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Crowd Machine

Tickets to the Game

My in-laws were in town last weekend. I believe the inducement for their visit were good seats to a ballgame at Roger's Stadium between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Detroit Tigers that my wife obtained at a good group rate in appreciation for being such a well-behaved wage slave in her professional field. This was a bigger inducement, I'm sure, than my son's sixth birthday party this coming weekend, complete with magician, pinata, and loads of hyperactive kids getting sugared up. After all, if they're going to drive ten hours to see their grandkid for a couple of days for the first time in more than a year they might as well get a free ballgame out of it, right?

And so I attended my first major league baseball game in over thirty years. And, to my wife's great astonishment — as well as my own — I enjoyed it immensely.

It's one of the handful of times I've ever enjoyed a sporting event. Not only that, but it's the first time I got a wave of appreciation and understanding for what I believe people get out of the sports "experience".

Sports, like religion, has always been for me a kind of litmus test as to one's cultural credentials: if one really cared about sports in any substantive way — by which I mean team sports, for I myself enjoy playing handball and squash — then it rendered suspect their capacity for appreciating the "finer things in life." It also signified that their brain was wired differently from mine, for they had a capacity to appreciate something that I have always considered irrational wastes of time. (That's not a qualitative judgement, by the way: that's just saying that sports and religion to me are like music to the tone deaf, or color-field painting to the colorblind.) Ok, so maybe I sound a bit like a cultural elitist. Perhaps I am. No — I am, I'll admit it. But that doesn't mean I wouldn't let theists and sports lovers use my towels. Indeed, I number such people among my best friends.

Maybe my knee-jerk reaction against sports is the association I've defaulted it with dangerous jingoism, false community, a facile way to subsume individual identity into the mad ecstasy of the mob. I could abstractly appreciate it in some archaic, pure guise, something aesthetic, something heroic, the human body pushed to a sublime apotheosis of grace and beauty and raw power. I have sometimes greatly enjoyed watching sumo, or boxing, or mixed martial arts as a form of physical chess where moves are determined by instantaneous strategies of finely tuned nerves and alert senses communicating with muscles and flesh. I can also remember the few times when team sports filled me with excitement: a Mets game I happened upon while flipping channels late one night that I caught in the bottom of the 12th inning that ultimately went to 18 innings; an olympic hockey match between Sweden and Canada; a stock car race where three superlative drivers wound around each other for a dozen laps as they fought for first place.

Perhaps my warmest sports memory is the minor league game I attended in Billings, Montana over twenty-five years ago. It was the first time I understood the role team sports can play in a town's sense of self. Unlike the games I had seen at Shea or Yankee stadium when I was a kid, this was a more intimate affair, more real, less processed. The town came out to an intimate but respectable field and occupied the bleachers like sitting in their comfy chairs at home; they shook their cowbells when the Mustangs got a hit (I still have that bell); there was lots of friendly talk, and an easy and comfortable sense of comraderie, and I felt very comfortable and welcome there, I felt, for a few hours, like one of them, even though I was clearly from someplace else.

But whatever grace and beauty and spirit the ideal of sports may once have possessed it has been thoroughly debased in our times by its complete co-optation by both financial and political interests. It's practically inconceivable that there can be any kind of serious modern sports without the trappings of political or corporate whoredom surrounding it. It's just another product for consumption, and, what's more, like Hollywood itself, it's a kind of meta-product, serving as a conduit for hawking ideological products. As my blogging buddy Bruce trenchantly asks "Can you watch ESPN and not support American exceptionalism and imperialism?"

The Game

But whatever my feelings and thoughts about sports, we had tickets to a game and, much to my surprise, I was actually looking forward to going.

It was a short subway trip to the stadium. When we finally found our gate we had to go through a security check where bags were searched (of course). Inside was a hustle and bustle as people swarmed the space. Concessions were everywhere selling beer, junk food, and clothes. It had been a long long time since I'd been in a stadium so the great space with its unusual scale was a bit disorienting yet thrilling to me. Straight ahead I could see an expanse of green. There it was! Right there — beyond a sea of chairs was the field! And the field was completely surrounded by a sea of chairs that filled my vision up as well as around! It was delightfully overwhelming. I was surprised how small the field seemed, actually. My childhood memory, combined with the weird proportions of the space, made the pure green field seem surprisingly small to me.

