Friday, 15 March 2019

tamper (the play in it)

‘The playing of the game is the playing of the game with that object, and the object of the game is therefore in part always to undertake a forensic trial of the object’s possibilities. One plays with the object in order to put its properties and possibilities in play, to discover and determine what play there is in it’ (Connor 2011: 123)

‘The children seem to be fighting, but they are merely learning to inhabit their country’ (Barthes 2007: 47)

My contexts here are in my own past: a childhood playing sport with genuine pleasure and commitment, while never really taking it fully seriously. I still conceive of it as a joyous folly, a kind of absorbing, immersive absurdity (1). As Steven Connor suggests in A Philosophy of Sport, sport is ‘triumph and disaster; everything, nothing; important, unimportant’ (Connor 2011: 48). The initial trigger for this revisiting of aspects of my past from over 40 years ago came in a file of school reports (from the ages of 5 to 18) handed to me by my father with a sigh about 18 months ago. These distilled, haiku-like assessments of a child’s abilities and aptitudes are illuminating and rather troubling in their fragmentary and elliptical account of an education in the 1960s and 1970s, its expectations and ‘tamperings’, its stratifying of different orders of ‘knowledge’, its explicit reiteration of what is valued and privileged, of what constitutes ‘success’ and ‘failure’, and the extraordinarily partial perception and construction of a young self-in-process. Clearly I was failing to understand that particular ‘game structure’, its rules and protocols. Ultimately the reports offer a litany of disappointment at my apparent lack of interest and attention in most classes (apart from art and music), with far too much staring out of the window, dreaming, chatting, an approach that is deemed altogether ‘maddeningly casual and easy-going’. They include this Latin report at the age of 9: ‘He has tried all the spivvish tricks, and has only now discovered that work is the best solution’ (what tricks were they?); and a despairing summary comment from the headmaster when I was just 11: ‘At present he is rather a stupid and idle boy. Despite our best efforts, I’m not sure we will ever be able to save him’. These failings are consistently offset and partially mollified, it seems, by my rather pointless sporting prowess – for example, this from a report on ‘games’ at the age of 12: ‘David is an expert thrower and an accurate bowler of considerable skill, but he lacks discipline and is not capitalizing on his gifts’ … (2).

In what follows, in part I am interested in reclaiming and valuing something of what the choreographer Alain Platel has called ‘suppressed virtuosities’ - redundant, devalued or forgotten techniques, currently functionless embodied skills or areas of expertise: in my case, in particular between the ages of 7 and 18, eye-hand coordination, and a peculiar aptitude for play with a variety of balls, bowling, throwing, catching, kicking, hitting, as well as an array of fairly esoteric techniques for ball tampering in cricket matches. Also in the back of my mind hover some attributes prized in the aesthetics of Italian football. Of the three vital ingredients required for the most accomplished football players and teams, Italian aficionados suggest that the unruly passion of English football lacks all three. These qualities are: technica (technique, skill); fantasia (the ability to do unpredictable and surprising things with the ball, inspired instinct, imagination, flair); and furbizia (cunning, guile, slyness, a tactical bending of the rules, aspects of gamesmanship).
‘He obviously enjoys acting – on and off stage!’ (School report, aged 16)

Cricket is a game of infinite repetitions, and attenuated discontinuous rhythms - long periods of apparent low-level activity (or even non-activity) and sudden flarings of intensity, in a durational game structure of great complexity that enables significant ‘play’ and unpredictabilities within that structure (including, for example, its porosity to the material effects of weather, cloud cover, wind etc.). For Steven Connor, like all ball games it is ‘a choreographed meteorology of speeds and durations’ within which the ball acts as ‘the switcher and transmitter of these speeds’ (Connor 2011: 77).

Over a period of about eleven years, I spent a significant amount of time during the spring and summer months playing school cricket as a medium-paced ‘swing bowler’ or ‘seamer’, a specialist in the production of unpredictable movement, swerve and bounce. As a bowler, one endeavours to set up the conditions for unpredictability, always projecting an object both related to and independent from you on a forward trajectory into the future, towards the ludic, agonistic encounter with the anticipatory and reflex skills of a batsman. My particular abilities, which remain at some level wholly mysterious to me, were ‘late swing’, a sudden alteration in the rate of change of the ball’s trajectory, amplified bounce or ‘kick’ off the pitch’s surface, and a cut-back off the seam at the moment of the ball’s striking the pitch, suddenly redirecting the ball in a different direction from that of its original swing through the air. To paraphrase Connor, the aim of this particular game was to play with your opponent by trying to prevent them from playing (with) you (131).

