With all its banality, mundanity and omnipresence, it is difficult to overrate the social, economic and cultural significance of modern, organised spoWith all its banality, mundanity and omnipresence, it is difficult to overrate the social, economic and cultural significance of modern, organised sport. It/they fill(s) our televisions stations, generate powerful economic forces (I live in Cheltenham in England; the week of writing is also the week we host the biggest event in the National Hunt calendar, a race meeting similar in size to Ascot and Epsom: it is impossible this week to escape the signs of cultural significance or economic impacts) and generally provide a potent social glue – certainly for men, and increasingly for women. Increasingly we engage with sport, and increasingly our sport is shaped, framed and structured, at a transnational level, and that’s without even going down the globalisation line.
This impressive transnational exploration of contemporary cultures and economies of sport is an important contribution to debates on national and transnational sport in a broader European context. Central to this important is the ability of most authors to approach European sport as transnational practice, and even the two papers that deal with specific national settings (Kay Schiller on East Germany in 1973 and Lindsay Sarah Krasnoff on French sport policy) manage to do so while also developing important comparative, transnational aspects of their discussions. This approach is rare in sport studies, which as a field is potently demarcated by national borders (either physical or cultural).
In weaving together analyses prioritising states, media and markets the editors have produced a collection of papers that deal with both historical and contemporary tensions in that there are aspects of the media & markets factors that challenge and disrupt the nations/states (noting the very real difference between these) dynamics of sport cultures and identities. Although in the era of neo-liberal globalisation there has been a tendency to overstate the death of the nation, there is no doubt that the movement of capital associated with financial capitalism has profoundly changed the relationship between states, markets, identities, cultural and social relations and the dynamics of power. This points to the significance of this collection beyond the world of sport studies: the mundanity and banality of sport highlights the extent and depth of these tensions as states, markets and quotidian practice all compete to assert their dominance in the meanings of sport praxis. In case we’re in any doubt about this, Toby Miller’s brief afterword highlighting sport’s key place in the New International Division of Cultural Labour and pointing to a research agenda suggested by the topics and issues traversed in these papers, bringing it all home forcefully.
One of the things the collection does well is take an inclusive and extensive definition of Europe, so there are chapters exploring Soviet physical culture and the place of (ice) hockey in Cold War politics, highlighting Soviet & Czechoslovak (is it was) inter-relations and relations the USA and Canada. As part of this expansiveness, one of the stand-out papers is Maarten von Bottenberg’s exploration of European and US sport models that rejects the myth of US exceptionalism in favour a sense of path dependency pointing to key moments of change and the dynamics and fluidity of the existing conditions – that is, a rejection of some form of essentialism in favour of a more nuanced and complex social reading of factors shaping (and in some senses determining) these models.
This critical model making is a key part of this collection (and of the UK Arts & Humanities Research Council Network Grant project Tomlinson, Young & Holt ran that lead to this book and several other publications). This means that we see efforts to propose models of mediated sport, of nation-branding in mega-events, of the regulation of sport and of the idea of a Europeanized football. All these (and essays such as Stefan Szymanski’s modelling of sport-television markets) mean that this is very definitely a piece of academic analysis – but then the collection features several of Europe’s leading sports scholars; more significantly, although not explicitly (except in Miller’s piece) this collection makes a potent case for considering sport as a cultural industry. As such, the collection deserves a readership well beyond the usual academic sport studies crew. As such, it is good to see it published in the Economic and Social Research Council’s ‘Culture, Economy and Society’ series, which should mark it as having a wide market.
Although I don’t expect profound transformation of a field of study to flow from a single text, I do remain frustrated that six years after it was first published we’ve barely changed from our increasingly narrow nation focus in sport studies. If nothing else, Miller’s research agenda should have pushed us further than that….. but alas it seems we’re not listening to ourselves. This is a fabulous collection worthy of much wider impact. ...more
C. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary is widely proclaimed as one of the great sports books, as one of the founding books of post-colonialism and finesC. L. R. James’s Beyond a Boundary is widely proclaimed as one of the great sports books, as one of the founding books of post-colonialism and finest book about cricket that there is – so to propose to move Beyond C.L.R. James is a bold and provocative move. It is to their credit and that of their contributors that Nauright, Cobley & Wiggins make a good fist of the idea, of developing a series of essays that build on and extend James’ work and ideas. Before I go any further here I have to note that I am one of those contributors and only one of two (the other is Hilary Beckles) to specifically and explicitly address James’s work.
