The Radical Free Agency of LeBron James

IMG_2056 (1)I spoke recently to the Department of Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College. I enjoyed reframing and revising the work on LeBron James’s “Decision” and “Return” that I published in Ball Don’t Lie! and also producing what I hope is an engaging visual accompaniment.

I hope you enjoy.

 

 

 

Inventing Basketball Autonomy (Ball Don’t Lie! Excerpt)

Allen Iverson was recently elected into the basketball Hall of Fame. To honor his inspiring career, I offer this excerpt from my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy, and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball.

It is the final section of Chapter 7, “The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997.”  Readers might recognize the date: that’s the night Iverson famously crossed-over Michael Jordan. The first part of the chapter analyzes media coverage of the game, which portrayed Iverson’s performance in racialized stereotypes with a long history in basketball culture and in American society. The second part of the chapter examines the factors, in and out of basketball, that shaped such perceptions of Iverson and other black players of his generation.  And in this final section, I offer my own interpretation of this famous play as way to disrupt these perceptions and the myths they give rise to.

“I saw Iverson cross Jordan on television when it first happened, and I have viewed it again since then to prepare for classes. But in drafting this chapter, I wanted to see it again. I found it mesmerizing and could not stop watching—again and again, clicking on different links to see the different angles and replays and commentaries and contexts. The whole play is so quick: from the time Iverson gets the ball to the time the shot drops through the net takes no more than twelve seconds, the actual cross no more than about four seconds. So my interest partly stems from cognitive thirst, as though I were watching a magician at work, replaying frame by frame to see how Iverson did it, to isolate the moment that sealed Jordan’s fate. But I can see there’s something more than detached intellectual curiosity about technique driving me there. There’s also an affective investment at work, an emotional response—admiration? gratitude? even love?—that keeps me glued to the play.

Hans Gumbrecht rightly observes that “what we enjoy in the great moments of a ballgame is not just the goal, the touchdown, the home run, or the slam dunk” but “the beautiful individual play that takes form prior to the score.” A “beautiful play,” Gumbrecht writes, “is produced by the sudden, surprising convergence of several athletes’ bodies in time and space.” Indeed, Leonard Koppett, decades earlier, had already noted the way in which, because baskets themselves are relatively routine, basketball draws attention to the play unfolding before the score and, in particular, to its style. Perhaps obviously, this applies to the Iverson crossover. The pick and the flip pass prompt a switch in defensive assignments that suddenly put Jordan (the league’s top player) on Iverson (the league’s top rookie).

Even set plays, Gumbrecht continues, become surprising because they are achieved “against the unpredictable resistance of the other team’s defense.” Ideally, a ball screen for the point guard that results in a defensive switch creates an advantage for the offensive team in that a larger and presumably slower player is now left alone to defend the smaller, quicker point guard (and at the same time, the smaller defensive guard is left alone to defend the larger offensive player who set the original screen and who may roll toward the basket where he can better exploit his height advantage). But in this case, although the expected size differentials did occur—the six-foot-six Jordan was left alone to defend Iverson, who was perhaps six feet tall, in the center of the floor—they do not lead to any obvious advantage for Philadelphia because Jordan was also quick and widely considered the best defensive player in the game at the time. So as Gumbrecht describes it, “The team in possession of the ball tries to create a play and avoid chaos, its opposing team in the defensive position tries to destroy the emerging form and precipitate chaos.”

In addition to this complex and unpredictable convergence of bodies, Gumbrecht argues, part of the fascination of plays as epiphanies lies in their temporality—that is, in the fact that they begin to end the moment they start. “No still photograph,” Gumbrecht writes, “can ever capture the beauty of this temporalized reality.” Indeed, my own repeated replays of even the video of the play testify to the elusive—because temporally finite—quality of the beautiful play. Moreover, considering the temporal aspect of the play suggests also another fascinating aspect of the crossover: good timing, which Gumbrecht defines as “perfect fusion between a perception of space and the initiation of movement . . . the intuitive capacity to bring one’s body to a specific place at the very moment when it matters to be there.”

Violence for Gumbrecht is “the act of occupying spaces or blocking their occupation by others through the resistance of one’s body.” Timing, then, relates to violence because “the player will be in the right place” at the right time “either because the spot in question will not be occupied (not covered) by the body of another player at that moment, or precisely because the body of another player will occupy it.” The latter describes good defensive timing whereas the former describes good timing from the perspective of the offensive player trying to get free. Jordan tries to anticipate where Iverson will be in the next instant so he can be there instead, while Iverson, of course, tries to—and does—get to the spot where Jordan will not be.

Koppett, again, seems to have presaged the central point of Gumbrecht’s comments on timing when he described the central task of the basketball player as “getting free,” although he centered on deception and fakery (rather than timing) as the means by which basketball players do this. Good timing, however, may also simply be a component of effective deception. At least, it is with Iverson’s crossover, in which it is not simply a matter of leaning explosively in one direction to throw the defender off balance (the fake) but of intuitively grasping the perfect moment to yank the ball quickly back in the other direction (the cross) to get free. That precise moment might be thought of as the kairos, which, you may recall from the preceding chapter, was what the Greeks called the opportune moment for invention and, indeed, as the instant in which an opportunity presents itself to crack open the still tomb of the end of history.

Beautifully ephemeral and deceptively magical, Iverson’s cross evokes the image of a jagged flash of lightning splitting the night sky. An epiphany of form, to be sure, the play reminds me of the position described by T. S. Eliot in the poem “The Dry Salvages”: “we had the experience but missed the meaning, and approach to the meaning restores the experience.”  Eliot might have had in mind something like a beautiful play, the illuminating arc that emerges and vanishes before you know it. Something’s happened; it was beautiful and elevating and thrilling and it somehow left itself in you. But what was it? Eliot suggests that approaching the meaning (trying to read the play, to understand what it meant) can restore the experience. That restored experience may be in a different form, but it may still, like the original, deliver an illuminating affective shine that eludes confining meanings.

As an individual tactic, a crossover dribble means the attempt, via precisely timed deception, by a player to get free from a defender. As we saw at the end of Chapter 1, however, the dribble itself stands within the history of basketball as a kind of outlaw or rogue maneuver that simultaneously violates the putative timeless spirit of the sport and thereby embodies perfectly a fluid, antiessentialist view of the game. The dribble, as Koppett puts it, is at once the sport’s “most identifying characteristic” and “one of the worst ailments of otherwise healthy basketball offenses.” Perhaps no particular form of the dribble exemplifies this better than the crossover.

When Iverson executed the crossover early in his career, he was sometimes whistled for a violation as it appeared to officials that he was actually carrying the ball to gain an advantage. But in addition, the crossover dribble is a product of urban playground experimentation and its culture of joyful individual one-upmanship. Alexander Wolff approvingly describes it as “of a piece with hip-hop culture” with its “rat-tat-tat rhythm, the badinage and braggadocio, and the distinctly big-city yearning to break-free of the crowd by making one’s mark.”

In this way, like the dunk before it—but perhaps even more dangerous because, as Wolff puts it, the crossover is more “democratic” (since you do not have to be tall or an exceptional leaper to execute it; you just have to practice)—the crossover dribble may bring the white basketball unconscious a little closer than it would like to come to the urban raw materials off which it secretly feeds but whose contextual realities it prefers in sensationalized, fantasy form.

Wolff’s comparison of the dunk and the crossover as different forms of individual self-expression, moreover, frames what might be the most evident and important symbolism of this particular crossover: Iverson (playground practitioner of the crossover par excellence) tries to get free of Jordan (the game’s most renowned dunker). In addition, this crossover echoes—through a kind of wordplay reminiscent of free-style rap—Iverson’s insistence on eluding Jordan’s ability to execute a crossover of a different sort (racially, I mean, as a commercial pitchman). When he turned pro, Iverson famously rejected a shoe deal with Nike because he felt the company would require him to follow in Jordan’s crossover footsteps. Instead, Iverson signed with Reebok, making the sole demand that “the company not try to change him.”

In this sense, in using the crossover to get free of Jordan, Iverson affirmed his independence and autonomy from the commercially tried-and-true, racial crossover model Jordan had established and, moreover, demonstrated the viability of his own path. Finally, this particular crossover, as an instance of perfect timing, evokes the kairos that reveals that—despite the myth of the greatest of all time—time has not stopped and that basketball (and other) history continues to march forward, as always, driven by the creativity of those with nothing to lose, for whom necessity is truly the mother of invention.

Now remember that Iverson scored on the play—two of the thirty-seven very efficient points he would put up on the defending champs that night. Recalling that the crossover is a means by which a point guard, usually the smallest man on the floor, can become a scoring threat draws Iverson’s crossover dribble into yet another framework of meaning: Bethlehem Shoals’s concept of a “positional revolution,” which I described in Chapter 5.

[. . .]

Iverson and his crossover present a revolution at the other end of the positional spectrum: the emergence of the scoring point guard. Iverson led the league in scoring four times from the point guard position and, moreover, in a body deemed relatively small by NBA point guard standards. Iverson may nowadays be criticized for inefficiency by some on the basis of (a misuse of) advanced statistical analysis of his play (more on this in Chapter 8), but it is also true that he paved the way for the style of play that characterizes the best point guards in the league today, such as Derrick Rose, Tony Parker, and Russell Westbrook, who create more opportunities for teammates by having established themselves as viable scoring threats capable of getting free for scores by use of, among other weapons, the crossover dribble.

Although fans may view the positional revolution as a tactical advance, even as such it carries a broader cultural significance, for as a tactical advance it was initiated by the successful experimentation of players who refused to be chained to a limited set of functions by conventional wisdom and the authority of coaches. These new physical moves and forms and new tactics emerged first experimentally in informal play before being presented in their more refined form to coaches—sheer unstoppability providing a kind of irrefutable argument.

Considering that the myth of blackness projects essentializing stereotypes concerning black Americans (especially black men) onto African American basketball players and so inhibits “their individuality, agency, and works toward curtailing any conception of black self-determination,” the positional revolution restores the thrill of witnessing black self-determination on the court.

In this sense, an emotionally expressive black player who effectively takes the game into his own hand by revolutionizing the point guard position appears as anathema to the conventional wisdom of the white basketball unconscious. The fact that even the most established of today’s coaches embrace the positional revolution should not obscure the fact that the positional revolution, like the dribble itself, began as a creative bid for autonomy and self-determination by players and one inaugurated precisely by a generation stereotyped as undisciplined dangers to the game, even as the game at its highest levels, as it always has, happily absorbed and exploited the entertainment and commercial value of their inventions.

Jorge Luis Borges once used the fiction of Franz Kafka as a lens through which to reconstruct a literary history of his “precursors.” Likewise, from the present vantage point, a player like Allen Iverson may serve as a lens through which we may retrospectively liberate other players—Jordan, Magic, Dr. J, Russell, and Chamberlain, to name just a few—from the hoops mausoleum in which the sport’s dominant culture has immured them. To see them through the lens of Iverson is to see them as constituting a renegade tradition of creative, self-determining hoops inventors that stretches back to both James Naismith and the game’s “incorrigible” first dribbler.”

Read the rest of Ball Don’t Lie!

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“Gladiators” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 6)

Hans Gumbrecht continues his brief history of sports in the West by turning from the ancient Greek games at Olympia to the very different events held hundreds of years later at the Colosseum in Rome.  Gumbrecht’s account of this is divided between descriptions of these events and an interpretation of what allure they may have held for the tens of thousands of spectators who attended.

Gumbrech vividly fills out our often oversimplified stock images of these events.  Thus, a program of events, usually paid for by a sponsor to curry favor with the populace and organized by a hired planner (called an “editor”) might last several days and include Greek style athletic events, simulated hunts, chariot races, reenactments of historical battles, music, and, yes, as the culminating attraction, gladiatorial combat. Here, though Gumbrecht professes to be wishing to stress discontinuities in sport history, he notes the obvious ways in which these extravaganzas resemble our contemporary mega-events.

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna --- Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

Detail of Circus Games from a Roman Mosaic Showing Amphitheater Scenes from Leptis Magna — Image by © Roger Wood/CORBIS

The most interesting part of this section of the book is, I think, Gumbrecht’s speculation concerning what might have been fascinated Romans about this.  We tend to think it is a kind of frenzy of distraction and bloodlust.  But, as Gumbrecht informs us, modern research maintains that by a ratio of 10:1, vanquished combatants were not killed, but rather released. So it wasn’t likely to be the prospect of seeing some hapless possibly overmatched or outwitted fighter killed that made these battles the main event.

Gumbrecht:

Together with the initial asymmetry between the combatants, the moment of truth must have drawn the crowd’s attention exclusively toward not the victor but the loser, who—for a few moments at least–lived publicly in the face of death (p. 105)

And what they wanted to see, Gumbrecht argues (prefiguring some comments he will make in a later chapter describing our own contemporary fascination with suffering) is “composure, a face ‘frozen as ice,’ ‘hard as stone,’ impenetrable as a mask” (p 106).  The combat in itself therefore was less important, he claims, than the moment it led up to; the moment in which the defeated gladiator could be transfigured through his public stoicism in the face of death into a heroic “icon for the psychic strength required to brave human frailty” (p. 106).

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Jerry West walks off the court after losing again in the 1969 NBA Finals.

Two aspects of this strike me as interesting.  The first is how strikingly familiar this attraction seems to me as a contemporary fan and student of sports cultures.  That is, not only is the stage spectacular mega-event context for the moment of truth somewhat continuous with modern sports, but so is appeal of the image of the human face overcoming the agony of coming to the limit point of physical destruction, mental stress, sheer exhaustion, or even simply tragic defeat.  Again, I’m a bit surprised to find that Gumbrecht’s own accounts, aimed at disrupting a “romantic view” of continuity between ancient and modern sports continue to show the opposite, at least as I understand them.

