Questions around a social space
Spoilsport is a path around the social space surrounding contemporary sport, the mechanisms regulating its production of values, its historical background. Throughout the thread of featured conversations and contributions, a transdisciplinary field of investigation is defined, including elements of history, philosophy, art, cinema, performance, music, literature, and accounts of first-hand sport experiences.
Contributions by Julia Bryan-Wilson, Nathan Cheriki, Riccardo Giacconi, Marine Lahaix, Erik Satie, Carolina Valencia Caicedo
Edited by Riccardo Giacconi
Design by Giulia Marzin
Produced by La Box_École nationale supérieure d’art de Bourges
Hommes de métier
(From the publication Spoilsport)
Carl Diem (historian of sport, sports administrator and chief organizer of the 1936 Olympic Summer Games) expressed himself in these terms; ‘play is purposeless activity, for its own sake, the opposite of work’. The English language, unlike Italian, German or French, differentiates between ‘play’ and ‘game’. It is this distinction that inspired sport theorist Allen Guttmann`s attempt to come up with the definition of sport, through three successive distinctions:
A classical definition of a play is the one provided by Johan Huizinga in his essay Homo ludens;
play is a voluntary activity or occupation executed within certain fixed limits of time and place, according to rules freely accepted but absolutely binding, having its aim in itself and accompanied by a feeling of tension, joy and the consciousness that it is ‘different’ from ‘ordinary life’.
The idea of separation from ‘ordinary life’ is at the core of another definition of play, which appears in the same book. Huizinga describes it as a‘free activity, […] ‘not serious’ but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly. It is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.’ While trying to adjust Huizinga’s definition that he considered somewhat inadequate, Roger Caillois in his Les jeux et les hommes agrees that play is an inoperative activity, and in that it differs from work or art (‘il ne crée aucune richesse, aucune æuvre’). Later on, however, Caillois brings into question professional sport, a social mechanism that spoils the inoperativity of play:
Quant aux professionnels, boxeurs, cyclistes, jockeys ou acteurs qui gagnent leur vie sur le ring, la piste, l’hippodrome ou les planches, et qui doivent songer à la prime, au salaire ou au cachet, il est clair qu’ils ne sont pas en ceci joueurs, mais hommes de métier. Quand ils jouent, c’est à quelque autre jeu.
Professional sports is defined as destruction of play in sport – a spoilsport. For the ‘hommes de métier’, professional athletes, to play becomes a job. This statement appears paradoxical; anyone who has ever attempted to define ‘play’ initially paid extra care to distinguishing it from ‘work’. Is professional sport no longer play, then? The articulation is complex as it brings into question elements that are not intrinsic to the play-practice itself, but regard the social mechanism around it. It is outside the playing field where the dipolarity between work and play is established. The following pages attempt to study the mechanism that allows play and, consequently, sport, to be ‘different from ordinary life’.
Temenos (un espace pur)
"Magic is sometimes very close to nothing at all. Nothing at all. When I retire, I will miss the green of the field, ‘le carré vert’."
– Zinédine Zidane, in Zidane, a 21st Century Portrait
templum = consecrated piece of ground, enclosure. Usually referred to Proto-Indo-European root *tem-, ‘to cut’, on notion of ‘place reserved or cut out’, that gave as an outcome, in Ancient Greek, τέμενος (temenos, temple), derived from the verb τέμνω, ‘I cut’.
The etymology of the word ‘temple’ refers to an act of separation: a space is separated from what surrounds it. It is easy to trace the religious acceptation that the act of cutting has assumed. The temple (temenos), a space dedicated to the cult of the gods (therefore to kinds of practices that need to be separated from the common space in order to assume a specific social status), inevitably refers to the category of the sacred. The space defined by the temple circumscribes and produces the conditions of existence for a series of acts that are removed from common reality and to the mechanisms of everyday meaning in order to embody a language of their own. The sacred is a category that contains actions that are separated from life (others, different than the ordinary) and that, at the same time, enjoy a sort of precise and sanctioned validation). Both of these characteristics exist because of the separate space, the temenos.
