The Meaning of Modern Sport

Body Language: The Meaning of Modern Sport

Reynolds, Paul

Body Language: The Meaning of Modern Sport Lawrence & Wishart, 1996, pp.222. ISBN 0-85315-834-7 (pbk)

Andrew Blake has written a collection of essays which seek to retrieve the analysis of sport for cultural studies and impress the critical importance of cultural studies on social analysis. He argues that sport is an exemplar subject for cultural analyses and endeavours to redress its neglect. The wide ranging survey which follows emphasises the importance of sport as cultural activity: as a symbolic and linguistic domain; a feature of national, individual and collective identity; and a subject of social discourse which is reflexive of social change. Insofar as the author is widely read, provides some interesting factual discussion, draws from a range of contemporary social theory and engages with a subject which has had neglect replaced by spurious and fashionable intellectualising rather than rigorous analysis, Blake has something to say.

Whatever value it has, however, is seriously undermined by Blake’s approach to the text, his style of presentation and the slight and superficial nature of much of his thinking.

Blake’s advocacy of cultural studies is ill-conceived. Cultural studies-which I understand as encompassing the analysis of language, logical orthodoxies and meanings which arise from and characterise custom, practice, ritual and romance from local to transnational political, economic, social and cultural contexts-is unexplored, undefined and undeveloped. He appears to see it as an excuse to take a relativist and haphazard approach to his subject and exercise little in the way of theoretical coherence or systematic analysis. In doing so, I think he somewhat misunderstands the purpose and applications of theory. Representing-often partially-the views of thinkers when they conveniently support the authors’ narrative or perspective is not the same as applying theory rigorously. Theory introduced as an elaborating mechanism for an agenda which is already predetermined is little more than using theory as metaphor. The application of theories-from whatever disciplinary or contra-disciplinary rootinvolves the problematisation as well as explanation and elaboration of social change and development through interpretative constructs. Theory should not overdetermine, but it should not be the servant of an impressionistic authorial agenda. It should be the instrument through which explanation and problematisation are simultaneously produced. Blake’s authorial agenda deploys theory far too conveniently and uncritically for it to be any more than perfunctory in its insight.

The more Blake’s reflections on the work of a range of thinkers are considered, the more there is a sense that his discussion does not dignify their contrasting insights with any critical or appraisive rigour. Of course, the argument might be that the text needs to be accessible and so theory discussed simply and descriptively. If accessibility to the reader is at the cost of such theoretical laxity, however, perhaps the author should confine himself to a more straightforward, honestly impressionistic piece. As it is his deployment of theory increasingly feels like the author is wearing the `emperor’s new clothes’.

Just as the ‘text’ has a hero-cultural studies-it also has a ‘villain’ (the source of previously unsatisfactory surveys of sport)-political economy and analysis of the left (conveniently conflated). His version of this analysis is a grim, singularly determinant `sport is an ideological legitimator for capitalism’, which rather misrepresents some very serious and worthwhile scholarship. What are we to make of the work of CLR James, for example, which does unpack the political economy inherent in the development of cricket? I do not want, nor do I find it useful, to debate over what ‘discipline’ a writer originates from, but this simple, bland rejection of political economy is prejudiced rather than considered. For Blake, complex analyses can be rendered startlingly simple-the left critique of sport gives rise to the arguments for noncompetitive sport at schools, causing the demise of British sports. Such a diatribe allows for his assertion that cultural studies has `thankfully questioned the naive assumptions behind this attempt to promote equality through anticompetitive practice, and has opened up debates in which meanings and pleasure become available to observers and participants, and pleasurable activities are not seen as merely the inevitable, and harmful, reflection of an economic structure’ (15).

This claim might have some credence if analysis accompanied prejudice, and concepts such as ideology and hegemony were critically employed and rejected. It is not clear, however, that Blake deploys them any further than hollow, superficial `straw dogs’ for his blanket condemnation. In place of concepts which have a value in social analysis we get a range of spurious assertions which range from presumptive to prejudiced. His characterisation of the ‘demise’ of West Indian cricket, for example, is explained by their crushing of English cricket, which broke a psychic tie where domination left them no goal. Perhaps such a view would have somewhat more persuasiveness if some critical analysis of imperial legacy and the ethos of West Indian cricket were offered. As it is, we get in place of critique a distinctively ‘British’ (ethnocentric) reaction which draws neither from the political economy of sport and of society in the Caribbean (particularly the impact of the growth of interest in the experience and rewards of US sports and the professionalisation-and changing payment structures and media representationsof cricket) nor from the West Indian perspective on the changing fortunes of their cricket team or indeed the changing meaning and importance of a cricketing heritage. The adoption of a style of pejorative characterisation or evaluation would only be convincing if it has some form of conceptual argument and evidential background.

Blake’s text claims to argue that the body and its constitution and interpretation is at the centre of all sporting discourses. This tour de horizon, however, lacks focus in centring on the body, agency, identity and social and cultural contextualisation-and rejects political or economic contextualisation out of hand. This reflects an overall weakness of focus and intellectual depth in the text. The author has written a book which distracts the reader with interesting asides and stories, and if that were its intention, it would be more favourably read. It claims, however, a specific analytical project and a broader conceptual intent-and delivers neither.

Reviewed by Paul Reynolds

Copyright Conference of Socialist Economists Autumn 1998

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