The other striking element of this is the important role played by competition in this scenario.  In his definition of athletics, Gumbrecht stressed the defining importance to his conception of athletics of arete (the striving for excellence) at the expense of agon (competition).  But here, it seems, excellence really doesn’t play much of a role and, even if competition is not the ultimate aim, it is a necessary catalyst to the staging of the moment that Gumbrecht believe was most fascinating to the ancient Roman spectator.

I’m interested in this because I’m continually trying to find ways to articulate my own sense that competition and the drive to win is essential to my enjoyment of sports, but not because winning (or losing) is especially interesting to me (even as a partisan of particular teams). It is because of all that competition sets in motion before, during, and after a contest.  In this too, I see more continuity than discontinuity between the fascination of modern sports and Gumbrecht’s description of sports in ancient times.

Why I Hate “the Warriors”

I’m annoyed.  Here’s the thing:  I thought I was gonna write a quick explanation of why I hate the Warriors, hot take click bait for contrarians.

Because: I do, I hate them!  See, it’s easy for me to feel that, it’s always right there, seething under the surface, clamoring to be voiced. I hate the Warriors. That part is like falling off a log. But an explanation is a different kind of thing. For an explanation I have to think, and when that happens, at least for me, things get complicated.

Why do I hate the Warriors? What about them do I hate?  People ask me this. It’s fair. What’s to hate about a superb team made up of apparently likable players playing well individually and together? What’s to hate about ball movement or great shooting or winning or appearing to have fun? What’s to hate about Oakland having a great team?  What am I even talking about?! People ask me these very difficult questions. And I keep repeating, confirming the stereotype of the egghead academic, that it’s complicated.

Let’s start with what I don’t hate. I don’t hate Steph Curry. His skills are peerless, the precise, but seemingly effortless creativity with which he deploys them is joyful and awe striking, not to mention at times hilarious, and it  manifests at least as much dedication and hours of effort as I’ve ever admired in any other player.  I don’t hate Draymond Green and the ability to adapt to his environment by growing new capacities in leaps and bounds that he’s demonstrated as part of this team. Nor do I hate his brash, trash talking confidence. I don’t even hate the Warriors for beating the heroic LeBron James and the closest thing I have to a hometown club in the finals last year. I don’t hate their crisp pace, or their spacing, or their ball movement. I don’t hate three pointers in particular or great shooting in general. I love all these things. And yet…

And yet, basketball doesn’t just exist within the lines of the court. Basketball is also, for me anyway (and I would argue for anyone, whether they are aware of it or not), a set of stories, stories that convey (and influence) attitudes and beliefs and values. And basketball also is a set of broader societal forces and practices that find their way into the game, moving the minds and hearts and bodies of owners, general managers, coaches, players, fans, and the media. So that while I can watch and admire all that I described above, it’s simply not possible for me to do so without also experiencing feelings provoked by all the other things I can’t help but notice are in play when the Warriors take the floor. (By the way, that, in case you wondered, is why “the Warriors” is in scare quotes in my title.)

I’ve written about this before, so I won’t belabor the point at length, but I can’t help, I’m sorry, but be disturbed by what lurks between the lines of the collective adoration of Steph Curry. It’s not that his skills don’t deserve our admiration. They do, and I believe he is rightly considered the best basketball player alive at this moment.  It’s the way that many (I know: not all) in the media, in the corporate world, and in fandom convey their delight in his success (particularly when it involves licking a saber’s edge over the slain body of the last player they made into an object of worship, LeBron James).

I’m repelled, heretical though it may seem in our country, by the celebration of his Christianity, as though believing in Jesus were a talent or an accomplishment, or evidence of moral virtue, or, um, at all relevant to being a basketball player. And I wonder why in Jesus’s name we, as a culture, give a shit about what Steph believes. Don’t get me wrong: I don’t hate Christians or that Steph Curry is one. I hate that this fact ever appears to his credit in a story about basketball.  Ditto for his having an adorable child and loving her: happy for him that he has one, happy for her that he loves her. Stop talking about it (or start talking about all the NBA players, especially those who didn’t come from two parent households, who are also devoted to their kids).

I’m irritated (not repelled, I’m trying to be precise here) by the open-mouthed marveling at his physical stature, as though with every floater he drops in heavy traffic he were preschooler spelling a difficult word or moonwalking on his parents coffee table, as though he has somehow overcome greater obstacles than other great NBA players.  He’s not, and he has not.  Yes, he is not as tall as the average NBA player, nor as strong, but he’s neither the shortest nor the weakest of his peers. He’s 6-3, was raised amidst material privilege by both his parents (one a former NBA player and three-point specialist), and spent his childhood at NBA practices and games, surrounded and tutored by NBA players. That doesn’t make him a lock to become the greatest player alive (far from it, as I’ve already acknowledged: he’s clearly worked his ass off), but it also doesn’t make him a miraculously prodigious tiny street urchin who wandered in grubby off the street corner and began launching step back threes with unprecedented accuracy.

Lastly, I’m repelled (yes, repelled again), by what I view as a pernicious racist subtext in the cult of Steph Curry. Let me emphasize: I am not referring to conscious attitudes held by individuals who adore Steph Curry. I’m talking, as I have tried to demonstrate in my book, about the workings of collective, unconscious dispositions and desires that we have all inherited by American society and the history of basketball.  Unless we actively and explicitly combat these, then it becomes too easy for the celebration of a light-skinned, blue eyed, average-sized guard to come at the expense of dark-skinned, brown-eyed, over-sized black men.

Is any of this Steph’s fault? Mostly, I would say no, it’s not. But it is to the degree that he deliberately reinforces (or capitalizes upon) any of these elements of the narrative that has risen up around his brilliant on-court performances.  I leave it to others to judge whether he has or not, and with that, enough about the Church of Steph Curry.

Next up, I can’t watch the Warriors peerless team play and lights out three point shooting without seeing it as the most advanced current manifestation of a tide that has been slowly swelling in basketball over the last 10 years or so that prizes productive efficiency above all else. This feeling has spurred me to a more extensive research project into all the elements, conceptual, technological and otherwise that have driven this development; which is to say, I’m still learning a lot about it. But in my currently oversimplified understanding of the story it goes like this.

Inspired by the advances in the statistical analysis of baseball, some fans with statistical proficiency began to think about the game of basketball and how to quantify what looked to the rest of us more or less like pure, unquantifiable material flow. In doing so, they isolated “the possession” as the fundamental unit of basketball play and to begin to experiment with methods for calculating the productivity of teams (and individuals) in terms of how the various basketball actions they undertake affect the ability to generate points per possession.

