Thursday, 12 July 2012


“Congratulations to Andy Murray, who either did or didn’t win Wimbledon this afternoon”. So began Charlie Brooker’s latest pithy rumination for the Guardian, lauding the Scot for his perceived truculent demeanour. Given the extraordinary emotional outpouring on Sunday, a sort of mystic communion between player and public that has perhaps seared him indelibly in ‘our’ affections, it seems apt to revisit these congratulations now that we know the result, now that we saw beneath the surliness, to see whether or not he is worthy.

In the last few days, many have endorsed Brooker’s congratulatory sentiments, not all for the reason of Murray’s zinging cross-court return of the media’s tepid serve (which, if you’re not following the metaphor, is its demand for emotionalism). But not everyone I know felt quite so generous about a British player getting closer than ever to landing a first post-War Wimbledon singles title only, again, to fail. But did he fail? Or rather, does that ‘failure’ make him a failure?

Throughout the final, my Facebook timeline was littered with churlish pro-Federer comments (although, far be it from any ‘man of the left’ to insist upon patriotic support) explicitly berating Murray not only for being dour, but also for some anti-English comments he was alleged to have made years ago, with sincerity. Then, in the aftermath of the aftermath of defeat came the chastisement for people with the temerity to ‘celebrate failure’.

Now, over and above the hackneyed old trope of whether this is ‘inherently British’ (answer: it isn’t; nothing is), what, if not to congratulate him, ought to be our reaction? (This is a question we only need ask of those who assume there ought to be a universal and standard emotional register adopted in such times.) Should we condemn him for failure or just, you know, ignore it all, pretend the who sorry embarrassment didn’t happen? Both responses look like they have been lifted from The Victorian Book of Unsympathetic Parenting. Nevertheless, these are legitimate questions…to be asked by the sort of people who concern themselves with How Men Are Supposed to Behave. You will have seen the magazines while waiting for your root canal.

As the supposed miserablist Murray melted before his multitude, up in the stand were two men who could be considered personifications of old and new school attitudes to lachrymose public breakdowns. Serial winner Sir Alex Ferguson might have looked upon his compatriot’s blubbing and thought ‘What is he doing? Pull yourself together, boy’. Meanwhile, Fergie’s former charge, David Beckham, a man who has embraced his ‘feminine side’ (same dental waiting room, different magazines), could well have been smiling approvingly (perhaps while musing ‘this is adding brand value’).

Aside from the fact that he was struggling to choke back tears, the post-match interview wasn’t in itself as emotive as it might have been. Crushed, he first congratulated Roger (struggling to fit his role as The Villain); next he thanked his corner, who he said he couldn’t look at for fear of emotional collapse; finally, he spoke about the ‘pressure’ of playing before the expectant British public, at which point he buckled as the waves of noise swelled around Aorangi Park, both inside and outside the Centre Court. Almost certainly, the wobble was as a result of being overwhelmed by the anonymous, unconditional love of the multitude, a multitude that, moreover, was physically present. Proximate.

Of course, it is always slightly shaky ground to psychoanalyse those you know only in mediated form (the medium itself affecting their behaviour, as Brooker spells out), but might it not be the case that Murray’s truculence is deeply entwined with experiences in the first three years of his life, experiences that leave a lot of people unable to express affection in a common idiom, or whose love is, in Guevarist fashion, for the whole cosmos and not just cloistered within the family or the couple. This would precisely the kind of love lacking in those who looked upon the Scot’s efforts as just another British failure

*  *  *

Regardless of the tears in defeat, the view that Murray failed is absurd. Surely, the idea that only winning is ‘success’ is patently nonsensical when so few have a realistic chance of winning and only 1 in 128 can actually win. More seriously, such a cold and imperious assessment is subtly symptomatic of an increasingly unhinged worldview, one that could only emerge in a culture mired in the notion that competition is some sort of fixed and everlasting ‘state of nature’. Of course, this is precisely the sort of apologia for neo-liberal values – that is, for ‘rational’ self-interest – that one hears all the time. It is also a reality systematically ignored by the protectionist cartels of the West’s ‘anti-markets’, institutional meshworks that are extremely far from being permissive of competition. But that is a whole other story… 

