“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:

FullSizeRender 2

Pre-order “Ball Don’t Lie!” Today!

I’m really excited to say that you can now pre-order Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball from Amazon starting today.

The book is part of the exceptional Temple University Press series “Sporting” edited by the accomplished sports historian, Professor Amy Bass. And I’m truly honored to be in the company of the other authors in that series.

If you don’t know about the book, you can learn more about it here.

I’ve put all I have into this book, and, in some ways, I’ve been working on it all my life. But more importantly, I really believe that I’ve come up with some important ways of looking at the history of the game and that it’s an enjoyable read, whether you are a basketball fan, or just interested in sports, American culture, or race.

I hope that you’ll check it out and, while you’re at it, order a copy for the thinking fan (or thinking non-fan) in your life.

Thanks

Yago

Why (and how to) Read CLR James on Cricket

clr-james-by-kayle-alder-610x401

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.

U_48_939852047985_009

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.

IMG_3146

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.
158px-Chiastic.svg

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.

18x7mw1migpehjpg

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.

 

Bad Prof’s Top Basketball Books – Second Team

Yesterday, I began presenting the list of my favorite basketball books with my First Team All-Bad Prof selections.  Today I move on to the second team (presented alphabetically by title), using the same criteria:  originality and accessibility, the depth they bring to their subjects and, perhaps most of all, their reliable avoidance of the cliches, dogmas and harmful myths of basketball culture.

 

All-Bad Prof Book List – Second Team

Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

by Walter LaFeber (Originally published 1999; new and expanded edition published in New York by Norton, 2002; 220 pp)

51TTiFKBg5L._SX353_BO1,204,203,200_

“The history of basketball, especially in the era of Michael Jordan, helps us understand this era known as ‘the American Century.'”

There are of course so many books on Jordan, and so many good ones. Lay readers might wonder why I haven’t included The Jordan Rules or Playing For Keeps, while sports studies scholars might wonder about Michael Jordan, Inc. (it will appear in my Honorable Mention post). All three of these are indeed excellent books well worth a reader’s time. However, LaFeber, one of our country’s most distinguished historians, makes the list with a slim, readable volume that pays tribute to the greatness of Jordan on the floor, while laying out the contextual forces in the global economy and culture which made Jordan a cultural icon.  By comparison with the first two Jordan books I mentioned above, LeFeber doesn’t give you much behind the scenes dirt or even much insight into Jordan’s personality.  But I for one believe that these elements are of secondary importance in understanding the myth of Michael Jordan. Instead, LaFeber succinctly and lucidly weaves together descriptions of the confluence of new communications technology and new economic practices and strategies in manufacturing and marketing with a history of basketball and of Jordan’s career. The result is a readable narrative portrait of Jordan that, without minimizing his stature as a basketball player, makes clear that his legacy is inseparable from global cultural and economic developments.

 

The National Basketball League: A History, 1935-1949

by Murry R. Nelson (Originally published in Jefferson, NC by McFarland, 2009; 284 pp.)

41fmY5sVnBL._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_

“teams were often integral parts of the community’s identities and the owners were, more often than not, local business and civic leaders.”

Among the books detailing the early history of professional basketball in the United States, I consider this the most important, even though—or actually because—its focus is not the NBA, but rather the National Basketball League (NBL). Nelson, who taught education and American studies at Penn State for many years, nevertheless illuminates a vital facet of early pro (and NBA) history in this meticulously research, detailed and entertaining history of the NBL.  His narrative restores the indispensable contributions of the NBL in establishing professional basketball as an attractive career and entertainment option and, especially, in cultivating and showcasing the talented players who—once they merged with the Basketball Association of America to form the NBA in 1949—would carry the NBA through its rocky early years, only to be marginalized from the NBA’s subsequent official history of itself. More importantly still, to mind, Nelson’s portrait of the league, its players, owners and fans, reminds us that the economic and administrative structure characterizing the NBA today neither was nor is the only possible model for professional basketball. In this, Nelson exemplifies the great German writer Walter Benjamin’s proposition that those who would understand the past must brush history “against the grain,” looking in unpromising places to tell the story of the forgotten.

 

Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

by Walt Frazier with Ira Berko (Originally published in 1974; reprinted in Chicago by Triumph Books, 2010; 144 pp.)

