Saturday, February 5, 2011

Philosophy and football again

I just watched Sean D. Kelly on The Colbert Report, where he says that one remaining place where the sacred can be experienced is at sporting events (he seems to include watching on TV, but perhaps only if this is with others). This reminded me of a post of mine where I talked a bit about this, but also of this essay on Liverpool Football Club and the religious devotion of its followers.

The closest comparison is with the Catholic Church and Islam. Both powerful religions obsessed with being big. Obsessed with the number of followers they have and obsessed with preserving their beliefs even when faced with evidence that disproves or just challenges their long-held assumptions.

Ritual, as we know, is a key element to religious behaviour. "You'll Never Walk Alone" is an incredible example of this. It is sung with religious fervour and is about surrendering individuality for the group. It is a defining moment for all Liverpool followers. No other football chant comes close. And they ask everyone who hears it to comment on it. They ask us to confirm that it is the loudest, most awe-inspiring, most spine-tingling, most religious moment we have ever experienced. And it is repeated word-for-word, note-for-note before every match as a gospel choir would sing in church. It does not behave like a football chant. There is no humour, no taunting the opposition, no jolly lads getting ready for 90 minutes of support and abuse. It is born-again, wide-eyed fervour.

Repetition is, of course, a central factor to the belief system and that is why every Liverpool follower (I choose this word above supporter), is primed to say exactly the same as every other Liverpool follower. There can be no deviation from the true path. Have you ever met a Liverpool follower who would dare to say that YNWA is a dreadful chant or that talking about "history" is a load of bunkum? This kind of deviation is not allowed and if someone dared to say such a thing then the simple answer would be that he is not a true follower because a true follower would not say such a thing.

History. What is this fascination with history? Football is really only about the present and memory. It is not about history. Most supporters know all about their team. They know the great players, cups won and disappointments along the way. But history? This is something that religions do in order to create a back story on which to build a myth. Liverpool has no more history than Crewe Alexandra or Queens Park Rangers, although it has certainly had more success. Success can be measured and although Liverpool's followers like to quote their successes (and fear being surpassed), it is something that is ultimately too risky to build a belief system upon. In fact, this season Manchester United could become more "successful" than Liverpool in domestic league titles. For this reason Liverpool's belief system is built on an abstract concept (history) rather than something that is scientifically provable (league titles). In fact, the more Liverpool stopped winning things, the more "history" became the currency for their beliefs.
The last part makes me at least somewhat sympathetic to the kind of logical positivist-ish spirit of the author. The rest of it is a reminder of the humourlessness of religion. Kelly quotes Nietzsche to the effect that the sacred is what you cannot laugh at. It might be very good for there to be such things, but they ought to be things that are worth taking that seriously. Liverpool are not that, and arguably no football team is (including the Packers).

I wonder whether Kelly means that at sporting events you can feel what the sacred is like rather than actually experiencing anything genuinely sacred. That doesn't sound quite right to me (in terms of what he would say), but it's odd to talk about the sacred without being concerned with distinguishing the genuine from the fake. Colbert hints at this.

I also wonder why we laugh at everything these days, why irreverence and political incorrectness are so popular. There is even a whole genre of humour based on shock, on going into forbidden territory. Quentin Tarantino (whose films I like) comes to mind. Why do we like this stuff so much? Are we bored? Or is it somehow that if we didn't laugh we'd cry? And why is that: the death of God, the Holocaust, the failure of the 1960s hippy dream, the failure of socialism? In the words of Philip Larkin, I don't know. 

