Monday, November 22, 2010

Game 11: The Work of Hockey in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction


In principle, a hockey game has always been reproducible. In fact, the idea of replication is inherent in the idea of organized sports: every game is nothing more than a copy of an ideal game implied by the rules. Moreover, ideas for strategies, tactics, and even individual moves are copied by coaches and players from one game to another, one team to another, one generation to the next. There are also long-standing traditions of fan replication. People are constantly reproducing hockey games they’ve witnessed- players try to duplicate particularly dazzling moves, fans retell the stories of favorite game experiences. In memory and conversation and even re-enactment, bits and pieces of specific hockey games are constantly being represented and casually copied for new audiences, and it is safe to assume that these varieties of reproduction have been part of the sport on some scale so long as the sport has existed.

In the old dusty history of the game, before time was time and film was film, reproduction of hockey was only word and performance, the testimony of eyewitnesses. The hockey journalist, who now tries to make his name on analysis, was originally a narrator, a man whose sole task was to replicate the story of the game for those who could not come. He might perform his replication in print, on the radio, or even on the telegraph, but he was first and foremost the eyes of the distant masses, and his only necessary talents were the ability to accurately name events and evoke, to some extent, the feeling of the barn.

The advent of mechanized recording, especially the television broadcast, relieved the hockey journalist of this essential function. Parts of it persist on in the play-by-play and the newspaper capsule-recap, but as broadcast technology has heightened its clarity and broadened its audience, it has usurped the role of human reproduction. The broadcast itself is the definitive account of the game, and the journalist has had to struggle to find a new role as critic rather than storyteller. Some have said that blogs, like this sad little thing, are the laudanum-soaked pillow that will eventually, some few deep breaths from now, kill off the professional hockey print journalist. Not so; the profession has been in increasing turmoil for years, as broadcasts have reached ever-larger audiences. Just as the printed Bible virtually implied the growth of Protestantism (as the faithful began to read the text for themselves and grow skeptical of priests as a class of professional interpreters), so the television broadcast virtually implied the advent of the individual blog (as the fanatical began to see all the games for themselves and grew skeptical of the need for journalists as a class of professional analyzers).


The broadcast is, by definition, a nearly perfect reproduction of the game, but even it lacks one element of a real game: its presence in time and space. The hockey game experienced live, in person, is an immersive sensory experience that is particular to it’s exact location- the city, the building, the hiss of the ice and the vagrant murmurs of the crowd, the smell, the press of the bodies, the collective gestures, the constant view of all the players everywhere on and off the ice. To be at the game is to come through streets snowy or sultry, to enter a distinct building, to eat its food, to find one’s way by unique paths to a peculiar vantage, to hear the chatter and cheers of the fellow people, and to see the game in its entirety.

The camera offers an entirely different view. It is a narrow and intensely focused eye. By design, it captures only a moderately-sized portion of the ice, and that portion it scrutinizes with a superhuman intensity. It zooms in, slows down, rewinds, repeats, and edits until a certain particular place and time- a single shot, a single save, a particular still of a puck on the line amidst a pile of bodies- may grow until it becomes, or seems to become, the entirety of hockey. Things that live might pass unnoticed are, before the camera, of utmost significance.

The camera adds much, but it also subtracts something. Passing through the lens, hockey loses much of its immediacy. The emotional depth and urgency of the live game experience that is eliminated in the broadcast or recording might be subsumed under the term “aura”. That which withers in the age of mechanical reproduction is the aura of the hockey game. The broadcast detaches the game from it’s context, from the traditions and rituals of ‘going to see’ hockey. Consequently, we do not see hockey the same way the ancestors did. Once upon a time, within living memory, most hockey was viewed live. The television broadcast did not exist, or was a rare, blurry indulgence, and most people saw most games in person, at the speed of their own eyes and memories, a singular unified performance. We, the audience at home, see something much more fragmented, clearer in some places, distorted in others.


The contemporary masses have developed an intense desire to have all games brought to them in a standardized way. We not only accept but actively seek out reproductions that flatten out the textures and depth of the originals, that distill all hockey everywhere into one constant format. Indeed, the color and feeling that the old scribes went to such lengths to paint into their accounts are exactly the parts that we happily do away with now. The absence of the aura of the hockey game in the broadcast of such creates a sense of the universal equality of all games, as though they were all played in the same place on the same night in front of the same crowd in the same city, with only the names and sweater colors adjusted.


The uniqueness of the live hockey game is inseparable from its being embedded in the culture of a community. It is, in fact, a ritual of sorts, the hierophany of the fan base, a forging of bonds. Audience members at a live game are pulled into a series of collective rituals, a cycle of songs, chants, and gestures that are often specific to the team and the arena. People at a game cease to behave as individuals, but become- possibly more so than at any other time in North American society- a collective organism, whose every breath, motion, and vocalization is keyed to the events on the ice. As much as every televised hockey game is identical, every live game is unique, and through this uniqueness the game serves perhaps it’s only great social purpose: to bring people together.