9543952

“I can remember how prideful I felt to wear the sneakers, and how I dug looking down and watching me walk in them.”Rockin’ Steady: A Guide to Basketball and Cool

Unique among player autobiographies for originality, Rockin’ Steady is next to impossible to summarize. The book is divided into six chapters whose titles (“Defense,” “Offense” and “Statistics” among them) offer a deceptive image of conventional coherence. Sure the book lets readers in on Frazier’s strategies and provides a portrait of the game in the late 60s and early 70s. But it also teaches you how to dry off after a shower and how to catch flies. What it lacks in narrative coherence and factual detail, it more than makes up for in beauty of design and in its ability to convey the importance of style, on and off the court, to the game of basketball. In this respect, it is ahead of its time. As I’ve noted elsewhere, the University of Michigan library shelves this book in the children’s literature section, which is fitting, for the book is a guide though, like all the great classic guides in world literature, one that guides less by the information it imparts than by what it does to you.

 

Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

by Jeffrey Lane (Originally published in Lincoln, NE by University of Nebraska Press, 2007; 256 pp.)

under-the-boards

“the NBA . . . chastises players for looking or acting ‘too street’ while it manipulates and sells their street-bred swagger for all its worth.”Under the Boards: The Cultural Revolution in Basketball

Race is a prominent theme in a number of superb books on the history of basketball, particularly those that deal with the era from the early 1990s through the present when the so-called “hip hop generation” rose to preeminence in the sport.  Most of these usefully focus on the intersection of racial dynamics in basketball with those in American society and culture at large. Among the latter, Under the Boards distinguishes itself in my mind for its accessibility, detail and nuance and for Lane’s ability to integrate research into the history of the game and American society—he is an “urban ethnographer” at Rutgers—during the period with an honest and vulnerable account of his own experiences of the phenomena he studies.  Intertwining the stories of the rise of hip hop, racial politics in Reagan-Bush era America, and on and off-court trends in basketball during the period, Lane’s chapters provides detailed and stimulating narrative analyses of Allen Iverson, Ron Artest and Latrell Sprewell, Larry Bird, Bobby Knight, and the rise of foreign-born players in the NBA.  But each of these topics also becomes the occasion for wide-ranging, well-grounded accounts of the historical contexts—from housing discrimination in Boston to the popularity of the Ku Klux Klan in Indiana—necessary to grasping more fully their cultural significance.

 

Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

by Gary M. Pomerantz (Originally published in New York by Three Rivers Press, 2005; 267 pp)

512K92GPKCL._SX323_BO1,204,203,200_

“He reduced to rubble the white-defined ideas of fair play and sportsmanship, which he knew as lies. Whites didn’t want fair play; they feared it.”Wilt, 1962: The Night of 100 Points and the Dawn of a New Era

Pomerantz is a journalist with a great deal of experience writing about race in America and brings this sensitivity to his thrilling story of the night Wilt Chamberlain scored 100 points in a game. But if changing racial dynamics in America and in basketball in the early 60s are important to this book, they are so as a subtext.  What gets foregrounded in Wilt, 1962 is storytelling, as Pomerantz draws together the reports of numerous witnesses to the “night of 100 points” and composes them into a single fluid portrait of the game itself.  Pomerantz, a superb narrator, provides exciting recaps of each quarter.  But details of game action become occasions for digressive stories (going backward and forward in time) of the principal and marginal characters (among these, the story of the game ball alone is worth the price of the book and the portrait of Chamberlain as human being and player is the best I’ve read).  It’s through the rich and complex subtlety of these nonetheless readable stories, that the book comes to serve as a lens through which the larger social dynamics at work in the game, Wilt’s performance, and its legend become visible.

 

Looking over this group, I notice that the incorporation of the first person perspective is common in basketball books I appreciate. Perhaps when an author vulnerably involves him or herself in the subject of the writing (like all the authors on my First Team, and a few of them today), it becomes harder—especially with politically charged issues like race—for them to rely upon detached intellectualism or dogma. Even LaFeber’s history of Jordan and the context for his global stardom is infused by the mix of the author’s admiration for Jordan and his outrage at the human cost—not least to Jordan himself—of marketing his ability. What emerges then feels closer to me like the messy complexity of these issues as I experience them in my daily life.

Stay tuned for the Third Team, coming soon.

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

What I learned About Hoops and Invention from Julio Cortazar

“The world thus appears as a complicated tissue of events, in which connections of different kinds alternate or overlap or combine and thereby determine the texture of the whole.”

– Werner Heisenberg[1]

            “The world,” Julio Cortázar once wrote, “is a badly resolved problem if it does not contain, in some part of its diversity, the encounter of each thing with all the others.”[2]  The poet, he continued, “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.”  This little passage shoots my mind off in the direction of a half-dozen different solitary stars at one time:  the interconnectedness of all beings in Buddhism and in deep ecology and in the rhizome of French thinkers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, the relation between looking at stars and reading and between reading and writing [Ù33]. The word “invents”.  I think I’ll go there.

