Sep 1, 2018

On language, PPPs and wrestling | In search of missing perspectives

“Language is a skin: I rub my language against the other. It is as if I had words instead of fingers, or fingers at the tip of my words. My language trembles with desire.” 
— Roland Barthes, A Lover's Discourse (1977)

While the world of politics and corporations, or the game which defines their culture, is often described as competitive, masterminded, as chess, and maybe even as a kind of media-centric theater, the life of the public realm has always been characterized as one of spectatorship and representation. Using this kind of language to organize and categorize the social — (as) they who do (in terms of gestures/moves) and they who receive (in terms of spectacle/spectator) — is one of power; one that constructs power/lessness and asserts its longevity. It is a language of inequality. Just like history is written by the winners, it seems to me that language has been deployed to preserve the legacy of masters. Hence, we need to find new ways to resist and subvert this language. What if we do not only refer to, but actually talk of politicians and corporations as they who take, who corrupt, and of publics as they who give, who are taken for? What if we approach and speak of spectatorship as resistance, and the public ‘lifestyle’ as struggle? What if we stop calling politic(ian)s and conglomerates leader(ship)s and start addressing them as dictator(ship)s? These questions might be too big or complex to take on, but not impossible to ask, especially when we realize that the master’s house will never be dismantled with the master’s tools. 

I bring this up because we often talk about politics, private interest, and public space from a position that ultimately separates them, at the juncture of their intersections. What if instead we approached them from a place within, from amidst their thickly entangled ecology — one that we would need to work our fingers through knots and to the bone, to decipher and make sense of its diverging threads? Hence, a transversal or sectional investigation of language as a construct of power might reveal a fuller spectrum of how these power relations are established. 

For example, let’s consider the Public Private Partnerships (PPPs) in Albania. As the name suggests, PPPs are modeled in the form of a partnership where both parties have an equal standing and mutual benefits. Though, even with Public taking top billing, we can argue until we run out of breath about which P is what and which P gets what P(iece), but that’s beside the point here. The point is that, as an ecology of all three, PPP gives us a clear model through which to analyze, sort, and understand the Power relations between Public realm and Private interests, maybe in the same way we try understand the difference and dependency of the host/parasite couplings or a lovers’ discourse. The fact that such a model, a Partnership legally exists, on paper, doesn’t necessarily mean it is mutually fair, and it shouldn’t automatically legitimate its in situ practices. Bear with me here. 

If the public-private coupling continues to be described as a partnership in the already established language of masters, of power, on paper anyway, then it is important to understand that it will translate as one of inequality in deeds. 
It is not the position of the public nor that of the private that we need to watch closely, but that of the partnership (hence from within) which constitutes the construct of power and constraint of freedom, thus (the many degrees of) fairness. The parameters of the partnership fall under the tutelage or tyranny of the state, at least for now, which is in a position to leverage one against the other or both against the middle. Or maybe I’m giving it too much credit, too many sides. As a middleman of sorts, the state acts as both referee and judge, jury, executioner. The P of Partnership stands for Politic(ian)s. They administer public assets and resources. They sell said public assets and resources to the private. After enough such transactions, the state might eventually lose its leverage because it will have nothing else to sell. In a final act of despair, it may even give away its constituents’ data. So, the three P-s will not have the same capacity to P(lay) P(ower) anymore, nor will it ever be a multitude of P-s. They will be devoured into one — a kind of becoming P(anopticon). But still, the specter of the Public will haunt the partnership, lingering over its name. In its afterlife, the public becomes a myth. But what’s in a name, right?! I digress only to make the point that what might be a morose description of events here, thus unpopular opinion, it is in fact the reality of how language designs power and how it is designed  by it in return, in the language of masters.   
With the Public Private Politics (PPP) as the social model/medium/media for the 21st century Albania, it becomes all the more important to be able to find a new language, at least a different one, to deduce, describe, and deploy the P-s involved: Public, Private, Politics, Partnership, Play, Power. Seen from a different POV, the PPP model provides us with a language of struggle too, one that can dismantle that of power. So, for once, instead of seeing it through the eyes of competitive sports, the masterminding of chess or the melodrama of the theater, let’s look at it through the lens of something else — wrestling (for example) — which provides us with a much needed tactility of action and symbols, of gesture and exaggeration.

Below, I’ve shared a few excerpts from Barthes’ essay on wrestling, taken from his Mythologies book. He uses wrestling as a theoretical framework to critique the language of the so called mass-culture, which might be useful to us too, to understand that of the PPP. Keep in mind that the essay was written in the ‘50s and the book was published in the ‘70s, hence much has changed since then. Nonetheless, I found bits of it helpful in grasping the construct of power. It is even more interesting if you read it a second time (for our purpose here) without knowing which P is in the ring and which P is outside cheering or booing. We always assume the latter is the public, but what if that wasn’t the case?

