‘Beyond the touchline there is nothing’: Derrida and sport.

For a long time I’ve thought that sport provides a perfect analogy to explain one of Jacques Derrida’s key concepts: the ethics of the undecidable decision. I even explored this analogy in a presentation at a job interview once – I didn’t get the post, but I still think it’s a worthwhile pedagogical approach. I think Derrida would have approved as well – in an interview in 1991 he spoke of his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer, and he always had a passion for sport in general and football in particular (Derrida: A Biography, p. 23).

So tomorrow I’m going to attempt something that I’m pretty sure has never been done before: a deconstructive live football blog. I’m lucky enough to be going to Wembley for the FA Cup Semi Final between Arsenal and Reading. I’m a big Arsenal fan, and I can’t wait for the game. But before the live blog (which may be hindered by technological glitches, but I’ll give it a go), I wanted to explain why I think Derrida and football go together.

I think football, and sport more generally, generate such strong feelings in people, and have such a hold over so many lives, because they give people the experience of the undecidable. For Derrida, undecidables are the new concepts that are revealed by the double-movement of deconstruction (inverting binary hierarchies, then moving beyond the system of binary oppositions). For Derrida, undecidables ‘inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganising it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dailectics’ (Positions, p. 40).

Undecidables can be seen as internal to all our settled ways of thinking, and deconstruction works to reveal this to be the case. But Derrida does not think that we can simply reside in the undecidable (Memoires for Paul de Man, p. 22), with all decision-making infinitely suspended. He recognises that people must act, that the undecidable must be resolved one way or another. But he does affirm that we must retain fidelity to the undecidable nature of our decision-making.

This is what Derrida meant when he wrote about the ethical and responsible decision. It is not the decision that is ‘right’ or ‘just’ based on any pre-known ethical rule, or based on calculations of all available knowledge correlated against the demands of some ethical system. Rather, it is a decision made in the urgency of the present, not outside all reason and knowledge, but not determined by reason or knowledge. As Derrida wrote in The Other Heading:

When a responsibility is exercised in the order of the possible, it simply follows a direction and elaborates a programme. It makes of action the applied consequences, the simple application of a knowledge or know-how. It makes of ethics and politics a technology. No longer of the order of practical reason or decision, it begins to be irresponsible (p. 45).

The responsible decision is that which goes through the ordeal of the undecidable, resolves it one way or another without ever being certain that you are right.

When we watch sport we are witnessing the undecidable of the fixture resolve itself into a result. Before and during the game the result is a complete unknown. We may make predictions based on the relative strengths of the competitors, based on form or on recent history. But we simply do not know how things will play out.

Arsenal are clear favourites for the game tomorrow. They are second in the Premier League whereas Reading are 18th in the Championship. Arsenal have won eight league games in a row (a record winning streak for the Premier League this season) while Reading haven’t won in five league games. Arsenal are the holders, and have won the FA Cup a joint-record eleven times, while Reading have never reached a final. Arsenal have never lost a competitive fixture against Reading. But I know that means nothing. I remember last season’s semi final when we were eight minutes away from going out to Championship side Wigan. I remember 2011 when we lost a League Cup Final in the last minute to relegation-fighting Birmingham.

On Saturday the undecidable of this fixture will be resolved one way or another. In the event of draw after 90 minutes we’ll go into extra time and penalties. The fans at the stadium and watching around the world will put themselves through the ordeal of the undecidable, and hope their team comes through the other end victorious. But they cannot know before if their hopes and predictions will be proved right.

It is this resolution of the undecidable that is unique to sport. The arts all arouse passions and elicit emotions, but they are scripted, choreographed, written down – the ending is known by someone, if not by you. And since the time of the Ancient Greek playwrights have always employed their skills to generate tension and suspense in an audience who know how the story will end. Improvised music and drama provides a better challenge to my distinction, but while the mainstream arts rival sport in terms of audience size, I think it’s fair to say that improvised theatre does not.

While there are clear exceptions (watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the cinema was one of the most visceral and terrifying experiences of my life), the arts do not provide the weekly gut-wrenching experiences, the pure exhilaration and the pure despair, that sport does. Theatre-goers don’t pay money to get angry, to swear and shout and hurl abuse, but they do at football stadiums. As fellow Arsenal fan Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch about his first trip to Highbury:

I’d been to public entertainments before, of course; I’d been to the cinema and the pantomime and to see my mother sing in the chorus of the White Horse Inn at the Town Hall. But that was different. The audiences I had hitherto been a part of had paid to have a good time and, though occasionally one might spot a fidgety child or a yawning adult, I hadn’t ever noticed faces contorted by rage or despair or frustration. Entertainment as pain was an idea entirely new to me, and it seemed to be something I’d been waiting for (p. 11).

I said earlier that I’m excited about the game tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it…


Biopolitics and the Paris Commune

I recently took the opportunity provided by my first trip to Paris to read up on an historical event that I’ve been vaguely aware of, and vaguely fascinated by, for some time – the Paris Commune of 1871. It was something that had filtered through to me during my undergraduate studies of political theory, a contentious moment that for some was direct democracy in action, for others the dictatorship of the proletariat made flesh, and for others still an interruption of revolutionary anarchy and terror.

