02 July 2022

The Degradation of Sport

Christopher Lasch
The Culture of Narcissism


The Degradation of Sport

[100] Like sex, drugs, and drink, they [sports] obliterate awareness of everyday reality, but they do this not by dimming awareness but by raising it to a new level of concentration.
A crucial distinction which deserves to be taken seriously.

The uselessness of games makes them offensive to social reformers, improvers of public morals, or functionalist critics of society like Veblen, who saw in the futility of upper-class sports anachronistic survivals of militarism and prowess. Yet the "futility" of play, and nothing else, explains its appeal... Games quickly lose their charm when forced into the service of education, character development, or social improvement.

And if so, then the distinction between
dimming awareness
raising it to a new level of concentration,
this distinction becomes quite important. It's easiest for play to get forced into service based on what it does well. Failing that, the forcers have to start off by lying about what it does well, which is not too difficult but is at least more difficult than the first way.

[104] the common complaint that modern sports are "spectator-oriented rather than participant-oriented." ... At a higher level of mastery, the performer no longer wishes merely to display his virtuosity—for the true connoisseur can easily distinguish between the performer who plays to the crowd and the superior artist who matches himself against the full rigor of his art itself—but to ratify a supremely difficult accomplishment; to give
pleasure; to forge a bond between himself and his audience, which consists in their shared appreciation of a ritual executed flawlessly, with deep feeling and a sense of style and proportion.*

[footnote, 105] *This does not mean that virtuosity is the principal component of sport. In implying a comparison, here and elsewhere, between athletic and musical performances, I wish to make just the opposite point. A performer who seeks merely to dazzle the audience with feats of technical brilliance plays to the lowest level of understanding, forgoing the risks that come from intense emotional engagement with the material itself. In the most satisfying kind of performance, the performer becomes unconscious of the audience and loses himself in his part. In sport, the moment that matters is what a former basketball player describes as the moment "when all those folks in the stands don't count." ... Rejecting the simple-minded radicalism according to which "commercialization" has corrupted sports, he says: "Money [in professional sports] has nothing to do with capitalism, owners, or professionalism. It's the moment in some games where it doesn't matter who's watching, all that counts is that instant where how you play determines which team wins and which team loses."

If virtuosity were the essence of sport, we could dispense with basketball and content ourselves with displays of dunking and dribbling. But to say that real artistry consists not of dazzling technique but of teamwork, timing, a sense of the moment, an understanding of the medium, and the capacity to lose oneself in play does not of course mean that games would have the same significance if no one watched them. It means simply that the superior performance has the quality of being unobserved.


[105] The players not only compete; they enact a familiar ceremony that reaffirms common values.
This reaffirmatory function could be, maybe, in certain people's eyes, another of the avenues by which play is most facilely and most often force[d] into the service of several charm-killing endeavors at once.

Hence, one so inclined must wonder, if these values are so common, why do they need to be constantly reaffirm[ed]? Is it not in fact precisely when we become aware of how many people in our immediate midst don't share them that the need for reaffirmation of values is felt most acutely? How about when we ourselves find doubts of our own periodically rising to consciousness?

And as for those precious few mainstream values we do feel secure sharing in, who else is just ever-lovin' sick of all the faux-reaffirmation? How believable is it that the reaffirmers actually share these values given that their endgame is so explicitly commercial?

Ceremony requires witnesses:

Okay, then doesn't that make it

totally different

from those


whose especially



hav[e] the quality of being unobserved


is there supposed to be some kind of

productive tension
dialectical mumbo jumbo

out of the contradiction

the granular quality of


the global quality of

enthusiastic spectators conversant with the rules of performance and its underlying meaning. Far from destroying the value of sports, the attendance of spectators makes them complete. Indeed one of the virtues of contemporary sports lies in their resistance to the erosion of standards and their capacity to appeal to a knowledgeable audience.
Good point. But, playing devil's advocate, is this really a virtue or is it just a distinction? Is the quality of being resistan[t] to social change in and of itself a virtue? When standards are at issue then resistance to erosion seems commendable. But otherwise?

