Saturday, December 5, 2009

Winning Is Everything: Sports Traditionalism, Sports Modernism, and the Cultural Work of Spectatorship

This is a little piece I've been interested in and working on. Please please please give me feedback and let me know if it is intelligible/worthwhile/etc.; whatever you think. Thank you!

A columnist named Jeff MacGregor has written an interesting article over on ESPN’s web page ( about the purpose of sports in our lives, “Do Sports Teach Lessons or Provide Distractions?” As the title itself demonstrates, in the piece, MacGregor identifies a fundamental binary model of classifying sports’ cultural meaning: sports are either reckoned in an older, more genteel way, as a teaching tool of ethics and competition, or they are viewed with a more modern lens, as mere fun distraction, a “floor show in which any lesson is not only unnecessary, but undesirable.” The truth of these options, as is usually the case with complex, abstract philosophical questions like this, is of course that both views are true in certain measures. It is not just one or the other, exclusively, but actually some sliding confluence of both. The old-fashioned opinion is truer for the person who chooses to believe it, just as the new model is truer for the person who believes that. The most important question here, then, is not which of the two notions is more ‘true’ or ‘accurate,’ but what the proponents on both sides of the argument “get” out of their beliefs. The great critical lever for analyzing this is the following question: What cultural work does the opinion perform?

The fundamental background assumption of this question is that people believe what they believe not because their choice has a greater inherent truth value—though they absolutely believe it does—but rather because adhering to their chosen belief accomplishes an important cultural, social, or ideological task for them. The task, or perhaps more accurately stated, the performance, is most often something which eases a disconnection between two conflicting perceptions, or two potential truths. An example here will be illustrative:

To the question of why people believe in a God, a critic applying the cultural work lever will posit that theists believe in a God not because there is some greater weight of evidence or truth to the notion, but because the belief itself performs a gratifying ideological function for the believer. It may ease fear of an afterlife-less death; it may inspire hope in an omnipotent guiding intelligence, assuaging fears of a chaotic and ultimately inscrutable universe; it may help him make friends, via public ceremonies, in the face of our increasingly sequestered private social spheres. Whichever of these answers is true for the theist is “true” for them because it produces the most desired effect for them. The answer is unique for each individual. The cancer patient with Burkitt’s lymphoma who is terrified of death chooses to believe in God because that choice performs the work of pacification for them. The lonely divorcee, on the other hand, goes to Mass and has the work of socially interacting in public performed through the ceremony’s gathering and ritual. Both believe in the same thing, God, but their beliefs are essentially different.

What is key in both cases, though, is that an ideological rupture is being mended. The cancer patient’s grim—but realistic—perception of their impending death is a million miles away, psychologically and conceptually, from the promise of an infinite living rapture in the afterlife, and so the belief in a God helps close that gap, seals the break. Whatever verb we choose—“mend,” or “close,” or “seal”—the fact remains that belief is always, necessarily a verb we are choosing, an action, a performance: work. It is cultural work.

Posing the question of what cultural work is being performed is such an astoundingly effective way of getting to the core of a subject because it pierces through the layers and layers of ideological fa├žade and signifiers stuck to the subject. Language attaches both intended and unintended semantic baggage to terms, and this can mislead the critic in her analysis, or obscure deeper elements. The cultural work question distills the idea of truth into its most essential form, a choice between two or more potential truths, performed after an intellectual inventory of the assets and debits of each potential truth are considered. Truth is an act, not a concept. It is a choosing. It is not a piece of information existing out in the real world ready to be plucked and analyzed by the observer.


To summarize up to this point: everything above has been a case for examining important cultural artifacts by using the question of what cultural work the belief performs upon the believer. We will now apply the cultural work lever to both sides of the sports’ purpose debate and see what interesting values or assumptions lie at the heart of each viewpoint. For ease, let’s label the first option the sports traditionalist view, and the second the sports modernist view.

On one hand, many people—perhaps an older demographic—do view sports in the traditionalist view, as a contest of strength and valor on some sort of idealized proving ground. Whether one agrees with that opinion or not, MacGregor’s characterization of the adherents to this theory is nonetheless historically accurate. Traditionalist “ideas of sportsmanship and character,” he writes, hold that

“sports have to teach a moral or ethical lesson to be of real value. That's what our coaches always told us. And our folks, too. And that's certainly the way sports have been presented to the culture at large for the past hundred years: a sound builder of body, mind and character.”

I am positive that a more rigorous historiographical investigation into this issue would reveal a spike in the fervor and formality of this ennoblement probably at just around the same time the concept of the “teen-ager” came into the mass American consciousness and lexicon, sometime in the 1950s. The cultural work that this opinion performs is easing the thorny transferral of values between succeeding generations. Sports coaches and “our folks” want their children to behave, so they incentivize their characterization of good behavior by attaching lofty and serious-sounding signifiers to the activities kids would likely do on their own anyway, just for fun. Over time then, a recreational activity like baseball becomes not just a game between children on an open field somewhere, it becomes a trial ground of one’s ethics, of fairplay and trying hard, of running out every grounder, being physically fit, and so on, and before long, the accumulation of these signifiers around the simple activity itself turns it from play into no less than The National Pastime.