Here let me say: of course they did! Because, I say as someone who is just trying these lenses on for size, it’s cool as hell to see the game through them! (I’m the guy, I’d like you to know, who kept stats of the imaginary NBA Finals series he played against his best friend in the driveway and I’m the guy whose Dad kept stats at everyone of his games and then printed out reams of analysis generated by his IBM XT.) I don’t hate numbers. I love numbers and wish I understood them better. So I don’t fault these individuals. I don’t attribute to them soulless, malign intentions. I turn the game into stories and appreciate it with words, they turn it into formulas and appreciate it through numbers. Live and let live, right?

Definitely.  But I worry that the beautiful curiosity, wild imagination, unorthodox vision, and intellectual energy driving their efforts came also to be recognized for its potential value to owners and general managers seeking to maximize and stabilize the return on their financial investment in players.  How, in essence, these individuals might be asking themselves, do I get the most points per possession for the fewest dollars? Now we’ve gone from a few teams hiring some statistically minded kids to analyze their box scores to a half-dozen cameras perched in every arena in the league surveilling the every movement of players and delivering a torrent of big data to small armies of analysts to crunch and transform into actionable information for executives, coaches, and yes, even players.

Of course, I don’t expect that capitalist owners (or their paid underlings) would prioritize questions other than those related to maximizing their ROI.  And, if you’re comfortable with having the unencumbered freight train of free market logic trundle along, you’re probably thinking I’m naive.  After all, this is just the nature of things in our world. Maybe so, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it, or its effects.

The Warriors, it seems to me, who lead the league in offensive efficiency, seem not only to be the incarnation of this tendency, but, by their success, seem also to be spurring other franchises to try to figure out how to do what they’ve done—as evidenced by Steph and others telling teams not to try.  This may be fine for many fans, whose favorite team either is the Warriors or is trying to become them. But for me it threatens to turn the NBA, which I have long loved to the degree that it presented me with an alternative to the corporatization of daily life in America, into the advance guard for ever more invasive attempts to make economic efficiency the mother of all values, to maximize productivity, and to create more reliable predictive models.

I don’t mind efficiency, I don’t mind productivity, and I don’t mind predictions. God knows I like to get my work done and to know what shit storm is coming around the bend so that I can prepare for it or avoid it.  But these are strong tides in which we are blithely romping in America today and if we don’t watch out, we may find that they’ve swept out to sea some other things that we used to like to have around: beauty, surprise, chance, and nonsense, to name just a few.

Which brings me to my final point, the relationship between the Warriors increasingly predictable domination of all competition and the annihilation of uncertainty and of the emotional complex (and marvelous, wondering stories) to which it gives rise.  Last week, the Warriors demolished the Cavaliers by 34, the Bulls by 31, and the Spurs by 30. Two of those teams (the Cavs and Spurs) were supposed to represent the only significant challenge to the inevitability of the Warriors winning a second consecutive title this year. So much for that. Even if Nate Silver at 538 only puts their chances of winning the title at 46 % (still 20 percentage points higher than the Spurs), I don’t know anybody who really thinks that the Warriors won’t repeat.  Unless, of course, they get hurt. But even I don’t wish for that.

But that’s kind of the point for me. I don’t want to have to wish for great athletes to get hurt so that uncertainty will be restored to the game. And, in basketball, unlike in my life, I like not knowing what will happen next, or how the story will end. I like the tension in my stomach and shoulders, the quickening of my pulse this uncertainty brings, and I like the emotions of fear, hope, elation, relief, despair associated with these physical signs.  I think of basketball as a story-generating machine, but really, it’s the uncertainty that basketball creates and the emotions that uncertainty provokes that are, I think, the source from which the basketball stories I love have always come from.

The Warriors are on pace to tie the 1996 Bulls record setting 72-10 regular season won-loss record. I’d have hated watching those Bulls teams if it weren’t for the utter unpredictability of Dennis Rodman and the sense his existence allowed that I didn’t know what was happen next, or, to put it another way, what the story would be tomorrow. Hell the very presence of Rodman’s brightly colored, pogo-stick body alongside MJ’s in a Bulls uniform was itself a kind of ceaseless source of nourishment for the imagination delighting in the fragile, fleeting materialization of the improbable

I think I know what the story will be tomorrow, and the day after, and in June, when the Warriors finish off their thoroughly probable title run.

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“Demigods” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 5)

Having defined the key terms of his investigation, “praise,” “beauty,” and “athletics,” Hans Gumbrecht proceeds, in the “Discontinuities” section of his In Praise of Athletic Beauty, to provide an outline history of sports in the West.  But he wishes, he states from the outset, to disrupt what he calls the “romantic view” of this history which sees it as a continuous line from the ancient Olympics to the mega-events of today’s sports world (p. 85).

Instead, he argues, if you look at the history of sport from the vantage point of the variables he has already defined, “present-day sports are no longer the endpoint of one of htose long sagas of progress or decay that we have all read so many times” and this, he claims, is important because it “allows us to ask how it was possible—historically possible, I mean—that sports became so expansive and so important in our own time” (p. 88).

To that end, he will provide “brief sketches” of seven moments, each summed up with a one-word title.  Thus, “Demigods” refers to Ancient Greece, “Gladiators” to Ancient Rome, “Knights” to the middle ages, “Ruffians” to the Renaissance, “Sportsmen” to the 19th century, “Olympians” to the 20th century, and “Customers” to our own era. I’ll be covering all of these, but for today’s post, I’m gonna stick to just the first of these: “Demigods.”

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Olympia around 325 BCE

Gumbrecht begins by evoking an image of the arduous journey of days and even weeks undertaken by hundreds of athletes and tens of thousands of spectators to the village of Olympia every four years between 776 BCE and 394 BCE in order to ask the question that’s been driving most of his reflections thus far: ‘what the specific attraction of those five days spent at Zeus’ most famous sanctuary could have been? (p. 91). After briefly describing the lush, remote valley setting of Olympia, and the religious rituals and athletic contests unfolding over the five days of the games, Gumbrecht turns to the Odes of Pindar to get some answers to his question.

[For those whose knowledge of classical literature is sketchy, a little background information might be helpful here. Pindar of Thebes was a poet who lived from 518 BCE to probably 443 BCE. In the words of my colleague David Potter, in his work The Victor’s Crown: A History of Ancient Sport from Homer to Byzantium, “Pindar was a poet who became famous because he wrote poems about the famous. His subjects were people who won at one or another of the four great athletic festivals of his time” (The Victor’s Crown, p. 37). And, according to Donald Kyle in Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Pindar was “the greatest writer of victory (epinikian) odes,” having “composed 45 poems for victors from 16 states” in which he articulated “an aristorcratic ideology of athletic preparation, competition, and victory.” (Sport and Spectacle, p. 203) Pindar’s Odes, then, are widely used by scholars trying to convey a sense of athletics in Greece during this period.]

Gumbrecht sees in Pindar an “obsessive focus on the joy and pride that came with athletic triumphs” (p. 96) and so draws from this the conclusion that for spectators must have been drawn to the experience of “being in the presence—in the physical presence—of the athletes’ shining bodies at the moment of their highest performance” (p. 96).  And he goes on to emphasize that this pleasure would be heightened by the “winner-take-all” emphasis at the games and, according to Gumbrecht, “in many nonathletic institutions in ancient Greece” (p. 96).