In all ball sports, the nature of the ball is paradoxical: inanimate and animate, object and subject, it seems to move in and out of its own agency; and in its passage and exchange, its status as intermediary, it weaves relations and constructs complex entanglements and intersubjectivities. The cricket ball’s structure comprises smooth leather surfaces on two halves of a sphere, with a raised, stitched seam encircling it; in this way, uniformity is combined with an element of unpredictability (Connor 2011: 138). The physical mechanics of swing (the ball’s ‘movement’) are intimately related to the transformation of the ball in time, its mnemonic registering of its histories of contact and collision, the biographical traces of what happens to happen to it; for ‘the cricket ball is designed to soak up accidents of all kinds’ (142). Over time its flawless, smooth surfaces roughen and soften slightly, the seam loosens and becomes uneven, and the object assumes a ‘lunar asymmetry’ (ibid).  In some ways, the ball mirrors the pitch itself, a ‘sphere, as it were, rolled out’ (139), a flattened and extended smooth surface that in itself becomes worn, marked and damaged over time by the contingencies of the game; it decays into ‘a scarred cartography of accidence’ (59). This gradual entropic deterioration of the idealized, immaculate integrity of two of the game’s core structural elements – ball and ground – is actively assimilated within and exploited by the game structure of cricket; and this growing material imperfection serves to compromise predictability and thus multiply the possibilities for a bowler keenly aware of the game’s intimate imbrication in processes of change over time.

According to articles 2.2.9 and 42.3 in the laws of cricket (sections concerning the alteration of the condition of the ball in the International Cricket Council’s formal ‘Code of Conduct’), the bowler and fielders are permitted to clean and polish the ball, sustaining its shine. They are prohibited, however, from using any other aids apart from bodily fluids – sweat, spit – and their own clothing (ICC 2017). One side of the ball is polished and carefully maintained, while the other is allowed (or caused) to deteriorate, therefore creating increased drag - ‘turbulent flow’ - on that side during its movement through the air as it travels along the line of the seam; in this way, the friction on the rougher hemisphere produces a bending of the line of flight – the swerving movement of a ‘curve-ball’.

‘Ball tampering’ is a term that refers to illegitimate means of gaining advantage by accelerating the deterioration of the condition of the ball, thereby unfairly interfering with the ‘orderly’ aerodynamics and legibility of its trajectory, and increasing swerve and unpredictability. There are long histories of tampering, documented since at least 1918 (see for example Birley 1999: 217, 316); and whenever it is exposed, it is decried as ‘not cricket’, ‘not playing the game’. In professional contexts it results in substantial fines and penalties. For example, the England captain Mike Atherton was seen on TV using dirt in his pocket at Lords in 1994; the Pakistan captain Shahid Afridi was captured on camera biting the seam in a match against Australia in 2010; and the wonderfully named South African bowler Vernon Philander was caught gouging the ball with his nails in 2014. In 2016, Faf du Plessis, the South African captain, was fined his entire match fee from the second test against Australia when TV images revealed him applying sugary saliva from a sucked mint to the ball. Most recently, during the fourth Ashes Test in Melbourne, Australia, in late December 2017, the England bowler Jimmy Anderson was recorded by Channel 9 TV cameras running his fingernails along the quarter seam of the Kookaburra ball, although any intentional ‘foul play’ was subsequently denied and dismissed by England officials as ‘Pommie-bashing’ gamesmanship.

