I was away in Chicago and then I had to do this and that. And I have changed my dissertation project—well, tweaked rather than changed—and that has taken some time to figure out. And I have been looking at some changes to Beat South Camden. Basically, I’m thinking of moving the blog. And thinking about how the material is going to be lighter, smoother, quicker. Now I just need to do this.
The above image: I was talking to a fellow New Zealander and sports fanatic the other day… Well, the short story is I ended up looking for a standard American flag image. But then I found this awesomeness.
Interrogating (abstract/fluid notions) “the American sports fan” and “American sports fanaticism” has been my central concern (almost) every time I have opened a word document on my laptop over the last few months. I have upped my already rather excessive daily portion of sports consumption to include academic essays about sport: from sociology, political science, rhetoric and composition, religious studies. And just as when I started the project—which, I must admit, had some half-baked notions about the exceptionalism of American sports fandom—I failed to ask some central questions, many of which pertain directly to my project. In my pursuit of the heart of the contemporary rhetoric of sports fanaticism, I have fixated on how fanaticism “plays out”—Red Sox fans yelling “Yankees suck” even when Boston is playing another team, the class warfare implicit in the UNC/Duke rivalry—rather than exploring some of the key terms of the fanatic’s vernacular: love and hate.
But it is love to which I return because I believe that it is love that does not merely describe what the fanatic “feels” for his team, but is how “to be” a fan. Looking around for an interesting, philosophical take on love, I came across an interview with Jacques Derrida. (I believe it’s from the documentary about Derrida, which I haven’t seen, and it was prompted by a very dull, open-ended question. I am paraphrasing, but I believe it was something along the lines of “What do you, as a philosopher, think about love?”) So I’m wondering if Derrida (and, by extension, deconstructionism) provides a potential tool to consider love and sport. (And the death in the (sacred) place of sport I haven’t yet written about). I was enthused by how Derrida took a baggy prompt and turned it into something useful; I have set myself up with my own broad, unsophisticated starting point in approaching the rhetoric of fanaticism. Trying to make something of the interviewer’s question, Jacques Derrida sets up his response by stating that the first question in philosophy is: “What is it “to be”? What is being?” Derrida in full flight after the aforementioned question about love as a central question in philosophy:
“The difference between the who and the what at the heart of love, separates the heart. It is often said that love is the movement of the heart. Does my heart move because I love someone who is an absolute singularity, or because I love the way that someone is?That is to say, the history of love, the heart of love, is divided between the who and the what (…) The question of Being is itself always already divided between who and what. Is ‘Being’ someone or some thing? I speak of abstractly, but I think that whoever starts to love, is in love, or stops loving, is caught between this division of the who and the what. One wants to be true to someone - singularly, irreplaceably - and one perceives that this someone isn’t x or y. They didn’t have the qualities, properties, the images, that I thought I’d loved. So fidelity is threatened by the difference between the who and the what.”
I’m wondering how some of this—the “division of the who and what,” the path to “infidelity”—might apply to sports fandom….
Precursor to the Next One; Or, How I am delaying writing about The Swamp (again)
Space plays an important role on the rhetoric of sport—not just in the aforementioned arenas and cities but in the way the games are described, analyzed, and dissected—but also the spaces (cyber and physical) that the fan/pundit/athlete and his writing occupy. Because the rhetoric of sport is incredibly diffuse and unimaginably vast—ranging from quantification of games via scores and statistics to the endless self-interrogation of a coach’s post-game monologue and on to the Twitterverse of synthesized reactions to both the former and latter—Ulmer’s chorography, an “impossible possibility,” is useful: “In order to foreground the foundational function of location in thought, choral writing organizes any manner of information by means of the writer’s specific position in the time and space of a culture” (26, 33). This seems to be one way into the vast discursive communities of sport and fanaticism: a constant interrogation of the interplay of text and context, writer and culture, with sport occupying both literal and metaphysical spaces.
