Friday, 15 June 2012

Thinking with your feet

In this week's Joy of Six, Rob Smyth selects Zlatan Ibrahimovic's last minute flicked equaliser against Italy in 2004 as one of the great European Championship goals. One of the things that so impresses him is the 'speed of thought' shown. In a split second Ibrahimovic adapted to a new situation and then put the ball in the back of the net when it seemed nigh on impossible. And tonight we saw another example, from - shock horror - England's Danny Welbeck. As someone who writes about improvisation (albeit in a rather different context), I want to suggest that these goals are examples of improvisation's creative, embodied intelligence.

In a sense, football is all about improvisation. Players are constantly faced with new situations and have to decide what course of action would be best to take. They have to think on their feet and come up with new solutions. Yet very often the role of improvisation is limited by their reliance on established tropes: a well drilled offside trap, a simple pass to a teammate, a carefully rehearsed free-kick routine, etc. Even moments often hailed as 'brilliant improvisation' may be things that have clearly been practiced time and time again: the Cruijff Turn, for example (and likewise the Dilshan Scoop in cricket). Deciding when to employ these techniques are acts of improvisation in response to certain situations (sometimes co-ordinated with others), but the physical act itself is not something spontaneously made-up on the spot. Musical improvisers often complain about playing with people who have set piece tricks they bring out of the bag in every performance, and it's the 'speed of thought' of an act of immanent creation that they often crave. This, I'd argue, is what Welbeck and Ibrahimovic showed, and it has interesting ramifications for our understanding of intelligence.

Intelligence is generally associated with the mental rather than the physical. It results from conscious reflection and is the source of productive thought. It is often believed to distinguish humans from animals, who lack the capacity to think rationally, reflectively or critically upon their surroundings. This understanding is often challenged by improvising musicians, however, who find that in the midst of an improvisation they find that intelligence is also embodied: that their lungs and their fingers do things before they think them through. In his wonderful book Sync or Swarm: Improvising Music in a Complex Age (which, at the time of writing, is dirt cheap at The Book Depository), the saxophonist David Borgo states 'many of my favorite times spent improvising seem neither entirely mental, nor entirely physical, but rather when these binary divisons seem to dissolve and disappear, if only for a fleeting moment'. Today, Danny Welbeck's leg and foot seemed to do something before he had the chance to think it through. It was instinctive, spontaneous, entirely unthought through - yet it was also a moment of genius, a flash of supreme intelligence. He thought with his feet, not on his feet.

Now Danny Welbeck's flash of intelligence isn't going to create new forms of political community. Improvising to win a football match is hardly an emancipatory use of improvisation - it feeds into nationalism, works productively for capital (think of the replays! the youtube hits! the facebook shares! think how much TV rights would be if that happened more often!); and - like the Israeli Defence Force's use of improvisation in the military field - it results in the vanquishing of a foe (indeed, we can imagine a soldier being valorised for an ingenious use of improvisation in battle). And I'm certainly not saying that we should abandon reflective, critical intelligence either. But Welbeck's goal does, perhaps, point to the power of improvisation and embodied intelligence to produce the new, the brilliant, the unexpected: to bring hope where all seemed lost, when all seemed closed off. We need to communalise this brilliance; we need to improvise together - not to beat the 'other', but to increase our capacity to act collectively.  

(Or it could be that - as my housemate insists - Danny Welbeck just 'fell on his arse' and got lucky [...but then there's a whole other discourse on 'failure''s productive role in improvisation...])


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