            “She invents the constellation.”  Invent and its derivatives appear frequently in Julio’s works, at every stage of his career.  That was an early example, from around 1950.  Here he is again, over thirty years later, hoping of the chronicle of life on the road that he would write with his wife Carol Dunlop just before his death: “that our experience will have opened for you some doors too, and that in you germinates already the project of some parallel freeway of your own invention [Ù13, 16, 19, 66, 72].”[3]  Invention, throughout Julio’s writing, comes to mean the process by which we can make something new – a word, an experience, a world, a self – by rearranging the elements, and the relationships among them, that constitute a particular, received situation [Ù4].

            Think of a word as a situation made up of elements called letters that are configured in a given way according to certain rules.  Now how can you make something new of that word?  Consider the difference between a palindrome and anagram. “The problem with palindromes,” says Lozano, the protagonist of Cortázar’s late short story “Tara,” is that “you are left the way you started.”  A palindrome, which offers you a mirror image of a word, “has no strength because it doesn’t teach you anything new.”[4]  But anagrams are a different story.  The young girl from the story “The Distances” makes an anagram of her name – “Alina Reyes es la reina y  . . . ” – and notes in her diary that it is beautiful because it “opens a path.”  She’ll follow it until she’s invented a new self for her self.[5]  Anagrams make something new.  The inventor of an anagram takes the hard fast frozen relations between letters that make up the given word and softens and melts them until the letters can dance around experimentally before plopping back down in unexpected new relations of proximity and distance.

            Take one more example, just to get the basic idea.  “pages 78, 457, 3, 271, 688, 75, and 456 of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy have all that is needed for the writing of a hendecasyllable by Garcílaso.”[6]  That is to say that the poem by Garcílaso lies immanently within the particular, received situation of the dictionary of the Spanish Academy, just as “es la reina y . . .” lies immanently in “Alina Reyes.”  It takes an inventor, however, to discover (and etymologically “invention” refers to the process of discovery, of “coming upon”) the poem by rearranging the elements (in this case the pages of the dictionary, and the words on them) in a new way.  From these examples, you can see one of the fundamental aspects of invention: it always works immanently.  Nothing gets added from outside the given situation, and the original, given situation remains, now embedded, within the new one.

            This sense of invention makes Julio himself a star in a constellation that includes the late Italian novelist Italo Calvino, who can help direct that sense of invention to the heart of the world in which we live.  In a lecture written just before his death, Calvino noted that the Roman poet Lucretius (c. 100 – c. 55 B.C.) saw letters as “atoms in continual motion, creating the most diverse words and sounds by means of their permutations” so that “in the combinatoria of the alphabet” Lucretius “saw a model of the impalpable atomic structure of matter.”[7]  Lucretius – already influential upon such prominent and otherwise dissimilar cultural figures as the literary critic Harold Bloom and the philosopher Gilles Deleuze[8] – shines now all the more brightly in this constellation for he has of late become a kind of hero to scientists interested in the behavior of systems, such as living systems, that exist far from equilibrium.

            Nobel Prize winning physicist Ilya Prigogine and philosopher of science Isabelle Stengers summarize the pertinent Lucretian view: “Sometimes, wrote Lucretius, at uncertain times and places, the eternal, universal fall of the atoms is disturbed by a very slight deviation – the ‘clinamen.’  The resulting vortex gives rise to the world, to all natural things.”  This Lucretian hypothesis of a generative swerve closely resembles current beliefs among theorists of living systems concerning the disturbance or “disorder” out of which living things arise: “If the vertical fall were not disturbed ‘without reason’ by the clinamen, which leads to encounters and associations between uniformly falling atoms, no nature could be created; all that would be reproduced would be the repetitive connection between equivalent causes and effects governed by the laws of fate (foedera fati).”[9]

            Thinkers like stars.  She invents the constellation.  Atoms like letters.  Atoms swerve out of barren, conventional flows into unpredictable encounters with each other.  From these kinds of encounters spring all that is new.  Letters like atoms.  Julio begins with letters too and knocks them just slightly out of line in order to produce new words.  “It is the ability of different organisms to exchange ‘genetic information’ with each other, the process the geneticist calls recombination, more popularly known as sex.”[10]  Or making love.  With atoms, like letters, like thinkers, everything depends on what you can make of them.