Games and the sacred both define a space inside which certain activities exist in a separate mode, and which determines their connections with the outside world. In his analysis Roger Caillois provides us with some tools to further define this affinity:
Le jeu est essentiellement une occupation séparée, soigneusement isolée du reste de l’existence, et accomplie en général dans des limites précises de temps et de lieu. […] Il y a un espace de jeu: suivant les cas, la marelle, l’échiquier, le damier, le stade, la piste, la lice, le ring, la scène, l’arène, etc. Rien de ce qui se passe à l’extérieur de la frontière idéale n’entre en ligne de compte. […] Le même pour le temps : la partie commence et prend fin au signal donné. […] Dans tous les cas, le domaine du jeu est ainsi un univers réservé, clos, protégé : un espace pur.
With regards to professional sport, what are the implications of placing a temenos, a pure and separated space, at the centre of a community that gathers around it? What a community gathers around is, similarly as in religious temples, nothing more but an empty space. Or, more precisely, a space of exception that eludes the regulatory mechanisms on which a society is based, but that, at the same time, involves the society itself. It is from this perspective that we can fully appreciate the relevance of former footballer Zinédine Zidane’s words; for him, the espace pur, the carré vert of a soccer field, is very close to nothing, that nothing in which magic may happen.
Flamean las banderas, suenan las matracas, los cohetes, los tambores, llueven las serpentinas y el papel picado: la ciudad desaparece, la rutina se olvida, sólo existe el templo. En este espacio sagrado, la única religión que no tiene ateos exhibe a sus divinidades.
Thus Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano portrays the soccer stadium; as a temple. Inquiring further on the similarity between sports and religion, he explains the ways in which soccer resembles God; “En la devoción que le tienen muchos creyentes y en la desconfianza que le tienen muchos intelectuales”.
A man just doing his job
"It is not only the measure of what someone can do, but also and primarily the capacity of maintaining oneself in relation to one's own possibility to not do, that defines the status of one's action. While fire can only burn, and other living beings are only capable of their own specific potentialities—they are capable of only this or that behavior inscribed into their biological vocation—human beings are the animals capable of their own impotentiality."
– Giorgio Agamben
In the film David (2004), a work commissioned by the National Portrait Gallery of London, artist Sam Taylor-Wood portrays English footballer David Beckham while he is asleep. The shot is fixed, there are no cuts, and it lasts one hour and seven minutes. The portrait is a clear reference to Andy Warhol's film Sleep (1963), except that in this case the emphasis is on the celebrity of the protagonist; David Beckham may be considered an icon of English popular culture between of the nineties and early 2000s. Warhol’s ‘real-time films’ were mentioned as a reference also for Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait. Both portraits show their subjects absorbed in an action. Unlike what Gordon and Parreno did with Zidane, however, Taylor-Wood’s portrait does not show its subject absorbed in the activity that determines his social importance and rank. On the contrary, Beckham is pictured while performing the most basic activity.
The portrait is thus devoid of an essential feature: the subject’s role in their community. David has always been described as a piece of art referring to the body and the inner substance of an individual, leaving his social persona (in the ancient meaning of ‘mask’) out. Conversely, we could refer to Beckham’s persona, to his excellence in performing a certain social task, precisely in order to determine the status of a portrait that is no longer dealing with such a persona. We know that the subject is an excellent soccer player, yet this excellence is disabled; it has no place in the image of a sleeping man. We witness a potency that does not drip at all in the act itself. David is a portrait of an impotentiality (of a perfect potentiality).
"I accepted because I didn’t have to play a role. I just had to be myself doing what I do every Sunday… and that’s it."
