Armstrong, E. (1996) 'The Commodified 23, or, Michael Jordan as Text', in Sociology of Sport Journal, Vol 13: 325 - 43.
[This is a very dense article, and I found it difficult to follow at times, partly because I don't know anything about basketball or the controversy that surrounded Jordan's career. What Armstrong is doing, I think, is constructing a theoretical framework to explain the social and cultural significance of Jordan and the processes of commodification that surrounded him. He develops this framework as a series of binaries, partly because this is a classic approach of semiotics, and partly because Guttman has already developed a famous analysis of the shift from pre-modern to modern forms of sport using a series of binaries. Armstrong wants to extend this into discussions of the postmodern and in doing so, he draws from a wide range of postmodernist writers. At the end, he wants to suggest that his framework, charting a significant shift in the ways in which sport develops in postmodern societies, explains some of the twists of the Jordan story better than the usual commentaries found in the press].
In Peirce's work, 'A sign stands for something to someone in some respect or capacity' (325). Given that Peirce fully acknowledges that individuals themselves have an active role in interpretation, 'the chain of interpretants is infinite; semiosis is unlimited' (325). [Actually, I don't think that is necessarily true, since the inquiring community sorts out rival and diverse interpretations, choosing in the end only those that seem to deliver an advance in knowledge. This inquiring community looks pretty mythical these days, of course, so Armstrong is probably right in practice.] However, we can begin to select the most important dimensions, and develop a 'diacritical scheme ... used to limit the potentially infinite multiplicity of interpretants' (326), as in Barthes' analysis of fashion. This example helps us to see the significance of athletic clothing, in this case the uniform, or uniform number of Michael Jordan.
Uniform numbers seem quite important in basketball, and Jordan's number was 23 until he retired from the Chicago Bulls in 1993. He promptly rejoined the Bulls in 1995 and played with a different number -- 45. Jordan himself is (was) apparently the most famous athlete in the world, according to some press reports, consumer research organisations, and sporting magazines [a bewildering variety of these are cited in evidence on 326 and elsewhere].
It is convenient to construct a system of binaries, since much thought and cultural activity is designed around them. Borrowing from Guttman, seven sets can be identified.
(1) 'Modern = Secularism; Postmodern = Immanence' (327)
Pre-modern sports reflected the realm of gods and the transcendental, according to Guttman, so that athletic festivals were a form of worship. In the Mayan - Aztec ball game, mythical conflicts between brothers and their relation to gods are acted out. Modernization involves secularisation, with rationales or 'validating myths that rival those of the religious and familial institutional spheres' (328) . In postmodernism there is a new sense that human beings can express themselves almost without limits in signs and cultural systems ( 'immanence'). This gives postmodern sports or sportsmen mystical sometimes even religious undertones -- Jordan has often been described in religious terms, and has even been credited with healing powers (328). Yet religious symbolism does not fully cover the significance of Jordan and his numbers -- for example, each number has been seen as representing family members (328); when Jordan's father was murdered, his car had 23 on the number plate, and Jordan's abandonment of the number might have been seen as honouring his father's memory. However 'M J switched from ...45... [back]... to ... 23... [for several subsequent games]... The 45 adorned for patricentric purposes was dropped without a second thought, thereby, supplying a vivid exemplar of untranscendent sensibility' (329). Jordan wore yet another number when he represented the USA at international basketball, since only the numbers '4 to 15 are legal' (336).
(2) 'Modern = Bureaucratisation; Postmodern = Decanonization' (329)
The NBA is a classic bureaucracy, with the ability to prevent people from switching numbers, and imposing fines on clubs if they do. Jordan's switches led to fines, but the NBA was criticised in turn for being too rigid.
(3) 'Modern = Equality; Postmodern = Diversity' (330).
The appeal to diversity was a crucial factor in challenging bureaucratic standardisation and universality. Sport classically enshrines the notion of equal treatment for players, but this is coming under threat via a postmodern concern for diversity. Indeed, the very postmodern self 'is impulsive... postmodernity inspires self creation... and even excessive self consciousness' (330). Other famous basketball players (like O'Neal ) cheerfully accepted different numbers when they switched clubs, and most fans apparently supported the conventions. Perhaps the NBA gave in with Jordan, merely levying a fine on the club, as a particular exception, and there have been others -- or did indicate a a genuine 'postmodern turn'? (331).
(4) 'Modern = Rationality; Postmodern = Intensities' (331).