It is not quite so anarchic or narcissistic as Lasch supposes to at least entertain such skepticism, at least so long as the ability to discern one kind of institution from the other is not itself numbed...
Norman Podhoretz has argued that the sports public remains more discriminating than the public for the arts and that "excellence is relatively uncontroversial as a judgment of performance."
...and now, right on cue, we have lost sight of the distinction. This is all true, but it's the price to be paid for freedom of expression, which is an arts value but not a sports value. When musicians compare other musicians to athletes, it's usually not a compliment, and it probably refers to personal qualities as well as musical ones. (Calling an athlete an artist, meanwhile, is construed as a rare compliment, but if you spend enough time around actual artists you might think twice about it.)

Happily, in the arts, the choice between freedom and standards is a false one. Style-bound cliques, labor unions, venue owners, and other private entities can enforce their agreed-upon standards to their little hearts' content within their own private associations without infringing upon anyone's basic rights.
(Reminder: it's not an infringement of your basic rights if they are transparently assholish, blockheaded, or hipstery about it, or if they just won't book your band.)
It's when they start seeking public sanction for enforcement of their narrow standards in the public realm that things get rather dicey.
(Warning: if the game du jour has quickly lost its charm, it may well have been forced into the service of education, character development, or social improvement as a ruse for obtaining public sanction.)

[106] The public for sports still consists largely of men who took part in sports during boyhood and thus acquired a sense of the game and a capacity to distinguish among many levels of excellence.

The same can hardly be said for the audience for artistic performance, even though amateur musicians, dancers, actors, and painters may still comprise a small nucleus of the audience. Constant experimentation in the arts has created so much confusion about standards that the only surviving measure of excellence is novelty and shock value, which in a jaded time often resides in a work's sheer ugliness and banality. In sport, on the other hand, novelty and rapid shifts of fashion play a small part in games' appeal to a discriminating audience.
Is the sport audience discriminating on the whole? Or are there as few discriminating sports fans as there are art fans, yet sport is able to appeal to both kinds of fan by its very nature whereas art is not?

To think otherwise is...not very discriminating at all, I would say.

Certainly if all it takes to irrevocably and fatally confus[e] the arts audience is the presence, somewhere, of constant experimentation along with a certain degree of jadedness, then we are right to question whether this audience is quite as discriminating as it and its apologists in the critical establishment have so often claimed.
[106] Yet even here, the contamination of standards has already begun. Faced with rising costs, owners seek to increase attendance at sporting events by installing exploding scoreboards, [etc., etc.]... Television has enlarged the audience for sports while lowering the level of its understanding; at least this is the operating assumption of sports commentators, who direct at the audience an interminable stream of tutelage in the basics of the game, and of the promoters who reshape one game after another to conform to the tastes of an audience supposedly incapable of grasping their finer points.
[107] the significance of such changes [as the violence in hockey] is not that sports ought to be organized, as a number of recent critics imagine, solely for the edification of the players and that corruption sets in when sports begin to be played to spectators for a profit. No one denies the desirability of participation in sports—not because it builds strong bodies but because it brings joy and delight. It is by watching those who have mastered a sport, however, that we derive standards against which to measure ourselves.
Seems more or less correct. The sticking point, though, is that you can lead a horse to water but can't make them drink. Sports still, even now, furnish the opportunity for what Lasch describes here, but more and more people don't take the opportunity; indeed, they are incapable of it, unaware it exists, etc., more so than they simply decline the offer. It is not enough to merely point it out to them; in fact, it is already too late once this is deemed necessary (See "He who laughs last..."), and whatever slim hope remains for them inheres entirely in the dwindling potential for them themselves to make the realization. Pointing it out to them, actually, has greater potential to delay or inhibit such realization rather than hastening it.