Hoping to avoid history-as-polemic, I bought myself Massacre by John Merriman. I persevered through the clunky prose and the regular digressions into details of individuals only tangentially related to the events, and was riveted by the stark descriptions (recounted over a hundred or so pages) of the bloody retribution enacted by government forces as they crushed the Commune, killing thousands (if not tens of thousands) of Communards in the process.



While I was in Paris I managed to visit two sites that bookmark the existence of the Commune: Montmartre, where the imposing basilica of Sacré-Coeur was constructed in the aftermath of the Commune, overlaying the site of beginning of the insurrection with a gleaming monument to God and moral order; and Père Lachaise Cemetery, one of the last places in eastern Paris to hold out against government forces, where hundreds of Communards were executed in the final two days of ‘Bloody Week’. A simple plaque placed on the cemetery wall in 1908 reads ‘To the dead of the Commune, 21-28 May 1871’.

Plaque to the Communard dead

Plaque to the Communard dead

The details of these killings were shocking, and visiting the sites was poignant, but that is not what has inspired me to write this. I am writing because of one sentence in Merriman’s book, where he quotes the government inquest into the events of the Commune. ‘The government report saluted the repression’, he writes, because ‘“Society is obliged to defend itself”’ (p. 248).

“Society is obliged to defend itself” is, of course, almost the exact formulation that Michel Foucault used to describe the discourses of race war and state racism that developed from the 17th Century in his lecture series “Society Must Be Defended”.

In his 17 March 1976 lecture, Foucault describes racism as ‘a way of introducing a break into the domain of life that is under power’s control: the break between what must live and what must die’. In the biopolitical system ‘killing or the imperative to kill is acceptable only if it results not in a victory over political adversaries, but in the elimination of the biological threat and the improvement of the species or race’ (pp. 254-256).

As Merriman recounts, the destruction of the Commune was presented in similar terms. He notes how Communards were described as savages and barbarians (p. 207), how government newspapers called for ‘vengeance to clean the contagious Communard stain from the city’, and how purging Paris of these degenerates was seen as a necessity if France was to be saved, to be reborn (pp.238-240).

Foucault almost immediately brings in the example of Nazism when detailing his conception of biopolitical racism. ‘After all’, he states, ‘Nazism was in fact the paroxysmal development of the new power mechanisms that had been established since the eighteenth century’ (p. 259). It should therefore have been no surprise to see memorials to the victims of Auschwitz, Buchenwald and Dachau next to the Communard plaque on the Allée du mur des Fédérés in Père Lachaise.

SAM_2369 SAM_2370

It is also not surprising that something I had always seen through a lens of class war, of repression designed to protect bourgeois privilege, can also be viewed through a prism of racism and biopolitics.

But what is surprising, shocking even, is that this horrendous period of classist-racist bloodletting is not more widely known, and that it is not widely discussed in the same terms as the colonial and totalitarian genocides of the 19th and 20th Centuries.

Burning the Temple: Destructive constructions and constructive destructions


In mid-February East Belfast was once again the scene of tit-for-tat sectarian attacks. First, on the night of 15th February, the James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden on the Lower Newtownards Road was vandalised, in the latest of several incidents stretching back to 2004. The following night a Catholic church about a mile away in Willowfield was daubed with sectarian slogans in an apparent revenge attack. In this corner of Northern Ireland a memorial to two Protestant men, shot dead by the Provisional IRA in June 1970 during a gun battle centred on St Matthew’s Church, continues to fuel violence.

The James McCurrie Robert Neill Memorial Garden

A number of years ago I examined the regular attacks on the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden and, while depressing to see it in the news again, I can’t say that it’s a surprise. In my article ‘Resisting Memory’ I wrote that the memorial garden can

be described as an exclusively unionist-Protestant monument, which is designed as much to indict republicans, and by implication, the wider nationalist-Catholic community, as to commemorate the murdered men. It (re)writes a tragic instance of death into a historical narrative of unprovoked republican violence, obscuring the competing historical claims of republicans defending Catholics from violent attack. A selective story is given presence by the memorial, carried into the present and opening towards a future of continued vigilance against threats to Protestant culture and heritage.

The deaths of McCurrie, Neill and the other men commemorated are placed in the overall context of historical struggle through their insertion into the narrative of Protestant resistance to all attempts to wrench them from their place in the United Kingdom. As [Jenny] Edkins might put it, this scripting gives the families of the victims purchase on the events, allowing them to construct a story that can be remembered, while simultaneously allowing them to forget the raw trauma of the moment of the attack. However, this works to obscure and displace alternative understandings of the deaths — as personal tragedy, as senseless violence, as remnants of a time that has since passed.

The article argued that the deconstructive philosophy of Jacques Derrida can provide more constructive ways of resisting attempts to fix historical meaning than vandalism or desecration.

