Not Knowing

1 07 2011

Last fall, my father, brother, and I all went to a Boise State University football game.  It was an auspicious occasion, as the Broncos were facing the Oregon State Beavers and the game was nationally televised in prime time.  It was an exciting game, the Broncos won, and a good time was had by all.  Seeing a sporting event in person provides a full-immersion sensory experience–the game, the crowd, the weather, the sounds of the bands and the public-address announcer, the smell of the grass (or blue field-turf in this case) and concessions, even the dog that runs out to retrieve the tee after each kickoff—that you don’t get from watching the game at home on TV.  The difference that I found most refreshing, however, confuses many people I try to explain it to.  I like the fact that, when you’re watching the game in person, you don’t know everything that’s going on.

There's a little white speck in the top left part of this photo. That's me! I think.

Depending on the network and the stakes, a nationally televised football game has somewhere in the neighborhood of twenty cameras at work.  When you’re watching a game at home, simply visually, it’s as if you’re watching it from twenty different positions within the stadium.  You don’t just have the “best seat in the house,” you have the twenty best seats in the house.  When you’re at the game, you have one seat.  And it might be a bad seat.  At the game I went to, we were high up in the stands, just behind the left corner of the south end zone.  With only one vantage point and one set of eyes, my perception of what was happening was limited.  Watching at home, you can be watching the ball during the play, but then be taken back for a replay of what you just watched except this time you’re seeing what the wide receiver was doing away from the ball.  “Oh, Brent, that corner is starting to get under the receiver’s skin.  It’s getting pretty chippy out there,” Kirk Herbstreit might say as you view the slow-motion footage of the two athletes shoving each other while running down the field.

To be sure, at home one has the opportunity to see the game from many more physical viewpoints than the person at the live event.  But that experience of the game is mediated.  Football is a complicated game.  Players are split between offensive players and defensive sides for each team.  There are long- and short-yardage specialists for both sides.  Each side has its own coordinating coach and, the higher the stakes, the more individual position coaches are used—the quarterbacks coach, the offensive line coach, the defensive backs coach.  To compare sports to war can be dangerous, but in the area of complexity of strategy involved football is closer to military conflict than, say, tiddlywinks.  Because of this complexity, the broadcast analyst plays a crucial role in the television viewer’s understanding of the game.  Without exception, the major-network analysts for pro and college games are men who either played or coached at that level.  They have years of education and experience with the strategies tactics of the game, and the good ones are able to communicate what they are seeing and how it is affecting the situation of either team.

This is what makes all those camera angles and slo-mo replays possible.

So, when one is watching a football game at home, that person is getting a more thorough and insightful presentation of the event that is taking place.  However, that experience, however thorough, is mediated.  The camera angles that are shown are being chosen by the director, and those individual shots are being composed and focused by each cameraman.  The viewer’s knowledge of what factors are affecting the outcome (say, a lack of running game or an injury to a key player) are being clarified and contextualized by the analyst.

In fact, that analyst is being assisted by field reporters, producers and the director in what to address via what replay is being shown or what information is available.  Yes, the home experience of the football game is broad, but it is packaged and delivered by a team of cameramen, directors, producers, and analysts.  You may feel like you know everything about the game you’re watching but what you know is limited to what they provide.  Your experience isn’t even their experience (it must be something completely different to watch a game with a director and a producer telling you through an earphone what the next replay will be while you’re also supposed to be speaking about the game your watching both on a field and through a monitor in front of you), it’s the experience they have made for you.

On the other hand, the experience one has at a football game is his or hers alone.  You may be watching the runner with the ball and miss the excellent swim-move made by the defensive end right before the tackle.  You might be having a conversation with the face-paint-clad fan next to you and miss the time-out performance by the cheer squad.  You probably won’t be aware of the trouble the Bronco offense is having running to the left side due to a thumb injury to the left guard, or that this field goal kicker is 48% from this range.  But you have just as full of an experience of the game.  Your opinions on strategy and understanding of what has taken place are first-hand experience, not mediated by a network team of dozens of people.  You know what you’ve seen, but you don’t know “everything.”

I attempted to explain my attitude to my father as we were watching a replay of the game the next night, which seemed almost surreal.  Here we were, supplementing our experience of the game we’d seen first-hand with a second-run airing of the same game as shown to a third party, as if to make our experience more complete, more real.  While it did seem a little trippy, surreal isn’t the right term.  What we were engaging in was hyper-real.

