“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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Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty

Once again I’m teaching Writing the Sporting Body and once again the core text for the course is Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty.  I’ve made reference to this work in some other writing on here.  But it’s a dense book, one that I consider in equal measures important and limited.  And so I’d like to use the occasion of teaching it and this space to work through some thoughts and develop my understanding of it.

For today, I’d like to just work out a kind of overview of the text by summarizing what seem to be aims and giving you an outline of its structure.  After that, I just plan to offer my readings, which is to say my understanding, interpretation, and questions concerning, the different sections of the book, in order, over the course of a number of posts.

The Book and Its Author

The book actually first appeared in a German-language edition under the title Lob des Sports in 20015.  An English edition appeared in 2006, published by Harvard University Press.  I haven’t seen the German and so I can’t speak to whether the English is a translation or substantially different book.

As for the author, Gumbrecht is a German-born (1948) Professor of Comparative Literature at Stanford University.  In this capacity, he writes about national literatures in the Romance Languages and about European philosophy, especially French and German and especially of the 19th century.  I’m not familiar with most of Gumbrecht’s work, but what I have encountered has been very impressive to me for its erudition, its breadth and scope, the quality of its writing, and the focused attention on the relationship between everyday experience and cultural artifacts and events.  His book on sports seems primarily to grow out of his experience as sports fan, an experience that is informed by his familiarity with European philosophies of art and aesthetic experience.

What is the book about?

If you look at the book jacket, it will tell you that Gumbrecht’s book proposes “a powerful and provocative” argument that “the fascination with watching sports is probably the most popular and potent contemporary form of aesthetic experience.”  Where we fans might simply call certain athletic moves or plays “beautiful,” Gumbrecht’s book is supposed to provide “the means to explore, understand, and enjoy even more acutely the untamed aesthetic experience that our words-in-passing barely suggest.” I’m not certain who wrote this prose. But my own experience with academic publishing leads me to guess that Gumbrecht himself at least provided its main lines.

(I haven’t decided yet, but it may also be important that the blurbs for the book come from Walt Harris [at the time Stanford’s football coach], Myles Brand [then President of the NCAA], and Diana Nyad [marathon swimmer and journalist].)

How is the book structured?

The book has four main parts, preceded by a short introduction.  In outline form, it looks like this:

  1. Everyfan
  2. Definitions (theoretical reflections on the key terms involved)
    1. Praise
    2. Beauty
    3. Athletics
  3. Discontinuities (capsule histories of key periods in the history of Western sports, from classical antiquity to the present)
    1. Demigods
    2. Gladiators
    3. Knights
    4. Ruffians
    5. Sportsmen
    6. Olympians
    7. Customers
  4. Fascinations (descriptions, illuminated by examples, of some of what he believes we are drawn to in sports)
    1. Bodies
    2. Suffering
    3. Grace
    4. Tools
    5. Forms
    6. Plays
    7. Timing
  5. Gratitude (a kind of existential meditation on some of the deeper life issues that the aesthetic experience of sports can lead us to encounter)
    1. Watching
    2. Waste

I’ve organized the first seven weeks of my course around sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 (omitting “Discontinuities” from the syllabus because we’ll be getting our history in other forms). But I’m interested in the book for reasons that go beyond this course.  So here I’m planning to share my experience of reading through all twenty sections of text, section by section,  in however polished or rough a form my notes, reflections and questions may appear.  I hope it will be of some use to some readers and, as always, I welcome responses and dialogue.

Why (and how to) Read CLR James on Cricket

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What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

Over the past month or so, I’ve been reviewing my plans for Global Sports Culture, a course  I’ll be teaching for just the second time this fall. I knew there were some things I wanted to improve upon based on my first go round and so some changes I needed to make to the content and structure.  I’ve done a lot of that work, including create an interactive concept map which I’m going to share here once I’ve finalized it.

But for all the changes I’ve made (and there are many), one thing I knew early on that I wouldn’t change was the reading assignment for the first week’s lecture, in which I introduce students to the challenges, opportunities, and methods for studying global sports cultures. That’s a week where I want to entice a couple of hundred adolescent sports fans at a Big Ten university that reflecting upon their passion and the cultural objects that incite it can be a valuable thing: not only edifying, but pleasurable in its own right, and even, enhancing of the enjoyment they currently take in sports.  To aid me in this task I have recruited two different, short readings, both of which elegantly—though with different kinds of elegance—make the case for keeping our thinking brains working even as we let our feeling brains run riot in our encounters with sporting cultures.

Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art

In their superb introduction to Blackwell’s A Companion to Sport, a comprehensive volume the two also edited, Ben Carrington and David Andrews—two of the most prolific and well-regarded sports studies scholars writing today—explain how the study of sports can move us past unhelpful dichotomous approaches to sport that either unsubtly trash it as a kind of opiate excess or naively adore it as a repository of proper values.  Instead, Carrington and Andrews encourage students of sports culture to think about sport

as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed in relation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of the participants.

