The Price of Politics

Curator's Note

Cinematic thinking is most often associated with art cinema. Ideally, art cinema presents a contemplative form of aesthetic, philosophical, and political exploration for an audience for whom such cinematic investigations are important. Most significantly, it constructs the cinematic image as a form of cinematic thinking: imaging thought and imaging as a mode of thought. The Price of Gold (2013), a documentary following three Swedish Olympians through their training and preparation for the Olympic Games, expands this form of analysis beyond the well worn confines of the auteur director, serving our theme week’s occupation with cinematic thinking with equal complexity and precision precisely because we find thought emanating where we least expect it: the body.

The opening sequence appears to offer a simple montage dramatizing the epic scale of athletic theater we call the Olympic Games. But a closer analysis brings to the surface the productive tension between performance and victory, training and sacrifice. It is the latter the film images so strikingly because it asks viewers the very question we see Carolina Klüft pose: “How much can you endure for a shot at the gold?” In documenting the transformation of these athletes through training, the spectator witnesses with a dual awareness the potential of endurance to animate new physiological possibilities through a body stressed from a greater complexity of intensities and the conception of subjectivity it offers.

How, then, are we to make this film, and these bodies, more than a didactic lesson about the cutthroat nature of contemporary sport? The film offers this thought as a reply: a body does not wholly correspond to its present, rather it coincides with its potential. Rather than judge this training as brutal or commendable as the “correct” reading, the challenge is to hold both possibilities in a productive tension. The pain and sacrifice of training is vicious, but the lesson our politics need now, a politics that seem so uninterested in potential and so invested in the reductive pandering to the present, could learn something from these images, these thoughts: the body that endures varies, the subject who varies carries the potential of its continuities, and it is with this potential that the openness for change results. The price is steep, but this film helps conceive the thought that with the proper training our aspirations are attainable goals, whereas a goal without training is merely a wish.


Hi Adam, Thanks for the really fascinating post. In reading it I couldn't help but be reminded of another famous Olympics movie: Leni Riefenstahl's "Olympia." In that movie, of course, athlete’s bodies are presented as efficient machines suitable for the sports they are undertaking, but also for the efforts of totalitarianism. This makes me wonder: what conditions the possibilities that these bodies are training to achieve? That is, aren't these same forces often harnessed in the names of fascism? And, if so, what allows for this? To me, what the contemplation that art cinema so often grants affords (at least in the hands of Kracauer, Deleuze, Bazin or maybe Rancière) is something like a democracy of thought achieved through the "waiting" that they demand. Does physical training allow this same kind of waiting? Or does it demand something like authority?

Hi Kal-- Thanks for the question. I think the question here is one about orientation. I don't mean to suggest athletics as a means to political possibility directly, simply that sport is most often imaged in our culture as a celebration of victory and/or virtuosity. What is lost is the sacrifice, training, and discipline needed to accomplish goals. What is interesting about this film is how it places emphasis on labor, and how that labor produces results. Although the post above is limited in its length/scope, what I find interesting about endurance as a result of this labor, here using athletics as a means to think this idea through the images provided, is how this conception can help us understand that bodies are often seen as a point of orientation in the world. Orientations, I think, are about how we begin to act, how we proceed from this moment, this place. The starting point as it concerns this athletes is the place from which they understand their bodies in the world: the “here” of the body, and the “what” of its will to act. By reading the images that appear in this film, we get a sense of how being is directed towards some objects and not others involves a more general orientation within the world. That is, what you come into contact with is shaped by what you do: bodies are orientated when they are occupied in time and space. What comes into view, or what is within our horizon, is not a matter of what we find here or there, or even where we find ourselves, as we move here, or there. What is reachable is determined precisely by orientations we have already taken. Or we could say that orientations are about the directions we take that put some things and not others in our reach. I want to suggest that thinking about this relationship, which seems to me so apparent in endeavors like athletics, can help us think politically when we so often seem to think otherwise. In other words, we can orient ourselves toward new conceptions of possibility like these athletes have oriented themselves to winning Olympic gold through their training, which opens that goal as a possibility in this clip.

