Inspired by a recent convergence in sound/art with debates in cultural studies about crowds, swarms and networks, this paper considers how sound works in the service of trickery, then how such sonic trickery flourishes in forms of swarming play. It develops definitions of tricking and secrecy and applies these to a reflection on (sonic) trickery in the (swarming) game of Australian football. It takes as a specific example, racial vilification: a (sonic) practice that has manifested, been challenged and ultimately made illegal in football. It describes how such abusive behaviour can travel in swarming play, via techniques of tricking and secrecy, and notes the effort made by players (of the swarm), to successfully resist this behaviour.


This paper considers how sound happens – inevitably occurs, and is also produced and manipulated – to enable trickery and secrecy in swarming play. In this it draws on explorations in sound art/theory that share ground with discussions in cultural studies focussed on crowds, swarms and networks. The common interest between these is in collective structures where animate and inanimate materials, found-phenomena and culturally determined practices are drawn into relationships that themselves become a kind of creative organism: a ‘collective sensibility’ (Labelle 2007:259 – discussing the participatory sound installations of Achim Wollscheid); ‘a temporally embodied organism’ (Parikka 2008:121 – discussing insect swarms and their architectures). It seems that, as network theory shifts from favouring ‘stable, morphological and structural views … towards … dynamic agencies in complex and unstable environments’ (Parikka 2008:122), sound increasingly emerges as a phenomenon that may help articulate ways in which such structures work. This reflects decades-long processes of experimentation in the performance, composition and theorisation of sound, that have queried sound and listening (sound’s reception by living beings) as stable, knowable categories, posing them instead as a highly contingent, and mutually-determining relation (Kahn 1999; Labelle 2007; Hegarty 2007). There is a productive convergence between this history of experimentation in sound, and the study of networked technological and social forms that have emerged in recent years. So much so that Brandon Labelle has recently argued: ‘sound … may provide an appropriate paradigm for negotiating the intensifications of the nonhierarchical and interpenetrating structures of our digital age’ (Labelle 2007:297).

This paper should be understood as founded in this supposition, that investigating how sound works can feed our understandings of how collective forms work as well. Specifically what follows is a set of speculations about how sound works in swarming, and not just how it manifests (is heard), but also how it conceals, disappears and secretes itself. The particular example of swarming that is used here is that of Australian football. Since these key terms – sound, swarm, football – are used hereafter in particular ways, inflected with understandings drawn from the discourses mentioned above, it will be helpful to define them before we get too far in.

Sound(ing): this article presumes both social and affective dimensions of sound. 1. Following Douglas Kahn I am keen to insist on the social in it: ‘to hear more than its sonic or phonic content’ (Kahn 1999, 4), to hear also how it communicates, carries and conceals meanings. However, to insist as well on its being an affective force that has a degree of autonomy from sociality: ‘a prepersonal intensity corresponding to the passage from one experiential state of the body to another’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:xvi; also see Massumi 2002:23-45); a force that exists as movement and becoming, rather than state-of-being or thing-that-can-be-known. Thus the discussion of sound will range from considering its message-bearing effects, to its capacity to disintegrate consciousness, and ‘speak’ to the proprioceptive system, bypassing consciousness altogether. In this I hope that the mutually-determining relation mentioned above, between sounds and their reception (sonic content v its social and affective consequences), will be foregrounded. Moreover it is this relation that I seek to invoke when using the term ‘sounding’, positing sound as a doing, affecting, moving thing.

Swarm(ing): use of this term aligns this paper with ideas issuing from cultural studies where entomology has recently converged with network theory in consideration of how models of insect-life may apply to the study of human behaviour as well (Parikka 2008).

As Jussi Parikka explains, the term swarm has a double meaning, first related to the motion of animals, especially bees, but then also as ‘a multitude of a kind which … [means] something akin to an uncontrolled but still concerted organisation’ (Parikka 2008:116). In the development of entomological ideas that he traces, this understanding of swarming installs insects as the prime example of a behavioural tendency that is then traced out, via the concept of ‘emergence’, to a non-species specific relationality wherein a variety of things – animate and inanimate beings, and other environmental forces – gather to form an open-ended, collective, identity (Parikka 2008:118-122).