This is sport, in their words, as escape, struggle, and art.  We are to see not one or the other, but all three functions at once served in some way or another, though probably in different proportions, in every sporting event.  And, moreover, we are to see that sport’s ability to fulfill these three functions is constrained by the very condition that allows it to serve these functions: namely, that sport is a swatch in the social fabric.

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In this, Carrington and Andrews draw their inspiration from C. L. R. James who thought about sport, they write

as an activity that is simultaneously a space to which we escape for fun, relaxation, and enjoyment, a space charged with social significance and political possibilities for expressing who we are as individuals and the larger communities to which we belong, and as an embodied art form, a physically creative and aesthetic mode of being human, a world replete with all the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and joy, that resides within human society.

James, therefore, provides the second reading with which I begin my course.

For those unfamiliar with him, Cyril Lionel Robert James was, to put it simply, one of the most awe-inspiring cultural and political figures of the twentieth century. Novelist, playwright, philosopher, literary critic, historian, teacher, activist, journalist, cricketer and sports fan, James, who was born in 1901 in a small village in then-colonial Trinidad, lived, traveled and worked in Latin America, the United States, Africa, and England (where he died, in London, in 1989).  James is probably best known for The Black Jacobins, a definitive history of the Haitian revolution.  My personal favorite, for the record, is Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In.  James presents Moby Dick as a prescient portrayal of the industrial and imperial might American would come to acquire in the century after the novel’s publication.  James wrote the book in the United States, while interned on Ellis Island as McCarthy’s HUAC investigated the activist work he’d done in Detroit. James believed the book would reassure his persecutors of his love for what he called “American Civilization.” It didn’t work.

Yet Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, like all his writing, is imbued with extraordinary erudition, a breathtaking capacity to grasp as ambiguity not as an impediment to commitment, but as its precondition, and by an elegant style balanced by a teacher and activist’s commitment to clarity.  All this is in full force in Beyond a Boundary (1963), the work that inspired Carrington and Andrews (and before them several pioneering generations of students of sport and society).  Beyond a Boundary deftly mixes autobiographical recollection, historical analysis of West Indian decolonization, and reflection on the moral, aesthetic, cultural and political dimensions of West Indian cricket (here, by the way, is a documentary that was made of Beyond a Boundary in the late 70s).

Even this brief description probably explains how Beyond a Boundary complements Carrington and Andrews in helping get students to think about sports.  Because of time constraints, however, I can’t assign the entire work.  Instead, I ask them to read Chapter 1, called “The Window,” and the Preface.  Here I just want to share with you my way of reading the Preface, which is extremely brief and yet somehow, remarkably, already expresses in a kind of holographic magic, the whole of Beyond a Boundary and, for that matter, the whole of my course. In fact, it’s so brief that I can show it to you right here.

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Questioning

Now let me show you what we might make of it in class.  The first thing I notice is that James begins by telling us what this book is not: neither “cricket reminiscences nor autobiography.” This might seem curious since the book clearly includes both, and in great detail. So we have a puzzle right from the start: how do we make sense of this? James helps somewhat in the very next sentence, when he tells us what the book is, or rather—significantly—when he tells us what it is by telling us what it does: the book, he says, “poses the question [emphasized by italics] what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”  The question, through its repetition of the terms, requires us to think about the relationship between cricket and knowing (which is to say, for my students, between sports and study).

Imagine that you are sitting with an alien from outer space during a Michigan football game on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn.  The alien has asked you to explain what you are witnessing together. How you choose to answer says a lot about what you know about football but also about what you think is important to know about football.  Would you identify the teams and the players?  Would you talk about where the players come from and how they came to be here? Would you mention that most of them are black? Would you talk about the individual fundamental skills and techniques they are exhibiting? The strategies and tactics employed by coaching staffs and players? The rules? The violence? The behavior of the fans? The history of the stadium? The relationship between what is happening on the field and the mission of the educational institution to which it is attached? The economic aspects?

If you imagine a sport (like cricket or football) as a country with a border clearly separating it from another country, then you might imagine that the best way to know that country would be to ignore everything on the other side of the border.  But James implies with his rhetorical question that to know that country you have to know what is not that country, what is on other side of the border.  But sports and countries aren’t the only things with borders.  Books and genres have them too, or at least we are used to thinking of them that way:  “cricket reminiscences” is a country, clearly separated from another country called “autobiography.”  So now, perhaps, we can see that with his opening line, James is rejecting those confining categories of thought.

Borders and boundaries.  Notice the title of James’s book: Beyond a Boundary.  In cricket, the word “boundary” refers to two things: 1) the edge of the playing field (like the homerun wall in baseball if it encircled the entire diamond and not just the 90 degree slice extending out from home plate); 2) a run scoring play in which the batsman hits the ball over the boundary (like a home run).  But, considering the emphasis James has already placed on crossing boundaries, the title itself echoes and expresses the central lesson: to know—not just cricket, not just sport, but anything—is to cross boundaries, which is to say, to travel (an image the importance of which James will emphasize momentarily).

