“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.

 

 

Why (and how to) Read CLR James on Cricket

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What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?

Over the past month or so, I’ve been reviewing my plans for Global Sports Culture, a course  I’ll be teaching for just the second time this fall. I knew there were some things I wanted to improve upon based on my first go round and so some changes I needed to make to the content and structure.  I’ve done a lot of that work, including create an interactive concept map which I’m going to share here once I’ve finalized it.

But for all the changes I’ve made (and there are many), one thing I knew early on that I wouldn’t change was the reading assignment for the first week’s lecture, in which I introduce students to the challenges, opportunities, and methods for studying global sports cultures. That’s a week where I want to entice a couple of hundred adolescent sports fans at a Big Ten university that reflecting upon their passion and the cultural objects that incite it can be a valuable thing: not only edifying, but pleasurable in its own right, and even, enhancing of the enjoyment they currently take in sports.  To aid me in this task I have recruited two different, short readings, both of which elegantly—though with different kinds of elegance—make the case for keeping our thinking brains working even as we let our feeling brains run riot in our encounters with sporting cultures.

Sports as Escape, Struggle, and Art

In their superb introduction to Blackwell’s A Companion to Sport, a comprehensive volume the two also edited, Ben Carrington and David Andrews—two of the most prolific and well-regarded sports studies scholars writing today—explain how the study of sports can move us past unhelpful dichotomous approaches to sport that either unsubtly trash it as a kind of opiate excess or naively adore it as a repository of proper values.  Instead, Carrington and Andrews encourage students of sports culture to think about sport

as an escape from everyday life whilst understanding that no cultural activity is completely autonomous from societal constraints, to examine sport as a form of cultural struggle, resistance, and politics whilst recognizing that it is also compromised by forms of commodification, commercialization, and bureaucratic control, and to consider sport as an embodied art form that is formed in relation to both intrinsic and extrinsic goals and rewards that sometimes over-determine the stated aims of the participants.

This is sport, in their words, as escape, struggle, and art.  We are to see not one or the other, but all three functions at once served in some way or another, though probably in different proportions, in every sporting event.  And, moreover, we are to see that sport’s ability to fulfill these three functions is constrained by the very condition that allows it to serve these functions: namely, that sport is a swatch in the social fabric.

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In this, Carrington and Andrews draw their inspiration from C. L. R. James who thought about sport, they write

as an activity that is simultaneously a space to which we escape for fun, relaxation, and enjoyment, a space charged with social significance and political possibilities for expressing who we are as individuals and the larger communities to which we belong, and as an embodied art form, a physically creative and aesthetic mode of being human, a world replete with all the ugliness and beauty, tragedy and joy, that resides within human society.

James, therefore, provides the second reading with which I begin my course.

For those unfamiliar with him, Cyril Lionel Robert James was, to put it simply, one of the most awe-inspiring cultural and political figures of the twentieth century. Novelist, playwright, philosopher, literary critic, historian, teacher, activist, journalist, cricketer and sports fan, James, who was born in 1901 in a small village in then-colonial Trinidad, lived, traveled and worked in Latin America, the United States, Africa, and England (where he died, in London, in 1989).  James is probably best known for The Black Jacobins, a definitive history of the Haitian revolution.  My personal favorite, for the record, is Mariners, Renegades and Castaways: The Story of Herman Melville and the World We Live In.  James presents Moby Dick as a prescient portrayal of the industrial and imperial might American would come to acquire in the century after the novel’s publication.  James wrote the book in the United States, while interned on Ellis Island as McCarthy’s HUAC investigated the activist work he’d done in Detroit. James believed the book would reassure his persecutors of his love for what he called “American Civilization.” It didn’t work.

Yet Mariners, Renegades, and Castaways, like all his writing, is imbued with extraordinary erudition, a breathtaking capacity to grasp as ambiguity not as an impediment to commitment, but as its precondition, and by an elegant style balanced by a teacher and activist’s commitment to clarity.  All this is in full force in Beyond a Boundary (1963), the work that inspired Carrington and Andrews (and before them several pioneering generations of students of sport and society).  Beyond a Boundary deftly mixes autobiographical recollection, historical analysis of West Indian decolonization, and reflection on the moral, aesthetic, cultural and political dimensions of West Indian cricket (here, by the way, is a documentary that was made of Beyond a Boundary in the late 70s).

Even this brief description probably explains how Beyond a Boundary complements Carrington and Andrews in helping get students to think about sports.  Because of time constraints, however, I can’t assign the entire work.  Instead, I ask them to read Chapter 1, called “The Window,” and the Preface.  Here I just want to share with you my way of reading the Preface, which is extremely brief and yet somehow, remarkably, already expresses in a kind of holographic magic, the whole of Beyond a Boundary and, for that matter, the whole of my course. In fact, it’s so brief that I can show it to you right here.

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Questioning

Now let me show you what we might make of it in class.  The first thing I notice is that James begins by telling us what this book is not: neither “cricket reminiscences nor autobiography.” This might seem curious since the book clearly includes both, and in great detail. So we have a puzzle right from the start: how do we make sense of this? James helps somewhat in the very next sentence, when he tells us what the book is, or rather—significantly—when he tells us what it is by telling us what it does: the book, he says, “poses the question [emphasized by italics] what do they know of cricket who only cricket know?”  The question, through its repetition of the terms, requires us to think about the relationship between cricket and knowing (which is to say, for my students, between sports and study).

Imagine that you are sitting with an alien from outer space during a Michigan football game on a Saturday afternoon in the autumn.  The alien has asked you to explain what you are witnessing together. How you choose to answer says a lot about what you know about football but also about what you think is important to know about football.  Would you identify the teams and the players?  Would you talk about where the players come from and how they came to be here? Would you mention that most of them are black? Would you talk about the individual fundamental skills and techniques they are exhibiting? The strategies and tactics employed by coaching staffs and players? The rules? The violence? The behavior of the fans? The history of the stadium? The relationship between what is happening on the field and the mission of the educational institution to which it is attached? The economic aspects?

If you imagine a sport (like cricket or football) as a country with a border clearly separating it from another country, then you might imagine that the best way to know that country would be to ignore everything on the other side of the border.  But James implies with his rhetorical question that to know that country you have to know what is not that country, what is on other side of the border.  But sports and countries aren’t the only things with borders.  Books and genres have them too, or at least we are used to thinking of them that way:  “cricket reminiscences” is a country, clearly separated from another country called “autobiography.”  So now, perhaps, we can see that with his opening line, James is rejecting those confining categories of thought.

Borders and boundaries.  Notice the title of James’s book: Beyond a Boundary.  In cricket, the word “boundary” refers to two things: 1) the edge of the playing field (like the homerun wall in baseball if it encircled the entire diamond and not just the 90 degree slice extending out from home plate); 2) a run scoring play in which the batsman hits the ball over the boundary (like a home run).  But, considering the emphasis James has already placed on crossing boundaries, the title itself echoes and expresses the central lesson: to know—not just cricket, not just sport, but anything—is to cross boundaries, which is to say, to travel (an image the importance of which James will emphasize momentarily).

It’s striking too that James presents this point as a question rather than simply stating: “those who only know cricket don’t really know cricket.” It’s striking, I mean that a proposition about knowledge and its limits should be posed in the form of a question.  For questions, as forms of discourse, are invitations to come to know, to do the traveling required to get to know.  In this sense, James seems to avoid the trap of illusory certainty.

However, the question is also a rhetorical question in two ways.  First, in the usual sense in which the question isn’t really or only a question but also a way of offering the answer: in this case, “nothing.”  But the question is rhetorical in another sense.   On one side we have “know-cricket” and on the other side we have “cricket-know.”  This structure actually has a name: chiasmus (pronounced “Kye-as-muss”).  It is named after the Greek letter chi (which looks like our “x”) because of the criss-cross pattern of the word repetition.
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The symmetry of chiasmus offers a feeling of closure and a sense of completeness that can lead the listener or reader to feel that all aspects of an issue have been accounted for. This is part of what makes chiasmus effective as a figure of speech.  But if the chiasmus work partly because of the impression of completeness and the confidence it can impart to a listener or reader, what happens when a chiasmus takes the form of a question (as it does here)? And a question that challenges the assumptions we might have about the completeness of knowledge?

James’ ironical, rhetorical question doesn’t hold still while we pin one meaning, one answer to it. Just when we try to frame an answer, some solid ground we could stand on, protected by firm boundaries separating us from ignorance, it shifts. James seems simultaneously to be challenging the claims of knowledge that base themselves on the fixity of categorical boundaries and to be trying to inoculate that challenge against itself falling prey to the same trap.

James has very assertively set down a challenge regarding what it means to know a sport.  That’s an excellent way for us to begin a semester in which we too are studying sports.  So let me pause to go into greater detail here on this question of knowledge.