(At this point I hope the analogy to so-called Music Appreciation is obvious.)
By entering imaginitively into their world, we experience in heightened form the pain of defeat and the triumph of persistence in the face of adversity.
Stay safe out there kids, it sounds like sport is at risk of being forced into the service of social improvement even by those who have realized the folly in such a project and given eloquent voice to their misgivings in a widely-read publication.
An athletic performance, like other performances, calls up a rich train of associations and fantasies, shaping unconscious perceptions of life. Spectatorship is no more "passive" than daydreaming, provided the performance is of such quality that it elicits an emotional response.
This is important, and it makes good on the Cultural Studies label that a greedy publisher has printed on the back cover of this book. ("Hmm, it says 'culture' on the cover, so...") And so, the same caveat applies here as to the more self-consciously populist wing of Cultural Studies proper: the horse does not always (one is tempted to say does not usually) drink from this magic well of associations and fantasies even after they have been so lovingly led there by the hoof.
It is a mistake to suppose that organized athletics ever serve the interests of the players alone or that professionalization inevitably corrupts all who take part in it. In glorifying amateurism, equating spectatorship with passivity, and deploring competition, recent criticism of sport echoes the fake radicalism of the
[108] counterculture, from which so much of it derives. It shows its contempt for excellence by proposing to break down the "elitist" distinction between players and spectators. It proposes to replace competitive professional sports, which notwithstanding their shortcomings uphold standards of competence and bravery that might otherwise become extinct, with a bland regimen of cooperative diversions in which everyone can join regardless of age or ability...
There is absolutely some dialectical mumbo jumbo afoot when the romp of megacapitalism over all things countercultural has ultimately delivered on the latter's promises more thoroughly and irrevocably (and, uh...regrettably?) than anyone could have imagined was possible in 1979.
In its eagerness to remove from athletics the element that has always underlain their imaginative appeal, the staged rivalry of superior ability, this "radicalism" proposes merely to complete the degradation already begun by the very society the cultural radicals profess to criticize and subvert. Vaguely uneasy about the emotional response evoked by competitive sports, the critics of "passive" spectatorship wish to enlist sport in the service of healthy physical exercise, subduing or eliminating the element of fantasy, make-believe, and playacting that has always been associated with games. The demand for greater participation, like the distrust of competition, seems to originate in a fear that unconscious impulses and fantasies will overwhelm us if we allow them expression.
Yep. And there is another strike against the demand for greater participation which ought to be considered here: the notion that everyone needs to participate in everything. In my own time, this has seemed to me at root to be the product of interest groups coopting radicalism and only rarely a product of the true Radicals themselves. In the present context it suffices to say that perhaps sport is not healthy for every body; and if not, then considerations of radicalism, corruption, spectatorship, and identification all are moot. What is more relevant is to consider the source of any given declaration on the fitness or unfitness of sport, music, Scrabble Brand Crossword Game, gardening, etc. for any given utilitarian purpose or group of people. The source is usually someone selling sport, music, Scrabble Brand Crossword Game, or gardening, and they tend to be apolitical rather than radical, at least (especially) in their capacity as salespeople.
[108] In the degree to which athletic events lose the element of ritual and public festiv-
al, according to Huizenga, they deteriorate into "trivial recreation and crude sensationalism." Even Huizenga misunderstands the cause of this development, however. It hardly lies in the "fatal shift toward over-seriousness." Huizenga himself, when he is writing about the theory of play rather than the collapse of "genuine play" in our own time, understands very well that play at its best is always serious; indeed that the essence of play lies in taking seriously activities that have no purpose, serve no utilitarian ends.
I'll have to actually read Huizenga eventually, but for now there seems to be some talking past each other. The utilitarian imperative is itself a species of over-seriousness in the sense that it imparts a purpose to play where there otherwise would be none. The purpose is the over-serious part of the undertaking, whether or not the players' own style of engagement with the game is itself serious in the sense of the performer becom[ing]unconscious of the audience and losing himself in his part.
[109] The degradation of sport, then, consists not in its being taken too seriously but in its trivialization. Games derive their power from the investment of seemingly trivial activity with serious intent. By submitting without reservation to the rules and conventions of the game, the player (and the spectators too) cooperate in creating an illusion of reality. ... In our time, games—sports in particular—are rapidly losing the quality of illusion. ...our age seems to have resolved on the destruction of the harmless substitute gratifications that formerly provided charm and consolation.
There must be a Third Way through this dilemma. Submission to rules and convention, substitute gratification, illusion, etc.,...surely we can do better than all of that while maintaining the function of play.
The rising violence of crowds, routinely blamed on the vio-
lence of modern sports and the habit of taking them too seriously, arises, on the contrary, out of a failure to take them seriously enough...
But this part is incisive and timely, and it reverberates both in the medium-as-message conversation and the extrinsic benefits conversation.