It’s striking too that James presents this point as a question rather than simply stating: “those who only know cricket don’t really know cricket.” It’s striking, I mean that a proposition about knowledge and its limits should be posed in the form of a question.  For questions, as forms of discourse, are invitations to come to know, to do the traveling required to get to know.  In this sense, James seems to avoid the trap of illusory certainty.

However, the question is also a rhetorical question in two ways.  First, in the usual sense in which the question isn’t really or only a question but also a way of offering the answer: in this case, “nothing.”  But the question is rhetorical in another sense.   On one side we have “know-cricket” and on the other side we have “cricket-know.”  This structure actually has a name: chiasmus (pronounced “Kye-as-muss”).  It is named after the Greek letter chi (which looks like our “x”) because of the criss-cross pattern of the word repetition.
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The symmetry of chiasmus offers a feeling of closure and a sense of completeness that can lead the listener or reader to feel that all aspects of an issue have been accounted for. This is part of what makes chiasmus effective as a figure of speech.  But if the chiasmus work partly because of the impression of completeness and the confidence it can impart to a listener or reader, what happens when a chiasmus takes the form of a question (as it does here)? And a question that challenges the assumptions we might have about the completeness of knowledge?

James’ ironical, rhetorical question doesn’t hold still while we pin one meaning, one answer to it. Just when we try to frame an answer, some solid ground we could stand on, protected by firm boundaries separating us from ignorance, it shifts. James seems simultaneously to be challenging the claims of knowledge that base themselves on the fixity of categorical boundaries and to be trying to inoculate that challenge against itself falling prey to the same trap.

James has very assertively set down a challenge regarding what it means to know a sport.  That’s an excellent way for us to begin a semester in which we too are studying sports.  So let me pause to go into greater detail here on this question of knowledge.

Knowing

James brings up knowledge twice in the Preface.  First, in the rhetorical question we just looked at, then again in the final sentence:  “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Though brief, this is a tricky, but very important, sentence.  In part, it’s tricky (at least for most of my students) because of the references to Caliban and Caesar and then doubly so because the references are employed metaphorically. So let’s just see who they were to begin with, then we can look at how they work as metaphors, and then finally we can tackle what it means that Caliban must go into regions unknown to Caesar.

Caliban is a character in the play “The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare.  The play is set on a tropical island, where a European nobleman named Prospero has set himself as a ruler over the island’s native inhabitants, including Caliban, whom Shakespeare portrays as a kind of animal.  For example, in one scene, Prospero berates Caliban for ingratitude, reminding him that he didn’t even know how to speak until Prospero arrived and taught him.  Caliban’s sharp retort to this is that he wished he had never learned to speak, since the only good it has done him is that now he can curse Prospero for occupying his island and enslaving him.  Though “The Tempest” is not set on any actually identifiable island, Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when Europeans like himself were becoming familiar with reports from the English, Spanish and Portuguese men who explored and colonized the Americas, including the tropical islands of the Caribbean that we know today as the West Indies.  Some of these included descriptions of native inhabitants as barbaric and uncivilized cannibals.  Some scholars believe that the character of Caliban (whose name is almost an anagram of the word cannibal) is loosely based on these descriptions and that the play represents the European colonization of the West Indies.

Around the time that James was writing “The Window” numerous artists, intellectuals, and political leaders in the Caribbean who were dissatisfied with the effects of colonial rule on their native lands had seized on this idea and began to use Caliban as a symbol for themselves and their people.  Just as Caliban cursed Prospero in the language the latter had taught him, so these individuals claimed that the Caribbean people would have to dismantle the effects of colonialism by using the tools—meaning the language, ideas, and social institutions—imposed on them or their ancestors by their colonizers.  This process of dismantling the political, economic, cultural and psychological structures of colonialism is called “decolonization.”  And decolonization, in a word, is the metaphorical meaning of Caliban as James here employs the name in his Preface.

Caesar you may be somewhat more familiar with, perhaps by the name Julius Caesar. He was a Roman statesman and military leader who amassed popular power at home and expanded the territory under Roman control all the way to what is today England and Germany as a means of transforming the democratic Roman republic into the dictatorial Roman Empire.  As he did with the fictional character of Caliban, James is using the historical figure of Caesar as a metaphor: in this case, a metaphor for imperial rulers.  Through these metaphors, though Caliban is a fictional character created fifteen centuries after the death of Julius Caesar, James creates an image of a relationship between colonized (Caliban) and colonizer (Caesar).