We got there early so grandpa could watch the teams warm-up. I just drank in the experience of being in such a space. Roger's Stadium (aka Skydome), like any stadium, is a big open space, but this one seemed particularly well designed to my non-specialist eyes. It has a retractable roof, which I thought was pretty cool. I also noticed a lot of what looked like hotel rooms looking out over the outfield, their curtains either closed, or open enough to reveal a standard hotel lamp. But the first thing one notices after the enormity of the space is a narrow strip of electronic monitor tape emblazoned with colorful super-saturated graphic animation that wrapped around much of the perimeter of the stands, an oddly and intensely electrical tapestrip that gave the space a hyper-kinetic feel, yanking the eye to it like a shimmering magnet. Then one notices the enormous Jumbotron monitor above centerfield showing the same intensely vibrant graphic animation — yet another thing to overwhelm the senses, and it succeeded in its mission. There was lots of discrete and various activities all across the field as athletes batted and tossed balls around; CG animation glided across the monitor strips and the Jumbotron like an electronic river, interspersed with stats, ads, announcements; supplementary monitors filled with other information were scattered around the space; banners, pendants, hawkers yelling out, crowds coming and going, media tables, glass walled executive boxes like something out of Rollerball dotting the stands, a high-class restaurant below the Jumbotron, chefs in their tall white hats tending to flames here and there...it was a lot to absorb.

Eventually it came to 1:07pm. We were told to rise [did] and remove our caps [didn't] for the American anthem. Maybe it's because Toronto is the first place I've lived in my adult life that feels like home to me, one that I even feel proud to call my home. Maybe because somehow the American anthem, which I grew up with, repulses me. But the Canadian anthem, which is still alien to me, somehow actually moved me. And maybe because I never could, in good conscience, root for a hometeam in any of the numerous American places I've lived precisely because they were American teams. But I suddenly found myself rooting for the Jays. This was a new feeling for me — partisanship, irrational partisanship. I somehow suddenly had a strong desire to see the Blue Jays win. It mattered to me. Admittedly not a great deal, but now, somehow, I felt a desire to root for a team to win for no better reason than that I happened to live in its hometown. It became personal at some level.

And so I began to watch the game with some interest. I knew enough about the mechanics of baseball to follow the game, and even seemed to follow it on a strategic level. I was absorbed.

I cannot believe that I am going to be discussing the following in such a manner, that the following words are actually being formed in my brain and coming out of my fingertips, but...

...there was a length of time during the game when Ty Taubenheim, the Jay's starting pitcher, was facing the next batter when the Tiger's just got the bases loaded and had only one out, and then I suddenly understood — no, I felt — the import of the situation: I keenly felt the tremendous excitement, the power, the tension of sports. I felt titillated at what I imagined was the projection of my own empathetic tension as Taubenheim had to find the strength within himself to not succumb to the great pressure on him, particularly given that this was a rookie leading off his first game of the season. The tension in the crowd was palpable. With each pitch the tension rose. Each ball, each strike, each swing of the batter, increased the tension. When Taubenheim threw a pitch that struck out the batter there was a roar throughout the stadium — even now I can feel the shiver in my spine at the release of tension. Bases loaded, two outs. I was rooting for Taubenheim, I was now a Blue Jay's fan, a Ty Taubenheim fan, I now felt a part of the crowd, that I belonged, that I was one of them. I wanted Taubenheim to strike this guy out — it mattered to me, almost as a point of pride — not just for the Jays, not just for the fans, but most of all for Taubenheim, his heroic visage emblazoned three-stories tall on the Jumbotron, focused, concentrated. I was on his side, totally, absolutely. 3 and 2 — the next pitch mattered, perhaps decisively. When the batter smacked the ball into a pocket in rightfield and scored two runs I was still rooting for Taubenheim: I thought the batter got a lucky hit, or Taubenheim just simply let a good one slip by. When they pulled him from the mound and replaced him with someone from the pen I felt cheated. Taubenheim was doing great — he made one mistake and they take him out of the game. It seemed so unfair after he'd done such a great five innings, especially when the next few pitchers the Jay's rotated through in their desperation to stop the Tiger's streak gave up even more runs in the next inning.

