football

Chuck Klosterman’s Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs is pop analysis: both the analysis of pop, and analysis that aspires to the status of pop. Hence the informality of the style, the (faux) confessionalism, the intermingling of sacred and profane, high and low. A “low culture manifesto” (as the book’s subtitle has it) is not quite so “low culture” both because of its self-reflexivity and because of its more or less knowing nods to the entire lineage of cultural manifestos.

If we’re going to have pop analysis (and why not, I suppose), personally I prefer Dave Eggers and Nick Hornby to Klosterman. Perhaps that just says that I prefer it when things are more obviously leavened with fiction, with a plot however baggy.

Moreover, Klosterman’s conclusions are too pat, too unsatisfying. The essay I like best is probably the one that actually refers to Hornby: a rant against football (sorry, “soccer”) as an un-American, indeed unsporting, sport because supposedly it’s too egalitarian: “it’s the only sport where you can’t fuck up. An outcast can succeed simply by not failing” (89). Even so, this is a nice conceit, but it doesn’t add up.

Klosterman has clearly never himself played football, let alone found himself subject to the classic humiliation of being the last to be picked for a playground team. Watching but one football movie (I happened recently to see There’s Only One Jimmy Grimble) should be enough evidence that suitably sporting hierarchies are as rigidly enforced, perhaps more so, in football as anywhere else.

Indeed, if anything it’s the other way around. It’s precisely the fluidity of football (which Klosterman translates as “running about and avoiding major collisions” [89]) that makes the comparisons all the more insistent.

Put this another way: as a non-native, I’m always struck by the specialization promoted in US sports. For instance, the fact that American Football has a completely different offensive line from its defensive line; or that the “special teams” only ever come onto the field for a few minutes of each game. Or in baseball, the phenomenon of the “closer,” who will pitch at best the last couple of innings; my thought is always that if he’s so good, he should be on from the start.

In British sports, such as football but also even cricket, the all-rounder is much more highly valued: the midfielder who can move up or play deep, the striker who can play with both feet, the batsman who can also bowl, for instance. Yes, there are still specialists (and even perhaps increasingly so: David Beckham became little more than a taker of free kicks), but the same players stay on the field the whole time. Even the very best fast bowler has to bat from time to time; there’s no equivalent of baseball’s “designated hitter.”

All the more so, then, in playground and high-school games in which the notional playing positions are all the looser: the fact is that in football, a player is at every moment at least potentially judged as part of entire team, rather than simply as one part in a fragmented team apparatus.

Meanwhile, this is probably a moment to give a nod to my friend Grant Farred, whose book on football, Long Distance Love, has just been published. And also to point out with some pride that I figure (albeit un-named) in the book’s very first paragraph.

unlearning

Last night we were discussing the differences between “presentist” and “historicist” approaches to literature, especially in the classroom. I’m not entirely sure that this distinction is well put, though it echoes the recent discussion over at Long Sunday about “interpretation”.

A presentist approach to a text would treat it as though it spoke directly to our present circumstances. So we read Virgil on Empire, Chaucer on popular culture, Sarmiento on barbarism, because they like us are concerned with these issues. Shakespeare is our contemporary. And if Dylan is the new Keats, that’s because Keats was the old Dylan. Whether because of transcendent values (great works speak across the ages), transhistorical problems (the poor you always have with you), or tactical considerations (selling the classics to the kids), the point is to emphasize how familiar these texts are.

A historicist approach would say: no, we are not yet equipped to read the text. When we fancy we see our own concerns addressed in Chaucer or Keats, in fact we are imposing those concerns upon these authors. We need, rather, to read these texts as they were read in their time: and Empire meant something rather different to Virgil than it does to us; and Shakespeare’s plays only fully give up their sense once we see them as embedded in a whole series of cultural and political discourses very much of their own time (and place). So the point is to show the strangeness of these texts.

But this dichotomy is itself strange. On the one hand, the present is elusive: which present? Whose present? On the other hand, so is the past: and when precisely does a work become historical?

