Bad Prof on Research

The American poet Muriel Rukeyser once wrote “the universe is made of stories.” This may not be precisely true, but it nonetheless contains a kind of truth that has informed my training and research: namely, that in significant ways we, as individuals and groups, shape our experiences of the universe into stories, understand ourselves and our world by way of stories, and act to shape the world on the basis of stories we cherish. The stories we tell—be they our own private narratives or famous works of fiction or popular narratives that circulate in the media—register and shape the conditions and attitudes in the societies in which they emerge and circulate. I was trained to study these stories from an interdisciplinary perspective, informed by research in history, philosophy, political economy, anthropology, sociology and psychology. More specifically, I have learned, whether analyzing fiction, philosophical arguments, or sporting narratives, to show how stories tell more than what may appear on their surface, in the intentions of their producers, or in the minds of those who consume them. Accordingly, I study stories so as to understand our selves, our pasts, our world and those of others more fully. But I also aim, in my research, to facilitate the telling of new and different stories that enable us to act proactively? in the world, and to interact with others, in ways that increase our awareness of human capabilities and augment freedom.

I was trained as a comparatist, examining the similarities, differences and relationships between European, American and Latin American literatures and societies in the 19th and 20th centuries. For most of my career, I have been especially concerned with the stories of twentieth century Latin America and their relationship to the social and political history of the region. Michigan’s first-rate, interdisciplinary community of Latin Americanists and comparatists has provided me with a stimulating and supportive environment in which to pursue my research in this area.  My first book, Postmodernity in Latin America: The Argentine Paradigm and other essays I published throughout the 1990s explored the multifaceted roles that intellectual work has played in 20th century Latin American societies. Violent political instability in the region has often made historical narrative an important terrain for social struggle since different political groups relied upon different historical narratives to justify their actions and claims to power and legitimacy. Accordingly, I showed how fiction, particularly fiction with a historical inclination, functioned at key moments as a cultural space foregrounding alternative visions of the past and, more importantly, questioning the very assumption that history might be told in a single way. I argued that these works thus offered a more promising ground, paradoxically because less historically certain, for imagining and constructing a freer and more democratic future in Latin America.

Out of this work, I developed a special fascination with one writer, Julio Cortázar (Argentina, 1914-1984) whose work struck me as singular in its uncompromising commitment to imaginative and formal complexity, even or especially under polarizing political circumstances that seemed to demand an abandonment of these values in favor of simplicity. In his fiction and non-fiction, Cortázar consistently affirmed not only the value of the unfettered, experimental imagination as the narrative sine qua non for personal and social freedom, but a deep investment in contributing to the extension of that freedom by enacting a cooperative relationship with an active, engaged reader. While detailing the formal characteristics and political and ethical values of this work in several articles in the early 2000s (“Living Invention,” “Inventing Autonomies” and “Writing Life and Love”—all written and published since I received tenure), I began to incorporate into my research an additional focus on the ethics of reading as a relational act in which literature and other cultural objects might be seen as, in the words of Kenneth Burke, “equipment for living.” More specifically, I began to explore reading as a tool by which we draw into ourselves the raw materials of existing narratives, transform them according to our conscious or unconscious dispositions and interests, and then send them back out into the world, where they become the raw material for another reader. Drawing upon the philosophy of Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), I argued that the ethical value of this process resides in the degree to which what and how we read increases our joy, augments our power to act, and so enables us to support the autonomy of others (“Toward an Ethics of Close Reading,” “Telling True Stories”).

I have, over the past five years, taken a major turn in my scholarship, focusing attention on the stories that emerge from sporting culture, an area of human endeavor deeply important to me, as a participant and as a spectator, throughout my life. Though my shift from Latin American fiction to the narratives of sporting culture has entailed a significant change in my objects of study, I have been motivated by the same fundamental beliefs and interests and, for the most part, guided by the same fundamental methodological tools. I continue to research stories and I continue to do so with a belief that they say more than what they appear to say. I continue to approach them from an interdisciplinary vantage point that allows me to explore the ways in which they register beliefs and attitudes and shape identities and actions in the broader world. Of course, the contexts, content and media of the stories I study have changed and so I have had to modify some of my existing methodological equipment and to acquire new tools to attend to the specificity of sporting narratives. Still, at a more fundamental level, I see sporting performance and the stories it generates—like the literary narratives I have spent the greater part of my career studying—as creative forms of thought and of art that are embedded in societies and therefore may be seen as materially and symbolically expressing and shaping the values of societies. In short, we can ask of the narratives of sport, no less than great works of literary narrative, whether they can be made into equipment for living and, if so, how?

