Thursday, January 24, 2019

On balls

“Your toddler is starting to have a ball – first by rolling that curious round thing you’ve handed him or her… and then by attempting to throw it – or more likely, dropping the ball and watching in delight as it moves across the floor.”
What to expect the second year: from 12 to 24 months, by Heidi Murkoff
France and the U.S. are separated not only by language, but also by ball obsessions. The football that charms the heart of the French boy is of a different species than that which makes the American highschooler’s heart go pitter pat.

However, I’ve forever been an American dissident. Between the ages of 11 and 21, the ball I followed with passion was knocked around by a tennis racket. It was fuzzy – close cropped fuzzy when new, just a little ruglike to the palm, and very fuzzy when wet and old, when it was retired from the court and used to, for instance, make a dog take off running in the back yard for a game of fetch. The cans would make a satisfying whoop sound when you took off the top and broke the vacuum seal. They were made so that they began all bouncy and went flat – unlike footballs or soccer balls, which ride on their inner air. I have since not been an attentive tennis fan, or a player of tennis – save for odd times when I can scare up a racket and an opponent. I miss it. I miss, more, the body that would, like a dog’s, haul ass on even impossible to respond to shots. I have the body of a 61 year old – which is all well and good, since I am 61 years old – and its legs, its arms, its heart, its lungs, its lights have the usual wear and tear of 21st century man – not, I should say, the way they would bear that stigmata if I were a manual laborer. I did a reasonable amount of illicit substances when I was young, and drink a reasonable amount of wine now that I am old, and eat a reasonable amount of veggies and an unreasonable amount of fats, which makes me a sort of cog when it comes time for the medical examination, an uninteresting assembly line bourgeois widget. Perhaps the tide will change and I’ll become one of those leathery tanned types on a tennis court, those dinosaurs, those hale old men, but I think you have to make other choices than the ones I have made to end up there.

There is a tremendous literature about sports in the 20th and 21st century, but really little about the ball. The ball itself. Yet the ball is fascinating. A couple of years ago I tried to get into racket ball, and one of the things that fascinated me was the compression of the racket ball balls, their hardness, which is, paradoxically, part of their sharp bounce. They seem poised to slam off a wall. That is satisfying, but somehow I couldn’t ride those balls.

When I was a teenager, I even subscribed to a tennis magazine for a while, and scanned articles that were guaranteed to make me better. Back then, the new thing was Zen. The Zen of everything. In the case of tennis, though, the Zen approach oddly fit. If I lost myself in the ball, if I had that moment, it did seem, at least, that I played better. In tennis, sometimes you have a growth spurt – you play above the level of your play, you get it in a new way, the ball is your second self, your not so secret sharer. You sign a new contract.  But I could never climb to that level and stay there – that is, after a certain plateau had been reached. Not enough dedication. Even so, I knew that when I played well, it was about the ball. The racket, the beautiful racket, followed, obeyed, it was a part of you, but it wasn’t idiosyncratic, it didn’t have a free will, it wasn’t a ball.

It is odd that economists don’t consider the ball. All the activity, the immense labor, that is woven around balls. Because why? Because you want to win, and to win means doing your thing with the ball, which is the thing – the object and the symbol – between you and your opponent.

Balls have evidently been around a long time, but they don’t get the study that, say, coins do. They should, though. Take, for instance, the American football. That ball is grotesque. It is less ball than projectile. If Adorno had had a sportif bone in his flabby kritikdrenched body, he would have recognized the intimacy between the football and Hiroshima. In fact, football is a tremendously interesting game, but it is interesting the way the war in the Pacific, circa 1941-1945, is more interesting than the Thirty years war.

On the other hand, you have the baseball, which is all Renaissance, a thing of beauty that would have been recognized by Alberti or by da Vinci. The stitching and the whiteness and the generally regal bearing of that ball, the great materials it is made of, mystically color the entire game.

Yet even so – there is the ball – not the individual balls. In baseball, for instance, hitters will have favorite bats. Just as tennis players have favorite rackets. But a favorite ball – that doesn’t happen. Partly this is because balls are individuals in just the way methodological individualism imagines individuals – free, wild, and total substitutable. One doesn’t play a ball game with the individual ball in mind, although a crooked ball can interrupt play. For instance, in baseball there are cases when the ball has been subtlely and illicitly altered. There are, of course, balls that are fetishistically claimed – bowling balls, for instance. But mostly the balls are disposable in their very essence. You might try to live on the tennis ball during the game, you might try to clear your mind of everything else, but in the end, you have no affection for the ball qua that particular ball.
Children’s encyclopedia’s retail glorious myths about the invention of fire, or of the wheel, or the pully, or bronze – but they never bother to imagine the invention of the ball. The ball, in fact, seems part of nature. A pebble, a nut. Yet the ball is surely the very symbol of culture – it is the very symbol of the symbol. In itself, it is nothing. But in play, it becomes more than itself. It starts to mean. It is Victor Turner’s symbolic object, and as such, it defines spaces and limits. It creates a passage, traversing a space that is charged with meaning. But unlike those objects – human beings – who also go through passages, the ball can mean but it can’t express. This, of course, brings us back to the afore mentioned fact that balls do not earn our affection, as say a piece of furniture, a house, a car do. A ball is always being subsumed into the great collective of balls.
Having a ball. The whole ball of wax. There goes the ball game.
Enough about balls.  

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