Wednesday, 12 September 2012


weariness, and the philosophy of Steve Archibald

How do you make the multiple One?

This is not only the perennial problem of team-building but also that of government: creating esprit de corps or forming a body politic. It is also a problem that Alistair Cook will face regarding his best batsman now that Andrew Strauss has resigned the captaincy, citing a gut feeling that his “race was run,” his depleted resilience undoubtedly exacerbated by the Kevin Pietersen saga – which is not the same as claiming the latter was the sole cause of his captain’s exhaustion (and thus there’s no cause to be sceptical about the outgoing skipper’s stated reasons: unlike Iggy Pop, he didn’t want to be a passenger). For it is true, in both a trivial and a profound way, that the events befalling our lives always emerge from multiple causes bumping into each other...

Sometimes, as both Strauss and KP would confirm, these life-events are great headline-making ruptures and schisms; sometimes, an accumulation of tiny cracks and fissures that remain imperceptible in the large-scale day-to-day concerns of a life (until such time as they subsume it, if steps are not taken to forestall that occurrence), even if the decision to absent oneself from office is a single clean break on the ‘main line’. Cutting the cord rather than coming apart at the seams. And so it is that a fatigued Strauss, a threshold of lowered resistance crossed, no longer ableto tolerate what he’d put up with only the previous week, has gone – and to universal acclaim – while the KP issue, and the concomitant problem of unity, lingers.  

As is well known, when Team England and the ECB decided to omit Pietersen from the Lord’s Test against South Africa, even with the world number one Test ranking at stake, the behavioural code that Hugh Morris deemed him to have flouted through his shenanigans in Leeds the week before was a breach of the team’s “unity of purpose and action”. By taking such drastic measures against their star batsman, Andy Flower and the England management eschewed pragmatism for principle and, in so doing, ostensibly protected (or restored) the harmony of the dressing room and asserted the primacy of team spirit over all else during a time in which it appeared to have evaporated – if, indeed, it can be said ever to have truly existed at all…  

For, above the noisy hullabaloo surrounding Pietersen this last month, that old aphorism of the ex-Spurs and Barcelona striker, Steve Archibald, has fluttered across the airwaves on a high frequency, beyond the audible range of some yet loud and piercing to others. “Team spirit is an illusion glimpsed in the aftermath of victory”. Cue slightly cynical titter and sage nods of heads, then move on to the next universal truism.

But is team spirit really just an illusion? And are those surfing the insistent and palpable highs and lows of team sport suffering some sort of collective hallucination? Was the MCG ‘sprinkler dance’ the addled reverie of poor delusional souls? Or could it be that the adage actually reveals more about Steve Archibald’s sense of detachment from the group than the nature of the latter itself? Or even, perhaps, could it be an oblique expression of the general cynicism and individualism of an age in which “rational self-interest”, the cornerstone of neoconservatism, has apparently been sanctified?

ebbs and flows (and sprinklers)

Superficially, of course, it would appear hard to disagree with Archibald. Team spirit does indeed feel at its strongest in the aftermath of victory: euphoria irrupts; a group buzzes; camaraderie is felt coursing through the collective body, an intangible yet conspicuous sensation that almost anyone who has played (voluntarily, rather than at school!) would have experienced at one time or other. Even so, it stands to reason that a group whose very existence and purpose is to participate in competitive sport will have its mood largely dictated by the result. Also, that an accumulation of victories will give this feeling more permanence still. This is not Harvard PhD stuff. But does that mean that the mood, the spirit, is wholly determined by the result?

The Archibald Hypothesis, if that is not too grandiose a description, appears to rest on a particular version of what philosophers would call ontological fallacy (that is, an error as to what type of entity something is, its nature), assuming that team spirit is like an object: something definitively attained or definitively lost; here today, gone tomorrow; now you have it, now you don’t.

A palpable, ineffable and fluctuating sensation within the collective body, team spirit is perhaps better thought of as what another pair of Scottish philosopher (of considerably greater influence than Archibald), Duns Scotus and later David Hume, called a “haecceity”: a “thisness” with the characteristics of an “individual”. Take the atmosphere in a room: demonstrably there, even if you cannot quite put your finger on its provenance or precisely gauge its lifespan. The same for the seasons: even if the precise moment of its arrival or passing are beyond accurate knowledge, we get enough of a sensation summer’s haecceity to know it is around (well, bad example…). Same for team spirit.

