Thursday, May 10, 2018

No more patching up: Russia’s anaestheticization and the 2018 FIFA World Cup

Russia: a sinking diplomatic ship? 

At first, my commentary may not seem to be relevant to the following FIFA World Cup’s problems, but I can assure you that its premises are. I grew up in a world of seamstresses, who always complained about the quality of modern fabrics: you cannot create a dress from a piece of cloth that will surely come apart at the first sign of a stretch, can you? What’s more, why should you try to make anything beautiful in the first place if it is set out to actually fail by its nature? Such routine whinging has its toll in a crafty universe: in addition to skill, the pursuit of ideal, durable items requires persistence and optimism, regardless of whether you make them for your loved ones or a client. Every time I read about Russian mega-event development, the image of a badly damaged fabric, full of patching and quilting comes to mind, and with this an atmosphere of pessimism and blaming others follows my thinking. Undoubtedly, producing durable social clothing of this calibre for a vast country is a complicated business an outsider cannot always grasp, so validating reports about domestic complaints and misdemeanours is preferred. For example, it is easy to resort to generic claims that Russian citizens are happy to turn a blind eye to the numerous controversies in which Father Putin’s homeland is currently involved, specifically in sports and generally in politics, but this may be wrong. Personally, I refuse to view the country’s people en masse as adiáforoi, indifferent in their social mores, when I am aware of the multiple ways the state silences them. I do not have to look very far now to explain why, when a former Russian double agent and his daughter were poisoned in plain daylight, at the heart of the UK.

According to Bauman, adiaphorization is when in both systems and processes become split off from any consideration of morality and the society in which this happens adopts a style of social indifference, which is imbued by the spirit of these adjustments (people become indifferent to what is going on around them). Such indifference is a spin-off of dehumanisation that the system itself promotes. In surveillance, this may refer to the way data doubles are created, which results in processing, categorization, and social sorting. Indeed, ‘the piecemail data double tends to be trusted more than the person, who prefers to tell their own tale’ (Bauman and Lyon 2013: 8). This is a powerful thesis, which can be mobilised in observations on the ways the Russian state functions in its attempts to curb any type of civic disobedience or deviation from the norm: difference and transgression of social and cultural, or phenotypical and sexual ‘types’ are sorted and categorised as abject or problematic, so that they are eliminated with the use of physical or symbolic violence. However, I would argue that the true damage inflicted upon society is not the loss of moral compass as such – morality is a very malleable category in the first place, so, unless we are universal moralists, we should take with a pinch of salt any attempts to fix moral coding, which can vary across human cultures.

Without dismissing the issue of morality, I want to reposition the problem of loss, so as to consider the socially agreed upon aesthetic disposition a society has towards the world, which allows it to create and maintain its place in it without affecting or damaging that of others. Aesthetic dispositions include (relationally formed and thus constantly adjusted) moral rules, but are not confined to them. Generally, aesthetic dispositions organise the ways we perceive reality and act upon what we perceive as real, ugly, unfair or unjust. For this reason only, I proffer an alternative term to that of Bauman’s, anaesthetisization, to encapsulate the ways a collectively agreed function of reality-sorting at large is erased from a society's activities, thus triggering processes of political and cultural disintegration that interested external observers or insiders inhabiting the border are in a better position to detect. Simply put, by focusing on the phenomenon of anaesthetisization, instead of adiaphorization, we are allowed to map the ways, including causal trajectories, by which a society comes apart at its seams, because it has lost its ‘aesthetic glue’.

Back to the 2018 FIFA World Cup, as external observers, we can detect a series of symptoms of anaestheticisization, which have been registered in the form of domestic and international controversies: two conspicuous ones involve discussions about racism in Russian football and the discrimination against LGBT people in wider Russian society, which resulted in the voting of an internationally contested anti-LGBT law in the context of Russia’s selection for the World Cup. Another includes Russia's involvement in the ongoing conflict in Ukraine, which has prompted calls for the tournament to be moved, particularly following the annexation of Crimea and military intervention in Eastern Ukraine. A third symptom points to our very own Skripal poisoning case with a gas agent, which has been allegedly connected to Russian ‘initiatives’ on foreign soil. Of these issues, the question of racism in Russian sport and the notorious 2015 allegations and criminal investigations of corruption, including a Swiss inquiry into the bidding process for the 2018 World Cup, were directly linked to Russia’s selection for the World Cup as a venue. However, I list all these ‘controversies’ under the loss (an) of aesthetics, because they all point to Russia’s official withdrawal of aesthetic conduct: first, the presence of racism in fan rituals, often led by Nazi organisations, and racial abuse of black football players, removes the principle of cultural inclusion from Russian aesthetics (one may argue that its replaces it with another aesthetics, but here I want to focus on differences between claims and realities). The institutionalization of LGBT hatred functions along the same lines – indeed, secondly, such sexual anaestheticization matches the display of rampant state militarism in the case of intervention in Eastern Ukraine. Finally, the cases of the denied Skripal poisoning and sports corruption, point to the withdrawal of the aesthetics of transparency, honesty and collaboration, which are supposed to define both domestic justice and international peace-keeping.

In my latest book (Tzanelli 2017), I note that often critical responses to the state of domestic affairs in hosting mega-event countries comes not from the strongholds of surveillance and domestic policing (what I call the ‘economy of the artifice’), but the symbolic and terrestrial sites temporarily inhabited by the mega-event’s ‘aesthetic imagineers’, who work on creating long-lasting legacies for their host cities and countries. This ‘economy of the imagination’ is highly performative and excels at producing architectural stories for the host, but can also be critical of its conduct in the world, especially when its members are not just artists and architects, but also resurgent policy makers living and working between art-worlds and political-cultural worlds. Such aesthetic imagineers can be foreign professionals, who insert themselves into ceremonial formations, including artistic and sports protocols, but they are often native professionals, who have spent time abroad and become accustomed to moving across and between different cultural-aesthetic domains in the world. The suggestion I put forward was not that ‘economies of imagination’ merely enable international mobilities of finance and labour, but that they produce cosmopolitan standards based on peace, fair exchange of ideas and justice, from which hosts and guests can benefit. It seems to me that Russia is in desperate need of such seamstresses at the moment, who can select the right fabric for its ailing society. Most of us would agree that yet another patch to its Cinderella-like garment will neither attract favourable international attention, nor induce feelings of solidarity at home.


Bauman, Z. & Lyon, D. (2013). Liquid surveillance. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Tzanelli, R. (2017) Mega-Events as Economies of the Imagination: Creating Atmospheres for Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. Abingdon: Routledge.

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