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It’s all about the W.

I understand that Gumbrecht’s emphasis on the appeal of physical presence echoes the importance he has already sought to bodies and presence in his more theoretical, definitional meditations. And, though I am no expert in classical literature and culture, what little I have read of Pindar’s Odes seem to support his conjecture.  I was, however, surprised to find Gumbrecht emphasize the central importance of winning (and so of competition) to the fascination of the games for spectators given that in his definition of athletics he argued that competition (agon) is secondary to excellence (arete) in athletics.  But perhaps for Gumbrecht this exemplifies the sort of “discontinuity” that he wants to highlight.  However, since I don’t really accept, theoretically or practically, his hierarchization (and occasional separation) of “excellence” and “competition”, his description here strikes me as quite familiar: “Winning and being remembered at Olympia gave athletes, their families, and their towns bragging rights that they used with a shamelessness” (p. 97). GoBlue.

The continuity between the ancient and the contemporary is even more evident when Gumbrecht turns to what was it in for the athletes: a springboard to success in other careers, fame, and fortune.  As he rightly concludes, in the ancient Olympic games “a particular version of professionalism had emerged long before the ideal of the ‘amateur’ in the modern Olympic tradition” (p. 98).  There’s an irony there involving, to put it bluntly, the hypocritical and ahistorical nonsense involved in deploying the category of the “amateur” as a moralizing bludgeon in the contemporary sporting universe, especially in the United States.

“But above all,” Gumbrecht comes to his conclusion, the games were appealing because “being in the presence of athletic greatness at Olympia meant being close to the gods.”  He reminds us that unlike in the monotheistic traditions, the line dividing the divide from the mundane was porous.  Rather than a transcendent deity perched on an immaterial throne, Greek gods roamed the earth and messed with human beings.

This, Gumbrecht argues, would dispose the Greek imagination to experience the athletic contests and achievements they witnessed as on a continuum with the divine attributes and battles with which they were familiar.

Because the boundaries that separated Greek gods from humans were so permeable, to aim for the highest level of physical perfection and to win an Olympic competition indeed elevated the victor to the status of a demigod (the ancient meaning of ‘hero’ is ‘demigod’). (p. 99)

To be in the immediate presence of such figures would understandably become an ecstatic experience, one that would make them feel “not just well but boundlessly well—about themselves, about the athletes, and about the divinely-infused world of which they were so intimately a part” (p. 99).  Again, I’m not expert enough to gainsay this explanation.  It seems plausible to me, if perhaps overly general and somewhat simplified.

But here again, I’m struck that Gumbrecht doesn’t seem, given his avowed dedication to establishing discontinuity, to recognize the continuity here between the classical and the contemporary.  Pretty much every experience and value he attributes to the ancient Greek spectator (or athlete, for that matter), I think we could find in contemporary athletics. This doesn’t of course mean that there is an unbroken line connecting them, some transhistorical essential experience of athletics that simply incarnates itself continuously in every society at every moment in time over 2,500 years.  But it does suggest that seeing some continuities might be more than just a romantic tic.  What’s more, it suggests that seeing continuities might as important to understanding the scope and nature of modern sport in the West as recognizing discontinuities.

I’ll leave you with this astonishing and hilarious exhibition of how, for us as well, at least for some—for many—of us, “religious ecstasy and athletic ecstasy became one.”

“Athletics” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 4)

Having arrived at definitions of “beauty” and “praise,” Hans Gumbrecht moves in the final section of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty to the question to the task of defining athletic performance.  He wants to know whether “the specific form of athletic performance”—whatever that might turn out to be in his definition—produces “a specific form of aesthetic effect.”  To get there he moves through a number of steps, some complex, some dubious, some really illuminating, that I’m going to track here.  Along the way, he’ll introduce several important concepts: “presence,” “agon (competition),” “arete (striving for excellence),” “tragedy,” and “transfiguration.”

The first move is to shift is actually to redefine the task of definition itself from “thinking about sports as a set of phenomena that are all rooted in a common denominator” to imagining “sports as a network of practices related through” the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein’s notion of “family resemblance” in which “item A shares some features with item B, and item B shares some features with item C” so that “even though A and C may have no features in common, their shared resemblance to B keeps them all in the family” (p. 58-59). Gumbrecht hopes this more flexible approach will be more productive and encompassing and allow readers to focus on the relations connecting ostensibly very different kinds of athletic performance.  I support this move, and think it inventive and useful, though I wondered whether it would be useful to consider how we determine which features we use to establish the resemblances and whether or not some features should have more weight than others.  But I don’t finally think that doing so would undermine the value of the basic procedure.

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The next criteria for his definition is that it should do “justice to the aesthetic appeal” of sports from the spectator’s perspective.  To get at this, Gumbrecht first explores the meanings of “performance,” since “spectators in a stadium experience sports as a performance,” albeit one that differs from other kinds of performances like ballet, opera, or symphony. Here, Gumbrecht’s animus for much contemporary work in cultural studies rears up again, calling most intellectual accounts of performance “incoherent, to say the least” (p. 60) Not sure what he’s thinking of here, since he doesn’t cite anyone, and I imagine he’s probably wrong.  But it’s the kind of wrong that gets him somewhere interesting after all when he jumps away from “performance” per se and lands on “presence” as a “possible opening or approach to the problem [of how] to define athletics in such a way as to take into account its aesthetic attraction.

He begins by noting that “presence” derives from the Latin prae-esse meaning “to be in front of” in order to emphasize that presence, for him, involves “immediate sensual perceptions” and, in that sense, “always binds to time and place” (p. 62).  He elaborates this by going on to describe presence as a “dimension” (I think he means something like a facet of or a perspective on something) that can be contrasted to something he calls “the meaning” dimension.  He then describes this contrast along seven categories, an exercise I think might be easiest to grasp in the form of a table.

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This is quite condensed, I know, and does not really illuminate (or do justice to) Gumbrecht’s full exposition of the contrasts.  But he does provide the following, summary paragraph to try to get at the importance for him of the analysis:

Counter to many academic (and highly incompetent) ‘readings’ of sports, athletic competitions do not express anything and therefore do not offer anything to read. They fascinate us with bodies ‘that matter’ (a useful pun invented by the philosopher Judith Butler), bodies that adapt themselves to multiple forms and functions. By interpreting these bodily forms and functions and transforming them into meanings, we run the risk of reducing, if not destroying, the unique pleasure we take in athletic events. (pp. 68-69)

As before, though I suppose there may be something, in a theoretical sense, to Gumbrecht’s perception of the perils involved in the meaning dimension, I also think he throws the baby out with the bathwater.  I’m not sure (because, again, he offers no citations) what sort of incompetent academic readings he has in mind.  Its probably the most persistently perplexing aspect of this book so far, Gumbrecht’s complaints about scholarship in sports studies.  I’ll just stick to saying that I see no reason why a single account of an athletic performance cannot both “praise” (in the sense he already established of gratefully laying bare the complexity of forms involved and relating them to function and effect) and “interpret.”