‘Uncontrolled but still concerted organisation’, may seem an unlikely definition for the rigidly codified game of football, but thinking about how repeated rehearsals of its play give rise to the emergence of surprising invention within it (and how these rehearsals and inventions are built from animate and inanimate beings and forces), should make us at least hesitate before dismissing the possibility that there is swarming here. 2.

Football-as-swarming: The possibility of thinking of football as swarming requires the adoption of ‘a certain non-humanist perspective’ (Parikka 2008:120), that would hold that football’s social context – how it is made-up, played, embraced and contested by people – is determined to some degree by those physical and psychic forces that attend it, and enable it to occur. A non-humanist enquiry would place these forces and their determining effects/affects at the centre of the study of football.

Brian Massumi offers an eloquent description of football in these terms as, essentially, a field of playful variation that is retrospectively captured and contained by rules (Massumi 2002:68-88). In this he presents football as ‘a collective becoming’, a field of ‘emergent relation’, implicated no doubt with the ‘contingent intermixing of elements’ that constitutes play (including the social dramas of the game), but nevertheless ‘logically and ontologically distinct from them’ (Massumi 2002:76-77). Massumi’s description opens the way for thinking about sounding and swarming as themselves generative forces in football’s play, rather than mere consequences of other effects. In this, it is especially important to (and will re-appear in) the discussion that follows.

Finally, this paper is offered in the spirit of experimentation that is a hallmark of these discourses I have mentioned above. It is inspired by the radical compositional practices of John Cage and the composers of Musique Concrète, the speculations of early 20th century entomologists, late 20th century philosophers of affect, and present day media theorists working to articulate a new ‘insect politics’ (Parikka 2008:113) – no doubt also by the extraordinary inventiveness of the Geelong football club midfield c.2007-2009. Following these examples, it aspires to contribute to the practice of articulating curious convergences through creative use of the intellectual, physical and psychic resources that lie all around us. To this end it undertakes a consideration of the way sound, in general, can be made to work in service of trickery, then how such sonic trickery flourishes in forms of swarming play. It develops definitions of tricking and secrecy (based on the work of Michael Taussig and Deleuze and Guattari) and applies these to a reflection on (sonic) trickery in the (swarming) game of Australian football. It takes as a specific example, racial vilification, a (sonic) practice which has manifested, been challenged and ultimately made illegal in football. It describes how abusive behaviour can travel in swarming play, via techniques of tricking and secrecy, and notes the efforts made by players to successfully resist and ultimately rout this behaviour.

(Secret) Sounding

Consider how, as an immaterial, sound is extremely sensitive to disappearance. Seemingly distinct sonic forms melt at the slightest interfering touch. Sound is easily camouflaged by and in itself, in coughs, clattering of dishes, performances of miscommunication: no, no I said: ‘I must do something about these CURTAINS’. In the general sonic hubbub of the everyday, secret contents can disappear with ease and, passed between knowing souls, can travel far without losing their signal strength – like sound waves in the deep ocean.

Furthermore, sound untethers. Immediately it enters the world, it decontextualises. The way that waking-world sound appears in dreams, reframed – the alarm clock becomes a child’s strange crying – is really how sound always appears; untethering, travelling. If you can’t see what produces it, you can’t be sure what it is. Thus hearing a sound prompts a move to verify, to substantiate an (sonic) assertion by seeking the reassurance of material facts (Scarry 1985:125). Its textures and movements in space elicit the enquiry – what is that sound? This question and the wishful investment in certainty it implies, can be the path into a trap. If you come up behind me and click your fingers in my ear, I will turn to look, then you can flick me on the nose.

Not only the material origin of a sound, but also its content or message-value in a process of signification, is untethered. Elaine Scarry reminds: ‘each verbal utterance has at all times the explosive duality of being at once very possibly true and very possibly false’ (Scarry 1985:136). A simple observation, but profound. How can I verify what you say, or what I overhear him say? Frequently, I cannot. Thus sound is a material beloved of the lie. Moreover, sound dis-integrates consciousness through bodily affect. Antonin Artaud writes:

If music affects snakes it is not on account of the spiritual notions it offers them, but because snakes are long and coil their length upon the earth … and because the musical vibrations which are communicated to the earth affect them like a very subtle, very long massage; and I propose to treat spectators like the snakecharmer’s subjects and conduct them by means of their organisms to an apprehension of the subtlest notions (Artaud 1958 [1938]:81).