Modern sports are dominated by calculative rationality, but this is being challenged by postmodern contexts which stress intensity, 'a new type of emotional expression... that take a "a free-floating form" (Ritzer, 1996, p 157)' (332). Again, there is no transcendental referent for these emotions as in pre-modern sport. It becomes possible to explain Jordan's change of numbers in several ways:
(a) (pre-modern) Jordan simply saw his numbers as lucky and unlucky, and changed back to a lucky one. Most US athletes are superstitious, and other players and commentators have both suggested that 23 is luckier than 45 for Jordan. However, wearing 23 still led to some poor games in practice.
(b) (modern) Coaches persuaded Jordan to change back to 23 as part of the rational modern process of doing emotional work, charging up players before matches, and working on confidence. However, it is not clear that this was the major reason for changing back.
(c) (postmodern) Changing back to 23 was an act of communication and signification, announcing 'that the old Jordan was back' (334). In this sense, 23 was seen as a more authentic signifier for Jordan. His switch 'demonstrates the nature of intensities as free-floating forms of feeling... [it]... was an emotionally based, whim of the moment, and a knee-jerk narcissistic invocation. After all, the postmodern impulsive self feels most "real" when yielding to inner desires' (334).
(5) 'Modern = Records; Postmodern = Spectacles' (334).
The shift to modernity involves a shift to quantitative ways to measure excellence in the form of records. However, sporting immortality is achieved in the NBA through number retirement. The number 23 was retired to commemorate Jordan, who had a special commemorative match, complete with souvenir brochures and special editions of newspapers. However, this was actually a typical postmodern ceremony since 'nothing was accomplished once-and-for-all' (335), and the event is best described as a spectacle, something hyperreal, complete with the illusion of audience participation. The whole thing was designed for television broadcast, and clearly featured signs of television entertainment rather than a traditional basketball farewell. Jordan himself fully recognised this. And 23 was subsequently unretired anyway.
(6) 'Modern = Quantification; Postmodern = Fragmentation' (336).
Human beings increasingly become dominated by 'a world of numbers', and it is excessive quantification that 'leads to the fragmented cultural universe of postmodernity' (336) [presumably through the mechanism of differentiation leading to dedifferentiation?]. It is no longer a matter of being alienated by being given a number, but seeing the number as a sign for the person [as in metonymy]. Many press articles show how basketball players are referred to by their numbers: these numbers have no 'actual real life referents', however -- Jordan has worn several numbers (336). [Amazing examples of the fetishisation of the number 23 follow -- 23-hour television specials on Jordan, Bulls fans selecting variations of Jordan's numbers in the lottery]. Jordan himself seems to recognise that he is but 'a fragment' compared to the number and what it stands for. 23 has always been given primacy, but only because 'In the post-modern world, the principles of interpretation are nothing but the interpreters themselves' (337).
(7) 'Modern = Specialization; Postmodern = Commodification' (337).
Specialisation in the modern game is well advanced, but the difference between players and spectators are particularly corroded in postmodernism, via commodification. The number 23 is a classic commodity because it 'was produced for exchange rather than direct use' (337). Fans wear the number because they want to be like Jordan, and sales of Jordan regalia were bestsellers. Jordan was indeed a role model for several young basketball stars (337 - 8), and the association was strong enough to embarrass other players who also played with 23 on the shirt. There was no reason why 45 shouldn't have become equally popular subsequently, although Jordan himself finally rejected it. Jordan himself earned 10 times his salary in endorsements in 1995, and his commercial potential has been endorsed by a number of consumer surveys (339). Jordan has become globalised. His decision to wear particular numbers had a decisive effect on sales of jerseys (and he has endorsed a type of Nike trainer). However, 45 did not have the same appeal as 23, according to a poll of customers, and they were happy when he reverted.
Overall, the analysis supports the view that postmodern commodities 'have become self referential tokens of consumption' (340), and it is consumption of the sign that is more important than the person. This has not always been realised by people trying to explain Jordan's popularity, and his postmodern qualities have been misunderstood [each of the seven postmodern qualities is taken briefly to explain the usual renditions of controversies such as his evident commercialisation, defiance of the rules, insistence that he be treated differently, apparent tantrums and irrational activities]. Thus many commentators have accused him of cynically changing the numbers on jerseys just to make money, but is equally possible that Jordan himself has been swept away by 'the postmodern accentuation of commodified images' (341). This may be his final contribution -- that even a famous sportsman cannot stand against these processes, which diminishes everyone else's ability to do so.
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