Like everything else in the universe, then, a cricket team (and thus its spirit) is a dynamical system. It has a discernible emergence (even if haphazard and chaotic, with those multiple causes), a distinct means of holding together (‘consistency’), and an ultimate coming-undone, a disintegration. Birth, life, death – everything from an entire species to its individual members, a continent to a thought. The Canadian thinker Brian Massumi summarises precisely what any structure – Team England included – comprises:
“A structure is defined by what escapes it. Without exception, it emerges from chance, lives with and by a margin of deviation, and ends in disorder. A structure is defined by its thresholds – the relative limits within which it selects, perceives, and captures more or less consistently (its margin of deviation); and the absolute limits beyond which it breaks down (chance, chaos). Order is the approximate, and always temporary, prevention of disorder.”
So, stability is only ever metastability: order within certain limits. And much as water freezes below a certain temperature and turns to steam above another threshold, a group’s staying-the-same only happens between certain limits – what a group leadership might call drawing the line – and with a certain expenditure of energy. Staying the same requires energy. It is negentropic. There are no closed systems. The outside seeps in, the inside trickles out. As the French philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari (whose A Thousand Plateaus was translated by Massumi) wrote in a broadly political context: “there is no society that does not leak in all directions”.

Given the ebbs and flows of team spirit, it is little wonder, then, that the bonds within a group or team are sometimes referred to as “chemistry”. And this is only partly metaphorical, for in a very real sense that is precisely what leadership or management works upon: human beings’ moods, for each of which there is a corresponding admixture of hormones, a sub-personal neurochemical stratum to be stabilized. Not so much micromanagement, as molecular. Flower the chemist, rather than the alchemist?

no such thing as a closed system: tunnel at Rafah, Palestine

porousness, leakage

“Capturing energies that escape” is as probably as good a description as you’ll find of what team management is about. From this point of view, rule by fear and heavy-handed subjugation – and the concomitant attempt to seal off those creative ruptures, inventions and ‘escapes’ of the imagination that threaten to transform the identity of the group, to set it off on an adventure, a becoming-other – is less efficient than through empathy and consensus, since, with tyranny, there’s always more escaping energy to capture (for Deleuze and Guattari, every organ in the Imperial social body is “a possible protest”), something that all paranoid despots learn in the end.

Undoubtedly, Pietersen’s summer-long brinkmanship vis-à-vis his commitment to Team England’s cause over and against his apparent desire to maximise his IPL earnings lent credence to the view that he was jeopardising team “unity and purpose of action”, and even that he had been marginalised as a result of his behaviour: “it’s not easy being me in the England dressing room” he complained, infamously. Then came those text messages – no, those, you doos – grousing about his treatment at the hands of the Axis of Andy (an act easily interpreted from a psychological standpoint as unconsciously punishing his ‘persecutors’ by seeking to undermine the unity they have created) and at the time disingenuously spun as offering tips on how to dismiss Strauss out (“Can’t wait till you come round the wicket”). Finally, there was his extraordinary video, morsels of sincerity piercing the PR blancmange in a curious mix of contrition and self-justification, all attempting to position himself back within the group.

It goes without saying that a group of whatever dimension is beset by factors that undermine it from within (what the anthropologists like to call ‘scission’) and without. For cricket teams, there are not only the ravages of defeats, but injury, ageing and renewal cycles, salary jealousies and haggling over bonuses, selectorial issues, availability, personal rivalries, the purring and pettiness of the Ego, as well as events that blow in from the horizon potentially destabilizing the team (Mark Boucher’s appalling, career-ending eye injury could have had this effect on South Africa. In addition, there are unflattering or critical passages from current teammates’ autobiographies, which don’t appear to undermine the “unity of purpose and trust” within Team England as much as text messages. What was it Marshall McCluhan said about the medium being the message? Anyway, in the light of Massumi’s description of structuration processes cited above, these factors are some of the individual’s “margins of deviation” (the group here as an entity distinct from its component parts is an “individual”, a haecceity).

The underlying reason for such continual disequilibrium is simple: the desire to do as you please, the appeal of an unmediated life, is very strong indeed, much stronger than rules. Since the dawn of time, then, socialization can be understood as finding the means to bind the errant desires of its members to the codes, norms, or laws by which that society lives (always with struggle, always with leakage, always with molecular change). An ‘Us’ must be created, a sense of belonging, an embodiment of the group: a social body.* And a cricket team is no different.

Anyway, what is constant in all this is that, while a team spirit can be artificially induced – as paintballing is for the village side, so a visit to Gallipoli was for Steve Waugh’s Australians, and there are people who trade on this supposedly ‘scientific’ ability – its organic emergence, its crossing of a threshold, is only truly intelligible retrospectively (a haecceity: both unambiguously present and vague of provenance). And since this spirit is always already in the process of coming undone, it needs perpetual shoring up.

In a modern international team, the myriad distractions with sponsors and endorsements, untimely nights out on pedalos, persistent screaming at misfields, Twitter (with its potential breach of the sanctity of the dressing room) – all these are potentially ruinous to team spirit, all part of the vicissitudes of that intangible togetherness. Little wonder that, speaking earlier this year about the possible end of Chris Gayle’s exile from the West Indies team, Nasser Hussain – something of a lay expert in creating harmony from disparate elements – argued: “It doesn’t matter so much what he does at training or even on the pitch. It’s in the hotel bar at 11 o’clock that counts, with young impressionable players hanging on his every word…” Leakage.