Sound can scramble our wits, and tricksters (snake charmers, theatre directors, midfielders) who can harness its power to do so will, if they can, and have their subtle way with us.

This wit-scrambling occurs as a result of sound’s ability to get into the body, refusing to stay outside in that world we (think we) observe and feel separate from, it penetrates. At such times we experience it less as tone, pitch, timbre – qualities registered by the ear – but more as movement in our muscles. This is sound addressing the proprioceptive system, which, as described by Brian Massumi, is: ‘the sensibility proper to the muscles and ligaments as opposed to tactile sensibility …’ (Massumi 2002:58); ‘[it is where] the muscles and ligaments register asconditions of movement what the skin internalizes as qualities’ (Massumi 2002, 58–59, my emphasis). That is to say, what is perceived by the hand as rough/smooth becomes grating/gliding, what is perceived by the ear as bass tones becomes shuddering.

Importantly here, sound as proprioceptive affect aids in the production of ecstasy. Ecstasy happens when the subject body dissolves into something bigger and more marvellous than it is usually given to experience: dance parties, rock concerts, being in a big crowd at the football. In these, sound brings a storm of sensation, producing movement qualities in the body that compose us anew. Paul Hegarty, writing about the listener’s reception of noise music says: ‘the listener … is taken out of the subject body to be dumped back into embodiment … into something like ecstatic noise consumption’ (Hegarty 2007:147). Similarly at a big, close, football game we are drenched in crowd-roar, bodies ablaze with chanting and clapping, disarranging turbulence of laughter, strangled in groaning and sobbing. This is not just hearing-crowd, it is feeling-moving-crowd. Even if we are standing/sitting still, the crowd captures us in sonic motion – whoosh, judder, jangle – and this rare, multi-dimensional sonic capture is what dumps us in un-subjected, drowned-in-noise experience of ecstasy.

Similarly dis-integrating, sound can lull the body towards unconsciousness. Think of the drowsy-making affect of rain on a tin roof, or how murmur of cricket commentary, winding through the air on a lazy afternoon, can soothe us to gentle snoring on the couch. As much as these sound nice, they also feel good because in speaking to the proprioceptive system (as conditions of movement), these kinds of sounds are rendered something like caresses from a wonderful many-handed, humming non-human, unpicking/picking us in a thousand tiny touches, sending ‘us’ spiralling into delicious oblivion. Next time you are fortunate enough to fall asleep listening to the rain, you might like to explore this paradoxical listening-state (fleetingly), in which the sound of rain-drops registers not as something listened-to, but rather as a percussive effect, a movement-condition, in which rain and consciousness seem to merge, and there is no longer ‘listening’, but rather sounding-raining.

These styles of sonic affect – being dumped in ecstatic noise consumption, being lulled towards unconsciousness – are frequently employed by tricksters. Whether using ecstasy of noise as cover for our shady deals – stone cold sober the drug dealer at the party works the floor; or waiting for Dad to get a couple of beers in him and nod off in front of the cricket before extracting $20 from his wallet and sneaking out; or play raindrops in our theatre piece to produce – as Artaud wished – an audience we may penetrate and not just speak to, we are enlisting sound’s disposition to dis-integrate, to aid in our tricking.

(Noisy) Swarming

Drawing on the Oxford English Dictionary, Parikka offers this definition of swarming: ‘… to collect, assemble or congregate thickly and confusedly; … also, to go or move along in a crowd’ (Parikka 2008:116). Movement and confusion are defining conditions of swarming. Con-fusion is being fused-together-with. This suggests how the singularity of those organisms that comprise the swarm becomes complicated. In the thick confusion of swarming, each singular being’s capacity to act and to know is enormously reduced – one cannot really see, one ‘cannot hear a thing’. Each individual unit is unable to comprehend, much less control what is going on around her, each must relinquish a degree of her imagined singularity.

This condition of complicated singularity can be compared with what Paul Hegarty has called a ‘noise body’ (Hegarty 2007:147). He uses this term to describe what happens in a crowd at a very loud noise music event, but I think it is a concept that applies in any swarming experience. If we take noise to be ‘an excess … too much’, as Hegarty does (Hegarty 2007:4), then noise (too-muchness) is a defining characteristic of being in a swarm. It is noise that each singular unit in the throng must negotiate, clutching onto his or her child – Don’t you let go of my hand!. The noise body is something that belongs to the swarm as a whole and streams through it and must be negotiated by each of its units, it is (says Hegarty) ‘between the participants … [and] is also the body in receipt of noise; also the subject struggling to be subject’ (Hegarty 2007:147).