Pursuing these questions has led me into the most fulfilling research (and teaching) experiences of my career. Unexpectedly, it also opened opportunity to shape public views on sporting culture through writing online, both on my own blog and in other mainstream sports culture websites, as well as through radio interviews on National Public Radio and other talk shows. Indeed, by publicly chronicling the experience of teaching Cultures of Basketball for the first time I entered a network of authors outside the academy writing thoughtfully and accessibly about sport and, from there, an interdisciplinary community of other scholars around the country and the world reflecting on the culture and politics of sports. In collaboration with these scholars, I have been fortunate to participate in and organize panels and to co-organize a major symposium on “Values in College Sport” here at the University of Michigan. These stimulating collaborations have spurred me to deepen my engagement with scholarly work in the field of critical sports studies and, now, to forge a unique approach within the field, as manifested in several published articles and my new book Ball Don’t Lie! Myth, Genealogy and Invention in the Cultures of Basketball (forthcoming in Temple University Press’ prestigious “Sporting” series in spring, 2016).

The interdisciplinary field of sports studies emerged in the 1960s out of the disciplines of sociology and kinesiology, though scholars from such disciplines as anthropology, history, philosophy and psychology quickly added their perspectives to the growing corpus of scholarship. For the most part, culturally oriented scholarship in sports studies tends to address the cultural significance and political potential of sports figures and events. With a few important exceptions, what is less prevalent in the field is formal analysis of sporting performance and phenomenological accounts of the experience of the sports spectator. In some ways, this gap mirrors a tension within literary studies between formal and contextual approaches to the meaning of literary texts. Much as I argued (“Towards an Ethics of Close Reading”) that the political and social significance—and particularly the emancipatory potential—of literary texts, can best be accessed through ethical close reading, I have staked an approach within sports studies that supplements the critical analysis of prevalent sporting figures, events and narratives with increased attention to the formal and stylistic aspects of sporting performance along with a phenomenological account of the affective dimensions of sports spectatorship. In this way, I argue, the constraining power of conventional sporting narratives, frequently tied to large media conglomerates and purveying socially harmful attitudes with respect to race, gender, sexuality and social class, can be offset and, potentially, replaced or at least countered with more inclusive and emancipatory narratives (see “The Meanings of Manu,” “Getting Free,” “What We Mean When We Say Play the Right Way,” and “Ball Don’t Lie!”).

All this comes together most forcefully in my book Ball Don’t Lie! From its beginnings in 1891 and over the course of basketball’s subsequent history, changes in society and in the sport have sparked sometimes contentious discussion over about the nature of basketball as well as over the techniques and tactics that ostensibly best embody and convey that nature. Investigating these discussions I’ve identified clusters of recurrent stories, metaphors, and images, arising around key events and personalities. These clusters make up the objects of study of my work, which I call “myths.” I refer to them as myths not so much to lay bare their failure to correspond to reality, but rather to emphasize that they have become tenaciously held, largely unexamined and influential “truths” within the culture of basketball. Speaking generally, the myths of basketball culture give narrative shape to a collective struggle with changes—particularly related to race—taking place in basketball and in society over a century. Typically, they fabricate an idealized, timeless essence of the game and project it onto a succession of moments, individual players, coaches, and teams or, conversely, fantasize that a contrasting succession poses a destructive threat to that essence. Sometimes, the same myth simultaneously hails an embodiment of basketball’s essence and decries an imagined threat to it.

I devote each chapter of Ball Don’t Lie! to a key myth pertaining to a different era in basketball’s history. Within each chapter, I first employ literary analysis to identify the key elements of the myth in question. I then draw upon existing historical and sociological research to situate this myth in and against the overlapping contexts, in basketball and society, in which it emerged. Finally, I propose alternative narratives of the phenomena in question that attend to the specific tactical and stylistic innovations of particular players in different eras and the ways in which these might carry meaning beyond the boundaries of the basketball court and thereby disrupt the more confining myths that have crystallized around them.

I have organized the book’s nine chapters into three parts. “Part I: Myths of the Basketball Republic” examines myths arising between 1891, when basketball was invented, and 1949, when, in the wake of its astonishingly rapid global spread, the NBA was formed. For much of this period, basketball underwent near constant change in terms of play, rules and equipment, the demographic characteristics of players, and play venues. Moreover, though a few organizations emerged with aspirations to national scope toward the end of the period, most basketball was played in and between small, locally defined groups with the minimum organizational structure needed to foster competition. It is on account of the primarily decentralized, locally based nature of the emergent and rapidly growing sport that I characterize this as the period of “the basketball republic.”

