Navel Gazing: November 2002 Archives

Sport and Spectacle


Sport and Spectacle

I’ve never been a sports fan. I can see the attraction, in some ways, but I struggle to see the deep fascination so many people feel for them, or gaming at all for that matter. The concept of sport and the concept of play are completely separate, but somehow sport always enters into concepts of male perceptions of play. Maybe it was looking at Francis Bacon’s riffing on Muybridge’s wrestlers that set me off. Sport, in Bacon, has homoerotic overtones. Between his “Two Figures” studies of wrestlers to the single figure depiction of a man’s position on the canvas, the element of struggle is constant, as is spectacle.

Or maybe it was the constant presence of Hulk Hogan, Shaq, and other sports figures on commercials these days. I’m not sure. I remember an epiphany a while back about football— I think people in America like it because it represents war with easy resolution. Teams campaign down the field, and are victorious or thwarted— someone wins, someone loses with little room for ambiguity. There are no worries about good guys or bad guys, only teams who test their skill. Football is not like life. Football, and most sports, is amoral. There are simple rules. Life is messy, and the rules are ambiguous. Sport carries with it the qualities of struggle, spectacle, and a narrative move to resolution.

Reading Roland Barthes’ thoughts on wrestling in Mythologies, I was struck by his separation of wrestling from temporal narrative resolution. Unlike boxing or judo, which have a narrative arc, Barthes argues that wrestling is not a sport but a spectacle which exists outside of time— it doesn’t matter that the contest is fixed, but rather that an adequate depiction of suffering and punishment occurs to satisfy our taste for justice. The wrestlers, like commedia del arte characters, satisfy basic cravings for good guys and bad guys, and for retribution for moral warriors. The concept of morality is central, rather than resolution. If the good guys always won, there would be no need to tune in next week to watch the struggle replayed. With train-wreck precision, wrestling fans tune back into the struggle and the spectacle.

Spectacle takes its meaning from frozen moments of images, of faces pressed to the mat or raised in triumph. At the basic level, I think modern sport emphasizes the triumph over the defeat. It is closer to spectacle than contest, though sport must have elements of both. It offers resolution and justice, outside of time.

I can remember a conversation I had with a professor from another university a few years ago. He lamented that we live in a culture where heroism is short lived, and we soon forget the accolades and accomplishments of most sports heroes. Only a few have cultural staying power. Perhaps its because we constantly must be immersed in the struggle of others, to distract us from our own. Once they step off-stage, they become surplus.

Sports are an avoidance of the realities of time. We don’t want to be reminded of the fact that we all fade, that skill is fleeting, and that the good guys don’t always win. The fakest of all contests may indeed be the truest, because at least it recognizes the moral play we find ourselves inside. We want justice from others, and from ourselves— and its a quality so hard to discover outside the realm of the stage. When we take center stage, we become the buffoon, and cannot bear to stay there. Ultimately, wrestling with oneself becomes comedic rather than tragic. That is, if you’re paying attention to the spectacle.



Early musings

I woke up today with a horrible sinus headache. One of the weird things about sinus pills is that they sometimes affect your balance, leaving you with a floaty sort of feeling. I turned on the TV, and Operation Dumbo Drop was playing. I started thinking about ears.

I remember when I was going out with D. She had two kids. One of them, G., was so much like me as a kid that it was scary. He was forever pestering people with useless trivia questions to assert how smart he was.

“How do you tell the difference between an Asian and an African elephant?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“Asian elephants’ ears are shaped like Asia, and African elephants’ ears are shaped like Africa” he smugly replied.

As I staggered for a moment in front of the cappuccino machine, I thought of another weird fact. My father tried to join the Army during World War II, but he was refused because he had a perforated eardrum. How ironic that a hole in his head would stop him from getting holes blasted in his head. There’s something wonderful about ears.

Ears convert time into a perceptible quantity; little bones resting on a drumhead convert the periodic waves of vibration into impulses that we perceive as sound. The unique forms of music, perceived spatially, are unique in that they have a character of duration. Unlike a graphic or visual symbol, sound exists primarily in time. But the ear is remarkable not only as a translator of this time into space, but as our way of controlling our balance, stabilizing our position in space. It does it hydraulically. When the fluid is out of sorts due to excess pressure, the conversion of frequency remains relatively stable while our sense of position fails.

Where was I?

Everything is broken

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Everything is broken

I hate it when life turns into a Dylan tune. Last night, I had a photo I wanted to put up (see above) and my scanner died. I don’t know what it is with me and scanners, but I go through one just about once a year. This was troublesome to me, because I just finished spending too much money on more frivolous things, and now this presented a real need. I the scanner for the project I’m starting tomorrow. I gave up and went to bed, but I couldn’t sleep.

