Politics By Other Means

Joe Kennedy, Games without Frontiers

Repeater, 300pp, £8.99, ISBN 9781910924242

reviewed by Alfie Bown

Joe Kennedy is a theorist and a football fan. His book Games without Frontiers critiques neither and instead seeks to redeem both via their not-so-unusual connections. Kennedy explores how political and theoretical concerns play out in and through football, and how football implies important things in its various theoretical and political contexts. Far from seeing the game as merely a symptom of or distraction from political and social concerns, Kennedy reveals the deeply complex and surprisingly intricate relationship between politics and the football field.

At times, the theory explains the football. Kennedy argues, for instance, that a football club builds its identity in a typically capitalist way as diagnosed by Marx. For Marx, a commodity takes on its status as a commodity not as a result of the object itself nor even via its mediation and marketing. Instead, a commodity becomes a commodity via a process in which none other than the people who buy the product turn it into the object of desire it is by gradually conferring on it an identity which exceeds the sum of its parts. Football clubs function similarly, with supporters to whom the club-as-commodity appeals then responsible for building the identity of the club, which will in turn appeal to the next consumer. Such cycles have built football into something nearing the commodity par excellence.

At other times though, it’s the football that explains the theory. Kennedy’s chapter on football and modernism, for example, playfully explores how the experiences of watching Darlington FC opened up new ways to get to grips with texts like Beckett’s Endgame, Kafka’s The Castle and the poetry of Baudelaire. This argument comes not from a typically bourgeois attempt at elevating football to the status of literature – which Kennedy discusses in the case of Hornby’s Fever Pitch – but from an attempt to dissolve such distinctions which unconsciously privilege one form of enjoyment over another. That said, Kennedy knows that football is not literature and writes:

Football is not the same thing as art, and attempts to suggest it is invariably become patronising. Nevertheless, as a form in which experience is registered and made sense of, it shares certain parallels with modernist art which suggest how it is both a form of practical modernism in itself and a useful structural metaphor for modernity.

Football and its paratexts are far from mindless and play a role in constructing and shaping the way in which those engaged with it register their experiences and understand the world around them. Analysis of football can therefore reveal the political structures of modernity, whilst football itself can be seen as a way of dealing with or responding to modern conditions. Awareness of this doubleness could indeed contribute to an understanding of how some forms of modernist and postmodernist literature function.

On the best occasions, theory and football illuminate each other simultaneously, as in the particularly charming case of Kennedy’s explanation of a particular match between Galatasaray and Aalen in terms of the Lacanian trio of Symbolic, Real and Imaginary. The match itself can be said to embody the Symbolic: a finite set of rules which can produce variable but not infinite outcomes. The Imaginary finds its perfect representative in the crowd, with their matching shirts and passionate belief in a wholeness and unity that connects them to the events on the field. When a dog runs onto the field of play and disrupts the structure of events on and off of it, resulting in a YouTubable level of chaos, Kennedy sees a glimmer of the Real which both disrupts and constitutes the events and perceptions of our reality. The analogy elucidates the theory, and asks the reader to consider the complex political and structural formations that underlie our experiences of a football match.

Not just here but throughout the book, Kennedy picks up on what is truly interesting about football, rather than running any of the old clichés about it. To notice, for instance, how strange it might be that in football ‘the crowd have an agency which is comparable to, if not greater than that of the players, [so] that you can somehow will the ball to be where you want it to be,’ is quite remarkable. In football discourse this is always put down to the ability of the crowd to ‘raise morale’ or to ‘intimidate opponents’ but Kennedy frames it differently, as an important part of the structure of the spectacle, not just an illusion of agency to make fans feel involved and spend money, but a moment that almost asks us to rethink the complex relationships between subjectivity and the things we watch and consume. Kennedy’s focus on the ‘viewing practices’ and ‘forms of encounter’ in the football world makes the book a really unique take on the sport, as well something of much wider relevance in contemporary culture. It asks us to think again about viewing, identifying and immersing ourselves in the commodities of our choice.

Mainstream sports literature leaves much to be desired; it is invariably either mindless or pretentious. Kennedy’s book cuts through this impasse and negotiates it naturally and with no difficulty whatsoever, making it the most important book on football since Hornby’s totally different Fever Pitch. The book is inspired by Marx and by Lacan, who remain the two most subversive theoretical figures in a climate of capitalist realism and ubiquitous endless enjoyment, making it a deep critique of contemporaneity. At the same time it comes from a football fan and a seasoned football follower who has engaged with the game on many levels, perhaps most importantly on the terraces. The book approaches the relationship between football and theory with a genuine appreciation for both and, perhaps more importantly than anything else, shows that football is far from stupid, never innocent and nowhere near mindless. For Kennedy, discussions of football are always already discussions of politics.

For this reviewer it may be that Kennedy’s love of the game prevents the book being as critical as it might be of football’s complicity in capitalism, patriarchy and racism. That said, the masculinist and nationalistic identity formation associated with the sport are discussed in these pages, even if they are not central. Kennedy’s book, better than any football writing I have encountered in my own life as that unusual mix of football fan and philosopher, speaks to both sides without speaking in the language of either. Games without Frontiers forces us to see philosophy and football in a new relation: as inherently connected rather than as opposites.