June 9th, 2006


Football as strong force

Today sees the launch of the World Cup. I'll be ignoring it as much as is humanly possible in a city whose most conspicuous landmark has been turned into a giant football. Some of the reasons I'll be ignoring it are touched on in this piece by Martin Kettle in last week's Guardian -- the fact that World Cup football tends to come shrink-wrapped with an alienating culture of jingoism, racism and aggressive ignorance. According to a Goethe Institut poll, Kettle tells us, three out of five Britons can't name a single living German. They all know about Hitler, though, which is why, when England plays Germany, the Dambusters march and "What's It Like to Lose a War?" ring around the stadium.

But, thanks in part to 90s lad culture, football has many intelligent and cultured British fans, people who can name a living German. British Whitney curator Chrissie Iles can certainly name at least a hundred; when I spoke to her last month she was just back from the Berlin Biennial. When Chrissie told me that she actually enjoys and follows football, especially at World Cup time, I felt the need to defend my utter lack of interest in it. I reached for the kind of far-fetched explanation that people either find exasperating or fascinating, depending on how far they're willing to indulge my theories.

I told Chrissie that I'd only been to one football match in my life -- Dundee United versus Aberdeen. The match was rather boring, the stands were somewhat empty, and it drizzled with rain. But it wasn't the boredom that worried me -- quite the reverse. It was the sneaking suspicion that football might, potentially, become far too exciting. "I'd imagine that if you really got into football," I said, "it would carry over into your way of seeing everything. You'd be looking at a painting, for instance, and just asking yourself, well, where are the goals?"

Chrissie laughed, so I decided to go further (and this is very me); I started to justify my suspicion of excitement itself with an appeal to nuclear physics. I started talking about the metaphor of the Strong Force. Basically there's a Strong Force which binds elementary particles together, overcoming the electric repulsion between protons. When the atom is split, it's this Strong Force which unleashes the devastating explosion, an explosion which annihilates all the weak little lifeforms around it. You don't mess with the Strong Force; it's a genie you want to keep in its bottle. (Nuclear Physicists amongst you -- and I'm sure there are some who read Click Opera -- will tell me that my technical terminology is outdated; I know, I know, but this is just a metaphor, a way to make my dislike of football sound scientific!)

To continue, then: although tapping into it is often the source of amazing cultural energy, you shouldn't mess with the Strong Force. There are all sorts of "repressed repulsions" between the particles of our society, and deep in our own psyches. Sometimes we release them in the form of controlled explosions. Some of these controlled explosions are in art (think of Aristotle's idea of the "catharsis" provoked by tragedy), some in sport, some in sex. Some, less controlled, erupt into wars, murders, riots. The most fearful are shaped like a mushroom cloud.

Talking to Chrissie, I listed three "Strong Force" phenomena: football, sex and rock music. But, thinking about it now, I'd suggest all sorts of others:

* The unconscious, as described by Freud (the Id).

* The weekend (a controlled, alcohol-fuelled explosion for the frustration of people who work).

* Drugs. Mess with drugs and you risk upsetting the dynamic tensions within your own brain.

* Racism. Playing the "race card" in a debate will inevitably unleash "the Strong Force", banishing moderation and reason. (It's interesting to note that after the discovery of quarks, the Strong Force was called The Colour Force.)

I'm sure the list could be extended. Generally, my attitude to the Strong Force is to avoid its excitements (though clearly I have a weakness for sex, if I have to choose one "controlled explosion" from the list). I'd rather be the kind of person who finds pleasure in rather tiny, boring and everyday things (hello John Cage!) than the kind of person who demands or seeks out controlled Strong Force explosions. I think that the dynamic harmony of repressed repulsions is underestimated. Just as, when things seem still, we're actually on a planet rotating at 1670 kilometers per hour, so when things seem boring, quiet or weak, there's actually a dynamic of opposing tensions at work, massive forces in miraculous equilibrium. The Strong Force is sleeping, the world is at peace. Hush, let's not wake it!