            Invention is the name that Julio gives to the process of creating something new by a rearrangement of the relations comprising something old.  Its versatile applicability to generative processes ranging from physics to biology to philosophy to literature partly explains the vital urgency with which Horacio Oliveira, at the beginning of Julio’s most famous novel Hopscotch, announces that in “an age in which we run toward deception through infallible equations and conformity machines,” “our possible truth must be invention” [“nuestra verdad posible tiene que ser invención.]”[11]


[1]Quoted in Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor, 1996), p. 30.

[2]Julio Cortázar, Imagen de John Keats [1950-1951] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 301, my translation.  Thus far, Latin Americanists have paid little attention to this posthumously published volume.  For a general introductory approach, however, see Steven Boldy, “Mise en perspective de Imagen de John Keats” in Cortázar de tous les côtés, Ed. Joaquín Manzi (Poitiers : UFR Langues Littératures Poitiers, Maison des sciences de l’homme et de la société, 2002), pp. 13-26.  Less surprisingly given that the work remains untranslated to English, it appears that Cortázar’s early work of scholarship on Keats has not entered the conversation of scholars who specialize in the work of that poet.

[3]Julio Cortázar and Carol Dunlop, Los autonautas de la cosmopista [1983] (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1996), p. 44, my translation. This text has received little critical attention, but see Jacques Leenhardt’s short review essay “Los autonautas de la cosmopista: Una vía de conocimiento,” Nuevo Texto Crítico 4.8 (1991): pp. 15-21 for a connection between traveling and knowing.  For other, more general and biographical, perspectives on this trip and the resulting book see Karine Berriot, Julio Cortázar: L’enchanteur (Paris: Presses de la Renaissance, 1988), pp. 257-290 and Jaime Alazraki, Hacia Cortázar: aproximaciones a su obra (Barcelona: Anthropos, 1994), pp. 281-297.  See also any of the four relatively new biographically oriented studies:  Eduardo Montes-Bradley, Cortázar sin barba (Buenos Aires: Sudamericana, 2004), Claudio Eduardo Martyniuk, Imagen de Julio Cortázar (Buenos Aires: Prometeo Libros, 2004), Enzo Maqueira, Cortázar, de cronopios y compromises (Buenos Aires: Longseller, 2002), and Miguel Herráez, Julio Cortázar: el otro lado de las cosas (Valencia: Institució Alfons el Magnanim, 2001.

[4]Julio Cortázar, “Tara,” Unreasonable Hours, Trans. Alberto Manguel (Toronto: Coach House, 1995), pp. 27-46.  In Spanish: “Satarsa,” Deshoras [1982] Cuentos Completos/2 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 443-453.

[5]Julio Cortázar, “The Distances,” Blow-Up and Other Stories, Trans. Paul Blackburn (New York: Collier, 1968), pp. 15-24.  In Spanish: “Lejana (Diario de Alina Reyes),” Bestiario [1951] Cuentos Completos/1 (Madrid: Alfaguara, 1994), pp. 119-125. See Vilma Arrieta-Vargas, “Presencia satánica en el río Danubio: Anagramas en ‘Lejana” de Julio Cortázar,” Letras 32 (2000): pp. 45-64.

[6]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 71, p. 379. In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona, Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, p. 435.

[7]Italo Calvino, Six Memos for the Next Millenium, Trans. Patrick Creagh (New York: Vintage, 1993), p. 26 and pp. 44-45.

[8]In the early 1970s, Harold Bloom made Lucretius’ clinamen central to his theory of literary influence in the controversial work The Anxiety of Influence (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).  Before this, Gilles Deleuze argued in the late 1960s that “Lucretius established for a long time to come the implications of naturalism: the positivity of Nature; Naturalism as the philosophy of affirmation; pluralism linked with multiple affirmation; sensualism connected with the joy of the diverse; and the practical critique of all mystifications.”  The Logic of Sense, Trans. Mark Lester with Charles Stivale (New York: Columbia University Press, 1990), p. 279.

[9]Ilya Prigogine and Isabelle Stengears, Order out of Chaos (New York: Bantam, 1984), p. 141 and p. 303.  Prigogine, in turn, owes his reading of Lucretius to the attentive and inspired, but somewhat less accessible, account given by Michel Serres, for example, in “Lucretius: Science and Religion,” Hermes: Literature, Science, Philosophy (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1983), pp. 98-124.

[10]Ernst Mayr, “The Evolution of Living Systems,” Evolution and the Diversity of Life (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997), p. 18.