Now, as I mentioned above, the “regions Caesar never knew” are metaphorical as well.  James isn’t necessarily talking about literal exploration of unknown territories.  We can tell from the context (the sentence immediately before this describes, autobiographically, the process by which certain ideas James first encountered as a boy in the West Indies could only be tracked down and tested when he’d gone to England) that these regions probably refer to regions of thought.  So the metaphor “regions Caesar never knew” means something like “thoughts or ideas that colonizers and imperial powers never knew.”  Caliban meanwhile, who is the colonized, will have to “pioneer” those regions, that is, to go beyond his colonizing rulers in order to discover these “regions” of thoughts and ideas, these bodies of knowledge, that they never knew.  And he must do this in order, James tells us, “to establish his own identity.”

So knowledge of ideas and the world, according to James, is inseparable from the process by which we come to form ourselves as distinct individuals with unique identities.  This is true for all of us, of course, but James is especially concerned with those, like himself, who grew up as colonized individuals within a colonial empire.  James reminds us that the very structures and dynamics of colonial society establish the ideas, customs, morals, and values of the colonial rulers as natural and superior, while the ideas, customs, morals and values of the natives are seen as strange and inferior.  It follows from this that within such a system the “best” that a native (or colonized) individual could become is something like an adequate copier of the colonizer’s superior way of life.  But in doing so, this individual must distance himself from his own native way of life as well as from the history of his land and his ancestors.  The result is a kind of unbearable duality of experience for such individuals one with serious and documented psychological effects:  among the colonizers he can only ever be a second-rate copycat, while among the natives he is an alien, a poser who has forfeited his native identity for a kind of second-hand foreign one.

When James speaks of Caliban establishing “his own identity” he means an identity that escapes from this lose-lose dichotomy.  Rather than either rejecting or trying to copy wholesale the ideas of the colonizer, Caliban can combine his unique experience and various acquired ideas in order to discover new thoughts and ideas and in this way “pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Of course, we should keep in mind that the fact that Caesar “never knew” these regions doesn’t mean that Caesar never traveled to them. I’m not saying he did.  Just cautioning that given the rhetorical question with which James began, we should beware of conflating different sense of the word “know.”

Part of what makes this passage so powerful, in my opinion, is that in this sentence James (following from the preceding, autobiographical sentence) is using the metaphors to speak of himself and his own experience but in terms that render that experience more general: it becomes the possible experience of every colonized or formerly colonized person.  In this way, it is a kind of battle cry or slogan, meant to inspire others like himself to establish their own identities.

But even so, the other part of what makes this passage powerful, again in my opinion, is that it is built around metaphors drawn from European culture (Caliban and Caesar) and, specifically, from the history of conquest and colonization (including “pioneering” and “regions”).  These metaphors, in that sense, are European tools in two senses:  first because they come from European texts, and second because they are about European conquest and colonization.  You wouldn’t think such metaphors would be very promising raw materials for a sentence describing the process by which a colonized individual can free his or her mind, but James makes them just that.

To know is to travel and to travel, in this world, is always to go where someone else has already been. Whether they know where they have been is another, open question. And what we do in that encounter with the other person is yet another, also open question.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget, all of this begins with an ironic, rhetorically posed challenge to remember that if we only know cricket, then we don’t know cricket.  Is all of this, on knowing, and Caliban and Caesar and traveling all part of the response to that question? Part of its elaboration? Perhaps part of what we need also need to know if we are truly to know cricket is the history of colonization and the process by which native subjects try to free themselves of its influence by using the tools of colonization.  And this is because cricket—like language and Shakespeare and the history of the Roman empire—is one of those tools.  And to see the ways that cricket is more than cricket, or rather that cricket is also a means for political domination and political liberation (which is the subject of James’ book on cricket), is precisely to pioneer into regions Caeser never knew.

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The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent (Basketball) Knowledge

All my life, I have loved ordering my things.  My new Matchbox cars go in one line, and the ones I inherited from my older brothers go in another one, and the ones I found or stole from my friends go in a third.  The beer cans in my collection will be ordered in the shape of a pyramid ranged from most common at the bottom (ordered alphabetically by brand from left to right and bottom to top) to the most rare at the top (with an architecturally-required exemption for 7, 16, 24 and 40 oz cans, which get their own rows).

When I got to graduate school, a more experienced student advised me that success in our profession depended on the ability to make bibliographies. I’m not sure what he meant, but what I heard was: “order your book collection,” which was a snap for me because I’d already started…when I was seven and labeled Follow My Leader “Book # 1” in my own personal library.

At first glance, it’s not so mysterious—this drive to classify and order, especially not in the contexts of childhood and graduate school. For both of these situations involved for me much confusion and little sense of power and therefore, a deep feeling of vulnerability.  Of course I would order my beer cans when I couldn’t order my family or my own feelings! Of course I would create a bibliography to throw a net around the leaping beast of my own growing ignorance snarling and snapping at my heels!

