“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.


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.