(For what it's worth, the parsing of sports as part of reality rather than fantasy or illusion has turned out to be by far the most persuasive and powerful vehicle for removing the extraneous violence. That's the good news, and it's where Lasch was wrong. The bad news, and where he was right, is that you can't always take out the violence without debasing the game, the ritual, and the mass entertainment product all at once, and eventually this too leads to violence in reality, not just on the field.)
[110] Imperialism and the Cult of the Strenuous Life
The nineteenth-century bourgeoisie suppressed popular sports and festivals as part of their campaign to establish the reign of sobriety. ...because of their cruelty and because they blocked up public thoroughfares, disrupted the daily routine of business, distracted the people from their work, encouraged habits of idleness, extravagance, and insubordination, and gave rise to licentiousness and debauchery.
Or, we might read between the lines: reformers thought all of this, whether or not the message rather than the medium was, in fact, the message. That this question remains contentious and unresolved suggests that both this moralistic position and the laissez-faire position opposed to it are more ideological than strictly rational or sincere; perhaps also, therefore, that this overweening moralism as well as, again, a certain moral numbness masquerading as libertarianism, both of these things may be more essential than they are contingent. And it is not difficult to see them reflected in contemporary sporting issues, and in all kinds of other issues too.
[111] The spirit of early bourgeois society was deeply antithetical to play. ...[moralism aside, games also] contained an important element of pretense, illusion, mimicry, and make-believe. The bourgeois distrust of games reflected a deeper distrust of fancy, of histrionics, of elaborate dress and costume.
[113] By this time [of D. MacArthur, e.g.]...the cult of the strenuous life was as obsolete as the explicit racism which once informed imperialist ideology. MacArthur himself was an anachronism... As American imperialism allied itself more with liberal values, the cult of "manly arts" survived as an important theme only in the ideology of the far right.
[114] Left-wing critics of sport have made such [right-wing] statements the focus of their attack—another sample of the way in which cultural radicalism, posing as a revolutionary threat to the status quo, in reality confines its criticism to values already obsolescent and to patterns of American capitalism that have long ago been superseded. ... [e.g., the thesis that] sport is a "mirror reflection" of society that indoctrinates the young with the dominant values. In America, organized athletics teach militarism, authoritarianism, racism, and sexism, thereby perpetuating the "false consciousness" of the masses. [etc., etc.] ... For all these reasons, organized competition should give way to "intramural sports aimed at making everyone a player" [etc., etc.] ...