The writer Jorge Luis Borges once made fun of me when he included in a story a Chinese Encyclopedia he made up: the “Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.”  In its “distant pages,” Borges informs us “animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the emperor; (b) embalmed ones; (c) those that are trained; (d) suckling pigs; (e) mermaids; (f) fabulous ones; (g) stray dogs; (h) those that are included in this classification; (i) those that tremble as if they were mad; (j) innumerable ones; (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s-hair brush; (l) etcetera; (m) those that have just broken the flower vase; (n) those that at a distance resemble flies.”

His point, he claimed, was that “there is no classification of the universe that is not arbitrary and speculative.”  Sure. I get it. But that doesn’t really apply to mine.  Or, at least, there are more and less arbitrary and speculative classifications of the universe.  Aren’t there?  I mean, what does his psychotic example (made up after all) have to do with something so naturally reasonably as putting my underwear, undershirts, and socks in one drawer, my shorts and tee shirts in the next one, and my pants and long sleeve shirts in the next one?

Maybe, from a certain somewhat superficial point of view, I’m justified in my indignation. But Borges is working the depths.  The reason that all such taxonomies are “arbitrary and speculative” is a simple one:  “we do not know what the universe is.”  The rug is starting to slip.  Not only do we not know what it is, Borges shockingly continues, but “there is no universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word.”

Oh shit, I think to myself. I thought there was.  Or maybe, I always felt there was.  In fact, I’ve always harbored the feeling, described by Borges’ compatriot, the writer Julio Cortázar, that the universe must “contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”  What is that if not a description of a “universe in the organic, unifying sense of that ambitious word”? Each thing connected to every other thing.

I didn’t encounter this quotation until I was grown, but it echoed and articulated an inchoate feeling I’d had since childhood.  Maybe I couldn’t always discern the connections, but I could console myself with the knowledge that they were there nonetheless, and that if I could discern some then perhaps with enough patience and effort I could discern them all.  And trailing in on the coattails of these consolations came the deeper elemental indispensable comfort that if this is how things are, then, regardless of what I know, I was myself connected.  Regardless of how I felt, I was not alone.

But then there is Borges, who I suspect is right, and this renders my organizing impulse—my taxonomania—not only futile, but absurdly delusional.  If there is no universe (and—to cover all the bases—we don’t know what it is), then what is the point of any of it? Why not just leave my Matchbox cars in a heap on the carpet, a miniature model of some grisly aerial shot on the 11 o’clock news? Why even bother collecting beer cans or books? In fact, why bother reading books at all, let alone going to graduate school? In fact, what is the fucking point of doing anything at all if there is no universe, let alone an orderly one, let alone one whose order I can discover and mimic with my classificatory schemas?

Fortunately, Borges himself helps me stop this runaway train of existential despair.  For he goes on to say that “the impossibility of penetrating the divine scheme of the universe cannot, however, stop us from planning human schemes, even though it is clear that they are provisional.”  And Cortázar adds an encouraging word: “the poet if she cannot connect them by intrinsic features, does what everyone does when looking at the stars: she invents the constellation, the lines linking the solitary stars.”

He seems to be saying that the creative—making—activity of the poet really resides in a way of seeing; a way of imaginatively reconfiguring the relations among existing things to make new patterns (like a constellation).  Which I suppose is what Borges himself was getting at when emphasized the importance of “planning human schemes”; indeed, what Borges himself was doing when he invented the extravagant human scheme of the Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge.  None other than James Naismith himself was under the influence of such a view when he responded to his teacher’s assertion that “All so-called new things are simply recombinations of things that are now existing” by recombining elements of familiar games to invent basketball.

So this helps me see that there is more to my drive to organize and classify than merely the  Quixotic impulse to know and control the universe. I can see that in doing so I’m playing, exercising my imaginative and cognitive faculties in recurrent experimentation; I can see that I’m forging connections, maybe not so different from the ones I try to forge with my body and the ball on the basketball court; I can see that I’m making new and at least personally satisfying, possibly beautiful, patterns out of what the existing world has dealt me.

And so it goes: I have loved the discovery of sets in math, Ven diagrams, sentence diagrams, the great book on the shelf next to the one I was looking for in the stacks at the library, the moment when two friends who don’t know each other meet and hit it off, the perfect combination of passes and cuts and passes leading to an easy score in pick up ball, Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism, kaleidoscopes, and, come to think of it, constellations.

map-constellations-sky

Which brings me back to books, to books about basketball, to my favorite twenty books about basketball. Here they are, in the order, top to bottom, in which I originally presented them.

Screenshot 2015-07-17 13.24.32

There’s so much more to be done with these “solitary stars” than force them into four, hierarchically ordered, groups of five. Sure, it flowed pretty naturally from the subject matter since this way of ranking things, like basketball players (which—oh—are not things), is familiar to me and my readers. And maybe it was even kind of novel or catchy.  But like other conventions of mainstream sports there’s at least as much that obscures (if not offends) as illuminates in such schemas, especially since, as I realized by the end, I didn’t really believe in mine: they were just twenty really important books about basketball and any schema I might plan for deciding which were more important were, well, as Borges might say, “arbitrary and speculative.”

