Triolectical Materialism and the Beautiful Game of Three-Sided Football

This article first appeared in print in COBRA RES 1.4, the ‘Games’ special issue, [ed. Theodore Price], Dec 2014 [vulg.], ISBN: 978-0-9926622-1-9.

Triolectical Materialism and the Beautiful Game of Three-Sided Football

by Strategic Optimism Football

Since the 1990s both artists and activists have turned to the playful tactics of the Situationist International (SI) for inspiration in combatting the listless inertia of an utterly commodified art world and an ever more ossified and ineffectual political system. The SI has thus become well-known for championing a certain idea of play against the spectacular division of time and space into compartments of work and leisure. Play not simply as a form of free activity, pre-existing the abstractions and mediation of the commodity form, but also the diversion of existing, already mediated and abstracted activities in new directions. In this sense, despite the way it has been interpreted by many of its more recent interlocutors, play for the SI is less some positive, authentic state, or an escape to a vital “outside”, but more a negative dialectical move, towards the supersession of both work and leisure into a higher form of living – to live without dead time, as they famously proclaimed. This is something evident throughout the SI’s programme: from psychogeography to détournement, to the construction of situations.

At least that is one version. But this story is unstable, depending on the perspective one adopts it can begin to breakdown. For just as there is more than one way of looking at the situationists, there is more way of looking at their notion of play.

One can expand upon this problematic, appropriately, by turning to something play and games have traditionally been seen as particularly good at – that is modelling and rehearsing so-called real world scenarios within a temporarily fictionalised setting, one in which the unidirectional logic of consequence is for a short time suspended. Although this particular use of games, as pedagogical models, appears to contradict the SI’s call for a supersession of alienated living, removing life once more into mediation, the SI did in fact devise examples of just such games.

This invention of more formalised games has generated increasing attention in recent years, Guy Debord’s Game of War, which he once described as his greatest achievement, is one such example. It has gained growing recognition as a pedagogical tool for the playing out of strategic questions. Debord’s Kreigspeil has been proposed as a kind of détournement, of those imperialist, so-called “war games” one imagines being undertaken in the bunkers of military strategists somewhere, as they model various scenarios for carving up continents between competing powers – it is not for nothing that in the nineteenth century, the struggle between the British and Russian Empires for control of Central Asia was known as “the Great Game”. Debord’s game, it is held, functions as a similar kind of modelling exercise, in which the universal is made to appear within the particular, and macro-strategic machinations are metonymically played out upon the microcosmic terrain of the game board. In this sense, quite in keeping with Debord’s Hegelianism, his game can be seen as fundamentally dialectical. It is interesting to note that Clausewitz played cards with Hegel.

In 1962, another onetime situationist, Danish artist Asger Jorn proposed the metaphor of three-sided football in order to illustrate his theory of “triolectics”: a response to what he saw as the restrictions of dialectical materialism. In doing so he unwittingly invented another situationist game, but one that provides a fascinating contrast to that of his former comrade. Far from describing the game as his greatest legacy, Jorn never actually envisaged it being played at all. For him it was a purely theoretical model, describing already existing dynamics as he observed them.

Yet in the 1990s a number of post-situationist groups in the UK and Italy began to ascend from the abstract to the concrete so to speak, as interest grew in reviving and reinterpreting situationist ideas such as psychogeography and détournement in order to critique the current state of both art and leftist politics. It was at a Glasgow anarchist event in early 1994 that some of these groups came together with various artists, students and anarchists to put Jorn’s footballing thought-experiment into practice. Since the 1990s the game has been played around the world, with a number of tournaments and leagues being set up. In May 2014 the first three-sided football World Cup took place in Jorn’s hometown of Silkeborg, Denmark.

The game is played on a hexagonal pitch and consists of three teams contesting three roughly twenty-minute “halves”, during which the object is to concede as few goals as possible. Games are characterised by their fluidity, swift reversals of fortune and the rapid formation and dissolution of alliances. This open, yet strategic dimension has led to the game being described as a cross between conventional association football, chess and poker.

In line with the SI’s uneven historicisation, Debord’s game has become relatively well known, Jorn’s less so. Yet Jorn’s accidental game opens a number of fascinating questions upon games in general, particularly with regards to the way they are used in modelling the world, with the attendant implications for conceptions of strategy.

Whilst it would certainly be overly simplistic to claim that the structure of Debord’s game clings to a certain Leninist vanguardism, it is true that one must play the role of general (although perhaps in Gramsci’s sense of the Revolutionary Party as Prince rearticulated with the revolutionary class itself cast in this role). Likewise one’s command of one’s forces emanates directly from these leaders and is relayed through uninterrupted, vertical lines of communication. Debord’s game could thus be argued to model a certain form of strategic conflict, via Clausewitz and Machiavelli, Lenin and Gramsci, one which it is arguably vital to at least recognise and understand, but which likewise, despite its epistemological claims to totality, cannot exhaust the complexities of the undecidable. It was to Debord’s own self-confessed frustration that his game could not be ‘subject to external accident. Neither wind nor weather…’.[1] Jorn’s theory of triolectics however, demurs from such notions of strategic mastery, its strategy is rather a necessarily optimistic one: it must be characterised by a certain openness to contingency, externality and the intervention of otherness.

Interestingly, Jorn was not the only member of the situationist milieu to develop a theory of triolectics, their estranged collaborator Henri Lefebvre would also expound the idea in his own directions, ones later built upon by the geographer Edward Soja in his notion of “thirdspace”. For Jorn, triolectics stemmed from theories of quantum physics and the ontological destabilisation they suggest: the ultimate undecidability and relativity of competing states of being. In this sense it deconstructed notions of unidirectional dialectic progression and introduced the notion of perspective, externality and contingency to the formerly seamless dialectical totality. Likewise for Soja, the “thirding” of thirdspace is a deconstructive move, it functions as an introduction of the Other. It could be argued that the triolectic, as played out in the game of three-sided football, operates in precisely this way, undoing not only the dualistic, ontological oppositions of classic formal logic – as indeed the dialectic itself does – but also, at the same time, destabilising the forward progression of the dialectic’s inherent motion, and thus the attendant concept of totality. One can see how this arises from Jorn’s interest in physics, and in particular, Niels Bohr’s theory of complementarity. Yet for Jorn, triolectics was arguably as much pataphysics as quantum physics. Thinking triolectically is a game in which former categories of thought break down. This is evident in three-sided football, which took Jorn’s thinking and refracted it through the anarchic approach of a milieu steeped in the “guerrilla ontology” and “quantum philosophy” of Robert Anton Wilson and the magical thinking of Thee Temple ov Psychick Youth.

In this sense three-sided football builds upon surrealist games, which took the assumed triviality and childishness of games and turned it against serious bourgeois rationality in a negative dialectical move. This was an attempt to supersede and sublate both categories: into a new trivial seriousness or serious triviality that they labelled “surreality”. Like Lefebvre, Jorn goes beyond surrealist games. The introduction of the triolectical third point makes surreality not a progression to be attained, but a constant, unstable negotiation of positions, a study of situology in flux. In this sense it draws out the relation of triviality and seriousness that is actually latent in all games: a serious playfulness activated through the entry of the undecidable – the suspension of fixed consequence and the opening up to externality.

Thus the thought-experiment – or “war game” if you like – of three-sided football, unlike Debord’s dialectical game, does not so much express the universal within the particular, rather Jorn’s accidental game contains a dialectical uplifting only in the partial sense of a complexifying, but at the same time destabilising its implied directionality. It attempts to go beyond a traditional dialectic, in order to further strip metaphysics from a materialist programme. This, perhaps, is triolectics: a multidirectional, incoherent dialectical process, which introduces externality and undecidability and thus allows for, arguably, an inherently more “playful” form of game.

Strategy is no longer the illusion of mastering a totality. Rather it is the negotiation of undecidables that removes both the binary fixity of formal Aristotelian logic and the teleology of dialectical change at once. One is presented not with the binary and fixed categories construed by media-imposed ideology. Rather one can glimpse an externality – the larger matrix of general emergencies that contain and triangulate the particular emergency. This is the poverty and inequality, the imperialism and enclosure, racism and colonialism, binaries of gender and sexuality and, ultimately, the class divisions of global capitalism that contain and triangulate any particular situation. The particular is not so much always an expression of the totality, but is certainly triangulated and mapped by its proliferating and shifting vectors.

If it is not anathema, perhaps one might observe that in this respect Jorn’s triolectics appears in some ways to anticipate a nascent structural Marxism more closely than it stands by Debord’s firm Hegelianism. And yet Jorn’s system in fact escapes this all too convenient compartmentalisation as well. Thankfully it is far too incoherent. It was never meant to be coherent. It escapes the rigid and counter-productive specialisations of structuralism and instead mixes elements of dialectics with premonitions of a deconstructive approach. It fails to stand up as a “coherent” philosophical system in any conventional sense, for ultimately, it is a game. In this way, and undoing Hegel’s teleology, it is arguably as much a work of art as a philosophy. It turns in on itself, somewhat poetically, an ouroboros, a triolectical wheel, destabilising its own definition, undermining itself with its own humour and self-effacement. Its form and content converge into an unstable, and importantly playful, artistic, philosophical and political gesture. Of course it is also just a game of football.

Strategic Optimism Football are a three-sided football team playing in the Luther Blissett Deptford League. They were formed when members of a former autonomous and nomadic university – the University for Strategic Optimism – triolectically inverted Marcel Duchamp’s infamous gesture of “definitively abandoning” art in favour of chess. In their case, giving up politics to play three-sided football. However, SOF’s first game was played under the banner of an international day of action against gold mining in the Roșia Montană region of Transylvania – undermining their own futile gesture from day one. It was therefore from this game that one of three-sided football’s key tactical dissimulations – the so-called “Rosia’s (Triple) Cross” – obtained its name. “The Optimists” play in a multi-coloured kit, triolectically derived from industrial painting, occult magick and sploshing. They function as a home team for all those with no home, where all the shirts read Blissett.

[1] Roberto Ohrt, ‘If I wasn’t Alexander I would like to be Diogenes’, in Durch (3-4), Nov 1987, pp. 27-48 (p.17).

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