Jean Baudrillard explored the notion of the hyperreal.  For him, hyperrealism is a defining characteristic of postmodernity.  It is the collapse of the distinction between the representation and what it is representing—between the representation and the “real.”  I am not arguing here that the game I witnessed was more real than the game that was broadcast on ESPN.  I’m saying that both games were real.  Hyperrealism is the acknowledgment that what is represented IS reality.

In another context, Michel Foucault argues that discourse is reality, meaning that the discussion about a topic (sexuality for Foucault, football for us) constitutes what that topic is and what it means.  Discourse can be history books, movies, or football telecasts, and all constitute how we understand history as reality.  An example of this is the discourse on Vietnam provided by television and movies.  Increasingly, especially for those of us who did not live through or have any direct experience of that war, what we see in films like Full Metal Jacket or Platoon constitutes our experience, and therefore our knowledge of the Vietnam conflict.  For us, the films aren’t about Vietnam, they are Vietnam.

The "Vietnam" scenes of Full Metal Jacket were filmed at an abandoned gasworks outside London.

Hyperrealism is pervasive.  A week ago, a friend of mine got a text message from his girlfriend that we both made a joke about.  He immediately went onto facebook and posted an extension of that joke onto my wall.  The conversation and the joke spanned three realities—the text, the actual interaction, and facebook—none of these is more “real” than the others, yet two are representations of conversations on different digital planes.  Yet they are all intertextual extensions of the same conversation.

To connect this to the football game, the game I witnessed was no more or less real than the game broadcast on television.  And once I watched the game in the rebroadcast, both experiences became my one singular experience of the game.  The real and the represented are one thing, and my trip to the BSU game is now hyperreal.

For me, there is a lure to the unmitigated first-hand experience of watching the game in person, of not “knowing” all of what happened.  My experience of the game was subjective—no one else saw the game exactly the way I did.  To not know is to be a single person in a single place at a single time.  To not know is to be human on a very basic level.  To not know is to be a part of reality instead of hyperreality, if only for a moment.

Bibliographic information:

Storey, John.  An Introduction to Cultural Theory and Popular Culture.  Athens, GA:  The University of Georgia Press, 1998.

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2 responses

14 07 2011
The Human Fiction

This is a great explanation and example of hyperreality! What you didn’t quite touch on is that this then promotes this fantasy world that people live in. People expeeect things to all be like their amazing-exciting-transcendental football game—the cultural affect of hyperreality. But I really enjoyed reading this

10 03 2013
Nigel

I think you have really missed Baudrillard’s point regarding hyper-reality. You seem to be reducing the concept of the ‘hyper-real’ to the concept of the ‘artificial’. Baudrillard is not merely suggesting that postmodern culture is artificial, because the concept of artificiality still requires some sense of reality against which to recognize the artifice. His point, rather, is that we have lost all ability to make sense of the distinction between nature and artifice.

It seems almost like you didn’t read the paragraphs that immediately precede what you quoted.

“What happens then to the real event, if everywhere the image, the fiction, the virtual, infuses reality? In this present case, one might perceive (maybe with a certain relief) a resurgence of the real, and of the violence of the real, in a supposedly virtual universe. “This is the end of all your virtual stories — that is real!” Similarly, one could perceive a resurrection of history after its proclaimed death. But does reality really prevail over fiction? If it seems so, it is because reality has absorbed the energy of fiction, and become fiction itself. One could almost say that reality is jealous of fiction, that the real is jealous of the image… It is as if they duel, to find which is the most unimaginable.
The collapse of the towers of the World Trade Center is unimaginable, but that is not enough to make it a real event. A surplus of violence is not enough to open up reality. For reality is a principle, and this principle is lost. Real and fiction are inextricable, and the fascination of the attack is foremost the fascination by the image (the consequences, whether catastrophic or leading to jubilation are themselves mostly imaginary).
This terrorist violence is not then reality backfiring, no more than it is history backfiring. This terrorist violence is not “real”. It is worse in a way: it is symbolic. Violence in itself can be perfectly banal and innocuous. Only symbolic violence generates singularity. And in this singular event, in this disaster movie of Manhattan, the two elements that fascinate 20th century masses are joined: the white magic of movies and the black magic of terrorism.”

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