Jorge Luis Borges: “Soccer is Popular Because Stupidity is Popular”

borges-libray of babel

Image by Grete Stern, via Wiki­me­dia Com­mons

I will admit it: I’m one of those oft-maligned non-sports peo­ple who becomes a foot­ball (okay, soc­cer) enthu­si­ast every four years, seduced by the col­or­ful pageantry, cos­mopoli­tan air, nos­tal­gia for a game I played as a kid, and an embar­rass­ing­ly sen­ti­men­tal pride in my home coun­try’s team. I don’t lose all my crit­i­cal fac­ul­ties, but I can’t help but love the World Cup even while rec­og­niz­ing the cor­rup­tion, deep­en­ing pover­ty and exploita­tion, and host of oth­er seri­ous sociopo­lit­i­cal issues sur­round­ing it. And as an Amer­i­can, it’s sim­ply much eas­i­er to put some dis­tance between the sport itself and the jin­go­is­tic big­otry and violence—“sentimental hooli­gan­ism,” to use Franklin Foer’s phrase—that very often attend the game in var­i­ous parts of the world.

In Argenti­na, as in many soc­cer-mad coun­tries with deep social divides, gang vio­lence is a rou­tine part of fut­bol, part of what Argen­tine writer Jorge Luis Borges termed a hor­ri­ble “idea of suprema­cy.” Borges found it impos­si­ble to sep­a­rate the fan cul­ture from the game itself, once declar­ing, “soc­cer is pop­u­lar because stu­pid­i­ty is pop­u­lar.” As Shaj Math­ew writes in The New Repub­lic, the author asso­ci­at­ed the mass mania of soc­cer fan­dom with the mass fer­vor of fas­cism or dog­mat­ic nation­al­ism. “Nation­al­ism,” he wrote, “only allows for affir­ma­tions, and every doc­trine that dis­cards doubt, nega­tion, is a form of fanati­cism and stu­pid­i­ty.” As Math­ews points out, nation­al soc­cer teams and stars do often become the tools of author­i­tar­i­an regimes that “take advan­tage of the bond that fans share with their nation­al teams to drum up pop­u­lar sup­port [….] This is what Borges feared—and resented—about the sport.”

There is cer­tain­ly a sense in which Borges’ hatred of soc­cer is also indica­tive of his well-known cul­tur­al elit­ism (despite his roman­ti­ciz­ing of low­er-class gau­cho life and the once-demi­monde tan­go). Out­side of the huge­ly expen­sive World Cup, the class dynam­ics of soc­cer fan­dom in most every coun­try but the U.S. are fair­ly uncom­pli­cat­ed. New Repub­lic edi­tor Foer summed it up suc­cinct­ly in How Soc­cer Explains the World: “In every oth­er part of the world, soccer’s soci­ol­o­gy varies lit­tle: it is the province of the work­ing class.” (The inver­sion of this soc­cer class divide in the U.S., Foer writes, explains Amer­i­cans’ dis­dain for the game in gen­er­al and for elit­ist soc­cer dilet­tantes in par­tic­u­lar, though those atti­tudes are rapid­ly chang­ing). If Borges had been a North, rather than South, Amer­i­can, I imag­ine he would have had sim­i­lar things to say about the NFL, NBA, NHL, or NASCAR.

Nonethe­less, being Jorge Luis Borges, the writer did not sim­ply lodge cranky com­plaints, how­ev­er polit­i­cal­ly astute, about the game. He wrote a spec­u­la­tive sto­ry about it with his close friend and some­time writ­ing part­ner Adol­fo Bioy Casares. In “Esse Est Per­cipi” (“to be is to be per­ceived”), we learn that soc­cer has “ceased to be a sport and entered the realm of spec­ta­cle,” writes Math­ews: “rep­re­sen­ta­tion of sport has replaced actu­al sport.” The phys­i­cal sta­di­ums crum­ble, while the games are per­formed by “a sin­gle man in a booth or by actors in jer­seys before the TV cam­eras.” An eas­i­ly duped pop­u­lace fol­lows “nonex­is­tent games on TV and the radio with­out ques­tion­ing a thing.”

The sto­ry effec­tive­ly illus­trates Borges’ cri­tique of soc­cer as an intrin­sic part of a mass cul­ture that, Math­ews says, “leaves itself open to dem­a­goguery and manip­u­la­tion.” Borges’ own snob­beries aside, his res­olute sus­pi­cion of mass media spec­ta­cle and the coopt­ing of pop­u­lar cul­ture by polit­i­cal forces seems to me still, as it was in his day, a healthy atti­tude. You can read the full sto­ry here, and an excel­lent crit­i­cal essay on Borges’ polit­i­cal phi­los­o­phy here.

via The New Repub­lic

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Borges: Pro­file of a Writer Presents the Life and Writ­ings of Argentina’s Favorite Son, Jorge Luis Borges