[115] This indictment, offensive in the first place in its assumption that cultural radicals understand the needs and interests of the masses better than the masses themselves, also offends every principle of social analysis. It confuses socialization with indoctrination and takes the most reactionary pronouncements at face value, as if athletes automatically imbibed the right-wing opinions of some of their mentors and spokesmen. Sport does play a role in socialization, but the lessons it teaches are not necessarily the ones that coaches and teachers of physical education seek to impart. The mirror theory of sport, like all reductionist interpretations of culture, makes no allowance for the autonomy of cultural traditions. In sport, these traditions come down from one generation of players to another, and although athletics do reflect social values, they can never be completely assimilated to those values. Indeed, they resist assimilation more effectively than many other activities, since games learned in youth exert their own demands and inspire loyalty to the game itself, rather than to the progams ideologues seek to impose on them.
Well, although we've ruled out facile parallels between art and sport in the question of standards, nonetheless the thesis of
autonomy of cultural traditions
which therefore
can never be completely assimilated
even to the most broadly prevailing
social values,
this does seem very much in line with art as well, though art certainly is less autonomous than sport. Also clearly analogous is the way we seek dominance for our values, desiring to find them reflected pretty much everywhere we look; hence the autonomy of art, sport, or basically any other cultural tradition, from the "lowest" to the "highest," is now denied with the vehemence of an aggrieved spouse by a wide swath of cultural interest groups who otherwise have little or nothing in common: left-revolutionaries, right-marketeers, quietist concerted cultivators... Wherever autonomy doesn't serve the cause, it is simply denied.

Like assimilation, autonomy is not a virtue in and of itself. Academia is an obvious example: it would be possible to argue, I think, that for a long time academia was too resistant to the outside, whereas more recently it has become too permeable. It all depends on which barbarians are banging on which gates, how hard, how long, and for what reasons.

All kinds of marginal arguments against art's autonomy have been thrown against the wall, from many different areas of the political spectrum, some sticking and others falling to the floor, reflecting, at root, a mere scramble for territory in any number of hot and cold Culture Wars. I think the arguments for autonomy are fewer in number, simpler in scope, and utterly indispensible:

(1) per the comments ca. pp. 105-106 above, autonomy permits "freedom" and "standards" to exist side-by-side by forming the basis for private associations. Dean McCannell: "The group does not produce the world view, the world view produces the group." Within such associations, private "standards" can be enforced without impinging on basic public "freedoms."

(Lasch's later contention that "Societies organized around a hierarchy of privilege can afford multiple standards, but a democracy cannot" is least compelling in cultural matters. Put another way, the extension of this stricture to properly "cultural" matters betokens a degree of, alternately, homogeneity, atomization, or repression that is not coming back; for better or worse depending on what kind of primitivist you are. Obviously we can afford a certain "plurality" when it comes to seasoning food; less so, perhaps, with how and where the food is grown and who is entitled to it in exchange for what. "Culture" runs the gamut, and so, therefore, does the possibility of pluralism. Surely this is a more intricate topic than I am doing justice to here simply by making this assertion. The broad argument would be that autonomy is not an elective or manufactured quality but in fact inheres materially in certain "cultural traditions," including in some which originated in profoundly homogeneous cultural milieux; and it is this irreducible autonomy, narrow as it may be, which comprises the budget with which we can afford (or not) privately-prevailing "standards" that differ from public or democratic ones. I'm not sure this amounts to full-blown multiculturalism. The infamous intellectual rows between Brahms and Wagner, Freud and Adler, e.g., did not await the advent of a twenty-first century degree of cultural heterogeneity. Per comments above, ca. pp. 110-111, these sorts of conflicts increasingly look more essential than contingent. If so, then a majoritarian "democracy" had better be able to "afford" at least some woolly-headed poets and formalist composers, even if it cannot "afford" anarchists or fascists in the properly political realm.)

(2) over time, an autonomy of cultural traditions enables those traditions to serve as reference points or, indeed, reality checks, vis-a-vis any new cultural developments in which similar big-picture issues are implicated. Autonomy can save us the trouble of reinventing the wheel. It might even save us from following our peers or ancestors lemming-like off a cliff.

It is true that the present pace of change intensifies the dual potential of "autonomy" to be virtue or vice rather than resolving this potential into one or the other; so there is reason to be vigilant, but not, I don't think, reason to dispense with autonomy outright as so many groups seem to want. And if (1) and (2) have any explanatory power whatsoever, then the question of just why autonomy has recently met such diverse and vehement opposition becomes, despite the elusiveness of firm answers, urgent and unavoidable.

