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Playing with the Gods
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Edited by Pat Kane

:: To the victor, the paradoxes ::

It would be easy to look at sports as a somewhat ethically-limited zone of play. It dominates our media spectacle, some might say, exactly because it provides us with an illusion of clarity and finality. Our tribe’s athletes beat your tribe’s athletes: in a fluid and confusing world, perhaps it’s no surprise that we flock to the games. (Though the columnist Joyce Macmillan holds out hope that the solidarities of sport can be used to better ends.)

But it’s amazing how fragile the legitimacy of sports can be. In an era where authority figures are regularly derided, sports fans touchingly expect their referees to be absolute paragons: any whiff of partisanship from the men in black, and the whole game unravels. As for the athletes, the great fun of spectating any sport is our imputation of motive - reading the soul from the exertions of face and body. But even here, it’s so easy for our Olympian faith to be stretched to breaking point. What if those struggles aren’t just recognizably human ones, but almost literally post-human ones? We know we’re watching talented people: but can we cope with them also being biochemical experiments?

Mark Lawson in The Guardian, sifts elegantly through the contradictions of drugs and sport. What is the difference between performance-enhancing and performance-enabling drugs - the steroids that propel a runner slightly faster, the corticosteroids that stop a pro-footballers joints seizing up? We know that sport - from boxing to motor-racing - involves high levels of possible self-damage: we also know that sport is a striving to improve the natural, even under the purest conditions. Lawson's vision is of an "Addams Family start-up line at the Olympics 100 metres" - all DNA-replacement and cyberlimbs. So do we object to that because it makes athletic prowess less about individual human striving (one we might still concievably empathise with, as we puff round our own running tracks), and more like some kind of collective cyborg arms race between nations?

Or do we object because these athletes might be making the ultmate play-ethical decision: to start "playing God" with their own bodies? As ever, the cultures of play have been rehearsing all the conundrums of the coming biological age on our behalf for years. The German philosopher Jurgen Habermas's recent book on bio-ethics, The Future of Human Nature, agrees with Francis Fukuyama - that what genetic or biochemical God-playing reveals is the religious core of our Enlightenment assumptions.

As the athletes mass on their fields of play, we still implicitly believe that they are "creatures of God" - their bodies and minds granted free will by a "Divine Creator" who, the monotheists at least assume, will not intervene in that autonomy. But to find that they are "creatures of the lab" brings us face to face with the fuzzy outline of our own, increasingly self-determined humanity. "We are Gods, and we might as well get good at it", the old Whole Earth Review hippies used to say. So we should be vaguely grateful to those rule-stretching, muscle-injecting sportsmen and women, whose post-human play is outlining a possible future for us. Whether we want to follow that particular trajectory is another question.

::Mission Creeps::

If ever a group of adult males ever agonized over the ethical consequences of their playing, it’s “the world’s greatest rock band” (says Toronto Star), Radiohead. Not only do they use and abuse their heavy-selling influence with record companies in order to subsidise web ventures that mix anti-capitalist portals with radical net art, but they use their record covers to map the orthodoxy of our times. The cover of Hail to the Thief, their new album, puts ludicism centre stage. Evocatively, it surrounds the word “PLAYERS” with “ENTER”, “HAIR”, “LUXURIES”, “POOL”, “PHOTO”, “ENFORCED”, “SALE”, “PHOTO”, and “OIL”. (Though "God" and "TV" rate a bigger panel). The allusiveness is as dazzling as the music is inventive and passionate.

What a surprise: Rock, over thirty years after the counterculture, still seems to stand for a realm of mental freedom that many people treasure. That the title of the CD is taken from a popular anti-Dubya comic strip is an exemplary and illustrative act. Here's where a significant section of the young white European-American mindset is. Dissent is mainstream.

::Play Times::

Virtual acceptance speeches Gollum now - Brando later?
Not hierarchy or anarchy... but heterarchy An organisational structure for players?
The Morality of Laughter Uniting jester and audience
Micheal Moore Too playful for the left?


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