“Praise” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty)

“Why,” Hans Gumbrecht begins by asking, “should sportslovers learn how to praise athletes and their achievements?”  His meditation upon and response to this question occupies the first of the three subsections of the “Definitions’ chapter of Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic  Beauty.  Gumbrecht quickly notes that the question invites two different paths of investigation: 1) Is there a need to praise athletes (as opposed to simply enjoying watching what they can do)? and 2) (presuming there is a need) why does it seem so difficult to use the right words and, above all, to hit the right tone.  Gumbrecht begins with the latter question and so will I.

Why, then, does it seem so difficult to use the right words, and above all, to the right tone? For readers wondering about the presumption that it is so difficult, Gumbrecht acknowledges that “some good and often enthusiastic writing can be found in the sports sections of newspapers every day” and, moreover, that at least in the United States, there are cases of fiction writers who portray sports, either in essays or in their fiction, as well as journalists who have gone on to enjoy literary recognition (like Red Smith).  But those really aren’t the domains that concern Gumbrecht.  He’s interested in “global academia” which he characterizes as a “wilderness” in both Europe and the United States when it comes to writing about sports (p. 21).

This is the point in Gumbrecht’s argument in this book where I find my engagement to be most fraught.  But before getting too caught up in that, I think it’s important for me (and other readers who are also academics with an interest in sports) to be clear about just what Gumbrecht means.  Referring to the the Greek poet Pindar’s Ode on Theron of Acragas, Victor in the Chariot Race, Gumbrecht describes a “determination to see and to value athletic beauty as an embodiment of a culture’s highest values” (p. 24).  This, he says, is what he means by “praise,” and this is what he believes “we have lost—to the point where the very idea can seem embarrassing to us” (I gather from the context that the “we” is intellectuals, especially those in academia).

Instead, when Gumbrecht surveys academic writing about sports he finds they “belittle and sometimes flatly denounce what famous athletes are all about” and that they “interpret sports as a symptom of highly undesirable tendencies” (pp. 24-25).  Some, he claim, “denounce sports as a biopolitical conspiracy that emerges form the delegation of state power to self-reflexive micropowers” while others interpret the popularity of sports as a “sign of decadence or at least alienation from a supposed but never clearly defined athletic “authenticity.”  Finally, he concludes, “even those historians and social scientists who manage to contain this aggressive tone rarely fail to identify sports as fulfulling nothing but a subordinate function with a larger or more powerful system.”  (Here, his lone examples are Norbert Elias and Pierre Bourdieu).

Now before expressing my reservations, I think it’s worth understanding the causes to which Gumbrecht attributes this what he think he’s seeing out there.  First is that athletics is no longer, in his view, a canonized, high-culture phenomenon (as it was in Ancient Greece). A second, and in his view more convincing, source is that intellectuals since the Enlightenment feel an obligation to be critical. But the third and most powerful problem we intellectuals have with sports (according to Gumbrecht, remember) is “the tradition of Western metaphysics, and the related obsession of modern Western culture to look ‘beyond’ what it considers to be the merely material (or merely corporeal) aspects of our existence.”  This, he argues, leads us to write about corporeal matters as though their importance must needs lie elsewhere than in their material existence.  Gumbrecht:

Forms produced by body movements and the presence of these bodies, an authoritative voice seems to interject, simply cannot be important enough to care about, much less write about.  We desperately want athletes’ bodies to be . . . the signifiers of something spiritual, or at least psychological or mental, or . . . sociopolitical (p. 30).

Maybe.  There is something here I find appealing, as I will say in a moment.  But first I must say that I find this sweeping description of academic sports studies inaccurate and a bit harmful.  For those unfamiliar with the work done by academics from many different disciplines on the world of sports would be gravely misled if they accepted Gumbrecht’s account as accurate.  Gumbrecht is correct that the field of sports studies was pioneered as a social critique of sports in society, and that analyses of various ways that social injustice and sporting world are interconnected and sometimes mutually reinforcing remain common.   But he is ignoring the work of many, many authors who, though they may also carry out such critical analyses, are also mindful of the emancipatory power (if not always the beauty) of athletic performance.  Here’s a reading list of such academic authors off the top of my head: Ben Carrington, David Andrews, Grant Farred, Lucia Trimbur, Orin Starn, Theresa Rundstedler, David Leonard, Amy Bass, Aram Goudsouzian, Todd Boyd, Jeffrey Lane, Randolph Feezell, Alejandro Meter (and I’m sure there are many, many more I’ve left off the list).

(I might add that the critical disposition Gumbrecht sees everywhere in sports studies is by no means unique to sports studies in my opinion.  I myself turned away from literary studies in part because I felt a bit isolated as someone who preferred to use my work to try to understand and explain how the works I loved worked, “under the hood” as it were, rather than to expose the ways in which they were complicit with this or that form of social injustice.  But that’s another story.)

Now, that said, I do share Gumbrecht’s feeling that praise is not the primary mode of academic writing about sports and that we have yet to really develop a practice of, or vocabulary for, what he calls praise.  We may, as intellectuals, in our haste to deploy powerful interpretive methods that can pierce pious popular myths about the sanctity and purity of the sporting arena (and which thereby unwittingly serve to support inequities in sport and society), lose sight of the fact that in addition to all the dark things we might say about sports and society, sports is also a creative arena generative of moments of great beauty.  And I do think that we would understand sporting performances and the culture that grows around them better if we could learn to balance our contextual interpretations with something like what we literary scholars used to call “close readings” of athletic performance.  That after all, is why I’m teaching this course and interested in this book.

Gumbrecht offers, toward the end of the chapter, a couple of general guideposts for the practice he is calling for.  First, he says he will “try to keep my eyes and my mind focused on athletes’ bodies, instead of abandoning the topic of sports by ‘reading’ these phenomena as a ‘function’ or as an ‘expression’ of something else” and he acknowledges that there is something to be learned from in this regard from “unheralded everyday sportswriting” (p. 31)  I heartily agree.  For example, the work of the FreeDarko collective on basketball styles has been instrumental in shaping my own academic study of basketball.  The second guideline Gumbrecht adapts from “the best critical appreciations of the visual arts, literature, and music.”  Drawing on these he wishes to “lay open how complex on many different layers individual works are and how their function and effect depends on such complexity” (pp. 35-36).

And here is where Gumbrecht really stirs me, when he sums up his own project:

This will exactly be my approach to praising the different types of sports that we enjoy watching. It will oblige me to stay focused on forms of athletic beauty in all their complexity, instead of giving in to the metaphysical urge to interpret them. . . (p. 36).

(Of course, as I say, I’m not sure why the two approaches (laying open and praising the complex beauty of athletic forms and interpreting sporting performances, events, and figures in social and cultural and philosophical terms) should be placed at odds. But that’s okay.  That can be Gumbrecht’s problem to wrestle with.  I’m happy to try to follow him and develop my ability to praise athletic beauty.  Especially since, for me (as for Gumbrecht) the impulse arises out of gratitude for the countless athletic perfomances I have witness in my lifetime whose beauty have moved and enthralled me, made me feel more alive and more present to my own capacity to make beauty in the world.

Here’s the classroom white board from our discussion of this section in my course, Writing the Sporting Body:

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