[11]Julio Cortázar, Hopscotch, Trans. Gregory Rabassa (New York: Pantheon, 1966), Ch. 73, pp. 383-384, translation modified.  In Spanish, Rayuela [1963] (Barcelona: Edhasa, 1984), Ch. 71, pp. 438-439.

Cultures of Basketball Course Diary, Day 8: Failed Best

Sometimes it just doesn’t drop. Sometimes I’m trying to drive a team of rhesus monkeys harnessed to the wheel-less hulk of an abandoned Hummer. Sometimes I’m the rhesus monkey. Sometimes I’m as tired and heavy as the earth. And sometimes it’s all of these sometimes at the same time. There’s much screeching and hopping around, much frenzied straining, but finally, the motherfucker won’t budge. That was Thursday.

Monkey-typingI hadn’t expected it. We’d had an awesome class Tuesday talking about the Celtics dynasty and the importance of specialization of roles. And I was particularly proud of my title for Thursday’s class—“Close, But No Cigar”—for which I’d assigned FreeDarko’s chapters on Wilt Chamberlain and on Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, and Oscar Robertson. Get it? “Close, But No Cigar” cuz they all came close but they didn’t hardly win any titles and Red Auerbach smoked victory cigars in their faces and they didn’t get to do that. So, I’d thought to myself, great day to put on the table a first go around at the question: what role, if any, should team championships play in our assessment of individual players? A topic, after all, I knew would resurface in relation to Lebron and The Decision.

But there was more to my optimism than just a catchy title and one solid question. We were, for example, arriving at the era of my own living memory. So to our comparisons of myth and history as modes of storytelling we could now begin to layer in personal memory: how does that change the emotional tone and stylistic inflections of our stories of hoops past? Also, the statistical enormity of these players (especially Wilt’s 100 point game and his 50ppg/25rpb season and Oscar’s triple double for a season and over the first five years of his career, but also Baylor and West combining to average 70 a game one season) would allow me to raise the question of comparing players from different eras and by extension different eras, a problem in thought that involves statistics, historical methods, logic, and metaphysics. Finally, the players would be absent (already in Columbus to stake the fragile momentum of their two game win streak against the number one college team in the country) so we’d have smaller numbers, more space, less nerves (on my part), and so obviously a livelier and more focused discussion.

Nuh uh. They were already chattering like monkeys when I walked in the room. Fewer bodies, but much more noise. They were talking about the impending OSU game, then somehow simultaneously about the snowstorm. I’m not sure how they managed but they were all saying at least two different things on at least two different topics at exactly the same instant. I tried to stem the tide—“so today…”—but was swept away, as inconsequential as a leaf on the swirling surface of a flooding river. Or, even when I did manage to complete a sentence and so to set the agenda, they yanked it away and went howling and leaping off, dragging the dismembered carcass of my sentence behind them in the dust.

vlcsnap-7102

Finally joining them around the flickering firelight at the mouth of their cave, idiotically and with apparently zero grasp of the vibe in the room, I actually gave them a choice – discussion first or vid clips? – and so provoked a new round of chaotic yelping. “Vid clips! Vid clips!” they chanted in unison, their voices growing unaccountably higher in pitch. So, with my newly found classroom technology chops, I fire up the series of clips I had chosen. First, a Paramount Newsreel announcing the arrival on the scene of 7-1 giant and straight A high school student Wilton Chamberlain, erstwhile bellhop and regular on the summer courts of Kutscher’s Catskills Resort.

Then I turn to Wilt video # 2. This feels precarious given the Lord of the Flies ambience. See, the clip is more of a eulogy and is set to the lilting, longing rhythms of Mazzy Star’s “Fade Into You.” “I wanna hold the hand inside you,” she moans as the video moves lovingly through a Ken Burns still-to-still transitions. “Oh shit,” I’m thinking, “they’ll think I’m in love with Wilt.” I am in love with Wilt, or at least with a set of qualities I sometimes call “Wilt” for short, I say, “Some of the music choices on these is sometimes weird, but I have to admit on this one I found it really moving.” A student, momentarily reassuming human form, says helpfully, “those differences in musical choices say a lot about all the different ways people have of connecting to the game.” I smile at him, and draw a deep breath of relief. “That’s a really good point.” I settle in to be transported by Wilt’s utterly unparalleled combination of strength, size, speed, agility, lightness, grace, and skill. They seem to be soothed as well.

We move on to another clip, newsreel type again, that recounts the rise of the Lakers upon the arrival of, first Elgin Baylor and then Jerry West.