But the means of creating order – and the sense of belonging and team spirit that will grow gradually from that soil – is not only top-down, implanted through managerial edict. There are also bottom-up mechanisms, thousands of tiny gestures and ‘local’ interactions (at times, so subtle and nuanced that the team doesn’t perceive them and which have already landed their blows on the spirit of the team before the team knows what has happened) that, like street-level social niceties, add up to the character of a community. Ultimately, that is what ‘banter’ is: a form of self-regulation within a group, clipping people’s wings, cauterizing overinflated egos, the wayward member either modifying his behaviour or risking ostracism. Part autopoietic, self-organizing system; part command structure.

Yet by the same token, banter itself must be conducive to harmony, since it too can disrupt the equilibrium – as, for instance, when it becomes bullying, the systematic harassment of a marginal figure (often unconsciously pursued, ironically, as a means of strengthening collective bonds, or at least those of a sub-group within a group). And in the process of becoming-ostracised – apparently the topic of Pietersen and Matt Prior’s heart-to-heart conversation in the lead up to the Lord’s game, after which the former said he was feeling “great” – this perception can induce the worst paranoia, wild accusations and violent lashing out as one struggles over one’s status (the serenity of one’s Ego).

This, of course, is the obvious explanation for the excesses of Pietersen’s behaviour – his perception, recently underlined, that someone in the England dressing room was unambiguously lampooning him from behind the cover of a parody Twitter account: KPGenius. More specifically, his grievance that what went on inside the dressing room was in some sense being leaked beyond its confines, turning a private sanctuary into a public goldfish bowl and completely transforming the nature of the ‘banter’, affecting the relations between the individual players and thus the team as organism. 

Ilya Prigogine

KP, phase transitions, metastability

To return to a paraphrase of the initial question: How do you turn a heterogeneous molecular population (the organs) into ‘molar’ unity (the organism)?

Just as the team is an always open reality, a continual process of binding energies together, so its spirit is not static, but something that fluctuates. Nothing is ever fatal or irreversible (it was Prior who instigated the clear-the-air conversation), even though the continual effort to make the multiple One, to build a team, undergoes these often imperceptible molecular leakages and escapes – the criticisms, the selfishness, the arguments, the glances – that are felt as a perturbation in the ‘molar’ circuits, a disruption of (metastable) order, a dissipation, leading to paranoiac accusations and heavy-handed wing-clipping alike.

Deriving as it does from physics, Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of molarity – turning the parts (which never cease being parts that subsist) into a whole, the same body of matter considered as two regimes – is one that nevertheless perfectly captures the abstract dynamics of social processes: i.e. turning a loose agglomeration of bodies into a unity, giving it an identity. Perhaps, finally, it is by drawing out the earlier parallelisms between socialization and nonlinear thermodynamics that we will best grasp the misconceptions around the notion of team spirit, and, by dint of that, the misunderstanding regarding the allegedly heinous or terminal nature of KP’s peccadilloes.

One of the prime figures in nonlinear thermodynamics, Ilya Prigogine, demonstrated – particularly in his book Order out of Chaos: Man’s New Discourse with Nature, co-authored with Isabelle Stengers – that physical systems, under the influence of “attractors” (like poles), tend to self-organize toward an optimal distribution of energy. But – and this is the crucial lesson for team cultures – he also showed that, pace classical thermodynamics, not only are all structures open, to the extent they are linked to an energy source or involve the infolding of the aleatory outside (our bodies need light and water; our societies need food, electricity), some complex systems are “dissipative” (i.e. far from equilibrium) and thus there are several metastable states that a system can attain. In sum, he repudiated linear determinism and simple cause and effect – for instance, sneeringly telling your teammates that they weren’t capable of dominating the world’s best bowling attack necessarily spelling the end of your involvement with the group…

Schematically, and bearing in mind the author’s resolutely non-expert understanding of these matters, we note that water in a pot under the influence of heat (i.e. an intensive difference between outside and inside temperature) leads to different patterns of molecular activity, activity that may look chaotic but about which mathematical modelling reveals strict patterns, or order (“unity of purpose and action”). At a low temperature on the stove, the difference in temperature evens out through a simple, uniform dispersion of heat: conduction. If the temperature is increased, bubbles of hot water break free from colder water and accelerate upwards towards the surface of the water before turning back in a circular motion: convection. Finally, if the temperature is increased further, a system of nested vortexes and eddies – turbulence – increasingly usurps the order of circulating water. Two things: (1) the capacity to ‘fall into’ these three patterns of motion is immanent to the fluid medium, a potential, the crucial thing being the thresholds at which the medium switches from one pattern to another, its “bifurcations”; (2) this matter-energy system self-organizes into an orderly form through local interactions that are ignorant’ of the global system (the molar individual).  