– Zinédine Zidane, talking about Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait
Douglas Gordon, while introducing the film Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait during the Basel art fair, described it as a portrait of ‘a man just doing his job’. This statement reminds us of the opening words of Eduardo Galeano’s book about soccer, El fútbol a sol y sombra; ‘La historia del fútboles un triste viaje del placer al deber’. Is it possible to find the point where practicing a sport may start to be defined as a job?
Operari / opus
One’s intimate and inoperative relationship with the body is expressed in its pure form in training, in which the athlete-to-be (not-yet-competitor) experiences their own potentiality. In training, even a world record is nothing more than a personal accomplishment, an inoperative and momentary discovery of one’s pure potentiality. In order to become a professional athlete, one needs to access the validation mechanisms of professional sports that use measurement conventions and public certifications of an athlete’s work.
The creation of a universal terrain for modern sports led to a comprehensive quantification of an athlete’s performance. All professional sport activities are nowadays immediately translated into a result, into a series of data; sports records are a “marvellous abstraction that permits competition not only among those gathered together on the field of sport but also among them and others distant in time and space”. This transition from the continuous to the discrete determined the need to quantify also sports performances that are essentially not possible to measure objectively, but that have to be assessed on the basis of an adherence to a model, to an idea of movement. In such disciplines (such as gymnastics, diving, figure skating, synchronized swimming, horse dressage…) an aesthetic appraisal turned into an athletic evaluation, supposedly objective. One can fully appreciate the existence of a ‘sports institution’ in these sport disciplines clearer than in others. The transition from the aesthetic to the athletic may be validated only through recognition by an established authority. Judges reach an agreement on the results of competitions through a real judicial verdict, whose truth and objectivity are based on conventions.
Work of professional sportsmen is thus validated and given shape through these mechanisms, which the transform potentiality into act. The record (registration, document), once made official, is no longer connected to the intimate relationship of an individual with their own potentiality; entering a social contract as a document, an act of a sportsman becomes a piece of work (an œuvre).
The relationship between records and training can also be approached through the dipolarity between one’s studio and their work or, using Latin terms, operari (working) and opus (work). What is trained during training is the availability to enter the regime of work– to become an opus. Training is therefore the stage that would in other professions coincide with the studio, that is the exercise of one’s own faculties – the operari.
In short, what separates a game from professional sports is their relationship with work. The mechanism underlying a soccer match can be perfectly well described as a game: what discerns between the playing of a game and the performance of a work cannot be intrinsically grasped in the activity itself. The distinction has to be made outside the playing field, in the social space that the activity occupies, and within the social conventions measuring its effectiveness. Precisely because this distinction is not substantial, these two statutes necessarily continue to coexist. Inside the field, there is no substantial difference between a soccer match in the suburbs, and a World Cup finals – both are instances of the same game, defined by the same rules. The greater or lesser degree of ‘operativity’ is decided in the social space that surrounds these two practices. The study of sport as a social event needs to start from the values assigned by a society to certain activities intrinsically characterized as games.
Inoperativity [...] is neither a consequence nor a precondition (the abstention from labor) of the feast day but coincides with festiveness itself in the sense that it consists precisely in neutralizing and rendering inoperative human gestures, actions, and works, which in turn can become festive only in this way. [...] The inoperativity that defines the feast is not mere inertia or abstention; it is, rather, a sanctification, that is to say, a particular modality of acting and living.
The movement between work and inoperativity has been extensively studied by Giorgio Agamben. In a series of considerations on the feast, he speaks of “simple, quotidian human activities” which are “suspended and rendered inoperative. […] Thus, the procession and the dance exhibit and transform the simple gait of a human body walking, the gift reveals an unexpected possibility within the products of an economy and labor, and the festive meal renews and transfigures the hunger of an ox.”. Human activities are removed from their common use and introduced into a different field, in which they are withdrawn from their usual purpose and from the external mechanisms of value, assuming an alternative mode of existence. Actions are emptied of their ordinary uses and made inoperative in play too; the playing field then creates a new purpose (telos) for them, which is different from the usual one, and connected to the mechanisms of the field itself. Play, just like feast, defines a sacred, separate space inside which action exists in an alternative mode.
