Home > Culture, Literature, Navel-Gazing, Sports > Towards An Aesthetics of Hockey Violence: Fascism, Futurism, and the Boston Bruins

Towards An Aesthetics of Hockey Violence: Fascism, Futurism, and the Boston Bruins

Contending for the greatest prize in professional hockey for the second time in three seasons, the Boston Bruins are matched against the Chicago Blackhawks in this year’s Stanley Cup Finals (and took a lead of two games to one in the series with a grinding Game 3 win on Monday night). More than any other current NHL team, the Bruins are surrounded by a discourse that values old-fashioned smash-mouth hockey above all. Even if they are a strong puck-possession team with a protective defensive system (hallmarks of the coaching style of Claude Julien throughout his time in Boston), the Bruins are identified with all of those hoary old clichés clustered around the fading aura of hockey’s traditional culture of barely-controlled violence. Toughness, truculence, hitting, fighting, being “hard to play against”; these tropes are trotted out again and again to explain the current Bruins roster’s successes (which include a Cup in 2011).

Bruins forward Milan Lucic composes his Futurist manifesto, influenced as it is by the critiques of the Frankfurt School.

Certainly, the prevalence of former Bruins players and coaches in the hockey media goes some way towards explaining the spread of the concept of the value of hard-edged hockey. CBC’s hockey coverage flagship Hockey Night in Canada utilized no less than three former Bruins figures in its studio team of only about half-a-dozen not so long ago: Mike Milbury, P.J. Stock, and Don Cherry were also, not so coincidentally, the broadcast’s most stringent voices in favour of fighting, hitting, and violence in the game in general (Stock and Cherry still do defend that battered rampart, as Milbury still would as well, had his preference for physical violence not become unfortunately literal in a minor hockey setting). Other public hockey figures stick up for the role of violence in the game, certainly, but there is an added element of stubborn righteousness to those who have passed through the Bruins organization and into the media. They boast the intransigent certainty of true believers, of ideological foot-soldiers for the cause of Bruinism.

The always detailed and thoughtful Ellen Etchingham takes up this subject in a fascinating recent post in her blogspace at TheScore.ca. Her insightful consideration of the Bruins’ association with conceptions of the role of nastiness, aggression, and above all physical pain concludes that these elements are valued in the hockey context not as means to an end, but as an end in themselves. What matters is not whether smash-mouth hockey leads to winning; there’s little empirical or analytical evidence that it does, and considerable agreement that high hit totals in particular are indicative of a team with poor possession percentages that tends to unproductively chase play. Violence – and for Etchingham, the shared experience and understanding of pain above all – has an aesthetic value in and of itself; indeed, it is perhaps the central defining aesthetic of the sport of hockey, in its traditional delineations.

Etchingham, who loves the game with the passion of a recent convert, conceives this aestheticization of violence and pain as essentially positive or at least grounded in the lived experience of hockey’s fans and thus basically unchallengeable in reality if not in theory. To my mind, however, this aesthetic is more problematic; indeed, even the use of the term “aesthetic”, accurate though it may prove to be, is not without its attendant issues.

My thinking on this point is influenced by the epilogue of Walter Benjamin’s seminal essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (which I have employed on this blog in the past). This epilogue is often overlooked, as its specific contemporary focus on the ideology of the fascist movements sweeping Europe at the time of its composition is less widely applicable than the Marxist critique of industrial production in a cultural context that precedes it. But Benjamin’s consideration of the Futurist concepts of the aestheticization of war does seem to apply, surprisingly, to the Boston Bruins and the aesthetic of hockey violence that circles around them.

My Photoshop skills are insufficient to the task, so you’ll have to simply imagine Walter Benjamin wearing a hockey helmet.

Benjamin discusses the manner in which, in a fascist state that includes a sizable proletarian class but does not threaten the holding of private property, the masses must necessarily turn to the political arena for the purposes of expression. The purest and most powerful method of that expression is through war, which becomes highly aestheticized in the Futurist conception as the ideal melding of human productive activity with industrial processes. Benjamin quotes an Italian Futurist at length as he rhapsodizes about the artistic truth inherent in bullets, shells, and gas masks, about the greatly-desired “metalization” of the human body, about the artistic glories of death in battle and the “symphony” of “the stench of putrefaction”. The massively-industrialized and hugely destructive war launched by the fascists in Benjamin’s home country of Germany shortly after (the upheavals of which cost Benjamin his life) would have come as no surprise to him. Indeed, war is not only inevitable but inevitably desirable in the discourse of fascistic Futurism.

Although the Marxist Benjamin does not connect this aesthetic valorizing of mechanized violence to the concomitant valorization of masculine strength and physical prowess in the mass culture of the fascist states (Nazi Germany in particular), it is this association that connects the aestheticization of war to hockey’s aestheticization of violence. Modern capitalist democracy has diverted the masculine self-expression of the masses away from its centuries-old conduit of martial warfare, ironically due mostly to the increasing mechanization of armed conflict that Futurists embraced as a harbinger of aesthetic fulfilment.

The expression of masculine aggression in the modern West has thus fallen increasingly to the sphere of sports, also famously extolled by the Nazis as a source of aestheticized Aryan glory. From the direct contending of weeknight sports leagues to the vicarious experience of rooting for pro sporting heroes, the masculine aggression of the masses once released in cathartic slaughter in war is now sublimated into the controlled, rule-bound competition of sports. The traditional hockey culture is often accused of glorifying violence, but Etchingham recognizes that what it truly glorifies is the endurance of pain, suffering, and physical difficulty, which are also the elements of war that are so often constructed as romantic and heroic. Hockey, therefore, is an ice-bound kabuki of teeth-gritting fortitude in the face of hardship enacted for the edification of the generally white, male, conservative, proletarian fanbase of the sport, or for the edification of this fanbase’s own hardscrabble daily negotiation of an increasingly obscure post-capitalist socioeconomic reality through association with their heroes’ struggles with adversity.

The point of this discussion is not to suggest that the Boston Bruins are Nazis (although Brad Marchand at least has probably been called worse), nor to simply equate sports to war in the one-for-one euphemistic substitution manner often favoured by its media. But dubbing hockey violence or “toughness” an aesthetic, just as suggesting that war is aesthetic as the Futurists did, opens up deeper and less intellectually ghettoized conceptions of its dissemination than dubbing it an ideology might do. Ideology exists beyond conscious adoption by subjective agents; it “works” even if you don’t believe in it, in Slavoj Žižek’s conception at least. But an aesthetic is closer to a preference or a predilection. It is chosen, while ideology chooses us. However we choose to justify it, either by Etchingham’s appeal to common empathy or the Bruinist insistence that it correlates to success in the win column, understanding hockey violence as an aesthetic makes its continued prevalence in the sport that much more troubling and difficult.

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