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Transcendence on Ice

Sport and the Sublime

by M. G. PIETY

I watched a lot of TV as a kid. That was before cable, so finding something interesting could be challenging. I was channel surfing one day when I happened on some diving. I didn’t know anything about diving. but even people who don’t know anything about it can appreciate the beauty of it. There was nothing better on, so I decided to watch for a bit.

One diver after another came on the screen and executed what seemed to be perfect dives. But then, suddenly, there was Greg Louganis. There’s a video of Louganis on YouTube that begins: “There are two categories of divers, those who perform with magnificent skill, grace, beauty, and courage–” there’s a pause and the narrator’s voice drops an octave, “then there is Greg Louganis.”

That pretty much sums it up. I was watching all these divers who seemed perfect, and then suddenly there was Greg Louganis. He wasn’t just perfect–he was sublime. I didn’t know anything about diving and yet watching Louganis gave me the feeling Emily Dickinson reportedly said one gets from good poetry–it made me cold to the bone. It gave me that shiver of the numinous that Rudolf Otto talks about in The Idea of the Holy.

That was a defining moment in my life. It was, I believe, when I first realized that there was more to reality than what appears on the surface of experience. Louganis executed the same beautiful movements as all the other divers, and yet there was something more in his movements than in everyone else’s. Something ineffable and yet so powerful; it hit the spectator with the force of a blow, like the shock of electricity. It seemed as if there were more energy in every fiber of his being, more vital life force. It was as if he were more real than the other divers, as if the other divers had been only moving images, whereas Louganis was a man in the flesh. Except that the other divers had been real. So Louganis seemed somehow to have more reality than the others.

I saw the same thing a few years ago in person. I’d just started taking figure skating lessons and used to go to competitions to cheer on a little boy whom my teacher was coaching. I stayed, once, to watch the next competition for slightly more advanced boys. One of the skaters caught my eye during the warmup. He was doing a very simple move, one I was trying, in fact, to learn myself at that time. It’s called “edges with three turns” and involves the skater making large arcs across the ice on alternating feet with a turn in the middle from forward to backward so that the tracings left on the ice look like a series of elongated number threes facing in opposite directions. It’s a simple looking move, yet it’s very difficult to perform well because, after the turn, the skater’s shoulders have a tendency to continue to pull him in the direction of the turn. If this motion is not checked, then it will be almost impossible for him to step forward again into the next arc. The shoulders and hips have to turn independently of each other, and the skater has to have a considerable degree of control over his upper body to keep the motion of the shoulders in check.

This boy, the one I was watching, can’t have been more than 14 years old, but he had the serene self possession of a dancer at the barre. His movements were slow, deliberate, and exquisite. I’d never seen anything like it. Not only did he have perfect form, he had perfect
concentration. Other skaters raced past him, but he was so absorbed in what he was doing he seemed not to notice them. It was almost as if he were out there alone, as if the other skaters had been reduced to shadows. I could not take my eyes off him.

The idea that there are degrees of reality will seem strange to most people nowadays. It was a familiar one, however, to medieval and early-modern philosophers. For the medievals, things that were dependent on other things for their existence had less reality than did the things on which they were dependent. People, for example, had less reality than God. God had created people, hence people were dependent for their existence on God, whereas God’s existence was absolutely independent of anything else. God was the ultimately real thing, the thing with the greatest degree of reality, the thing that was more real than any other thing.

Kierkegaard also appears to have appropriated this idea of degrees of reality. Human beings, according to Kierkegaard, begin as ideas in the mind of God. The telos of an individual human life is therefore to bring the substance of that life into conformity with the form God conceived it should have. That’s what Kierkegaard means, I would argue, when he asserts that we must become who we are. We must become concretely who we are for God abstractly.

Most people, and that includes most athletes, don’t do that. Rather than striving to instantiate the ideal of their uniqueness, they constantly compare themselves to other people and try, in effect, to be better at being those people than those people are themselves.

