Friday, 25 June 2010

Terry Eagleton on Football

Perhaps in line with Neil's last post on fetishism, and given that a load of footballers are interrupting vuvuzuela concerts in South Africa, I thought that it would be interesting to provide a link to Terry Eagleton's recent article. Eagleton argues in a somewhat conventional sense that football is a distraction from political urgencies. In essence, the old Marxist argument, football is the opium of the people. One interesting aspect of his analysis is that he suggests that football as a spectacle adopts carnivalesque aspect which substitutes for the contemporary
dearth of symbolism and and ritual. Furthermore, he rather cheekily suggests that football fans are the true academics of the world. Involved in the everyday,yet holding the aptitude to discuss with an in depth rigour to rival the greatest of scholastic philosophers the various benefits, evils, intricacies of strategy, grace, morality and ability of the footballing world. I can't say that I can agree with Eagleton's call to ban football, provocatively and all as it is put. I think that if one were to consider football was immoral, we would also have to abandon a whole other raft of practices which exhibit similar characteristics, popular music, religion, politics, art and so on. I think the reason football, or sport in general fascinates us, is that it is truly philosophical in its own kind of way. The vagaries of Mourinho's relationship to Ferguson and the micro-politics which surrounds it is as compelling as any political event. But the point is that football equally follows the same trajectory as other human activities. It offers a rich tableu of human experience and for this reason we philosophize about it and mull over and become engaged with it. So football is philosophical in itself in the same way that religion, art and politics is. Of course, Eagleton's point is well taken, football is a capitalistic enterprise, embroiled in petty narcissism's and a waste of human potential, and has lost its base in the communities. This should be acknowledged, however, sporting activity whether team or individual, has innumerable benefits for a flourishing society such as health, activity, a reduction of depression, and perhaps most importantly the delimitation of disgruntled male anxiety. Or maybe not?

Wednesday, 23 June 2010


As is well known, Freud draws our attention to the psychic mechanisms that distort our thinking. One such mechanism is what he terms disavowal. In Freud's view, disavowal is related to fetishism/perversion and involves the expression of two contradictory attitudes that persist side by side. More specifically, it involves a kind of 'reverse hallucination'; on one level denying the existence of something and on another level continuing to believe it. This is typically because the original belief is associated with an 'unacceptable' desire. The classic disavowed response involves admitting but rejecting something in the same breath. For example, the smoker who says that they have given up smoking yet continues to smoke is disavowing the fact that he/she is a smoker.

Very often the original belief is maintained by displacing the original desire onto a more ‘acceptable’ - less feared - object. For Freud this is exactly what is involved in fetishism. Fetishism is a key idea in philosophy in many ways and it generally signifies a tendency to imbue an irrelevant object or part of an object with a ‘significance’ that it doesn’t really possess. Marx, as we know, tried to understand capitalism as based upon the fetishism of commodities that involved the over valorisation of the world of things and the ontological emaciation of the world of human agency.

For Freud, a fetish - surprise, surprise - is a substitute for a penis. Not just a substitute for any penis however; but specifically the substitute for the penis that the boy-child thought the mother had before he became aware of sexual difference. For some children, this idea is too traumatic to contemplate and hence they only partially give it up; creating elaborate substitutes for the ‘real thing’ in order to defend themselves from this traumatic reality. Freud goes on to use this idea in order to make an interesting observation:

'[w]hat happened therefore, was that the boy refused to take cognisance of the fact of his having perceived that a woman does not possess a penis. No that could not be true: for if a woman had been castrated, then his own possession of a penis was in danger; and against that there rose in rebellion the portion of his narcissism which Nature has, as a precaution, attached to that particular organ. In later life a grown man may experience similar panic when the cry goes up that Throne and Altar are in danger, and similar illogical consequences will ensue (Freud 1961, 153)'

In the light of Freud’s observation can we view academic ideas/positions as fetishes in just this sense? Is disavowal the psychic mechanism involved in the defensiveness that often accompanies contemporary political/ideological positions; the 'thrones' and 'altars' of contemporary intellectual life? Might we say that fearing the 'castration of rationality', a number of contemporary thinkers have created intellectual fetishes - protected by powerful taboos - that allow them to preserve an often retarded political orientation? What ideas/systems of thought fit the bill here? Postmodernism perhaps with its fetishes of ‘identity’ and so on? Perhaps we might say that even the great academic name or movement is itself a disavowed fetish in just this sense -'Deleuze', 'Badiou' and so on?

Neil Turnbull