territory itself, but in the control of the territory" (Life in the Wires: The CTheory Reader, p. 132). And furthermore: "Whoever controls the territory possesses it. Possession of a territory is not primarily about laws and contracts, but first and foremost is a matter of movement and circulation" (p. 128). Hence, when the torch passes through Tibet (Autonomous Region) on its way to the summit of Mount Everest, we are witnessing a unique moment of neocolonialism in the name of nation-state (China), transnational corporation (Lenovo) and supranational organization (IOC) — in other words, in the name of sporting Empire.

With this in mind, I would like to introduce a proposal for a different type of relay, free from the overt politics of Empire (though not free of politics), which I will refer to as the Peace Relay.


A certain number of relay batons (let's say 2,010 to stand against the upcoming 2010 Olympic Games in Vancouver) are given to selected runners to begin a road race. These are not ordinary batons, however, nor is this a traditional road race.

Traditional Road Race FormatFig.1. Linear vectors of force in a traditional road race format.

In a traditional road race, there is a start, finish, and a fairly linear trajectory that connects the two and channels vectors of force in a forward direction — it is a relatively striated space of sporting activity (see Fig.1). The starting gun begins competitive activity at a specific point, which then finds its terminus at some point in the future (this may in fact be a loop coming back around to the starting point). As described previously on sportsBabel, this structure spatially distinguishes between participants and spectators, which encloses the space and further feeds the former forward towards the goal orientation of reaching the finish line.

The Peace Relay takes this sporting structure as its conceptual foundation and subverts it in several ways. First, the relay has no finish line, which removes the goal orientation in traditional races described earlier. Because there is no finish line and no goal orientation, the requirement for a linear, mono-directional vector of force is eliminated as well. Where does one run when there is no finish line? Anywhere.

Contagion model of peace relayFig.2. Nonlinear vectors of contagion in the peace relay format.

So we have 2,010 runners, each with a baton and the freedom to move in any direction, which forms the basis of the Peace Relay as a potential for meme contagion. The batons are not simple track and field batons, but rather specially designed symbols to represent peace through athletics. When the run begins, each runner scatters in different directions with their own baton (see Fig.2). Each person might hang on to their own baton for a few days, displacing it from the location where it was initially received, but the understanding is that eventually every runner will pass their baton on to another runner. This person will be told how the relay works, be offered the choice of participation, and then will recite some version of the following before receiving the baton:

"I pledge to move the goal of peace forward in the world."

The sound of the starting gun symbolizes the violence that exists in the world, but also signifies the beginning of the Peace Relay and its embodied efforts to spread an idea. The absence of a finish line suggests that peace is ever elusive, endlessly deferred, continuously struggled towards. The baton is the vector of contagion that spreads the idea of peace from one runner to the next. And the open race course ruptures the barriers that keep us separated from one another, allowing the contagion to flow out into open smooth space. "Circulating is the first ethical act of a counterimperial ontology" (Hardt and Negri).

(Thanks are due to Elaine Ho, Barb Fornssler and Tom Kalin for their invaluable feedback.)

Asymmetrical Relations

Almost exclusively, the modern sport project is founded upon the principle of symmetrical relations between competitors. We can understand this desire for symmetry along many dimensions, all of them instrumental. First, we can understand symmetry in terms of body composition, as in weight class, gender, disability, etc. This usually has to do with the question of produced force: in combat sports we separate by weight class so that the "weaker" opponent does not get hurt, while males and females usually do not play together due to perceived differences in strength. A useful contrast may be made here with the Japanese sport of sumo, in which all weight classes compete against one another in combinations of power and speed that do not privilege one over the other.

In theory, symmetrical relations also means that the same equipment is used by each athlete or team, though in practice this is a highly contentious area of sport. For example, the controversy over asymmetry in the 1988 America's Cup sailing regatta regarding what boats could and could not be used resulted in a New York State Supreme Court challenge. On a less dramatic scale, we might consider the new swimsuits developed by Speedo, which may only be available to certain athletes for the Beijing Olympics this summer, giving them a decided advantage in the pool.

