I first encountered autonomy, in the sense that I regularly use it, in graduate school. But then it was a distant and completely cerebral concept. I first began to really understand its importance, however, in conversations and team-teaching experiences with my friend Vincenzo Binetti, a professor of Italian literature and culture at Michigan who came of age in Italy at the time that a political and cultural movement known as autonomia was gaining influence. The historian and political activist George Katsiaficas described the movement’s fundamental affirmation:
“In contrast to the centralized decisions and hierarchical authority structures of modern institutions, autonomous social movements involve people directly in decisions affecting their everyday lives. They seek to expand democracy and to help individuals break free of political structures and behavior patterns imposed from the outside.”
Since this time, autonomia has influenced social movements around the world, including the Zapatistas in Chiapas, Mexico and the movement of unemployed workers in Argentina, and no doubt many others of which I am ignorant.
By learning of the important experiences of Vincenzo and by teaching and writing with him, I began to learn how pervasive authoritarianism and hierarchical structures were throughout our lives and world. And with him, I began to learn both how to identify and enact autonomous alternatives. Around that time, I began to write about autonomy in film (with Vincenzo) and literature. Since then, my wife (herself already more familiar than I with these political ideas) helped me in many ways to go beyond intellectual work and to feel and live autonomy in my daily life. Most recently, any number of writers, but especially those in the FreeDarko collective helped me to connect these concerns to the culture of basketball.
In the latter case, the concept helps me to see how certain institutions and values that many of us who enjoy the sport take for granted as indispensable to its continued well-being and so to our enjoyment, whatever their actual value, also have the effect (intended or not), of restricting the decision-making power (or autonomy) of, especially, players. We can think critically about how institutions like the NCAA or the NBA impinge on the freedom of players and fans from the vantage point of autonomy. But we can also think about how certain cliches (like “there is no I in team”) function to impose “behavior patterns” on individuals. In some cases, commonly held assumptions (such as that the coach must be the ultimate decision-maker on a team) overlap with institutional structures (since the coach’s decision making-authority is backed by the franchise or school employing him) to limit the autonomy of players. In these ways, autonomy can serve as a powerful lever for offering critiques about the status quo.
But at least as important to me in autonomist thought and practice has been its emphasis on the priority of affirmation. In other words, for an autonomist thinker, what you want and stand for comes before and is indispensable to identifying what you stand against. What do you want? What do you value? are the first questions of autonomist thought, and only then: What is in the way? And how do you get around or destroy that?
In my case, I love basketball, by which I mean I love basketball play, both playing and watching others playing. And what I love in basketball play is, precisely, how the game encourages, almost continuously, autonomous decision-making and creative action by individual players. Even better, basketball asks of these individual players to balance and, ideally fuse, their own individual interests with those of their teammates. In this respect, it strikes me also as a marvelous laboratory within which to explore and practice the kinds of collectively-oriented, but individually based autonomous powers I’d like to see expressed more freely in our world.
For this reason, when I write about basketball, I start as a my fundamental guiding premise the value of the creative autonomy of individual players, with the corollary that it turns out that frequently the genuine autonomy of these players depends on their interactions with teammates on the floor. Everything follows from that. I avow, amplify and try to find ways to make room for those elements of the game which augment that autonomy. And I call out and try to contribute to rethinking and changing those elements of the game which inhibit that autonomy.
It can seem, to American political sensibilities, like a pretty extreme idea. And it’s true that it can challenge certain structures that many Americans feel strongly attached to. But at its core it simply affirms the fundamental priority of the creative value of each individual and of their rights to develop and to enjoy the fruits of their creative power. And that seems like something that many people might get behind.
Head back to the Bad Prof Encyclopedia main page.