“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.

“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.

Immanuel_Kant_(painted_portrait)

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.

 

 

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

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