Giving brief consideration to the psycho-social repercussions of an obsession with winning, it is obvious that the overemphasis of being first contributes hugely to poor mental health. Not only does it fuel status-related stress in adults, it is also directly responsible for the feelings of inadequacy – even the desperate suicidal urges – that pervade today’s teenagers, now fully incorporated into global markets (be that indirectly, through potential blackmail of parents, or directly, as aspirational consumers) and as such bombarded with images of success and standards to measure up to. (Of course, the desire to ‘win’ is there in the innate survivalism of infants seeking parental love and attention, chicks mouths straining upward for emotional resources they consider finite, perhaps scarce, and thus to be fought over, when in fact it is limitless and abundant, just as would be earth’s resources if the rules of our game were different. Again, another story…)

Anyway, it is little wonder that the most common insult in schools these days is “loser” – a ghastly and pathetically smug term that came from the heartland of zero-to-hero one-upmanship passed off as virtue: the post-ideological U S of A, with its homespun American Dream uniting rich and poor through the exact same desire-as-acquisition: I’m a loser, baby, so why don’t you kill me (except, of course, that Beck wasn’t, because he’s part of the Church of Scientology, a spiteful and absurd – more than normally the case for ‘religions’ – quasi-Masonic mutualist society masquerading, preposterously, as a religion).

Nature is about striving, not winning – two entirely different things. The latter is entirely reactive to a set of imposed values, the former is an immanent relation to the world, what the great philosopher Spinoza called conatus. One increases one’s powers to live (potentia) without seeking one’s power over things (potestas). Culture – which is both part of and separate from nature – is a space of potential collaboration that can increase our collective powers (potentia). Far from prolonging the supposedly inherently competitive character of some reified ‘state of nature’, culture and its laws can either mollify or exacerbate that striving for niches.

Late capitalist or consumer society promotes winning for a number of reasons, but they all ultimately serve to persuade us – rich and poor alike, ‘winners and losers’ – that we are lacking this or that thing, a personal quality or object (or object that will give us that quality) that we must attain – that is, buy – in order to be provisionally complete, to sate our desire. But this conception of desire, found everywhere from Socrates via Kant to Freud, is a great fallacy. Desire does not lack anything; it is perfectly content doing its own thing – wondering what shapes the clouds are, taking our noses to the spice shops; dreaming of Armageddon or an escape to the South Seas; stroking animals or having one’s genitalia pierced.

No, it is not desire that lacks, but our human consciousness, the Ego that must play the social codes, that must emit the signs of success, that must adapt to the rules of the shallow society – that is where the sense of lack comes from, of an inadequacy salved only by retail therapy (“I shop, therefore I am”), the great asphyxiation and shackling of desire so that it becomes a snivelling spectacle of Sisyphean acquisition.

This, then, is our thoroughly modern pathology. Compulsive behaviour stretched between the cynical reduction of everything to a numerical value (private capital and its exchange value) on the one hand – as Marx said, “all that is solid melts into air” – while, on the other, the discarded stories and meanings that the circuits of profit generation require to be not only perpetually renewed but also artificially reinserted in the otherwise happily meaningless social space. You are what you buy. 

When you promote the ‘virtues’ of competition per se – when you conceive of life itself that way – you effectively submerge everyone in perma-stress, which is just the way the powers-that-be like and want it. Much better for the peace-of-mind racketeers to have a population function as isolated cells struggling away endlessly – with market access to the means of survival now having replaced love as the resource to be fought over – like nodes at the ends of the tentacles of some earth-sized anemone, anomic and tending increasingly to see other folk solely as a means for the elaboration of their own ambitions of social escalation, rather than as potential allies in a provisionally, tactically unified socially transformative mass.

We have apparently sailed a long way from the shores of sporting analysis, but these attitudes are the molecular substrate that allow that macro world to become entrenched and flourish. In the world of professional sport, the (consensually adhered to) rules of which are all about competition. Even so, why ever not celebrate someone who struggled with every last fibre of his being, played excellently, but came up slightly short against the greatest player of all time? 

The magnanimity of the crowd was nothing less than a sign of its maturity. To think him a failure makes you a mouthpiece of the neoconservative machine and an obstacle to any hope of conviviality.

Murray is the fourth best player in the world. Two of the three above him have a legitimate claim to be the greatest of all-time, while the third won his first 43 matches last year. Assuming the dubious notion that we have to support ‘one of us’, can we not celebrate pluck and endeavour for itself? Can we not tweak our ambition so that it is to be the best that we can be, emphasis on the ‘we’?

If your sense of self-worth depends on vicarious kicks from a fellow countryman’s success, if Murray’s victory is a few drops into the pool of British pride from which you draw succour, then it is you that has the problem, not him.

If you must be emotionally prescriptive, be disappointed for Murray, not in him. Or, as the first rule of good parenting would have it: applaud the effort, not the outcome.  

No comments:

Post a Comment