Knowing

James brings up knowledge twice in the Preface.  First, in the rhetorical question we just looked at, then again in the final sentence:  “To establish his own identity, Caliban, after three centuries, must himself pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Though brief, this is a tricky, but very important, sentence.  In part, it’s tricky (at least for most of my students) because of the references to Caliban and Caesar and then doubly so because the references are employed metaphorically. So let’s just see who they were to begin with, then we can look at how they work as metaphors, and then finally we can tackle what it means that Caliban must go into regions unknown to Caesar.

Caliban is a character in the play “The Tempest,” written by William Shakespeare.  The play is set on a tropical island, where a European nobleman named Prospero has set himself as a ruler over the island’s native inhabitants, including Caliban, whom Shakespeare portrays as a kind of animal.  For example, in one scene, Prospero berates Caliban for ingratitude, reminding him that he didn’t even know how to speak until Prospero arrived and taught him.  Caliban’s sharp retort to this is that he wished he had never learned to speak, since the only good it has done him is that now he can curse Prospero for occupying his island and enslaving him.  Though “The Tempest” is not set on any actually identifiable island, Shakespeare wrote the play at a time when Europeans like himself were becoming familiar with reports from the English, Spanish and Portuguese men who explored and colonized the Americas, including the tropical islands of the Caribbean that we know today as the West Indies.  Some of these included descriptions of native inhabitants as barbaric and uncivilized cannibals.  Some scholars believe that the character of Caliban (whose name is almost an anagram of the word cannibal) is loosely based on these descriptions and that the play represents the European colonization of the West Indies.

Around the time that James was writing “The Window” numerous artists, intellectuals, and political leaders in the Caribbean who were dissatisfied with the effects of colonial rule on their native lands had seized on this idea and began to use Caliban as a symbol for themselves and their people.  Just as Caliban cursed Prospero in the language the latter had taught him, so these individuals claimed that the Caribbean people would have to dismantle the effects of colonialism by using the tools—meaning the language, ideas, and social institutions—imposed on them or their ancestors by their colonizers.  This process of dismantling the political, economic, cultural and psychological structures of colonialism is called “decolonization.”  And decolonization, in a word, is the metaphorical meaning of Caliban as James here employs the name in his Preface.

Caesar you may be somewhat more familiar with, perhaps by the name Julius Caesar. He was a Roman statesman and military leader who amassed popular power at home and expanded the territory under Roman control all the way to what is today England and Germany as a means of transforming the democratic Roman republic into the dictatorial Roman Empire.  As he did with the fictional character of Caliban, James is using the historical figure of Caesar as a metaphor: in this case, a metaphor for imperial rulers.  Through these metaphors, though Caliban is a fictional character created fifteen centuries after the death of Julius Caesar, James creates an image of a relationship between colonized (Caliban) and colonizer (Caesar).

Now, as I mentioned above, the “regions Caesar never knew” are metaphorical as well.  James isn’t necessarily talking about literal exploration of unknown territories.  We can tell from the context (the sentence immediately before this describes, autobiographically, the process by which certain ideas James first encountered as a boy in the West Indies could only be tracked down and tested when he’d gone to England) that these regions probably refer to regions of thought.  So the metaphor “regions Caesar never knew” means something like “thoughts or ideas that colonizers and imperial powers never knew.”  Caliban meanwhile, who is the colonized, will have to “pioneer” those regions, that is, to go beyond his colonizing rulers in order to discover these “regions” of thoughts and ideas, these bodies of knowledge, that they never knew.  And he must do this in order, James tells us, “to establish his own identity.”

So knowledge of ideas and the world, according to James, is inseparable from the process by which we come to form ourselves as distinct individuals with unique identities.  This is true for all of us, of course, but James is especially concerned with those, like himself, who grew up as colonized individuals within a colonial empire.  James reminds us that the very structures and dynamics of colonial society establish the ideas, customs, morals, and values of the colonial rulers as natural and superior, while the ideas, customs, morals and values of the natives are seen as strange and inferior.  It follows from this that within such a system the “best” that a native (or colonized) individual could become is something like an adequate copier of the colonizer’s superior way of life.  But in doing so, this individual must distance himself from his own native way of life as well as from the history of his land and his ancestors.  The result is a kind of unbearable duality of experience for such individuals one with serious and documented psychological effects:  among the colonizers he can only ever be a second-rate copycat, while among the natives he is an alien, a poser who has forfeited his native identity for a kind of second-hand foreign one.