And as the instrumentality of technology physically integrates with that of the body, things become even more problematic. Oscar Pistorius, the double amputee sprinter from South Africa, had to take his case to the world Court of Arbitration for Sport in order to be allowed to compete against able-bodied runners, since the International Olympic Committee had previously ruled that his prosthetic legs gave him an unfair biomechanical advantage in terms of energy return per stride. But David Howe of Loughborough University makes the interesting case that Pistorius' eligibility to compete against able-bodied runners in Beijing and beyond is immaterial; the real travesty, rather, is that as a double amputee (and thus possessing a smooth, symmetrical stride) Pistorius has been able to hone his skills in competition against single amputee sprinters (and their awkward asymmetrical gait).

As we further delve into into the question of symmetrical athletic bodies, we find the World Anti-Doping Agency. Any asymmetries arising in athletic competition must be grounded within the unitary athletic body in its genetic predisposition, refined through aptitude and hard work, and expressed through the poiesis of sporting performance. Substances, methods and other enabling technologies are permissible in this ethic of sport so long as they are supplementary to the organic unity of the athletic body and do not penetrate or pollute. And WADA claims the sovereign right to penetrate athletic bodies to make sure that such a symmetry persists.

Finally, we might understand symmetrical relations in terms of the number of athletes competing against one another in team sports. Every modern sport form first codifies in its rules the exact number of athletes that may compete for each team. In ice hockey, rugby league and other sports, one of the gravest threats is to have a player taken off the field and sent to the penalty box (or "sin bin") for their transgressions, forcing a numerical asymmetry. Here, useful contrasts may be drawn with the postmodern form of professional WWE-style wrestling, in which two or three wrestlers will routinely gang up against another. More grounded in modern sporting forms, the Situationist Asger Jorn critiqued this very principle of symmetry and its basis in binary thinking with his three-sided soccer.

In basketball, there is no such thing as a penalty box, though it is not impossible for there to be a numerical discrepancy in players. Once a player earns five fouls (six in the NBA), they are ejected from the game and a different player may substitute in their stead. But if there is no substitute available, either because too many players have fouled out, because of injuries, or because the roster was incomplete in the first place, then the offending team is forced to play at a numerical disadvantage. This happens rarely in major, sanctioned league competition, but occurs quite often in less formal men's and women's recreational leagues since a team might only begin a game with 5 or 6 players.

This is not to suggest that it is necessarily better to be the team with the numerical advantage in such a situation. In fact, quite often it is the opposite since the team with extra players over-passes the ball in order to get a perfect shot, and ends up thinking rather than reacting. I can recall winning a game in men's league with three healthy players and one playing on one leg due to a severe hamstring pull, since the other team couldn't figure out how to take advantage of the situation.

But all of this is all about a particular structural form of competition. In pickup basketball, on the other hand, competition can be equally as valued, yet not as obsessive about symmetrical relations. The pickup game is always already asymmetrical by virtue of those who participate on any given occasion.

6:45 a.m., New City YMCA, Chicago
No one in this gym knows I'm keeping a "diary."
No one knows what I do for a living.
No one knows how old I am. Unless someone checks to see whether I wear a wedding band — and guys don't generally look for that kind of thing — no one knows whether I'm married.
No one knows if I have kids. Or siblings. They don't know if my parents are still alive.
What kind of car do I drive? Or do I walk to the gym? Where exactly do I live?
No one has asked. No one cares. We don't talk about it.
And that's just fine.
If we were to talk, I'm sure we would find that some of us have a lot in common — kids, jobs, interests. Some of us might become permanent friends. Happens all the time, on the court and off.
But we don't talk.
We share one interest, intensely, for about one hour, twice a week. We talk about as much as we need to. Some friendly greetings before the game, and then the chatter of the game — "nice pass … check … ball's in … foul! …"
We generally try to learn our teammates' first names before a game starts, but we don't always remember them or use them. "Good finish, Jimmy" is about as personal as it gets. Over the weeks and months, faces and names tend to become more familiar, but that doesn’t mean we’re friends.
Not every pickup game is like this. But this one is. And I like it.

