Monday, February 05, 2007

Mysteries/Knowledge/Narrative

“This team just did an about face to fast. Something had to have happened in the dressing room…”

-Excerpt from a post on the Canadiens message board.

“…the most keenly watched drama in la belle province these past few months easily has been ‘As The Habs Turn.’”

-From an article in the Toronto Sun, 1/26/07


One of the more interesting sociological concepts to play with is that of ‘backspaces’. Goffman, way back when, hypothesized that the entire social world is divided into ‘front-spaces’ and ‘back-spaces’. In the original formulation, this might be thought of as loosely similar to what we sometimes call ‘public’ and ‘private’ spaces. In any given society or community, the front-spaces are those physical areas that are open to all, where social life takes place. Like the stage in a theater, they are where we perform our roles. Back-spaces, on the other hand, are places where access is restricted to only a few, the ‘behind-the-scenes’ zones of life where we prepare ourselves and our surroundings to play such roles. For example, if a store is a front-space, the stockroom is a backspace.

Later studies of tourism have found that people, particularly in capitalist societies, have a tendency to romanticize and fetishize back-spaces as the privileged location of authenticity. We assume that people are more honest in back-spaces, that what goes on there is truer, more real, than that which happens in the front. Obviously, we are not equally interested in all back-spaces- it isn’t often that you really have the urge to barge into a store’s stockroom. But whenever we do develop a pointed interest in or concern about something, we automatically look for answers in the back-spaces. This is the connection with tourism- tourists, generally speaking, associate the ‘authentic’ experience of the host society with an experience of back-spaces, areas that they imagine are not usually accessible to outsiders- ‘off the beaten path’, as they say.

Hockey has its own set of areas which are inaccessible to outsiders, and we call them, for short, The Room. The Room is not actually the locker room, in fact it is not just any particular place, but a nexus of time and place that forms hockey’s ultimate back-space, and therefore where fans are apt to believe significant truths are to be found. The actual locker room is not really a back-space in itself, because is at certain times visible to outsiders- reporters do interviews there, cameras show the players dressing for the game, it is even, in Montreal, displayed for tour groups. All of this is designed, in some sense, to give the interested public the sense that they do know something about the back-space, to give the illusion of access. But all it does is create further realms of mystery. There is not, as I understand it, just one room but a whole warren of rooms in the average hockey arena that are the privileged space of the team- showers, exercise rooms, in some cases a sort of ‘inner’ and ‘outer’ locker room- to which players may retreat in perfect solitude, and indeed after particularly nasty losses the players often hide there. Moreover, the access to the literal locker room is restricted both in terms of who can enter and when- only those non-team-members with particular credentials are ever allowed admittance, and even they cannot just go in and hang around whenever they want. They are given admittance at particular moments, when they are expected. The Room, the mystery, appears the moment the reporters and cameras leave, in those back-spaces. We believe, somehow, that the players become something else at that moment, when there are no outside observers. Something more real, more authentic, and more interesting.

While I think many hockey fans are curious in a general way about what goes on in The Room, when things are going well we are mostly content not to know much about it. The occasional anecdote from ‘behind the scenes’ may be amusing or entertaining, a cute sort of human-interest story, but mostly we are content to let the players have their privacy, their own little world apart from us. Most fans would probably say they are entitled to such a space of their own. When we think about it, we tend to assume it is more or less like any other locker room we’ve in which we’ve been in our own lives, and if everything seems okay on the ice, we assume that everything is okay in The Room. When problems emerge, though, we become very interested in The Room, and the more mysterious the problem, the deeper our interest. When the Canadiens had the flu as an obvious explanation for their slump, most people accepted that and speculation about events in the room remained minimal. What was going on in there? Probably a lot of vomiting. More than that, we didn’t need to know.

But the flu passed and the slump didn’t. Combined with the terrible games in Florida before it, and the run of terrible games that followed it, the Habs were suddenly developing a record of more or less consistent badness. Yet, other than the flu which had come and gone, nothing had changed. The same players, the same coaching staff, the same overall style of play, and yet suddenly something was very different: They were losing. And there was no obvious reason for it.

We must believe that everything has a cause, and therefore a solution. We, by which I mean the Montreal Canadiens’ audience, cannot accept that the slump might be meaningless, simple bad luck, and even less can we accept that it might simply be the team reaching the limits of its capabilities. We cannot accept that losing is just losing, rather we see it as strange and mysterious, as if it were some kind of foreign concept only recently introduced to the city.

Mysteries attract mysteries. People search for patterns and likenesses to explain that which they cannot understand, and no two things seem more alike than two complete unknowns. This is how conspiracy theories capture our minds and thrive- because all strangeness and suspiciousness seem somehow alike, and we can’t help linking one inexplicable thing to another in the hopes that somehow, properly joined together, the interlaced mysteries will become one coherent web of meaning. One might call this inductive reasoning. Or one might call it speculation. Or gossip. Or madness. Mostly, the difference is in the terms used and the plausibility of the conclusions drawn, but not the process itself.