At the top of the sixth Detroit gets five runs off the replacement pitchers. (Serves them right!) And then I experienced the power of crowds in another new way. Rather than let such a daunting score (8-2) defeat the fans, when the Jays came to bat the fans rallied! There was a chemistry in the audience that sizzled and sparked. More and more cheers erupted in pockets throughout the stadium. A wave started in the rightfield stands that moved from section to section, and as it approached my section I rose from my seat and raised my arms with the rest of them(!)... I resumed my seat and watched, enthralled, as the wave worked its way around back to the outfield stands...and then it kept going! The wave was coming around again! And again I stood and raised my arms... And I sat and watched the wave again work its way back to the outfield stands. And then it kept going! one more time around the stadium! It was not only the first time I participated in such a phenomenon, it was the first time I understood it. I hope the Blue Jays appreciate how lucky they are to have such an awesomely wonderful fan base in their hometown. They sure seemed to — the team responded. First batter up smacked a home run! Next batter up...another home run!

But the rally was short lived and the Jays never caught up. Toronto and Detroit both played a great game, it's just that Detroit played better.

During the game I also had the unusual privilege of watching someone get beaned. A foul was popped very high towards our section, and, from where I sat looking up, the ball disappeared in its descent because it was in a direct line-of-sight with the sun. It was definitely heading for our area. The man in the seat before me covered his head, which seemed prudent and which, it occurs to me, I should have done too, but I stupidly kept looking up thinking I'd see it in time to catch it with my bare hands. Then suddenly there was a loud and hollow crack! when the baseball bounced off the gray-haired grandma's skull two seats in front of me. Her head flopped over. I involuntarily joined a chorus of sympathetic oof-groans at the witnessing of what certainly seemed like her demise. Standing patrons pointed towards her, managers arrived and spoke into their walkie-talkies, two EMTs soon arrived and gave her an ice-pack. Before long she was chatting amiably with the emergency techs and watched another couple of innings, chewing gum vigorously. I couldn't believe she regained consciousness so quickly, no less an ability to function. This precipitated a string of random thoughts about lotteries, statistics, and the graphic illumination of just what 1 in 30,404 can signify.

And now that I wrote the preceding paragraphs I just cannot believe that they came from me. I feel changed, somehow.

Crowd Machine

It's obvious the entire experience was designed to overwhelm me, to push my emotional buttons. And it worked — or, rather, I allowed it to work. I gave myself over to the experience I was intended to have, much as a Spielberg movie can make you cry on cue. I was programmed to be a part of a greater whole. I was enlisted in an interactive theatrical production where I had a role to perform in monumentalism, and it is a very seductive experience.

I think the difference for me is that I was aware of myself entering this frame of mind, and I knew that if I wanted to I could return from it — though not as easily as I would have thought.

And so there I sat, a member of a voluntarily captive audience delivered to the crowd in which I was a part, made all the more monumentally vivid by seeing the atoms and molecules comprising that crowd on the Jumbotron. The script demanded that the crowd behave a certain way, with joy, with excitement, with a sense of belonging. Violating the script would be tantamount to a scandalous faux pas. All eyes within the crowd were fixed upon the crowd reflected back to itself, whether on the Jumbotron, or in viewing ones' neighbors near and far; and a mote of misbehavior in the crowd's eye as it considers its own reflection would be most unwelcome. Everyone was on display, everyone was part of the spectacle, and there could be no space for true individuality, for true iconoclasm, for introspection in such a setting. As cameras secretly worked through the crowd, transforming faces into enormous electronic icons, we perceived and learned model behavior: point and look away from the camera and towards the screen when you see yourself transformed into your enormous digital exteriority; clap, smile, point, thumbs up, dance, cheer. Our identities were subsumed into the crowd's, and the entire environment was mediated to make you feel that.

We, the crowd, were under surveillance — but a joyous, ecstatic surveillance, one in which there was nothing to hide, one where there can be no interior, no possibility of inwardness, where there can be nothing to hide. Everything had to be in the open for everyone's simultaneous inspection. There was no room for guilt, for shame, for fear — if anything was permitted it was a playful joy of embarrassment at having been found out; but tantamount was the joy of seeing oneself as an important component of the crowd. And just to make it clear what was expected of us, the stands were under the watchful eye of police and security forces when the teams switched the field. Thus there was, indeed, a State element to the proceedings, complete with all the legal and judicial implications such a presence signified. There was an element of ecstasy in embracing our universal surveillance, in having nothing to hide. The omniscient eye was comforting as it eliminated our need for privacy, for inner space. All was surface, there was no inside.

