The Lab & the Lob: How sport contributes to the "modern constitution"

(Possible introduction to my thesis):

On quakes, waves, and figure-skating

In February 2011, the world Championship in figure-skating in Japan was cancelled due to the implications of a massive earthquake. Besides delaying the competition, the subsequent tsunami and nuclear melt-downs of the Fukujima power-plants dramatically changed the lives for the residents in the area. This is a perfect case of how fragile human beings and their societies are, when standing in the face of the abominable powers of nature. Or, is it?

A Swedish figure-skater expressed concern for the victims and how chocked she was by the disaster.[i] That she wasn’t able to compete was of minor significance to her, and she even said that “it feels awkward to speak of the two things at the same time”. Homo ludens[ii] – man, the player – seems so futile next to a natural catastrophe that has reaped so many souls. Or, does (s)he?

In 1755, when Lissabon was devastated, also due to an earthquake and a tidal wave, this marked a point when humanity ceased to ascribe nature the faculties of good and evil.[iii] Natural catastrophes hereafter were regarded as accidental in comparison with the evil excesses of the human race, the intentions of which could be assessed and judged properly. That particular occasion was just one out of many which convinced the soon-to-be-moderns about the need to establish a firm boundary between nature and society.

However, the last accident in the chain of the Fukujima events, the melt-down, is not so easily categorized. The power-plant is a man-made facility that contains the advanced technology capable of enrolling the force of nature in order to produce energy, which, in turn, is a resource that has the capacity to create large-scale changes on earth, for the fate of both “society” and “nature”. So who’s more evil in this case – the brute force of quakes, waves, and radiation, or the cunning, competent scientists and technicians (who develop and administer the processes contained within the networks of nuclear industry)?

The following discussions will shed light on why it feels awkward to speak of figure-skating and tsunamis, of sport and natural disasters, at the same time. The French science scholar Bruno Latour would argue that this uncomfortable feeling depends on the core rationale in each and every one of the collectives known as modern, and that the perfect dichotomy of society and nature is the result of a “work of purification”, which in turn is one half of the “modern constitution”.[iv] The other half of the modern constitution, the “work of mediation”, paradoxically enough, indicates the opposite, i.e. that society and nature is getting more tightly knotted by the minute.

During the coming demonstrations, I will argue that there is a perfectly symmetrical explanation to this conundrum, and that (modern competitive) sport in itself is a key to understand why society and nature are – or, at least, have been – perceived as incommensurable. The main aim of this thesis is to investigate how sport contributes, and has contributed, to the “modern constitution”.

Latour would perhaps call the melt-down a naturalcultural hybrid,[v] and furthermore an actor which exchanges the properties between nature and culture properly.[vi] This intense and complex coupling between society and nature makes up the other half of the modern constitution – the “work of mediation”.[vii] This blending is as important a feature of the constitution as ever the work of purification, the intensity of which oddly enough enhances the work of mediation. The borders have never been firm. With the quake and waves of Fukujima in 2011, perhaps the parenthesis that began with the quake and waves of Lissabon in 1755 could be considered closed?[viii] The universals of good and evil, and those of society/nature are evidently outdated.[ix] A new picture must be painted! The agency that made possible the environmental damages, in forms of radiation, and radioactive water leakages, was a network of human and nonhuman actors, the responsibilities of which are uncertain in these events.

Rather than to treat the disparate actors of this story as belonging to either society, or to nature, Latour advices us to see all actors as part of the same “collectivity”[x] – that very same “anthropological matrix”[xi] that we have always been a part of. On one hand, “we have never been modern”,[xii] but, on the other, behaving like moderns – i.e. treating the properties of the world as either society or nature – has had vast implications for our collectivities.

Throughout Latours entire oeuvre,[xiii] one main argument is carried out repeatedly: what has come to be known as “nature” in the modern constitution is composed in laboratories through rigorous experiments, the outcome of which must be cleansed from all traces of human action (in order for science to claim that it has unveiled objective facts and truths, which in turn render it a legitimacy in society). Interestingly enough, the construction of the notion of “society” doesn’t have an equivalent to the laboratory. This is where sports come in...

[i] Helsingborgs dagblad.