We watch Elgin’s smooth and subtle athleticism and I’m thinking of how spot on Bethlehem Shoals description of Elgin seems: “Don’t watch newsreels of Baylor,” he cautions, “expecting to see him kissing the rim or cradling the ball way up above a sea of defenders. Compared to those who followed in his footsteps, Baylor played a more subtle game, a series of broken dribbles, lateral glides, and exploratory parries that resolved into either a bounding drive or high jumper.” I love this sort of formal analysis: true and attentive to the specific material form in motion that is the game (in this case Baylor), lucid and compact in situating that form in history (those who would follow), and poetic, but economical, in its own right. It’s what criticism – whether literary, artistic, social or otherwise – should be.

Still photo of the Celtics celebrating another title. They suddenly look sinister to me, Now Jerry West appears upon the scene, flawless relaxed jumper, coming off a screen, one hard pound of the ball off the floor to hasten his elevation and the perfect release. But I’m watching the tightened anxiety in the muscles of his face. He doesn’t look like he’s enjoying himself, Maybe he was hurting. Maybe he was worried about falling short, about the monkey on his back.

I move on to the next video, easing a bridge across the moment of dead screen with a laughing observation that the comments on this one are awesome (because the video’s curator, who calls himself “thekobe24and8”, provocatively titles this Oscar montage: “Mr Triple Double: As Good as Jordan and Magic” – but not, I guess, Kobe, which is part of what prompts the comment hysteria). The beats of Jurassic 5’s “The Influence” set in, a couple of still shots and then Oscar, one of my two boyhood heroes (the other is Clyde), appears in full Bucks regalia.

He’s at the elbow with the ball, his back to the basket. O checks over his right shoulder, taking in all the movement on the weakside, including of course the defender who cheats toward him when Oscar dips his shoulder ever so slightly in that direction. Then Oscar reverse pivots on his left foot, facing the basket and jab stepping hard with his right foot at the same time. You can see from the body language that Jim Barnett of the opposing Warriors is already beaten. He is all uncertain tension, on his heels and leaning to O’s right, when O puts the ball on the floor hard with his left hand, steps aross Barnett’s body with his right foot, then elevates high, leaning back, the ball coming up a couple feet above his head for his high release – he’s created at least 3 feet of space between he and Barnett. Barnett recovers, he is a pro after all, but by that time Oscar is already releasing the ball on a high arcing trajectory toward the bottom of the net. If you write off the stats, I think to myself, then you really have to break Oscar’s game down frame by frame because he is so spectacularly unspectacular, so economical. And this I think to myself, this reserve whereby no energy is wasted on the world outside his game seems to express whatever was also being expressed by Oscar’s personality: by turns impossibly shy and sharply grumpy.

That’s fun. Like I said last time, I could videos all day, though today the students don’t seem so much like popcorn buddies as they do three year olds from whose riotous antics I have bought myself a few minutes of relief by popping Barney into the VHS.

Cinema-1

But now that’s over and I have to teach. Still drunk, perhaps, from watching Wilt and Oscar, I repeat the mistake I’d made just five minutes before and offer them a choice. I say to them basically what I wrote in paragraphs two and three above. I’m thinking that sometimes you have to let the team run. So I tell them that today’s reading had made me think of three different, but perhaps related topics, that we could explore:

  1. The role of team championships in assessing the careers of individual players
  2. The comparison of players across eras
  3. The relevance of memory.

Where do you guys wanna go I ask?  That was pretty clear, right?  And I think to myself, really there’s nowhere they can go that I don’t want to go.  I mean I love Wilt, as I’ve written about here before.  Not so:   “They said he was a quarter miler.  Do you know how fast Wilt ran the quarter mile?”  I’m as fascinated by Wilt’s athleticism as the next guy, but today I’m more interested in other things.  So I try to respond to it courteously but economically, like Oscar dispatching Barnett with a pivot, a jab, and one dribble: “Fast.” Not good enough. I should never have given them choices.

One kid pulls out the book he’s reading on Wilt’s 100 point night (which gratifies me because he’s enthusasitic and ahead of the game and irritates me because it pulls me in deeper). “49 seconds! 49 seconds!!” everybody seems to shout, but it immediately becomes clear that they are just shouting, like Brick in Anchorman, because nobody really knows whether that’s fast or not. Nor do I care. But I open up my laptop hoping to settle this quickly, two boys have stopped texting in order to locate the world record for the quarter mile, both today (around 43) and back in the late 1950s (around 45). Everybody shouts that Wilt’s time was indeed good! Shout-adding that it was incredible when you consider that he wasn’t really training for the event! My tragically miscalculated reference to Wilt’s desire to box Ali is met with the shouted proposition that we should watch clips of “Shaq Vs.”, which is met with another chorus of hearty shouts!!!