The crowd is the product, the baseball game and the stadium the means of its creation. But the crowd is more than its own product of self-reflecting ecstasy. It's a machine, comprised of spending units processed to deliver money to a variety of enormous financial concerns. The crowd machine is constantly in motion, sending out its components to exchange money units for consuming units — obscenely overpriced junk food, disposable novelties, emblem-emblazoned clothing. The crowd machine is a consuming machine: it consumes the spectacle of itself consuming its own spectacle, in a mediated loop of ecstatic social control; and, in its particular incarnation as consumer of mediated corporate sporting event, it is intended to consume the effluvia of capital (junk food and junk products) that pours towards it within the stadium itself. Just as television exists to deliver the audience to the advertiser, so does the corporate sporting spectacle deliver the crowd first to itself, but also to the wonders of capitalism's notion of ideal community — a completely surveilled ecstatic spending machine.

I can see why it's so addicting. Everything about it is designed to focus one outside oneself: the excitement and energy of the game; the profusion of meaningful statistics one can get lost in analysing; the phenomenology of enormous spaces that Albert Speer understood so well; the bewildering drug of fragmented attention; the enormous seduction of losing oneself to become the greater crowd; the paradoxical comfort of universal surveillance, transforming secretive and fearful internal reality into joyous externality; the intensely structured experience of time...all these mediated experiences program one to discharge the painful prison of the ego and join a greater whole, to feel a sense of community — no matter how ersatz. It is community as anonymous crowd, sharing a real-life bonding experience that unites lonely actors into a seeming great whole.

And I gave myself up to it. And I loved it. I got to feel what others so naturally and easily experience when going to this popular pasttime. It seems, actually, to function as a bona-fide corporate religion, complete with its own rituals, arcana, and grandeur that exist to give the masses some meaning.


The last few weeks I've been watching almost nothing but David Cronenberg and Michael Haneke movies. I'm currently reading Gilles Deleuze & Peter Weiss books right now. I have season tickets to the opera... In fact, today I just paid my last installment on $1400 for a mediocre seat for what promises to be an amazing performance of Wagner's Ring Cycle next September. What the fuck am I doing enjoying a ball game?

But enjoy it I did. Immensely. To the point where I'm thinking about getting a multi-game flex pass, for fuck's sake.

But you know, if Robert Coover and Don DeLillo can enjoy baseball, well then, so can I. I also happen to be working on what promises to be a sappy but ok feel-good kid's animated movie about baseball, which may have something to do with my shocking change of heart.

The day after the game, while waiting for my sandwich order at lunch, I actually picked up the sports page for the first time in my life with a geniune interest to read something about the game I attended. And next week I'm thinking of actually leaving work a bit early to catch a night game by myself.

Like many others, I go through phases. In my case they're usually something cultural. I went through an Aldous Huxley phase, a Eugene Ionesco phase, a Henry James phase; a Liszt phase, a Bruckner phase, a Schoenberg phase; a Zappa phase, a Cheap Trick phase, a Meat Beat Manifesto phase (still continuing); a Schopenhauer phase, a Homer phase, a Chomsky phase; a Bauhaus phase, an Al Held phase, a Northern Rennaisance phase; a Greenaway phase, a Hitchcock phase, a Herzog phase; so many others I can't possibly recount them all... I was an avid boardgamer for many years; and, many years ago, a serious pinball enthusiast, having even once been in a national tournament. I would spend days, weeks, sometimes months (or years, in the cases of Huxley or Bruckner or pinball) where I would devote myself to absorbing all I could about the topic of interest. And now the thought of entering a Toronto Blue Jays phase...?! — a sport phase, how normal, how prosaic! — is such a new thing for me I don't know how to process it.

As a result of my great experience at this game I now understand how people become absorbed in sports, in its stats, its players, its games, its teams, its tournaments in a way that I have never, never grokked before.

I guess I'm just human, all too human.