When James speaks of Caliban establishing “his own identity” he means an identity that escapes from this lose-lose dichotomy.  Rather than either rejecting or trying to copy wholesale the ideas of the colonizer, Caliban can combine his unique experience and various acquired ideas in order to discover new thoughts and ideas and in this way “pioneer into regions Caesar never knew.”  Of course, we should keep in mind that the fact that Caesar “never knew” these regions doesn’t mean that Caesar never traveled to them. I’m not saying he did.  Just cautioning that given the rhetorical question with which James began, we should beware of conflating different sense of the word “know.”

Part of what makes this passage so powerful, in my opinion, is that in this sentence James (following from the preceding, autobiographical sentence) is using the metaphors to speak of himself and his own experience but in terms that render that experience more general: it becomes the possible experience of every colonized or formerly colonized person.  In this way, it is a kind of battle cry or slogan, meant to inspire others like himself to establish their own identities.

But even so, the other part of what makes this passage powerful, again in my opinion, is that it is built around metaphors drawn from European culture (Caliban and Caesar) and, specifically, from the history of conquest and colonization (including “pioneering” and “regions”).  These metaphors, in that sense, are European tools in two senses:  first because they come from European texts, and second because they are about European conquest and colonization.  You wouldn’t think such metaphors would be very promising raw materials for a sentence describing the process by which a colonized individual can free his or her mind, but James makes them just that.

To know is to travel and to travel, in this world, is always to go where someone else has already been. Whether they know where they have been is another, open question. And what we do in that encounter with the other person is yet another, also open question.

Oh yeah, and don’t forget, all of this begins with an ironic, rhetorically posed challenge to remember that if we only know cricket, then we don’t know cricket.  Is all of this, on knowing, and Caliban and Caesar and traveling all part of the response to that question? Part of its elaboration? Perhaps part of what we need also need to know if we are truly to know cricket is the history of colonization and the process by which native subjects try to free themselves of its influence by using the tools of colonization.  And this is because cricket—like language and Shakespeare and the history of the Roman empire—is one of those tools.  And to see the ways that cricket is more than cricket, or rather that cricket is also a means for political domination and political liberation (which is the subject of James’ book on cricket), is precisely to pioneer into regions Caeser never knew.

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What Racism Means to Me

This is probably hopeless, but the teacher in me won’t seem to allow me to let it go or write it off.  In the wake of my posts over the last week on Steph Curry, LeBron James and coaching, and coaching more generally, I’ve gotten some comments and responses that, in various ways, accuse me of injecting racial dynamics into issues where none are in fact in play.  Rather than try to respond to each of those individually, I thought it might be helpful if I explained what I mean when I talk about the racism.

First, a few points qualifying what follows.  Racism, obviously, takes many, many different forms.  I do not consider myself an expert in the history of race in this country or elsewhere.  I’m not a sociologist or an anthropologist or a historian.  These are all real scholarly disciplines with real methods that require years to master.  The study of race, undertaken from whatever disciplinary foundation, requires even more work on top of that.  I’ve done some of this work, to be sure, but I want to be careful to make clear that I am here just explaining what racism means to me, with my interdisciplinary training in literary and cultural studies and philosophy.  I don’t think of this as the last word, but genuinely as an attempt to clarify my own positions and, perhaps, to move the conversation forward a bit. In other words, I’m still learning and eager to continue to do so.  Finally, I’m confining myself to what I feel qualified to talk about: how racism gets sedimented in our language and culture, even or especially when its expression is not overt, and independently of the avowed views on race espoused by a given individual who is using language or adding to our culture.

Let me take the example of Marc Stein’s piece on LeBron James, which more than the others has occasioned the sort of objection to which I want to respond.  I should begin by saying (as I did explicitly in my post) that I’m not concerned with whether or not Marc Stein is, as an individual human being, a racist.  I’m not concerned, I mean, with whether or not he harbors prejudicial attitudes or feelings towards racial minorities.  For one thing, I don’t know him personally.  If pressed, I’d guess he probably doesn’t.  But I was never talking about Marc Stein.  I was talking about the language he was using, the assumptions he was relying upon in making his argument, and the history of that language and assumptions.  So that’s the first thing: when I talk about racism as I have this past week (and most of the time), I’m separating out the language and culture an individual is using from the individual him or herself.

I believe that when we speak or write the language we use inevitably means more than what we intend it to mean.  Of course, we may be more or less skilled at conveying our intended meaning clearly in language.  But even the most crystal clear bit of language always carries an excess of meaning.  This is first of all because language (and culture more broadly) has a history and second of all because it is social.  We like to think of language as a neutral instrument that we can employ to achieve only our intended effects, without concern for its past or where it came from and so without regard for the unintended effects it might have.  But I think, to put this directly, that this is naive at best and misguided and potentially dangerous at worst.