(Royce Webb, SportsJones)

In modern sport, despite the best efforts of authorities, relations can never be fully symmetrical no matter how much they are codified in language. But in the case of pickup basketball, a temporary community in which the only thing in common is that the players have nothing in common, the community is entered into freely as an act of mutual consent (cf. Nancy). As the basketball player has recently come to understand though, the resultant asymmetrical relations aren't too asymmetrical and that he will cherish always.

Overexposure, Presence, Absence

Living intensively.

Take the basketball body. It reaches its pinnacle when it achieves a state of flow, when the process is more important than the product. When instrumental learning (250 jumpshots, ballhandling drills, weight training) becomes imperceptible such that it lives freely through its technology and arrives at perhaps the ultimate expression of thinking as life technique, the Gelassenheit of letting be, just living in embodied form.

Take the arena. An enclosed, spectacular, productive space. Like The Truman Show, only all are actors and all are Truman. Paradoxically, it is a safe haven, as it is the place where the basketball body can achieve flow, the place where love and hate rage can be most fully expressed in the beautiful potential of communion with other basketball bodies.

As he lives through his technologies in these moments and spaces, he finds an embodied intensity of exteroception, proprioception and interoception (Massumi). All perceptions are hyper-attuned. The affective power of an absent touch, the silent scream of revulsion at a present grasp: sublime and vulgar are perhaps not as far apart as one might think. The harsh gaze of the other — athletes, coaches, referees, spectators, TV cameras, surveillance — that soon softens to an amniotic fluid he cannot be without. In these moments and spaces he is naked yet inscribed. He is overexposed.

* * *

What about emotion? Is this beyond the affect described above? Or, as affect becomes thought, may emotion also become conscious? And in becoming conscious does it become performed and thus a form of language?

"Speak in a language that has a lot of quiet to it. Practice impossible writing. Silence is the origin of language" (Schirmacher).

The basketball player knows of the vulgar mechanization of _______, the numbing of the body as it merges with the machine-desiring (not desiring-machine) of the network, and the shards of disconnected thought _______ that mosaic the matrix of the mind _______. Yet the greatest love _______ and in the process artificial life was lived.

* * *

Heavenly bodies know all and see all. If he went on the march, Sabina would gaze down on him enraptured; she would understand that he had remained faithful to her.

(Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being / Nesnesitelná lehkost bytí)

Stupid Franz. (What can Brown do for you?™) Don't jump off the bridge after someone into a rough river when you will likely drown in the process. Don't be so emotional … calculate, dammit!

But can one calculate the obsession of the basketball player who finds his ultimate expression under the harsh-soft light of the arena as he enters a state of flow?

"Obsession makes life intensive … so long as you are capable of forgetting" (Schirmacher).

He cannot forget. His courage in the arena does not extend to his entire life technique. Nor will it. Condensation forms on the designer sunglasses he wears to the post-game press conference. Tears of a cyborg body that mask the emotions he must always conceal, repress, make absent. "For there is no end to the folly of the human heart" (Woolf).

Goal Orientation

Eduardo Galeano once wrote that the goal is the orgasm of soccer. If this is the case, then it becomes much easier to locate and understand the role of basketball in late capitalist cultures: too many produced orgasms, not enough seduction.

Most goals in basketball, despite the scripted or unscripted (coded or uncoded) nature of the bodies that move in communion, necessarily derive in the end from a solitary effort. This is not an indictment, but rather an affirmation of a tiny linear chain of causality enmeshed within the sweaty conditions of emergence.

But there is one type of goal unique to basketball that would not properly be considered a solo effort: the alley-oop.

Player with the ball senses an opportunity developing within the sweaty conditions of emergence, perhaps makes eye contact with the receiver (or not), fakes the defender and lobs the ball crisply yet gently towards the rim. Goal (orgasm).
Player without the ball senses his defender's body weight shifting away from the basket, perhaps makes eye contact with the passer (or not), feints and back-cuts to leap high in the air and jam the ball through the rim. Goal (orgasm).

Feminine to masculine? No. Rather, co-poiesis between bodies. A matrixial encounter of mutually produced subjectivity. The several-as-one during the revealing of this goal (orgasm), which does not emerge due to lack but to the desire for shared affect in a vibrating string of sweaty emergence.