And a text in a class is unavoidably contemporary: we are all Pierre Menards; we cannot unlearn what we know and Cervantes did not. But it is also unavoidably strange: it comes from elsewhere, bearing the mark of the other. And so in reading we always run the risk of being moved or disturbed, or losing ourselves to some small extent. But isn’t that the attraction of literature, or indeed art in general? That it offers an unlearning: we are no longer quite so sure of who we are.

Or so, at least, one might hope…

Bush reading

election

It may have passed the attention of some that Canadians have been voting today. Not all of them, mind you: Craig of theoria and RIPope of Long Sunday have both made clear that they have better things to do. Or rather, that they are holding out for such better things. In RIPope’s words:

it is precisely because I feel so much pathos that I won’t just make myself feel a bit better by voting. I’m willing to suffer this hell for the sake of something Other.

There are, on the other hand, two scare stories circulating to encourage people to the polls.

One, much promulgated by the Liberal party, is that the election of Stephen Harper’s rejuvenated Conservative party would mean the rise of American-style neoconservatism; Harper would be “Bush lite.” This warning worked well enough at the last federal election, in June 2004, when a swing away from the Conservatives in the final few days of the campaign ensured the Liberals would have enough support to form at least a minority government. Subsequent revelations of Liberal corruption, however, mean that fewer are now persuaded that they are a much lesser evil than the Conservatives.

The other scare story, a version of which can be found in Dave Pollard’s “Mulroney’s Revenge”, is that this election could mean the end of Canada. Unable to win a clear majority themselves, the Conservatives will form an unholy alliance with the Bloc Quebecois. The alienated West (the Conservatives’ power base) and the alienated Francophones will together conspire if not to the physical and geographical break-up of the nation, at least to gut the Federation of all power.

But both scare stories are, in essence, one and the same: they prey on the fear of becoming American. In Pollard’s words:

We will then be America Lite — still bristling at the thought that we’re just like Americans, but with our assets even more substantially owned by Americans than they are today, an economic colony with the fading illusion of relevant political independence. Instead of being the potential role model for the 21st century, we will be the country of great promise that was never realized.

This is a theme that obsesses Canadian pundits and commentators. Here, plucked almost at random, is another example, taken from one Rafe Mair and his two-part story, “Why Canada is Unraveling Again” and “How to Deal with our Next Unity Crisis”:

The country teeters on the chasm of national disintegration and the federal government and indeed opposition act as if nothing is happening for fear that simply by admitting that there’s a problem will itself encourage a bad result.

The irony is that to avoid becoming American, the only solution these anxious nationalists can devise is to be a little more American:

I think it useful to look at how the Americans did it in 1787 when, with equal representation from all states, large and small, they came up with what is unquestionably the best constitution ever made.

How to be like the US, without exactly being the US? How to be “America lite” without quite being (perceived as?) America lite? That seems to be the question around which much of contemporary Canadian politics turns.

Which is hardly a question that would get me up and running to a ballot box.

And surely, as Craig notes, the refrain of “Well, at least we aren’t American!”, the more or less smug fetishization of small differences, hinders rather than helps any real political analysis.

unruliness

I’m over a third of the way through Gilroy’s book. And to follow up on my last entry, I do find what he has to say about unruliness interesting.

But in the first instance, what he has to say is (as yet) nothing particularly specific. Indeed, generally, Gilroy seems to have reached that stage of his career at which he can dispense with references.

Sometimes that’s OK. When he says that “problems like the disappearance of public torture are often understood to identify a significant stage in the development of a new type of power: capillary, biopolitical” (44), I know he’s talking about Foucault, even if he doesn’t say so. (My graduate students would be less happy, but there we go.)