(An aside, re: candidates for a number (3): for Jean Cassou, the métier gives the audience some minimum basis of what to expect, a point which I'm personally not as interested in developing here simply because my most galvanizing early musical experiences involved the violation rather than the affirmation of expectations; but Cassou's theorization of the métier does place it squarely in the "autonomy of cultural traditions" bin rather than the "reflection of society" bin, and it is notable that he therefore draws a connection between autonomy for art and accessibility to audiences. Today, meanwhile, this connection has become unthinkable, both on the Left and on the Right. And once again, this appears more ideological than rational when subjected to any close scrutiny.)

[116] the general erosion of organizational allegiance in a society where men and women perceive the organization as an enemy, even
...uh, especially?...
the organizations in which they work.
[118] Bureaucracy and "Teamwork" The prevalent mode of social interaction today is antagonstic cooperation (as David Riesman called it in The Lonely Crowd), in which a cult of teamwork conceals the struggle for survival within bureaucratic organizations.
Earth to Hanna Rosin, again.

[123] The appearance in history of an escapist conception of "leisure" coincides with the organization of leisure as an extension of commodity production. The same forces that have organized the factory and the office have organized leisure as well, reducing it to an appendage of industry. Accordingly sport has come to be dominated not so much by an undue emphasis on winning as by the desperate urge to avoid defeat.
A bit silly to say so, until we recall that just such a piece of sophistry as avoiding outs has in fact gained wide currency in baseball rhetoric.
...the managerial apparatus makes every effort to eliminate the risk and uncertainty that contribute so centrally to the ritual and dramatic success of any contest. ... Prudence, caution, and calculation, so prominent in everyday life but so inimical to the spirit of games, come to shape sports as they shape everything else.

While he deplores the subordination of sport to entertainment, [Michael] Novak takes for granted the separation of work and leisure that gives rise in the first place to this invasion of play by the standards of the workaday world. He does not see that the degradation of play originates in the degradation of work, which creates both the need and the opportunity for commercialized "recreation." As Huizenga has shown, it is precisely when the play element disappears from law, statecraft, and other cultural forms that men turn to play not to witness a dramatic reenactment of their common life but to find diversion and sensation.
i.e. We create what we need.
At that point, games and sport, far from taking themselves too seriously, as Huizenga mistakenly concluded, become, on the contrary, a
"thing of no consequence."
All points worth considering, I think, but right tf here in Lasch's own work is one of the most familiar anti-autonomy tropes:

an escapist conception of "leisure"
coincides with
the organization of leisure
an extension of
commodity production


this drives us desperately

to find


diversion and sensation

whereby we miss out


all the wonderful

dramatic reenactment of our common life

that we could more happily be


In fact we could


this over

and over and






we would be living

a world

the same forces
have organized
the factory
the office


and in
kind of world,
constant experimentation

would be

if not


It is by then not too hard to bring just about any old cultural tradition under the escapist umbrella precisely to the degree that it appears "autonomous."

Ultimately this is a specious claim, but it seems to have convinced most of capitalism's detractors and even some of its loyal opposition. It succeeds best of all when neither utterer nor audience can really play, i.e. when they wanna just, i.e. merely play. Technical struggle reveals the speciousness of this claim. Technical struggle is convergent upon the autonomous core of a cultural tradition, thrice abutted as any such practice is by material facts on one side, social facts on another, and self-awareness on a third. You need all three to be able to cook or hunt just as well as you need them to be able to blow a serviceable chorus on I Got Rhythm. This is why the speciousness of the escapist critique is revealed only to technicians who have struggled for their achievement, and why it is never revealed to dilettantes or outsiders. And it is why non-strugglers persist in the mere twice-abutted converse notion, that "all talk of technical application is certainly after the fact."

