How to Write the Sporting Body: A Report from the Classroom

How do you write what is taking place in the picture above?  Or, what sorts of challenges does athletic performance present to those who would try to capture or convey it in writing?  This was the question that my students and I pursued together this past semester in my University of Michigan Comparative Literature course called “Writing the Sporting Body.”  We discovered a number of different answers to that question (how do you convey the strange temporality of sporting performance in writing? how do you make the unique blend of body-mind in athletic performance into a grammatical subject?).  And my students bravely experimented all semester long with technique to try to meet and overcome those challenges.  But the challenge that resurfaced with the greatest frequency was how to make the sporting performance present to readers who had not witnessed it, readers who had been, in other words, absent. Another way to put this question: how to make our writing of sporting performance as excellent, exciting and rewarding as sporting performance itself?Studying this dynamic led us to a deeper understanding of sport performances and of writing as well as to an interesting avenue by which to address the issue.

In a certain sense, this particular challenge is not unique to writing the sporting body.  Whenever we share with a friend the memory of a past event our friend didn’t experience directly, we face a similar challenge.  But in another sense, there is something distinctive about how this challenge arises in relation to sports.  In the main book we read for my class, In Praise of Athletic Beauty, the author, a Stanford University professor named Hans Gumbrecht, devotes the first major portion of his argument to setting forth some working definitions of “praise,” of “beauty,” and of “athletics.”  For now, I’m just interested in sharing his a key element of his definition of athletics, which is rather unconventional and directly relevant to the main challenge we explored in class.

Gumbrecht believes that “performance” is a necessary (but not sufficient) component of athletics and, to arrive at a definition of performance, he lays forth what he calls the “presence dimension,” which he contrasts with the “meaning dimension.”  He describes seven “polar differences between presence and meaning.”

  1. Whereas in the meaning dimension, we tend, following Descartes, to posit “the mind as the exclusive guarantor of the reality of human existence, by contrast in”the presence dimension, human self-reference “attributes primary importance to what the body knows.”
  2. In the meaning dimension, because we identify ourselves with our minds, we tend to”see the world of physical objects from a distance.” Meanwhile, by contrast, in the presence dimension, we feel that we “are part of and contiguous with objects in the physical world,” such as a ball.
  3. In the meaning dimension, we therefore tend to seek to transform these objects.  In the presence dimension, on the other hand, we relate to objects differently, with no aim beyond configuring our bodies and behaviors “into certain regularities” that we believe “to be inherent in the world of objects.”  Gumbrecht writes that “great athletes are not great because they change the rules of the event in which they excel.  Rather, they mostly try to reach—and sometimes to move—the limits of what is possible within a stable set of rules and record keeping.”
  4. With respect to violence (defined as “the moment of occupying or blocking spaces with bodies, against the resistance of other bodies”), the meaning dimension emphasizes and judges the operation of social categories of power, whereas the presence dimension “allows for and sometimes indulges in violence.”
  5. In the meaning dimension, “we consider an event to be an incident that marks the beginning of a new and more or less profound transformation.”  By contrast, in the presence dimension, “every beginning, even a beginning that endlessly repeats itself or was long anticipated, has the status of an event.” Think, for example, of the opening tip of a basketball game.
  6. From the meaning dimension, play is viewed as unserious because its participants lack the intention of “transforming the world through purposive behavior” (see 3 above).  But within the presence dimension, play is always serious, despite the fact (again, see 3 above) we do not seek deliberately to transform the world of objects.
  7. Finally, within the meaning dimension, signs are seen as representations of a disembodied essence, whereas in the presence dimension a sign links matter and form.