So the mystery of the slump is quickly linked to the mystery of the locker room, and people quickly start guessing that the one somehow explains the other. And at this point, an interesting circle of information seems to form between the established media and the fans, by which speculation becomes rumor becomes narrative becomes ‘common knowledge.’ The established media have a level of access to the team that the average fan doesn’t, and moreover we believe that they are professionally obligated to communicate only true things to us. So, as the slump gets deeper and deeper, more and more inexplicable, the fans begin to hang on every single word typed or spoken by a news source with Access. Every adjective becomes important. The media, I think, know this, because they- as far as they can without violating their professional commitments- play up the drama. For example, on the 17th, before the Vancouver loss, we have reports that Rivet is ‘storming’ from the Bell Center after Carbonneau ‘threw him out’ of his office. This is reported on television, radio, and the internet almost immediately, and the fans pick it up and- being human- start trying to make sense of it. Why is Rivet benched? Why is he so angry? Why would Carbonneau do that? Suggestions: Rivet is going to be traded. Rivet was getting lazy. Carbonneau is panicking from inexperience. Carbonneau is trying to send a message. But the speculation goes further. Rivet is Koivu’s friend. Koivu will, naturally, be upset about his friend getting scratched. Koivu is the captain, he is influential, if he is upset the rest of the team will certainly be upset. Koivu will criticize Carbonneau to the team. The team will begin to mistrust the coach. Et voila, rampant conversations about a dressing room crisis and an immanent mutiny. Two weeks before everyone had believed that this year’s Habs were a close-knit community of guys who got along well and respected each other. They had great chemistry, players and staff alike- we were told this, and we believed it. Mysterious slump, and everyone is almost as equally sure that, in The Room, there are cliques and factions forming, distress and dissent and looming disaster

This, bear in mind, is still a comparatively minor slump on the grand scale of hockey, a team with an overall good record having a decent season. At the point all these theories developed, only two consecutive losses after two consecutive wins. Yet it only takes a matter of days, less than a day even, for an entire narrative to emerge in the minds of fans, a story which can transform a comparatively simple piece of information- Rivet was scratched, he left the Bell Center and then returned- into an elaborate melodrama that ends up with a large number of people convinced that the entire thing began with some sort of nameless power struggle between Koivu and Carbonneau that’s been simmering since the beginning of the season. After the Vancouver loss, which can probably be called the lowest point of the Canadiens’ season thus far, the media picked up on the fan’s stories and began retelling them in their own way, citing the fans’ consensus as a source, although a dubious one. The real press can report that “Rumors say that….” or “Many believe that…” as an introduction to their own speculations about The Room- as in, it’s obvious that Carbonneau might lose/is losing/has lost The Room.

For now, the slump is not over but is held- somewhat- in abeyance. There have been enough wins to calm the interested audience, and slow the production of new narratives, but enough losses to fuel continued speculation and no small amount of anxiety. The only really persuasive explanation for anything is a good story, and in the absence of inexplicable but catastrophic losses and public meltdowns by players and/or staff, there isn’t enough drama to keep writing the tale we’ve all been dreaming up over the past month. If the Habs reestablish a winning record, everything will be sunshine and daisies and fluffy white kittens, and no one will even remember that they were once so very certain that the team was on the verge of total implosion. If they begin losing again, however, the stories about The Room and the events in it will grow from sitcom to soap opera to epic tragedy at a geometric rate, and it will be interesting to see how new layers of knowledge accumulate, and if possible, how it gets read back onto the players themselves. If the fan-fictions, mediated by the media, comes to control more and more of how the team is presented and treated, how do they react to the stories that are told about them? How do these stories change them, the way they interpret their own personalities, their own relationships, their own game?

5 comments:

Julian said...

Good stuff E.

I'd think that most of the people in any professional sports organization know that the media knows so little about what's really going on behind the scenes (or knows that media won't report anything the team doesn't want to leak) that they don't really have to worry about what message the fans are getting or creating.

The only time the organization needs to care is when fans stop going because they feel the organization is incompetent or doesn't care, and that can take years to manifest, just look at Chicago.

It's an interesting point though, and I really do wonder just how much a GM or coach is influenced by pressure from the fans and media. For the most part, I'd hope it's little or not at all.

I liked the bit about the backspaces/frontspaces, but I'd think most fans would be more interested in what goes on in the GM and owners office rather than the locker room. Team gossip is interesting, but the real seat of power is with the GM.
What I wouldn't give to be able to bug Kevin Lowe's phone right now.

E said...

yeah, but speculation about what the gm is thinking/planning is nearly the only constant in hockey- it goes on all the time, no matter what. what strikes me particularly is that nobody much cared about what happened in the dressing room until things started going badly, and then it suddenly becomes this source of endless fascination and debate.

Julian said...

Yeah, I suppose.... it might be different for me, seeing as I don't live in the same city as my favourite team, so I don't have co-fans to talk to on a daily basis and I don't listen to the local radio. But I can't really say I've noticed it on the web unless something actually juicy happens, like the Pronger trade request back in June.

Maybe it's just Montreal...

Julian said...

Probably a little bit late, but in connection with the topic on hand...

I think I'm an a-GM-gnostic, I don't think it's possible for the vast majority of fans to really be able to tell just how good a job a GM is doing for the most part. Without any special inside knowledge, we lack the capability to properly and adequatly asses what sort of smart moves and dumb moves a GM has made, the signings and trades are only the outcome, we don't know what sort of behind-the-scenes action takes place that shapes those trades and signings.
I don't mean to cut John Ferguson Jr. any slack or anything, because signing Kubina to $5MM is just insane no matter what the extenuating circumstances, but for the most part, we just don't know enough.


That shouldn't stop anyone from trying though, I don't mean to take all the fun out of this.

MetroGnome said...

This is the connection with tourism

And, no doubt, the abhorrent contemporary affliction that is "reality TV".