Considering that, it could be fun or instructive or beautiful to connect these books differently. I’d hoped to build something like a dynamic “recommendation engine” (partly because of  that name), but alas such a device is beyond my capabilities. Instead, I resign myself to static pictorial representations of my taxonomies.  How might that look?  I could, for example draw a simple path connecting only those books that either consider basketball philosophically or consider the philosophical aspects of basketball.

Philosophy Path

 

Or a different path connecting those that portray failure (or tragedy):

Failure

We could combine these two paths together (philosophy now in red, failure in yellow).

failure plus philosophy

Already from this simple, arbitrary and speculative exercise you might, as a prospective reader with an interest in basketball, philosophy, and failure or tragedy, deduce that either FreeDarko Presents the Undisputed Guide to Basketball History or Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story by David Wolf would be promising places to begin your reading excursion.  And you’d be right. It really works.

Now, you could do the same with paths of your own liking. Interested in money? I’d probably draw paths through LaFeber’s Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism, Murry Nelson’s The National Basketball League, Lane’s Under the Boards, Wolf’s Foul! The Connie Hawkins Story, Cohen’s The Game They Played, Leonard’s After Artest, and Andrews, Michael Jordan, Inc.. Let’s add those to the last drawing:

failurephilosophymoney

So now, you might go to LaFeber, Cohen, Leonard and Nelson’s books for a combination of money and failure, and you might throw Foul! in to get your philosophical consideration of the intersection of basketball, money, and failure (or tragedy). In addition to valuably denaturalizing the hierarchical way in which I first presented these books (and which seems so reflexive a way of classifying in sports), these kinds of groupings are a narrowing, a filtering process that can be useful if you want to impart some direction and focus to your reading experience.

But of course, speaking for myself what I make and have made of these books depends heavily on other things I’ve read that are not included in these twenty books. That’s another way of saying that my very selection of these twenty books as well as the way in which choose to define the paths I use to connect them to one another is itself the result of still other lines connecting these books (or subsets of them) to other books I haven’t so far included here, only some of which, by the way, having anything explicit to do with basketball. Here’s what a partial representation of this might look like.

hoopsplusoutside

Remember these pathways just represent three, rather broad, categories of similarity: philosophy, failure, and money. And I’ve only added, more or less off the top of my head, fifteen books not on my original list of twenty top basketball books. At this point, the classification process still narrows by selecting just some of the the original set of twenty books, but it also expand by adding a few others to the reading list.  So you might now have a list that includes Kafka, Agassi, and Spinoza alongside, from the original list of my top twenty basketball books, Leonard, Nelson, LaFeber, Wolf, FreeDarko’s history, Melander, Frey, and Cohen.

But finally, books aren’t the only thing, not even when we’re reading.  In fact, books aren’t even the most important thing, even when we’re reading.  For we are always—like it or not and more or less consciously—drawing lines between the book we are reading and something else that is not the book we are reading, and not a book at all.  Obviously this is a probably infinitely complex network of conscious and unconscious associations anchored in words, sounds, memories, fantasies, world events past and present and imagined, films, paintings, photographs, songs, TV shows, affects, sensations, thoughts, ideas, experiences, instances, and other people.

We could start filling in those empty shelves on the bookcase above with scraps of paper on which I might write down some of these non-book entities.  Imagine how vast that network of informing anchor points would be, just for one person.  Now imagine red, green, and yellow lines extending from those anchor points through the books that are not the top twenty basketball books and then converging at the various books in the top twenty.  Now add pathways in new colors to represent things like humor, race, technique, scholars, authors named David, books that are blue, imaginary books, amateur basketball, the early history of the game, gender, the perspectives of players themselves.

Now we have something so vast that I can no longer draw it.

Maybe it would look like this, but moving and enormous.

e82-300x300

 

 

work.4363262.1.flat,550x550,075,f.indras-web-spiders-web-laden-with-dew

18493_fractal

It’s harder to imagine the books and the other nodes and the categories and associations that connect them.  And I know it’s no longer useful as a filter to provide direction to my reading.  But it does do something else for me. For one thing, I simply find the images beautiful.  I also find them a valuable visual reminder of the vast, complex network of life that springs to life every time your or I open a book.

This network may not be the universe, and so I may not find myself securely connected to every other point in the universe, as I might have obscurely desired as a child.  Indeed, there may not be, as Borges speculated, any universe at all. But this is okay because there is something else I’ve discovered in the process.  Borges’ “human schemes,” Cortázar’s “poet” drawing “lines connecting the solitary stars,” and my own less elegant attempts to convey networks of connection appear to me now as a kind of exercise or practice or maybe training.  But for what?

