Thursday, 3 January 2013

“Great Primitive but modern mythmaking”: selling the religions of rugby & nationhood in New Zealand

As part of my aim to get different thinking and writing about rugby circulating I will also be posting discussions from works in progress such as the following.

[From a work in progress…]

Two quotes frame this thinking; the first from an analysis of New Zealand’s 24 year pursuit for a repeat success in the Rugby World Cup, the second from the pre-eminent New Zealand historian:

Rugby is often referred to as a religion in New Zealand, and in many ways it is. It is a form of worship at least, a means for young and old to gather and pay homage to a sport that pushes all their buttons. (Gregor Paul, 2009, 164).

New Zealand rugby union ranks in socio-cultural resonance with soccer in Latin America and cockfights in Bali.  New Zealand should be a world capital of the historical study of sport. But it is not - almost as though sport is a relgion too important for scholars to tamper with. (Jamie Belich, 2001, 370).          
While New Zealand won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, repeat success eluded it until 2011 when the tournament was again held in New Zealand, which advertised itself as ‘a stadium of 4 million’. In the intervening years, myths of national identity were created to sell the meaning of rugby- as a national mythology, as a national religion of identity – to a population seemingly in need of such myths. In selling the national sport and oft-termed ‘religion’ of rugby to a New Zealand society seeking World Cup success, advertising agencies and sports administrators  increasingly engaged in what one ad-man (Andy Blood, TBWA NZ Group) has termed “Great Primitive but modern myth making.”[personal communication]  These mythmaking campaigns drew on the notion of rugby as New Zealand’s religion- as both religare and relegere. Incorporating images and language mixing sport, Maori and Pacific symbols, volkgeist, mythology, and nationalism, examples include Bonded By Blood (using real blood and DNA)[], Of this Earth (transporting earth from New Zealand to France)[], and Thread, the fabric of the nation, using nanotechnology to engrave thousands of fans names onto the thread making up the fern on the Captain’s jersey.  

[By the way I am very interested in what happened to the 'sacred earth' once we lost in the 2007 World Cup. In emails with Andy Blood in 2011 it appears that while the Rugby Museum in Palmerston North [] has a small 'of this earth container' the 'giant one' that contained the seven 'earth capulses' is still at TBWA NZ Group in Auckland]

If I think about all of this via Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth and Roland Barthes What is Sport, these inter-linkings of mythmaking, sport, advertising and nationalism occurred in a context that appears to lack other myths that could serve to unite the nation. What then is it that New Zealanders are meant to believe that they gain from Rugby?  The answer appears to be that for so many New Zealanders rugby offers something that takes them out of everyday life. This is of course not a novel or unique experience. Worldwide, different sports operate as religions for local populations and also operate across cultures and locations as global religions and religious experiences.  Sports provide myths, narratives, frames of joy and despair. They act as religare- that which binds us and as relegere - ways to re-read our lives and context. Sports express faith, hope, charity, and despair. They demonstrate the possibilities and limitations of being human.  If Rugby is important and if Rugby matters it is because the game and the culture that surrounds it offers something to the country itself- and to those who play it, support it and participate in the clubs that provide the bedrock that culminates in the national team, the All Blacks. 
I want to argue that Rugby myths are a type of sporting, national whakapapa. This term, from Maori culture, refers to the expression of genealogical layers that flesh out identities, including spiritual, mythological and human stories. The rugby myths whakapapa refers to the creation and continuation of a history, a location, a sporting tribe; the creation and propagation of an identity, increasingly mediated by advertising, that speaks of and through who New Zealanders are meant to be, are and what they are meant to stand for. In this whakapapa the religion of rugby has become centrally tied onto myths of nationhood and expressed through primitive mythologies of land, essence, blood, and community, increasingly presented through a romanticization of warrior culture extended to the whole nation. While NZ won the inaugural Rugby World Cup in 1987, its failure to repeat this success became the obsession of myths of quest narratives and national identity. The success in finally regaining the World Cup in 2011, in the competition played once again in New Zealand, was presented to the nation as a moment of national redemption. 
Such primitive myths are extensions what the sports writer Spiro Zavos expressed in “The Joy of Rugby”. Written in the lead-up to New Zealand’s successful pursuit of the inaugural Rugby World Cup (1987), Zavos’ essay celebrates the All Blacks as symbols of national virtue and meaning: “courage, toughness, enterprise, innovation and perseverance” (Zavos, 1989, p.55). Zavos then extends the analogy, claiming that there is a national moral dimension, in a correlation between the nation playing Rugby well and living well. 
My aim is to evaluate the myth-making of rugby and nationhood in New Zealand over the past 25 years, concluding with a reading out of the work of Daniel Dubuisson (2006), that myths do not precede religion, they are, rather, central contemporary embodiments and expressions of what we wish religion (and in this case nationhood) to be and to value –via the religion of rugby. For such modern primitive myth-making argues that sport might add value and meaning to life; that rugby might add myths and meaning, transcendence and hopes, offering possibilities of taking us out of our everyday and mundane lives. Rugby whakapapa is indeed “Great Primitive but modern mythmaking”.
Barthes, R. (2007). What is Sport? trans. R. Howard. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Belich, J. (2001). Paradise Reforged. A History of the New Zealanders from the 1880s to the
Year 2000. Auckland: Allen Lane The Penguin Press.
Dubuisson, D. (2006). Twentieth Century Mythologies: Dumezil, Levi-Strauss, Eliade.
London: Equinox.
Lincoln, B. (1999). Theorizing myth: narrative, ideology, and scholarship. Chicago: University of
            Chicago Press.
Paul, G. (2009). Black Obsession. The All Black’s Quest for World Cup Success. Auckland:
Exilse Publishing.
Zavos, S. (1989). “The Joy of Rugby”. In R. Palenski (Ed.), Between the Posts. A New Zealand Rugby
 Anthology. (47-56). Auckland: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.

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