Sporting Theory
Sporting Theory

Anyone who has spent time in humanities/social science graduate school knows that the frivolity and barbarism of sports is a topic for disdain.  This isn’t always true, but you are usually safe saying something disparaging when it comes to that topic.  This tumblr is a centralized place to organize some of my thoughts about the productive intersections of sports, broadly construed, and critical theory.  While there will be with more general posts about theory and politics, I am mostly interested in considering the implications of sports from two angles.

1) Sports as an embodied practice.  Considerations of space, rules, movement and relation are all brought into relief by sports.  Michel Serres discussion of football (soccer!) to explain quasi-objects and quasi-subjects is illustrative of this approach.  As Brian Massumi picks it up in his bookParables for the Virtual:

"The tendential movements in play are collective, they are team movements, and their point of application is the ball.  The ball arrays the team around itself.  Where and how it bounces differentially potentialities and depotentializes the entire field, intensifying and deintensifying the exertions of players and the movements of the team.  The ball is the subject of play.  To be more precise, the subject of the play is the displacements of the ball…" (Massumi, Parables for the Virtual, 73).

The exemplary case of sports helps elucidate a more complex way of thinking subject-object relations.  My suspicion is, and one Massumi clearly takes seriously, that sports may help intervene in lots of philosophical and theoretical discussions over embodiment, movement, and representation.   

2) The ethical and political implications of sports as a social practice.  Needless to say, sports at all levels hold tremendous importance for people the world over.  They are the sites of an incredible emotional, monetary and bodily investment.  For instance, I have written about the importance of the New Orleans Saints in the sentimental politics of post-Katrina New Orleans (I’ll post some of those thoughts in full very soon).  Another example is the increased attention to concussions in the NFL and NHL, a spectacular playing out of “prognosis time” in the high profile lives of celebrity athletes.  The discussions of injury in sports shape and are shaped by broader understandings of bodily deterioration under contemporary capitalism. 

In pursuing these two lines of inquiries, two caveats are necessary.  First, these are obviously inextricably linked modes of thought that I have divided for mostly analytic reasons.  The embodied practice of sports has a reciprocal relationship with the ethical and political implications of its social organization.  That the professional American sports leagues all operate as massive businesses influences the ways in which their versions of football or basketball are embodied.  Nationalism and a particular relationship to history and the media have something to do with how soccer (football!) is played in America.  This is probably obvious, but worth mentioning.  The second caveat is that I don’t want these discussions to be the most simple version of how sports usually comes up: as merely a reflection of already existing social forces. I’m more interested in what sports produces and reveals. Hopefully the difference will come out as the discussions around here heat up. 

The Myth of Judicial Neutrality: How is it still this effective?

The president of the American Bar Association has weighed in on President Obama’s comments about the Supreme Court’s pending decision on ACA, linked to here via Volokh.

In the face of Justice Scalia openly using GOP talking points during oral arguments it seems like the contention that,

It is incumbent on all of our elected officials—including those aspiring to hold office—to continually demonstrate that the courtroom is not a political arena. It is a measure of a free society that individuals are able to openly disagree with court decisions, but we should expect our leaders to refrain from partisan statements aimed at judges fulfilling their constitutional role and responsibilities

is a bit of a toxic fantasy.  It only makes sense if one thinks that jurisprudence is apolitical.  The idea of originalism is in many ways the most politicized kind of constitutional interpretation, however, insofar as it wades into a lot of historiographical debate.  It is interesting to read William Stuntz posthumous masterpiece, The Collapse of American Criminal Justice, in light of this fantasy.  His critique of abstract proceduralism is well taken, but is kind of a “yes-of-course” moment for anyone familiar with the critical race theory tradition (much less people like Angela Davis or William Upski Wimsatt).  In a society that attaches so much to the neutrality of the law, the court is if anything the most partisan political space we have.

Abyssal Limits and Ontological Difference

One of the frustrating bits about the so-called new materialists/OOO/speculative realists types—aside from the self-created mythology, the idea that they are the first do ontology in forever, the willfully reductive readings of Deleuze and Derrida—is encapsulated in this post by Karl Steel.  If Derrida’s cat had been a worm or a table, he’d be asking a different question.  I don’t disagree that the choice of the cat taps into a series of historical tropes about the feline other, nor do I begrudge Steel using this scene as a point of departure. 

But in seizing on some of the theoretical choices pushed by Harman, Morton, Bryant et al, he ends up in the usual place when it comes to dismissing Derrida’s version of animal studies.

That’s where my introduction stops. Having just read Ian Bogost’s Alien Phenomenology (discussed by Levi Bryant here and here), I can now imagine taking things in a radically new direction. What if Derrida’s cat had been, not a worm, but, say, Levi’s blue coffee mug? And what if Derrida had been a table? What if we had (because we’ve now become Graham Harman), on the one side, cotton and, on the other, fire? The first objection—cotton can’t see!—is the easiest to brush aside, since ‘seeing’ might be read as just a particular kind of apprehension or engagement whereby a subject (whether human, ceramic, or cotton) becomes an object to another (whether cat, Formica, or fire). Seeing of course has its own history and physiology, but there’s no good reason to elevate it above other modes of apprehension or engagement.

I haven’t seen the rest of Steel’s talk, so who knows where this goes.  But this is precisely Derrida’s point when he talks about abyssal limits in “the animal that therefore I am”—it might be comforting to just draw a line of equivalence between a cat seeing, a human emoting, a table standing, and cotton burning, but it does not tell us much about ethics or politics (or even really ontology).  Isn’t it possible to say that seeing, as the cat sees and the human sees, is irreducibly different than how cotton apprehends without suggesting that humans and cats are superior to animals?  It must be possible if any meaningful relationship between ontology and ethics or politics is possible.  Why does that registering of difference mean a statement of ontological hierarchy?  In their continuing insistence to not engage with thinkers outside their closed circle (and I’m not saying Steel does this, just using his post as a point of departure), they are missing some rather fascinating ontological investigations.