In Philip Pullman’s marvelous trilogy His Dark Materials, there is an instrument called the subtle knife.  subtle_knife_by_j_westOne edge of the knife is so sharp it can cut through any material. The other edge is sharper still, capable of slashing the molecules separating one universe from another.  At a crucial moment in the plot, this powerful tool, in the hands of our heroes, Will and Lyra, shatters, threatening to leave them forever stranded in a world that is not there own.  Fortunately, they have a friend who is a master blacksmith, capable of repairing the knife.  Only, he is not sure he wants to.  When they ask him why, he explains that the point of the knife is so fine that he cannot see it.  Though he trusts their good intentions in using the knife, the invisibility of its point tells him that the knife may have intentions and so effects unknown to any of them.  The heroes protest that regardless of the knife’s intentions, their intentions, the blacksmith knows, are pure and that, anyway, they have to do something important and they can’t do it without the knife.  The blacksmith agrees, reluctantly, but only after receiving assurances that Will and Lyra will be exceptionally mindful in their use of the tool, careful to monitor their own intentions as well as to be aware of the unintended effects of the knife.

Language and culture are like that knife. And the historical and social nature of language is like that very, very fine, potentially dangerous point, harboring meanings and effects possibly unknown to us, and possibly counter to what we might intend. Of course, as the blacksmith would acknowledge, we have no choice but to use the powerful tool of language.

Definition of language in dictionary

Language and culture are like that knife.

But we have, as he also insists, a serious responsibility to understand the history and social character deposited in the language we use and then to use that language responsibly.  I sound preachy.  I’m not always so informed or so careful, but I’m almost always regretful when I’m not.  And I certainly try to learn from my mistakes in language and culture by studying more about where the language I use comes from and where it is going.

In the case of how the media portrays Steph Curry, or how Marc Stein cast his criticism of LeBron James, I think there has been a lack of care about the history, within the culture of basketball and in our society more broadly, of certain seemingly innocent terms and apparently natural assumptions.8371413_orig  Basketball, as probably anyone reading this knows, was once segregated, separate and unequal.  Even after integration, quotas remained in place limiting the access of black players to teams, leagues, and playing time.   Even after the quotas faded, black players were subject to criticism for their style of play, their clothing and their behavior.

In that history, if admittedly probably not in the heart of Marc Stein or other writers today, these certain seemingly innocent terms and an apparently natural assumptions about how things ought to be in the game have been used directly to discriminate against, to demean, to control and to punish African-American players or else indirectly to justify such practices.black_fives_caro_page-bg_22944 This is real history, which I am not making up or “reading into” my objects of study. Anybody can read the newspapers of the past, the histories and biographies and autobiographies that I have read and discover the very same thing, plain as day.

annual rate of men killed by police

The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.

What’s more, these very real practices are themselves linked (much as we sports fans would like to think that the entertaining games we love exist in isolation from the societies in which we enjoy them) to other very real practices in the world whereby, as my friend put it in a recent short essay, “people who are not white die sooner than those who are.”  This happens systematically, even though many white people naturally protest that they don’t want any part of it.  The system is called white supremacy and it is supported by racism.  The system is embedded in social behaviors, public policy, and the acts of individuals.  Language and culture may not be the most direct tools in the arsenal by which this system achieves its effects, but both language and culture are nonetheless indispensable to its existence and durability.

We may not have been responsible for using language and culture in this way in the first place, but we are certainly responsible for tossing the same ideas and words out into the world as though, just because we are ourselves have only innocent intentions, they can cause no further harm.  I can understand from experience how painful it can feel to realize that one has inadvertently stepped into it, contrary to one’s intentions, but I think we should try to keep that pain from driving us to close our minds to the possibility of growing, let alone our hearts to the pain of others.

And that is why, in my own little corner of the world, filled with basketball players, coaches, owners, fans, and journalists, I care about the language, the images, and the metaphors we use to talk about the game we love.  It is why I care about the assumptions that we too often carelessly wield in building arguments.  It is why I insist, and will continue to insist, that we can do better by our sports and better by ourselves.  We can’t stop using language and we don’t need to become control freaks or language cops.  We just need to reflect a bit more deeply on our feelings and intentions before we speak and write and create more culture.  We just need to inform ourselves a little better about the history of that language, that culture, and those assumptions.  It’s hard for me to understand why, understood in this way, anybody would object to the project of trying (whether by critique or by the creation of new versions of old stories) to use the powerful tool that is language more carefully, so that, as best as we can manage, it doesn’t aid in the perpetuation of a system whereby other human beings die sooner than others.