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.
The Lab & the Lob: How sport contributes to the "modern constitution"
(Possible introduction to my thesis):