Modern sport, for all its claims to democracy, equality, meritocracy and the like has been a racialized project from the outset of the codification of games in Britain and elsewhere, and from the deployment of sport and physical culture in the European imperial and colonial projects of the 19th century. Physical culture, including sport, has been deployed in the interests of maintaining or shoring up the racial hierarchies of empire, where both play and styles of play have been used to demarcate levels and forms of civilisation – be they British cricket matches in the High Veldt or German music and dancing parties on the Samoan beach. What is more, the discourses of race and ethnicity pervade modern sport – the bogus science of the genetic advantage of the Black athlete, the reactionary cultural claims of the weak, lethargic ‘Oriental’ or the myth of ‘natural’ athleticism.
At the very heart of this book is a strident critique of these views and of the place of sport as a marker and maintainer of racialised and ethnic hierarchies and with them some critical analyses that may surprise some. The papers are varied, from the synthetic historical overview of indigenous peoples or migrant communities in national sport mythologies (Daryl Adair on Aboriginal Australians and Gerry Gems on Italian Americans) to close readings and studies of single athletes or moments (such as Verner Møller’s analysis of a case of racial vilification in English soccer or James McBean, Michael Freidman and Callie Batts on Usain Bolt’s 2008 celebratory style). There is a good representation of researchers from across the disciplines in sport studies – history, sociology, anthropology and philosophy – and of contemporary and historical topics, although it not surprising given the editors that there seems to be a stronger presence of historians than any other discipline.
As with much in the academic sports studies field, it is not an easy read – and some of the analysts draw on some difficult theoretical frames (mea culpa) but for the most part the collection rewards patience, and even the papers that I did not find all the engaging or relevant to my own work proved valuable. That said, and it may be the result of my own interests, current work and knowledge gaps that I found most rewarding the two papers dealing with South African issues – Doug Booth and John Nauright on embodied identities (even if I wasn’t all that convinced by their theories of embodiment) and Benedict Carlton & Robert Morrell on Zulu stick fighting as a form of indigenous body culture in a tense relationship with colonisation and sportisation. Others will no doubt prefer different pieces: Jennifer Lansbury’s essay Alice Coachman and Althea Gibson stood out, as did Mike Atkinson & Kevin Young on the whiteness of adventure sports; again, others will have different preferences.
For the most part, the University of Arkansas press has done a good job – the book looks elegant, bit it is marred by some proofing errors (including in my piece some missing text so all the endnotes are linked to the wrong reference – being out by one).
That said, the text is rich, varied and valuable. It opens up new debates in the history and sociology of race & ethnicity in sport. Some of its detailed studies should suggest new research projects in other locations and settings – although a conclusion drawing together some of those strands and suggesting a research agenda would have been a helpful addition....more
Some time in the mid-1980s I recall, for a reason that eludes me, finding myself – at the time an advocate and rabble-rouser of sorts (or so I liked tSome time in the mid-1980s I recall, for a reason that eludes me, finding myself – at the time an advocate and rabble-rouser of sorts (or so I liked to think of myself) – in a pricey commercial lawyer’s den. Part way through the meeting he cited the classic line from Henry IV, Pt1 “But let us kill all the lawyers”: it was the first time I’d heard Shakespeare’s advocacy of juridicide – and as the years have gone by it seems to have acquired a populist following….. Lindsey Davis, in Falco’s 15th drolly witty and oh, so cynical outing has barely a kind word for the legal profession seen here as long game charlatans, exploiting their legal and senatorial positions for corrupt self-aggrandisement and pocket lining. Contempt for lawyers has a long (fictional, at least) pedigree.
