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The Interpassivity of Pick-up Soccer

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I have been playing pickup soccer for the last decade with members of my local Midwestern US community. In practical terms, we all behave as if little is more important to us than our ongoing game. We suffer injuries, tolerate rehabilitation, and spend hours and days away from our closest friends and family members in order to play. But we also miss no opportunity to deny the importance of the game. We are quick to admonish one another for taking it too seriously, for not just having fun, for forgetting that it’s just a game. If we behave practically as if soccer carries genuine social import, then why won’t we admit to this belief when we talk about it? In this essay, I demonstrate that, in fact, the two sides of this seeming paradox are the necessary supports for one another. Although it is counterintuitive, the seriousness of our play depends upon our refusal to acknowledge in language the significant space that soccer occupies in our lives. We are free to invest our game with a surprising degree of profundity so long as we steadily and periodically remind one another that we are not doing so. To support this thesis, I draw on classic commentary on the sociology of play by Johan Huizinga, on Robert Pfaller’s concept of interpassivity, and on several ideas from Lacanian psychoanalysis as read by Slavoj Žižek. This triangulation of thinkers allows me to clarify the logic of an everyday experience. It will also help explain the apparent contradiction between how a large group of soccer players experience their excessive attachments to a game and the sport’s minor status within our shared social reality.

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  1. This short definition describes “pickup soccer” in the US, although local customs vary. It’s also co-ed (at least in my locale) and sometimes scheduled for a specific time or times (for instance, every Tuesday and Thursday at 6 pm on a particular field). It can also occur more extemporaneously. The numbers of players per side often varies over the course of the game, depending on how many people show up.

  2. In Jacques Lacan’s terminology, the “big Other” is one of the forms that the symbolic order assumes. Lacan uses the symbolic order, the imaginary, and the Real (three intertwined registers) to explain the entirety of human thought and behavior. While the Real is something like pure existence without meaning, and the imaginary is the site of, among other phenomena, fantasy, the symbolic order is the signifying network of social reality itself. For instance, a few years ago, a bumper sticker was popular in the US that read “Dance as if No One is Watching.” If one stood in an empty field, with no one around for miles, and attempted to dance as if no one were watching, the symbolic order in its “big Other” guise would function as omnipresent social reality itself, watching one dance and registering whether or not one is authentically dancing as if no one is watching. One’s dancing is mediated through the big Other. For this reason, it is impossible to dance as if no one is watching. One refers to the big Other as the omnipresent agency that registers how one is dancing. However, as we will discover below, the big Other does not know all.


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Correspondence to Stacy Thompson.

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Thompson, S. The Interpassivity of Pick-up Soccer. Psychoanal Cult Soc (2024).

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