Thus, noisy as they are, swarms can be difficult environments for singular units – indeed, they are frequently dangerous and can even be fatal. However, the conditions that make them so, with a shift of very few degrees, also produce ecstatic fun, of the type already mentioned with respect to being dis-integrated in noise. This is because in swarming the noise body delivers us to/to us (single units conjoined in the swarm), hugely amplified affect. As a consequence of our capture in the feeling-moving-crowd we become louder, stronger, joyful – in the sense that Spinoza understood joy as the affect of ‘our power expand[ing], compound[ing] with the power of the other, and [uniting] with the loved object’ (Deleuze 1988:101).

As West Coast Eagle, Beau Waters tells it (describing the moment when the siren sounded at the 2006 Grandfinal): ‘I screamed! I screamed until I couldn’t scream anymore, and then we jumped around and we hugged and mate, I just … Oh-oh. I seriously can’t describe the feeling’ (Waters 2006).

Thus, for sheer joy of being dumped in ecstatic noise, humans produce version after version of the jumping around, screaming, hugging, swarming-body-of-toomuchness, to play in. Team sports are obvious examples of this, but think also of amusement parks and casinos with their gripping communal games, massively multiplayer online role playing games, saturated with fighting and spell casting; rock concerts with their crowd surfing and stage diving; and dance parties where the noise body is conjured through beats, light, heat and drugs – especially that drug called ecstasy, which precisely works to effect an overflow of singularity in joyous communality.

Note that spectators cannot exist in playful swarms. There is no audience. I contend there are no spectators at team sports. Even if not all are on ground, all are in play. I prefer a distinction between on-ground and non-ground players, rather than players and spectators. In the same way there is no audience at a dance party. It may be possible for singular units to gather and look on for a while at these events – in a chill-out room, or bench on the boundary. But in the con-fusion of an active, actual, swarm this separation cannot be sustained for very long, individuals do not have this degree of choice about what happens to them. If they do, it is not actually a swarm they are in.

An interesting trajectory in the history of Australian football is how its rules have developed not only to control play on-ground, but also to control the crowd – for instance a rule was penned in 1877 to penalise any side whose supporters interfered with the goal scoring during play (Hess et. al 2008:89). Such rules are necessary because, left to its own devices the crowd will interfere with the goal scoring. This is because the crowd is not spectating, the crowd is playing.

This in turn points to another characteristic of the playful swarm that interests. As suggested by the necessity of a rule to limit crowd interference in play, crowds/swarms tend to exceed the conditions that seek to limit them. They transform, shift context, pop up unexpectedly, interrupt, disobey. This indicates the presence of that emergent relationality, understood by network theorists to be intrinsic to swarm structures. Parikka again, on relations in the swarm: ‘They consist of series and repetitions, but these repetitions are always repeating a difference’ (Parikka 2008:120). Swarming involves a continuous, moving rehearsal of tiny relations between parts that produces not only sameness, but also newness. Think of the football saying: ‘You should always take your boots along’, which means: in all your travels through this life never miss an opportunity to sink the boot into an adversary even if only with a wink, a wry remark, or raised eyebrow. Do this in the staff meeting, on the train, at the funeral, in bed. Do this at any time it occurs to you. In this play is made anew, through the rehearsal of familiar moves in unfamiliar contexts. The saying is eloquent. 1) Always. 2) Take them along. It indicates how, once drawn into to a playful swarm, we are never outside of play, and how play, conceived as tiny rehearsals of familiar movements, never ceases to accompany us, repeating itself anew, everywhere.

To gather: a (playful) swarm may be described as a crowd of singular units that moves (in con-fusion), and in so doing produces a noise body that undoes each one’s sense of being a unified subject, thus has the capacity to generate ecstasy – singularity-overcome in vastly amplified (joyful) affect. Furthermore it has a tendency to exceed not only the limits of its singular units, but of any condition that limits it. Through unceasing repetitions of its tiny movements, it produces difference.