As far as inoperativity is concerned, similarities between feast and play go even further. A new telos is assigned to playing activities when they pass from the regime of play to the regime of professional sports (when players become hommes de métier). A parallel development occurs during the passage from feast to a religious ceremony:
Signifiers with “zero symbolic value” may correspond to human actions and objects that the feast emptied out and rendered inoperative and that religion then came to separate and recodify through its ceremonial apparatus.
The conventional-ceremonial apparatus that marks the passage from feast (inoperative) to a religious ceremony (operative) is similar to the one that regulates the passage from play to work when a game becomes an official competition, professional sport. The parallel between sport and religion finds its raison d’êtrein this double movement; just as religion recodifies acts that had previously been separated and rendered inoperative, social mechanisms in sport apply a value (emotional and economic) to a series of acts that, in their playful nature, had previously only had a value within the field in which they were happening. A set conventional-ceremonial value is, in both cases, applied to a temenos in order to produce operativity – a work (opus). We define this value as conventional-ceremonial by virtue of the fact that the new telos applied to these practices cannot be intrinsic to them, but only linked to a convention shared by a community that surrounds them.
Roland Barthes suggests that “all our modern sport can be found in this spectacle from another age, inherited from ancient religious sacrifices”. A sport event, just like religion, is able to establish a community insofar as it locates itself outside of it and carves out a temple-like ‘empty space’ from which the community is excluded. In order to demarcate this temenos, the violence of a sacrificial rite is used, and it has the characteristics of a game; it is sublimated and regulated. The practice of such a game assumes the sacrificial function, as much as a community assembles around it. Just as a religious sacrifice provides a community with the mise-en-scene of its origins, similarly a playing field provides a sports community with a founding ritual that repeats itself.
 Carl Diem, Wesen und Lehre des Sports, Weidmannsche
 Johan Huizinga, Homo ludens; a study of the play-element in culture, Beacon Press 1971.
 Roger Caillois, Les jeux et les hommes, Gallimard 1967, p. 35. Even for what regards gambling activities, the author states that; “Il y a déplacement de proprieté, mais non production de biens”, p. 35.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 “Le sacré est un élément de la structure de la conscience et non un stade dans l'histoire de cette conscience. L’expérience du sacré est indissolublement liée à l’effort fait par l’homme pour construire un monde qui ait une signification. Les hiérophanies c’est-à-dire les manifestations du sacré exprimées dans des symboles […] constituent un langage préréflexif qui nécessite ne herméneutique particulière.” Mircea Eliade, Fragment d’un journal, Gallimard, 1970-1978.
 Cfr. Peter Brook, The empty space, Touchstone 1968, p. 11: “A man walks across this empty stage whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”.
 Eduardo Galeano, El fútbol a sol y sombra, Siglo Ventiuno Editores, 1995 (corsivo mio), p. 7.
 Ibid., p. 36.
 Giorgio Agamben, Su ciò che possiamo non fare, in Nudità, Nottetempo, 2009, p. 68.
 “The portrait as a genre was singularly ill equipped to comply with the demand that a painting negate or neutralize the presence of the beholder. […] One strategy that painters adopted to overcome this limitation was to depict persons in a portrait as absorbed in thought or action.” Cfr. Michael Fried, Absorption and Theatricality, University of California Press 1980 and Michael Fried, Absorbed in the action, on ArtForum, Sept, 2006.
 “…vi è, infine, una potenza compiuta o perfetta, che è quella di uno scriba perfettamente padrone dell’arte di scrivere, nel momento in cui non scrive”. Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby, o della contingenza, in Gilles Deleuze and Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby. La formula della creazione, Quodlibet 1993, p. 50.
 Interview with Zinédine Zidane in the extras of the DVD Zidane: a 21st Century Portrait, Artificial Eye 2007.
 Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record. The Nature of Modern Sports, Columbia University Press 1978, pp. 52-53.
 In Judaism there is a clear distinction between melacha (activity aimed at a productive purpose, usually translated as ‘work’) and menucha (a term usually translated as ‘Sabbath rest’ but which, to be more precise, denotes the sphere of inoperativity – all activities devoid of a productive purpose).
 “A man walks across this empty stage whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. Peter Brook, The empty space, Touchstone 1968, p.11.
 Giorgio Agamben, Una fame da bue. Considerazioni sul sabato, la festa e l’inoperosità, in Nudità, Nottetempo 2009, p. 154, 149.
 Ibid, p. 159.
 Ibid, p. 158.
 Roland Barthes, What is sport?, Yale University Press 2007, p. 3.
Conversations between Achilles and the Tortoise
Achilles: Why do you care about winning? Anyway, there will be a faster tortoise one day, and it will break your record.
Tortoise: And what if art actually shared the characteristics of sports records? What if all works of art became nothing but a document as soon as they were completed and exhibited? What if a piece of art is just a crystallization of an individual’s potentiality?
A: Yes, but in sports this is related with time, since the physical limit to tend to, is zero. Take, for example, a 100-meter dash in athletics.
T: Or any speed race in general, should it be swimming, car racing, motorcycling, speed ice-skating...
A: It is not about the extreme limits of language and of the ‘sayable’, as Italo Calvino puts it when talking about the role of literature. In sports it is more about trying to overcome the laws of nature; it is the will to get closer to an unapproachable limit – to run 100 meters in zero seconds. You attempt to create an irreducible work, which is already in its first form redeemed as much as unsurpassable – you try to reach the redemption of your work already at the moment of its creation, which is a paradox. Art is often defined as being centrifugal, always reaching out towards where you cannot get to. It therefore doesn’t have to deal with perceivable limits; its only limit is the infinity. For a speed athlete, however, limits are clear and unattainable; his practice will cover an asymptote that cannot reach zero, if it is not ad infinitum, but which, at the same time, is constantly approaching it.
T: This is true only about that have to do with time. In other types of races, like discus throwing, long jump and high jump, however, the infinity (and not zero) is the limit. In other disciplines, such as in gymnastics, certain limits can be reached, as it happened with Nadia Comaneci’s seven perfect scores at the 1976 Olympics in Montreal.
A: So sport, in comparison with art, has a more conscious relationship with its limits, right?
T: Roland Barthes says that in sport “muscles alone do not win the race. What wins the race is a certain concept of man and the world, of man in this world. This concept is that man is proven by his actions; and man’s actions are aimed, not at the domination of other men, but at the domination of things”.
A: Perhaps it is through exploring their own limits that men explore their relationship with the world. On 20th July 1969 Neil Armstrong walked on the Moon before any other human being did. A month later, athlete Vladimiras Dudinas made another discovery in the exploration of the relationship between man and the world; he ran the 3000 metre steeplechase faster than any other human being before him.
(Quoted books: Italo Calvino, Saggi 1945-1985, Mondadori 1995; Roland Barthes, What is sport?, Yale University Press 2007.)
Achilles: I may not be able to reach you, but you do not have any style. I do.
Tortoise: Roland Barthes says that style in sport is "endowing an act of necessity with the appearance of free choice”.
A: The poiesis of sport is connected with nature, with the limitations of the world, in which humans live, and the limitations of humans in relation to the world, in which they live (and, thus, to each other as well). This is the necessity mentioned by Barthes, and Zidane’s style appears to be such. Such necessity can be measured; charts are produced, records are transmitted… Sport records are a tradition (transmission) of the relationship between humans and the world (and, thus, to each other as well).
T: Wait a minute. Also art is connected with nature, with the limitations of the world, in which humans live, and the limitations of humans in relation to the world, in which they live (and, thus, to each other as well). Are you sure that art is free from necessity? Are you sure that the definition of style by Barthes could not be used also for artistic poiesis?
A: The poiesis is to bring something from nonbeing into being, thus opening the space of truth. The poietic activity of a man is given through the techné, the technics. Perhaps it is a matter of technics. The separation between technology and art is quite recent, as well as the one between products of a technics and artworks which are to be placed in an aesthetic regime. Art has been considered for a long time a hand-to-hand encounter with necessity.
T: The poiesis, according to Agamben, “has nothing to do with the expression of a will (with respect to which art is in no way necessary): this essence is found instead in the production of truth and in the subsequent opening of a world for man’s existence and action.”
A: So the poiesis are the records, attested by human institutions as the truth. And the praxis (the operari) is the training.
T: A fragment of Nietzsche resonates in that of Barthes: “To impress upon becoming the character of being– that is the highest will to power”. Nietzsche refers to the eternal return of the same when he says that redemption is to “transform every ‘It was’ into an ‘I willed it thus!’”. Is this equal to “endowing an act of necessity with the appearance of free choice”?
A: In sport, style is a luxury – a surplus. And it has an effective validity only in those disciplines, in which aesthetic judgment is involved (synchronized swimming, rhythmic gymnastics, artistic gymnastics, figure skating…). It is not surprising that their names often reveal their proximity to art. What is evaluated in those disciplines, in which there is an external judgment (an aesthetic one?), is the ‘free choice’ with which the athletes comply with the necessity to perform some exercises in a certain way. In other words, judges evaluate their naturalness, their ability not to show their stress, their commitment and will (their ability to appear as ‘nature’ and not ‘culture’). Style is effectively valid only in those disciplines. And, in the same disciplines, necessity is necessary in order to define them as sport, that is, to be able to apply measures and judgments – to turn a performance into a competition.
T: The full score in seven exercises of Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci in the 1976 Olympics assumed its precise value only in the social context in which such series of movements could be judged and measured according to shared criteria. The certification of perfection of a performance is no longer related to its aesthetic value; it becomes a precise conventional criterion shared by members of a social institution. It is something like an outcome of a trial, or a legal dispute. What would become of these disciplines if such necessity to comply with a model, with an idea of a movement, did not exist?
A: Yes, maybe they would become art, a field in which things can no longer be evaluated according to universally fixed categories. Michael Johnson ran in a very peculiar style, in a manner that appeared, in a traditional sense, wrong. Yet he won and no one could penalize him for his style. The style in the high jump (more properly, the technique) has radically changed due to Dick Fosbury’s new one he came with, and it has been universally adopted now, precisely because it is more effective. In sports, technics have factual relevance, not style.
T: Writing about Shakespearian theatre, Peter Brook states that “the author had a precise, human and social aim which gave him reason for searching for his themes, reason for searching for his means, reason for making theatre. We see the present-day author still locked in the prison of anecdote, consistency and style”. It is probably a necessity of this kind that Antonin Artaud refers to when he says that “the actor is an athlete of the heart”: a theatre no longer of the expression but of the effort; a theatre for boxers and not for dancers – an art where all is necessary.A: Do we have to abandon aesthetics for athletics?
(Quoted books: Roland Barthes, What is sport?, Yale University Press 2007; Giorgio Agamben, L’uomo senza contenuto, Quodlibet 1994; Friedrich Nietzsche, Also sprach Zarathustra. Ein Buch für Alle und Keinen, 1883; Peter Brook, The empty space, Touchstone 1968; Antonin Artaud, Le Théâtre et son double, Gallimard 1938.)
Tortoise: Have you ever had the feeling that the world is missing someone?
Achilles: Gilles Deleuze said that “the entire nineteenth century went through the search for the man without a name, regicide and parricide, the modern-day Ulysses (“I am no one”): the crushed and mechanized man of the great metropolises, but from which one expects, perhaps, the emergence of the Man of the Future or New World Man”. Who was, then, the New Man who was being expected?