6a00d83542d51e69e20133f48d69e4970b

My three topics are now buried deep in a pile of adolescent, internet fueled distraction and coated with a patina of middle-aged fatigue and ennui. I can barely be troubled, but I hold my nose and try to fish an idea out and put it back on the table. It reeks. But I hold it out once more, with a mixture of half-heartedness and impatience. So, I say, speaking of Wilt, how do you think he would fare as a center in today’s game? In the course of the half hour of little listening and loud babbling (my own included) that followed, we managed to establish Wilt’s weight at different points in his career, and to argue about Lebron’s playing weight, and – horribly, in response to my attempt to get at what Wilt meant and means today – to a discussion of his claim to have slept with 20,000 women. I think more smart phones were brought in for research at this point but I really can’t recall because I was in a state of semi-panicked, giggling, disbelief at what my once awesome class had descended to.

The closest we came to actual discussion looked to me more like a large family’s holiday meal: lots of volume and distraction, punctuated by little eddies of partially fragmented focus. In those eddies we did manage to draw close to the edge of insight. They had the unexpected sense to know that even if he wouldn’t score 100 points or average 50 and 25 or maybe even 30 and 15, Wilt would absolutely be a force, if not the top post player in today’s league. And: they showed wisdom in wanting to think about what array of forces had caused such changes in the style of low post play (Though they did not always show acuity in the conclusions they drew).

But we really didn’t get to reflect on what it means to compare players from different eras with one another (even as we were doing it, they really wouldn’t be baited into reflecting on their own thoughts, not today). Nor did we really address the questions of memory and history (though I did force them to listen to my story of having seen Wilt and West’s Lakers play Kareem and O’s Bucks in Madison back in in 1973). And we certainly didn’t say one word about what I most wanted to talk about: the role of team championships in assessing an individual players career.

-horry2-637549

And I really wanted to talk about it because I despise the position that team championships are or should be a measure of individual greatness in a team sport. I despise it in all its dimwitted, chest-thumping, blockheaded abstracting lack of appreciation for nuance, subtlety, detail, and chance. Not to mention its weak-minded moralizing insistence on the superior value of something it calls “the team” over something it calls “the individual,” only to then trumpet one individual as greater than another on the grounds that the former’s teams won more championships than the latter’s. When someone finds a way rationally to extract and quantify from the swirling whirl of teammates, coaches, organizations, random occurrences on the floor, and injuries one player’s role in winning championships, then I will believe it makes sense to hold a lack of such against individual players.

What’s that? Oh, win shares? You mean that sophisticated and complex measure of what share of his team’s wins a player has contributed? Okay, that’s not championships but I’ll go there just for the sheer delight of pointing out that of the top ten individual seasons for win shares in the history of the NBA, Wilt Chamberlain occupies spots 2, 3, 5, 7, and 9 (Jabbar: spots 1, 4, 6; Jordan: spot 8; and Oscar spot 10). Bill Russell? Oh yeah, spot 42. Wilt Chamberlain is second to Kareem on the career win share list (Russell is 16th). Wilt Chamberlain led the league in win share in 8 of the 14 seasons he was in the league (losing out Jabbar in his 3 final seasons, to West once, Willis Reed once, and Oscar once).

Look, I love statistics, but I have a terrible head for interpreting them. Or rather, my heart is too impatient to wait for my head always to figure out the numbers. But here’s what win shares mean tell me: that after Kareem, the player—we are talking here about statistically measurable contributions—who contributed more wins more consistently, season after season was Wilt Chamberlain. Bill Russell doesn’t really even show up in this discussion. Okay so the Celtics won 11 titles, including eight straight, and Russell was a – maybe even the most — valuable player for his team in that run of titles. But asserting that fact is not the same as demonstrating that he deserves a quantifiable share of credit for those titles and that his total imaginary “title shares” statistic is greater than Wilt’s. But really, what the stats show me, more than anything is that the Celtics teams were grater than the sum of their individual parts and while I think that is to, to some degree, to the credit of the parts, there’s no way to draw certain conclusions about that.

