Well, actually, she’s from…… music, metaphors and sporting nations


Earlier this week the Man Booker Prize was won by New Zealand author Eleanor Catton for The Luminaries. Coverage has focussed on her age (at 28 she is the Booker Prize’s youngest winner), the size of the book (at 832 pages it is the prize’s longest winner), the complexity of the book’s structure (each section is ½ the length of the previous section)… but every now and then someone will come along and say – well, actually she’s from Canada, and to be fair that’s where she was born.

What is puzzling is why this matters – in this case, Catton lives in New Zealand, the novel is set in New Zealand and she wrote it there (not that where she wrote it has any impact on what kind of novel it is; if we got hung up about that, things would be tough for Ursula Le Guin, China Mieville and many other science fiction writers). These national proprietary claims to authors and other cultural workers persist. (We seem still to be waiting for the great American novel – except for the fact that Phillip Roth has already written it, and in case we missed it, it’s called The Great American Novel. Not only is it the great American novel, it is about the great American sport – baseball, and those companions of great sports – statistics and gambling.)

This ideology of nationhood seems harder to shake in the world of sport than it does in many other settings, although its persistence in literature should make us a little more cautious than we seem to be about the distinctiveness of sport’s relation to nations and nationalism. We habitually cite Eric Hobsbawm’s observation that “the imagined community of millions seems more real as a team of eleven named people”, and blinker ourselves to associations in other cultural spheres that disrupt this sense of the distinctiveness of the sporting nation – as opposed to the literary, musical, sartorial, painterly or filmic nation.

Some of these cultural forms – literature, film, landscape and other forms of painting, and in some contexts clothes, often intentionally set out to represent the nation. Music and sport, however, are non-representational; in neither case does the act or performance depict the nation in a direct manner. Music (not lyrics, but music) may develop motifs that have national associations, but often only because other musical forms have distinctive cultural associations (it is difficult to hear a klezmer and not invoke some sense of Jewishness, or more correctly Yiddishness) – these associations are not inherent in the sounds.

In a similar manner, few modern industrialised sports (as opposed to folk sports) are nationally representative – players or athletes may be of a nation, but their physical activity seldom is. In modern industrial sport-as-performed, place is actively eschewed; as geographers such as John Bale have noted, the comparability of sports performance relies on a sense of placelessness, that is, there should be nothing distinctive about the performance space that has an impact on the performance – yet the sense that sports performances and performers represent the nation persists.

One of the weaknesses in the cultural analysis of sport is a seemingly persistent belief that it is somehow distinctive if not unique, although we seldom justify this with much more than claims to popularity. This quantitative rather than qualitative claim is part of our failure to pay much attention to other cultural forms that might improve our understanding. There are some fine exceptions to this, such as Simon Featherstone’s Postcolonial Cultures from 2005 that considers music, body cultures (dance and sport), film, psychiatry and notions of irrationality, memory and land as tropes for understanding postcolonial ways of being. If we want to explore further this qualitative sense of sport’s national distinctiveness, it might help to turn to metaphor in understanding how and why sport and its performers stand in for the nation.

Metaphors come in different forms. Some are obvious and apparent and little more than similes, while others are subtle and abstract. Often we are not even aware of the metaphor – for instance, the idiomatic way a cliff may have a foot, but never a head. Some of our rituals act as metaphors, as we recollect cultural rules or relations at the same time as our bodies-in-action identify and enact social memory. There are two types of metaphor that are helpful in making sense of sporting and other cultural nationalisms: literary analysts differentiate between synecdoche as ‘the metaphorical use of part of the referent to stand in for the whole’ (as in Michael Drayton’s “Fair stood the wind for France/When we our sails advance”) and metonymy as ‘the use of some feature contiguous or closely associated with the referent’ (as in the use of the word ‘pen’ to stand in for author).

Our most powerful symbolic athletes act as synecdoche – a part standing in for the whole, this is Hobsbawm’s sense of the imagined community made flesh, but also why it is easier for men to represent the nation than it is for women. Most of the modern industrial sports these athletes play are at best metonymical – the sports are not distinctive to our nations, only the players are. This is why the rules governing who may be a national representative are so hotly contested, but also why the English obsession with football ‘coming home’ has such cultural resonance or why in Italy the claim that calcio became football is so passionately asserted. It is also why claims such as that by the Antiguan cricketer Viv Richards, that rough cricket playing surfaces of his childhood account for a large part of the West Indies playing style are so important; in this case, the way the batter hits the ball becomes synecdochal.

As in the cases of Eleanor Cattan, Novak Djokovic or Salma Hayek, the cultural worker – novelist, athlete, film maker – functions to represent that nation. Their place of birth is an important aspect of synecdoche but not the only one; consider Mo Farrah, Laura Robson or Eleanor Cattan – where they hang their hat also becomes an important synecdochal factor.

The sport as played however is at best metonymical, as are other cultural forms. There is nothing inherently English (or Cotswoldian) about Gustav Holst’s music (although as with, say, Vaughan Williams and Liam Gallagher, he has come to be seen as quintessentially English, even when writing about the solar system) just as there is nothing inherently Welsh about Barry John’s rugby, yet both in some way are held to be representative of their nations.

If we continue to treat sport as somehow distinctive as a cultural practice without looking to other representational and non-representational cultural forms, or paying closer attention to other modes of cultural analysis, we may just be successful in maintaining our delusion that sport’s nation marking role is more than distinctive, it is unique. There does not seem to be compelling qualitative evidence to support that view.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. He is currently serving as Academic Director of the Doctoral College at University of Wales Trinity St David, and has academic appointments in Australia, South Africa, and Gibraltar. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements, and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and former Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport, and is currently Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


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