When I got up for a drink around three a.m. I turned on the kitchen light. It went out immediately with a loud pop. Great. I finally got to sleep around four, and then just before the alarm was about to go off, a phone solicitor called to wake me up. I got up to check my e-mail, and then Outlook crashed. It’s done it before, but I couldn’t remember which file I needed to delete to get it to load again (outcmd.dat for future reference). So then my next phone call had to be to Microsoft support. It was much easier than I expected, and I fixed my broken e-mail in around fifteen minutes. I replaced the light bulb. Then, I went to school.

The day got better because one of my teachers is broken (sorry to say, really, but it worked out better for me). My afternoon class was cancelled due to a cold. I bought a new scanner. That’s fixed now too. There’s something really strange about spending the entire day on broken things. It’s all too familiar. It’s enough to turn you upside down.

But I usually manage to get things fixed, eventually. Except with girls, but that’s another story.

Join the Club

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Papers from my early college career.

Join the Club

I was watching the History Channel series on the history of Britain (again). I think I’ve seen the episode called “Two Winstons” at least three times now. I like the approach to modern Britain— the primary thesis is that the central figures of twentieth century Britain are George Orwell (who created the hero Winston Smith in 1984) and Winston Churchill. It occured to me tonight that they could add a third— John Lennon (Dr. Winston O’Boogie). Orwell and Churchhill had few things in common, but one thing they had in common was that they both did poorly in school. I’m in that club too.

I discovered some of the “themes” I wrote for my remedial English class. I get a kick out of the comments. The most common one, of course, is inadequate preparation. How many 18-year-olds are adequately prepared? And the ever-present spelling errors— some repeat. Mechanically, I could barely muster a D. My ideas, however, were constantly in B territory, and I was constantly admonished “but don’t kill your good vocabulary” Let me get this straight— I can’t pass unless I spell everything correctly, but I shouldn’t use words I can’t spell (which included most words, at that time). It was 1977. I also had to giggle at being corrected for saying “Multimedia is a powerful teaching tool”— the teacher marked it as wrong, because “multimedia is plural”— What moron grammarian would say multimedia are a powerful teaching tool, or, to recast it a bit, who worries about saying “ the media is slanted” rather than “the media are slanted”? I used it in the sense of a collective noun, not as a plural. This crap is strictly for pedantic morons— I was fresh from an artistic presentation using multiple slide projectors and music— now relatively standard pedagogical practice, especially in the arts— and thought I had seen the future of education. How dare she dampen my excitement by picking nits!

Composition teaching has come a long way from the rubber stamped grading of problems, marked out mercilessly in red ink. Now, I don't know a single teacher who forces students to write misspelled words fifty times (as this teacher did). Most good teachers these days recognize that all errors are usually repetitive— the first step is to recognize the pattern of error and focus on that, rather than berating someone because they make errors.

I wonder how the grammar cops would respond to knowing that I scored in the top five or ten percent in verbal skills on the GRE last year, or that I now teach writing? Literature, the literature that I was “inadequately prepared” to read or write about, taught me— not any teacher’s red pen. I can laugh about it now, but at the time it was horribly traumatic. I dropped out of that remedial English class because I was going to make a C. I knew better than that; I wasn’t average and I would be damned if I would let them stamp me that way just because I had a problem with spelling, or because I had a tendency to “distort my thesis.” I still constantly distort my initial thesis; I think that is what theses are made for. Anyone who lands in the same place they started from really hasn’t gone anywhere.

Obviously, I’m not in the same place now. I’m glad. Flunking out of school was good enough for Orwell, so it was good enough for me. However, that’s not strictly true. Once I became “adequately prepared,” I sailed through my BA with nearly a 4.0 average. Sometimes I think that college is certainly wasted on the young. Or perhaps more accurately, if you’re wasted (as I certainly was), school isn’t the best thing for you to spend time doing.

Silver Machine

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Silver Machine

I finally decided to replace my dead VCR. Though I know better, I bought a combo-unit with both DVD and VCR because my DVD player has been playing tag with the disks, sticking them out and then sucking them back in like a greedy child. If you’re fast, you can snatch and grab, but it’s really rather annoying.

Once upon a time, I used to look at electronic equipment as an investment. For example, I still use the same Hafler DH-200 power amplifier I bought in 1980. This black box has been on virtually continuously since then, and has never failed. Source machines are a different story— virtually anything that includes mechanical transport components is going to fail eventually, period. Though well built things usually last, complexity is usually problematic. For example my turntable (with a single motor and thin transport belt, a Harmon Kardon TD-60) has been humming along with only one belt change since about 1989, more complex machines like VCRs fail quickly. So, I’ve eventually surrendered to disposable culture in one of the last bastions of male toy collecting. I hope to get a capture card sometime soon and transfer the irreplaceable tapes to mpeg, because I suspect things like The Axis Turns (a Thin White Rope euro-tour video) won’t be coming to DVD anytime soon. Hopefully I can manage that before this one breaks. It’s shiny, near the same color as my HK but not quite. It’s a Sony, and it has played everything I’ve tried on it including a DVD of Brother Where Art Thou which I’ve never seen— I’m always way behind on movies. Now, the odyssey can continue.