T: Professional sport, as we understand it today, was born at the beginning of the last century; it was an invention of a tradition, as theorized by Eric Hobsbawm. Gigantic narratives that involved all social classes in a continuum were established; football, cycling, athletics... And every narrative needs its heroes.
A: Then, the New Man is the athlete?
T: The New Man whose arrival was expected in the nineteenth century would have risen from a mechanized society, from monotonous factory work, from great social divisions. He would not have subverted the ground from which he would have arisen; he would, instead, have absorbed from it the lymph he would have constantly needed to maintain his status.
A: The New Man is then identified as Zátopek, Coppi, Garrincha?
T: Each of your examples shows some of the features of the New Man. Emil Zátopek, before becoming one of the greatest athletes of all time, worked in a factory in a small town in Czechoslovakia. He rose to the heights of popularity of his time. Yet his agere never evaded his political status.
A: Social popularity is not a political issue?
T: Certainly, but the impossibility to get out of an established political status is a distinctive characteristic of the New Man Zátopek’s story. It was always the communist regime to define his possibilities, and when Zátopek, no longer an athlete, attempted to publicly question it, the regime mercilessly turned against him. The success of the superhuman Zátopek never stemmed from anything other than the tradition (the narrative) that created it. He actually succeeded in rising from the condition of the “crushed and mechanized man” mentioned by Deleuze, but at the end of the day he never had the chance to become anything else.
A: What about Coppi, then?
T: Fausto Coppi was the best because he was a machine. That is why he is so often put in contrast with Bartali. According to Curzio Malaparte, the difference is that Bartali is a human, while Coppi is a machine; Bartali is a hero, Coppi a champion; Bartali is still a romantic man, Coppi is already a modern man. The New Man is the one who takes the tradition (in the sense of ‘transmission’) on his shoulders and brings it forward. He is the mechanical man: he is Coppi.
A: Why Garrincha, then? He was neither a machine nor a superhuman. He had a slight squint, a dislocated pelvis, his spine was deformed, his right leg bent inwards and his left leg was six centimetres shorter and curved outwards.
T: It is useful to highlight a third feature of the New Man on the example of Garrincha., who responds to a specific vocation of the twentieth century. The attribute of this Brazilian footballer that interests us here is the potential for redemption. Garrincha is a messianic man, who redeems his condition (physical and social) and that of an entire people, without actually changing anything. Nothing changes because Garrincha – in the words of Eduardo Galeano – was nothing else but “un perdedor con buena suerte. Y la buena suerte no dura. Bien dicen en Brasil que si la mierda tuviera valor, los pobres nacerían sin culo. Garrincha murió de su suerte: pobre, borracho y solo”.
A: The messianic event takes the form of a transformation, a crisis (the crisis) of the Law.T: That’s right. The New Man is the messiah, insofar as he announces (of course, without fulfilling it) the New World that Deleuze talks about.
(Quoted books: Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, Bartleby La formula della creazione, Quodlibet, 1993; Eric Hobsbawm e Terence Ranger (ed.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge University Press 1983; Curzio Malaparte, Coppi e Bartali, Adelphi 2009; Eduardo Galeano, El fútbol a sol y sombra, Siglo Ventiuno Editores, 1995.)
Achilles: Perhaps you’re faster than me, but I win in the fight.
Tortoise: “Le catch n’est pas un sport, c’est un spectacle, et il n’est pas plus ignoble d’assister à une représentation catchée de la Douleur qu’aux souffrances d’Arnolphe ou d’Andromaque”.
A: According to Roland Barthes, the ‘catch’ (what today we would call ‘wrestling’, that is, a simulated and pre-choreographed fight) is a spectacle: a piece of art. Where is the distinction between art and sport?