Falco, still of an equestrian ranking but with excellent noble associations and bedmate, finds himself, and Associates, the sharp Helena Justina and her senatorial brothers drawn into legal proceedings involving corruption charges, murder, blackmail and all manner of jurisprudential malfeasance that threaten mayhem and destitution. The young brothers in law are coming along nicely, the imperial post as Procurator of Juno’s Geese keeps the household in omelettes, the children of course always well-behaved and young Albia, brought back from the recent outings to Britannia, seems handy in self- and household-defence when she needs to be. But Falco and associates find themselves up against players of the long game, looking to take down, or at least fleece, a vulnerable senatorial family with a secret.
There is all the cynicism and witty dialogue we’d expect of M D Falco, rich and compelling grounding in a thoroughly plausible imperial Rome and a suitably labyrinthine plot: thoroughly enjoyable – Davis and Falco & Associates continue to delight....more
Britain’s Special Operations Executive was one of the dramatic stories of WW2 – daring behind the lines operations, supporting partizans in what becomBritain’s Special Operations Executive was one of the dramatic stories of WW2 – daring behind the lines operations, supporting partizans in what become Yugoslavia and all manner other heroic activities – but it had ceased to exist by the end of 1946, after what is usually seen as a turf war with the Security Intelligence Service (MI6). This much is true….. but in Charles Stross’ alt-world a small unit remains, working out of a London basement, combatting incursions from parallel universes, as the Cold War has ended but the struggle to defend the world against the supernatural continues.
Highly inventive, Stross rolls together the excitement of spy thrillers (think Bond, Len Deighton or any number of other British writers in this genre) with a big dollop of horror/alt-world characters a la H P Lovecraft or Buffy with a healthy dose of computer and science geekery, roll in the Saddam era Iraqi secret police, some persistent Nazis (SS units that just won’t go away, even though it involves alternative universes) and a philosophy professor with an interest in arcane logic problems and you’ve the bizarre world of The Laundry.
Stross has a superb eye for bureaucratic absurdity, babble-o-rama management-speak jobsworths and the dangers of poorly controlled inter-universe entity transfers along with a style that gives us a rollicking good yarn. What’s more, his engineering geek-speak and science-babble is thoroughly plausible and just sufficiently incomprehensible to be real, which some of it might be but big chunks of it is the delights of richly developed imagination.
All in all, lots of fun – and what’s more, it is the first of a series to keep me entertained....more
Utopias present us with all sorts of problems: to be utopian is the live in La-La-Land, a region of the impractical, the unfeasible, the impossible; iUtopias present us with all sorts of problems: to be utopian is the live in La-La-Land, a region of the impractical, the unfeasible, the impossible; it is to fail to recognise the realities on the ground that prevent the formation of that utopian ideal. What’s more, the great utopian projects of the 20th century – be it a universal utopia as modelled in the Soviet Union and Peoples’ Republic of China, or the utopia for the few as seen in Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy or Franco’s Fascist Spain – proved to be failures, and only brought about through coercion, in itself surely a sign of non-utopia.
Yet, there is a growing interest in utopias. At the time of writing we have a new edition of Thomas More’s 1516 novel has been published with commentaries by two leading science fiction writers, while elsewhere the real utopias project associated with Erik Olin Wright has been exploring and developing ways of thinking and doing left wing politics. For many of us, the horizontalism associated with the politics of the Occupy movement, presented as a form of prefigurative politics (i.e., doing what we want the world to look like) is a form of utopian activism, while for others the way as activists we organise our daily lives includes experimenting with collectivist, liberatory politics as practice.
Not that this is necessarily new. Thoreau settled at Walden Pond, alternative lifestylers for centuries have built new ways of living – from the Levellers at St George’s Hill to commune dwellers worldwide to the survivalists who have retreated to the more remote areas of North America – all in the hope of finding a new world now. Amid all of this, it should be clear from the struggles to make sure any of these attempts hold together, to attempt to scale up our small, face-to-face utopian adventures and to get past the La-La-Land critique that there are some major conceptual challenges.
