Tuesday, July 31, 2012

A bit of singing and dancing

I keep meaning to do some real work and then other things come along instead. Similarly with blogging. One of these days I'll have a go at proper philosophical blogging (if that's what you want, Matthew Pianalto, Reshef Agam-Segal, and Daniel Lindquist have been managing to do great stuff despite its being summer), but I haven't managed much of that lately. In the meantime, Rupert Read has some interesting reflections on sport that I'd like to try to respond to. He touches not only on sport but on politics and other things too.

On the commercial corruption of 'sport' he writes:
As our climate-damaged sport-saturated ‘summer’ continues, it’s worth taking a moment perhaps to reflect on the concept of ‘sport’, and what it means today.
Take recent Wimbledon tennis finalist Andy Murray, for instance. Murray said on Radio 4 in the run-up to that final that he only enjoys winning, not playing / taking part – he regards tennis purely as a job. If so, he is a tennis player for the age of faceless soulless capitalism: an obscenely-over-rewarded workman. 
There's a lot going on here: climate-change, 'sport', soulless capitalism, and obscene rewards, for instance. Let me say a few words (literally) about each of these, to remind myself where I stand, if nothing else, before moving on.

Climate change: this recent article is worth reading, though also depressing. My view is basically that we are doomed unless global or nearly global action is taken. That's not to say that no one should bother recycling or walking when they don't have to drive, say, but that kind of individual effort won't save us. Another aspect of my view that is worth mentioning here is that Rupert Read makes heroic efforts in this department and puts me to shame. By this I don't mean simply that I admire him for what he does. I mean literally that I feel shame when I do things like drive or run air-conditioning, and I consciously connect this shame with him. Rupert would walk or ride a bike, I tell myself. Rupert would put up with this heat, or use a fan, or something. I'm not him, but I do genuinely (an earlier draft of this sounded sarcastic--I hope that's no longer true) admire his work for the environment, and the integrity he shows in doing it.

'Sport': I'll get back to this.

Soulless capitalism: a bad thing, but the other kind of capitalism is something I rather like. I don't buy the idea that everything government-run is bound to be inefficient and bad. Whatever you might think of the United States' socialized military, it's surely better than Blackwater. But I'm not a socialist. I like small businesses, family-run farms, and the like. It's big business that doesn't seem so good. Especially any business deemed too big to fail and therefore given public money. If we need businesses that big, it seems to me, they should be publicly owned, so that we share the profits as well as the risk and the cost of keeping them going.

Obscene rewards: I'm all for progressive taxation, and against enormous inequality.

OK, where was I? Later in the same article Read says:
In another, earlier, interview Murray also claimed, ‘My body feels like a machine.’ These words will be of interest to a philosopher like Merleau-Ponty, or Zygmunt Bauman. They are a confession of a way of living the body and of experiencing oneself as an industrial object, and a commodity, which is critiqued beautifully also by a philosophical neurologist like Iain McGilchrist (see my piece at http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=3398). They reveal the ethos of an activity that goes beyond inspiring youngsters to work hard to achieve high aspirations. Rather it fills youngsters with the idea that it is OK and admirable to be alienated from your own body; that winning is all that matters; that joy is unimportant.
So now we have the commodification of the body as well. That's a bad thing. Whether that's really what's going on with tennis players like Murray (and I think Andre Agassi said that tennis was a joyless job to him too) is another matter. Some of the comments below Read's post address this question. Machinification is everywhere, though, including the slow death of the humanities and the growth of distance learning. As Read implies, this is linked with a kind of consequentialism without utilitarianism, without hedonism. Winning is all that matters, joy is unimportant. This is the attitude of soulless capitalism, and it's the attitude that Read seems to be primarily against.

This marks the difference between 'sport' and sport. As he writes here:
I have serious reservations about modern spectator ‘sport’. I think it isn’t really…sport any more. It is a kind of madly-over-rewarded professional body-machinisation and semi-prostitution.
When referring to these professional capers, we should always put the scare-quotes in place… (As Confucius would have it: the most important task for a public intellectual is the rectification of names. The name of ‘sport’ has now been thoroughly turned on its head. We need to recover the old meaning (As in ‘What sport we had!’ Or ‘Now that was sporting!’).)
I'm not sure about the semi-prostitution idea (though women's beach volleyball is a possible exception), but the main idea, as I see it, is that professional sport has become joyless. It bears the hallmarks (excessive financial rewards, machinification of the people involved, exclusive focus on winning) of soulless capitalism, and involves precious little fun. This is, at least in general (and it is meant as a general point, after all), true.

Read also suggests that the Olympics causes people to "forget about solidarity with the Arab Awakening, to forget about the collapsing Euro, to forget about our day-by-day smashing of biodiversity and destruction of a liveable atmosphere." And that it increases nationalism. And that instead of watching sports people should be out playing them instead. All of which is questionable. It is possible to watch the Olympics and care about, or even do, other things as well. Nationalism, at least in the United States, is not likely to increase because of the Olympics. We're already pretty much at saturation point. And I would blame the commentators before I would blame the games themselves. I also don't like the idea that we should not watch but play. Why not do both? What if you can't play? Mark Edmundson said something similar about music, and my sense was that he just doesn't really like music. If you want to be in a band, good. But no one should feel that they have to be. And no one should stop listening to good music, or watching good sport, because of some participation ethic. If you want to join a team, fine. If you would rather go running on your own, also fine. If something else is your thing, fine too. We're not boy scouts. Part of the point of sport and art is to express yourself. The self part of that is important, and it requires freedom, including freedom not to join in.

What's good about both art and sport is the quasi-religious aspect (which brings with it an idolatrous aspect, of course: as I was sort of getting at here) and the aesthetics. Am I really going to try to talk about the aesthetics of art? I suppose not, but I will talk about the aesthetics of sport, or of sport as art. Or I'll let other people do so:

That's Stephen Mulhall, from Inheritance and Originality. Here's Geoff Dyer on the marathon in the 2004 Olympics:
Victory and triumph over adversity (as supremely achieved - twice - by Kelly Holmes) are uplifting, but defeat and failure can be utterly transfixing, too. [...]
When Elfenesh Alemu went past her, Radcliffe realised that not only would she not win gold but that she was out of the medals. [...] It was like watching someone having a complete crack-up before your eyes. As such it made superb television. (The grassy verge on which she ended up even lent a Zapruderish touch to the footage.) Athletes deny nine-tenths of themselves so that they can pack the remaining tenth with incredible intensity and purpose. While plenty of people succumb to the urge to give up (going to the gym, trying to be an artist), it goes pretty much unnoticed. But for Radcliffe this was both a public and complete ontological collapse. And it happened, let's not forget, on the very day that that icon of modern despair, Edvard Munch's The Scream was stolen. Who needs art when you've got sport?
Tears of one kind or another were everywhere in evidence at these games. Enough were shed on my sofa to leave me repeatedly and blurrily amazed by sport's capacity to reach depths of emotion that used to be regarded as the preserve of high art. [...] At a time when our responses to everything - especially so-called tragedy - are consistently being cheapened, coarsened and, preprogrammed, sport accesses some zone of shared feeling that remains mysterious in spite of the familiarity of the clichés by which it is routinely articulated. Wordsworth claimed to have thoughts that lay "too deep for tears" but the tears that left Matthew Pinsent a quaking hulk on the podium came from so far within they were practically chthonic.
[...] The majority of the occasions that left me blubbing involved some display of sportsmanship like this: when the decathletes, shattered by their exertions of the last 36 hours embraced each other; when the beaten Bernard Lagat shared El Guerrouj's joy at winning the 1500 metres that had eluded him for so long.
By contrast, the idea that winning is the only thing has become so entrenched in football as to render the sport abhorrent as often as it is thrilling (it was also one of the reasons why the Euros ended up being such a bore). 
Mulhall and Dyer alert us to the art that sport can be, even if we also recognize that the joyless and selfish obsession with one's own victory that Read decries does exist and is a blight.

But is it art? Dyer focuses on the elicitation of emotion, but Mulhall talks also of style, elegance, innovation, of a form of communication, and of seeing, and making visible, something that no one else sees. I think he's right, and that this is enough to make talk of art perfectly appropriate.

Does sport share other features with art? In August 1930 Wittgenstein wrote:
The work of art compels us—as one might say—to see it in the right perspective, but without art the object [der Gegenstand] is a piece of nature like any other & the fact that we may exalt it through our enthusiasm does not give anyone the right to display it to us. (I am always reminded of one of those insipid photographs of a piece of scenery which is interesting to the person who took it because he was there himself, experienced something, but which a third party looks at with justifiable coldness; insofar as it is ever justifiable to look at something with coldness.[)]
But now it seems to me too that besides the work of the artist there is another through which the world may be captured sub specie æterni. It is—as I believe—theway of thought which as it were flies above the world and leaves it the way it is, contemplating it from above in its flight.  [copied gratefully from here]
Do Manchester United (when playing at their best) capture the world sub specie aeterni? Do Olympic athletes? They don't show us an object in the right perspective, because they aren't engaged in representational art. What they do is closer to music or to dance than still-life painting or photography. But there is a sort of ecstasy that comes from seeing incredible skill. Incredibility is the key, I think. When we ask "How did they do that?" we aren't looking for information, as a fellow athlete or coach might. We mean !, not ? And although this is a crude thing to say, great music does something like that too. You might not shout "Woah!" in the middle of a piece of music, but that's roughly what happens. There is a feeling almost of physical movement (not your toes tapping but something like floating or flying, a weightlessness inside that can come on quite suddenly), and a mental transportation. The idea that art presents the world timelessly comes from Schopenhauer, and  it was he also who said that the inner nature of the world, behind or beneath the phenomena we know as the world, is music. Phenomena are sensible expressions of this inaudible music in, I suppose, roughly the way that dance is a visible expression of music. The world as Schopenhauer sees it is a performance of music, something like a song or a dance. By instantiating a Platonic form each kind does its own dance: trees do the tree dance, bears do the bear dance, and so on. (Although really there is only one dance, so trees perform the tree part of the dance, bears the bear part, etc.). And sport is, or can be, something like this. Of course if Schopenhauer is right then everything is like this, but Wittgenstein's point is that it takes an artist to make it clear that any given thing is like this. A dance, not to the music of time, but to the music of no-time, the eternal music, the music of time standing still while Beckham bends it or Ronaldo corkscrews it or Kagawa sees and executes a pass that no one else could see was there to be made. At its best sport reminds us what we are, what we can be, and that what we are includes unimagined possibilities.

This is at odds with the soullessness of soulless capitalism. Good sport wakes us up, invigorates, makes us wonder. Yes we (merely) spectate, but that's what you do with art. And yes, even in the best of all possible worlds there will be more bad plays than good. Many more. But the experience needn't ever be soulless. It needn't be completely passive. We can respond emotionally to what we see.

The soulless capitalist model of sport is not like this. If the crowd does not cheer or sing loudly enough, music and even singing noises will be piped in. Fans must not get so excited that they stand up (Manchester United fans in particular get in trouble for this). Everything that can be sponsored will be sponsored. And, of course, winning is all that matters. There are exceptions to all these rules, but this is the pattern. Fans are consumers, there to be managed and milked of their money. Individuality is bad for business. You are supposed to buy and wear the team shirt, eat your prawn sandwich, and then go home. The same as everyone else. And like them you are supposed to focus on the lowest common denominator, the result.

All of that is bad. But the enemy isn't sport. Bill McKibben says in his article on global warming that "we have met the enemy and they is Shell." In football the enemy is the Glazer family, Sheikh Mansour, and Roman Abramovich. In general the enemy is big corporations and their power over ever more areas of our lives. Because of this power there is little anyone else can do except vote for whichever politicians seem most likely to restrain their power. We can also, though, battle the mindset that favors, and is therefore favored by, corporations: the desire to turn people into sheep or machines, something obedient and predictable; the value-system that puts success (understood in simple consequentialist terms) above everything else; and the blind faith that huge, private corporations are necessary and even good.

The love of sport allows people to see what damage is done by this kind of soulless capitalism. Anything that brings true joy is the enemy of soullessness. That might not be Andy Murray, but I wouldn't reject all professional tennis, or football, or the Olympics because of the worst aspects of contemporary sport. Fun and games are not yet incompatible.


  1. "We're not boy scouts." Ha!

    I enjoy sport. During my undergraduate years I went through something of an anti-sport phase--perhaps the result of being more interested in education while at an SEC school. And yet now, I watch those games. (Go Hogs! and all that. The recent Petrino scandal notwithstanding.)

    But really I'm a baseball person. As I was reading this, I thought about one of those "Whoa!" moments, a couple years ago, when Jacoby Ellsbury made a clean steal of home on the pitch (that is, he beat the ball, out of the pitcher's hand, to home plate from third base). Awesome. Here it is (at about 1:05). And that strikes me as the sort of thing you just don't pull off unless you're having fun.

  2. I don't watch enough baseball to really get it, but even I thought that was amazing. Thanks. And yes, some of these athletes must be having fun with their ability. There are pros who go to watch games when they can, just for the fun of it.

    There is a lot of bad stuff involved in and swirling around sport in the US and the UK, so I understand why some people are turned off. But there's so much great stuff too that I think if you don't like any of it then you aren't paying attention. But maybe some people just don't like sport the way some people just don't like music, and that seems a little sad but it's OK.