In any event, Gumbrecht proposes “that we may call any human body movement a performance as long as we see it, predominantly at least, in the presence dimension” but quickly recognizes that “performance and athletics are not coextensive”: not every performance is an athletic performance.  So what makes sports performances unique and distinguishable among all performances?  Gumbrecht’s finds the answer in two ancient Greek concepts: “agon” (competition) and arete” (striving for excellence).

He elaborates his conception of agon by describing it as the “domestication of potentially violent fights and tensions through institutional frames of stable rules” whereas arete by contrast “means striving for excellence with the consequence (rather than the goal) of taking some type of performance to its individual or collective limits” (p. 70).  He argues that the latter is the dominant component of athletic performance, first, by reasoning that you can have arete without agon but not the other way around and second, to try to avoid making the praise of athletic beauty about praising competition rather than excellence, which, he fears “would confirm a vision of sports that has given them a bad reputation among so many intellectuals” (again, who is he reading that’s provoked such a powerful combination of fear and loathing?).

Once more, I simply see no reason to choose between them.  In some performances, one may predominate over the other, certainly.  But I see nothing intrinsic to athletic performance that should require the assertion of a definitive preference.  On the contrary, I would say that part of my fascination in sports is the complex intertwining of these two dimension in athletic performance.  Agon facilitates arete and vice-versa, without either one subsuming the other, as in this example, which I borrow from one of my students:

Either way, both agon and arete are pursued by athletes within formal constraints (rules) and informal conventions (fair play) that spur their effort and ingenuity and generate uncertainty and risk, which, in turn give rise—and here I think Gumbrecht does a great job—to  moments that we may experience as dramatic, epic, tragic, or heroic (he uses these terms pretty much interchangeably here) (p. 77).  What I like about the argument here is that the beauty of athletic performance can be found as easily in loss as in victory, something I’ve always found important to assert against the more commonplace emphasis on victory alone as the measure of athletic greatness.  But displacing the partisan centrality on victorious outcomes is not the same, I repeat, as displacing the importance of competition to the beauty of athletic performance.

Gumbrecht himself, oddly, seems tacitly to acknowledge this when he expounds upon what he means by drama.  He redescribed drama in terms of “transfiguration of great athletes within our immediate perception, and later, our memory.”  Transfiguration involves, he says, a removal from one’s original place (side note: it would be interesting to think this through with the concepts of metaphor and translation, both of which, in different ways, involve such movements).  Like Jesus or Elijah, then, he says, “athletic competition [my emphasis] can transfigure bodies and their movements, making them shine in the particular light of triumphant victory or tragic defeat.  Rather than assigning [again, why the dichotomy?] assigning specific meanings to bodies and their movements, victory or defeat gives them something like what the Christian tradition used to call a halo—and what today we might call an aura” (p. 78)  Instead of auras or halos, though, we recognize the transfigured athlete, or rather perhaps constitute the athlete’s transfiguration, by way of what he calls “the gesture”: “a specific, concise movement, a critical moment in a dramatic narrative” that makes “the pathos associated with these dramatic moments more visible and more memorable” (p. 79).  Gumbrecht concludes with a series of personal memories of such gestures, all of which, tellingly, come in defeat, an experience, of course, that would be impossible without agon and insignificant, perhaps, without the arete that was exhibited in the course of competition.

“Beauty” (Reading In Praise of Athletic Beauty, Post 3)

What are we saying when we say that an athletic play is “beautiful”? This is the question to which Hans Gumbrecht turns in the second subsection of the “Definitions” chapter of In Praise of Athletic Beauty. You might recall that in the preceding section he defined “praise” as speech or writing, motivated by gratitude, that lays bare the complexity of forms exhibited in athletic performance and relates these to their function and effect.  How, he’s now asking, should we understand “beauty” in the context of athletics?

Gumbrecht begins by observing that, at least among intellectuals or those he calls “cultivated people,” use of the word “beauty” tends to be reserved for canonical objects of high culture such as poems and novels, paintings and sculptures, musical compositions and dramatic performances.  Aesthetic experience, he considers, is thereby reserved for an intellectual elite and divorced from everyday life experiences.

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Immanuel Kant, Sporty Dude

This leads him into the first of the two major parts of this chapter, in which he turns to the 18th century philosopher Immanuel Kant, who authored a highly influential treatise on aesthetics.  For those who have tangled with Kant’s famously difficult prose, this might seem like a strange resource to bring into a battle to make a common vocabulary for describing aesthetic experience available to sports fans.  But Gumbrecht contends, correctly I think, that Kant’s treatise, called Critique of Judgment, was undertaken as “an attempt to understand the implications of the everyday use of the word ‘beautiful'” (p. 39).

Though, I must say that I think Gumbrecht offers one of the most lucid summaries of Kant’s work that I have encountered, one that even my group of undergraduates with next to no experience in the humanities seemed to be able to grasp, I think there are more promising sources in the history of aesthetic philosophy for this task.  John Dewey’s Art as Experience comes to mind as a more contemporary (it was written in the 1930s), more accessible, and more persuasive attempt to redress the same cultivated aversion to the beautiful the experiences of daily life.  And, indeed, Dewey’s work has inspired some contemporary philosophers (to name just a few: Joseph Kupfer, Drew Hyland, Randolph Feezell, and indirectly Richard Shusterman) who have undertaken to understand the aesthetic dimensions of sporting experience.  That said, I do think Gumbrecht pulls off the use of Kant quite effectively.

To do so, Gumbrecht attributes to Kant four defining qualities of what we call beautiful, or, to put it slightly different, of aesthetic experience. First, it is “disinterested,” meaning not that we don’t care about what we find beautiful, but rather that in experiencing and valuing something as beautiful we are not motivated by instrumental concerns such as making money, or finding a better job, or even winning a game.  That doesn’t mean that those concerns may not play a role in creating something beautiful (Steph Curry is trying to get paid, after all, as he should be), but rather that success or failure in that regard have no impact on our judgment of the thing as beautiful (pp 40-41).

Second, aesthetic experience is felt (“an inner pleasure or displeasure”), rather than grounded in or aiming at conceptualization.  This speaks to the material basis for aesthetic experience (the very word “aesthetics” derives from the Greek word meaning simply “sensation”; so that “anesthesia” is a substance that deprives us of sensation).  Before we can think about it, we call beautiful that to which we are drawn (and “ugly” that by which we are repelled) (p. 42).

Third, aesthetic experience partakes of what Kant calls “subjective universality.”  It is an irreducibly subjective, even private or intimate, experience, but one that invites others to share in them. In Gumbrecht’s words, “our individual acts of aesthetic judgment always imply the expectation, perhaps even then invitation, for everybody to agree” (pp. 42-43).