As Edgar Wind shows in his analysis of modern art, the trivialization of art was already implicit in the modernist exaltation of art, which assumed that "the experience of art will be more intense if it pulls the spectator away from his ordinary habits and preoccupations." The modernist esthetic guarantees the socially marginal status of art at the same time that it opens art to the invasion of commercialized esthetic fashion—a process that culminates, by a curious but inexorable logic, in the postmodernist demand for the abolition of art and its assimilation to reality.

Christopher Lasch
Haven in a Heartless World
[182] The students recently interviewed by Herbert Hendin, both those suffering from severe psychic disturbances and those whom psychiatry would consider healthy and normal, all seek to repress their aggressive impulses for fear that those impulses, once unleashed, will destroy everything in sight. These young people can "conceive of no competition that [does] not result in someone's annihilation." The flight from competition in all areas of life, so striking a feature of the youth culture of the sixties and seventies and so often justified in the name of principle, originates in a murderous rage.


Stefan Kac said...

Walking past The Colburn School tonight on the way to get groceries, I caught myself (not for the first time) staring in the window. It is a movie-screen-sized window on the second or third floor, inside of which is a dance studio full of very young women dancers in leotards. My first college band director, Jerry Luckhardt, always insisted that "There are no rehearsals, only performances." I think he would also agree with Lasch that a certain "unobserved" quality is also crucial. What lesson(s), then, is Colburn teaching our precious children?

CalArts as I knew it was home to every variety of exhibitionism, but the dance and music rehearsal rooms were minimally visually accessible from the outside; as they must be when you stop to think about it, and yet more so when you consider just who the most likely and eager onlookers would be (sex or no sex).

Stefan Kac said...

Paul Goodman
Growing Up Absurd

[235] [re: the participation ethic, by which "everybody must "belong""] "even if all these people were indeed getting deep personal satisfaction from these activities, this is a dismaying picture. It doesn't add up to anything. It isn't important. There is no ethical necessity in it, no standard. One cannot waste a hundred million people that way.

"The error is the
[National Recreation Association's] basic concept of recreation. ...[e.g.] "any activity participated in. . . . merely for the enjoyment it affords. . . . The rewards of recreational activities depend upon the degree to which they provide outlets for personal interests." ... But enjoyment is not a goal, it is a feeling that accompanies important ongoing activity; pleasure, as Freud said, is always dependent on function.

"From the present philosophy of leisure, no new culture can emerge. What is lacking is worth-while community necessity, as the serious leisure...of the Athenians had communal necessity, whether in the theater, the games, the architecture and festivals, or even the talk."

My note says:
Well, this is actually quite tricky. As always, the moment we become aware/conscious of this "communal necessity" per se, the jig is up and we are stuck back at self-conscious instrumentalism (or perhaps the same empty leisure and escapism here decried).

Stefan Kac said...

Schooler, Ariely, and Loewenstein
"The Pursuit and Assessment of Happiness can be Self-Defeating"

[54] "considerable research indicates that when individuals engage in activities for external reward (e.g., money) the activities lose their intrinsic appeal ... the hedonic value of an experience may be compromised to the degree that one is engaging in a task with the goal of achieving happiness, rather than with the goal of genuinely valuing the activity itself."


Stefan Kac said...

Ernest Becker
The Denial of Death

[189] "...the question for the science of mental health must become an absolutely new and revolutionary one, yet one that reflects the essence of the human condition: On what level of illusion does one live? ...we must remind ourselves that when we talk about the need for illusion we are not being cynical. True, there is a great deal of falseness and self-deception in the cultural causa-sui project, but there is also the necessity of this project. Man needs a "second" world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. To lose the security of heroic cultural illusion is to die—that is what "deculturation" of primitives means and what it does. It kills them or reduces them to the animal level of chronic fighting and fornication. ... Many of the older American Indians were relieved when the Big Chiefs in Ottawa and Washington took control and prevented them from warring and feuding. It was a relief from the constant anxiety of death for their loved ones, if not for themselves. But they also knew, with a heavy heart, that this eclipse of their traditional hero-systems at the same time left them as good as dead."