This is where Davina Cooper comes into play. She’s most interested in the most banal of utopian efforts (and in some cases it is hard to see the utopian in some of the issues she is dealing with). Whereas activist scholars such as Wright, with his more conventionally Marxist background, explicitly draws on activities that are conceived as alternatives to capitalism or a least predominantly capitalist ways of work and ownership (publicly owned cooperatives, Wikipedia and the like), Cooper explores less obviously anti-capitalist ways of doing and being. In part, this is because in some ways she seems less interested in the actual cases she is exploring than how those utopias are conceived, envisaged and made real (realised): this is not to question her obvious political commitment to at least some of the cases. Whereas Wright, for instance, is concerned with modes and forms of social change, Cooper is interested the dialogue between thinking and doing, in the issues and challenges involved in turning ideas and visions (a utopian view) into practical, on the ground activity.
All this adds up to make this a demanding and challenging read: Cooper is a political theorist and lawyer. She is not exploring examples of full immersion utopias where we live, breath and do utopian life (albeit, prefiguratively); she is interested instead in the transient, partial or momentary utopian activity, what she calls “hotspots of innovative practice” (p9), and in doing so she occupies a place in contemporary utopian studies (yes, a field of scholarly activity) that is interested in the conflicts, the processes and the choices that surround utopias, not the ideal state of perfection so often associated with the vision of Thomas More or Charlotte Perkins Gilman.
The work is philosophically complex (especially for those of us grounded in more classical philosophies): Cooper draws quite extensively and for the most part implicitly on Deleuzian approaches in developing her notion of conceptual lines (linked to notions of movement and direction) to explore the associations between imagining and realisation of utopian ways. This complexity is compounded because the cases are in some cases so profoundly ordinary – state sponsored equality policies, nudist clubs and Hyde Park’s Speakers’ Corner – that they seem to sit uncomfortably with leftish oriented social change, but also because in many ways the forms of ‘realisation’ are so ordinary that they do not seem utopian – and this is the very power of the analysis. This ordinariness is brought into powerful contrast and given its power by the other, less ordinary, cases – a bathhouse catering to women and transsexuals, local exchange trading schemes and Summerhill School; instances few of us will have encountered.
Even so, the mainly implicit form that these philosophical and related political approaches take mean that the focus can remain on what she sees as “material practice and change” (p32) in considering utopias, rather than either some notion of utopia-as-perfection (so is unattainable) or concepts grounded in the now that maintain the status quo (so prevents change). As a result, although this is political theory and concerned with concepts as they derive from what we might see as the relations/dialogues between theory & practice, the grounding of each case study in ‘material practice’ means that the case and argument remains more accessible than had operated at the level of idealised concepts alone. Even more so because the cases explore social life through the experiences of those who are relatively powerless, via forms that are outside the mainstream. Empathetic readers can then not only find places to think from but locate themselves in places to think about in productive and exciting ways.
The banality of the examples/case studies means also that the ideas and concepts being explored and developed – ideas of gift (non-reciprocal) exchange, autonomous control, play, spaces of liberty and independence and so forth – can be considered in other banal settings: for instance, I was introduced to this work through a colleague working on spaces provided for parkour training – that is, for some a casual, for others a serious, place of leisure with implications of subversion of both sport and body practices and of the city. The notion of everyday utopias allows us to consider those moments of freedom in our ordinary lives, consider how the ideas and concepts we use to make sense of those places and their associated practices enhance and are enhanced by those moments of freedom.
This is a rich, in places dense, and demanding scholarly text – but a valuable one, even for those of us more concerned about intentional real and everyday utopias. ...more
Sardonic, delightfully twisting with a degree of satisfaction as the (anti)hero delivers a poke-in-the-eye to power or oppression (sides of the same cSardonic, delightfully twisting with a degree of satisfaction as the (anti)hero delivers a poke-in-the-eye to power or oppression (sides of the same coin in noir-world): I enjoy a good bit of noir-land. In this case it is woven into 14 stories native lead characters or native themes, mainly in the US mainland but taking in Puerto Rico and Canada and for the most part written by native authors. There are tales of revenge, of self-protection, of the grime-laden world outside the confines of what the law usually (or ever) allows.