Mechanical reproduction strips the game of this function, but more than that, it devalues community entirely. When live games prevailed, part of the reason for watching hockey at all was the experience of attendance. It was not only to see events, but to participate in them. The broadcast, however, transforms the audience into an undifferentiated, passive receptacle for a single standard view. Participants no longer, the television audience are made into consumers of hockey.


As the broadcast becomes widespread, so to does the expectation of viewership. Live games, by definition, could only be seen by as many people as might fit in the building. Most fans of any given team would not be able to see many games, and might be compelled to rely on the accounts of others for their understanding. However, this also held hockey fanaticism to a lower standard of consumption. A die-hard fan could still spend a comparatively small portion of his life in watching and studying the game, and accept happily that he would see only a limited amount of hockey.

Games on TV, however, are exhibitions designed for a mass audience, and so a mass audience must be created so as to justify the use of airtime. So, the more pervasive broadcasts become, the more pervasive becomes the pressure to watch all of them. It is considered necessary for fans now to watch the games on TV, and one who does not watch as many games as possible will find his claims to knowledge of or passion for the game questioned.


The television broadcast is so fragmented that it demands explanation. The color commentator becomes necessary, to direct and discipline the viewer’s attention. Someone needs to tell you when there is a change, and who is taking the shot, and who won the faceoff, and where the play broke down. The recorded game is a chattering thing, constantly requiring more information to compensate for the lack of focus and feeling, to recapture the distracted mind after the umpteenth commercial and the four consecutive slow-mo copies of the last big hit.


Over time, the broadcast becomes its own, distinct ritual, one that people- particularly those involved in the broadcast itself- elevate to a nearly coeval status with the live game ritual. Particularly in the NHL, television has come to be the essential experience of hockey, and the habits of watching on TV become, in some dilute way, the communal experience. Hockey Night in Canada is the prime example of this, a broadcast of such familiar, rigid custom that it has taken on a ritualistic tone. For two generations now, Canadian fans have formed their bonds largely in the thin light of the CRT. The televised game has not just supplemented the live version, it has in effect supplanted it.


The hockey player, however much he may wish it were not so, has a necessary relation to the live audience. He is under their constant scrutiny, and their behavior affects his. He may play to them or against them, relish their adulation or bristle at their insults, or try to shut them out entirely, but he is never unaware of their presence. The fans and the player are participating in the same moment, they are embroiled together in the same pulsing aura. For them, the player is a performer with the same power as an actor to manipulate their emotions, as though he had his hand on the circuit breaker of joy. For him, they are a chorus, a thousand upon thousand living mirror neurons, telegraphing back to him the details of his own successes and failures. It is the live audience that a hockey player must learn how to manage, from junior on up, if he is to keep the emotional control necessary for success.


The player has no relationship whatsoever to the television audience. They cannot affect him, but more than that, he cannot affect them in quite the same way. He moves the television audience much less intensely, more mutely, than the live one. The live audience will react to nearly every play in the game, but the television audience will tend to notice and recall only the things selected for them. When a player is playing to a camera, he knows it will pass quickly over most of his shifts, and produce an emphatic record of only the most beautiful or awful moments. The live audience sees a full performance, whereas the television audience sees mostly highlights.

Still, the broadcast and its demands have changed the very nature of the game he plays. A televised game inserts its commercial breaks into the real game, creating periods of artificial dead time in the midst of the action. It has created the demand for personal interviews, the reporter stopping a player on the way to the dressing room for comments, pulling the coach over before a face off to answer questions. The organic rhythm of hockey without television, which is in essence a staccato 90 minute experience, becomes bloated into a three-hour waltz of face-off, play, wait, repeat.


The player’s performance, as captured by the camera, is a product rather than a relationship. It will be copied, magnified, rewound, slowed, and minced into discreet bits, and those bits disseminated far more widely than the whole. The moments he gives the camera become the core of his personal brand.

For much of hockey history, very few players were able to have such a brand. Few games were broadcast or recorded, and those often only in small bits that favored the single greatest players. The others- the lower lines, the grinders- remained below the threshold of celebrity. They had no brand to sell. An ordinary player could be a very ordinary person indeed. Now, of course, every player has a highlight reel. The television broadcast, and its slice-and-dice image of players, is intimately linked to the marketing of the contemporary game. The replay is the necessary prerequisite to the selling of jerseys, T-shirts, mugs, in-depth profiles, jewelry, lingerie, books, and all the thousand number-bearing tchotchkes the NHL dreams up in a season.


The game we see in the broadcast is further distanced from the real game by the production processes- the edits, the insertions, the commercials, the graphics- all features that draw attention to, and indeed celebrate, the artificiality of the broadcast. Every live hockey game has a director, someone in the booth cutting between different cameras and views, selecting sequences, inserting data, and making sure each sponsor gets its due time. It is the most contrived piece of artifice ever shown under the description ‘live’.