Tricking the Swarming

Recalling now the qualities of sound discussed at the outset – its capacity to disappear, untether, decontexualise and bear messages that cannot be verified, and ability to dis-integrate bodies towards both ecstasy and unconsciousness – it can be seen fairly quickly I hope, how these sonic qualities are well disposed to flourish within the playful swarm.

In the swarm’s noise-body, a dimension of its too-muchness will be sonic, it must be, since there is no swarm without sound (even the quietest swarm gathers insistent sonic presence through proliferation/repetition of the tiny sounds of movement within it). In line with the observations on sounding made above, this sonic dimension will be affecting the proprioceptive system of each singular body in the swarm, dis-integrating ‘us‘, in some degree, towards states of ecstasy, or unconsciousness. Furthermore since the joyful amplification of affect experienced in swarming is matched only by the diminishment of each one’s capacity to know or control what is going on, sound’s capacity to camouflage, to trap, trick and lie is almost certain to be put to good use by those – tricksters – with the wit and experience to play its forces in the incomprehensible field that a swarm, inevitably, is.

Delving a bit further into the characteristics of tricking and secrecy will help elucidate how these forces – sounding and swarming, tricking and secrecy, fuse in the poesis of undoing that is fundamental to the playful swarm.

Tricking: Michael Taussig writes: ‘the trick is a figure and the figure of the trick is one of continuous movement and metamorphosis in, through, and between bodies, carrying power one jump ahead of its interpretation’ (Taussig 2006:145).

Tricking is made of wit (the clever exercise of power), movement and imperceptibility. Thus it thrives in the playful swarm: Imagine we are out on the football ground – a splendid day, a passionate crowd – and you are running with the ball. I, who am not your team-mate, call out to you: You’re hot!, which means someone is about to run you down and you should get rid of the ball quickly. This call is a move. This move is a lie, and as such carries imperceptible force. This force is my wit gathering against you, and the powers it will unleash if you fall for my ruse. You, under pressure, full of noise, cannot read this move, cannot perceive this gathering power. In a panic you get rid of the ball which is immediately scooped up by one of my side, who tears down the ground in the opposite direction! This scoop and run are the powers-unleashed that were racing towards you (concealed from you by noise), and which you failed to perceive. Aghast you spin ‘round to see me laughing. Haha! I tricked you! – the trickster likes to celebrate her witty move – and now my team has another goal.

Swarming is full of trickery of this type – pickpockets at the fair, hoax emails bing-bonging into your inbox – because its essential condition of complicated singularity so splendidly facilitates trickery’s movement – as power that keeps one jump ahead of its interpretation. Trickery flourishes in the noise body, where the subject is struggling to be subject – in the juddering moves of this struggle, the subject and her dis-integration, the synching and unsynching of assertions and actuality that surrounds her. Thus it seems the very texture and material of swarming is precisely what trickery requires to thrive.

However, there is more to it. In addition to merely exploiting our perceptual limits as swarming units, trickery is enabled by the disposition of things towards transformation, by the very possibility of this; particularly by how things can move from perceptible to imperceptible conditions – becoming-molecular Deleuze and Guattari might say: ‘Yes, all becomings are molecular’ (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:275). Things rearrange in remarkable ways. They can. A simple assertion: You’re hot! combines with forces of speed and wit to become something quite other than it seems to mean. It becomes a lie, a bearer of imperceptible force; and this is not just because some dummy has failed to perceive the truth, but because a trans-formation has, in fact, taken place. Taussig points out that in tricking, there is: ‘a certain fluidity of performance … with the logic of becoming itself’ (Taussig 2006:145, my emphasis).

Secrecy: Zooming in on this quality of trickery, how it draws upon the logic of becoming itself to make its clever moves, will lead us to the phenomenon of secrecy. Deleuze and Guattari write about secrecy as a terrain of imperceptible and semi-perceptible forces that permeates the social. For them, secrets are not just elusive contents, they are currents, something like magnetism, an invisible affectiveness, streaming through the world (Deleuze and Guattari 1987:286-290). Less the content – he is having an affair – than the hair on the back of the neck, the feeling that something’s up, codewords, doublespeak, performed nonchalance, insinuation, whispering, flickering hand gestures, exchanged glances, whistling, stumbling upon, gasping as all the pieces suddenly fall into place. Secrecy is a semi-perceptible terrain flowing through the world, creating power relations between people, every bit as true as those that are sanctioned and declared, but which tend to elude perception.