The myths of this period, which appear in rulebooks, instructional manuals and promotional guides, institutional documents and personal memoirs, as well as in popular and scholarly histories suggest that basketball had? a fixed and static athletic, moral, and aesthetic nature, born at the moment of the sport’s invention, and that this essence is safeguarded by self-appointed institutional stewards who protect the game against chaotic forces of change wrought by entrepreneurs, spectators, and, most of all, players. These myths, which I examine in Chapter 1 (The Myth of Creation, December 21, 1891) and Chapter 2 (The Myth of Foundation, June 6, 1946), established a normative paradigm of basketball culture equating tactical elements of game play (passing the ball and moving without it, defending aggressively and hustling cleanly after rebounds and other loose balls) with moral qualities (unselfishness, cooperation, hard work, humility). This complex was then naturalized as inherently pertaining to the white, Anglo-Saxon, protestant, mostly middle-class men by and for whom the game was originally devised.

As the game rapidly grew in popularity and spread across the globe, played by women, foreigners, African Americans, Native Americans, ethnic immigrants, and the working class, anxieties over change intensified even as change was not only inevitable, but also profitable and desirable to those whose sense of identity was threatened by it. The resulting tension gives rise to what I call the “white basketball unconscious” to indicate a hypothetical repository of psychological and cultural fears and fantasies arising from the fraught feelings accompanying these changes, the desires they stimulate and the threat they appear to present to the stability of whiteness as a privileged identity. Because they remain unconscious, these fears and fantasies frequently express themselves subtly between the lines of basketball culture. In this sense, Ball Don’t Lie! provides not so much a comprehensive history of basketball culture, but rather site-specific critical analyses of—and alternatives to—the cultural productions emanating from the white basketball unconscious.

In “Part II: Myths of the Modern Basketball State” I take up a forty-year period from the middle of the twentieth century to 1991. By the beginning of this period, the major contemporary institutions of American basketball (state high school associations, the NCAA, and the NBA) had emerged, consolidated regulatory power over basketball play and achieved relative stability, forming what I call—to indicate the arrogation of resources, rights and powers by these institutions—the “modern basketball state.” During this period, whose beginning coincides roughly with the Civil Rights movement and desegregation in American society at large, basketball at its highest levels of play experienced first, desegregation (beginning at the professional level in 1950), then an influx of elite African-American players who transformed the techniques, tactics, and style of basketball and its attendant cultures until, by the late 1970s, roughly 80 % of the NBA’s players were African American. For this reason, the history of the modern basketball state necessarily centers on race. The culture of basketball—invented as an instrument of white Anglo-Saxon protestant social reform, institutionalized upon the foundation of segregation, and buttressed by complex myths correlating techniques and tactics with moral qualities and these, in turn, with class, gender and especially race and ethnicity—manifested its conflicting attitudes toward racial integration in a set of influential myths unfolding from the late 50s through the early 1980s.

The chapters in Part II address these myths as they crystallized around Bill Russell and Wilt Chamberlain, the game’s first black superstars in the late 1950s (Chapter 3: The Myth of the Rivalry, November 7, 1959); the racially diverse NBA champion New York Knickerbockers, lauded for their unselfishness, cooperation, and defense, and celebrated as “the perfect team” in the early 1970s (Chapter 4: The Myth of the Garden, May 8, 1970); and the rookie superstars, Earvin “Magic” Johnson and Larry Bird, one black, one white, who supposedly saved the NBA from the perception that it was too black and too cynically professional with their emotionally expressive love of the game (Chapter 5: The Myth of the Amateurs, March 26, 1979).

“Part III: Myths of Basketball Empire” comprises four chapters dealing with myths arising from the global cultural and economic expansion of basketball—hence my reference to a “basketball empire”—in the context of the end of the Cold War, the rise of multinational capitalism, new forms of mass media, and the widening and increasingly racialized gap between rich and poor in the United States during the Reagan years and beyond. In the basketball universe, this period is marked by four interrelated phenomena: 1) the globalization of basketball, sparked by the mega-celebrity of Michael Jordan and the NBA brand; 2) the infusion into basketball of cultural forms originating in late twentieth century African-American urban communities; 3) the emergence and growing influence of international basketball players in the NBA; 4) a growing entrepreneurial assertiveness on the part of players, both amateur and professional. Chapters 6 through 9 identify and critically examine the key myths emerging around these phenomena.