In my early teens I was taught how to ‘work the ball’ (we never used the term ‘tamper’) by a warm, funny Yorkshireman who was the school cricket coach, a retired England and county cricket player celebrated as a canny, unreadable swinger and seamer. I was a sweet sucker and sugary polisher, although the ball was sometimes scuffed or further shined covertly by a couple of frotteur teammates in the field on its circuitous route back to me. I think I conceived of this as just part of the game and its tactics, an amoral adolescent understanding and play-ful acceptance of furbizia: a minor amplificatory tweaking of the ‘give’ in structure, the craft in ‘crafty’, and the meaning of ‘in mint condition’ …

Tampering techniques aim to produce subtle modifications of the game’s core object. Typically there are three core modes of tampering – picking and lifting the seam, roughening one side of the ball, and shining the other with concealed materials. Less commonly and more mysteriously, marking or scuffing the surface of the pristine, polished side, or picking, lifting and fraying the finer quarter seam that bisects that unblemished hemisphere, can also produce what is known as ‘reverse swing’. An inventory of tampering tools might include: for polishing and shining, Vaseline (concealed on one’s trousers, forehead or a handkerchief), lip balm, hair gel, sunscreen, saliva from sucking sweets; for roughening and scuffing, trouser zip, studs, dirt or gravel, or throwing the ball into the ground; and for lifting seams, finger nails, penknife, nail clippers, metal bottle top, zip. Each of these interventions has to be realised invisibly, and gradually, so as not to attract undue attention. The umpires have the right to inspect the ball at any time, to verify its integrity and the credibility of its gradual wearing and minor deformation as part of the game’s material knocks and frictions; and indeed they can decide to replace the ball with one of similar age and condition prior to tampering if the ball in play is deemed to be excessively damaged.

So tampering involves deception, simulation and disguise, discreetly and necessarily concealed within a performed and illusory pretense of playing by the rules and ‘playing the game’, while incrementally introducing a kind of sinister deviation in the predictable and orderly, a swerve of difference in repetition. Steven Connor suggests that cheating in such contexts is an affront to sport’s claimed ontology. For, he proposes, ‘sport is in its essence zealously non-symbolic and unillusory’, and its function is ‘to provide a place and an occasion from which all possibility of simulation has been scorched away, and in which one can be sure that whatever happens will reliably and irreversibly have happened’ (Connor 2011: 175). In some ways, perhaps there is an echo here of those absolutist claims made for performance art as manifest action and event, the actual happening of the ‘real’, in contrast to the subterfuges, shapeshiftings and tawdry pretense of a particular (and limited) conception of theatre, with its purported privileging of the underhand over the manifest, of seeming over being.

Two months after submitting this text for publication, ball tampering briefly became the focus of the international media, and triggered the performance of a great deal of indignant moral outrage, as if the fact that such tactics could be at play within the game of cricket was the most unforeseen and alarming of revelations. During the third Test match between South Africa and Australia in Cape Town in March 2018, television cameras and live-feed monitors in the stadium picked up Australia’s Cameron Bancroft rubbing the ball with a mysterious yellow object that he then concealed, with comically inept sleight-of-hand, down the front of his trousers. Approached by the umpires, Bancroft showed them a dark grey sunglass pouch from his side pocket, and no penalty was imposed at that time. However the close-up images of Bancroft’s actions had been widely disseminated, and the heightened media attention prompted an immediate investigation. Subsequently Bancroft and Australia’s captain Steve Smith admitted that in fact there had been an attempt to interfere with the ball’s condition, using sand paper as an abrasive tool, and that the tampering plan had been hatched during a lunch break by a ‘leadership group’ within the Australian camp. Formally charged with improper conduct by the ICC, Smith and Bancroft were heavily fined. In the wake of the players’ admission, the Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull (‘it beggars belief’) and a range of international commentators publicly condemned the players’ actions, and a formal investigation was undertaken by Cricket Australia. Ultimately Smith, Bancroft and David Warner, the Australian vice-captain (a notoriously aggressive competitor, and the apparent instigator of the tampering plan) were found guilty of cheating, lying and bringing the game into disrepute; they were sanctioned with lengthy bans from all international and domestic cricket. In addition, the Australian coach Darren Lehmann resigned. On their return to Australia, all three beleaguered players gave tearfully apologetic press conferences to the international media, in which they spoke of their shame, their failure as ‘men’, ‘leaders’ and ‘role models’, and their commitment to forthcoming reviews of the team’s culture and the conduct of professional sportsmen.

