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  • Epiphany of Form: On the Beauty of Team Sports
  • Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht (bio)


Increasingly, the world that we perceive presents itself as a world of floating images. 1 We tend to associate this experience primarily with the moving pictures of film and television, and this association, at least among intellectuals, normally leads to complaints about the technologization of our lives as it has occurred over the past century. There are only a few authors who ask themselves why moving pictures should be any worse or any more dangerous than the static pictures of painting or photography; even fewer of them make reference to another—also much increased—modality of perceiving the world as a continuum of moving pictures, that is, to the situation of the moving observer. Through the windows of railroad cars, 2 automobiles, and airplanes, too, the world appears as a moving world, and it is not by coincidence that the most revolutionary scientific discovery of this century uses as its key reference the world perception made from a moving train. 3 But while there is no empirical evidence that one could hold against the fact of an increasing proportion of moving images in our entire world perception, it is also true that whatever we call “life” must have been seen, heard, and felt as in-movement from the beginning. Should we then not admit that, at least within “life” as the central sector of our perception, the proportion of moving images has remained unchanged?

Here exactly lies the point of departure for my essay. Counter to the thesis of a stability in the proportion of moving images within “life,” I believe that the variety and the quantity of rituals staged with the explicit and exclusive goal of displaying human bodies in movement has clearly grown over the past decades. Such rituals present human bodies under the constraints of manifold sets of rules that often seem to produce effects of body grammaticalization (a limited number of rules producing an infinity of forms that share certain basic features). 4 Most of these rituals are covered by our everyday concept of “sports,” and although we tend to presuppose that sports (or their equivalent) have existed ever [End Page 351] since the beginning of human sociability, 5 our present doubtlessly marks a culminating moment in the time dedicated to watching sports and in its financial impact. 6 While most humanists would not hesitate to admit that this intensified role of sports is an important symptom for the understanding of contemporary societies, they would also insist that, as a symptom in this sense, sports can only be read as a symptom of cultural decadence. Such a widely institutionalized prejudice may be the reason why so few scholars—if any—have seriously asked the question of what makes sports so particularly appealing to so many of our contemporaries. With the adverb “seriously” I want to pinpoint an intellectual attitude that does not just ask questions in order to create spaces for ready-made answers. For we all have of course read and heard, over and again, that sport is either despicable (an outlet of hidden aggressions, a compensation for unresolved frustrations, a catalyst of nationalism, and so on) or that sport is marvelous (because it improves health, builds character, fosters friendship, and so on). But if we are genuinely interested in an answer to the question regarding the appeal of sports, we soon realize that all those easily available “solutions” really miss the point (the unknown point, that is) which makes sports so fascinating—even for those who neither actively practice sport themselves nor root for the victory of any individual athlete or team. The very question of this fascination that brings together participation and identification, active sports and spectatorship, is the broad, complex, and as I claim, unresolved problem that I want to tackle in the following pages. 7

In relation to my primary question another topic becomes secondary, although it has recently lent some of its currently shining intellectual glamour to the academic Cinderella of sports. I am alluding to the presence and to the role of sports in the screen media, and I will adjourn this topic for the...

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pp. 351-372
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