As Karl’s post on banter implies, football becomes unpleasantly ubiquitous during the World Cup. ‘Unpleasantly’? Why would a football fan find it ‘unpleasant’ for their sport of choice to be prominent in the media? One answer would be that ubiquity also means dilution, with the consequence that we don’t hear about ‘football’ so much as ‘footie’, that abstracted version which lends itself all kinds of dismal exercises in masculinist and nationalistic identity formation. Watch the footie on telly last night, mate? Well, no, I went to the football last night. Although I’ve promised to (over)analyse all aspects of the game here, there’s an atavistic part of me that wants to assert a qualitative distinction between what I do with my Saturdays, Tuesdays and Thursdays and The Support Group.*
I tried to say something about how football fans can come to feel completely alienated during the big international tournaments at the start of this Quietus article, published at the beginning of Euro 2012. A number of people I know who spend substantial amounts of their time watching, playing, thinking about and discussing football often slip into disavowal mode as the themed ladvertising begins and the Sun call a Council of Elrond for jingoistic headline writers. So, you may expect some of us to have sympathy for those people who just outright dislike football, particularly around the World Cup.
And we do, I think. That is, until things like this meme turn up. This has been doing the rounds over the last few days, and has been presented on too many Facebook and Twitter TLs I’ve seen as the definitive cri de coeur of the non-believer, the document which will finally articulate to football fans just what it’s like to be on the outside of it all. Now, the people I’ve seen sharing this have been people I like and respect, but I have to say that I’m not remotely able to identify with its content, even though I can imagine what it’s like to be bombarded with The Footie all summer long for the precise reason that as a football fan I feel the same.
We get something like this every time there’s an international tournament, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen a case where the argument is so macerated in – and sorry for insisting on the mot juste here, but ‘stupidity’ simply doesn’t cut it – bêtise. Hiding behind its Nicetwitter affability and a skilled deployment of an affectation of evenhandedness, this is a piece of writing which rests upon a particular set of assumptions about football, football players and football fans, all of which are ultimately ideological.
Let’s think, first of all, about why ‘archaeology’ replaces ‘football’ in this seemingly harmless, wryly amusing Gedankenexperiment. Why not, say, ‘shopping’ or ‘military history’? I have no problems with archaeology – who does? – and appreciate the discipline’s enormous, if not entirely politically and ethically unproblematic,** contribution to the sum total of humanity’s understanding of itself. One of my best friends is an archaeologist, no joke. However, the field does have certain connotations which are useful in a particular presentation of the self. Archaeology carries with it an image of wistful past-gazing, of laudable knowledge-foraging, of being the kid who ignored football in the playground because they were too busy digging away in the corner looking for clay pipes. For all of its fascinations, it’s also a realm in which the humblebragging, self-anointed geek enjoys a considerable amount of social capital.
In other words, it’s just the kind of thing that would appeal to that constituency of the internet who I’m pretty sure Lacan forecast when he said that thing about how les non-dupes errent. The idea that it is the not-fooled, the people who ‘see through stuff’, who are the most taken-in ideologically has always had a considerable degree of internet appeal, but never more so than in the age of Facebook atheism and I Fucking Love Science. Lovely archaeology coming on as a substitute for aggressive, alpha-male, avaricious (and, though the piece would never dare mention it, largely working-class) football seems to me the kind of notion that would really speak to the aren’t-bees-more-fascinating-than-Jesus, calling-Valentines-Day-‘Hallmark Holiday’ crowd who’d consider their life to be complete if they ever got a retweet off Graham Linehan.
But let’s look at a bit of the text itself, lest we fail our Practical Criticism 101:
Even when it isn’t archaeology season, the media follow noted archaeologists. They drive fast cars, date beautiful women, advertise fragrances, and sometimes they go to nightclubs and act in the worst possible way. Scandals erupt as the tabloids follow these new celebrities when they’re not searching the past for answers.
The point of the exercise, remember, is to induce some kind of artificial parity between football and archaeology – just imagine if archaeology (valued neutral) and football (also valued neutral) swapped places in the cultural imagination. But the writer cannot resist the opportunity to do away with this parity almost as soon as it has been established, finding subtle ways of embedding value judgements. Here, it’s imagined that archaeologists acquire the same, ‘worst possible’, behavioural traits that the media at large attributes, with consummate dishonesty, to all footballers. The rationale for doing this is not, as it purports to be,to get us to imagine archaeologists on the piss in Chinawhites acting up, but to remind us that football players are uncouth (working-class) louts who provoke ‘scandal’.
Then there’s another dig. Having hypothesised an archaeologist who would ‘act’ like a footballer, the writer reminds us what an archaeologist would be doing when they’re not up to no good, namely ‘searching the past for answers’. That’s to say that their professional activity would still be of enormous value, inviting an implicit comparison to the ‘pointlessness’ of football. That putative pointlessness is a classic canard of a hypocritical utilitarianism which locates value (or ‘point’) in, to pick my own straw men, Scandinavian crime dramas or Hilary Mantel novels or BBC4 documentaries about archaeology, but not in competitive sport. This, I suspect, is an aspect of that classic piece of political equivocation by which utilitarianism is good for the working-class goose but not appropriate for the middle-class gander, and seems to be applied particularly to football.
As most football fans – as opposed to footie fans – are aware, our game is riddled with absurdities and contradictions. We don’t need to have them pointed out, and we are also aware of exactly how irritating the saturation coverage – except I don’t mean saturation-level football, I mean saturation-level soft nationalism and saturation-level heteronormativity – is during the big competitions. For many of us, the mediascape during a World Cup or European Championships is borderline intolerable, and we’re not so bad at producing our own critiques of it. All of this huggable ‘just imagine everyone was an archaeologist’ stuff does nobody any good.
* We talked about this atrocity in one episode of This is Deep Play. If it resurfaces for the World Cup, I’ll write something about it.
** The Indiana Jones portrayal of Nazi archaeology arguably conceals, rather than reveals, the hegemonic functions of archaeology through history.
Posted by Joe Kennedy