1. An earlier version of this material was presented as part of ‘The Things They Do’, an event curated by Joe Kelleher and Nicholas Ridout at the Barbican, London in July 2016, in response to the major retrospective exhibition by Ragnar Kjartansson at the Barbican Gallery.
2. A decade before my arrival, Derek Jarman attended the same secondary school. In his bleakly withering account of its educational ideologies and disciplinary regimes, he characterizes his experiences there in terms of ‘a vicious fraudulent gentility’ that ‘masks a system of bullying and repression, coupled with a deliberate philistine aggression towards learning and intelligence, which are only acceptable if saturated with the muddied values of the rugger pitch … The aggression carries over into many aspects of the teaching which serves not only to enlighten but to repress. A systematic destruction of the creative mind, called ‘education’, is underway … A subtle terror rules, thoughtfully preparing us for the outside world. I feel threatened, isolated and friendless – I’m hopeless at all the communal activities, particularly ball games’ (Jarman 1984: 51-2). Like Jarman, I found refuge in the astonishing openings and relative freedoms offered by the very same art teacher, an inspirational enthusiast and mentor to many ‘failing’ elsewhere; unlike Jarman, I was fortunate to be able to find other pleasures and enduring friendships in the complicities, physical release and escape that sport allowed, for some.

Barthes, Roland (2007). What Is Sport? (trans. Richard Howard), New Haven: Yale University Press.
Birley, Derek (1999). A Social History of English Cricket, London: Aurum Press.
Connor, Steven (2011). A Philosophy of Sport, London: Reaktion.
ICC (International Cricket Council) (2017). ‘Regulations – Playing: Code of Conduct for Players and Player Support Personnel – Effective September 2017’, ICC Rules and Regulations: KeyDocuments, accessed 10 December 2017.
Jarman, Derek (1984). Dancing Ledge, London: Quartet Books.

1. Seam: photo David Williams 
2. Old hand, new ball (‘whispering death’): photo Sue Palmer
3. A tampering toolkit: photo David Williams

First published in Performance Research 23: 4-5, 'On Reflection: Turning 100', October 2018: commissioned text for special 100th double issue of the journal

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

look again

'Ordinary human beings do not like mystery since you cannot put a bridle on it, and therefore, in general they exclude it, they repress it, they eliminate it - and it's settled. But if on the contrary one remains open and susceptible to all the phenomena of overflowing, beginning with natural phenomena, on discovers the immense landscape of the trans-, of the passage' (Cixous 1997: 51-2).

Within the humanities and social sciences in British universities, a particular conception of material histories and practices, broadly post-Marxist, has dominated discursive thinking, academic publishing and teaching for the last forty years or so. Unquestionably the invaluable array of conceptual tools and languages these critical perspectives have afforded has been enormously generative in diverse disciplinary contexts, providing the ground for radical reconceptions of history and its occluded others, and of power, knowledge, political agency, identity, representation, and so on. It has seeded and substantively informed the development of cultural studies, feminisms, post-colonialisms, and the proliferative deployment of critical theory in areas from anthropology to film studies, from geography to art history, theatre and performance studies. I confess to being one of the products and perpetrators of such an intellectual training, and I remain profoundly thankful for many of its enabling critical optics, concepts, strategies, and above all for its dissident spirit of inquiry: its reflexive invitation to look again at the naturalized, the received, the doxa, with a view to exposing what or who is overlooked or concealed or silenced. In the words of the novelist David Malouf:
‘the very habit and faculty that makes apprehensible to us what is known and expected dulls our sensitivity to other forms, even with the most obvious. We must rub our eyes and look again, clear our minds of what we are looking for to see what is there’ (Malouf 1994: 130).

