Friday, February 21, 2014

Anything can happen in sport.

A scene from the opening ceremony of the 2014 Olympics in Sochi, Russia. Grant Farred offers a penetrating new analysis of "the event" from a surprising source: Sport.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Cornell University

Sport confounds us. It confounds us for a reason ripe with the following paradox: sport does what it is supposed to do and when it does that, we are totally surprised. We know that anything can happen in sport so we watch sport expecting the unexpected and yet when the unexpected happens it still catches us off guard. This is the guiding premise of In Motion, At Rest: The Event of the Athletic Body: the sport’s event surprises us. It does not matter whether it is a basketball player, Ron Artest, or a footballer, Eric Cantona, ascending into the stands in Detroit, or the coup de boule – one footballer headbutting another in the World Cup final as happened in 2006 when Zinedine Zidane rammed his head into an opponent’s chest.

We are never prepared for the event because we do not know that will what will spark the event into life. As we watch the Sochi games and recall the buzz surrounding them a few weeks prior to their opening, we feared certain specters would haunt us. Will Vladimir Putin’s heavy-handed approach to security, for example, make the winter Olympics in Sochi safe from the threat of “domestic terrorism”? Or will it be gay-rights activists or triumphant athletes (think the black power salute of Tommy Smith and John Carlos in Mexico City, 1968) who set things in motion? After all, it took no more than a corrupt official refusing a bribe from a would-be Tunisian street vendor, Mohammed Bouazizi, who then self-immolated, to ignite the Arab Spring and sweep dictators all across North Africa from power.

The event is that occurrence which, we later recognize, transforms everything. It transforms everything even if we do not fully understand it in the moment of its happening. The effect of the event is such that it makes us think again about everything that happened, and everything that happened before and after it – and sometimes what happened long before and long after it. As such, the event, the moment in which everything is changed, is integral to sport and, more than that, it constitutes the very fabric of sport. It does not matter if nothing happens at Sochi, we watch these winter Olympics in full expectation of the Games hosting more than figure skating and the downhill slalom.

Identifying the event as the first principle of sport, In Motion argues that the three events it critiques, Artest, Cantona and Zidane, can only be properly understood if they are approached philosophically.

In order to think the event in sport in this manner, In Motion pairs each athlete with a philosopher. Each sport’s event is matched with a theory of the event best suited to it. To this end, Alain Badiou’s theory of the event is used to read Artest, Gilles Deleuze’s work on the cinema forms the basis of the Cantona chapter, and two French figures with deep Algerian roots, Jacques Derrida and Zidane, are paired. Sport, I argue, renders not only a version of the event – which is mainly understood as a political phenomenon a la the Arab Spring or 1917 or the collapse of the Berlin Wall – but the event itself in a way that it is seldom thought. The event can happen anywhere, of course; at a political rally, in the realm of global finance, at a rock concert. However, In Motion shows how sport makes opaque both the intensity of the event and the ubiquitous potential for the event in sport.

The event is everywhere in sport so that we never know what might produce the event. A white fan at an NBA game throwing beer at a supine African-American basketball player; an English fan at a Premier League game hurling ethnic invective at the opposing team’s French player; an Italian footballer saying something, we still do not, these many years later, know precisely what, at the French captain playing in the last match of his career in the World Cup Final. Any of these single acts set in motion an event that gathered into itself, say, the discourse of race and racism in the U.S. (Artest), about xenophobia in England (Cantona), about the politics of migration, republicanism and religion in France (Zidane). When the event happens in sport it draws everything toward it so that no aspect of social life is excluded. Imagine what ghosts an event in Sochi might spur into life.

In reading three events, In Motion reveals the particular force of sport and the ways in which the event in a basketball arena or a football stadium changes everything. The work of the event is, above all else, to make us think and Zidane, Artest and Cantona, in their various ways, compel us to reconsider our understanding of the event and, as significantly, they both illuminate and extend the theories offered by Derrida, Deleuze and Badiou. In Motion makes us think about how we approach sport again. Or, ask why we have not yet thought the event in relation to sport.

Most importantly, In Motion does not so much “makes sense” of sport – of what takes place on the court or on the field – as reveal the philosophical sense of the sport’s event. There is no other social practice, the political rally apart, maybe, where the prospect – there is almost a certain inevitability to it – of the event is so palpable, is so tantalizingly, perilously, close. To watch sport is to have a ringside seat – if a mixed sport’s metaphor might be allowed – at the event.

We know this, of course, and yet we, for some inexplicable reason, do not.

Courtesy of Ron Artest, Eric Cantona and Zizou, In Motion is a philosophical reminder of this.


Grant Farred teaches at Cornell University. He is the author of four books, including In Motion, At Rest: The Event of the Athletic Body (forthcoming in March) and What’s My Name? Black Vernacular Intellectuals (Minnesota, 2003).

"This is innovative work of the highest order, very smartly and incisively bringing onto the field two teams that very seldom meet in inter-league play: the philosophers and the sociologists of sports. But in these pages there are also crucial interventions staged in cultural studies, race theory, globalization discourse, and media studies. In Motion, At Rest is a book that speaks to many audiences, without giving up its singular focus on the athletic body."
—Jeffrey Nealon, Penn State University

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