Sometimes, especially as I get older, especially as I work through the deaths of people that I have loved, I find myself wondering about the purpose of it all, which is to say, the meaning.  But maybe “life,” as Stephen Batchelor says, is “neither meaningful nor meaningless.  Meaning and its absence are given to life by language and imagination. We are,” he adds, “linguistic beings who inhabit a reality in which it makes sense to make sense.” If he’s right, then what I’ve been doing and calling exercise or practice or training is also the performance itself; the performance of living purposefully, of actively creating a meaningful universe, aware that in doing so we may contribute to the efforts others are making to do the same.

It seems I’ve wandered too far from books, and collections of books, and reading lists, let alone from basketball, which is why I’m guessing most readers even bother with this blog. And I’m feeling a bit sheepish.  But I’m hoping that’s okay, hoping even that for some readers the pathways back to these things—to hoops and books and reading—suddenly gleam, illuminating like the lights in the aisle of a plane, taking us where we need to go. Or else, maybe you can help me find my way back. Or not, I remind myself, since it’s okay sometimes to wander, to not have it all figured out, and to get nowhere.

 

The Fascination of Iverson Crossing Jordan: An Exercise in Praising Athletic Beauty

In my last post, I referred to Hans Umbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty in relation to my University of Michigan Comparative Literature course on Writing the Sporting Body.  I mentioned that Gumbrecht, in what I consider the heart of the book, offers a brief but rich and profound typology of the elements of sporting performance for which he is grateful and that move him to praise.  He calls these “fascinations” to capture the fact that every sporting performance entails “body movements always already shaped by the expectations and the appreciation that spectators bring with them to the game.”  The term fascination, Gumbrecht writes, “refers to the eye as attracted to, indeed paralyzed by, the appeal of something perceived. . . . But it also captures the added dimension that the spectator contributes.” My students and I worked with these seven fascinations a great deal this semester, finding them at the very least useful starting points for articulating the arresting beauty of the performances we each, or together, chose to write. I want to share these fascinations with you.  But I think the most enjoyable way to do so will be to put them to work in relation to a performance, an iconic, but brief play that continues to fascinate me.

Read more

How to Write the Sporting Body: A Report from the Classroom

How do you write what is taking place in the picture above?  Or, what sorts of challenges does athletic performance present to those who would try to capture or convey it in writing?   Read more

Writing the Sporting Body

This semester, I’m excited to be teaching two sports-related courses in the same semester for the first time.  First, I’ll once again be teaching “Cultures of Basketball.”  I taught it for the first time in Winter 2011, with few qualifications other than that I loved basketball and stories and had some tools for thinking about both of them.  That course sparked my interest and prompted me to learn more about the work of others who were thinking about basketball and culture within the academy.  Since then, in light of what I’ve learned, I’ve continued to teach and refine Cultures of Basketball every year.  Doing so has both informed and been informed by essays on the topic I’ve begun to publish in scholarly journals.  For this semester’s version, I’m reorganizing the course to follow more closely by book manuscript, Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball, which I should complete—it’s about 75 % done right now—by the end of the semester. In addition, my experience with Cultures of Basketball and people I’ve met in the broader field led me to want to broaden my range, at least, for now, as a teacher.  So, last fall, I rolled out a new, large-lecture format course at Michigan called “Global Sports Cultures” and, this semester, I’m inaugurating another new undergraduate course in Comparative Literature.  Under the general, preexisting course rubric “Literature and the Body,” I will be teaching “Writing the Sporting Body.”  I want to walk you through the idea behind the course and what we’ll be doing in it. Read more

To Protest or Not to Protest: Is that the Question? On Hamlet and Athletic Politics

Some of you know that I was recently honored to participate in an American Studies Association round table discussion on athletic resistance and fan pleasure.  Other panelists included Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Jackson, Ben Carrington and Harry Edwards.  Our organizer, Professor David Leonard of Washington State University, asked each of the panelists to prepare a 5 minute response to the  following initial question:   “Today’s sportscape is defined by the constant solicitation, maintenance, and fulfillment of fan pleasure.  It is equally defined by a far reaching platform afforded to athletes.  How do the privileging of fan pleasure and the possibilities of protest play out in today’s sports world?”  I’m including my response below. Read more

Michael Jordan vs. David Copperfield

At last! A statistical measure of just how much of a bildungsroman a novel (or any story) is! And this indispensable and infallibly useful metric falls into my lap just when I most needed it: in the midst of pondering Michael Jordan and the stories we tell about him. Read more

What 'Sheed Says When He Says "Ball Don't Lie!"

“Pistons Sheed”
(Nathan McKee, 2014, Giclee Print, 13 x 19)

In my post yesterday, I analyzed the structure of a foul call in an NBA game to show that a foul doesn’t cause the whistle to blow (as the rules prescribe); the whistle blowing causes a foul to come into being.  But neither the rules of the game nor basketball common sense acknowledge the real nature of the foul call or the quasi-divine power NBA refs enjoy to actually constitute (not just identify) illegality.  And, if this power isn’t acknowledged, it cannot be challenged.  This is where ‘Sheed and “Ball Don’t Lie!” come in.

