“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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Free Running: How to Fix the Sports Machine

parkourtease2_0Today I wrapped up my second go around with Global Sports Cultures (a/k/a Comparative Literature 100) with a final lecture on free running, specifically on the youth group known as PK Gaza.

Throughout the semester we’ve been using a variety of lenses to look at the intersection between sports, society, and culture (including art).  In the process, I introduced the idea of the “sports machine” to refer to this complex and to get students to think pragmatically and critically about what they use this machine for and how they might engage it in ways that maximize its positive outputs while minimizing, or at least becoming more conscious of, its negative byproducts.

I wanted to use the example of free running as a way to suggest what I think of as one exemplary way, if not to fix the sports machine (as I provocatively titled my lecture), then at least to operate within it in a way that augments the possibilities for human freedom, joy, and beauty that sports promises and can deliver. Students viewed a video that PK Gaza posted (which I show in the lecture below) and read some journalistic and scholarly accounts of parkour and free running.

I think the lecture is pretty self-contained, but if you there are some references to previous lectures, most of which you can find here (I still have one from last week to add, on power and autonomy at the 1968 Summer Olympics).

I was very proud of this lecture, which I felt really did a great job of tying together and shedding new light on a number of recurrent themes from the course, while leaving students with some thought provoking challenges to take with them.

Here is the link to the lecture.

Troubleshooting the Sports Machine (Global Sports Cultures, 1st Lecture)

Yesterday I gave my first lecture in Global Sports Cultures (Comparative Literature 100).  After teaching the course for the first time last year, I retooled the syllabus both to make the material more concrete by prioritizing certain figures and moments as primary focal points for each week’s studies and also to facilitate my making my lectures more accessible, and more interactive.  I also put lots of time into creating an interactive online course concept map as a resource for students looking to find more about particular facts, ideas, or personalities or to explore comparative connections from week to week.  It’s still in progress, but I’m including it here below because I think it could a very valuable tool, and I certainly have been learning a lot putting it together. The image below gives you an idea of what that looks like (each of those “Thought” boxes is clickable and contains more specific thoughts), but feel free click here if you want to explore the course concepts for yourself.

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The fact is, I vastly prefer small groups and open-ended discussion.  But, as I told the students yesterday, we are at the University of Michigan and our administration wants us to have a certain ratio of student credit hours per faculty position: so here we are, 172 of them and me.  I’m not there yet, but I’m trying to find ways to flip this beast.

My goal for the first week’s lecture was pretty simple: to get them to use their own experiences and feelings about sport together with the readings they’d already done in order to get to three ideas: 1) that sports may be understood as a machine for delivering certain positive effects; 2) that it may not be running as well as it could; 3) that this class was about developing certain diagnostic skills and tools to begin to troubleshoot and fix the sports machine.  To aid me in this process, I prepared a power point presentation (I know, I usually hate them to, especially giving them) with some video clips and images that I thought would provide more concrete and so impactful ways for them to think about the positive and the negative effects of the sports machine.

I’m always nervous on the first day, but was even more so yesterday because: 1) 172 adolescent students in a big auditoriums; 2) technology; 3) trying to persuade sports fans that thinking critically about sports won’t ruin their love of sports.  But I donned my professorial uniform of khaki chinos and a navy blazer, laced up my pink Chuck Taylors and bravely stepped into the arena.

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The sound didn’t work on the powerpoint videos, which in one case was truly disappointing to me, but I think I rebounded from that pretty well.  By 9 pm on the day of lecture, students are required to post to a course website one quote from their lecture notes and then to explain why they selected it.  These went up pretty quickly yesterday afternoon and I was very heartened to see that many, if not most, of the students had chosen the sports is a machine metaphor and explained the choice by confessing they’d never really thought about it that way (or even really thought negatively about sports—one of them reported that this was the first time taking a sports-related course at Michigan that he’d heard a professor refer to a negative side to sports) and expressing their excitement to roll up their sleeves, pick up their tools, and get under the hood.

You can see for yourself what you think here.  A couple of technical notes, I’m sorry that, as I said, the sound on some of the videos didn’t work.  I’ll figure that out before next week.  And I’m sorry also that the only images are of the power point slide (if anyone care about that).  I’m going to try to change that setting as well so we get both the slides and the classroom.  Lastly, I’m sharing this in part because I welcome feedback, whether from students or other individuals who might, if they were at Michigan, take a course like this or from other teachers.  If you have suggestions that aren’t too terrifying and don’t make me feel defensive, I will most definitely consider them.  So, please click the link below, and enjoy!

Trouble Shooting the Sports Machine (Lecture 1, Global Sports Cultures, September 14, 2015)

 

Why We Should Have a Sports Studies Major

I’ve been fortunate to get to expand my repertoire of courses in sports studies over the past few years from Cultures of Basketball to Global Sports Cultures to Writing the Sporting Body.  In this time, my colleagues in the Residential College and the Department of Comparative Literature at Michigan have been supportive and for that I feel both fortunate and grateful.  But it’s important to emphasize that their support is neither a matter of chance nor of charity.  My colleagues are all exceptional scholars and teachers, with rigorous standards for research, pedagogy, and the curriculum.  Their support for the courses I’ve been developing has come because—not despite—their intelligence, integrity and commitment to higher education.  In other words, these courses exist and flourish because scholars with no special personal interest in athletics per se believe that athletics is a valuable object of study for humanities students. Read more

To Protest or Not to Protest: Is that the Question? On Hamlet and Athletic Politics

Some of you know that I was recently honored to participate in an American Studies Association round table discussion on athletic resistance and fan pleasure.  Other panelists included Jennifer Doyle, Sarah Jackson, Ben Carrington and Harry Edwards.  Our organizer, Professor David Leonard of Washington State University, asked each of the panelists to prepare a 5 minute response to the  following initial question:   “Today’s sportscape is defined by the constant solicitation, maintenance, and fulfillment of fan pleasure.  It is equally defined by a far reaching platform afforded to athletes.  How do the privileging of fan pleasure and the possibilities of protest play out in today’s sports world?”  I’m including my response below. Read more

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