Samedi, 15 Décembre 2012 11:52

Heroes or Zeros? Favori

Écrit par  Emilie Coutant
Heroes or Zeros The Media's Perceptions of Paralympic SportUne bonne nouvelle pour finir 2012 en beauté: la publication tant attendue de Heroes or Zeros? The Media’s Perceptions of Paralympic Sport, ouvrage auquel j'ai apporté ma contribution en décrivant la fonction et la puissance des images du sport paralympique dans le contexte actuel de mutation des régimes de l'images. A la fois fascinantes et repoussantes, les iconographies médiatiques de l'athlète handicapé nous confrontent à l'image de notre propre corps, nous questionnent sur les notions de performance et de dépassement de soi et suscitent un débat sur les prolongements bio-technologiques du corps. Oscar Pistorius serait-il le prototype de l'humain de demain?

Otto J. Schantz, Keith Gibert (sous la direction de), Heroes or Zeros? The Media’s Perceptions of Paralympic Sport, IL: Common Ground Publishing, 2012.

Ci dessous, mon chapitre (en anglais) intitulé Post-modern perspectives of the Media and Disability, que vous retrouverez en version française ici.

"Currently, the analyses of the media treatment of disabled athlete’s remains anchored in a modern vision of the world with its myths of high performance, ecstasy of movement and the courage required by the athletes to perform. At first glance one can observe that the major part of the iconographies found in the press or on the internet generally focus on the disability (missing limb or a prosthesis) or on facial expressions showing an effort, a fighting spirit or the surpassing of one’s self while under difficult circumstances. As a matter of fact the ‘mediatisation’ of disabled people is still based on stereotypes of social representations prevalent among the generalnpublic and the body of a disabled athlete remains a body perceived through its limits, its incapacities and its shortcomings. In consequence the media treats disabled sports as a semblance of regular sports.

 The modern perspectives of the relationship between media and disability reveal nothing either of the imaginary encased in these images, or on the symbolic and mythical forms which are present in the images of disabled sports or on the prospects that these athletes generate for humanity. However, the current sports imaginary appears thoroughly shaken by the growing ‘mediatisation’ of disabled athletes. Indeed, the visibility of the achievements of the disabled athletes in the media and elsewhere has a symbolic feature underlined by Jacques Defrance, who comments ‘….the representation of the competency figures within groups dominated under various connections plays a role in the symbolic struggles that aim at shattering the negative stereotypes linked to these groups’ (Defrance, 2006, p. 771). Beyond the influence of this ‘mediatisation’ on the perception of the disabled by the non-disabled, it highlights new and even hybrid representations of corporeity by staging an obvious, mutilated body, which highlights the fantasy of a split body. The sports phenomenon and disabled sports in particular contributes to the moulding of the individual and collective imaginaries in contemporary societies. Therefore the rational interpretation of the sports hubris has to give way to emotional processes and to the aesthetics of the sensation. The proliferation of the disabled sports images in the media is in line with the disruption of society’s standards and values: the passage of Modernity to Post-modernity becomes sociality characterized by a new baroque type of sensibility. The post-modern prospect of how the media treats people with disabilities requires an approach which is simultaneously comprehensive, phenomenological and “formist” (Simmel) and to register this approach is tantamount to the development of a sociology of the imaginary to better seize the myths and the archetypes that liven up the figures of the sportsmen in Paralympics.

What is the meaning and the function of the media images of disabled athletes? What myths and fantasies surround the visibility of such figures? How does the hybridism of these physical forms lead us on the way to an unforeseen experience of humanity? By adopting an intuitive and innovative point of view to answer these questions we shall reveal the anthropological importance of the Paralympics.

The spiritual function of images: Or the ethics of aesthetics


As alluded to previously the post-modern society is characterized by the saturation of the former modern values and the institution of new forms such as sensual pleasures, importance of affects, logic of the “will-being” (vouloirêtre),pluralisation of the person, hedonism, and so forth. In such a societal configuration, we witness the (re)birth of an imaginary world which means a way of being and thinking imbibed by the image, the imaginary, the symbolic and the material. This imaginary becomes a constitutive element of a fundamental belong-together or belonging (“l’être-ensemble”). The renewal of the perspectives and the methodologies appears as a necessity to fully comprehend the mutations which take place within this social configuration. Hence adopting a triple approach to the problem (phenomenological, comprehensive and formist) seems innovative. The phenomenological approach is a kind of return to the perception of the sensitive and to the manifestations of the appearance. The image operates towards passage of the sensitive impression - a perception of the visible - to the representations’ world, livened up by the symbolic activity. The prevalence of the image and the appearance in the post-modern paradigm, indeed, indicates the saturation of the essential for the benefit of an effervescence of the form. According to Michel Maffesoli, following Georg Simmel, “the shape is the matrix which gives birth to all the aesthetic phenomena restricting the post-modern culture”(Maffesoli, 2005, p. 107). The form is formant which means that it constructs the society. While valorising the body, the images, and the appearances, it forms the social body. The form aggregates, gathers and shapes a unit. In actuality, “These forming forms are going be expressed under the figure of a musical or sports star in a empirical way (…).These figures are as so many magic caricatures in which everyone (…) recognize oneself” (Maffesoli, 2005, p.111)”.

It is this process that is used in the media images of the disabled athletes. The images have a spiritual function - they are at the same time the sources, the medium and the product of social representations, with the properties of representation, emotion and ambiguity. The post-modern sociality is based on these ethics of the aesthetics in the real sense of ‘aïsthesis: the fact of having common feelings’. It is an ethic which aggregates and creates links favouring the attraction and the aversion. The emphasized, epiphanised body is built to be seen. It is a ‘socialization: to integrate into a set and to transcend the individual’ (Maffesoli 2007, p. 34).In the imagined world of the Paralympics, the sport creates an emotion by introducing an extraordinary aspect. The media contribute to transforming these athletes into heroes and their adventure into an epic by portraying the struggles, the new developments, and the moments of suffering. What we have here is a body feast, collective enthusiasm that can be compared to the religious rites of exotic societies with the introduction of the sacred into the sports shows that are considered religious rites with plot twists.

Furthermore, the fact of focusing e.g. on the prosthesis or the disability shows a will to display the underestimated essence of the human condition. One can say that the mutilated body, or a body equipped with a prosthesis, represents the darker side in each of us, a zone in every one that is mutilated and equipped with prosthesis. This injured and incomplete body testifies to a particular subjectivity and enlightens certain underestimated, dark and disturbing aspects of mankind. The disability or the disease constitutes a figure among multiple, heterogeneous and fluctuating figures that are displayed to the contemporary individual for defining an identity which is more and more diverse and plural.

In this sense the iconographies of the disabled athletes take part in the revelation of the identity’s plurality, and fit it into the ethics of the aesthetics, and an ethos which compels a renewal of the perception of things different. These ambiguous images create as much fascination as aversion, but they are also factors of identification in the sense of an emotional identification by an affective analogy. In this dramatization and epiphanization of the bodies, one can distinguish a kind of collective narcissism that is both cause and effect of a world of life (Nietzschean Lebenswelt). Sport appears as a big social link and weaver of people’s lives and perhaps a substitute for religion in society. It obliges the subject to conform to others and thus becomes vector of identification for the individual and society. Two identification processes are possible through the imaging of the disabled athletes: an identification to the ‘disabled person’ and an identification to the ‘regular athlete’ seen as a hero and a model of the athlete with a perfect body. The essential is the being-together and galvanized by the identification. It is about a real communicational atmosphere where the entertaining body is the cause and effect of communication. One observes in this projection towards the other a desire of fusion the purpose of which is to exist in the eyes of the other. The identity asserted by the disabled athlete is far from being perceived as inviolable reality - it is on the contrary excessively pluralized. There exists a construction of a multiple body where the opening of the person widens until integrating daïmonic (the guardian angel representative of the divine) or inhuman (animal or hybrid) qualities are displayed.

The Disabled Athlete: Prototype of tomorrow’s human

The display of the deviant body is a possible analyzer of the relations that society maintains with the infirmity and its evolutions, conceptions, and treatment. It is also an analyzer of the relations that society maintains with bodies by reminding of the fragility of the human condition. It also seems to reactivate in everyone the inhuman part of our being. The disability confers to an originality and thereby gives rise to an emotion which can go as far as eroticisation. An example would be ‘Venus de Milo’, the arms of which are left amputated, whereas the nose, the lip and the big toe have been repaired. This amputation is at the source of the emotion that it rouses. The disabled individual reminds people of the unbearable fragility of the being. The image projection of this fragility makes us modify our intimate relation with this disturbing otherness inside us and wakes in each of us the native fantasy of the split body.As mentioned before, the presenters and the sports correspondents put forward in the choice of their wording the will and the courage which tend to render the produced performance exemplary. However, it is necessary to note in addition that this performance is not only valued because it is surprising and rouses admiration, but that it is also valued because it opens the way to an unforeseen human experience which is especially forbidden for a regular human body. The disabled people are not disabled when they have prosthesis: they renew the perception and the social representations of the capacities of a body. This hybridization installs a new integration with the world, the object or the others by the installation of medicine, techniques and/or machines within the body. These fixed human beings showing their prosthesis, to which spare parts have been added, implicit in the essence of the man of the future. We could even say that they are real prototypes of the man of tomorrow. The difference between them and us, the regular men and women, is this: most of us live with organs that were given to us in birth by nature, and languish under the natural effect of aging. To put it in other words, our bodily unity is still natural, whereas the athletes with disabilities like Oscar Pistorius, a fascinating sprinter with two half-artificial legs,

already lives in a future time of what some call ‘patched men’ whose bodies no longer have the unity of a regular body. Disabled people are already numerous. Their bodily unity is already artificial to a large extent. Biotechnologies foresee in the near future the possibility of rather easily replacing parts of the human body, just as the world of stem cells promises the possibility of regenerating certain parts of the human body. These two methods (prosthesis and regeneration) will be the weapons in the combat against aging and against disability. Therefore we can identify a disabled athlete as an indication of a sort of a man to come. The organic unity received at birth that most humans have in common at present, will then be only a memory of bygone days. In this sporting context the disabled body appears as a hybrid body that not only renews the standards, but also remodels the forms by the prosthesis and the genetic manufacturing of new species and new individuals. For example, the insertion of a prosthetic knee or a hip is going to replace the weakened organ by restoring the articulatory function. The foreign body hybridizes with the muscular mass of the natural body in a biosubjective reorganization of the body schema. The flesh will reorganize itself around the implant. The hybridization therefore appears as a process of biological adaptation which transforms the material system of the body. The hybrid becomes a modality of the future of reality as the hybridization incorporates the world of the others into us, transforms the human into a being of the future and allows us the chance to discover, in the living, the passing of time. All this leads to the creation of the contemporary cyborg myth, an entity half-man, half-machine whose admitted purpose is a transcendence of humanity, a post-human mutation supposed to be free from the physical and moral constraints which are regarded as laws in our societies. In a way, the cyborg or the hybrid is the ultimate embodiment of post-modernity, if one agrees to define the latter as an organic mixture of some archaic and more contemporary elements, of which the technological development is part.The cyborg is the prototype of the model fighter that contains all the possibilities of the human potential, and suggests an exit from the maze of the dualisms in which we inscribe bodies. From then on, we notice that the tiresome chorus about effort, values and courage, which has replaced the real attention on Paralympics in the media, the political sphere and in the public opinion, has been based on  the ideological mode of concealing the truth. On the one hand it testifies to an impoverishment of the way man is perceived in the sense of ignoring that disability can place us on the path of a new experience of the human being. One should not underestimate this ignorance as far as it reflects an insidious way of rejecting disability by assuming that adage - the world of the strong is the only possible world. On the other hand it prevents one from making the following observation: ‘the Paralympics have a greater anthropological importance than the Olympics, the disabled champions being pioneers’. In the near future the reconstructed, repaired and regenerated body will be the norm, whereas the regular bodies of today will be regarded as disabled. They will be numbed with artefacts. The real reach of the Paralympics has not yet been perceived. Even though Pistorius, the winner of the 100 meters for disabled, tells a lot more about humanity than Bolt, the winner of the 100 meters in regular athlete category. This post-modern perspective of the relationship between disabled athletes and the media reveals well the obsolescence of the current discourse and analyses surrounding the image of disability.

By highlighting the aesthetic function of iconographies, the imaginary surrounding such figures, and the discovery of new (hybrid) forms that surpass the human, the phenomenological approach registered within the framework of the sociology of the imaginary allows to seize in more detail the mythical aspects of disabled athletes. The dominant discourse that depicts the disabled model as heroic and hides the darker side of that disability is actually a negation of disability and its specificity. And yet disability and disease are also human experiences endowed with value in itself. They indicate a possible way towards another type of humanity, which is hybridized. The disabled athlete seems closer to the divine, or at least to the man of future, as he holds a form of power which is not accessible to the regular athletes. It all comes down to another idea according to which the sports imaginary and the sport for people with disabilities have this capacity to imagine the future. From there onwards, the disabled athlete is the hero of the post-modern, a hero who by essence would offer the possibility of believing in the impossible, would allow to imagine that we can always push farther, higher and stronger the limits of the human’s organic potential, thanks to courage and the exercise of the will."


Defrance, J. (2006). Sociologie du sport. Paris: La Découverte.

D’Ors, E. (1985 [1935]). Du Baroque (A. Rouardt-Valéry, Trans.). Paris: Gallimard.

Maffesoli, M. (2005 [1996]). Eloge de la raison sensible. Paris : La Table Ronde. (1990).

Maffesoli, M. (2007 [1990]). Au creux des apparences. Pour une éthique de l’esthétique. Paris : La Table Ronde.

Oscar Pistorius

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