Several of the stories are unremittingly bleak, where either a racist system, attitude or bad choices and a combination of all three conspire to drive the (anti)hero to misery, destitution or an untimely end. With one exception there is a welcome absence of mysticism, while there is a decent handful of femmes fatale, one seemingly murderous child and another cynical exploitation of indigenous political movements.
Yet, the thing noir does best is the power it gives to the powerless; the outsider is often the one who comes out best – even if that is the remain alive. Even when he does, one central character strikes a blow against contemporary exploitation as well as the personal costs of living in a colonial régime where even those who try to do good do damage.
Aside from the most bleak – four contemporary and historical tales – and one where it is clear that no good can come of anything each of these stories leads to a satisfying sense of come-uppance and (anti)heroic success. Despite that sense of satisfaction, short story collections are always a mixed bag, whether multi- or single-authored: for the most part however this collection is rewarding, and has introduced me to a group of native authors I’d not met before – I’ll certainly be looking for more by Mistina Bates and A A HedgeCoke....more
This sparse, moving collection of poems and photos continues and extends Harvey’s ‘war’ project, seen in her two most recent albums Let England ShakeThis sparse, moving collection of poems and photos continues and extends Harvey’s ‘war’ project, seen in her two most recent albums Let England Shake and The Hope Six Demolition Project in which she explores the experience, the emotions and the memorialisation of wars.
Focussing on three sites of conflict – Kosovo/Kosova, Afghanistan and Washington DC – Harvey’s clean, in places sparse, poetry and Murphy’s unsettling photos grapple with past and present conflicts, continuing and unknown (or a least unrecognised) sites of war. In Kosovo, a military conflict over in the 1990s is shown as continuing to live in the towns, villages and countryside of what is now a small, disputed European state. These are photos of continuing, banal existence in the context of a war of ethnic cleansing – burnt out houses, dead livestock, absent corpses, the everyday ordinariness of loss. Alongside these, Harvey’s poetry speaks of the continuing the presence of those that otherwise seem absent (that is, of the potency of memory in evoking the past in the present) and the continual sense that there might just be some return to a former balance, while acknowledging that that can never be.
If Kosovo is war’s past, Afghanistan is war’s continuing presence, its continuing marred landscapes that are open but inaccessible, while in use by virtue of necessity. The corpses are present here, the gaols empty but a looming threat, the livestock living, the people’s blank faces psychologically scarred and the cricket just a little desperate. The recurring poetic theme is the beggars, in need of a dollar – a failure of liberation by vengeful war. This theme is accompanied by efforts made to ensure empathy, to understand; by being lead to the experiences unseen by outsiders but that make universal the experience of military conflict; of the persistence and longevity of the detritus of war. This, the largest section of the three, is a condemnation of a poorly conceived war in an inadequately understood environment accompanied by the arrogance of a correctness on behalf of those being liberated.
It’s the Washington DC section that is, in some ways, the most unsettling. Here is the cockpit driving the Afghan experience, while the focus is not on the military adventurism abroad but conditions of life for the city’s low income, working class, principally but far from exclusively Black population – which I cannot avoid reading as one side of DC’s class war. There is beauty and poverty, exhaustion and debate, work and affection – and in poetic form persistence, resilience, memorialisation and a sense of the playfulness of the everyday, along with the beggars failed by the war on poverty and failed now. By including the federal capital the collection points to something rotten at the core of global superpowerdom, suggesting a global dynamic of shared loss.
Murphy’s eye is near flawless, challenging and evoking the ways we see. Harvey’s poetry is clean, sparse and in places deceptively simple. It may be my yearning for the archive, but I would have liked to have known a little more about the photos. Even so, it is well worth it to stop off in the hollow of this hand....more
Swing Time’s nameless narrator traverses the world in support of celebrity, but never quite seems to leave Willsden….. as with NW and The Cambodian EmSwing Time’s nameless narrator traverses the world in support of celebrity, but never quite seems to leave Willsden….. as with NW and The Cambodian Embassy Zadie Smith’s characters don’t leave this north London home, with its gradations of class, race and gender, its hierarchies of power and success and its ‘everyplace and therefore distinctive’ sense of being in the contemporary world. Woven throughout this seemingly small tale of friendship, the meaning of success and the bonds of kinship (both consanguineal and fictive) is a much bigger story of identity and security in a precarious life-space, of uncertainty, of the presumptions of celebrity, of the effects of poorly conceived charity and of options, or lack of them, for women of colour in what we once called the first and third worlds.
