>Regarding: > >>Maureen Korp, 1997, Sacred Art of the Earth: Ancient and Contemporary >>Earthworks. New York: Continuum Publishing Company. >> >>Reviewed by John McCreery, Sophia University, Tokyo, Japan. > >Dear John McCreery, > >since you write from Japan: I am not so happy with your football stadium >comparison, there would have been a nicer example - the ceremonially >dressed Shinto-priests playing with a small wickerwork-football at one of >the cult festivals in front of the Shimogamo-shrine in Kyoto. It is closer >to what Benjamin meant and what Korp very likely implies with her sources >(I have not read the book yet, but got the strong impulse to do so by the >former review). Not just quantitative fan-magics, but being related to some >highest values of a worldview, or ontology. >
You are right when you say that "the ceremonially dressed Shinto-priests playing with a small wickerwork-football at one of the cult festivals in front of the Shimogamo-shrine in Kyoto" would have been a "nicer example." "Nice," however, was not what I was aiming at. My football stadium was an attempt to raise a general issue about the the sort of interpretation one gets into by selecting a series of sites or objects that seem to have a special aura, analyzing their formal characteristics and, in effect, assuming that the forms account for the aura. (I do not, by the way, suspect Korp of making this leap; she is too careful a thinker. Her readers are another question.)
Perhaps because I have worked with Chinese in Taiwan and been part of the throng of worshippers celebrating Mazu's birthday in Beikang, where the roar of firecrackers is continuous and the spirit mediums beat themselves bloody in competitive displays, I am, perhaps, more willing than some to take seriously the sacredness of football, which has, I suspect, as strong a hold on its devotees as many other religions. It is, then, that formal analysis begins to reveal some interesting problems: a space with multiple approaches and points of entry instead of one; clearly demarcated sides arrayed in opposition; a violent struggle whose outcome is not, at least in principle, predictable at the start of the game. Now let us imagine that this, too, reflects "some highest values of a worldview, or ontology." What sort of worldview is that?
For what it's worth, I perceived two lines that I would find it interesting to develop further in "Sacred Art of the Earth".
The Walter Benjamin quote in the first paragraph of the review is an entry point to the literature on commodification and what Marx called the commodity fetish. It struck me immediately in reading SAE that the artists whose work you describe there are, as I noted, struggling to reverse the commodification so prevalent in modern society--in which products are detached from the site of production, seen as having a value independent of that site, and allowed to move freely around the world through marketplace transactions. Where this becomes really eerie is in the observation (Ewen pursues this line) that the modern, individual, self-as-object, and especially its hypertrophied form, the celebrity, has become a commodity in this sense. We assert of ourselves unique values detachable from the places in which we were born or grew up but assess those values in terms of what they will fetch in the market. Iff they fetch enough, we acquire the ability to travel freely around the world. The downside is the empty feeling that comes with the absence of local roots. [This is, by the way, a useful hook into a stream of the kind of critical theorizing that is "in" in many schools these days.]
The other line is one that I have pursued in my own work on ritual, paying close attention to formal variations in structures and processes, in an effort to discern how particular scenes and worlds are being constructed.[A practical matter for an ad man, a source of endless interest to the anthropologist in me.] If you'd like to pursue this line, you might have a look at my American Ethnologist article (February, 1995) on "Negotiating with Demons," or my earlier piece on Chinese offerings, "Why don't we see some real money here?" in Vol. 18 of the Journal for the Study of Chinese Religion. I'd love to hear what you think of what I write there.
Is it even remotely possible that we might pull back this thread from the hackneyed line that sport is religion--an all too easy game to play given (1) the interruption of everyday life, (2) performance in ritually bounded times and places, (3) the transports of the crowd and players, even, sometimes (4) the obligatory nature of the practice--to pursue the subject of variations in form and how they in-form [sic] our understanding of the worlds they represent to us?
To me the issue presents itself at two levels, which, for the sake of argument, I will call logic and poetics.
First, let us consider logic. Suppose I examine a sample of fish. I observe that in all cases I see skeletons that exhibit bilateral symmetry in the transverse axis and a clear asymmetry (head vs. tail) on the longitudinal axis. I have learned something about fish. But this particular something is not peculiar to fish. It applies, at least, to all vertebrates: to cats, canaries and myself, an example of homo sap, as well as to all fishes.
Moving closer to the issue in hand: In a different domain this same description applies both to Christian churches and to Chinese and Japanese temples (simply substitute "altar" and "entrance" for the head and tail of the fish).It does not apply as smoothly, for example, to sports arenas and theaters where multiple entrances break up the crowd, which facilitates moving large numbers of people in and out quickly but also precludes a mass processional entrance to the space.
Second, then, consider poetics. Here my example is haiku, a Japanese poetic form with a strictly prescribed three-line, 17 syllable (5-7-5) structure, which must, in addition, contain words appropriate to the season in which it is written. Millions of haiku are written (writing one is a standard assignment for all Japanese school children). But while some haiku are compelling, exquisite, evocative, the overwhelming majority are trite, clichˇd, utterly forgettable. To understand why--if, indeed, it is possible to understand why--we must go beyond the level of form at which trite and terrific are identical.