Secrecy assumes an identicality with ‘normal’ space – meaning, for now, space where assertions match with actuality – but of course it is not identical with normality, just imperceptible when compared with it. The molecules of secrecy carry a peculiar density. A density that also creates space and movement, affects and effects. Secrecy is normality plumped-up and aerated, molecules charged. You can feel this if you know the secret. Think of the look that passes between two skilful accomplices in the presence of others who have no idea. Receiving the glance of my accomplice, feels. The plumpness in the timbre of her lying voice is audible to me. Plumped with secrecy, the sound waves carry the force of imperceptible withholding. You would know this from telling your own lies: No! I went straight home! There is, for the (skilful) liar, for those who know, a perceivable density of tone or colour, in the completely normal delivery. This is the ‘heightened sensitivity to… the logic of becoming itself’ about which Taussig is speaking (Taussig 2006:145): becoming-molecular, a capacity of the environment to conceal power within its normal-seeming operations. This is what we are feeling-for watching President Clinton, over and over, disavow his sexual relationship with Monica Lewisnsky, and listening to football players reading aloud their responses to accusations of wrongdoing. Watching their eyes; listening for gurgling and halting in the voice. That plumped-up normality, through which – we imagine – we see the false assertion (that may) glide – and through which it glides (though we may not see it) – is secrecy.

Football’s Dangerous Fun

Football is a playful swarm. Whether it is defined as a team sport that takes place on a football oval, or more loosely conceived as play that moves through world culture, it fits the description of swarming above (comprised of singular units moving in thick con-fusion, generating a body of noise that each unit must negotiate, producing-ecstasy and danger, exceeding its own limits via a process of emergent relationality, and so on). It is no wonder then, from this perspective, that it is frequently called to account for being tricky, for harbouring secrets. Whether rules are breached in play, or players called to account for bad behaviour in the wider public domain, there is a lot of ‘noise’ in football culture – excess, intensity, transformation, disobedience – that calls the attention of those concerned with fair play. Here we are advancing the possibility that not only is this noise inherent to football, produced by its fundamental phenomenal structure/s, but that what this noise makes possible – a theatre of tricks and secrets – is the best fun, and the greatest danger of football’s style of swarming play.

(Dangerous noise) Racial abuse

The famous photograph of indigenous footballer Nicky Winmar standing before a packed football stadium, lifting his jersey to point to his black skin, captures a complex net of affects and behaviours in an image so powerful it shocked the nation (see Ludbey in Slattery 2008:76 for a reproduction of this image). Reportedly, on the occasion of a St Kilda v Collingwood clash in 1993, Winmar endured hours of racial abuse delivered by Collingwood (the opposing side) supporters. Eventually he turned on his attackers, ripped up his jersey, pointed to his skin, and shouted at them ‘I’m black and I’m proud of it’. The image, says Greg Gardiner: ‘immediately signified to the football and wider community that Aboriginal footballers were literally adopting a new stance, a new visibility, in contrast to the past; one that would confront the issue of racism in football head on’ (Gardiner 1999:154). It is worth recalling that this image is a freeze-frame plucked from a swarming noise-body at play, a body drenched with sound, riddled with wit and tricks, and that the racial abuse that provoked the gesture was part of this play.

The image and the incident/s from which it was extracted, formed part of a series of events in the 1990’s that led to the introduction (and subsequent modification) of the AFL’s racial and religious vilification rule. To massively simplify this series of events: there was the ‘outing’ (making public that which is kept secret) of a history of racial abuse in football; a public debate about the legitimacy of such abuse as a technique of play (a practice of sonic trickery); the establishment of a rule to stop the abuse, and a string of challenges put to that rule and its efficacy (Gardiner 1999:1997).

This may all seem like old news from this side of history, in a time when the possibility of arguing for racial abuse as a legitimate technique of play seems quite unthinkable, but our feelings of certainty about this obvious wrong should not blind or deafen us to how the conditions that allow such (vile) sonic trickery to flourish in swarming play have not themselves substantially altered, even though racial abuse has (seemingly) disappeared from the stage of professional football (see David Wirrpanda’s assertion to this effect in Schmook 2009).