There’s nothing wrong with competition. Competition can push athletes to higher levels of performance than they might otherwise achieve. What has not been adequately articulated, however, is precisely how this works. Competition improves performances, I would argue, only when athletes strive to instantiate a transcendent ideal that no particular performance can ever adequately instantiate. An athlete who strives in this way to instantiate an ideal provides a glimpse into the essence of that ideal that can spur on others in their own pursuit of it.

That’s a very different sort of phenomenon, however, from that of one athlete effectively copying another in the belief that he can do what the other has done better than the other did it himself. That kind of competition is inherently frustrating for the athlete in that he is trying to be something he’s not, and boring for the spectator in that he’s being subjected to what are effectively a bunch of imitations. When athletes strive only to win, rather than to be the best that they can be in their chosen sport, the reality of all the participants in a competition is diminished. Each becomes merely a copy of the others and the ideal, which in a sense is more real than is any particular attempt to instantiate it, is lost sight of.

The idea that there are degrees of reality provides us a way to explain something that is otherwise inexplicable–greatness. Philosophers distinguish between quantitative and qualitative differences. A thing can be more or less blue, for example, in a quantitative sense. To be red, on the other hand, is to be something else entirely. Red is qualitatively different from blue.

A performance that is great is not distinguished from other performances in a merely quantitative sense. There’s something more to it that sets it apart. Greatness is qualitatively different from skill, even the most highly refined skill. It’s possible to execute a movement in a manner that many would judge to be technically perfect, and yet to be uninspiring. Conversely, it’s possible to deviate from universally accepted standards of performance and yet move an audience more profoundly than someone who is merely a consummate technician.

Part of this has to do with passion, but it is not reducible to passion. Passion is necessary for greatness, but it’s not sufficient. Passion is a natural attribute. Some people have more, others have less, just as some people have more or less patience than other people. Greatness, on the other hand, is not a natural attribute. A great artist, as every great athlete is, has to be passionate, and yet he also has to be more than that. He has to have a gift. That’s why greatness is edifying. It bursts the confines of the temporal-phenomenal world, provides us with a glimpse of something that is transcendent. There’s a spark of divinity to it.

That’s why the sport/art dichotomy is false. All great athletes are artists. They give us glimpses of the sublime by bringing into their performances something more in a qualitative rather than a quantitative sense. That’s why it’s wrong for athletes to strive merely to win. It’s not simply that striving to win, as Aristotle pointed out, is misguided in that winning is something over which one has no direct control. To strive to win is to aim for the quantitative rather than the qualitative, and that is inherently limiting. Athletes who strive to be the best they can be at their chosen sport rather than simply to win this or that contest are pursuing something transcendent. That’s ennobling, both for the athlete and the spectator.

Why then is winning so important? Because it is more obviously valued than is being sublime. It takes less energy, less effort, less engagement on the part of the spectator to be caught up in a contest than to be caught up in a performance. We can follow a contest with only half, or even less, of our attention. To follow a performance, on the other hand, is energy intensive. Human beings, like every other living creature, like to conserve energy. Contests are a way of doing that. We are told who the winner is rather than having to determine that for ourselves. To follow a performance, in contrast, requires us to be fully present in the moment, to bring all our capacities of attention and discrimination to the fore.

When we do that, when we truly follow the performances of athletes, we sometimes find that the superb performance is not always the one that wins. There are a variety of reasons for that. Sometimes reputations of athletes unduly influence scores. Other times the scoring systems themselves are simply too arbitrary and opaque to ensure that the best performance wins. Finally, scores are sometimes manipulated to ensure that particular athletes win, independently of how well they perform.

All of these reasons are traceable back, however, to a suspicion of the ineffable. It’s ultimately impossible to articulate what makes a performance great, and not everyone is an equally good judge of greatness. So in the service of fairness, we attempt to construct a set of objective criteria for evaluating performances, and the performance that best satisfies these criteria is the one we call “the winner.”