Jorge Luis Borges’ 1967–8 Nor­ton Lec­tures On Poet­ry (And Every­thing Else Lit­er­ary)

Jorge Luis Borges’ Favorite Short Sto­ries (Read 7 Free Online)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (12) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Comments (12)
You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.
  • Greg says:

    I don’t agree with Borges re futbol/soccer. But I came nat­u­ral­ly (un-dog­mat­i­cal­ly, with­out any sort of demon­stra­tion) to many of the same ideas re the NFL, and lost all enthu­si­asm for the game. The con­tro­ver­sy re brain injuries in retired play­ers, and then the union delib­er­a­tions on mak­ing some sort of set­tle­ment on that, shook me up. At the same time, the sta­di­um-build­ing rack­et (Dave Zirin has cov­ered this stuff exten­sive­ly) has emp­tied civic cof­fers, all while the league is more prof­itable than ever before. And this is putting aside the nau­se­at­ing nation­al­ism and con­ser­v­a­tive horse­shit asso­ci­at­ed with the game…

  • chk says:

    esse est per­cipi trans­lates as ‘to be is to be per­ceived’, not as ‘it is to be per­ceived’, so i sug­gest you cor­rect your mis­take.

  • Blueraven says:

    There is a very inter­est­ing orga­ni­za­tion, affil­i­at­ed with the U.N. It exam­ines the idea of sports and eth­nic­i­ty, and its impact on social, psy­cho­log­i­cal, polit­i­cal, iden­ti­ty, geopo­lit­i­cal, gen­der, it also explores inge­nious sports, the def­i­n­i­tion of sports, ath­let­ics. the social role of ath­letes etc etc…

    Here is their face­book page. if inter­est­ed

  • Josh Jones says:

    You are right, thanks. Made the cor­rec­tion.

  • JP says:

    A 4 page arti­cle prints 19 pages that are 99% irrel­e­vant? Give us and the plan­et a break. Can we please have a decent print for­mat?

  • Donald Clark says:

    Homo Ludens by Johan Huizin­ga shows that play and sport are core, cul­tur­al, human activ­i­ties. We all want trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ences, some through music, some through art, some through trav­el, some through sport. This piece has the odour of some­one who did­n’t get out much as a child. Also ignores the fact that hndreds of mil­lions actu­al­ly play sport — it’s not just a spec­ta­cle. The Greeks knew a thing or two about what it takes to be human and the val­ue of sport — to sep­a­rate body and mind is a mechan­i­cal, Carte­sian con­ceit. I’m with the Greeks!

  • DF says:

    Why would you print it? If your con­cern is the plan­et and use of paper, don’t print it at all.

  • NS says:

    In some ways I envy those who can have trans­for­ma­tive expe­ri­ences via sport and foot­ball.

    To me, Soccer/football always felt repres­sive rather than expres­sive, encour­ag­ing homo­gene­ity rather than indi­vid­u­al­i­ty while osten­si­bly pro­mot­ing the reverse.

    And soci­o­log­i­cal­ly noth­ing is more depress­ing than some­one who can talk of noth­ing else but foot­ball.

  • John says:

    You are tak­ing the phrase too lit­er­al, OK yes, Borges did­n’t like soc­cer, but I think that the crit­ic goes beyond the sport itself. It’s a crit­ic to the sport like a mod­ern ver­sion of Roman Colos­se­um, where poor, une­d­u­cat­ed mass­es are are dis­tract­ed by a show, while politi­cians lie and steal every­thing they can, but it does­n’t mat­ter because my favorite team won last Sun­day. It’s the mod­ern “bread and cir­cus­es”. Did you know that the Argen­tine soc­cer league is man­aged by the gov­ern­ment? It’s called “fut­bol para todos” (soc­cer for every­one). Basi­cal­ly, the gov­ern­ment takes every­one’s tax­es to sub­si­dize soc­cer, the most pop­u­lar sport in the coun­try. I don’t like soc­cer, but those who actu­al­ly like it can watch it for “free” thanks to my tax­es. See, this is why Borges was right.

  • Michael Leddy says:

    The state­ment attrib­uted to Borges appears in an inter­view with Mario Var­gas Llosa. Var­gas Llosa intro­duces it by say­ing “Como dice Borges” — as Borges says:

    So it seems to be a para­phrase of Borges’s point of view, not a quo­ta­tion. I would still like to dis­cov­er the source.

  • Banake says:

    Borges was based.

  • soporific says:

    Seri­ous­ly, if peo­ple have an adblock­er installed and then they whitelist your site, DON’T ANNOY PEOPLE WITH YOUR ‘you’re using an Ad Block­er blah blah blah’!!!! It’s NOT HARD to add some extra code to find out if peo­ple are still block­ing you!!!!!!!!!!

    I usu­al­ly just BOYCOTT SITES THAT DO THIS but since I actu­al­ly like com­ing here, I’m kick­ing up a fuss!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.