Gumbrecht concludes by proposing that “we may call any human body movement a performance as long as we see it, predominantly at least, in the presence dimension.”  From there, he will try to pin down what makes athletics as a performance distinct from other kinds of performance.  I’m gonna skip rapidly over this to his conclusion that athletics is a performance (that is, a human body movement we see in the presence dimension) characterized (or driven by) competition (agon) and the striving for excellence (arete).  From this combination of elements, Gumbrecht argues, derive many of the experiences we cherish in sports  such as narrative, epic, drama and transfiguration, as well as many of the elements of performance we find fascinating (later in the work, Gumbrecht offers seven of these “fascinations” as a non-exhaustive typology: Bodies, Suffering, Grace, Tools, Forms, Plays and Timing).

There is much that is provocative from a sports studies perspective in Gumbrecht’s work, but let me return to the matter of presence.  In effect, as I see it, Gumbrecht articulates something that many athletes and fans probably experience intuitively that sports performances are fundamentally about “presence.”  Athletes and fans alike enjoy sports in part because in athletic performance they can lose themselves in what Gumbrecht calls “focused intensity”; fully present, body and mind united, in an unfolding moment of time, intimately connected to the world of objects constituting the sport.  So let me shortcut this and say that the essence of athletic performance is presence.

This is all well and good if you, too, are present for the performance.  But what if you are not?  How can the essence of an athletic performance, which is presence, be made available to you? Of course, we can watch telecasts or highlight clips and that can give us some sense of presence.  But I’m especially interested in how writing can approach this challenge.  Writing after all, as any number of philosophers and literary theorists have contended, tends to spring from absence.  We write letters and e mails and texts to people who aren’t present before us.  We keep journals and and write histories and memoirs to record events that are in the past, no longer present.  So you may begin to see how our central challenged came to appear to us:  how can writing, predicated on absence, convey an athletic performance whose essence is presence?

I’m no expert in this matter, but it turns out that this was a problem that orators in ancient Greece also faced.  And, in systematizing their art of rhetoric, they came up with a set of strategies for addressing the challenge.  What they called ekphrasis was, according to scholar Ruth Webb in her book on the subject, “a speech that brings the subject before the eyes”; a way of using language to “make an audience imagine a scene” or to “make listeners into spectators.” (There is, by the way, a more modern notion of ekphrasis, which refers to the verbal description of visual art.)  Moreover, successful ekphrasis not only made the audience imagine the scene but, crucially, made the audience feel the absent event.  There were three main components to ekphrasis:

  1. A pragmatic conception of language, not so much as informative or representational, but as an active, moving force in the world, capable of transforming listeners.
  2. Enargeia encompassing the speaker’s ability to summon the emotions characterizing the event and the vividness of the language he or she used to impart these to his or her audience.
  3. Phantasia, referring to the audience members willingness to activate their imaginations in order to participate fully in the subject of the speech.

Webb devotes whole chapters to each of these qualities of ekphrasis, which for the sake of space I won’t detail here.  But what struck me as important and became a useful tool for my students over the course of the semester were the recommendations that classical rhetoricians offered for successful ekphrasis.  First, the speaker (or in our case the writer) must make him or herself present, through an internal psychological process of affective imagination, at the event he or she wish to make present for his or her audience.  This involved a kind of deep visualization and the imaginative adoption, in some cases, of the perspectives of actual participants in the event.  Second, and following from this, the speaker was to infuse the speech with details, even or especially if these were marginal to the central narrative unfolding of events.  In this way, through ekphrasismeta-stasis could occur: the transplanting of the audience member to the absent events described in the speech.

Of course, the value of this will depend on what a writer or writer is seeking to achieve.  A daily recap of last night’s game might simply be seeking to inform the reader, providing key information about the results, key turning points in the match, and a statistical picture of the significant performance.  Nothing wrong with that.  But when we are seeking to convey the excellence, drama and beauty—the presence—of athletic performance to those who have missed out, when are seeking to convey the things I imagine most of us who follow sports look for in them, then I think the simple recommendations of the ancient Greeks can help to make our writing of sporting performance match, in all these aspects, the greatness of the sporting performance itself.

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