But at other times, he succumbs to the temptation of broad sweeps in a way that makes me raise my eyebrows. For instance, he consistently asserts that his project is unfashionable and against the grain of scholarly and public discourse alike, but is it really true that “the academic tribunes of globalization do not usually include the end of formal empires or the wars of decolonization in their accounts of our planet’s commercial and political integration” (55)? If so, which ones? And though it might be true that “some beguiling political models assume metropolitan governance to be innocent and colonial administration to be benign” (18), it would help to know which, and to be told who exactly is beguiled. There are times when it is as though Gilroy thinks that Niall Ferguson has a monopoly on scholarship or writing about imperialism.

And as for public discourse, I’m not completely convinced either that “dissidence has been criminalized” within our contemporary “states of permanent emergency” or even that such states would have it that “civilizations are now closed or finished cultures that need to be preserved. The individual agents who are their bearers and affiliates come ready-stamped with iconic badges of relative rank” (58). Look at the London bombings: apparently carried out by three people of Pakistani descent, one of whose parents rang the police and so opened up their investigation, but also a West Indian married to a white woman and now a series of East Africans, also apparently shopped by members of the Somali community. The ways in which they have been described and discussed (OK, apart from in the Express) reveal both a more complex public struggle to understand the relations between cultures and also the fact that there’s no necessary link between bearers and badges.

Second, however, though Gilroy may not refer (yet) to specific instances of unruliness, the metaphors of disorder permeate the text. Despite his declarations of willful unfashionability, there’s something very familiar about the way in which he opposes a “docile cultural history” with its “tidy models of governance” and its “polite scholastic debates” on the one hand with the “disreputable, angry places where the political interests of racialized minorities might be identified” (17) or with the “tangled, profane, and sometimes inconvenient forms of independency” that he wants to champion. “Scurrilous speculations” are to displace “polite labor” (53). Gilroy consistently invokes a rhetoric of messiness, of the “unkempt, unruly, and unplanned” (xiv), the “messy complexity of social life” (6), allied with “disreputable abolitionism,” “insurrectionary practice,” and “vitality” that “can still embarrass and contest the overly innocent versions of liberal thinking that are still in circulation” (57). Arranged against this vital, uncontainable disorder are “facile notions,” “casual talk” (36), “squeamish reluctance” (54), and above all “cheap antihumanist positions” (7), “the cheapest invocations of incommensurable otherness” (8), and “cheap patriotism” (25).

Now, there are plenty of reasons to favour a bit of messiness and a bit of unruliness over over-tidy authoritarianism, the deceits of ideological whitewash, or (of course) the political hygiene of ethnic cleansing.

But I do wonder about the extent to which Gilroy’s is also an aestheticized politics, if more Jackson Pollock than Albert Speer. And how much that has to do with the denigration of the “cheap.” Why in politics as in housing should the expensive be valorized over the affordable? Moreover, does this opposition between tidiness and mess not also map onto a distinction between state and market?

Indeed, and rather against what is elsewhere an (Agamben-influenced) analysis of states of emergency, new modes of sovereignty, and the like, Gilroy at times implies that the market is itself undoing a couple of centuries of racism rooted in colonial order:

The colonial hierarchy that previously specified the proper relation of blackness to whiteness starts to break down. It yields to a different–usually commercial and resolutely antipolitical–understanding of what “races” are and how they differ from themselves and each other. The previously separated worlds of absolutely different groups can then be made to leak. They bleed risk, pleasure, and excitement into one another as part of selling things and accumulating capital. The magic of freshly racialized markets means that it is important to consider whether blackness and whiteness, like raciality’s other inventions, should now be understood as nothing but transient symptoms of a dominant but dying order. (55)

We can see that the messiness, entanglement, and unruliness everywhere privileged in this text maps quite closely onto market processes described in terms of “leak[age],” “bleed[ing],” “risk, pleasure, and excitement.”

And there’s nothing wrong, either (and especially for Deleuzians), with considering the revolutionary potential of capital’s deterritorializing flows (as it were). But I wonder how that fits with what is otherwise Gilroy’s high-minded defence of (a revitalized) modernity, universalism, humanism, and the like.