William Egginton
Volume 6.2
Casper / Reed
Costa Lima
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Form and the Athlete's body

Among the most fascinating points of contention played out in this volume on the athlete's body is the question of the appeal of athletics. The articles in the first section (a section concerned with the history of the athletic experience) already exhibit a tension between an understanding of athletics as principally agonistic, i.e., relying for its appeal on the intensity of competition between athletes, and a desire to reveal an aesthetic dimension to sports independent of this agonistic core. According to Glenn Most (see his article in this volume), the Greek athlete was, to be sure, engaged in a struggle against other bodies; but he was also an object of aesthetic enjoyment, a naked body, in whose action could be seen at work a model of harmony, elegance and grace. While it could be said that this tension between aesthetics and agon flavors much of the discussion throughout the volume, it is in the present section on sports' appeal that one side of the debate is championed as the determining factor in the power of athletics to attract, excite, and fascinate its spectators. This position, which we could call the economic-reductionist perspective, is defended by economist Roger Noll, who provocatively maintains that beauty has little, if anything, to do with sports; rather, winning, and its contemporary corollary, wealth, are the ultimate forces behind the appeal of sports. Arrayed against him are María Menocal and Allen Guttmann, each with a passion to defend against the pragmatic materialism of this economic curmudgeon an experience of athletic pleasure that cannot be reduced to mere competition. However, while each of these papers deals with an aspect of sports' appeal that departs from the agonistic model, neither claims to be dealing with sports as a purely aesthetic phenomenon either. My purpose, then, is to argue that on the one hand there an indispensable aesthetic component to the appeal of athletics, while on the other there is also an agonistic element that, although distinct from the grosser question of winning or losing, is nevertheless integral to all aesthetic considerations.

Certainly there is an infinite number of counter-examples to Noll's economic argument—examples of the unspoiled aestheticism of athletic excellence—involving the unparalleled beauty of certain athletes in performance. Michael Jordan, for instance, attracts our gaze because of what he can do with his body when he leaves the court for a shot. But, the curmudgeon answers, he's got to make the shot hasn't he? It's all for nothing unless he makes the shot.

Now, clearly, this response will not hold water. People do not flock to see Jordan merely because he can put the ball through the hoop better than anyone else. And although one cannot disagree that this ability is a factor in his popularity, it is but a necessary, not a sufficient, condition. If it were a sufficient condition of his appeal, it would make no difference how he delivered the basket; he could shoot three-pointers all day, keeping his feet on the ground, and no one would spend good money on a Jordan highlight tape. Jordan is not the most popular athlete in the world only because he scores more than any other player in the NBA, or because his relentless competitive edge brings his team up to a higher level; aside from these admittedly necessary conditions, he is the most popular athlete in the world because of how he plays the game: beautifully.

However, if athletics can exhibit a beauty that transcends the merely economic question of who wins and how much money he or she makes, we have yet to determine what it is about athletics, about the athlete's body in general, that is beautiful. Here the quality of agon reenters the picture, in that the beauty of the athlete's body is explained precisely by the fact that it is a body in conflict, even when it is alone. At the most fundamental level, the athlete's body is in conflict with a form which, while intimately associated with the human body, is also radically other than it, in that this form is social, historical, and cultural, not purely, as one might think, "natural."

To return to a point that Glenn Most makes in his contribution to this volume: in ancient Greece, the athletic competition was an ephemeral event. In other words, the results of a given competition were never measured or recorded; the athletes ran against other athletes in the race, or wrestled against a given opponent, and their performance was limited to the time of the event. Athletic form was for them temporary, effective, and consisted primarily in what could make them win.

Let us now flash forward in time, to the present, and imagine a diver at the Olympic trials. This diver, as we are told by coaches and practitioners of the sport, is competing with the other divers at the trial only secondarily; first she is competing with herself, trying to perfect a form.