Paradoxically, however, it is this very artifice that convinces us that the processed version is more real than the live version. The slo mo, the close-ups, and the commentary all suggest that the broadcast carries more truth than the live experience- a deeper, smarter, more perfect hockey, with all the best bits selected and interlaced with improvements. The broadcast, and what it chooses to show, and how it chooses to show it, are the definitive version of what really happened. The video becomes not just a representation of a reality, but the reality itself.


The live game is undemocratic, insofar as it can only be viewed by a few at a time. The hockey broadcast is necessary to make of the game a form of mass entertainment. What was, before, a community tradition is now a mass-produced commodity.


We see the hockey broadcast far differently than we see the live game, and our sense of analysis changes. A live game must be watched closely and intensely to be understood, whereas in the broadcast, we rely on the technical features of the medium to tell us what happened. In person, a play happens and then it is gone. If you miss it, you cannot possibly recover what it was. Most of hockey happens in halves and tenths of seconds, even the biggest of hits and the loveliest of goals. Some of the traditional attitudes about hockey-watching- the curious lack of horror at utterly violent events, the belief in the importance of ‘momentum’- can probably be attributed to the transitory nature of the live game experience.

The broadcast shifts the significance of the game from the experience of the whole to the experience of a very select few- only those few players within the purview of the lens at a given moment. Their story and actions are magnified to an intense scale, while everything else is sidelined or eliminated entirely, even those players in the bench or the far bits of the ice. The furthest defenseman back is invisible, as is the unchallenged goalie, the man in the box, the team on the bench. The changes, even, disappear, except the bad ones. Novice fans, who have only seen television broadcasts, often don’t even realize that the players are different one minute to the next, unsure who is out there and when, exactly, they arrived. Such is the homogenizing power of the camera.


The broadcast is contemplated not as a whole, but as a series of moments. That which was once a fluid whole is now a series of chunks and slices, each period of play between whistles its own little world. Everything except the score seems to reset between one commercial break and the next. This type of packaging lends itself well to the representation of the game as data, as the play evolves to look less like a flow and more like a series of states, separated by minutes of light and noise on totally unrelated subjects.


The broadcast has fundamentally changed the way we understand hockey, further differentiating the spectator from the player, and creating an entire class of watchers who consume the game in a state of passive distraction, being told what is important and not, who is good and who isn’t. The quantity of hockey we consume is vastly expanded, but the quality of our consumption- the habits that define that consumption- is greatly reduced. We cannot possibly be as absorbed in the televised game as we are in the live one, for the medium itself deliberately breaks concentration at regular intervals. It forces distraction, and then presumes to replace the viewer’s own attention with its own version of memory, its selections of important information. The problem is that this distraction, eventually, becomes permanent. It becomes not just the way we happen to watch hockey on television, but the way we watch all hockey everywhere, the very way we think about hockey. We become preoccupied with single-moment issues- the legality of one particular hit or the legitimacy of one particular goal or the gloriousness of one particular save- to the exclusion of the positional struggles that actually constitute the overwhelming majority of playing. We become fixated on instants rather than strategies, individuals rather than teams, parts rather than wholes. Doubtless we have learned a lot about the game from the broadcast booth, but it is likely we have forgotten much as well.

Heartfelt apologies, and all possible credit, to Walter Benjamin.


B.C.B. said...

This is a lovely post, I very much enjoyed it.

But do you not think that it represents Benjamin's arguments in The Storyteller better? By this I mean the lament of the loss of story to TV show (with the novel in between) is more romantic than Benjamin is presenting in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. I have always that Benjamin is not lamenting the work of art (like he is in relation to the story), but he express the radical value of reproduction: that it is only in mass reproduction that the masses can all view the art (even if it is missing its 'aura') . . . this is what has the possibility of radical democratic process. In many ways, hockey on TV brings us (the masses, that cannot afford to travel and attend games) hockey . . . I could not be part of the OilerDiaspora unless the game was mechanically reproduced. Benjamin, like Marx, does not think that mass production of art is evil but it is the commodity form which art is consumed in that is problematic.

E said...

part of the charm of 'the work of art...' is that it's a rather ambiguous article. benjamin's voice shifts slightly from section to section, and that which he seems to lament in one place he seems to celebrate in another. my tone is more consistent throughout, but then again, i also stuck rather closely, section by section, to the themes of the original. i don't think benjamin is saying mass reproduction is evil, exactly, but i do think he's saying that it necessitates certain deep transformations in the way art is viewed and comprehended- which is essentially the same thing i'm saying: that there are serious trade-offs involved in the technology that allows one to be a diaspora fan of any team.

rashid1891 said...

i like this theori

Taylor said...

Go to a game and there's a 50/50 chance the people sitting around you will ruin it for you. I do agree that the broadcasters have to much influence on the way we see the game. You can't help but think about and notice the things the point out. Still you can see a lot more on tv sometimes and with HD and wide screens you're not missing that much. Also you can only really focus on a small area of your visual field at one time. I'm not convinced you miss very much on tv. Some, yes but I don't think its that much.

Devid Pul said...
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