In fact, I consider his 317 career technical fouls a rough index of his ability to convey to referees his intent to expose and challenge their power. It may seem at first glance that, like basketball common sense, “Ball Don’t Lie” also mistakes the referee’s speech act as a descriptive statement, one with which ‘Sheed (or, actually, “Ball”) merely disagrees. But I believe the outraging power of “Ball don’t lie!” goes beyond simply countering one description of reality with another. It may do that. But its power and danger lies in drawing attention to the power of the referee to create a reality within which the players must play and which they must accept without question.

“Ball Don’t Lie” does this by offering us the possibility—however fanciful it may seem—that other powers, greater even than that of the referee, are weighing in as well. And this implicitly reminds us of the referee’s powers. Indeed, the very absurdity of the “ball” making a call draws our attention to the fact that the referee was not actually objectively describing a play but exercising what are within the universe of basketball quasi-divine powers to bring a foul into being.

‘Sheed isn’t just disagreeing with the call, he’s exposing these powers and in exposing these powers he is also calling into question the hierarchical structure of the sport whereby a referee is uniquely endowed with the powers to define reality. Indeed, I think ‘Sheed’s 2012 ejection from a Knicks-Suns game  occurred not because ‘Sheed applied “Ball don’t lie!” to an ordinary personal foul call whistled against him, but because he applied it to a technical foul call: in other words, he challenged the referee’s authority to enforce conformity with his decisions.

So Rasheed Wallace lays bare and challenges the power dynamics of the NBA, but he also affirms a positive alternative.  The phrase “Ball don’t lie!” comes from the culture of recreational or “pickup” basketball played on urban playgrounds. In such settings, without referees, players referee themselves, calling their own fouls and violations. Of course, just as in any formal game, disagreements may arise. One way these are often settled is by one of the disputants taking an uncontested shot from the top of the key. If the ball goes in, his or her claim is upheld, if it doesn’t go in, his or her claim is rejected. Though some grumbling may continue, the dispute is definitively settled because, well, as everyone knows and accepts: “Ball Don’t Lie!”

By introducing a phrase from this setting into the NBA, ‘Sheed reminds us that players can and do play basketball without refs and their transcendent powers. Viewed from this angle, “Ball Don’t Lie!” doesn’t so much invoke a transcendent power higher than that of the referees. It rejects the very idea of transcendent power. Instead, it invokes a lower power—or, more accurately, a power that circulates horizontally among equals rather than vertically from the top of a hierarchy to its bottom: that is, the immanent, self-organizing autonomous power of basketball players. I share with Rasheed this belief in the crucial importance of the self-organizing autonomous power of players. In fact, I’ve tried to let this power guide my my approach to basketball history in my teaching and in writing Ball Don’t Lie!

But the urban playground is more than just the site of “informal” play outside the sanction and control of hierarchically organized institutions. It also signifies within basketball culture the big city and, via an associative chain, impoverished urban neighborhoods and the residents of those neighborhoods, who early in the 20th century were already playing pickup ball because, with its relative simple requirements where space and equipment were concerned, basketball lent itself to cramped and crowded spaces and limited resources. Over the course of the middle of the 20th century, as ethnic immigrants migrated out of America’s urban core and African-Americans migrated in, and especially in the second half of the 20th century, urban pickup basketball came to be associated with African-Americans in the American cultural imagination.

When ‘Sheed yells “Ball don’t lie!” then, we should imagine the phrase as a kind of kite pulled onto the center of the NBA’s stage.  Attached to that kite is a string of associated phenomena: not only player autonomy, but also both the stereotypes and the real material conditions that link urban Black males with basketball. Beginning with its integration in the 1950s, but in a more marked way since the mid-1980s the NBA, as Todd Boyd, David Leonard and others have shown, has sought to profit from the black bodies of its players (and from some of the stereotypical images of black male urban culture) while simultaneously maintaining a “safe” distance from the less broadly marketable images associated with Black urban males. The NBA treats “Blackness” and its stereotypical signifiers as a kind of fluid cultural currency: it wants that currency to flow into the NBA in the form of talent and marketable cool, but it wants to control the flow.

“Ball don’t lie!” then also brings the playground into the mainstream arena of American culture, but in a way that resists defusing appropriation because it appears as a direct challenge to the authority of that culture as embodied in the referees and the league and its vertical, hierarchical power arrangement. The political importance of “Ball don’t lie!” then, resides, in its affirmation of the autonomous self-governance of intersecting populations (basketball players, the poor, urban dwellers, African-Americans in general and young black males in particular) whose capacity for self-governance public policy and popular culture attempts to hamper and then denies exists.

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