When I was starting out as a young part-time academic in the 1980s, any mention in such contexts of ‘spirituality’ or the ‘numinous’ was almost invariably met with skepticism and suspicion, and a swift dismissal into the benighted conceptual bin marked ‘new age’. Thinking and practices claiming a relation to the spiritual or to perceptions of the ineffable, the unnameable, the metaphysical, the mystical were more often than not collapsed into the religious or the delusional, and discredited accordingly. Any ‘serious’ academic study of such practices and perceptions seemed unthinkable. More recently, however, despite the lingering resilience of this dis-enchanted partie prise towards the numinous, many such blindspot zones of ‘unthinkability’ have been revisited and reconceived from a diversity of critical domains, most notably deconstruction, new materialisms, feminisms, radical ecologies, and their intersections with post-quantum science and neurology. A number of widely influential philosophers and thinkers have articulated the conceptual means through which to open up to fresh critical attention areas of experience and consciousness with direct implications and possibilities for a nuanced exploration of the numinous: for example, Derrida’s negative epistemologies (the apophatic), Donna Haraway’s cyborgian ‘affinities’, Karen Barad’s posthuman ‘agential realism’, Jane Bennett’s ‘vibrant materialism’, Timothy Morton’s accounts of ‘humankind’ and of an ecology ‘without nature’, and, in the area of performance studies, analyses of performance epistemologies and ontologies by theorists including David George:
‘As an epistemology, performance offers: a rediscovery of the now, relocation in the here; return to the primacy of experience, of the event; rediscovery that facts are relations, that all knowledge exists on the threshold and in the interaction between subject and object (which are themselves only hypostatisations); a rediscover of ambiguity, of contradiction, of difference; a reassertion that things – and people – are what they do …’ (George 1999: 34).

Silvia Battista’s timely and invaluable book, which draws productively on a number of these scholars, forms part of a recent and growing reappraisal in contemporary academia’s critical relations with the numinous in art and performance. Battista shapes her book around detailed discussions of work by five international artists – Marina Abramovic, James Turrell, Ansuman Biswas, Marcus Coates, Wolfgang Laib – in order to clarify the perceptual propositions and effects/affects each of these practices trigger, the associational hermeneutic fields active in the particular works, and the shifts in consciousness and epistemologies they produce that might be deemed to be of a numinous order. The choice of artists and works necessarily represents a sample, outlining an initial mapping of certain typologies of contemporary performances of the numinous, rather than endeavouring to offer any exhaustive listing of such practices (1).

It is important to note that, in this context, Battista conceives of spirituality and numinous experience as outside the parameters of organized religion. The works of the contemporary artists she includes here offer instances of a (post-)secular sacred activated by embodied events of perception, each of them generating manifestations beyond the cognitive emprise of the ego. Battista suggests that these extra-ordinary and ex-centric events, in some ways akin to Walter Benjamin’s notion of ‘profane illumination’, can be provoked by particular disciplines and performative structural configurations (Foucault’s ‘technologies of the self’) to produce a palpable flaring into presentness and consciousness of dynamic processes, entanglements, interconnections, pulsing materialities and plural agencies. So, for example, Battista analyses the labour intensive and painstaking gathering, placement and framing of pollen by means of which the German artist Wolfgang Laib creates the conditions for the pollen itself to take (a) place, to happen in its specificity as auratic event entangled in myriad other processes of emergence, collection and dispersal; and in this way, the pollen itself mysteriously ‘comes to matter’. In themselves, these events of inter-/intra-action implicitly challenge mechanistic models of science - and conventional conceptions of knowledge - characterized by binary cleftings, immutable boundaries, the narrowly causal and instrumental, the ‘ego-logical’. Moreover, as Battista goes on to propose, apprehension of this motile, relational mesh of intersecting forces furnishes the potential for a posthuman, ecological critique of received ideas about hierarchies of agency, authorship, and species.

The performative tools employed by the five artists under consideration here, mobilised to decentre and displace habitual modes of perception, invite other less familiar qualities of receptive attention that can give rise to unsettling, mysterious ‘landscapes of the passage’ as described by Hélène Cixous at the very beginning of this text. As Cixous goes on to insist, an openness and susceptibility to ‘the phenomena of overflowing, beginning with natural phenomena’ (i.e. an openness to the numinous):
‘does not mean that everything will be adrift, our thinking, our choices, etc. But it means that the factor of instability, the factor of uncertainty, or what Derrida calls the undecidable, is indissociable from human life. This ought to oblige us to have an attitude that is at once rigorous and tolerant and doubly so on each side: all the more rigorous than open, all the more demanding since it must lead to openness, leave passage: all the more mobile and rapid as the ground will always give way, always’ (Cixous 1997: 52).

