Wednesday, 8 August 2012

The Olympics - Lost For Words

There is much talk at present about the "legacy" of the Olympic Games, despite the fact that other Olympic Games have left no legacy other than decaying velodromes and the like. But, really, it is the Olympics that are the legacy, of an age that trumps purposeful activity, real life, and human relation with frothy and fleeting communications that make us pathologically preoccupied by the loveliness of everything.

There is also much talk at present about vacant seats at the Games' various events, corporate allocations not having translated into corporate attendances. This, together with the disgraceful list of sponsors of the Games, the utterly unsporting targets for medals, the endlessly bureaucratic categories of event (women's double light-weight scull etc etc.), shows how deeply in thrall to big business the Olympics really is, just another means of laundering our total beholdenness to the corporate worldview. But the vacancy of the coverage being offered to television viewers is also something to think about, characterized, as it is, by an attention-deficit-disorder style that appears to be aimed solely at obviating any real engagement with the events. True, the BBC is offering a see-everything-from-start-to-finish service via its "red button." But, as if feeling that the need to in any sense present the games is therefore obviated, it is then filling its Olympics - London 2012 programme with a combination of fast-cut sequences, over-dubbed winning moments, music-laden starting line-ups and mind-numbingly repetitive confessional-style emotings. For those of us at home (which is almost all of us) the Olympics is about nothing more than how lovely are the Olympics.

The BBC's dichotomy of "24-hour coverage" and "all the highlights," through which falls the old skill of delivering to the viewer some sense of things, is just one version of what is in fact the structure of our times. No longer involved in the growing of things, the mining of things, or the making of things, our economy, and therefore now our lives, are given over to the saying of things, whose sole purpose lies, economically, in satisfying the markets, and, politically, in preoccupying a population which is not growing things, mining things or making things, a population, in short, for which there is no use and in which there is no value. Saying things, "social networking" of various kinds, is now what we do; there's nothing much at all but saying it makes it so. And if you would object that, even if we are not growing, mining or making, we are at least now consuming, then you should think again. For, with the combination of increasingly virtual purchasing and increasingly obsolete products, buying stuff is really not a lot more than saying you're buying stuff. In our communications age, consumption is just another form of communication, albeit one that is more directly exploited for profit than other forms of communication are. And all of this proceeds with The Great Excuse alongside of it: that you, that we, have at our fingertips now, all of the information we need to understand and to alter the forces that are operating upon us. It is an all or nothing scenario, with the all operating as a constant apology for the nothingness of our lives.

But back to the Olympics, awful legacy of these times. BBC reporting constitutes the games as happening, for the most part, at the level of their communication. That is, the BBC's account of the games is entirely focused upon the extent to which the things it says about the games, and the events and the athletes and the fans and the venues and everything else, are in the spirit of the "Isn't it lovely" orthodoxy into which we are all of us expected to fall. For the first time in my memory, the personal attributes of the athletes are now in the foreground, it being more important that athletes contribute, in interview, to our sense that this is an amazing, a fabulous, a lovely event than that they actually run fast or jump high. The confusion on the faces of some members of Team GB (we're all one lovely family, you know, and not anything so dull and horrible as a state or a nation) who have not realized their medal target is an expression of their vestigial sense, however slight, that sporting effort is not the name of these games (see Rebecca Adlington's post-bronze winning interview): only the communication of sporting effort, in the shape of medals and post-event emotions, and words of support, and feelings of togetherness, is what matters. Other members of Team GB, who have sobbed and bemoaned their failure to achieve target, have been told that they are not failures in our eyes: and they were told right, for crying and saying you can't believe how you've left everybody down when everybody's been so lovely, is now as good as gold.

The poster girl for Team GB is Jessica Ennis. The choice was a simple one. She's a heptathlete, which makes the proliferation of communications around her very easy indeed. And she's pretty, which is always lovely you know. And such a lovely person, which is always lovely too. This, ad (even more!) nauseum, was the tone of Denise Lewis and Gabby Logan on the BBC's Olympics coverage on the day of Heptathlon gold. Despite having already secured first place, Ennis went out to the final event of her competition - the 800m - and won it in good style. She said, afterwards, that she wanted to give people something to cheer, to give them a sense, in the inevitably disjointed heptathlon event, that there was still a moment of victory. What Ennis misses - how could she not - is that it is the disjointed nature of her event that makes it emblematic of the Olympic games, which has managed to make every event seem disjointed (there are 14 different categories for rowing alone and the mode of reporting makes each one appear to have at least 14 episodes). And wanting to galvanize the crowd is the very thing that must not be done. Stunning, that the BBC, in their highlights, showed only the last couple of seconds of Ennis's 800m race. How long would it have taken to show the whole thing!? About two minutes and 8 seconds, that's all. But instead, they dwelt for ten times that long on Ennis's expressions of gratitude and wonderment and love after the race, and on the studio panel's expressions of gratitude and wonderment and love too.

David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neo-Liberalism, identifies social unrest out of a sense of nihilism as a real threat to the neo-liberal emphasis on the individual ("There is no such thing as society," said Mrs. Thatcher). The solution has been to regenerate a kind of cohesiveness on the basis of feelings of terror and patriotism. But it is important, of course, that the feelings of patriotism do not become too potent. That might give way to social unrest out of a sense of purpose! What is needed is just enough to make us feel that we're all one happy (Olympic) family, but not enough to make us feel that something, at last, might just be worth more than words.

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