This is us: Max Jack

July 03, 2024

The anthropologist Max Jack studies social movements and subcultural groups. In the interview, he talks, among other things, about his latest book, Insurgent Fandom, which focuses on ultras—passionate football fans who support their clubs by attending all home and away games. However, he also sees them as a transnational movement that opposes the commercialization of professional sports.

One of your research topics at the Center for History of Emotions is the political potential of crowds and subcultural groups like punks or squatters. What fascinates you about this topic?    

Max Jack: I find a whole range of subcultures from ultras to punks to squatters interesting, because they are engaged in the process of crafting alternative lifeworlds to their unsatisfying modern conditions. I find this “Do-It-Yourself" ethos salient in our current political moment where there is a broadening crisis of disconnection from traditional politics and rising support for populist and autocratic leaders globally. Ultras and squatters alike are attempting to forge their own solutions amidst their disillusion with a contemporary society that doesn’t particularly suit them or their needs for a fulfilling life. Using ultras (hardcore football fans) as one example, my contacts in these scenes would tell me that crowds can be purposed as “temporary autonomous zones”—spaces with their own sets of rules, emotions, and political logic—something radically separate from the mundane and alienating experiences of day-to-day life. So, I investigate people who are attempting to craft their own alternatives in the here and now—not waiting for politicians or the government to improve their lives for them. 

In your book, which was published recently, you deal with the ultra-movement in sports, especially in soccer, basketball, and hockey. What were your key findings? 

Max Jack: My ethnography, Insurgent Fandom, explores why the most dedicated supporters of their respective sport clubs, called ultras, have played prominent roles in some of the most high-profile uprisings of the 21st century, including those in Cairo, Turkey, and in Ukraine. To understand how ultras can become key players in such moments of political insurgency, it is necessary to reframe ultras not as hooligans (as they are often confused), but as a transnational social movement positioned against both capitalism in professional sport as well as the state, who often violently attempts to manage and mitigate their activities in public space. 

If I had to boil down the book, my main argument would be that crowds in the context of football have a radicalizing impact on those who inhabit them, because they offer a very different means of socializing amongst strangers, providing an alternative experiential vantage point from which to view the world.  Of course, this might sound very abstract as I describe it here, but these heightened emotional environments affect you.  

The second part of my argument is that the role the state plays in attempting to repress ultras in and outside the stadium only makes the situation much worse. It teaches ultras that the state is in fact their enemy. So, the police in large part produce the “enemies of the state” that they say they want to eradicate through the very act of over-policing, which has the effect of hardening, socially marginalizing, and priming ultras for insurgent political action with years of built experience in combatting the state. I describe stadia as breeding grounds for radical politics across the political spectrum in part because of the ongoing antagonisms between ultras and the state, but also because of the hardcore fans’ alienation from the hyper-commercialism and consumerism baked into modern professional sports.  

What distinguishes the Ultra movement from other movements, such as Extinction Rebellion or Die Letzte Generation, which you have researched previously?   

Max Jack: One key distinction is that the broader public does not necessarily recognize ultras as explicitly “political” actors. That’s where my job as an ethnographer comes in—to make ultras’ societal critiques legible to an audience of outsiders who might not understand who they are or what they are trying to do. In contrast to climate activist groups—whether you agree with them or not—their critiques are at least recognized as political in nature.  Ultras’ views of society are lost in translation by news-media and popular culture. 

Broadly speaking, I also see ultras as more militant in orientation in that they generally perceive the state as feindlich. In contrast, activist groups like Extinction Rebellion are critical of the current political system, but want to radically reform it rather than tear it down completely, to make it better suited to creating a more just world. They use civil disobedience because they understand it to be a crucial lever from which to improve the existing democracy that we have. That being said, there are also similarities between ultras and climate activists in that they both share the desire for a radically different society than the one we live in, and they are taking action to try and achieve it. I think academics can learn from these groups. While researchers in the humanities and social sciences make a lot of political critiques in their writing, I see an awful lot of handwringing but not as much effort to take tangible political action. 

When did you realize that you wanted to go into science and what advice would you give your younger self at the beginning of a scientific career?   

Max Jack: This might read as a contradiction after my last answer, but I was personally inspired by political philosophy which taught me to think about how power works, and moreover to strive towards asking basic questions about justice and equality in a world that is often unequal and unmeritocratic—at least in my opinion. My home disciplines of ethnomusicology and cultural anthropology have quite political overtones, as you might be able to tell from my answers so far. What I’m trying to say is that research in these fields has had a tangible and real-world impact on me. After reading the ideas of other exciting thinkers, I felt empowered to try to navigate the “real world” in a more ethical way, with a concern for doing-no-harm to others and trying to take steps to improve the society that I am a part of. Of course, this ideal is something that is always under construction—it’s an ongoing process of reflexivity and self-improvement. Science allows me to investigate these fundamental social questions, to try in some small way to have a positive impact on readers—to change how they see the world and inspire them to identify inequity so they can navigate society in as moral of a way as possible.  

You will soon be leaving the institute to start a new job as a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Department of Folklore and Ethnomusicology at Indiana University. What will you take with you from your time at the Institute?   

Max Jack: I loved the connections I had with my colleagues here who were dedicated to exploring similar questions. I also got the opportunity to collaborate on projects and themes that we found mutually exciting, so those relationships are crucial for me. There is a lot of solidarity in working with like-minded scholars, so coming to work every day was generally a very fulfilling experience. Every job has pros and cons, but being here was basically my dream job. I feel like I’ve gotten to play Major League Baseball working here, but in an academic context of course. I’ve probably revealed myself as a North American by ending with a baseball metaphor! 

Max Jack, "Insurgent fandom: An ethnography of crowds and unruly sounds", (2024), pp. 223.

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