(As it is taken out of the context, time and space of the writing, I recommend you read the entire essay to draw your own conclusions.)  

The World of Wrestling 

The virtue of all-in wrestling is that it is the spectacle of excess. Here we find a grandiloquence which must have been that of ancient theatres. And in fact wrestling is an open-air spectacle, for what makes the circus or the arena what they are is not the sky […], it is the drenching and vertical quality of the flood of light. Even hidden in the most squalid […] halls, wrestling partakes of the nature of the great solar spectacles, Greek drama and bullfights: in both, a light without shadow generates an emotion without reserve. 

There are people who think that wrestling is an ignoble sport. Wrestling is not a sport, it is a spectacle, and it is no more ignoble to attend a wrestled performance of Suffering than a performance of the sorrows of Arnolphe or Andromaque.* […] True wrestling, wrongly called amateur wrestling, is performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest. [I]t abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees. 

[W]restling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. 

Thus the function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him. […] Wrestling […] offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning. [A] man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of his powerlessness. 

This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props (masks and buskins) concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity. The gesture of the vanquished wrestler signifying to the world a defeat which, far from disguising, he emphasizes and holds like a pause in music, corresponds to the mask of antiquity meant to signify the tragic mode of the spectacle. […]

Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity, since one must always understand everything on the spot. As soon as the adversaries are in the ring, the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles. As in the theatre, each physical type expresses to excess the part which has been assigned to the contestant.
It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest. […] Wrestlers therefore have a physique as peremptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell'Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contents of their parts [.]

The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight. But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture. The different strata of meaning throw light on each other, and form the most intelligible of spectacles. Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious. Sometimes the wrestler triumphs with a repulsive sneer while kneeling on the good sportsman; sometimes he gives the crowd a conceited smile which forebodes an early revenge; sometimes, pinned to the ground, he hits the floor ostentatiously to make evident to all the intolerable nature of his situation; and sometimes he erects a complicated set of signs meant to make the public understand that he legitimately personifies the ever-entertaining image of the grumbler, endlessly confabulating about his displeasure.  

We are therefore dealing with a real Human Comedy, where the most socially-inspired nuances of passion (conceit, rightfulness, refined cruelty, a sense of 'paying one's debts') always felicitously find the clearest sign which can receive them, express them and triumphantly carry them to the confines of the hall. It is obvious that at such a pitch, it no longer matters whether the passion is genuine or not. What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art. Wrestling is an immediate pantomime, infinitely more efficient than the dramatic pantomime, for the wrestler's gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in order to appear true. 

Each moment in wrestling is therefore like an algebra which instantaneously unveils the relationship between a cause and its represented effect. Wrestling fans certainly experience a kind of intellectual pleasure in seeing the moral mechanism function so perfectly. […]

What is thus displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man's suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of Suffering; like a primitive Pieta, he exhibits for all to see his face, exaggeratedly contorted by an intolerable affliction. It is obvious, of course, that in wrestling reserve would be out of place, since it is opposed to the voluntary ostentation of the spectacle, to this Exhibition of Suffering which is the very aim of the fight. This is why all the actions which produce suffering are particularly spectacular, like the gesture of a conjuror who holds out his cards clearly to the public. Suffering which appeared without intelligible cause would not be understood; a concealed action that was actually cruel would transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers call a hold, that is, any figure which allows one to immobilize the adversary indefinitely and to have him at one's mercy, has precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore intelligible, fashion the spectacle of suffering, of methodically establishing the conditions of suffering. The inertia of the vanquished allows the (temporary) victor to settle in his cruelty and to convey to the public this terrifying slowness of the torturer who is certain about the outcome of his actions; to grind the face of one's powerless adversary or to scrape his spine with one's fist with a deep and regular movement, or at least to produce the superficial appearance of such gestures: wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not wish for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle. 

There is another figure, more spectacular still than a hold; it is the forearm smash, this loud slap of the forearm, this embryonic punch with which one clouts the chest of one's adversary, and which is accompanied by a dull noise and the exaggerated sagging of a vanquished body. In the forearm smash, catastrophe is brought to the point of maximum obviousness, so much so that ultimately the gesture appears as no more than a symbol; this is going too far, this is transgressing the moral rules of wrestling, where all signs must be excessively clear, but must not let the intention of clarity be seen. The public then shouts 'He's laying it on!', not because it regrets the absence of real suffering, but because it condemns artifice: as in the theatre, one fails to put the part across as much by an excess of sincerity as by an excess of formalism. 

