Sunday, August 29, 2010

Sport: tearing up the rule books

I had a very enjoyable day today half-watching the Hopi fund raising cricket match in which a team including the very cream of the Green Party's sporting elite thrashed the Labour Representation Committee in a game so friendly that rules were taken as mere guidance and the huge bribes paid to produce no balls were returned to their benefactors.

A good amount of money was raised for Workers Fund for Iran, and factory workers in Tabriz who are threatened with job losses had already passed on their thanks for our efforts - although their views on the dodgy LBW decision that saw Hopi's Ben Lewis knocked out undeservedly early are as yet unknown.

The day saw some particularly interesting bowling which seemed more inspired by modern jazz dance than Shane Warne, which got me to thinking about modern sport.

The other day I was eating my lunch next to a tennis court where two pairs were playing. The first couple were taking it all very seriously, keeping score and no doubt alert for chalk dust. The second pair didn't serve once, concentrated on knocking it back and forth and seemed to be having a much better time. Not only weren't they keeping score but they didn't seem too bothered about chatting during the game, how many times the ball bounced, where the lines were or anything else.

Now, unless the first pair were in training for a professional match (in which case I hope they have a good deal more time to practice) ruleless tennis certainly seemed to be the way to go if the objective is to run about and enjoy yourself with a friend.

The process of strictly codified rules for sport began to come into its own in the 19th century. This is the same time that prisons, work houses, schools with rows of desks and insane asylums became de rigeur. It was also the time when we became obsessed with synchronising our clocks... mind you its also when we started taking sewage systems seriously as well so let's not stretch the analogy too far.

My point being that as the industrial revolution matured all kinds of aspects of our lives became mechanised and regulated in a way they never had been before. There were often practical reasons for this. If you were going to bet on a match you don't want your pony resting on whether the players spontaneously decide to make it a best of three just as you're about to collect your winnings.

These sometimes arbitrary rules create a discipline that might not otherwise be there, which can be good, but they also transform a social activity into a regulated and reified (sorry) thing in itself, independent of the players. By reified (sorry) I mean we turn something fluid (social interaction, running about, laughing) into something solid (set time periods, scores, set numbers of players, etc.). I mean we turn the moments of our life into social objects.

It's not that modern capitalism defines us so tightly that we can't see any other way of doing things, but we do allow it to shape the way we see things. Of the tennis players I mentioned earlier we see one set as playing 'properly' and the others as being less serious.

Some people might even go so far as to say the ruleless players should have got off the court and made room for a pair who wanted to play 'real' tennis. I don't agree. People made those rules up in the first place, we're people, so maybe we can make up rules of our own - and then break those as well if we want to.

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