Much has been written about how sports invoke comparisons to religion, and one of the more common approaches to making this comparison is to think in terms of structure. Magdalinski and Chandler argue that sport and religion
Whilst possessing disparate philosophical foundations, appear to share a similar structure. Each offers its respective adherents a ritualistic tradition, a complement of suitable deities and a dedicated time and space for worship.
Magdalinski and Chandler do not immediately what (or where) they mean by “space for worship,” but at the end of the next paragraph make reference to “Touchdown Jesus” at the rear of the endzone of the University of Notre Dame’s gridiron: the “presence of religious icons,” the authors argue, “confirms for many that sports arenas function as substitute places of worship, as ‘cathedrals’, with athletes replacing traditional deities and teams serving as surrogate denominations” (1).
I am writing about the Swamp tomorrow night. Or rewriting what I have wrote. Or rethinking what I wrote. Especially in light of a tragic event just over a week ago.
And Even Though He (the Messiah) May Tarry…. (like This Blog over the Weekend)
My intention was to examine the religious rhetoric that has marked two (for want of a better term) events in the sports world over the last six months. This interest came about due to two questions: In the realm of American professional sports—where a (most commonly Christian) God is regularly credited for his interventionist powers on the performance of both the individual and (rather, I think, more remarkable due to the requirement of individual salvation in said faith) the team as a whole, Tebow’s faith drew the ire of many.
Thus, it was not quite Tebow’s articulation of his own faith that was particularly compelling—although his response to Jake Plummer’s assertion about the redundancy of Tebow reiterating that he “loves Jesus” (to paraphrase Tebow: you do not only tell your wife that you love her on the wedding day!)—but rather the critique of Tebow that seemed like more fertile ground.
An example: In a short piece called “Religious leaders: Messianic Tebow talk should be tempered” in one of the country’s largest student newspapers, The Alligator, which is loosely affiliated with the Tebow’s alma mater the University of Florida, writer Julia Glum quotes the Gator Wesley Foundation’s executive director, Rev. David Fuquay.
On some dubbing Tebow the “Mile High Messiah,” Fuquay expressed disapproval.
“Fan is short for ‘fanatic,’ and I think we’ve gotten a little too fanatical,” Fuquay states. “The people who project on him, calling him Jesus—which is ridiculous. It’s bordering on idolatry” (9). Fuquay continues: “When kneeling on your knee in prayer becomes being called ‘Tebowing’ instead of praying, that’s taking it the wrong way” (9).
Idolatry, fanaticism, and religious pronouncements of wrongdoing: all contained within one short newspaper article. Nonetheless, this serves as a microcosm, or, to be more accurate, one intersection in the discourse that is Tebowmania.
In With God on their Side: Sport in the Service of Religion (2002) Tara Magdalinski and Timothy J.L. Chandler, in interrogating the interplay between sports and religion, argues that
religious communities are faced with unique concerns when it comes to retaining their faithful, yet the initial step, namely generating membership, is for many traditional religions, a process that occurs largely by default. Like other cultural identities, religious identity is ‘socially acquired’ and communicated initially from generation to generation. (7)
The first chapter of the edited collection deals with “Catholics and sport in Northern Ireland,” and, especially after reading the passage above and the aforementioned chapter, I considered Joe Paterno and the Penn State football program.Using this quote as a springboard, I am going to put Tebowmania and the Penn State scandal in conversation.
Gary Hink, who studies critical theory (amongst other things), helped out by suggesting a (rbetter) way of thinking about Barthes and the relationship between the fan and the game. Referring to the previous post where I cited Nietzsche’s “dancing god” before quoting Barthes on his reaction to the great “works,” Hink quite correctly (and politely) pointed out that the distinction between “work” and “text” is crucial to understanding Barthes. Hink says,
whereas your quote describes The WORK (Modern Canonical Art by the Author-Genius), the Text is a ‘network’, in its “play, activity, production, practice”; “The theory of the Text can coincide only with a practice of [reader-critic-player’s] writing.”
Hink sent his helpful clarifications this morning, and I am rather glad that he did because it helped with a short debate between Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith about Chicago Bulls star and reigning NBA MVP, Derrick Rose. (You can watch it here.) Smith made one point that really resonated with me in the context of the Game as text as network. Rose had expressed that he was uncomfortable with the way that his fame had changed and continues to interfere with his off-the-court life, and Smith contends that this is a “good sign” of Rose’s humility and focus on the game. In addressing fame and today’s professional athletes, Smith listed social media, specifically Twitter, as one forum where an athlete could be distracted from his performance. (The example Smith gives is a player being more concerned with the amount of followers he has on Twitter—and the associated potential to market himself—than playing “the game.”)
Twitter is a medium to examine and test the theory of the Game as text as network in “its “play, activity, production, practice”: the chaotic interplay of, for example, the following. The (Twitter) Game and The Game (through) Twitter as Text is links to instant replay; live scores; fans comments; textual exchange between players and fans and media commentators; the combination of still images/video; retweeted comments; dead-end dialogues; continual monologue. There is no meta-narrative for The Game. It comes in (to?) multi-modal pieces. We can trace The Game as Text as network (within networks) through these threads, and the production, circulation, and diffusion of The Game fragments (post-game comments distilled into 140 characters; Gifs of the winning shot; Discuss!).
Friedrich Nietzsche writes that, “I would believe only in a god who could dance” (153). Sports sociologists Tim Delaney and Tim Madigan, relating Nietzsche’s maxim to the religious significance of ancient sport, contend that for the German philosopher “dance was the perfect way to harmonize the rational and the emotional aspects of human life: it demanded order and practice while also allowing for spontaneous movement” (29). In practice ancient dance—and the symbolism of the dance performance— could elicit “a peculiar kind of joy” (ecstasy) brought about by the combination of routine and improvisation (29); through the ritual of dance, the dancer was said to transcend the material world and engage with the divine. Ancient dance was a celebration of the sacred: gods, events, and traditions.
The realm of contemporary professional sports is where ancient dance—the synthesis of regulated play and invention—finds its modern parallel (or extension). Delaney and Madigan state that the “ritualistic, albeit secular, behavior of athletics can be traced back to ancient sport [dance]—as Emmit Smith and Jason Taylor can attest” (29). And, as with ancient dance, the emotional peak experienced and exhibited by the dancer is mirrored by the spectator’s experience. The dance elicits emotional reaction in the spectator; if the dancer is in a state of ecstasy through the dance, the spectator experiences awe at the spectacle of the dance. To watch the combination of design and spontaneity that is a Jason Taylor sack on the quarterback or a goal line touchdown run by Emmit Smith is to be induced into an emotional reaction with physical accompaniments: our joy is expressed through clapping, cheering, shouting, jumping. This is the corresponding dance of the fan.
However, I wanted to interrogate the notion of the “god who dances,” and how it might relate to the way fans view professional athletes: those elite dancers whose performances we not only fixate upon but who we pay money to watch. As fans we understand professional athletes as masterful dancers even if we do not see them perform; we understand that inclusion on the team (and thus the potential to be part of the game spectacle) is representative of the dancer’s ability. For that alone, the fan (if often begrudgingly) holds even the “bench warmer” in some special regard. He (the benchwarmer) is there (amongst the pomp, pageantry, and ceremony of the American professional sports game), the fan thinks, and I am here, watching, waiting to be enthralled by the dance.
The benchwarmer might not ever dance, but his presence is an affirmation of distinction. Even if we are both not dancing, the fan comprehends, we have markedly different roles; even if we are both clapping for the dancers, the fan knows, I am still watching the benchwarmer clap. The benchwarmer is not watching me clap.
* (Sidenote on the Fan and his Game: In “From Work to Text” Roland Barthes discusses the relationship (and separation) between the reader and the text; he suggests that reading a text (he names images and music as types of text, and I am extending this to include “the game” as text) takes its own toll:
no matter how keen and even when free from all prejudice, remains in part (unless by some exceptional critical effort) a pleasure of consumption; for if I can read these authors, I also know that I cannot re-write them (that it is impossible today to write ‘like that’) and this knowledge, depressing enough, suffices to cut me off from the production of these works, in the very moment their remoteness establishes my modernity (is not to be modern to know clearly what cannot be started over again?) (163-164)
The armchair quarterback, shouting at the television while watching the dance of the players on the field via a live satellite feed, knows this feeling off being “cut off” despite “his modernity” is (very literally) being established through technological engagement.)
Moreover, it is not necessarily the mastery of the dance that attracts the fan’s attention—Michael Jordan wasn’t Michael Jordan when he hit the game-winning jumpshot in the 1982 NCAA national championship game, but it is now part of the mystique and discourse of Air Jordan—but it is how the fanatic articulates the most sacred designation in sports: greatness, or the Greats. The Greats are those dancers whose performances are enshrined in the collective memory of the fan, even if the fan did not directly witness the dances: Wilt’s 100-point game; Babe Ruth’s arm raised in the air before hitting a homerun. There are the god dancers, and (just in one sport) a first name is enough to identify them: Kareem, Larry, Magic, oscar.
This, in turn, is what makes Tebowmania such a curious case; put simply, Tebow is not “a god who dances,” but he evoked the level of fan attention surpassing the sporting gods: Kobe Bryant, Tom Brady, Albert Pujols. Now, I do not mean to declare that Tebow is a unique case (there have been numerous other professional athlete’s whose performance has been far outstripped by fan attention), but rather that his is an exceptional case.
At the height of Tebowmania (to locate the moment is both difficult and highly subjective, but I will suggest that the 2011 NFL playoffs may have been the high-water mark), Tebow was the focus of the intense scrutiny/adulation that was at inverse proportion to his status as (statistically throughout the regular season) the worst quarterback in the NFL.
I am still thinking through sports as a way that the relationship between the “savage danger of madness” and “the danger of the passions” (Foucault 85) find a “safe” outlet in sports. A fellow fan and political scientist in training is going to help me press on this idea, but first I wanted to spend some time on a definition of sports I have referred to earlier.
In The Meaning of Sports (2004), Michael Mandelbaum, a professor of foreign policy at Johns Hopkins, argues that team sports “provide three satisfactions of life to twenty-first-century Americans that, before the modern age, only religion offered: a welcome diversion from the routines of daily life; a model of coherence and clarity; and heroic examples to admire and emulate” (4).
I wish to address the second and third of Mandelbaum’s qualifications about the centrality of sports in American life and its relation to religion. Mandelbaum’s assertions seem rather too holistic when thinking about the diversity of sporting experience. First, sports may operate through agreed-upon sets of rules and under the observation and jurisdiction of presiding officials—the semblance of “coherence and clarity”—the reality of sports and sports culture is anything but a regulated model. On the most basic level, the outcome of a game is (or, at least, should be in a fair concert) unknown, and it is the pending outcome that gives sports their charge. (That organized sports and gambling have had a long, symbiotic relationship in the United States is, I think, for a number of reasons, including the fact that masochistic pleasure can be gleaned from not only the psychological trauma of a loss but a material counterpart to that pain.)
While fans revisit past, known glories by narrativizing their own experience—one fanatic I recently interviewed puts one particular football game in Cleveland with his uncle as both the point of origin of his fanaticism and central to how he has understood “his” Cleveland teams ever since—it is the contemporary moment (the live game) that is the primary source of excitement and/or anxiety for the fan. Boston Celtics fans can look to the organization’s history of star players, championships, and long-standing rivalry with the Los Angeles Lakers as a coherent narrative of success and tradition, but what will happen with the team today, tomorrow, and beyond is far from clear. Beyond the “mere” outcome of the game, fanatics spend much time immersed in the language of inquisition: Can the team win under these sets of conditions (if a particular player is missing or “in a slump”)? Will this or that player be traded?