What mediates between these two examples? What allows them to share the name of athletic competition? The mediator or common element is the idea of a form. If in one case the form is entirely ephemeral while in the other it is more established—in that it is beholden to certain standards that persist from event to event—this change is properly a historical one. As athletic competition adopted the tools and goals of measurement, the effective form of the agonistic encounter between two men was detached from its status as a fleeting event and took on the more rigorous contours of an established technique in pursuit of measurable goals. It could never be entirely abstract because it had always to be concretized, to be embodied, in order to exist. But it could, and did, metamorphose into a portable standard, a memory that could not only be carried from event to event by an individual body, but could be passed on from body to body, from generation to generation. The form retained its goal of efficacy, but its independence allowed for the creation of sports whose goal is primarily the embodiment of a form, the ephemeral pattern of a body moving through space, or what Gumbrecht calls "form as event."1  In this way, even the most individualistic of sports is always a competition of sorts, in that the athlete's body is caught in the full agony of a competition with a form. It is the agony of a struggle not to conform to the dictates of nature, but to transcend the boundaries of nature's claim on the human body, a claim, that is, made by human societies in nature's name.

While the form that is the essence of the athletic experience is not natural, in that it is thoroughly imbued with values, images, ideals imposed by a particular cultural and historical context, neither can it be said that the form is entirely cultural, an imposition of social value on an unyielding material body. By saying this I am not reiterating the platitude according to which there is such a thing as the human body, unchanging throughout history and across cultures. Rather, I am suggesting that while the athlete's body is not a creature of nature, there is, nonetheless, an aspect of athletic performance that cannot be reduced to the body's being tamed to a cultural ideal. This aspect of athleticism, also proper to all cultural activities whose medium is the human body, resides in a third dimension, that of the excluded middle between the natural and the cultural.

Judith Butler's paper in this collection, while not addressing explicitly the question of the appeal of athletics, nonetheless comes closest to some of the ideas I am trying to expound for that purpose. From the beginning she points to the "uncapturability" of the athlete's body in motion as being indispensable to its value. Yet despite the value—we could say appeal—of this ephemeral aspect of the athletic experience, Butler insists that, paradoxically perhaps, this experience of the body in motion that is proper to athletics is in fact governed by an ideal that is "motionless, sculpted, contoured, complete, suspended in time." While the representations that are the purveyors of this ideal are themselves actively seeking the "imaginary body" whose kinetic activity is ultimately uncapturable, "no athletic activity can proceed without some reference to these ideals." In other words, like a cat trying unsuccessfully to catch its own tail, the fixed ideals of the athlete's body are derivative of an imaginary body in motion, while the motions that are performed by concrete bodies are themselves always governed by the same fixed ideals.

These ideals, which become "visible only on the condition that the very athleticism is visually suspended in time," are, according to Butler, the agents through which cultural norms are transmitted and reified, in that "the bodily ego is always an effect of a culturally framed body, a culturally elaborated projection, an idealization brokered by prevailing cultural norms." The ideal or bodily ego is such an effective agent because it is perceived by its individual as being entirely intimate and personal while, in effect, its origin is cultural, external, what Jacques Lacan called "extimate." Butler christens this extimate ideal a "perspective on the body," as distinguished from a "perspective from the body." In opposition to what common sense might dictate—that we first have a lived experience of the body which is then altered in some way by the "imposition of cultural meaning"—Butler insists that the perspective on the body "precedes and makes possible the perspective from the body." As such, the being of a body engaged in athletic activity, as in any activity, is intelligible only by way of a cultural framework that preexists that concrete body's own appearance in the world.

