Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Aesthetics And/Or Justice

"I fear indeed that we shall never rid ourselves of God, since we still believe in grammar." -Nietzsche, The Twilight of the Idols

"The first umpire said, 'There's balls and there's strikes, and I calls 'em like they is.'
The second umpire said, 'Well, I think it's a bit more complicated than that. There's balls and there's strikes, and I calls 'em as I sees 'em.'
The third umpire smiled. 'Well, there's balls. And there's strikes. But they ain't nothing until I calls 'em.'" -Allegorical

In a recent post, The Run of Play's Brian Phillips discusses the structural role of blown calls. His defense of bad calls is beautiful: whereas if a sport's1 meaning exists in terms of its skeleton of rules, any flaw in enforcement necessarily undermines the sport, "[i]f soccer is a story... the narrative can take in anything and... its aesthetic greatness doesn’t depend on the sympathy between actions and the rules. You wouldn’t stop Macbeth from killing the king, because then you wouldn’t have Macbeth."
1: Run of Play is going steady with soccer, but the issues at hand are obviously more universal. I'm not gonna bother mangling quotes in the name of semantic consistency or avoid relevant non-soccer examples.
The post's paradigmatic example is Maradona's Hand of God goal. In Phillips' exegesis, "the Hand of God was too great and all-comprehending a moment for the rules to have created it: it was a total summation—of Maradona’s character, of the nature of that rivalry, of everything on up to the international climate in the years after Falklands War and arguably the entire 1980s—that couldn’t possibly have existed if it weren’t at a slant to the rules. Lose that and you’re left with a fair, pure, antiseptic match that fulfills the ideal of the sport but sacrifices almost all its truest and deepest significance."

But that presupposes that narrative power is somehow endemic to the moment; or that it occurs in a vacuum; or that, depending on circumstances, it happens or it doesn't. Narrative is constructed retrospectively, though, making that counter-factual sort of glib. Had the Hand of God been called in strict, omniscient compliance with the rules, you're left with an intensely competitive World Cup quarter final featuring "The Goal of the Century", charged with all the baggage of the Faulklands War and ending regulation in a 1-1 tie. Fair, sure. But pure and antiseptic? The hypothetical match might not match the historical match's depth of significance, but there would be no sacrifice, no lack of truth: it would be a different game, signifying differently. But the point remains that la mano de Dios did happen, and it was a pure, searing Moment that transcended its match and struck hard at some supposed locus of truth and justice.

So we're left with the moment as it really happened, to interpret how we will. Analyzing this choice, Phillips offers up a dichotomy that I can't quite get behind. On one hand, there is "the game", a stern, legalistic endeavor seeking only to operate within its parameters. On the other is "the story", casting wide its net without judgement so much as interpretation. For one, there is no good and bad; for the other, no right and wrong2. But that formulation both limits the aesthetic possibilities of sports and ignores the very real link between game and story. To my mind, the proper analogy is the relationship between grammar and literature. Language, like sport, is a consummately human realm, with its formal rules and suggestions and exceptions, susceptible of a whole slew of teleological and aesthetic significances. There is value in both Wittgenstein and Gertrude Stein. And just like in sports, the rules and the beauty of language overlap imperfectly.
2: This is, of course, a huge oversimplification, and just like in real life, something is lost when you boil things down this much. Demi-glace this ain't.
A bigger problem is how Phillips tries to reconcile his ideal of soccer's philosophical acceptance of bad calls with the governance of the sport, what he calls the "'game as a story/save the Hand of God' line... as an argument for design". He fully recognizes that premeditated bad calls are a hopeless cause, but totally misses why: "There’s no doubt that a certain amount of bad refereeing enhances the narrative of the game, but that isn’t FIFA’s angle, and in any case giving match officials a certain quota of blown calls to reach would just trade epic accidents for bureaucratic stupidities. The Hand of God wouldn’t mean anything if it had resulted from discretionary refereeing choice built into the rules of the game, because you can’t program spontaneous mysticism."

What's really missing here is the recognition that a blown call is not merely an error or an aberration, it is a failure. To ignore that is to reduce the referees to automatons, to deny them their dignity, agency, and yes, their narrative and tragic power. The NBA has reached the point where referees have name recognition and individual reputations3 for fairness, bias, or incompetence. This is fine grist for the narratively-inclined, but the uncertain ground from which it springs doesn't simply reduce out. It's a necessary part of the game as it is played, by athletes and referees alike, because the parameters are fluid. There is a long history of diegetic whistle-swallowing4 in basketball, especially come playoff time. Fundamentally, refereeing is a human endeavor, fluid and rife with contingency.
3: In more concrete analysis, there's some fascinating work going on collecting referee stats.
4: To say nothing of "star calls". Really, let's say nothing about them.
So to say "human error is part of the game" is a lame excuse only holds water if you reduce the game to its rules or reduce the referees to an abstraction. Phillips claims, "The wider the circle within which you’re willing to see the game as aesthetic, in other words, the more you wind up relying on chance and accident," but I don't think that's it at all; the wider the circle within which you're willing to see the game as aesthetic, the more you wind up relying on people.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Google Analytics: