Towards A PCS Aesthetic – by Sam Bernstein

It is now more than fifty years since C.P. Snow (1959) delivered his (in)famous lecture The Two Cultures, and yet despite continued efforts to bridge the ‘gaps’ between the  humanities  and the sciences, the affective reach of Snow’s proclamation remains evident today.  Less than a year ago, University of California President Mark Yudof illustrated that the current incarnation of this divide is less intellectual than it is ‘practical.’  More specifically practicality, in this sense, speaks directly to the politics and professionalization of the academy.  Responding to the ‘fiscal crisis’ facing  the UC system, Yudoff remarked
“Many of our, if I can put it this way, businesses are in good shape. We’re doing very well there. Our hospitals are full, our medical business, our medical research, the patient care. So, we have this core problem: Who is going to pay the salary of the English department? We have to have it. Who’s going to pay it in sociology, in the humanities? And that’s where we’re running into trouble.”

Yudof’s description of this ‘core problem’ reflects not only the degree to which the contemporary university systems have become in large part (if not entirely) corporatized commercial entities, but also reinvokes the remnants of this faulty dualism.  The allure of this simple and seemingly self-evident depiction obscures the evidence – or data – that indicates that the humanities do in fact turn a profit, and are not dependent upon university subsidies.  This is, however, as Martha Nell Smith (2010) recently pointed out  in her Distinguished Scholar Lecture (“The Humanities Are Not A Luxury”) only part of the problem facing educators in the humanities and social sciences.  Smith asserts that it is necessary to both “mind and mine” the usage of metaphors if we are to escape the historical trappings of this debate.  The task here is not simply to refute inaccuracy, but to change the framing of the debate itself (see also Lakoff, 2004).
While Yudof’s accounting and reasoning skills are suspect at best – the humanities program at UCLA raked in over $5 million dollars in profit the previous year –  it is not what concerns me most as a graduate student and aspiring professor.  Then again, perhaps this is a lingering naivete on my part given that California’s fiscal trouble can largely be traced to the ‘creative’ accounting practices employed by the Enron corporation as it capitalized – or rather ravenously fed – on California’s deregulated utilities market.  Perhaps it is no surprise that in the film Billy Madison the affable title character foils his arch-nemesis, the would be corporate CEO and villain, in an ‘academic decathlon’ by selecting the category of business ethics for his opponent, whose business acuity is anything but humane.  Sadly, even this pop culture mash-up pales in comparison to the farcical spectacle of 21st century neoliberalism.  By briefly examining a few principle figures and events, I hope to elaborate not simply the importance of the humanities (and the preposterous nature of this real/perceived divide) but chart a preliminary course for the usage of the ‘Ethical Spectacle’ within Physical Cultural Studies.The notion of an ethical spectacle is proposed by Stephen Duncombe (2007) as a progressive response to the primacy given to mediated spectacles within our contemporary society.  Duncombe (2007) argues that “fantasy and spectacle have become the lingua franca of our time,” a time when “no one other than the converted is listening” and that in order to bring about a meaningful change in ideology, progressives “need to learn how to think and communicate in today’s spectacular vernacular” (p. 9).  This is no simple task given that the spectacle has traditionally been used to reinforce existing relations of power, a task that “acknowledge[s] the more immaterial nature of citizens’ hopes and dreams” (Duncombe, 2007, p. 9).   It is clear that within the realms of politics, conservative activists have traditionally been more adept at tapping into, and playing off of, the fantasies and fears of the general populace.  In order to a put forth a viable progressive agenda it is necessary to “make peace with the less-than rational nature of politics” so that we can learn to “manufacture dissent” (Duncombe, 2007, p. 9-10).  The same can be said of physical culture, I believe,  particularly when dealing with large scale commercialized sporting events.

While it may be ‘noble’ to lament the ubiquitous and often harmful role of the spectacle on today’s society, it is undoubtedly a ‘lived reality’ that is should not be ignored.  Furthermore, there is a brutal irony in the realization that the progressive mobilization of the visual image and the public spectacle was most successful during the Civil Rights movement and later reached its spectacular peak, and hence began its subsequent decline, during the anti-war protests of the sixties and seventies.  The brutality of this realization comes through the recognition that today’s preeminent political rhetorician is, arguably, none other than Glenn Beck.  In a sense, Beck has created a forum – often in and of himself – for the engagement of spectacularized fears and fantasies, complete with a set of rhetorical conventions and carefully coordinated productions to match.  Perhaps the greatest (sickest) irony of the situation is that Beck has mastered the art of propaganda and spectacle through a truly “less than rational” re-telling of historical moments and the blind appropriation of unrelated , but nonetheless evocative, public figures.

Current sports culture is thoroughly imbued with traditionalist and often reactionary rhetoric and ideology, that it becomes not merely a viable, but a necessary battleground for production of consent/dissent.  While it is certainly true that sport has had its share of progressive acts and actors, the overarching system of values and practices is inherently conservative.  Dissent is not viewed as a desirable quality within today’s athletes.  This is particularly true as player salaries have risen making them increasingly subjected to both the formal authority of coaches, owners and league presidents, as well as the informal – but no less important or strict – rules that must  be followed in order to ‘do their job’ and satisfactorily entertain ‘their’ fans.