T: On the level of language. It is all about the moment when an object (a piece of writing, a drawing, a series of actions performed in a span of time…) becomes a ‘text’, that is, enters a kind of social regime in which a community gives an aesthetic value to it. In other words, the ‘text’ is no longer just an object – it becomes something more than what it is. This ‘addition’ is imparted by the social system that receives and positions it. Marcel Duchamp’s objects clearly unveiled this mechanism.
A: You mean that artwork becomes poiesis, a human oeuvre in the proper sense, only through a validation mechanism?
T: Surely you agree with me that there is no artwork if no one is willing to assume it as such.
A: A similar validation mechanism creates the conditions of existence of sports events and records – their officialisation. I ask you again; where is, then, the distinction between a spectacle and a sports event?
T:In spectacles, “le spectateur ne souhaite pas la souffrance réelle du combattant, il goûte seulement la perfection d’une iconographie”.
A: Yet it cannot be only a question of a greater or lesser adherence to reality. You agree with me that, in a competition, athletes ‘give themselves completely’. But on the other hand, you cannot say that all art is nothing else but a language, an iconography, a representation either! Rest energy, the 1980 performance by Marina Abramović and Ulay, had to do with reality and with ‘giving oneself completely’ at least as much (if not more) as a sports competition. On that occasion, the artists held an arrow on the weight of their bodies, and the arrow was pointed right into Abramović’s heart. They had two small microphones near their hearts, in order to hear their heartbeats growing more and more intense. And you can find many other examples of artworks that have truly incorporated life.
T: Historically, sports (or, more precisely, those social practices that we can arbitrarily associate with modern sports) has always been a matter of life or death, as with gladiatorial fights in imperial Rome, for example, or in medieval tournaments, which often (at least until the thirteenth century) comprised death as an essential ingredient.
A: Modern sport, instead, comprises death only slantwise, as an accident; not even in boxing, the objective is to kill the other.
T: Allen Guttmann argues that the distinction between art and play lies on the level of expression, since art has always a communicative function; “the artist needs his audience which, regrettably, he is sometimes forced to to without”. Or, as Peter Brook says about theatre work, “the last lonely look at the completed object is not possible – until an audience is present the object is not complete". Play, however, has no functional necessity to be communicated, to be expressed; the same is true, according to Guttmann, about sports, which “have existed, do exist and will continue to exist in situations without an audience”.
A: I do not agree. The social dispositif of professional sports cannot occur in a vacuum. Although communication is not functionally intrinsic to the practice of professional sports, the validation and officialisational mechanism around the playing field must always be in place. The field could otherwise not maintain its temple-like value, based on the axiom that nothing that happens outside it counts in the game. As a sacrifice entails a community around it, the writing of a sport record necessitates a social system that assigns to that record a conventional value in the community. Otherwise, why record it at all?
T: “A man walks across this empty stage whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged”. Thus Peter Brook describes the essence of theatre.
A: Both art and sport construct two temple-like social spaces, that is, spaces separated from life, where what goes on inside escapes the external mechanisms of value, assuming an alternative mode of existence.
T: So what is the difference in the social value assigned to a long jump and an arabesque?
A: Perhaps we should go back to the notion of ‘expression’. Sociologist Norbert Elias describes a football game as a series of “interlocking plans and actions. Each team may have planned its strategy […], however, as the game proceeds, it often produces constellations which were not intended or foreseen by either side”. The responsibility for the form, in sports, is due to the clash of two necessities, of two competing forces: the expression is not an intention, but the result itself of such clash. In art, instead, the expression is complete and all-inclusive – one could say it is an essential component of the concept of ‘art’ itself.T: Ah! Are you really sure that a work of art in itself is not a result of different, competing forces?
(Quoted books: Roland Barthes, Mythologies, Èditions du Seuil 1957; Allen Guttmann, From Ritual to Record. The Nature of Modern Sports, Columbia University Press 1978; Peter Brook, The empty space, Touchstone 1968; Norbert Elias e Eric Dunning (ed.), Quest for Excitement: Sport and Leisure in the Civilizing Process, Basil Blackwell 1986.)