[ii] Huizinga, J., 1938.

[iii] Bauman, Z. 2006.

[iv] Latour, 1993.

[v] Latour, 1993.

[vi] Serres & Latour, 1995.

[vii] Latour, 1993.

[viii] Compare with Latour, 1987.

[ix] The german sociologist Ulrich Beck uses the notion of “Zombie Categories” to describe concepts that, even if they have lost their meaning due to the ever-increasing complexity and hybridity of our world, still thrive in academia, politics, and public discourse.

[x] Latour, 1999.

[xi] Latour, 1993.

[xii] Latour, 1993.

[xiii] Latour 1978, 1982, 1986, 1987, 1993, 1995, 1999, 2004, 2007.


K and the Lob: Towards a Minor Sport

Thursday 19th of May, I'll present a paper at the EASS conference in Umeå. Here is the abstract:

A recurring theme in critical sport studies is the issue of whether the element of competition -- measuring, comparing and ranking performances (Loland 2002) – in sports is fascistoid (Tännsjö 2000, 2001), and, whether sports constrains the potential of human movement, and its creativity, rather then enhancing it (Eichberg 2010). In this essay, I will argue that the element of competition is vital for the creativity of movement-potential in sports. Still, the alleged ‘fascistoid’ or ‘creativity constraining’ element could be ‘hi-jacked’.

As an example of this kind of hi-jacking, an autoethnographical (Chang 2008) account of my participation in recreational table-tennis will be seen through a process-philosophical lens. Deleuze’s conceptual pair ‘minor’ and ‘major’ (Bene & Deleuze, 1979; Deleuze & Guattari, 1986) will in the essay be extended to sport. The argument is that prolonging elements in athletic contests could be understood as ‘minor sport’, which in the essay is exemplified by defensive strokes, like chops and lobs, in table-tennis. ‘Major sport’, then, is understood as equivalent with ’the structural goal of sport’, namely, to produce winners by comparing, ranking and measuring bodily performances (Loland 2002).

As a table-tennis player in the corporative/recreational series, my way of playing has rendered different conceptions among the other players, ranging from joyful to provoked. This manner could be described with ‘minor’ actions like ‘suspending the game’, ´delaying the outcome’, and ‘never having learned to smash’. When contestants are equivalent in competence and desire to win, competitions tend to produce ‘sweet tension of uncertainty of outcome’ (Loland 2002). My way of playing is directed towards maximizing the ‘sweet tension of uncertainty’. Hereby focus is shifted from sport as context where winners are produced, towards sport as a context where ‘sweet tension’ is produced. This stance combines the benefits of both protagonists and antagonists of competition.


The art of tracing XI: Constellation of Universes

In Chaosmosis, Felix Guattari tries to grasp how subjectivity is constructed in the fin de millenium-world. Psychoanalysis is not enough and has usurpated much of the concepts which might have been relevant: such as 'the unconscious'. Guattari directs us towards a concept of subjectivity which includes as well environmental as social and psychological dimensions. Subjectivity is defined as:

"The ensemble of conditions which render possible the emergence of individual and/or collective instances as self-referential existential Territories, adjacent, or in a delimiting relation, to an alterity that is itself subjective". (p. 9)

The many 'self-referential existential territories' that traceurs produce could be seen thus: as an almost promiscuous engendering of new events, situations, and singularities.

Conceptual Athleticism I: French soccer experts

Picture the proverbial match between Greek and German philosophers as staged by Monty Python with frog-eating commentators instead, such as Gilles Deleuze, Felix Guattari, and Michel Serres:

First, a rather dense analysis by Deleuze and Guattari (A Thousand Plateaus, p 361-2) in which they couple movement, speed, and "sports" with different conceptions of science, in this case the distinction between a major and a minor science.

They too, like the original commentator, are surprised by, albeit excited about, the fact that Archimedes plays from the start. Archimedes minor soccer demonstration prior to the game
(0.55-0.59 in the video), in which he nomadologically traces a neverending line of the ball while juggling, is probably what gets them started:

There is a kind of science, or treatment of science, that seems very difficult to classify, whose history is even difficult to follow. What we are referring to are not "technologies" in the usual sense of the term. But neither are they "sciences" in the royal or legal sense established by history. According to a recent book by Michel Serres, both the atomic physics of Democritus and Lucretius and the geometry of Archimedes are marked by it. The characteristics of this kind of eccentric science would seem to be the following:

1. First of all, it uses a hydraulic model, rather than being a theory of solids treating fluids as a special case; ancient atomism is inseparable from flows, and flux is reality itself, or consistency.