Don’t get me wrong, winning a championship is an impressive and beautiful accomplishment, Winning 11 in 13 years and 9 in a row, as I argued on Day 7, is to me nothing short of a wondrous mystery. But precisely because it is that, no single individual can be given credit for that in any serious comparison of the careers of individual players. The team gets credit for that and I give the Celtics teams of those years credit for being the best teams. And I give Bill Russell credit for being a revolutionary force in the league and for his team, not to mention for being an interesting and appropriately ornery dude off the court. I just cannot see how his team’s titles make him a more valuable individual player than, say, Wilt Chamberlain, who won only two (or for that matter, Oscar Robertson who won only 1). It might be stirring, but it is not good thinking and to call such a position anything other than potentially beautiful mysticism (my appreciation for which I think I amply demonstrated in my Day 7 post) is intellectually dishonest.

But the heretical truth I will here confess is that I hate this position most of all because of the transcendent emphasis it places on winning as a result to be clung to and valued above all else, I appreciate winning as a motive force, a kind of heuristic that brings out your best because you want it. And once it has done that work, I don’t care who wins. It really means very little to me, It is, in other words, what the desire to win—among a complex, dynamic array of other forces—produces on the court that excites me.

So it’s not just because I love Wilt like my own dad. And it’s not just because of the intellectual sloppiness involved in the argument. It’s also because of what the “team titles = individual greatness” position per force denigrates, obscures and makes us forget: the mysterious importance of the delicate relation between team and individual and, even more, the beauty and emotional force of the individual play that didn’t result in or contribute to winning a title, or even a game. Because, finally that is what basketball mostly consists of: plays that didn’t directly result in victories, let alone titles, let alone dynasties.

the_red_wheelbarrow

When I first learned to meditate I was told to take my shoes off mindfully because 99 % of life entails things like taking your shoes off. It stands to reason that, if you believe that mindfulness can be good for you, then you wouldn’t rope it off and confine it to the 1 % of your life spent seated on a cushion in a temple in front of a teacher. You’d want to experience the effects of mindfulness immanently, distributed throughout your life.

I say, similarly, don’t reduce the mysterious, complex beauty and excellence of basketball to the outcome of a poorly disguised shouting match about the number of rings your boy has. Don’t hate the individual player or play, don’t hate the “failure,” and don’t hate the everyday. It’s like hating a sudden, summer thundershower for not being the ocean (or vice versa) and forgetting that their differences are riveting partly because they are part of the same system, bearing the same elements.

Because the beauty of the game is happening all around, all the time, and not just in the role Russell played in helping the Celtics to run the table all those years. Not just in Jordan’s fist pumps. And also not just, I hasten to add, in the force of nature and ability and intelligence that was Wilt Chamberlain, much as I love him. Not just in the improvisational athleticism of Elgin Baylor, in the fraught excellence of West’s jumpers, or in the guarded economy of Oscar’s breathtaking, all around efficiency.

But even if “not just” in these places, the beauty of it does lie in them, which may be why I am so appreciative of the writing that Shoals has done in these chapters to evoke the feelings I get (and that I in turn tried to share with my descriptions above) watching these players on video, that I got watching them play as a boy.  Shoals seems to understand this.   I think, though I may be wrong, that it’s why Shoals ends his stirring chapter on Wilt as the Nuclear Option, with Russell’s own words upon hearing of his friends’ death:  “Today, I am unspeakably injured”; or why he exhorts us to consider “how great Baylor was on his own terms.”  Shoals also reminds me that, to some degree (unless I’m reading Bill Simmons), I am myself battling a straw man here because if, as he writes, “These were the days of the greatest team effort ever,” then it is also true that “it was also the age when, as they say in the pictures, a star really was a star.”

The beauty and emotional force of the game lies in the –forget it, I don’t know where it lies. Not yet anyway. Maybe not ever. I just know that if that beauty and emotional force is equated with excellence and excellence is in turn reduced to winning championships then most of basketball is a waste and the varied landscape of my own memories and passions in the game leveled to a deserted, wasteland because no more than a handful—and not even the best ones—involve championships.

It doesn’t mean that I don’t get excited when my teams win, or when players I love play on teams that win, I do. And I get bummed out losing and when my teams and players lose. But really, not that much. Because, for me, those wins and losses will never be the ultimate measure of those players. At most those wins and losses I appreciate for the motivating force they exert upon my players to be more intelligent, more creative, more inventive, more memorably, and more stirring. For me, those players—every player, every play—will be measured for me by the emotional force it stirs in me and the depth of the track they leave in my memory.Most of what I love in basketball—most of basketball—can be said to happen under the banner of the following quotation from Samuel Beckett: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

samuel-beckett

Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

1 2