I do want to be very clear here. I am not rejecting the analysis of form. I am asking (1) that we deepen it, by including greater detail, and (2) consider the relations of form to other--contextual--factors that affect response to form. These may include individual psychology (increasingly important when anonymous strangers pause to peruse works of art displayed in public museums), sociological factors (when response may be in large part a collective reaction, channelled by ritual), or simple, physical contraints (when, for example, my 80 year-old mother-in-law could not share with my wife and I the enjoyment of a waterfall in the Columbia Gorge because, at 80, she was unable to walk the 10-minute trail to reach it.)
Apologies to anyone who feels preached to. This line of chat is one of my hobby-horses.
A hockey rink is not a typical holy place. But it is a place, an inscribed place, where some people, at least, are occasionally transported to another realm. In this sense, it meets Maureen's criteria for a sacred center. While hockey may be associated with, for example, christianity (religion with a capital R) or with nationalism ( e.g., the Olympics), and while these associations may heighten the experience of the game, it need not be. Hockey, pure and simple, is sufficient to transport. My point in all of this is not to explain one "hyperreal" experience in terms of terms of another, or to subsume one under another, but rather to call into question what the experience is and perhaps to widen it, and to consider how being in _or_ moving through inscribed and meaningful space may precipitate it. I had the impression that Maureen was exploring these environs as well.
The rink as holy place has a "logic." The "altar" is the playing surface. The stands are like pews -- although the collective nature of pews contrasts with the individuality of seats and their tickets. Entering buildings and getting into one's seat can be very much like following along in a church procession. Lots of arenas have a central entrance. Going in with the multitude, or even at 5AM with a small group of initiates, heightens the sense that -_something special is about to happen._
In hockey arenas, the "altar" is in fact bilaterally symmetrical around a central redline, in the middle of which is the center face-off circle. At opposite ends of the rink are the goals, with their "creases" or protected areas. The zone in which each goal is located is demarcated by a blueline. The two bluelines and the redline divide the rink approximately into thirds. The basic structure can be found in other games. Soccer and basketball come to mind. Both of these games have opposing goals; both have the equivalent of a center face-off circle; both feature playing surfaces which are bilaterally symmetrical around a center line.
So we have a form for this class of sports (one that can be contrasted with other forms). True, understanding the bare bones of the form -- I'd include the rules in the form -- does not take us very far in our appreciation of why a game or a play was great. We do need the poetics. And maybe the poetics of the play aren't that different from the poetics of haiku. If triteness and cliches are the enemies of "terrific" writing, maybe their athletic equivalents make for ho-hum sporting events as well.
Triteness is defined as "commonplace, hackneyed" (and "hackneyed" as "having lost its original impact over long use"). The equivalent in hockey is a style of play called "dump and chase." It's probably the oldest offensive strategy in the book and instantly recognizable -- the idea is to shoot the puck into the offensive zone and skate hard after it, banging in the corners to recover it for a shot on net. It doesn't require a lot of skill to do this. All it takes is some size and a lot of doggedness. Dump and chase games are typically low-scoring, infuriating to fans who know anything about the game, and, in the end, sleep-inducing. Key words: repetitive and predictable.
What often makes for a great play in hockey, as in most sports, is the unexpected -- the unforseen pass that makes everything clear and results in a goal, the "deke" that fakes the opponent "out of his jackstrap." These are the plays that bring the fans out of their seats. Great plays must often be "set up." In their initial stages, they _look like_ ordinary plays, ones that we've seen before. But then something magical happens. We find ourselves (whether we're on the ice or in the stands) travelling to point B, where we think the play is headed, when in fact the puck is off to point A, a far, far better place and one that now makes eminent sense. All of which can take place in the twinkling of an eye. Our reaction: "Did you _see_ that?" (After all, the play must be savored with friends.) That "something special about to happen" has just happened.
I suspect something similar may occur in great writing. I also suspect some linkage between the action and effect of feints and dekes and the action and effect of metaphors.
Now the context in which plays happen sometimes help to define them as great (the "response to form"). For example, Mike Eruzione's gold medal-winning goal for Team USA against the Soviets in the 1980 Olympics was actually a garden variety shot taken from what's called "the slot" (the "V" extending outward in front of the goaltender). The puck went through some "traffic" -- the goalie was partially screened -- and into the net. Nothing out of the ordinary, really. Yet, this goal is etched in my memory as a great one, or maybe just a "holy" ones, probably because of its meaning in the scheme of things.
Might this sort of thing happen in writing, as well?
>A hockey rink is not a typical holy place. But it is a place, an inscribed >place, where some people, at least, are occasionally transported to another >realm. In this sense, it meets Maureen's criteria for a sacred center.
--- Consider as well the narratives that accompany sacred places. These are myths for religious places, and perhaps legends (or other kinds of tales) for nonreligious. Legends/tales of remarkable places are common. A hockey rinc is remarkable to the extent that it is large and unusual, and very specialized. The narratives range from spectator narratives of past hockey games, analysis of the present game, and sports-commentator narratives (which are formulaic and formal enough to qualify as special narrative performances). So both text and place can have affinity to similar processes/places that are demonstrably sacred. The same structure can characterize both (just as myths can be told as stories = fiction in one context but be told as truth = myth in another). -- wade
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