It sometimes seems to have to do with the smallness of the world. I watched The Third Man last night, which contains a famous scene where people look down from a ferris wheel at the dots below and talk about how easy and tempting it might be to accept the death of one of these dots for, say, $20,000. It takes an act of imagination to see the dots as people, as mattering. This is work, and work that can cost us money. (There is a lot of money to be made in industries that a strictly ethical person might refuse to be involved with.) And you could go mad trying to take seriously the humanity of every single person that we know to be in trouble. How can you care enough about Sudan, Egypt, Iraq, Afghanistan, etc., etc.? Ethics, perhaps mere humanity, requires us to care, but sanity seems to require that we not care too much. You almost have to turn the caring on and off, and never turn it up too loud. Perhaps the kind of irony that goes with irreverence is a necessary defense of our capacity to be human. Or perhaps that's just an excuse for a moral failing, a failure to be serious enough. And sport seems more like a distraction from what really matters than an instance of it.

Anyway, I hope the Packers win tomorrow.    


  1. I'm not sure about why we laugh so much (though I like to laugh, too), but it seems that part of the "problem" is that all the new media makes it very easy to know, in real time, about terrible things that are happening far away, about which, in most ways, we can do very little or nothing. But the fact of those terrible things can make doing something like watching the Super Bowl seem awful. (Nevertheless, I'll be rooting for the Packers, too.)

  2. Yes, I agree that we have access to more information than we can deal with very well. Generally this access is a good thing, but it does bring problems with it. I don't think laughing itself is a problem, but it might be nice if some things were just off-limits without this having to be said. And I don't think it's bad to take a break from serious things either. The only mistake is taking the break to be more serious than it is. For instance, if your team is your religion in a non-ironic sense.

  3. I'm not sure, but it seems to me that our readyness to laugh at anything has something in common with our willingness to talk seriously about anything. Isn't irony doing and saying the oposite of what you think? So, the ironic laughter may be one way of taking things seriously. So too, I think, with most academic discussions of, say, the legality of torture. A possible problem with both irony and this sort of discussion, however, is that they may make these sorts of things genuinely discussable and open up the way to genuine laughter, and that too much of either may blur this distinction all together.

    The Third Man is a great movie, one of my all time favorites. In fact, if you care to know, I recently blogged about this very scene, in a somewhat similar way, myself.

    What you wrote about football in your last comment reminds me of Terry Eagleton's book on The Meaning of Life -- a book I have been meaning to read for a long time. Thanks. I know that Eagleton, in that book, comments on the way sports and football in particular has become a substitute for the meaning religion used to give to peoples lives. I'm sure he sympathizes with this need, but I suspect he's not so happy with this solution.

  4. Thanks. I'll have to look at Eagleton's book. I also must read those three long posts of yours--I 'read' the first one, but the google translation was rather mangled, especially the quotations, which made it hard to follow. I'll try again.

    Ironic laughter might be a way of taking things seriously, yes. Satirists like Stephen Colbert have a serious purpose, of course. And perhaps they do more than just entertain. I sometimes think a useful purpose could be served by writing a novel set in a world in which common right-wing ideas are actually true: global warming is made up by scientists, so is evolution, liberals really are conspiring to bring communism to the USA, gay organizations have a secret agenda, etc. This might help to make clear the absurdity of these ideas (what might be the scientists' motive, for instance?). But I think you make a good point about irony opening the way for genuine laughter and discussion of what ought to be out of the question.

  5. Michael Crichton's novel State of Fear certainly struck me as an absurd description of climatologists and the issue of global warming. The book appears not to have been written to provoke that reaction however, and judging from the kind of publicity Crichton received, it was very often not read that way either. Wasn't he invited by president Bush as an expert speaker on the "danger" of climate change? Of course, if you pack all of these topics into one volume the silliness might strike even that kind of readers...or perhaps just as likely, they will brush you off as unserious. (I hate to sound negative. I do believe in the power of literature. It's just that we've had some rather sad examples of this in Norway.)

    (As for the mess Google Translation makes: The von Wright quotes in section one are all in Swedish.)

  6. Well, that explains the translation problem.

    Yes, the dangers a novel like that would face are that it would either be too credible to some people or else so incredible that it was more stupid than funny. It's probably just as well I'm not a novelist.