Several such severalities immediately spring to mind when thinking of the NBA: nashstoudemire, paulchandler, kiddmartin, kiddjefferson, kiddcarter (kidd: that lover of several). But one of the most famous alley-oops in basketball history comes from the college ranks, when Bobby Hurley connected with Grant Hill in the 1991 NCAA championship game. This became one of the signature vectors of sign-value for the annual March Madness basketball tournament, yet it would hardly qualify as pure in its execution: the pass was thrown high and to the right but body adjustments were made in response and the goal was consummated.

What initiates the encounter: the pass thrown or the back cut? Or is it a mutual obligation?

For the co-poiesis to begin, both players must sense and emote (or better, vibrate). Thereafter, a goal is reached, yes, but to consider it in terms of the binary (scored or not) is misleading, for in its co-poiesis the alley-oop is an act of communication between bodies that eliminates language. As seen in the hurleyhill example above, it does not eliminate error or noise — there may be mis-starts and correctives as both bodies bear wit(h)ness. ("There is always surprise in the system of affect.") If both bodies (part-subjects) give themselves over fully to the event, the alley-oop surpasses any codes proscribed on either body in a melding (or metramorphosis) of several-as-one.

Ultimately, the alley-oop still constitutes a goal, but it is a more-than-goal: it speaks that which cannot be spoken, communicating desire, mystery, (com)passion, tenderness, and love. In its concreteness, it expresses an abstract that remains ever so elusive today.

Virtually Parables: Movement, Affect, Seduction

Revealing and concealing. This is what is at stake.

A back and forth. A tradeoff. A question inside an answer inside a question. A hesitation. A rhizome.

But we cannot make the mistake of considering it simply a matter of binary opposition between positive and negative poles. Concealing is not necessarily an act of negation, but in its most subtle forms perhaps an act of seduction. It is an act that wells up from within, bodily but only indirectly sexual, a series of slight gestures so trivial nuanced they may be unnoticed even by one's self: a delicate lowering of the eyelids; a slight turn of the shoulders so the other cannot read one's thoughts on the very concept of seduction; an involuntary lowering of the head, neck and shoulders when the intensity of the now becomes too powerful to bear for the dizzying vertigo of fear it brings.

If the game is played correctly ("the secret of the secret"), these tiny acts of concealing may undergo a metamorphosis: like a caterpillar emerging from the coccoon as a butterfly, concealing becomes revealing.

Concealing thus does not necessarily equal negation. But concealing all is a void; it is darkness.

Do all players know the rules of the game?

* * *

Revealing all, on the other hand, can be a negation.

Professional basketball and its networked alliances with transnational capital and the makers of spectacle are in the business of revealing. This assemblage must produce affect as commodity to be circulated endlessly through the networks of desire. Its revealing of all is like a continual innoculation against the latent potentialities of seduction. It, too, is bodily, though a paradox lies within: call it the anaesthesia of telesthesia.

The rules of the game are well known by all: this turn of the ankle and grimace is pain; this raising of the arms and jubilant smile is joy; this flexing of muscles and clenching of teeth is intensity.

But does that produced intensity even begin to approach the affective power of a delicately lowered pair of eyelids?

In considering the question inside an answer inside a question, we recognize revealing at its most monstrous.

* * *

Retrieve the body from its narcotic processing of code. Play improvised pickup basketball. Conceal something.

Let the body seduce.

Don't script the coordinated effort of limbs, the hot pumping of blood, the heaving of lungs, but rather flow with other bodies. Don't look at, but rather sense a teammate before delivering a pass through a mesh of stasis. Don't flex the muscle in anger, but rather in competition.

These little concealings may also become revealings.

* * *

Not everything needs to be revealed, however. Sometimes it can be simply felt (though there is nothing simple about it). It can be affective. Can we not simply do away with language and its problems and its contemporary desire for monstrosity?

No. Sometimes we need language, for our bodies do not always speak feel with one another in fusion. Instead, confusion: hesitations of affective thought can be noisy for the rational mind.

This is the game implicit in seduction. This is what is at stake.