The turnout was impressive, the audience engaged and responsive, and the questions important and intelligent. I really had a blast exchanging ideas with this wonderful community.
And, they taped it, so I can share it with you as well. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think.
(FYI: My friend, Oberlin’s Associate Men’s Basketball Coach Tim McCrory does a short funny intro first, then I go for about 35 minutes, followed by the QA).
I really enjoyed trying to create a quasi-documentary experience for the audience (ever experimenting to try to improve my lecturing technique). And I learned a lot preparing for it, and thinking about the differences, and some surprising similarities, between the issues facing a DI FBS school like Michigan and those facing a DIII school like Oberlin.
Image from NCAA.org, explaining the difference between Division I and Division III.
It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.” Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation. And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.
“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.
Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).
Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”
In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”
Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.
Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.
Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.” Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.
As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.
When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”
In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.
Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”
In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.
Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.
[. . .]
Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.
Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.
Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.
In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.
Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”
This morning, pioneering basketball writer Bethlehem Shoals (a friend and a strong influence on my own thinking about the game to whom I owe a great debt), voiced first bafflement about what he took to be the central position of Silverman’s essay:
Don’t understand the “Steph Curry as pinnacle of rational basketball” backlash. He’s magical. Face, meet nose!
Shoals did not direct these comments at me personally, but I nonetheless, justifiably or not, felt interpellated by them; particularly having been one of Silverman’s sources for the view that Curry, to use my own words as quoted in the essay, “embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” And, thus interpellated and, frankly, hurt, I feel compelled to respond to what I feel is a mischaracterization both of my views (and of Silverman’s own position—but I’ll let him speak for himself) in the essay.
Shoals’ analogy characterizes the position as “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” and then compares that to “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition.” Though colorful and clever, I feel this analogy mischaracterizations the positions that I (and Silverman) expressed in the essay.
First, it’s not clear what Shoals means by “going at” but I wouldn’t say that either Silverman or myself went at Curry. Silverman did accurately quote me as saying that I found Curry’s play “predictable” (which I do) and Shoals is right if he surmises that this is for me a mark against Curry. But it hardly seems to me to constitute “going at,” particularly when in the very same sentence I said that “I marvel at his ability” (and Silverman too devoted considerable space and lexical imagination to evoking Curry’s wondrous play).
Second, Shoals analogy conflates this “going at [X] as the face of [Y]” with “blaming [X] for [Y]. Blaming involves an attribution of causality and therefore the analogy implies that those who “going at Curry as the face of analytics-driven ball” believe he has caused “analytics-driven ball” (just as “blaming Jesus for the Inquisition” would be assert that Jesus somehow was a, or the, cause of the Inquisition). I never said that (nor did Silverman) and I don’t believe it (and I don’t think Silverman does).
Third, the analogy implies that “analytics-driven ball” is equivalent to “the Inquisition.” That may or may not be the case in Shoals’ eyes, but it is not the case in mine, and not only because of the obvious differences in scale and magnitude, which I’m sure Shoals did not mean by his analogy to gloss over. It’s not the case in my eyes because while the Inquisition is unequivocally bad in my eyes, basketball analytics is not. I don’t think analytics is bad for basketball in the way that I think the Inquisition was bad for, well, humanity.
So let me try, once more, to clarify what I actually believe (and believe I actually said in Silverman’s piece or elsewhere).
First, I marvel at Curry’s ability. I’m saying this because nobody who references anything I’ve ever written or said in interviews about Curry (or the Warriors) seems to notice. One more time: I marvel at Curry’s ability.
Second, I find Curry’s play predictable. Others may not and that is fine. I do. I can’t help that I am not surprised by what he does. While this diminishes my desire to watch him it does not prevent me from—as I said—marveling at his abilities.
Third, “Curry embodies what I see as a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.” This voices my concern about Steph embodying what I would characterize as a cultural phenomenon. Apparently, I have not been clear. And I need to spell out what I mean by this more carefully so that it will not be mistaken or caricatured. To “embody” something is very different than “causing it” (I’m gonna trust y’all to look that up on your own if you’re not convinced). Moreover, the problematic cultural phenomenon I feel Curry “embodies” is not “basketball-analytics” per se, but rather “a fetish—in and out of basketball—with efficiency.”
Are those two things—”basketball analytics” and a “fetish with efficiency”—related? Sure. Are they the same thing? No. Is one responsible for the other? No. It’s not that simple. Yes, basketball analytics is responsible for devising statistical tools for measuring efficiency in basketball play and for producing arguments that may be used to support the claim that efficient basketball is the best basketball. And yes, I believe the persuasiveness of this argument has led to an increased emphasis in the discourse around the game on “efficiency” an emphasis I would still characterize as a “fetish,” by which I mean an over-prioritization.