Specifically with respect to a relation between vile language and football’s kind of swarming play, recall that the fun of the swarm is that in it we attain styles of being/becoming we are not usually given to experience. Football may make a combative game of this, overlaying a framework of rules – scoring, winning and losing – which brings with it a degree of seriousness, ferocious attachment to winning and whatnot, but the fun of ecstatic-becoming never ceases to be the texture of the combative game. Football is ceaselessly conditioned by this becoming, so much so that victory is given to those who best allow and make use of its dis-integrating powers, rather than to those who attempt to resist them. Consider Brian Massumi’s observation that, ‘[football] players, in the heat of the game, are drawn out of themselves. Any player who is conscious of himself as he kicks, misses. Self-consciousness is a negative condition of the play’ (Massumi 2002:74).

Shrugging off self-consciousness and entering noise of becoming-swarming, disintegrating subjects become thing-like. Paul Hegarty: ‘noise brings us into the realm of the animal, of the material – we are things that hear” (Hegarty 2007:140, his emphasis). From this perspective sport is not so much played with things (bats, balls, boards, bikes), as played becoming-a-thing (‘The player is the object of the ball’ (Massumi 2002:73, his emphasis)). In the condition becoming-a-thing, everything starts to reveal its thing-ness, and it follows, everything is weighed for its potential to effect play. Specifically language becomes thing-like and words are explored for their potential to work as things rather as much as mere message-bearers.

This accounts for the widespread deployment of jokes and curses in sport’s play, for these are styles of tricky language – tricking is made of wit, movement and imperceptibility – that unleash forces beyond the meaning-giving, and extend language’s effects/affects to radical disturbance, which includes the possibilities of wounding by word-as-thing (see Paolo Virno 2008 for a discussion of jokes as radical aggression, and Denise Riley on how in ‘the violent emotional materiality’ of injurious speech, ‘the word is indeed made flesh and dwells amongst us’ (Riley 2001:41)).

In team sports, the practice of sledging is the art of using jokes and curses, banter and insult, to psyche-out the opposition. Firing off shocking words players seek to unbalance their opponents, already juddering with noise in the swarming. For instance (imagine we are back out on the field), depending on the wit of your phrasing, you may insult my play, my appearance, my family, my history – any number of registers to which, at some time or other, I belong, thus interpellating me (disparagingly) as (hopeless) team player, (grotesque) figure of desire, (useless) daughter or sister, (feeble) citizen, when I am trying to attain that zone of unself-consciousness that facilitates play. In this you seek to unhinge ‘me’ from that sense of conjoined affect that confers unusual powers upon those that swarm, returning me instead to the more familiar condition of being a powerless incompetent, who has no hope of effecting anything, ever. Furthermore coordinating efforts with your team-mates, you may make good use of sound’s capacities to camouflage, travel invisibly, interrupt and surprise; you may use volume, direction and intonation-effects – closeby threatening whisper; distant, hilarious, bellowing humiliation. By all of these means you will attempt to punch your insults-as-things-in-play into the muscles and ligaments of my body, so hard they will disable me.

All of this is considered quite legitimate in many team sports; in the zone of swarming play where the thingness of things and their capacity to effect/affect is being tested with rigorous precision. It is from this perspective that Tony Shaw (Captain of Collingwood football club from 1987–1993, and a high profile figure during the time that racial abuse in football was being debated) was able to say in 1991 that he would ‘make a racist comment every week if I thought it would help win the game’ (Shaw in Gardiner 1997:9 n.25); and it is against this perspective that Indigenous players had to make their stand, insisting that racial abuse must not be considered part of sledging, even if it occurs within special zone of the testing of thingness, because it draws upon a history of abuse that is morally indefensible, for its affective power. Furthermore it not only draws upon but keeps alive the racial stereotypes that underpin the poisonous logic of that history (Gardiner 1997:9-10). In other words the effects/affects of this language in its thingness are by no means limited to the space, and time of the game, but have implications that extend far beyond these, and that are wrong.

The fact that Indigenous players had to struggle to make this argument against the deployment of vile language in play, and that their position was contested by authorities such as Shaw (above), points to another mechanism in the operation of abusive language that interests. Namely that it has a tendency to disavow itself, either minimising its seriousness (Can’t you take a joke?) or denying its existence altogether.