Now, the concept of form that I have elaborated to try to explain the appeal of athletics is precisely not Butler's notion of an ideal, bodily ego. While I would in no way wish to deny the validity or the importance of this culturally imposed image, I cannot accept that the athletic experience is entirely or even primarily governed by it. Rather, as Butler seems to acknowledge at the outset of her discussion, the value, or the appeal, of athletic experience remains in the dimension of the uncapturable, a dimension that exceeds the tyranny of the fixed image or governance by the culturally imposed norm.2   To say that it exceeds this control is not to say that it is independent of it, but rather to insist that what we experience in practicing athletics, and what a spectator experiences in watching athletics, cannot be entirely reduced to this cultural/imagistic dimension. The ephemeral form of the athletic motion is not an image; it is, rather, what the imagined ego cannot imagine or conceptualize.3  As such it pertains to the "real," a knowledge not centralized or localized in the imagistic capacity of the "mind," but diffused throughout the body (see Dretske's article in this volume).4  Just as the form is ephemeral in time, so is it ineffable in expression; as an object of desire that we desire to embody, it can only be approached obliquely, rather than by way of direct, focused thought. "In athletics," Butler says, "having a strong bodily ego, taking the perspective of the body means precisely being able to center and direct oneself, to take up an attitude to oneself that allows one to act in the precise and focused way that is required for athletic accomplishment." But, I would argue, what athletic excellence requires is precisely not to center and direct oneself, but to do away with the dualistic bias that is at the heart of such an injunction. The athlete performs best when decentered, when his or her body is, to use a popular expression, "on auto-pilot." It is thus that we can explain the overwhelming consensus among athletes that the key to an optimum performance is a banishment of mind, a state of being "lost in focused intensity." Butler says, correctly, "to become an ego, one must become a spectator to one's own body." But what she fails to add is that to become an athlete, one must unlearn that spectatorship, one must cease, in part, being an ego.

It is this loss of ego, this pure performance of a body exceeding conscious surveillance, which attracts the desires of the spectator, and which accounts for the appeal of a great performance. It attracts our desire precisely because it belies intelligibility, the very intelligibility in which Butler (again, correctly) would say that we are trapped, by virtue of being egos, self-conscious beings. When Butler claims that "one cannot have the direct and lived experience of the body except through the cultural frames by which it becomes intelligible," I agree insofar as I take her to mean that one cannot be a purely "natural" being, unspoilt by cultural ideals. However, the statement risks being read as a rejection of all experience other than what is intelligible, a reading that would be tantamount to denying a fundamental part of the daily experience of embodied beings. If the experience and appeal of the athlete's body cannot be attributed to a "direct and lived experience of the body," neither are they entirely captured within the realm of the intelligible. The athlete's body is a body whose conflict with a form dramatizes the constant struggle of bodies in a cultural world.

When the Chicago Bulls play, Jordan and his teammates are engrossed in a competition that depends on only one variable: how many times the ball falls through the hoop. When Jordan, or any of his teammates, gets the ball, however, or, for that matter, when the team as a whole works together in the course of any given point, they are engaged in a competition of far greater complexity, against an internal form rather than an external opponent. Whether, as fans, we watch Jordan live or on a highlight tape, we are enthralled by the movement of a body as it battles and, sometimes, conquers a form, a form that remains for us unintelligible, unimaginable, and uncapturable despite the many representations through which it comes to us. What fascinates us as spectators is the sheer sublimity of that form, a form which, for a fleeting instant, the athlete has embodied.

William Egginton



(1) Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, "Form without Matter vs. Form as Event," MLN 111 (1996): 578–92. Gumbrecht's concept has more layers of complexity than are necessary to unpack here, but it is worth raising that aspect of it which relates directly to athletics. Sports, according to Gumbrecht, is one of the few venues in which our current culture may have an experience of presence, an experience whose form is still coupled to matter, is, in other words, substantial. The constitutive limitation for this experience, however, is its ephemerality; these forms-as-event "always owe their presence to matter, they are always unpredictable, and, above all, they are always either emerging or vanishing, either being produced or being undone" (591).

(2)  Even in the context of a sport like women's gymnastics, much maligned for its effects on the bodies and minds of young girls, the conformity of the body is not, I would argue, the ultimate source of appeal.

(3)  As Gumbrecht points out, we can replay again and again the same play, but we can only experience it once as form-as-event (592).

(4)  The "real" may also be understood in the Lacanian sense, as that dimension of experience which escapes rational cognition, symbolic codification, which has to do intimately with the body. The parallels with Gumbrecht's notion of an inherently ephemeral presence should be clear in this context; the Lacanian perspective adds to this the idea that if a form is made present, if it impacts, if it is real, then it also incites our desire.

© 1998 Stanford Humanities Review unless otherwise noted.