The name of the skater I saw a few years ago is Alexander Aiken. I tried to follow his career for a while. If there were a competition in the area I would go in the hope of seeing him, and I would look for news of his results in Skating magazine, the official publication of U.S. Figure Skating, the governing body of the sport. I eventually lost track of him, however, as my interest in the sport waned. The new judging system has imposed a level of conformity that is increasingly making it boring to watch and the perennial problem of inequities in the judging itself too often make the results of competitions an offense to the fair minded.

I quit following competitive skating. I continued to skate myself though,  because it is the only real exercise I get. When I arrived in Jacksonville, where my husband teaches and where I spend half the year when I am not teaching in Philadelphia, I was surprised to find a very advanced skater had recently begun to train there. I noticed him as I entered the rink and stopped to watch him for a few minutes. Something about him looked familiar. And then I realized who it was, it was Alexander Aiken. He was older, of course, than he had been the last time I’d seen him, but his looks had otherwise not changed much. I think it was less his face though, than his skating that caused the shock of recognition to run through me. His skating is distinctively beautiful.

I could hardly believe the coincidence of his showing up to train in Jacksonville. I’d first seen him in Philadelphia and had learned then that he was from Atlanta. What, I wondered, was he doing in Jacksonville? I went over and introduced myself when he finally got off the ice. I told him how I’d seen him years ago and had been impressed with his skating. He smiled and thanked me politely and continued unlacing his skates. I learned later, from his girlfriend Michelle Pennington, who is a former competitive ice dancer and one of the instructors at the rink, that he’d moved to Jacksonville to live with a sister whose husband was in the military and was stationed there.

We skated together, Aiken and I, the sublime and the ridiculous, through the end of the summer and into the early fall. It was wonderful. Most of the time, we were the only two people on the ice. I was concerned that my presence might interfere with his training, but it was wonderful to be able to observe a great athlete so closely and he went out of his way to make me feel welcome. Aiken brought a better face to the sport than the one I had seen of late and that helped bring back the joy I had earlier taken in it.

I was excited to have someone to cheer on again in competitions. Aiken was going places. He’s not just supremely graceful; he has enormous athletic ability. He’s able to land triple axels solidly and consistently, the jump widely considered to be the most difficult in the whole sport.  He won the bronze medal at the 2011 national figure skating championships in the Junior Men’s division and had competed at the Senior level for the first time last year. He hadn’t placed terribly well, but that’s how the sport works. Skaters are rarely allowed to place well their first year in “seniors.”

The nationals are this week in Omaha. The senior men compete on Friday and Saturday. You won’t see Aiken there though. He’s been plagued over the last few years, as so many skaters are, by the astronomically high costs of training. The stress of that has taken its toll on him. He narrowly missed qualifying for nationals and decided he’d had enough. He’s quit skating, or at least quit competing. He said he can no longer afford the $50,000 he’d had to pay every year to train. He’d gotten some help, of course––most skaters at his level do––just not enough.

It’s hard for me to say, finally, which spectacle is more ennobling: the sublime performance that wins the contest, hence reinforcing our faith in providence, or the one that doesn’t. I think sometimes that it’s the latter. The celebrity of the winner makes him a kind of public figure, someone who belongs, in a sense, to the masses, whereas the triumph of the athlete who achieved greatness but did not win is a more private thing, something that belongs only to himself and that select group of spectators whose intensity of attention has initiated them into the realm of the transcendent.

No skater I’ve ever seen in person has made such a strong impression on me as Alexander Aiken has. He’s a sublime skater, a great athlete, a great man. This piece is for him.

(I’m indebted to Michelle Pennington for her help with this article.)

M.G. Piety teaches philosophy at Drexel University. She is the editor and translator of Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition and Philosophical Crumbs. Her latest book is: Ways of Knowing: Kierkegaard’s Pluralist Epistemology. She can be reached at: mgpiety@drexel.edu