Michael Long, another Indigenous player whose actions were even more pivotal than Winmar’s in those events surrounding creation of the racial vilification rule has said: ‘…it’s not easy to experience a lifetime of racial abuse, be constantly reminded of it and yet be expected to simply ignore it’ (Long in Gardiner 1997:9). It is the last phrase we should take note of. He says that, a victim of racial abuse, he is nonetheless expected to ignore it. What? Why? This is extraordinary! Yet it is not extraordinary. It is, in fact, how abusive language and behaviour works. Vile, wounding words are inserted into actual exchanges between real bodies, doing untold damage, but bring with them the most remarkable cloak of disavowal, concealing their force in a whole panoply of transformative ‘rationalisations’, uppermost the assertion that the victims who protest their wounding are over-sensitive, and it is all a bit of fuss really.

This is secrecy. Recall: secrecy is a semi-perceptible terrain flowing through the world, creating power relations between people which tend to elude perception; secrecy is a plumped-up normality, through which false assertions glide undetected. Abuse is a practice that partakes of secrecy. It takes place out of sight of the legislators, in domestic spaces, crossing the oval on the way home from school, or may unfold in plain view of legislators but masked by powerful rhetoric, or indeed undercover of noise of swarming.

The noise body of the playful swarm, in which the subject is struggling to be subject, is fertile ground for abuse, since abuse works precisely by attacking the dignity of the subject, isolating her (via additional application of noise) from what might give her power to resist, and banking on the capacity of sound to not just bear insults, but terrify and poison through penetrative effect of abusive language (see again Riley 2001 on the dreadful extended temporality of the effects of malignant speech). As the discussion of sledging above indicates, isolating an already struggling subject and attempting to wound him with words is considered fair play in many sports. This is therefore available for abusive language to draw upon to legitimise its existence. Making its secret way, it draws its skin around the skeletal structure of this notion, to form an assertion identical with what’s considered normal in sport, even as it makes further use of the potentials of secrecy in swarming to vastly extend its reach and deadly effects, beyond what any conception of good sport, or fair play could, surely, be.


In this article I have made an attempt to articulate some of the pleasures and dangers of swarming play, using the game of Australian football as an example. Specifically I have focused on ways that sounding, swarming, trickery and secrecy fuse in football to produce a range of powerful effects and affects. I have approached this articulation from a ‘certain non-humanist perspective’ (Parikka 2008:120), drawing on recent debates in cultural theory about crowds, swarms and networks. Moreover I have tested the possibility that tracing the effects and affects of the sounding of swarming may bring productive insights to this discussion, foregrounding the relationality that is inherent in how sound works on the bodies that produce and receive it.

In all of this I am suggesting, and testing, the value of non-humanist analyses to discussions of social behaviour, such as football, and at the same time wondering why football – an avidly practiced and hugely popular collective form – does not make more frequent appearances in the debates of network theorists. It seems to me there is much to be gained for both the study of sport and the study of crowds, swarms and networks in continuing this line of reflection. It is not, as they say, done and dusted. I, at least, am keen to play on, and hopeful of an emerging community of relation(s) to play. on. with.


(1.) It is acknowledged that this distinction between the social and affective is contentious (see Hemmings 2005 for the case against the autonomy of affect, and Thrift 2008: pp. 220–254, for a thinking through the problems of its representation).Whilst it is not the interest of this essay to take a position in relation to these debates, it is hoped that it may nevertheless contribute to them through experimenting with the articulation of affect. This paper assumes that affect is important in sounding, swarming and football, and thus traces and folds it into a discussion of other emanations and manipulations of power that are also there. I hope that this helps edge us closer to understanding these complex and important issues, even if it does not directly address or resolve them.

(2.) Football journalist Martin Flanagan recounts an exchange with champion Nathan Buckley:

The game, he said, always finds its way. He believed football was always evolving in one direction or another. The change of direction occurred when an individual appears who reads the play so brilliantly that he undoes all the systems of thought devised before him (Flanagan 2003: pp. 142-143).

Although Buckley identifies the star player as the key to this evolution – which from the perspective of swarming and its complex relationalities, is too simple a proposition – what is interesting is his observation that the game evolves, it is not just a static rehearsal of its own conventions.


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