Stefan Kac said...

Roger Caillois
trans. Meyer Barash
Man, Play and Games

section heading: "The Social Function of Games"

"Play is not merely an individual pastime. It may not even be that as frequently as is supposed. ...games of skill may quickly become games of competitive skill."
(p. 37)

"It would seem that play lacks something when it is reduced to a mere solitary exercise.

"Games generally attain their goal only when they stimulate an echo of complicity."

(p. 39)

"Most of them indeed seem to reflect stimulus and response thrust and parry, provocation and contagion, and effervescence or shared tension. They need an attentive and sympathetic audience. It is unlikely that any category of play would be an exception to this law. Even games of chance seem to be more of an attraction in a group, if not in a crowd. ...

"It is also painful to find oneself alone at a spectacle, even at the movies, despite the absence of living actors who would suffer from lack of an audience."

(p. 40)


"I have already had occasion to stress that every competition is also a spectacle. ... The competitors are applauded for each point they score. Their contest has its vicissitudes corresponding to the different acts or scenes in a drama. The point is finally reached where the champion and the star become interchangeable. The two tendencies are also compatible in this respect, for mimicry not only does no harm to agôn but reinforces it, since the competitors must not deceive the audience... In the performance they are expected to do their best,..."
(p. 74)


Stefan Kac said...

Roger Caillois
trans. Meyer Barash
Man, Play and Games

"The persistence of games is remarkable. Empires and institutions may disappear, but games survive with the same rules and sometimes even the same paraphernalia.
The chief reason is that they are not important and possess the permanence of the insignficant."

(p. 81)

"It is noteworthy that playing with dolls and flying kites, decidely Occidental, were unknown in Europe until the
eighteenth century. ... They
[games] provide proof of the constancy of human nature on certain levels."
(pp. 81-82)


"Number, quantification, and the spirit of precision that they spread, even if incompatible with the spasms and paroxysms of ecstasy and disguise, compensate by allowing free rein to agón and alea as rules of games. ...

"Stadium games devise and illustrate a rivalry that is limited, regulated, and specialized. Stripped of any personal feeling of hate or rancor, this new kind of emulation inaugurates a school of loyalty and generosity. At the same time, it spreads the custom of and respect for refereeing. Its civilizing role has often been stressed."

(p. 108)

"Chance is courted because hard work and personal qualifications are powerless to bring such success about.

"In addition many people do not count on receiving anything much on personal merit alone. ...being conscious of their inferiority, they do not trust in exact, impartial, and rational comparisons. They therefore turn to chance, seeking a discriminatory principle that might be kinder to them. ...

Under these conditions, alea again seems a necessary compensation for agôn, and its natural complement. ...it leaves hope in the dispossessed that free competition is still possible in the lowly stations in life, which are necessarily more numerous. That is why, to the degree that alea of birth loses its traditional supremacy and regulated competition becomes dominant, one sees a parallel development and proliferation of a thousand secondary mechanisms designed to bring sudden success out of turn to the rare winner.

(pp. 114-115)

section heading:
3. Identification

Identification is a degraded and diluted form of mimicry, the only one that can survive in a world dominated by the combination of merit and chance. ... Every soldier may carry a marshal's baton in his knapsack..., except that he may never become a marshal commanding batallions of mere soldiers. Chance, like merit, selects only a favored few.

"Everyone wants to be first and in law and justice has the right to be. However, each one knows or suspects that he will not be, for the simple reason that by definition only one may be first. He may therefore choose to win indirectly, through identification with someone else, which is the only way in which all can triumph simultaneously without effort or chance of failure."

(p. 120)


I suspect this "identification" has much more to do with the appeal of sports than any of the other customary explanations.