Malcolm's Reviews > Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague

Barbaric Sport by Marc Perelman
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Sep 24, 12

bookshelves: sport-studies, marxism-and-the-left
Read from September 20 to 22, 2012

One of the several great strengths of this challenging small (in size, not ideas) book is its reminder of just how ordinary so much ‘critical’ evaluation of sport has become, and more to the point just how constricting is the scholarship we often see as ‘critical’. This is, in around 130 pages, a demolition job – not of play, not of physical activity, not of exercise, not of movement, but of the corporatized, business oriented, commodifed behemoth that is global sport. At one stage Perelman observes that “intellectual and academics rallied round [sport], very often adopting an openly populist posture (‘The people are there, let’s be there too’)” (p 113), noting that this rallying round happened because we (academics) were “unable to discern in sport one of the great totalitarian systems of modern times”: I found myself recoiling in the manner of a revisionist scholar (those of us whose opening statement is usually a form of ‘it’s not that simple’), that this is not the way it is for all of us – but I fear he is right. As an academic analyst of sport, as one who makes a living out of studying it, I am it seems expected to like it. In the 12 years that I have been employed as an academic sport analyst I cannot think of the number of times I have been asked “what’s your sport”, but I always enjoy the almost guaranteed shock (or at least discomfort or perplexity) on the questioner’s face when I say I don’t have one and don’t particularly like sport; I study it because it is important, in the same way as I pay attention to the crisis of financial capitalism, global warming and Tory education policy – because they are important economically, socially, culturally or politically.

The challenge and sense of being unsettled by this book came from two principle sources. The first was the reminder of the extent to which I internalised a very specific British cultural studies view of cultural politics that is defined by a particular form of Gramscian analysis, of a constant, almost Manichean, distinction and struggle between wars of position and wars of movement where in bad times (we seem to have been in bad times for most of the last 40 years) we need to accept the constant vying for spaces of resistance that typify wars of position. In these bad times, the best we can hope for with a war of position, as the oppressed struggle against ‘power’ by finding spaces to claim as their own and to act out oppositional moments. Perelman demands that we step beyond that resigned sense of being satisfied with ‘resistance through rituals’ (to steal a phrase from one of the early texts of this form of analysis) to consider sport’s current power as it is woven through the globalised neo-liberal order and consider what we might need to do to launch a war of movement that annihilates sport in its regulated, corporate, commodified, disciplined form: that is, to annihilate sport as what it has become.

The second source of my sense of being unsettled (in my work) came from the reminder of what this book builds on – the eclectic, disruptive Marxism of the Quel Corps cluster of French analysts of the mid to late 1970s. Although he explicitly cites this group, the text that weaves its way through this essay, for me, is Jean-Marie Brohm’s late ‘70s (in English at least) Sport, A Prison of Measured Time, perhaps the most important of the 1970s Marxist critiques of sport taking as it does a labour process view of sports participation. In my reading there is a sense that Perelman has revisited Brohm and in some respects revised, reviewed, updated and modified by extending or rejecting key elements of his argument to apply this mode of thinking to the early 21st century with its spectacles of finance capitalism, neo-liberal social relations and display. This is not to say this is simply a restatement of Brohm’s case, it most certainly is not, but Brohm’s work (in my reading at least) provides the launching pad for this piece.

Perelman draws on a wide group of ideas – there is a little Freud, a lot of Benjamin, Adorno and Horkheimer, more than a little Marcuse (he becomes quite important towards the end), a bit of Bloch and through it all I detect a residual Trotskyism (I may be wrong here, this is based almost entirely on a general sense of the text and several turns of phrase) – to range across a set of the central issues in contemporary sport. There are the vital points that doping is not aberrant but essential to high performance sport (Paul Dimeo makes a similar argument that doping is inherent in the logic of competitive sport), that sport is widely used to find ways to incorporate young people into their expected social roles (witness the emphasis on sport as a way to combat ‘anti-social’ behaviour), that the global reach of sport has contributed to a standardised global aesthetic of movement, that the stadium is a space that exists only for enhancement of spectacle that requires us to turn our backs on our social contexts and environment separating sport from the public space of the city. In short, this is broad sweeping attack on the image, shape, organisation and thing that is contemporary corporate élite performance sport and with that on all sport, given that corporate sport has defined what sport means.

The very breadth of the attack and the rejection of this thing that has come to dominate our view of sport and with it a denigration of other kinds of non-regulated movement (things that the corporate world cannot control and therefore cannot sell and profit from) means that there is much to disagree with. Perelman’s assumption through-out that the Olympics represents the apotheosis of corporate sport is unlikely to resonate with English language readers – who in the UK are more likely to focus on association football or in North America are more likely to emphasise local forms of sport; from an Anglo-phone perspective he seems to overstate the significance of the Olympics and its marginal sports. Leaving aside these national distinctions (as both differences and tastes) his highlighting of the 1936 Berlin and 1980 Moscow Olympics and the 1978 Men’s Football World Cup (in Argentina) as “outstanding for the determining socio-political place occupied by sport” (p 4) is correct as is his critique of the Beijing Olympics as legitimating Chinese “bureaucratic capitalism” (a term that hints as that residual Trotskyism, noting that I may be wrong in that); what he fails to do here, though, is highlight the place of the second LA Olympics (1984) as a vital moment in the corporatization of the Olympics and therefore, given his view of that spectacle as the marker of all that is wrong with sport. Given his critique of academic analyses of sport as “eager endorsement” (p 113) of sport, it is surprising that he has not commented on those academic analyses of the Olympics that make this point about their corporatization in LA and then just press on as if this is at best a good thing or at worst something we have to be resigned to accept.

He has little time for reformism, for the idea that we can, through an entryist strategy, reclaim sport for the people from its corporate élite. Sport is, for Perelman, the leading edge of and potent weapon in neoliberal globalisation (shades of Rupert Murdoch here, with his argument that sport is the “battering ram” for gaining access to new media markets). He argues that “sport … constitutes a model in miniature of capitalism, or rather the reduction of capitalism to its most powerful vector” which he sees as “the flash and glitter of the instantaneous, the violence of unfettered, untamed enterprise, the grandeur of the impoverished”. (p 77) It is hard not to admit that he has got a point, and he is vigorous in his argument that sport is beyond redemption.

This is a demanding book, not in that it is difficult to read but in that it comes from well outside the conventional terms of modern and postmodern analyses of sport – the title certainly raised some eyebrows and prompted defensive/offended inquiries from some of my workmates. Not only is it demanding, there is much to disagree with, much to agree with and even more to muse on – such is the wonder of the essay as a form; many of the points he makes are recognisable even if the specific piece of evidence could be contested. And finally, the 20 Theses on sport that he concludes with are sharp and incisive as is the notion of a ‘sporting mode of production’ that means “the development of a new mode of production for a new type of merchandise, namely, top-class athletes” (p 77). All in all, much as we as scholars of sport may find this difficult to swallow, much as we may want to pass over it, we will, I think, be foolish to ignore it and narrow minded if we don’t take it seriously, even if it is to disagree – it demands our engagement.
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