Lastly, those objects (or activities or experiences) we tend to call “beautiful” exhibit what is usually summarized by the formula: “purposiveness without purpose” (p. 44).  It need not have a purpose, let alone the purpose to be considered beautiful, but it appears to have had a purpose or design to it.  You can think of ocean wave or an oak tree in full autumn colors.  And, indeed both Kant and Gumbrecht stress the kinship between the properties of what we call beautiful in, say, art (or sport) and what we consider beautiful in nature (p. 45).

Before moving on from Kant, Gumbrecht devotes a few, mostly dismissive words, to what Kant called “the sublime,” distinguishing it from “the beautiful.”  The sublime refers to objects or experiences that, in contrast to the formally limited nature of the beautiful, generates an experience of limitlessness, of “that which is absolutely great…in comparison with which everything else is small” and that which may threaten to overwhelm us.  Here, following Kant directly, you can think of “nature in its chaos and in its wildest and most unruly disorder and devastation.”  Gumbrecht considers that, despite the interest of many sports lovers in records which would seem to suggest an investment in quantitative greatness, the “sublime has less of an affinity with sports than does the concept of beauty.”

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If this is sublime…

Maybe or maybe not.  But my students and I found ourselves thinking that Gumbrecht underestimates the role of the sublime in our aesthetic experience of sports.  We considered that action sports offer superb opportunities for spectators to experience the sublime.  And moreover, that certain exhibitions of unparalleled domination (Wilt Chamberlain’s 100 point game, for example) or of simply superlative performance under severe duress (Michael Jordan’s “flu game,” Isaiah Thomas scoring 25 points in a quarter in a playoff game on a badly injured ankle, Curt Schilling pitching with a torn achilles tendon) can also stimulate this experience: a deep sense of awe at the overwhelming magnitude of the play or performance we’ve just witnessed.

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isn’t this?

But regardless of that minor difference, the point of what Gumbrecht has done with Kant was to convince readers that “watching sports may be a case of what philosophers call aesthetic experience” (p. 48).  And in this I believe he succeeds.  But he worries that Kant may be too dry—ya think?!—and so he moves to what I find the most inventive part of this chapter.

122fffdc20137d7ba2a92016abef1310Recalling an autobiographical account by Olympic swimmer Pablo Morales of his experience as a spectator watching Evelyn Ashford running the anchor leg of the women’s 400 meter relay in the 1988 Olympics, Gumbrecht seizes on Morales description of what he saw in Ashford.  She was, the swimmer said, the “lost in focused intensity” and the power of that brought Morales back, despite reservations about the sacrifices involved, into competition after a four year layoff.  Gumbrecht breaks this phase down, riffing off each of its component terms, as a way, he hopes, to get a little closer “to an understanding of the specific beauty of sports among all other varieties of aesthetic experience” (49).

“Lost” Gumbrecht understands to be the equivalent of Kant’s “disinterestedness,” the athlete “alone with herself, lost to the world, disconnected from all the goals that made up her everyday life, even from the goals that—extrinsically or intrinsically—belong to the athletic event in which she participated” (p. 52).

“Intensity,” in the first place, refers what Morales believes describes Ashford’s feelings, “both her emotions and the perception of her own body” (p. 52).  Gumbrecht interprets this term to suggest an intensification or “heightening of qualities and impressions that always already exist for us” and concludes that “athletic experience—and aesthetic experience in general—is not qualitatively different from our experience in other less marked situations” only that in this case “our physical and emotional capacities are operating close to their maximum” (p. 52).

That’s nice, and I agree wholeheartedly.  But I (nerdily) kept wanting to say “John Dewey! John Dewey!” for this is the entire point of Dewey’s own aesthetic treatise, Art as Experience, which takes as its points of departure and as the core of all aesthetic experience “the live creature” in its environment, citing as examples of the aesthetic in daily life:

“the fire-engine rushing by; the machines excavating enormous holes in the earth; the human-fly climbing the steeple-side; the men perched high in air on girders. . . . the tense grace of the ball-player.”

But okay, that’s enough of my riding for Dewey. For whatever reason, Gumbrecht prefers Kant.

Lastly, the “focused” part of Morales’ formula suggests to Gumbrecht the stance that Drew Hyland has called “responsive openness” in the chapter on “Sport, Art, and the Aesthetic” in his 1991 work, Philosophy of Sport.  Here, though, Gumbrecht adds something useful (and likely to be recognizable to anyone with athletic experience) by pointing out the seemingly paradoxical combination by which an athlete both excludes potential distractions and remains open to the unexpected.  There is here a hint of what Gumbrecht will dwell on in the next section defining athletics as “presence.”  But that grounded presence in the here (space) and now (time) makes the athlete available to respond gracefully to what may arise unexpectedly from elsewhere (space) in the next unfolding moment (time). A bit later, he’ll sum this up by saying “great athletes make things happen by letting things happen to themselves” (p. 56).

I find Gumbrecht at his most compelling here in his way of describing what Andrew Cooper, following athletes themselves, describes as “playing in the zone” (linking it to spiritual practices) and the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has called “flow.”  But we’re talking about watching sports, not playing them, remember.  So Gumbrecht brings us back to that by simply recalling his own experiences as a spectator in which that feeling of being “lost in focused intensity” have taken over: “moments when my attention grows sharper and my emotions become overwhelming” but that are ‘always accompanied by a feeling of composure” (p. 55).  He’s capturing an experience of spectatorship that encompasses partisanship (wanting your team to succeed) but goes well beyond it to include an absorption in the unfolding action that allows Gumbrecht at least to “feel I can let go and let come (or not) the things that I desire to come. I am open to the next experience, whatever it may be (p. 56).

With this passage, Gumbrecht gets at something I’ve experienced myself and that the philosopher Steven Mumford has analyzed thoroughly in his book Watching Sport: Aesthetics, Ethics, and Emotion.  Though Mumford, to his credit, attempts to make room for a question raised by one of my students:  can we still call a play beautiful if the athlete making it is, off the field or court or ice, ethically repulsive (say, like Schilling)?  What is or should be, in other words, the relationship between ethics and aesthetics.  As I explained in my earlier posts on Gumbrecht, he’s so averse to what he dismisses as socio-cultural interpretations of sport that he really leaves no room to consider this question, which I consider a perfectly valid one.

To pivot, finally, to the next section of the book, Gumbrecht reminds us that all of this has really been about the “subjective conditions” under which “we call sports beautiful.”  But we also need to discover “whether there is anything intrinsically specific about athletic performance as an object of aesthetic experience”; anything, he wonders, “that could ‘objectively’ account for its irresistible appeal and for its so often overwhelming impact.”  But I’ll leave my account of his response to that line of questioning for my next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with an image of the classroom whiteboard diagram reflecting my Writing the Sporting Body students’ discussion of this reading:

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“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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“Everyfan” (Reading in Praise of Athletic Beauty)

As promised, I’m sharing my reading notes, thoughts, and questions on Hans Gumbrecht’s In Praise of Athletic Beauty. Today, I want to look at the opening section of the book, entitled “Everyfan,” which occupies the place and fills the function of a preface or introduction.