2. The model in question is one of becoming and heterogeneity, as opposed to the stable, the eternal, the identical, the constant. It is a "paradox" to make becoming itself a model, and no longer a secondary characteristic, a copy; in the Timaeus, Plato raises this possibility, but only in order to exclude it and conjure it away in the name of royal science. By contrast, in atomism, just such a model of heterogeneity, and of passage or becoming in the heterogeneous, is furnished by the famed declination of the atom. The clinamen, as the minimum angle, has meaning only between a straight line and a curve, the curve and its tangent, and constitutes the original curvature of the movement of the atom. The clinamen is the smallest angle by which an atom deviates from a straight path. It is a passage to the limit, an exhaustion, a paradoxical "exhaustive" model. The same applies to Archimedean geometry, in which the straight line, defined as "the shortest path between two points," is just a way of defining the length of a curve in a predifferential calculus.

3. One no longer goes from the straight line to its parallels, in a lamellar or laminar flow, but from a curvilinear declination to the formation of spirals and vortices on an inclined plane: the greatest slope for the smallest angle. From turba to turbo: in other words, from bands or packs of atoms to the great vortical organizations. The model is a vortical one; it operates in an open space throughout which things-flows are distributed, rather than plotting out a closed space for linear and solid things. It is the difference between a smooth (vectorial, projective, or topological) space and a striated (metric) space: in the first case "space is occupied without being counted," and in the second case "space is counted in order to be occupied."

4. Finally, the model is problematic, rather than theorematic: figures are considered only from the viewpoint of the affections that befall them: sections, ablations, adjunctions, projections. One does not go by specific differences from a genus to its species, or by deduction from a stable essence to the properties deriving from it, but rather from a problem to the accidents that condition and resolve it. This involves all kinds of deformations, transmutations, passages to the limit, operations in which each figure designates an "event" much more than an essence; the square no longer exists independently of a quadrature, the cube of a cubature, the straight line of a rectification. Whereas the theorem belongs to the rational order, the problem is affective and is inseparable from the metamorphoses, generations, and creations within science itself. Despite what Gabriel Marcel may say, the problem is not an "obstacle"; it is the surpassing of the obstacle, a pro-jection, in other words, a war machine. All of this movement is what royal science is striving to limit when it reduces as much as possible the range of the "problem-element" and subordinates it to the "theorem-element."
It bothers Deleuze and Guattari, as much as it bothers Serres, that Socrates gets the last word again (3.00 in the video). Serres (The Parasite, p. 251) mingles into the discussion and states that:

Socrates gets out unscathed. His beautiful individuation is different and evil. Ugly and evil. He runs to take care of his individuation in the gymnasium. To make it flexible, to clean it, to make it effective.

Whereas the other offensive Greeks -- Democritus, Heraclite, and Archimedes -- are atomists (and therefore hydraulic, minor, flux-oriented thinkers), Socrates thinks but of one thing, that is, putting the nail in the coffin. He does so with his head (of course!) and with the German net, two things, that arborescent thinkers have used
to freeze atomistic flux ever since; to stabilize essence in 'statuelike concepts' (Serres, Conversations).

Yes, Deleuze and Guattari continue, the 'apparatus of capture' of Royal Science and State philosophers - always parasiting the benefits of atomism and nomadic war machines!

Mm, Serres (Conversations, p. 105) concurs, 'The mean player imagines himself to be a subject by imagining the ball to be an object – the sign of a bad philosopher'.

After a moment of silence, a time-space filled by the disturbing noise of vuvuzelas, Deleuze and Guattari, who have run out of steam philosophically, angrily rush up from their chairs and ostensively swarm out of the edifice. Serres (
Conversations p. 23), still evaluating the events, finally -- with a smile on his face -- concludes:

I have always been a hellenist.