Tuesday, 10 July 2012


was this the moment England stopped being bullied by the Aussies?

You can tell a lot about a person – about a culture, maybe – from how they react when their football team go 4-0 up with 20 minutes still to play. Does the dead eyed slavering bloodlust rise and show itself? Do they demand the abjection of their quarry, the humiliation of the bloodied and bereft opponent? Do they want a cricket score (surely they mean a rugby score, kicking-dominated)? Or does a desire for mercy appear, as happened recently when, at the end of the European Championship final in Kiev, ‘San’ Iker Casillas asked for the ref to blow early to protect the dignity of the vanquished Italian opponent?

Despite a tendency to lose dead rubbers, the Australian cricket juggernaut of the Waugh-Warne-McGrath era was once held up as the epitome of ruthlessness. Now, however, they have The Smith (Steven) and That Joke Isn’t Funny Anymore – they cannot kick us when we fall down, kick us when we fall down…

The boot is now on the other tootsie: England are 3-0 up with one to be washed out by Biblical rain play in the Republic of Mancúnia. Moreover, the Edgbaston wash-out means that the possibility of England usurping Australia’s Number 1 spot is no longer there as an obvious motive. Deliciously, therefore, this game shows in a somewhat naked light the degree of the team’s ruthless streak. Or, of course, its opposite.

Somebody wrote the following about all this in some film or novel called The Merchant of Venice: “The quality of mercy is not strain’d / It droppeth as the rain from heaven / Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives and him that takes that give”.

Either it comes freely, or it doesn’t. We are laid bare by the particular external triggers for our bloodthirstiness, and likewise for our compassion. So, do England go for the jugular, because, you know, they have these scores to settle?

Now, all of the above is true, except for the bit about being able to “tell a lot about a person from how they react when their football team goes 4-0 up with 20 minutes to go”. Because sometimes you cannot read the physical signs, the corporeal semiology, to discover the ‘true’ sentiments. We are pragmatic creatures. Sometimes we feign (for gain), sometimes we simulate; even animals do it, using camouflage to increase their powers in predatory war.

Sometimes we drape ourselves in a simulacrum of partisan sentiment for the sake of showing that it matters as much as it should do, and in the right way. And so it is for an England cricket fan that Australia becomes the enemy. And so it is that we rumble through the whole tedious charade, joylessly comforting ourselves that it is what is done. I began my piece for The Blizzard with the following paragraph, which appears germane here:

There are some rivalries – those ferocious cross-town antagonisms of Istanbul and Cairo, Athens and Rome, Belgrade and Buenos Aires, or the multifarious, volatile Latin American clásicos and superclásicos – that are hewn for the ages, it would seem: a self-perpetuating, endlessly renovated symbiotic loathing in which each new supporter is compelled, as a kind of initiatory sine qua non, to adopt a bone-deep, acid-sweat hatred of the Other Lot. Now, while a modicum of intellectual modesty and smidgeon of philosophical rigour ought to preclude us from asserting with absolute certainty that these tête-à-têtes are, despite appearances, fixed and eternal (yes, even the Auld Firm), the fact that they rumble forward at glacial speed – nourished by an animosity so viscous and seemingly implacable that fans on both sides of the divide never escape the gravitational pull of their compulsory mutual abhorrence – indeed creates the sense of a de facto permanence from which the supporters henceforth appear to derive their rigid identity.

It is emotional fascism: the demand that we feel the same thing because we understand the world in the same way, ‘we’ being the 200-odd collections of citizens from sovereign vessels that are thus deemed to trace the primary contours of who we are. It is all so juvenile. And the more abstract our means of identifying ourselves (flags, nations and other spiritual entities), the more voluble the demand for this enforced gregarity, the more intolerant we become. (You only need think of someone like Ian Botham claiming he would “hang” republicans if he could, to which the only reasonable reply is: Vote Botham.)

Frankly, nations – historical babies, mere artifices invented for the consolidation of bourgeois domination upon the slow decomposition of the feudal order – are so very passé. Boring, almost.

