Line vs. Surface (vs. Volume) Thought

Wii Tennis

Vilém Flusser, "Line and Surface" (1973):

Let us, then, recapitulate our argument, in order to try to suggest what form the new civilization might take. We have two alternatives before us. First, there is the possibility that imaginal thinking [eg. surface, image, screen] will not succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking [eg. line, text]. This could lead to a general depoliticization, deactivation, and alienation of humankind, to the victory of the consumer society, and to the totalitarianism of the mass media. Such a development would look very much like the present mass culture, but in more exaggerated or gross form. The culture of the elite would disappear for good, thus bringing history to an end in any meaningful sense of that term. The second possibility is that imaginal thinking will succeed in incorporating conceptual thinking. This would lead to new types of communication in which man consciously assumes the structural position. Science would then be no longer merely discursive and conceptual, but would have recourse to imaginal models. Art would no longer work at things ("oeuvres"), but would propose models. Politics would no longer fight for the realization of values, but would elaborate manipulable hierarchies of models of behavior. All this would mean, in short, that a new sense of reality would articulate itself, within the existential climate of a new religiosity.

All this is utopian. But it is not fantastic. Whoever looks at the scene can find everything already there, in the form of lines and surfaces already working. It depends on each one of us which sort of posthistorical future there will be.

On the surface there are two primary and interconnected problems with Flusser's line of thought. The first concerns the materiality of the communications medium. While line and surface, or imaginal and conceptual thought are certainly distinct ways of knowing, the fact remains that they are both still represented in the two-dimensional planar form: text on a page and image on celluloid or screen. In other words, we must distinguish between dimensions of perception and inscription. Text is perceived as a line inscribed on the plane of the book, for example, while image is perceived as a surface inscribed on the plane of the screen.

This distinction becomes even more pronounced and relevant as regards the second problem. Flusser wrote his essay in 1973, just as Atari's Pong was being launched to popular audiences in the United States. Even had he been aware of the game at the time of his writing, it is unlikely that it would have significantly altered his theoretical framework, for Pong was in retrospect a rather humble attempt to bring electronic games to life in video form that faithfully represented in gamespace the ludic enclosure of the tennis court. In most respects, it seemed to be yet another example of proliferating surface thought.


We must recall, however, that the word atari derives from the game Go, and means to advance in attack and capture territory. Soon the simple enclosure on Pong was ruptured as the new videogame medium began to shed its technical constraints and realize its always-latent potential. Static gameplay yielded to scrolling gameplay, most famously in Nintendo's Super Mario Bros. In this quest to save the Princess, Mario captured territory seemingly beyond the boundaries of the television screen to which the console had inscribed its data.

In other words, though partly obscured by its inscription on the two-dimensional plane (as with line and surface) we were witnessing the emergence of a mode of perception in our media quite different from text and image, though it combined elements of both. Its proper name, gesture, is only now becoming apparent as the volume it represents attempts to pull free from the planar screen.

Flusser's lines and surfaces do not refer to a material substrate so much as they consider a mode or technique of viewing what are in both cases two-dimensional substrates, text on the flat page or image on a screen. Given this at the outset, then it seems we ought to consider volumes and volumetric thinking as well, even if they have been flattened to two dimensions with regard to the material substrate of the television screen or arcade console.

The question then becomes: how will somatic or proprioceptive thinking (gesture) fold together with imaginal thinking and conceptual thinking in our understanding of the world? At a surface level, then, what we are actually questioning here is the difference between invention and confinement.

Michel Serres: "What can our bodies do? Almost anything."

AutoImmune Wall

("biogramming base bodies: we're all in" - brief notes from a brief presentation made at the 2011 north american society for sport sociology conference in minneapolis)

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas


On December 31, 1999, the ESPN cable sports network ran its Greatest Moments of the 20th Century, a 6-minute 44-second compilation of the most epic highlights in (primarily American) sport since the advent of television. Set to Aerosmith's "Dream On," the effect is a spine-chilling barrage of significant moments culled from decades of sporting events and condensed into a few minutes of adrenaline-soaked nostalgia. If the average weeknight highlight reel has a mild narcotic effect to it, then Greatest Moments of the 20th Century was crack cocaine, folding a longer stretch of lived time and more intensely felt affects into a televisual delirium whose high fades shortly after consumption.

ESPN's video offers the viewer an accounting of time: in this compilation of the "best" and most memorable moments we have a linear accounting of time extracted from duration — a catalogue of sorts from which one must know all the references as proof of good fan subjectivity, whose cuts may thereafter be rearranged to create a particular narrative order in tandem with the theme music.

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

In early 2011, athletic footwear, apparel and lifestyle conglomerate adidas launched its worldwide marketing campaign "adidas is all in". Presented as a cosmopolitan moment in global sport and physical culture — at least insofar as its endorsers and target markets are concerned — the campaign's television creative consisted of 15, 30 and 60-second edits of a centrepiece 120-second ad, played at the launch of the campaign and available on Youtube thereafter. Within five months of the "adidas is all in" launch, the full-length version had been viewed over 2 million times.

In contrast with the ESPN video, "All In" is rather an accounting of globalized, cosmopolitan space in a durational moment of time: two minutes of sports and entertainment happening around the world right now. Set to a pulsing soundtrack by Justice, the moving gestures in this dynamic form are asignifiying in the sense that these sports and entertainment figures have been abstracted from referential time — one does not need to know nearly as many references in order to "comprehend" the video text. While Muybridge and Marey used stroboscopic photography to deconstruct the moving body into series of still images, adidas strobes bodies together with light and sound, moving-cuts moving through each break, amodally intermingling gestures as part of the composing form of the biogram.


The cut moves from sound to image, as seen in the scene with football players barking like dogs morphing to stadium security apparatus (the latter of which legitimates the contest as an important event):

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

The cut also moves through tiny explosions of light, "independent" of gesture in their luminescence:

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas


Eduardo Galeano once described the goal in soccer as that sport's orgasmic form. Interestingly, however, it is Rose the basketball player and not Messi the footballer who scores in the end, providing a release to the pent-up libidinal tension whose point of inflection may be found in the speed bag pummeling of frenulum or clitoris.

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

This is definitely a schizorgasm we are describing, however. Rose's dunk is immediately followed by a punishing blow to the face in the boxing ring, which sets off a chain of aggression in the succeeding clips. (Consent?) As the pulsing waves of pleasure subside to a refractory period of shopping or consumption we are led through an affective tonality of aggression and conflict: the Haka warrior dance used by the New Zealand All-Blacks rugby team to intimidate opponents; two college football mascots fighting on the sidelines; a figure wearing a protective gas mask and holding a flaming torch, suggesting perhaps an ambiguous recognizance between street artist or political activist and providing a stark counter-punctum to the clip of security dogs and officers earlier in the video. It is intensities that have been represented, after all.

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

Intensity and representation

A cultural studies read of the text as semiotic is certainly important — for example, within the representational elements of gender, race, embodiment or movement culture — but in a sense these are retrospectively coded understandings.

Courtesy of adidasCourtesy of adidas

As Brian Massumi suggests, "The kinds of codings, griddings, and positionings with which cultural theory has been preoccupied are no exception to the dynamic unity of feedback and feed-forward, or double becoming. Gender, race, and orientation are what Ian Hacking calls 'interactive kinds': logical categories that feed back into and transform the reality they describe (and are themselves modified by in return). Ideas about cultural or social construction have dead-ended because they have insisted on bracketing the nature of the process" (Parables for the Virtual, p.11).

It is the movements of becoming-bodies, rather, not to mention their (re)production through sophisticated digital editing techniques that emerge as the biogram and its composing form with which we should be concerned. This dynamism is forged under intense speed, a subtle narcosis of attack on perception that through a particular pathway of movement states simply "I want more."

us, open

us, open

conceptual tennis in
the sunday afternoon ether
no forehands or
backhands, only handedness
like quarks and strrange
lawn attractions.

Hand me your verses,
well-thumbed and digital
game and set theory,
a deferred match
for points made or postponed.


the net that separates us
into rackets and packets
mostly made up of air,

waving hands frantically
to know if we're there.


(for robert rauschenberg)



which rolling stones do i carry with me today?
it's tuesday and i couldn't be more mundane
even if i tried.

Wimbledon dreams of not
a single serve taken
her heavy presence fills
the Cup nonetheless.

spider strung racquet, they say
too rational or gridly.
corporate spiders, they say
or the ones weaving
bulletproof vests
in the milk of darkness.

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.

Rauschenberg - Open Score (1966)

When discussing the human-machine connection in sport from a media/communications perspective I have tended thus far to privilege the technical component. For example, I keep reiterating how the techniques of videogame production and consumption have to an extent subordinated the role of the human agent in sporting practice. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn this summer from European Graduate School artist-in-residence Paul Miller (aka DJ Spooky) about Robert Rauschenberg's 1966 performance piece titled "Open Score".

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

As the Media Art Net site describes:

Open Score, Robert Rauschenberg's piece for 9 Evenings, began with a tennis game on the floor of the Armory. Bill Kaminski designed a miniature FM transmitter that fit in the handle of the tennis racquet, and a contact microphone was attached to the handle of the racquet with the antenna wound around the frame of the head. Each time Frank Stella and Mimi Kanarek hit the ball the vibrations of the racquet strings were transmitted to the speakers around the armory, and a loud BONG was heard. At each BONG, one of the 48 lights went out, and the game ended when the Armory was in complete darkness.

Thus we have a situation in which tennis provides the engine for this improvisational theatre art. I had an idea similar to this a few years ago in a post called Gymprov; in a hastily sketched outline I suggested the game would re-tell a classic tale of binary opposition, such as the temptation of Jesus by the Devil, through the engine of pickup basketball. Game play would inspire thematic dialogue, while lighting would have to intuitively follow the appropriate speakers.

Rauschenberg was clearly ahead of his time: in Open Score, by contrast, the "dialogue" is not between the athletes and offstage voices, but rather between the athletes and the technical infrastructure of sound and lighting itself, via the material sporting apparatus (tennis racquet) and immaterial channels of communication (FM radio waves). As Rauschenberg writes: "The unlikely use of the game to control the lights and to perform as an orchestra interest me. The conflict of not being able to see an event that is taking place right in front of one except through a reproduction is the sort of double exposure of action. A screen of light and a screen of darkness."

Courtesy of Robert Rauschenberg

(It is worth noting that Rauschenberg attended the experimental Black Mountain College in the late '40s and early '50s, where he met, among others, John Cage. The parallels between Black Mountain College and the European Graduate School have been suggested to me more than once.)