In terms of structure, “Everyfan” consists of five very short sections.  In the first four, Gumbrecht recalls a variety of personal experiences of watching sports.  He first recalls in detail watching, as a novice fan, the then-young Montreal Canadiens goalkeeper Patrick Roy in a game at the Forum.  The second section involves watching on screen:  sumo wrestling on television at the Kansai Airport and clips of Jesse Owens at the 1936 Berlin Olympics from Leni Riefenstahl’s famous propaganda film.  In the third, he moves back to an early memory of watching a minor childhood soccer hero (the goalkeeper Egon Loy) in person during his youth, and then running into Loy after a match.  This leads him, in the fourth, to an even earlier memory (“the first individual sports event he would remember”) of listening to the 1954 German World Cup victory on the radio, to a memory, a decade later, of an aging Loy beaten on a goal by Hamburg’s Uwe Seeler, to, finally, the memory of listening to “Cassius Clay” cleverly respond to interviewer’s questions after his title fight defenses.   In the final section, he reflects on what these memories might suggest about the feelings involved in watching sports, the role of memory and time in those feelings, and the potential value of trying to understand and convey the power of those experiences.

Perhaps the most striking quality of Gumbrecht’s writing here is its meandering concreteness.  Initially, I found this somewhat frustrating as I was expecting a more direct introduction to the issues the book would take up and the positions he’d be taking. Instead, his writing immerses us in sensory detail (the nicotine smell pervading the Forum) and seemingly marginal aspects of the athletic performances (Roy’s physical tics, the pre-match ritual choreography of sumo, the woolen cap Loy always wore.  He seems to want here to thrust us directly into the kinds of experiences that might give rise to an impulse to praise athletic beauty and perhaps, in the process, to prompt us to journey into our own memories, as I certainly did, recalling, for example, as I have many times, the time I saw Kareem and Wilt Chamberlain (not to mention Oscar Robertson and Jerry West) play in person at the Dane County Coliseum in Madison, Wisconsin when I was seven.

This immersion into the sensory world of Gumbrecht’s (and possibly our own) memories of fascinating sporting performances leads to a couple of different more general themes that will be important to the book.  Though Gumbrecht doesn’t use these terms, I found it useful to group these themes into the categories of “conditions,” “experiences” and “tools.”

The key condition Gumbrecht identifies as “distance.”  It emerges as he shifts from Roy and Jesse Owens to the lesser known hero of his childhood Egon Loy:

It need not always be the objectively greatest of all times and the best of the world for sports to transfigure its heroes in the eyes of passionate spectators. All that it takes to become addicted to sports is a distance between the athlete and the beholder—a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world. For it is under this condition that athletes turn into objects of admiration and desire.

I like this proposition because it seems to me both obviously and simply true and deceptively complex, so that I found my initial assent quickly complicated by a number of questions. How do we define the boundaries of the worlds that our athletic heroes and we ourselves supposedly inhabit? How do we measure the distance between those worlds? What is the role of proximity in that experience? After all, while that distance may be essential, I think we’re only likely to perceive it and experience it and the thrill it supposedly delivers, if we are also somehow close to those heroes—close either physically or in some other, metaphorical sense.

This same passage offers the first reference to the two primary “experiences” that Gumbrecht explicitly identifies in this section of the book: “transfiguration” and “fascination.”  There’s a kind of chain of equivalence or association that stretches across these three sentences in this passage that makes me think that “transfiguration of heroes” = “addiction to sports” = “turning athletes into objects of admiration and desire” — all of which occur under the “condition” of “a distance large enough for the beholder to believe that his heroes inhabit a different world”.  Later, that “transfiguring power” will be described in terms of its effect: “drawing his gaze to things he would no normally appreciate, like grotesquely overweight wrestlers, woolen caps with shields, or half-naked bodies that hold  no sexual interest.” (p. 16)

But that makes the experience of the transfiguration of athletes appear as the flip side of what is happening to us in that same moment: namely, “fascination” when something “irresistibly captures the attention and imagination of so many people like himself” or “a phenomenon that manages to paralyze the eyes, something that endlessly attracts, without implying any explanation for its attraction” (p 16).

It’s in view of this that Gumbrecht’s decision to open the book with a series of vividly described sensory memories begins to make more sense and operate more powerfully.  For he’s interested, in a nutshell, in the material, sensory experiences that arise between two (or more) bodies involved (as participant or witness) in a sporting performance and he wants to isolate and convey the involuntary and pre- or ir- or extra-rational dimensions of those experiences.  And this makes sense to me when I recall what I know of the history of aesthetics, which began as a philosophy of sensation (the word “aesthetics” comes from the Greek aisthesis which just means “sensation” — we might consider this in relation to the term anesthesia).  If Gumbrecht’s book is about athletic beauty and we think of aesthetics as philosophical thinking about beauty, then I see here that his first contribution is to assert very strongly, in form, style, and content, the irreducibly material quality of athletic beauty.

This emphasis on materiality, on the bodies involved, may also explain Gumbrecht’s brief meditation on the difference between remembering an athletic performance and witnessing one in the present.  “Watching sports,” he reports, was about “being there when and where things happened and forms emerged through bodies, in real presence and in real time” (p. 14).  In this sense, memories are a second best to “lived experience.”  But that doesn’t make them useless or irrelevant.  He describes a kind of mutual complication and intensification arising from the interaction of memories with lived experience whereby the past is recharged by the present and the present is complicated or enriched by the memory of the past.  What strikes me as interesting here, though I don’t know whether Gumbrecht explicitly intends it or not, is that he’s suggesting that another complicated interplay between distance and presence or proximity is important to the sporting experience: the temporal distance between past and present.

Finally, Gumbrecht confesses that he really doesn’t know why this is so fascinating to him and he’s not even sure that the attraction will “become more intense if he knew its reasons. (p. 16).  He’s certainly quick to say that sports don’t need “this kind of wordy blessing.”  But he concludes that “he would not want to exclude the possibility that trying to  understand his fascination may intensify his pleasure, and help him learn how to praise the achievements of his heroes, then and now” (p. 16).

I like this. I like it a lot. I like the idea that understanding may deepen pleasure (something I’m often trying to impress upon my sports fan students: that understanding need not be the enemy of love; perhaps even that true love cannot do without understanding).  I like that the impulse to understanding is related to an impulse to speak, to praise, to affirm, not because sports needs that affirmation, but because, it seems, Gumbrecht can’t help himself; the impulse to praise is irrepressible.  But I like it finally because he wants to do it well, he wants his writing in praise of athletic beauty to be as beautiful, as fascinating, as transfiguring as the performance itself.  He wants, in other words, to do in words what his athletic heroes have done with their bodies: on the ice, the field, the mat, the ring, the court.

I want that too.

 

 

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.

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