If they could do anything to arrest global warming and climate change, fine. If they had any hold over the fluid and perplexing financial mechanisms that asphyxiate us, this delirious irrational machine of our own devising that is little more than a magic spell, then I would endorse them. As it is, their sovereign power extends only to the enforcement of contracts that keep us enslaved. Is this the kind of idenity into which you wish to sink your heart and soul?

Of course, it is neither here or there whether sports teams compete as nations, cities, regions, or any other unit. What is important is the form, not the content, of our modes of self-identification. And sports teams, passionally invested, prime us for similarly segregative and restrictive senses of belonging elsewhere. Whatever the context (and I haven’t forgotten the starting point for all this), the more we police the borders between an Us and a Them, the more rigid the boundary becomes, the more paranoid we inevitably feel toward the other, the more we huddle together with “our own kind,” howsoever designated.

Abstract identification is a lose-lose game, a truly miserable way to live. Despite the exponential growth in the tattoo industry, we do not need to mark ourselves indefinitely as x or y. We can be a pebble over which the currents of desire and obligation course. We need becoming, not Being.

Religion, nation, sports team, musical subculture, political party – all are examples of “molar identity” that have to be unpicked (slowly, with caution, lest we plunge into the darkness of madness or fascism). And it is molar identity that is the breeding ground of the low-intensity ‘microfascism’ that, more than anything else, prevents us from, you know, managing our affairs as humanity very well. We are forever dividing ourselves up.

All of this self-ghettoization, wrote the great thinkers of micropolitics, Deleuze and Guattari, “does not coincide with divisions between classes, although it is an incomparable weapon in the service of a dominant class: it is this…that brings about the feeling of ‘indeed being one of us,’ of being part of a superior race threatened by enemies from the outside.”

D & G

When there’s a tragedy in cricket – the death of Tom Maynard – or a sad misfortune like the retirement of Mark Boucher today, everyone agrees that cricket “is just a game,” that it matters not a jot. All too often – and to focus solely in cricket just by way of example, not because it is particularly worse – people return, in the name of ‘getting on with things’, straight to thinking that the Ashes is the most important thing, the envelope of their world, refusing to look the iniquities of the world in the eye, smacked out on the opiate of sport as the grand old event being re-charged like a flat car battery until it crackles with significance.

But if the notion that cricket is ‘just a game’ is not to be a mere platitude, trotted out precisely to demonstrate that one understands how to play the emotional code, the need for gravitas, then perhaps we must carry the idea through to its logical outcome, which is this: if we are ever to advance as a ‘race’ or a species’ then the reflex veneration of traditional, hand-me-down identities needs to be rethought.

“History is a nightmare from which I’m trying to wake up,” wrote Joyce (James, not Ed) in Ulysses. To say much the same thing – and you might need a deep breath here – it is not an absolute positive to simply take on your father’s identity, or your community’s under the blackmail of ostracism, which is surely ready to become an archaism. As Nietzsche intuited, we need to forget just as much as we need to remember.

It could well be that the only chance we – humanity – have on this hunk of rock goes by way of politely divesting ourselves of our burdensome traditions, putting down the chunky old pooch of our imposed identity and setting off a new adventure that invents our identities, and does so on an equal footing, on new soil, not barricaded in our mental ghettoes. (And it is in this sense that soi-disant liberals who support multiculturalism, as presently understood, are in fact conservatives: seeking, deferentially, to preserve pockets of defensive incompatibility rather than start to become-x.)

Finally, an apology: I started writing in a sardonic mood, but my themes – and, yes, my circumstance – have dragged me into such territory. It’s my Lament for Humanity Lost. On the plus side, there is nothing under my carpet. 


Madog said...

Is it me or is your choice of language deliberatly
alienating those who aren't English Professors?

Scott Oliver said...

Sometimes I write in a 'popular' vein; sometimes I don't. This is a philosophical piece and the concepts deal with the unconscious dimension of social processes ('identity') so are perhaps not everyday. I certainly don't deliberately set out to make it incomprehensible, no.