Instability, rigour, tolerance, openness, mobility, speed (and slowness, its shadow, out of and into which it unfolds), and dissolution into renewed uncertainty: the cyclical trajectory of an engagement with the unmasterable spaces of ‘the passage’ as traced by Cixous – and Battista in her book - proposes an ongoing ethical disposition towards the in-excess, the not-known, the not-yet-known, the unthinkable, the radically other, the fleetingly glimpsed, the profoundly paradoxical. And at the heart of what follows in this book is an invitation to an active porosity and receptivity to non-mastery in the face of the encounter event with the other-than-oneself, which one might usefully conceive of in terms of an opening to the ‘eco-logical’. For we are always already implicated – literally, ‘en-folded’ – in other subjectivities, agencies, forces, phenomena, realities.

In order to give a future to the virtual space of the future (l’avenir) and to the others that are us, we need practices and philosophies of inter-located passage rather than of fixed ground or territory, in the present unfolding of a democracy that is, as Jacques Derrida, Chantal Mouffe and others have suggested, always provisional, insufficient, in process, always ‘to come’ (l’à-venir). It is apparent that identity and location, for example, are produced as much through narration as through what already exists: they are more a matter of doing than knowing. As Battista demonstrates, certain kinds of art and performance provide opportunities to unsettle and refashion those heterogeneous personal mappings that we are continuously making up and over, and out of which we constitute our-‘selves’ and/in the world. The art practices that form the focus of her book elaborate structures for perceptual and existential realignments, amplificatory re-attunements that can enable a kind of fluid, performative ‘auto-topography’; this in turn encourages and activates shifting senses of self, space, place and reality - rather than the ‘self’ or the ‘world’ occurring preformed, as if they were pre-existent entities rubbing up against each other. When space, time, self are conceived as ‘a multiple foldable diversity’ (Serres and Latour 1995: 59), a field of flows and intensities - spacing, timing, selfing – then perhaps a dynamically porous self-in-process and in-relation can fray just a little the dualist territorial imaginaries of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’, of self-identity in binary opposition to radical alterity. If one can accept the paradox that the continuity of identity is secured through movement and the capacity to change rather than the ability to cling on to what is already established, as Zygmunt Bauman has suggested (1999: xiv), then one’s responsibility is to abandon the logics of mastery, to ‘look again’ and listen otherwise, and let untimely, numinous elements of all sorts of ‘outsides’ in-here. In this way identity can become ‘a point of departure for a voyage without guarantees, and not a port of arrival’ (Chambers 2001: 25); and ‘home’ (oikos, the eco-, and the self itself) can be considered no longer as a ‘fixed structure’, but as ‘a contingent passage, a way that literally carries [one] elsewhere’ (ibid: 26).

(1) Other artists whose work would seem to be of potential relevance in this context might include, for example, Joseph Beuys, Tehching Hsieh, Yoko Ono, Hermann Nitsch, Bill Viola, Francis Alys, Susan Hiller, Olafur Eliasson, John Newling and Lindsay Sears, as well as the recent performance work of British artists Abigail Conway (An Evening with Primrose, 2017) and Florence Peake.

Bauman, Zygmunt. Culture as Praxis, London: Sage, 1999
Chambers, Iain. ‘A Question of History’, in Culture after Humanism: History, Culture, Subjectivity, London: Routledge, 2001, pp. 7-46
Cixous, Hélène with Mireille Calle-Gruber. Rootprints: Memory and Life Writing (trans. Eric Prenowitz), London: Routledge, 1997
George, David ER. Buddhism as/in Performance, New Delhi: DK Printworld, 1999
Malouf, David. Remembering Babylon. London: Vintage, 1994
Serres, Michel and Latour, Bruno. Conversations on Science, Culture and Time (trans. Roxanne Lapidus), Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1995

Image: Wolfgang Laib, Pollen mountain (2015) - pollen from hazelnut

First published as 'Look again: landscapes of the passage', the foreword to Silvia Battista's Posthuman Spiritualities in Contemporary Performance: Politics, Ecologies and Perceptions, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018