Targeting the assumptions behind the memorial, rather than the physical structure itself, reveals the impossibility of neutrally representing the past in the present. The memorial is built upon an imagined and constructed idea of the past, which is constitutive of its attempt to tell the ‘truth’ about what happened in the past. This is not a past that is utilised from the terms of the present, but a past that is constructed in the present, that is constructed co-extensively with the present.

When this is accepted, the question becomes one of building a politics in the present that can allow for shared understandings of the past, rather than building our present politics on notions of historical legacy. The actions of cross-community groups such as Healing through Remembering and Kirk Simpson’s suggestions to construct a shared memorial to civilian victims of ‘the Troubles’, point towards what such a politics, and its shared understanding of the past, might look like. The ability to think such a politics can be promoted through an ethos of deconstructive engagement with divisive understandings of the past.

The return of violence to the memorial garden in February 2015 seemed to highlight once again the difficulties of actualising such a philosophy. But I did not have to wait long after reading about the most recent attack to see a beautiful and inspiring vision of an alternative means of memorialising our past.

On 22nd March the lovingly hand-crafted ‘Temple’, designed by Californian artist David Best, was set alight in the Waterside area of London/Derry (a city whose very name symbolises the division over history in this part of the world). A sign at the entrance of the Temple invited visitors to ‘Leave a memory behind, let go of the past and look to the future’. This was not a memorial in the common sense of the word, but a blank slate upon which people could inscribe their own memories in ways of their own choosing.

This project did not claim to act as memorial to ‘the troubles’, even a subversive one. It is not a Northern Irish version of the German ‘counter-monuments’ to defeat and disaster that Edkins describes in her book Trauma and the Memory of Politics, which are designed to be buried or sunk over time, leaving a submerged trace at the burial site. The self-conscious target of the organiser Helen Marriage was the competing traditions of summer bonfires, held on the 11th July by Loyalists to commemorate the 1690 Battle of the Boyne, and by Republicans on 9th August to mark the introduction of internment in 1972. Marriage’s original interest ‘was about taking the bonfire tradition and subverting it’ by creating ‘a bonfire about inclusivity, peace and letting go of the past’.

As Best told BBC Radio Four’s Front Row programme, the Temple was built around loss, but not in any narrowly-defined political sense. ‘The degree of loss goes from rape and murder to someone losing their dog’, he explained. ‘There are a whole lot of different losses in peoples’ lives’. Those touching the flames to the Temple included a woman who had survived breast cancer and a mother whose son had committed suicide eight months earlier.

The contrasts between the Temple and the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden are clear to see. One is attempting reclaim shared public space, while the other marks out space for one specific community. One is dedicated to a generalisable conception of loss, while the other commemorates specific deaths represented and remembered in a specific way. And one is now nothing but ash scattered across the earth, while the other remains a Union-flagged, walled-and-gated symbol of defiant identity, and a target for the hatred of others.

The McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will have no doubt been repaired after the latest attack, but it will continue to provoke violence and counter-violence in the locality. It is a construction that is destructive of community relations, through the transmission of a particular version of the past into the present and future, in a manner which accuses the Catholic-Nationalist other of causing damage and death.

The burning of the Temple, on the other hand, was a constructive destruction. The fire left no physical trace, and did not attempt to crystallise and make permanent a particular understanding of the past or present to be carried into the future. Singular memories will be preserved in the minds of those who were present at the burning, being communicated and reconstituted in myriad ways into the future, free of all claims of central ownership or official sanction.

The intentional immolation can therefore be seen as delivering the Temple from the threat of violence that the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden will continue to face. It will not be inscribed into a particular narrative of history, and it will not be a target for symbolic violence aimed at heightening tension, mistrust and fear. Those possibilities went up in the flames on the 22nd March, and the reseeded field where the Temple once stood holds the possibility of growing into a space reclaimed from exclusive understandings of the past.

Burning memorials may be a drastic step, but when the alternative is allowing them to solidify into physical manifestations of division which replicate the violence of the past in new ways, you could be forgiven for looking around for fresh historical symbols to put to the flames.

Of course the past cannot be simply burnt away. It is something that we must live with, particularly in societies like Northern Ireland. But it is something that must not be allowed to determine our present and future. In my 2012 article I concluded that the issue of the vandalisation of the McCurrie Neill Memorial Garden

highlights the pressing need to complete the deconstructive gesture, and move beyond the deconstructed system that sees memorials as representative of a past, even one utilised in the present for political purposes. Memory cannot be ‘reclaimed’ in such cases, as to attempt to do so can only provoke yet greater affirmation of memory on the side of those who feel their memory has been attacked. To resist truly the damaging effects of exclusionary commemoration, we must deconstruct the assumed links between history and memory, explode the concept of memory as a reflection of the past, and work to reveal the inherent undecidability of all assertions of memory in the present.

The burning of the Temple provides a blueprint for such a deconstruction of memory, a constructive destruction that highlights in heat and light the impossibility of capturing and containing the past. The present may always be chipped through with traces of the past, but what we do with those traces is a decision for the present and future.

If we can burn away our divisive and exclusive understandings of the past we will not be left with no past and no identity, but with a scorched earth upon which to build new understandings of the past that are not tied to divisive and exclusive understandings of the present. Until then, we are left only with the images