I had a thousand ideas for things I wanted to write today, but as is usual, I had to go to class instead. The ideas, mostly revolving around family, have evaporated in the shadow of a discussion of The Botany of Desire tonight. I’m sure I’ll write them as I sleep. The opposition of apollonian and dionysian desires is the major trope, and I always keep wanting to engage these binaries. Obviously, my life history has been a bit on the dionysian side. But for now, I wanted to deal with my obvious oversimplification of Duchamp and Warhol yesterday.

I forget which article I read recently that argued for placing Duchamp at the center of twentieth century art rather than Picasso, but suffice it to say this argument falls neatly into the same sort of opposition. Picasso is messy, dionysian, and to use a favorite binary of mine from a while back— plerotic. Plerosis is reaching for totality, to encompass the world by literally including everything. On the other hand, Duchamp is apollonian and kenotic. Kenosis represents an emptying of reference, of minimal correspondence with the world.

In that way, Duchamp is at once similar to Whistler, but different— Duchamp in no way wants to serve any “goddess” of art. As Tom rightly suggests, his pronouncements are distinctly anti-aesthetic. The question was in no way foolhardy, because it forces me to refine the parameters of what I was trying to say. The vehicle of Duchamp’s expression (until he chucked it all for chess) was distinctly aesthetic. It is a redefined kenerotic aesthetic void of concrete reference to domesticity— which uses the domestic as its signifier. The issues in Warhol are even more complex, and I don’t have enough remaining brain-cells to conceptualize that tonight, but what is at play is hardly a sublimation of the domestic, but rather an involvement with it.

The opposition seems clearer to me than it probably does to the people who read that entry. To take it up a notch, let me propose another take. Where Picasso made plates, celebrating the domestic aspects of art— Duchamp moved the urinal and the flatiron into the museum. But my argument, really, is that either way you look at it this represents dealing with domesticity, not sublimating it as the title of the essay collection I noted claims.

On a different note (as this is obviously a random and meandering collection of notes), I asked the Director of Composition tonight if I might teach fundamentals. I can think of no other class that frightens me more. It’s a remedial class, and many people around me have said that they just can’t picture me teaching it. They are afraid I’ll talk over people’s heads. I am afraid of it because I just can’t bring myself to be a grammar cop. I care more about thinking than correctness. Dr. Crisp seemed to think that I would actually be good at fundamentals, precisely because I am not a grammar cop. People in those classes have been corrected to death, usually, and that’s why they end up there. It’s the last chance for marginal students to get it right so they can make it through college. The success rate of students who enter through this route is only about 70%. Dr. Crisp suspects that my low-key approach might be perfect. I hope so. I’m far more patient in front of the classroom than I am when I’m on the other side; I tend to expect a lot from my teachers.

I think the real key to writing is to keep writing. This should be obvious from the way I deal with writing here. I try to write each day, whether I feel like it or not. So far, it works for me. People corrected me to death when I was younger, and I didn’t learn a thing. When I found reasons to write, I learned how. I think that’s the real secret. There is no machine-gun drill to create writers; if there were, it would probably always break down. What remains after things break are impulses and desires. As long as I can stay in touch with those, I feel all right. I don’t want to deal with the emptiness that would remain. I gave up chess years ago.


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An Uneasy Relation

I’ve always had problems with beauty. I forget which surrealist said something to the effect that “beauty must be convulsive.” I always hated that Keats line about truth and beauty; I’d always found them to be completely unrelated. I’m drawn to things that bother me though, and when I finally got the irony of that blasted urn, I realized there were conflicting definitions of beauty. Perhaps it has something to do with your position on the sexual food chain. Those near the top prefer a more apollonian, freeze-dried type. For those of us near the bottom, beauty is messy.

Michael Pollan’s take on the tulip is fascinating. He begins with the bees rather than the birds and reduces it eloquently. Bees are flying penises, “avidly nosing their way like pigs through the thick purple brush of a thistle, rolling around helplessly in a single peony’s blond Medusa thatch of stamens.” Flowers promote themselves through their attractiveness. It’s a sex thing. Along the way Pollan undercuts some myths about beauty while tracing the boom and bust of the financial value of tulips in 1637 and noting that the shape of a tulip is nearly penile. The blending of color in tulips is traced to a disease that makes the purity of color get soiled. This wildness was prized, though it was a viral dysfunction that impeded the reproductive capability. Standards of beauty are artificial, hardly essential, and subject to flights of fancy. Perhaps its the romantic in me who wants a more dionysian sort of beauty, savage and wild in its impracticality, rather than the frozen ice-queen beauty of the tulip. The tulip has no scent.