Adam, Thank you for this thought provoking post! I wanted to follow up on Kal's comments as it seems that there is a way that the figure of the sporting body is undoubtedly hinged to an understanding of governmentality. Can the endurance of the body (through such modes of training) and its manifestation of potential be divested or bracketed from its capacity to be seen as the raw material of biopolitics? I think this is a fascinating tension in the clip and your comments above - in that on the one hand we have an orientations towards action, orientations that as you say have "already" been taken, and then on the other the sense of a will to act that is a beginning, a beginning to act. How do we square the already taken with the beginning? Further, I am curious how this enduring body, this mode of training differs or aligns with other forms of labor and effort, that are less triumphal or spectacular? The effort of endurance here, I gather, is not merely about persistence or survival (as figured in a biopolitical sphere) but of a quality of producing the horizon of unforeseen edge of achievement. This achievement has a particular metrics and accountancy of its own, but what is compelling is the immeasurable weight and gravity of its failure. Therefore, and perhaps I am not entirely being clear on the how - it seems thinking about the *capacities* of this body in temporal terms is crucial. If we abstract from its outcomes, what do we make of these images of a body in pieces, in pain, undone and unraveled by the efforts of training? What about bodies that are uncapacious, ungainly, aspirational but unachieved?

Hi Elena--thanks for looking at my post, I'll try my best to respond. For me, training must first be understood as separate from performance. Images of sport interest me almost solely for how they deny the spectator the opportunity to witness the labor involved leading up to the performance. Training, therefore, is a specific set of acts that work together for the purposes of a goal. It is, in other words, a way of building a virtual capacity to be actualized at the right time. Here, temporality is crucial, as you suggest, because the body serves as an aggregation of its training. We can think of this almost as an embodied duree, each training session creates a bodily/mental adaptation advancing toward a threshold for peak performance. The injuries imaged here I don't see as failures so much as a process. Injuries almost always occur when the individual's threshold is crossed too severely or too often. That is, their body was not able to support the training, and this in turn must alter the planned training moving forward. The delicate balance between these two, injury and optimum performance, serves as an interesting lesson for achievement. Largely this is the case because it places an emphasis on preparation and labor for a concentrated goal. And, it suggests that a body oriented--to get to your first question--through training can will itself to perform. Often I think the first half of this equation is neglected, we want quantifiable outcomes without having to put in the countless hours of labor that go unnoticed in preparation. The body of track athletes I don't think serve politics, they serve the sport they train to compete in. But this doesn't mean that training to act is relegated to sport. Rather, I think there needs to be considerable thought put into how we train ourselves to act politically, to will ourselves to action. The subject needed for politics might be "ungainly" for track and field, but why would they be held to that standard? It wouldn't make much sense to train to run, jump, or throw if your goal was to change policy, or bring social injustice to light. That would entail an entirely different type of training altogether. This film though puts emphasis on the difficulty of training, the failures and long process it takes to prepare oneself to act, to cultivate a will to action. For me, this is a a thought worth thinking about.

Thanks Adam for a really interesting post and video clip. The doco seems to be working in counterpoint, revealing the discipline, will, and pain that underlie and make possible the spectacular media moments of Olympic victory and culturally-charged sentiments of triumph and pride. It's hard not to think of various cultural and cinematic references on the nexus between sport and politics (Kalling mentioned Riefenstahl, but one could also point to other Olympic docos that take a different approach: a fascinating recent one is Salute (2008), by Australian filmmaker Matt Norman [] on the story behind the famous Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics). Your remarks about finding the political potential in such images struck me as suggestive. Zizek (riffing on Gramsci, Laclau, and Mouffe) talks about how ideology works by taking individual signifying elements that do not have a particular determinate meaning and articulating them into a unifying narrative or discourse that provides a coherent meaning and identity for the subjects of that ideology. Images of 'classical' physical beauty, athleticism, physical prowess, discipline, will, and strength, for example, are not inherently fascist; they can always be rearticulated within a new chain of discourse and given an alternative ideological-political meaning (Zizek even claims that fascism pinched various symbols, images, and collective practices from the Workers' movement). That's what Tommie Smith and John Carlos did with their fist salute during the 1968 200m Medal ceremony: rearticulate two powerful discourses, Olympic victory and Black Power. Perhaps this is the kind of political potential that you are suggesting one might draw from the film's visual presentation of the other side of 'victory'.

Thanks Robert--I have in fact not heard of this documentary, and look forward to seeing it soon. I appreciate your rendering of my post, it is in line with my intention and I think you help to work the complication out of it. It is in fact this other side of victory, as you write, that has had me thinking of a training philosophy of politics for a social/cultural landscape so encouraging (in my mind) of cultivating a will and, thus, ability to enact change.

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