I don’t actually think that basketball analytics, understood specifically as a way of using quantitative reasoning to investigate questions about basketball play, is bad for basketball. On the contrary, I think it’s good. I think what’s bad for basketball (or bad for me anyway) is when any one way of approaching and understanding the game comes to be seen as the only, or the best, way of approaching and understanding the game. And I do fear, and I acknowledge I may be wrong, that this may be happening today. It’s up to all of us to prevent that from happening.
But I do not believe, nor have I said, that Steph Curry or basketball analytics are either equivalent to or the cause of this fetish of efficiency. I think the cause is much simpler: capitalism.
When I say that Curry embodies this fetish, I mean that his success and likable persona can be taken as a demonstration of the superiority and desirability of a narrow emphasis on efficiency.
Read with care, please, so as to be sure you understand what this does not mean:
It does not mean that this is Curry’s fault or his responsibility to prevent.
It does not mean that Curry is the only player (or the Warriors the only team) that could be said to embody this fetish. I don’t think that. I only think that because of their extraordinary success they can serve as a more persuasive example.
It does not mean that Curry’s play (or Curry himself as a cultural figure) can only mean that. That is obviously false, as I have written about elsewhere by now ad nauseum. “Curry” means, among many other things: talent, hard work, Christian faith, accessibility, family, fatherhood, creativity, daring, confidence, overachievement, youth.
It can be difficult, as Shoals knows better than I, to sustain thoughtful, informed, sensitive, and intelligent discourse about basketball in the sports media sphere. Long standing attitudes among fans, economic pressures, and the forms of social media themselves often seem to demand and to reward facile oversimplifications and polarizing dichotomies so long as they are cleverly phrased.
For those of us (I take the liberty of including both Shoals and Silverman) in this, who love the sport as a complex form of athletic ability, cultural expression, embodied thought, aesthetic experience and social condensor, it seems especially vital to take care that our public contributions to discourse about the game are adequate to its depth and complexity.
Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome. Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.
Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events. Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.
The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this. We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust. But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.
Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)
And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106). The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).
Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.
Two aspects of this strike me as interesting. The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures. That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat. Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.
I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest. In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.
Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West. But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).
Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).
To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title. Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”
Olympia around 325 BCE
Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.
[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]
Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96). And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).
It’s all about the W.
I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture. I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics. But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight. However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.
The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune. As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98). There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.
“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.” He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous. Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.
This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.
Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)
To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99). Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation. It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.
But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary. Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years. But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic. What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.
I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”
Having arrived at definitions of “beauty” and “praise,” Hans Gumbrecht moves in the final section of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty to the question to the task of defining athletic performance. He wants to know whether “the specific form of athletic performance”—whatever that might turn out to be in his definition—produces “a specific form of aesthetic effect.” To get there he moves through a number of steps, some complex, some dubious, some really illuminating, that I’m going to track here. Along the way, he’ll introduce several important concepts: “presence,” “agon (competition),” “arete (striving for excellence),” “tragedy,” and “transfiguration.”
The first move is to shift is actually to redefine the task of definition itself from “thinking about sports as a set of phenomena that are all rooted in a common denominator” to imagining “sports as a network of practices related through” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” in which “item A shares some features with item B, and item B shares some features with item C” so that “even though A and C may have no features in common, their shared resemblance to B keeps them all in the family” (p. 58-59). Gumbrecht hopes this more flexible approach will be more productive and encompassing and allow readers to focus on the relations connecting ostensibly very different kinds of athletic performance. I support this move, and think it inventive and useful, though I wondered whether it would be useful to consider how we determine which features we use to establish the resemblances and whether or not some features should have more weight than others. But I don’t finally think that doing so would undermine the value of the basic procedure.
The next criteria for his definition is that it should do “justice to the aesthetic appeal” of sports from the spectator’s perspective. To get at this, Gumbrecht first explores the meanings of “performance,” since “spectators in a stadium experience sports as a performance,” albeit one that differs from other kinds of performances like ballet, opera, or symphony. Here, Gumbrecht’s animus for much contemporary work in cultural studies rears up again, calling most intellectual accounts of performance “incoherent, to say the least” (p. 60) Not sure what he’s thinking of here, since he doesn’t cite anyone, and I imagine he’s probably wrong. But it’s the kind of wrong that gets him somewhere interesting after all when he jumps away from “performance” per se and lands on “presence” as a “possible opening or approach to the problem [of how] to define athletics in such a way as to take into account its aesthetic attraction.
He begins by noting that “presence” derives from the Latin prae-esse meaning “to be in front of” in order to emphasize that presence, for him, involves “immediate sensual perceptions” and, in that sense, “always binds to time and place” (p. 62). He elaborates this by going on to describe presence as a “dimension” (I think he means something like a facet of or a perspective on something) that can be contrasted to something he calls “the meaning” dimension. He then describes this contrast along seven categories, an exercise I think might be easiest to grasp in the form of a table.