In the next couple of posts employ the case study of Tebowmania to address the second and third contentions within Mandelbaum’s larger thesis of why Americans love team sports (and, for this example, football, specifically.) What was part of the thrill of Tebowmania is how his success managed to straddle two particular, familiar narratives: the golden boy and the underdog. And this (I have been delaying far too many arguments!) will relate to the religious rhetoric implicit in writing Tebowmania.
Madness and The Game: The Rhetoric of Sports Fanaticism in the Age of Reason
In the preface of Madness and Civilization: A History of Insanity in the Age of Reason (1956), Michel Foucault quotes two imposing figures from the Western tradition of philosophy and literature, respectively: Pascal and Dostoevsky. Pascal asserts that “men are so necessarily mad, that not to be mad would amount to another form of madness” (quoted in Foucault, i x). Dostoevsky states that it “is not by confining one’s neighbour that one is convinced of one’s own sanity” (ibid.) Foucault uses these positions as a springboard for his own argument: to trace the history of what we might call the classification, confinement, and treatment of what today we call the “mentally ill” human subject. First and foremost, Foucault is concerned with the binary between the mad and non-mad, and that “merciless language” with which we decree our neighbor to be a mad, unreasonable counterpart to our sane, reasoned self. Foucault’s larger project, which we can think of (as appropriate to his terminology) as an abstract excavation (or a mental excavation of abstracts), a digging through of layers of established knowledge. Foucault states that we
Must try to return, in history, to that zero point in the course of madness at which madness is an undifferentiated experience, a not yet divided experience of division itself. We must describe, from the start of its trajectory, that “other form” which relegates Reason and Madness to one side or the other of its action as things henceforth external, deaf to all exchange, and as though dead to one another. (ix)
Sports fanaticism is a form of madness—at the least it fits the notion of irrational thought, where, and this occurs for the fanatic when the outcome of the sporting contest is not what he wants, “madness begins where the relation of man to truth is darkened” (104)— and I think that it breaks down (or at least complicates) the meaning implicit in Foucault’s grammatical polarity: the madness and the non-madness. In the chapter “Passion and Delerium,” Foucault maintains that the “savage danger of madness is related to the danger of the passions and to their fatal concatenation” (85). What drives the central thesis of Madness and Civilization is two concepts: that the notion of insanity/madness are fluid and based in temporal and social contexts, and that the labeling of the “mad” by the “non-mad” was rooted in the transgressive subject being not merely “non-non-mad” but non-human. Foucault describes a situation where a “reputedly dangerous madman,” who is imprisoned in a cell, lives his life with an iron ring (attached to a chain and wall-bound bar) around his neck, restricting his movement and keeping him “on a leash.” Foucalt writes that
When practices reach this degree of violent intensity, it becomes clear that they are no longer inspired by the desire to punish nor by the duty to correct … Madness borrowed its face from the mask of the beast. Those chained to the cell walls were no longer men whose minds had wandered, but beasts preyed upon by a natural frenzy: as if madness, at its extreme point, freed from that moral unreason in which its most attenuated forms are enclosed, managed to join … the immediate violence of animality. (72)
My contention is not that sports fanaticism is proof of an unadulterated madness in this late age of reason; rather, I think that sports are a venue where “the danger of the passions”—the Foucauldian gateway to being labeled “mad”—is contained, adulterated, measured. The irrational aspect of sports fanaticism—the crushing depression following “my” team’s loss—reveals a different kind of “violent intensity.” We fanatics have attached to these games and athletes and markers (win/loss columns, championships) an irrational, unreasonable significance. And, in sports-mad countries (and all nations have their sports fanatics, so this trite terminology does mean everywhere), Pascal’s articulation of madness has clear applicability: if you’re not a little bit mad for sports, you’re a little bit mad. So sports are a means for a) allowing us to be safely mad and b) commodify our madness. (We pay to be a member of the Gator Nation!) It’s a complicated third space of madness, perhaps. (Think Harvey Updyke.)