“Pastime” is actually an unintentionally illuminating choice of words, because one of the primary cultural works of sports traditionalist ethics is to preserve the perceived ideals of the past. It is at root a conservative attempt to keep things like they were in the “good old days.” Kids are always teetering on the precipice of physical and moral and intellectual crisis here in the United States, after all, and the ritualization and ennoblement of sports—consciously or not—aims at keeping them safely on the side of tradition and convention. The world around us may be a whirring buzz of change and modification, but three strikes always equals one out, and that means a lot to these folks.

It also occurs to me how appropriate it is that the primary ideological task this traditionalization seeks to perform is the preservation of youth, and by extension, then, health. Again, an in-depth historical study would very likely unearth a link between traditional sporting ethics and the emergence of health and exercise fads, and between those fads and greater socio-political unease in post-World War I America. With the steady gradual accrual of all these overtones and undertones of national significance, it is a lot easier to understand, and maybe even empathize, with the legions of adult male baseball fans in America who aggrandize the game, the ones who are absolutely disgusted with what they see as the desecration of their passion and its “inherent” values, and the soiling of their sacred statistical numbers.

I wrote above that cultural work usually eases the tension caused by competing potential truths; it also very often elides tension between competing moral systems. Recent religious plurality aside, our country is very much founded on ethics of hard work. Originally supplied by our Puritan founders, and reinforced throughout the ages with the hard working ethic espoused by immigrants in the 19th and 20th centuries, America is supposed to be a place where we get work done. (Do you see where this is going?) If you want to take time off from building a nation to play baseball with your friends, then you better have a very good ideological support system (i.e. excuse) for your actions. The sports traditionalist ideology performs this cultural work beautifully. It transforms sport activity from diversion into exercise; it makes recreation a desirable practice of self-improvement and ethical betterment.

With that good, tentative analysis of sports traditionalism set forth, we must now examine the cultural work being performed by the traditionalists’ opposition: the sports modernists.

Sports modernists are apparently pragmatic and unsentimental about sports. To them, it is a fun diversion from everyday life, or as Mr. MacGregor puts it, “three hours of happy distraction from the killing grind of the everyday.” He also suggests that sports are “a vacation from the real,” but that phrase seems highly loaded to me, and I think he employed it more for its grave poetical tone than for a serious philosophical assertion.

My initial impression of the sports modernist’s view is that it absolutely performs an underlying piece of cultural work—just like the traditionalists—but that it is much more transparent and openly cognizant of this cultural performance being enacted. The opinion itself apparently calls out the work being done. It readily describes its central tenet: sports are a fun hobby. That’s how they feel, and that’s what they say.

In general, this trait fits in well with other iterations of cultural modernism, in both the arts and formal philosophy. Modernism in architecture, for example, eschewed external ornamentation and structural artifice to create a more purely functional, utterly straightforward operative space. Function completely dictated design. Modernist literature incorporated multitudinous allusions and unconventional formatting in punctuation and pagination and diction because modernist authors sought to make the reader constantly aware of the text as a text, to strip away the 19th century realist author’s assumption of accurate mimesis. Modernist literature posited that the supposedly true-to-life portrayal of reality in the 19th century novel, with its plot and setting and characterization and dialogue, was actually more artificial than the contemporary modernist style’s, because of the previous form’s unwillingness or inability to acknowledge itself as a text: a constructed object, a physical object. The modernist author used experimental formal methods to defamiliarize the traditional reader/text relationship, and in doing so, stripped away a central, hidden artifice, to arrive at a more “honest,” or truthful, textual production.

Similarly, sports modernism appears to be stripped of underlying or distracting ideological adornments. The most obvious perception of the cultural work performed on the sports modernist is that they derive diversionary entertainment from the sports world. The view is at once both more sober than the traditionalist’s, and also actually rather bleaker. At the heart of its purpose is an acknowledgment that actual, “real life,” is really pretty terrible. The varying diction used to describe the reality sports thankfully distracts the modernist from vividly illuminates the dreary world: the “everyday,” the “killing grind.” The cultural work performed is the temporary ameliorative removal of oneself from that world. The cultural work is thus at the very fore of the modernist’s opinion, not buried below layers of intimations and shades of meaning like the traditionalist’s. But does that make it better?

In one sense, yes, because it is more upfront and honest, and thus arguably more malleable to the thinker’s ends, and less likely to drive someone blindly to adhere to miscalculated values. On the other hand, what the modernist gains in ideological honesty on the traditionalist, also seems to force away a considerable amount of consideration for others. The modernist is unabashedly motivated by selfish wants. The self-stated goal is to unplug from the world for a few hours, and indulge in what you want and what nobody else chooses for you. Honest though that may be, how strongly ought we adhere to a moral philosophy which is at best completely self-centered, and at worst, shamelessly unconcerned with its effects on other people? (And sports traditionalism and modernism are both absolutely moral philosophies, make no mistake. They both either evaluate human action or prescribe changes upon it for the sake of virtue.)

Foucault would want to say that ideologies out in the open tend to be the most hidden, so I wonder if, despite its apparent total transparency and candor, sports modernism isn’t in fact concealing some greater, more powerful cultural production. Some deeper-seated, and more illicitly desirable work produced by the ideology for its adherent. Is there something else these people get out of their “truth?” The likeliest answer is that the openness frees them from guilt about their own selfishness.


This is the extent of what I’d propose at this stage, without doing any further research on the supplemental topics I mentioned above. Maybe one day I’ll be able to really sit down and plow through primary sources on the evolution of sports up to and including the current professional era, the birth of the concept of the “teen-ager,” and dig further into the master, Foucault, of course.

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