Friday, February 15, 2013

Oscar Pistorius, Sport and Life

Rod Dixon
"Happiness is the activity of the soul expressing complete virtue." -- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics

"All I want to do is drink beer and train like an animal." --Rod Dixon, great Kiwi runner

Last night I watched the great sports documentary The Two Escobars. It's a must see for anyone interested in the intense and troubled relation between sports and society. In a prior post discussing the Lance Armstrong case, I wrote that part of what made his case so enthralling and ultimately tragic is the blurring of the lines between sport and life.

The Two Escobars tells that tale again, marking over and over again how the clean, crisp, well-refereed, and meritocratic space of the soccer field provided escape from the turmoil and violence and uncertainty of Colombian life. Then, how awfully and inexorably, the value of that space as a moment of escape became so great that it was consumed by the very forces that it initially was created to escape. No one could control Colombia without controlling soccer, but that control was valuable and possible only if soccer were free. As soon as it became clear that soccer was subject to the same forces that it was trying to escape, the whole game was ruined.

These thoughts of the great and necessary tension between sports and life were in my head when I heard the Oscar Pistorius news, and so my reaction to the story has been colored by them. Here we have a man who is in many respects using sports as a vehicle for social change. He was using the great lever of sports to push society in new directions. This push was controversial from the outset, as the lever of sports only works through the purity and fairness of sports, and there were a lot of questions from the beginning about whether Pistorius' prostheses gave him fair or unfair advantage.

No matter which side you came down on in this debate (for the record, I tended to follow Science of Sport's view that Pistorius' advantages were unfair), it was impossible to ignore the difficult questions that Pistorius raised about the nature of fair play and the access of the disabled to sports. How, for example, is it possible that we are talking about a double amputee actually being advantaged in sport?! Pistorius troubled and continues to trouble the concept of what counts as a "natural" body, an unaided performance, and he was simultaneously inspiring and controversial for this reason. Whether he won a medal or not was almost immaterial -- his success transformed the culture of track and field and opened questions that cannot so quickly be forgotten. He was intent on forging new ground in sport, and like most great people who move social opinion, he did not wait for opinion to settle -- he was committed in his view, defiant even. That's really admirable.

And now, of course, this awful event and tragic event. His girlfriend shot 4 times on Valentine's Day at 4am in his own home, with his guns. A charge of premeditated murder.

What does this have to do with The Two Escobars? Or with the Aristotle and Dixon quotes? The idea that keeps flashing before my mind is that the virtue that sport develops is not complete virtue. Sport demands a narrow sort of virtue. It asks us to be single-minded, goal oriented, fixated, stubborn, confident. These qualities are only amplified in elite athletes, and perhaps more so in elite athletes who are not only trying to be successful at their sport, but to strike at its most basic foundations.

The point that Aristotle was making was that human happiness requires the development of all of our capacities. Athletics, even at its best, requires the intense development of many virtues, but precisely because of its artificial nature it does not require the full development of human virtue. Athletes like Andrés Escobar, Meb Keflezghi, Bernard Lagat, Leo Manzano, and maybe even goofy old Ryan Hall remind us that it is possible to have the fuller human virtues while being an athlete. But this tragedy that has happened to Pistorius, the woman he shot, the people who loved him, remind us that the athletic virtues are not fully overlapping with the human virtues.

The Rod Dixon quote is telling. In the end, sports is escape from a real and both over- and under-civilized world into an artificial world where we can forget the world, drink beer, train like animals, become more animal. That escape gives us a place to practice, to train, to develop habits, to return to the world refreshed. It can give us the leverage on life to live better, sometimes. But happiness, as Aristotle reminds us, has to be won in the full contest and context of an entire life.

For Pistorius's family and friends, this story, I'm sure has more angles than I could ever know. Maybe no one will ever know what happened last night, outside of the fact that two lives were ruined. The life of Oscar Pistorius has long ago been reduced to a narrow fable for the public. The meaning of this fable has now made an odd turn. Having been a symbol for the broadening of the meaning of and access to sport, he has now become a symbol of the narrowness of sport in relation to life.

We are left holding the two worlds of sport and life together, trying to piece them back together, as if they were supposed to fit, as if anything really ever fits, as if the rules made sense, as if the referees were unbiased, as if there were any rules at all.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Self-Monitoring Fallacy: Reflections on Self-Knowledge

“We are unknown to ourselves, we men of knowledge - and with good reason. We have never sought ourselves - how could it happen that we should ever find ourselves?" So begins Nietzsche's Genealogy of Morals. I happen to be teaching this book now, so I am re-reading it for perhaps the fourth time, and like all great books, it deepens and expands with each re-reading.

Nietzsche has many targets of criticism in the Genealogy, but the one that he mentions first is our relationship with knowledge. One of the fundamental goals of philosophical reflection (or maybe we should just say plain old thinking) is the old Socratic dictum: "Know thyself." Self-knowledge is a key to good living. In order to achieve what makes us happy in life, we need to know at least at some basic level what makes us happy.