We have already seen to what extent wrestlers exploit the resources of a given physical style, developed and put to use in order to unfold before the eyes of the public a total image of Defeat. […] In wrestling, unlike judo, Defeat is not a conventional sign, abandoned as soon as it is understood; it is not an outcome, but quite the contrary, it is a duration, a display, it takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. It is as if the wrestler is crucified in broad daylight and in the sight of all. I have heard it said of a wrestler stretched on the ground 'He is dead, little Jesus, there, on the cross,' and these ironic words revealed the hidden roots of a spectacle which enacts the exact gestures of the most ancient purifications.

But what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice. The idea of 'paying' is essential to wrestling, and the crowd's 'Give it to him' means above all else 'Make him pay'. This is therefore, needless to say, an immanent justice. [T]he crowd is jubilant at seeing the rules broken for the sake of a deserved punishment. Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints. For a wrestling-fan, nothing is finer than the revengeful fury of a betrayed fighter who throws himself vehemently not on a successful opponent but on the smarting image of foul play. Naturally, it is the pattern of Justice which matters here, much more than its content: wrestling is above all a quantitative sequence of compensations (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth). […] Justice is therefore the embodiment of a possible transgression; it is from the fact that there is a Law that the spectacle of the passions which infringe it derives its value.

It is therefore easy to understand why out of five wrestling- matches, only about one is fair. One must realize, let it be repeated, that 'fairness' here is a role or a genre, as in the theatre the rules do not at all constitute a real constraint; they are the conventional appearance of fairness. So that in actual fact a fair fight is nothing but an exaggeratedly polite one [.] 

Conversely, foul play exists only in its excessive signs [.] Since Evil is the natural climate of wrestling, a fair fight has chiefly the value of being an exception. […]

Extrapolated, fair wrestling could lead only to boxing or judo, whereas true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport. The ending of a boxing- match or a judo-contest is abrupt, like the full-stop which closes a demonstration. The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the most baroque confusion. Some fights, among the most successful kind, are crowned by a final charivari, a sort of unrestrained fantasia where the rules, the laws of the genre, the referee's censuring and the limits of the ring are abolished, swept away by a triumphant disorder which overflows into the hall and carries off pell-mell wrestlers, seconds, referee and spectators. 

[…] What the public is looking for here is the gradual construction of a highly moral image: that of the perfect 'bastard'. One comes to wrestling in order to attend the continuing adventures of a single major leading character, permanent and multiform like Punch or Scapino, inventive in unexpected figures and yet always faithful to his role. The 'bastard' is here revealed as a Molière character or a 'portrait' by La Bruyère, that is to say as a classical entity, an essence, whose acts are only significant epiphenomena arranged in time. This stylized character does not belong to any particular nation or party […] the aficionado does not attribute to him any country except 'fairness' - observing the rules. 

What then is a 'bastard' for this audience composed in part, we are told, of people who are themselves outside the rules of society? Essentially someone unstable, who accepts the rules only when they are useful to him and transgresses the formal continuity of attitudes. He is unpredictable, therefore asocial. He takes refuge behind the law when he considers that it is in his favour, and breaks it when he finds it useful to do so. Sometimes he rejects the formal boundaries of the ring and goes on hitting an adversary legally protected by the ropes, sometimes he re-establishes these boundaries and claims the protection of what he did not respect a few minutes earlier. This inconsistency, far more than treachery or cruelty, sends the audience beside itself with rage: offended not in its morality but in its logic, it considers the contradiction of arguments as the basest of crimes. The forbidden move becomes dirty only when it destroys a quantitative equilibrium and disturbs the rigorous reckoning of compensations; what is condemned by the audience is not at all the transgression of insipid official rules, it is the lack of revenge, the absence of a punishment. So that there is nothing more exciting for a crowd than the grandiloquent kick given to a vanquished 'bastard'; the joy of punishing is at its climax when it is supported by a mathematical justification; contempt is then unrestrained. One is no longer dealing with a salaud but with a salope - the verbal gesture of the ultimate degradation. 

Such a precise finality demands that wrestling should be exactly what the public expects of it. Wrestlers, who are very experienced, know perfectly how to direct the spontaneous episodes of the fight so as to make them conform to the image which the public has of the great legendary themes of its mythology. A wrestler can irritate or disgust, he never disappoints, for he always accomplishes completely, by a progressive solidification of signs, what the public expects of him. […] What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.

When the hero or the villain of the drama, the man who was seen a few minutes earlier possessed by moral rage, magnified into a sort of metaphysical sign, leaves the wrestling hall, impassive, anonymous, carrying a small suitcase and arm-in-arm with his wife, no one can doubt that wrestling holds that power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship. In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a justice which is at last intelligible.


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