As Jordan’s career unfolded, a consensus formed around the claim that he was the greatest player of all time. I argue that this unverifiable claim presupposes that history, in a specific sense of the word, is over and that the global capitalist order, like Jordan, who is its metonym, is the greatest (social order) of all time, capable of bridging all differences and resolving all conflicts (Chapter 6: The Myth of the Greatest of All Time, June 13, 1991). Even as Jordan boosted the NBA to unprecedented levels of popularity and lucre, a new generation of African Americans players unapologetically displayed the cultural markers of their urban upbringing (tattoos, corn rows, baggy shorts, hip hop) while building upon and raising to new levels technical and tactical innovations first developed in urban playgrounds in the 1950s and 1960s. The NBA sought to coopt this so-called “hip-hop invasion” in basketball by both capitalizing on the new markets it helped the league penetrate and carefully regulating the presentation of these players to the league’s traditional white male consumers (Chapter 7: The Myth of Blackness, March 12, 1997).

This rise to preeminence in the US of this so-called “hip hop” generation coincided with a dramatic improvement in the talent of basketball players abroad, who over the course of the 90s gradually narrowed the gap between their teams and those representing the Untied States in international competition. Thus, in the wake of the United States’ men’s national team’s first loss in international competition in 2002, a new myth arose reasserting a tactical essence to basketball (called “playing the right way” and widely associated with Hall of Fame coach Larry Brown) and equating it with moral virtues (Chapter 8: The Myth of The Right Way, June 15, 2004). This myth claimed that white foreign players better embodied the morally virtuous “right way” from which the deviant “hip-hop generation” had strayed, resulting in national disgrace in the context of a more general, post-9/11 insecurity concerning America’s place in the world.

Finally, in 2010, NBA Most Valuable Player and free agent LeBron James’ decided to leave his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers in order to join two other superstars (both also African American) with whom he had consulted prior to the decision. This entailed, in effect, the players exercising powers of team formation conventionally reserved for team owners (almost all white in the NBA) and general managers (still mostly white). The subsequent racialized public backlash (Chapter 9: The Myth of the Man, July 8, 2010) invoked a normative, hyper-masculine fantasy figure (“The Man”) to discipline James and so police the autonomy, mobility of and interaction among black male bodies in the NBA, on and off the court.

 Ball Don’t Lie! thus critiques existing popular myths concerning the history of basketball, contextualizes them in relation to historical accounts that encompass developments internal to and beyond the world of basketball, and presents an alternative history of the sport grounded in innovations in play on the court. It emphasizes the creative prerogative of players and the ways in which their innovations are shaped by, and shape, broader cultural and social phenomena, ultimately disrupting the myths that would feed off and confine them. Ball Don’t Lie! shows that basketball cannot be reduced to a single, fixed or timeless essence but instead is a continually evolving exhibition of physical culture that flexibly adapts to and sparks changes in American society.

Recent teaching experiences in other dimensions of sporting culture have sparked an interest in exploring different aspects of the role of narratives in sport cultures in my research. For example, I have begun research on an essay on the special challenges that sporting performance poses to written representation. My approach draws on the hypothesis that sporting performance entails what other scholars have termed “presence” to designate a particular working together of body and mind in focused intensity. In this state, categories of subject and object that are embedded in the very grammar and syntax of writing tend to fall away. How do we represent the “subject” of athletic performance? Similarly, in a state of presence, time dilates and compresses in ways challenging to narrative representation. Finally, writing, as a number of literary theorists have argued, is predicated on a kind of absence. How then can a medium predicated on absence convey a phenomenon whose distinctive quality is presence? In my preliminary work, I have explored the issue through the concept of ekphrasis. Though modern scholars restrict the term to designate the literary description of visual works of art, in classical rhetoric the term included any of the tools by which an orator might convey the experience of an event of physical and spiritual intensity to an audience that was not present for it. I believe this is a promising lens through which to examine the issues of writing sporting bodies.  And it complements an essay in progress that I have been invited to contribute on the way in which ESPN’s 30 for 30 series of documentary films imagines the landscape of basketball history for a new generation of fans.


Finally, I have also begun research into a book length cultural history of statistical reasoning in sports, with a specific focus on how the convergence of advanced statistical methods, sophisticated new data acquisition and processing technologies, and an emphasis on economic efficiency have over the past decade or so transformed professional basketball, both on the court and in popular discourse.  I see quantitative reasoning as a kind of language, one particularly authorized in American society to frame narratives regarding what does and does not count in sporting experience. But I am concerned with the incalculable political, ethical, and aesthetic experiences of the sport that the language of numbers, and the stories it emphasizes, appears to be marginalizing in contemporary sport.

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