At the heart of the story is the narrator’s friendship with the only other brown girl in her childhood dance class – Tracey, who has talent, which our narrator lacks, and both have a deep love of theatre and dance – and her strained relationship with her increasingly ‘right on’ activist mother, and tangentially with her employer Aimee, a mega-celebrity singer in the Madonna mould. Aside from a short NYC section, a period at university in what seems like Brighton or Eastbourne, a short working career in Camden and occasional forays into a Chelsea-like workplace, most of the action takes place in Willsden, which has adult and child versions, and rural Gambia. Both Willsden and Gambia have seemingly impenetrable local mores, networks and relations that perplex our narrator – as a child or as a representative of the global culture industries. Each also has close friendship networks that are not quite what they seem, women with great aspiration and limited options some of which seem decidedly dangerous or at best very limiting.
At the heart of the narrator is a deep sense of ennui, of being an impersonator and failing to fit, of being uncertain of her place in the world, of being overshadowed by Tracey and her mother (and of relishing her father’s acceptance of whatever she does). She has real talent – as a singer, not a dancer – which she delights in as a child as others are preparing for dance class, but the one time she shows this talent in public Aimee threatens to sack her, and there is a profound shift in their relationship away from #1PA to a state of being punished. This uncertainty means that in each of her three primary relations with women – Tracey (friend, sometimes), Aimee (employer, always) and her mother – our narrator is very much the junior party, an interloper directed in ways she allows herself to be lead, or away from where her mother thinks she could be; she remains lost until her mid-30s when we last see her, back in Willsden.
The novel works much better than Smith’s previous ones, in part because the writing has got much tighter – it feels a lot more like an editor has done their job here. The childhood sections sparkle with wit and a narratorial style that engages, drawing me into a bond based in a shared passion and uncertain acceptance of shared and distinctive fantasies. In part, I suspect, because our narrator fits comfortably into Willsden (as Smith once did) the childhood friendship and adult ex-friendship with Tracey works well: there is a real comfort about both the relationship and the place. The Aimee sections work fairly well (we can at least imagine the world of celebrity) but the Gambian elements feel a little flatter, with a little more necessary explanation, although I appreciate the way Smith leaves to our imaginations the politics of the austere Islamic sect woven into this section.
The structure, moving between different times within and between the book’s seven sections built around stages of a life cycle, in places adopting developmental, in other historical section titles – ‘Middle Passage’ can never not come as a laden label, works effectively to allow us to watch the dynamics of each of the three women-centric relationships unfold and unravel. All the while, the narrator’s passivity denying her role in both processes as she openly discusses and reflects on that role: Smith seems to have succeeded in developing a narrator’s voice that concurrently admits and denies agency, a character to whom things happen, who seems to drift while making specific choices and decisions that take her to the place she is – agency with ennui, a sort of un-self-aware reflexivity, is a complex dynamic: in the narrator Smith gets it right.
Concurrently at home and away, the narrator finishes up being not all that likeable, even though she keeps her engaged and engaging voice, as her story carries us to places and worlds that seem both alien and familiar – that’s part of the art of good fiction. But then none of the characters is all that likeable: certainly recognisable and not dislikeable, just richly rounded and deeply flawed, ambitious, stuck, out of place (be that where they are or where they want to be) but never mere cyphers of the gendered, raced, classed characteristics.
Smith kept me engaged, wanting to know what happens next, struggling to resist the glance-to-the-end (not that that would have helped and we know by page 3 where the narrative arc ends up – well, almost but not quite: it is a little more complex than the Prologue suggests). Don’t start this if you think the next week is going to be busy – give yourself time fall into the story, roll around with the characters and get drawn into the just-one-more-chapter trap....more