The symmetry of the flower is taken as a sign of health. I always found myself attracted to those asymmetrical blobs of roses, dropping like overripe fruit in the yard growing up. They were even more beautiful as they died. Mother always kept roses, and I was scratched by thorns. My father preferred oleanders, because they required less maintenance. They framed one side of the lot, ragged and prolific, as a substitute for a fence. My brother was drawn to poisons. When all his friends were smoking banana peels, he had to try to smoke some oleander. He had me watch, so I could call the hospital if he started to convulse. I was never quite that adventurous. Beauty, for me, was filled with thorns and poisons— never truth. I loved its smell from the distance, I loved its wildness, and I loved its unreachable mystery. I felt trapped inside my own disfigurement, even if it was only imagined measured against the standards of artificial proportion— locked into a room where beauty was only to be found on the outside. But I never missed a chance to open my window and inhale.

Novel ideas


Novel ideas

I avoided novels for a long time. I have always been more of a poetry person. Not in the sense of wanting to compose poems— I’ve always favored prose. Most modern poetry just loses me in its forced obtuseness. But in terms of machines for thinking, poetry offers the greatest amount of reflective possibility compared to the actual time spent reading it. Perhaps it’s the realism of novels, though, that always makes me want to put them down.

Cold air has arrived. Draped in a towel, I sit and wonder at how to glance across a million ideas in prose, suggestively, in order to move on to the heart of what I really want to say. I pulled out an LP yesterday, for the first time in a while. I was thinking about how they always leant themselves to reflection, with pauses each twenty minutes and a required action before the music would continue. It was Diamond Dogs, I felt compelled to listen to it after watching Hedwig a few days ago. For some reason, I’ve always been locked into the mondegreen of hearing “pride pride pride pride . . .” rather the “bro bro bro . . .” listed on the lyric sheet for Chant of the Ever-Circling Skeletal Family. It’s been so hard to write lately. It seems like trying to work through these issues might be a matter of pride. Pride has never worked out well for me. Pride is far too seductive.

I was wandering through Moll Flanders; it’s not central to the argument I’m working on, but I’m just seduced by Defoe. He is so sloppy, so matter-of-fact, so real when compared with the artifice of most novels. I was thinking about the circumstances of Moll’s first marriage, which blazes by at blinding speed. For those unfamiliar with the novel, Moll is seduced into becoming the mistress of a man, and then later convinced to marry his younger brother when she “began to see a Danger that I was in, which I had not consider’d of before, and that was of being drop’d by both of them, and left alone in the world to shift for myself” (57). I never saw that danger myself. I stopped at that phrase for a long time. A later allusion took me back to Rochester, and back to poetry once again.

Phyllis, be gentler, I advise;
Make up for time misspent:
When Beauty on its deathbed lies,
’Tis high time to repent.

Such is the malice of your fate:
That makes you old too soon,
Your pleasure ever comes too late,
How early e’er begun.

Think what a wretched thing is she
Who stars contrive in, in spite,
The morning of her love should be
Her fading beauty’s night.

Then, if to make your ruin more,
You’ll peevishly be coy,
Die with the scandal of a whore
And never know the joy.

Friends remind me lately that perhaps I’m becoming peevishly coy. I don’t know how to escape that fate, and at the same time avoid the pride that leads to such great falls. I think its largely memories of that past life, where I felt confident before the fall. Though my circumstances have yet to become as low as that of a Moll Flanders, I can empathize with so many parts of her life. After her second marriage, Moll’s reflection seems so much like the company I used to keep:

It was indeed a Subject of strange Reflection to me, to see Men who were overwhelm’d in perplex’d Circumstances; who were reduc’d some Degrees below being Ruin’d; whose Families were Objects of their own Terror and other Peoples Charity; yet while a Penny lasted, nay, even beyond it, endeavoring to drown their Sorrow in their Wickedness; heaping up more Guilt upon themselves, labouring to forget former things which now it was the proper time to remember, making more Work for Repentance, and Sinning on, as a Remedy for Sin past.

I was thinking of the way it faded so quickly, how sorrow was pushing in. Like Moll, I had to remove. Left in the world alone to shift for myself isn’t so bad, I suppose. But it is a shame to die with the scandal of a whore, and never know the joy. I need to put down the novel, but it’s cold outside. The thoughts inside are dark, and memories rush full force. A thousand things can trigger me, and make me spill over the sides. I suspect it’s unbecoming, but I can’t seem to make it stop.