Placing emphasis upon the spectacular may seem like a losing proposition given the vast discrepancy in power and resources between critical sport activists and the commissioners and owners who control the means of production, it nevertheless remains an important site for ideological (re)production that must not be ceded.  That said, if we  are to follow our current course, we resign ourselves to a position that is reducible to little more than ‘mythbusting.’  This is not to deny the value of historical accuracy or denigrate current contextual valuations of the existing social order but rather to acknowledge that while these elements have value, they are but a stepping stone in an ongoing process.

As power is never won once and for all it is no longer good enough to simply detail the fallacies within contemporary sports logic.  Instead, we must learn to understand these popular mythologies not only in their sporting and social contexts but in their intimate and individual contexts as well.  To fail  in this regard is to truly resign ourselves to the mythical and equally damaging image of the Ivory Tower.  This is not to suggest, as sportswriter Dave Zirin (2008) does, that sport sociologists “get off the bench,” but rather that we might get ‘into the stands’ in order to change the orientation/framework through which the game is constructed.  Returning to Martha Nell Smith’s (2010) insistence that we “mind our metaphors” we do not simply want to ‘get off the bench’ only to enter a game where the deck is so clearly stacked against us.  Instead, we must work our way back into the crowds step-by-step.  What Zirin and so many others fail to grasp within this schema is the transformative power of pedagogy.  The students we teach today have already been inducted into the domineering and dominating sport-capitalist aesthetic.

Thus, while efforts designed to increase social awareness are, in and of themselves, positive attempts to interject a critical sensibility into the otherwise complimentary capitalist-sport ethos.  Nevertheless, seeking to ‘raise consciousness’ can only be a/effective if and when it motivates one to action.  This is of course where the task becomes most difficult….  How best to  articulate a critical sensibility towards an element of social life that is implicitly and explicitly designed to be, or at least maintain the appearance of, impartiality and immateriality?  Interestingly enough, I think we may find this only through a thoroughly complex and highly partial engagement with sport, sporting culture and the culture of the spectacle.  It is through spectacle, and more specifically through humor and satire that we can begin to engage entrenched sporting ‘Truths,’ not by seeking to deny them or engage them in superficial conversation, but rather to subtly complicate and subvert dominant meanings through the presentation of sporting reality in (hyper)idealized forms.  By allowing contradictions to flow freely amongst and upon one another, we are able to ‘set the stage.’  In this sense, understanding and acceptance of the individual fan (and her/his proclivities) becomes the precondition for the reconfiguration and adaptation of social behavior.

It may very well be that sport sociology has had little effect upon the current commercialized sporting trajectory, and yet regardless of the accuracy of this statement, it is the perception of effect and the production of affect that carries the most weight within a revolutionary or progressive endeavor.  Social change is most often slow, painful and arduous and thus we should not seek to hold ourselves to some higher standard (however noble we think it might be) that fails to provide a viable alternative in the present.  Seeking to promote wholesale, systematic changes is a losing battle that consumes energy much better spent on re-energizing the individual towards a progressive engagement with their current sporting contexts and desires.

Finally, I propose that we seek to promote a greater fluidity between sport, art, and acknowledged performance.  The German playwright Bertolt Brecht (1974) once wrote that “we pin our hopes on the sporting public” (p. 6) and while Brecht’s recognition of the importance of sport and its similarities (even more pronounced today) to theatre, it is his recognition that “nobody who fails to get fun out of his [sic] activities can expect them to be fun for anybody else” (p. 7).  While I do not doubt that for the most part students find our current structure largely enjoyable, I do fear that we are merely providing background music for the spectacle that is unfolding before their eyes.  Thus, while sport sociology has made incredibly important contributions, it is time for a tactical if not theoretical shift towards what Rob Rinehart (2009) dubbed a “poetic sensibility [that] allows one to see the world creatively and cooperatively, so that those with it seek solutions in concert with others, not the control of others.” As Brecht (1980) notes, “new problems appear and demand new methods.  Reality changes; in order to represent it, modes of representation must also change” (p.82).  It is clear that whatever problems that persist are not likely to change through the use of the same methods as those who have come before us.  The challenge for future scholars is not to measure up to icons of the past but rather to build a new path for people to engage, explore and examine the sporting culture that they have (re)created.


Brecht, B. (1974). Brecht on theatre: the development of an aesthetic.  New York: MacMillan

Brecht, B. (1980). Against Georg Lukács. In Aesthetics and Politics. London: Verso.

Duncombe, S.  (2007).  Dream: Re-imagining progressive politics in an age of fantasy.   New York: The New Press.

Lakoff, G. (2004). Don’t think of an elephant: Know your values and frame the debate. White River Junction, Vermont: Chelsea Green Publishing.

Rinehart, R. (2009). Poetic sensibilities, humanities, and wonder: Toward an e/affective sociology of sport.  Presidential Address at the North American Sociology of Sport Conference. Ottawa, CA.

Smith, M. N. (2010). The humanities are not a luxury.  Distinguished Scholar-Teacher Lecture. University of Maryland. College Park, MD.

Zirin, D. (2008).  Calling sport sociology off the bench.  Published on the Internet, (ISSN 1652–7224), 2008–11–26


One thought on “Towards A PCS Aesthetic – by Sam Bernstein

  1. Well put, Sam. There is no doubt a legitimacy in calling for the mobilization an ethical spectacle in order to re-appropriate the aesthetics of a once thriving, and visceral, leftist politics. How it will occur, particularly for PCS in our case, is what we need to continue to work out so we can begin to alter the terrain upon which (physical) cultural contestations are carried out. Let’s get back to discussing this again sometime soon…

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