Freud Goes to the Big Game
Happy Super Bowl!
“There is no doubt that something exists in us which, when we become aware of signs of an emotion in someone else, tends to make us fall into the same emotion; but how often do we not successfully oppose it, resist the emotion, and react in quite an opposite way? Why, therefore, do we invariably give way to this contagion when we are in a group?”
- Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego (1921)
It’s Super Bowl Sunday here in the US, and I’m thinking – as ever, but particularly when the Big Game rolls around – about Freud. Sure, to the best of my knowledge, Freud didn’t play any sports, although the scene in The Seven Per Cent Solution wherein Freud (Alan Arkin) bests a antisemitic Austrian nobleman at tennis is delightful. And sure, Freud hated America with a white-hot passion. But Freud is great when it comes to confronting things that are ubiquitous and seeing them with new eyes – in his words, in perceiving how the all-too familiar can actually be deeply uncanny (unheimlich, that is, strange or weird, literally un-homelike, something disconcerting right at the heart of what you thought you knew). And Freud is certainly the nonpareil thinker for unpacking phenomena that mix dimensions of pleasure and pain, identification and desire, group rivalries, and more.
In that spirit, in this post I’m going to quickly summarize Freud’s theories of group identification, libidinal investment, and sublimation, all with continuing reference to the Super Bowl. I’m doing this because these things are not only interesting in their own right, but because the Super Bowl offers an example of them that’s so in-your-face you won’t be able to look at it the same way again. And since one of the major goals of this Substack – and I guess of my life’s ministry at this point – is to make psychoanalytic theory not just accessible, but useful, well, what other justifications do I need? At the very least this will give you some #content to mull over or even share while watching today’s game, whether to annoy people invested in it (if you’re not among them) or (or if you are) to offer as an olive branch to people around you who aren’t as they politely wait for the commercials.
First, though, three quick caveats, delivered in a spirit of total candor.
One: I don’t actually care much about football. Yes, I am deep in Eagles country, and so I knew they were playing, but I admit I had to double-check whom they were playing against (it’s the Kansas City Chiefs, for the record). Sure, I want the people around me to be happy, and the collective effervescence of Eagles fans is contagious in a particularly special way. And so I guess I hope they win and we get wild social media clips of guys defying gravity, the impulse to self-preservation, and the reality principle itself by scaling Vaseline-coated traffic lights on Broad Street and pounding as many aerial beers as they can before the cops get them. But truth be told I don’t have a dog, bird, or queasy avatar of American settler colonial history in this fight. HOWEVER:
Two: You are very welcome to care about football! I do not judge your pleasure in it! In fact, insofar as pleasure can be very hard to find these days, if football is your thing, I honor and celebrate that! Don’t read what follows as me yucking your yum – in fact, you might even take it as me adding an additional spice of perverse jouissance to that chili. I am not, I repeat, I am not “not letting people enjoy things.” Both here specifically and more generally, I have no power – none! – over what you or other people enjoy. From my perspective, trying to legislate what people should or should not – let alone can or cannot – enjoy is folly, like trying to argue against the tides or whether it or not it should rain. Enjoyment’s going to happen, there is no outside of enjoyment, and even policing enjoyment and demanding folks “let people enjoy things” partakes in its own kind of enjoyment, too. Practically speaking, and let’s call this a kind of pact, I will “let” you enjoy anything you want, provided you “let” me enjoy my things, namely the ruthless critique of everything existing and the idea that "enjoyment" is something that simultaneously demands yet defies ethical reckoning. Cool? Cool. OK.
Three: What I’m about to unpack is in no way incompatible with other, more empirically, historically, or whatever-focused accounts of what football has been and is now. I do know some things about it, since you can’t, for example, research the history of the US military, higher education, or even the NRA without encountering football (perhaps more on this some other time). But I do know there’s a lot I don’t know, and so I read and learn from people like Pablo Torre, Bomani Jones, Dave Zirin, and others if I want grounded granular analysis of the history and present of football and other sports, especially as it bears on questions of race, class, labor, and the like. And so none of what I’m say below is my saying “this is what football is, in its essence, to the exclusion of everything else.” Rather, it’s a way of looking at football, and the spectacle of the Super Bowl in particular, as objects that are susceptible to multiple, complementary accounts.
In other words, and to invoke a classic psychoanalytic term, football is an overdetermined object. Calling something overdetermined means that something carries a plurality of meanings, and is produced as the output of multiple precipitating causes, none of which interpretations or causal factors can necessarily be isolated, entirely separated from the others, and then prioritized as the singular or exclusive essence of what the thing “is.” Like any good movie or other artistic work, like our dreams, like our neurotic symptoms, and like other complex phenomena that arise in the field of human desires, fantasies, conventions, and taboos, games, including the Big Game, are overdetermined objects. They are things that we can return to – and sometimes feel drawn to return to – in order to reconnect with familiar feelings and meanings as well as to find new ones, in encounters that are sometimes grounding, sometimes clarifying, and sometimes disturbing, but that in any event, are richly textured and even inexhaustible. OK? OK. Here goes.
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