If we persist with the analogy, a metastable state for a cricket team can be attained (for a short time at least) with a high level of molecular activity – that is, with ‘creative tensions’ between its constituent parts – or it may be at a very low-intensity (all players of similar background and disposition: a public school sixth form team, say) with many hypothetical states in-between. In order to assess the nature of team spirit (as a metastable state), what needs to be elucidated is the system’s precise history, its bifurcations points or “phase transitions”: a different form of motion immanent to the molar individual’s interrelation of molecular bodies, but not in any way determining, since these virtual states need to be actualized by another force: always multiple causes (an event is an encounter); no such thing as a closed system…

In this light, Pietersen’s behaviour at Leeds – a phase transition in the team dynamic – did not emerge out of the blue but had as a genealogy a slow, singular labour of causes and their interactions – both truths and perceptions, each of which is as potentially causally efficacious as the other. It was no doubt partly to do with having his head turned by IPL lucre and the moneys received by his globetrotting peers, as Andy Flower acknowledged. It was also, partly, about his difficulty in integrating with the team culture and entering the general mateyness of Swann, Bresnan, Anderson, Cook, Finn, Broad, Prior. As many commentaries have touched upon, this friction is far from fatal or unique in the history of cricket. As was said of Boycott: I don’t care for him but I like his runs.  

Likewise, the departure of Strauss potentially marks a new bifurcation of the previously dissipative system; a possible search for a new equilibrium. Where there’s a will… Apology and penance is of course a social mechanism that compensates the disrupted equilibrium and can in time restore the harmony and seal the breaches. In the sage words of Andrew Strauss prior to the Lord’s Test: “Cricketers are a pretty forgiving bunch. But we need to bring stuff out in the open, we can’t just have it swept under the carpet and I’ve got no idea at this stage how that’s going to work out… I think if we are going to resolve these issues, everyone’s got to take a bit of a long hard look at how things have developed over the last couple of weeks in particular and say, ‘Have we all done everything we can to avoid this happening?’ …But it’s not going to be resolved overnight. If we’re going to resolve those issues we need to do it face to face, away from the media spotlight and away from PR companies.” 

spillage, spirit 

Such ups and downs in the life of a team provide the most compelling argument against Steve Archibald’s hypothesis. Given that the maxim elides the supposedly illusory team spirit with good team spirit, does this mean that, in the case of a poor result, the corresponding dejection is equally false? Surely the flipside of Archibald’s claim would be that there is never team spirit in defeat, which for many who have been involved in team sports might border on the offensive.

Team spirit is not the same thing as elation. It is always there: good, bad, or ugly. It is nothing less than the precise resilience of the bonds permitting a team to dress its wounds and ride out the good and bad sessions, good and bad days, good and bad weeks. When Strauss asserted prior to his hundredth and final Test that “you learn more in defeat than in victory” he was, in a sense, tacitly endorsing the notion that team spirit encompasses this full spectrum of emotions and that the exhilaration of victory is merely the highest plateau or pitch of intensity that it attains.

Most crucially, although it is intangible, it is not supernatural, not at all transcendent as the word spirit perhaps implies. Far from being in some netherworld beyond, it is the potential immanent within an ensemble of bodies to bring forth these intensive states of togetherness in which concerted action pushes the component individuals to great collective achievements, that gets something more out of them.  

Even if team spirit is not felt in all corners of the dressing room in quite the same way, to quite the same degree; even if some people may be part of a team but not fully part of its spirit, that doesn’t render it some dizzy fantasy of collective togetherness. The mutual care for those struggling through tough times, looking out for your mates, creating a supportive environment, singing not only when you’re winning – all of that is real as a bruise on the inside thigh.

Fragile? Perhaps. Precarious? Certainly. Susceptible to a sudden collapse? Without doubt. But just because no-one has ever seen or touched something, that doesn’t make it illusory.

* Simplifying to the extreme, for a long time this attempt to forge a sense of belonging was mediated by custom, belief, and meaning. In ‘primitive’, kinship-based society, it was done through social rituals and marking in bare flesh (tattoos were more than decoration then) so as to fashion a memory for man of obligation, mediation – what Nietzsche called a “cruelist mnemotechnics”. In State societies, the sense of belonging was elaborated principally through symbolic representations of the higher unity (Law, tax money, official language – all substitutes for the distant despot that no-one saw), but these transcendent Ideas must also be continually hewn into the social body, whence flags and anthems. In ‘civilized’, market-based society, the unity is achieved through contractual relations and normative behaviour operates around honouring those contracts – meaning and belief are entirely secondary.

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