But the self turns out not to be so easy to know. There are any number of impediments to self-knowledge, and you don't need a PhD in philosophy to know the primary obstacles. Three come to mind off the top of my head:

1) Change. The self like all living things changes, and it does so in two fundamental ways. We change as we pass through life stages. As a child, we want to play. As a teenager, we want to be an adult. As an adult, we want to be a child, etc. And then we change in respect to the situations we are in. We learn to be different selves in response to different situations. In the end, this means that self-control looks less like knowing yourself and acting out your goals, and more like governing a city filled with different selves that have to be constrained and released in different situations.

2) We don't like what we see. Hence the lesser known but perhaps more true Socratic dictum: "Self-knowledge is a bitch." Here we are getting closer to Nietzsche's project in the Genealogy. Part of the reason we remain unknown to ourselves is that what we find when we turn the gaze inwards is sometimes repugnant to our sensibilities. A primary criticism that Nietzsche launches against the philosophical self-scrutiny that comes before him is that none of those philosophers were actually looking at human beings in all of their emotion, embodiment, animality, violence, pain, fear. Instead, philosophers were only interested in knowing and outlining the details of the ideal self -- the self that is the rational controller of its destiny. The self who disinterestedly pursues knowledge, the good, and God. The self that loves harmony and peace rather than chaos and disruption.

3) The knowledge-relation is an inadequate self-relation. This is Nietzsche's main point, and it's sorta subtle. You can't know yourself in the ways that we know other things because as soon as we make the self into an "object of knowledge" and set out to study it, we've already lost the sort of genuine relationship with the self that would be necessary for self-knowledge. The reason for this is that the self is not a thing, it is an activity. Once the self is abstracted from the projects it engages in and made into an object of knowledge, it's no longer a self.  The self, for Nietzsche is a relation in the making, and to look at it from the point of view of the knowledge relation is to disengage it from all other sorts of relations and make it do one narrow thing: engage in knowing. This is how we can arrive at the Cartesian myth: cogito ergo sum. I think therefore I am: nothing could be further from the truth.

When we look at the self from this point of view, we do indeed get the philosophical view of the self as a sort of truth-seeker or knower. But -- and this is the most important point -- the knowing self is just a fragment of the self that we are. There are many other aspects of self-hood that essentially and necessarily escape the knowledge relation. Who we are is really the sum of our relations with things, with people, with our prior acts of self, with our job, with our religion, with our body, and with what we know. Not seeing those other aspects of self-hood is committing what Nietzsche's peer William James calls elsewhere "the philosophical fallacy." To commit this fallacy of thought is to assume that when thinking philosophically we have a pure view of the truth, when really the perspective of philosophical reflection is merely that: a perspective, one among many others.

Nosce te ipsum?
A similar fallacy occurs with runners who use technology such as heart rate monitors and GPS watches and even training logs to monitor and "know" their running better. We might call it the "self-monitoring" fallacy, and it is subject to the same problems as the philosophical fallacy. These pieces of training equipment do not objectively monitor a pre-existing body. Instead, just as the philosophical gaze presents a certain type of "thinking self," technological monitoring presents a certain type of body -- namely the body as quantified field of data. When we read the data that is produced from this monitoring, we do indeed know our heart rates and paces and the like, but the thing that we know when we read that data is actually only a small fragment of the runner's body that has been abstracted from many other possible relations. It is one perspective among its many relations.

Just as the self is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- its knowledge relations, the runner's body is more than -- and fundamentally different from -- the quantified self that is produced by these instruments of measure. Running, like all rich activities of life is just that: an activity. It's a set of relations and undergoings that are mixed up and tangled with all of life's relations. The attractive thing about geeking out over training data and logs (and believe me, I am prone to do this) is that it presents running as "free" from all of these messy things. In precisely the same way that the philosophical idea of the self as rational, controlled, and naturally good-seeking, it presents training as a neat matter of science, a question of inputs and outputs that can be controlled and monitored from without. Attractive? Sure. False and narrow? Yep.

Philosophers catch all sorts of flak for being detached and out of touch with the reality of life's problems. Much of this flak is well-deserved, as is verified by a cursory glance at the lastest professional journals. But the hazards of our profession are not unique. In a specialized world, we are all subject to increasingly narrow connections and perspectives that in turn produce false and narrow world views.

Running, seems to me, can be a practice that resists such specialization. Beyond the geekery, the training plans, the tactics and strategies, we can find running as a broad practice that we do with others. One that not only loosens the legs and the chest and sets the heart to new rhythms, but also gets us outside, exploring space, our local towns and communities. It allows us to feel the weather. It gives us time for bull-shitting with friends, or for doing the hard work of introspection. Occasionally, it allows us the sense of power of using the body as a well-honed tool.

And, yes, okay, it also lets us indulge our inner training geek. I'll give you that. But be careful of that guy. He has a tendency to use the certainty of his knowledge to erase all of the uncertainty of life. It's that uncertainty, that wildness, that openness, that keeps us out there. Not just training. Running.
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