This is quite condensed, I know, and does not really illuminate (or do justice to) Gumbrecht’s full exposition of the contrasts. But he does provide the following, summary paragraph to try to get at the importance for him of the analysis:
Counter to many academic (and highly incompetent) ‘readings’ of sports, athletic competitions do not express anything and therefore do not offer anything to read. They fascinate us with bodies ‘that matter’ (a useful pun invented by the philosopher Judith Butler), bodies that adapt themselves to multiple forms and functions. By interpreting these bodily forms and functions and transforming them into meanings, we run the risk of reducing, if not destroying, the unique pleasure we take in athletic events. (pp. 68-69)
As before, though I suppose there may be something, in a theoretical sense, to Gumbrecht’s perception of the perils involved in the meaning dimension, I also think he throws the baby out with the bathwater. I’m not sure (because, again, he offers no citations) what sort of incompetent academic readings he has in mind. Its probably the most persistently perplexing aspect of this book so far, Gumbrecht’s complaints about scholarship in sports studies. I’ll just stick to saying that I see no reason why a single account of an athletic performance cannot both “praise” (in the sense he already established of gratefully laying bare the complexity of forms involved and relating them to function and effect) and “interpret.”
In any event, Gumbrecht proposes “that we may call any human body movement a performance as long as we see it, predominantly at least, in the presence dimension” but quickly recognizes that “performance and athletics are not coextensive”: not every performance is an athletic performance. So what makes sports performances unique and distinguishable among all performances? Gumbrecht’s finds the answer in two ancient Greek concepts: “agon” (competition) and “arete” (striving for excellence).
He elaborates his conception of agon by describing it as the “domestication of potentially violent fights and tensions through institutional frames of stable rules” whereas arete by contrast “means striving for excellence with the consequence (rather than the goal) of taking some type of performance to its individual or collective limits” (p. 70). He argues that the latter is the dominant component of athletic performance, first, by reasoning that you can have arete without agon but not the other way around and second, to try to avoid making the praise of athletic beauty about praising competition rather than excellence, which, he fears “would confirm a vision of sports that has given them a bad reputation among so many intellectuals” (again, who is he reading that’s provoked such a powerful combination of fear and loathing?).
Once more, I simply see no reason to choose between them. In some performances, one may predominate over the other, certainly. But I see nothing intrinsic to athletic performance that should require the assertion of a definitive preference. On the contrary, I would say that part of my fascination in sports is the complex intertwining of these two dimension in athletic performance. Agon facilitates arete and vice-versa, without either one subsuming the other, as in this example, which I borrow from one of my students:
Either way, both agon and arete are pursued by athletes within formal constraints (rules) and informal conventions (fair play) that spur their effort and ingenuity and generate uncertainty and risk, which, in turn give rise—and here I think Gumbrecht does a great job—to moments that we may experience as dramatic, epic, tragic, or heroic (he uses these terms pretty much interchangeably here) (p. 77). What I like about the argument here is that the beauty of athletic performance can be found as easily in loss as in victory, something I’ve always found important to assert against the more commonplace emphasis on victory alone as the measure of athletic greatness. But displacing the partisan centrality on victorious outcomes is not the same, I repeat, as displacing the importance of competition to the beauty of athletic performance.
Gumbrecht himself, oddly, seems tacitly to acknowledge this when he expounds upon what he means by drama. He redescribed drama in terms of “transfiguration of great athletes within our immediate perception, and later, our memory.” Transfiguration involves, he says, a removal from one’s original place (side note: it would be interesting to think this through with the concepts of metaphor and translation, both of which, in different ways, involve such movements). Like Jesus or Elijah, then, he says, “athletic competition [my emphasis] can transfigure bodies and their movements, making them shine in the particular light of triumphant victory or tragic defeat. Rather than assigning [again, why the dichotomy?] assigning specific meanings to bodies and their movements, victory or defeat gives them something like what the Christian tradition used to call a halo—and what today we might call an aura” (p. 78) Instead of auras or halos, though, we recognize the transfigured athlete, or rather perhaps constitute the athlete’s transfiguration, by way of what he calls “the gesture”: “a specific, concise movement, a critical moment in a dramatic narrative” that makes “the pathos associated with these dramatic moments more visible and more memorable” (p. 79). Gumbrecht concludes with a series of personal memories of such gestures, all of which, tellingly, come in defeat, an experience, of course, that would be impossible without agon and insignificant, perhaps, without the arete that was exhibited in the course of competition.
What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect. How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?
Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances. Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.
Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude
This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics. For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans. But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).
Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task. John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life. And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience. That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.
To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game. That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).
Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization. This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation). Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).
Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.” It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).
Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44). It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it. You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors. And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).
Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.” The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us. Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.” Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”
If this is sublime…
Maybe or maybe not. But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports. We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime. And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,”Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.
But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48). And in this I believe he succeeds. But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.
Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford. She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff. Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).
“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).
“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52). Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).
That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly. But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:
“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”
But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.
Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport. Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected. There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.” But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).
I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.” But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember. So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55). He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).
With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion. Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students: can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)? What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics. As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.
To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.” But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.” But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.
In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:
“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: