‘Beyond the touchline there is nothing’: Derrida and sport.

For a long time I’ve thought that sport provides a perfect analogy to explain one of Jacques Derrida’s key concepts: the ethics of the undecidable decision. I even explored this analogy in a presentation at a job interview once – I didn’t get the post, but I still think it’s a worthwhile pedagogical approach. I think Derrida would have approved as well – in an interview in 1991 he spoke of his childhood dream of becoming a professional footballer, and he always had a passion for sport in general and football in particular (Derrida: A Biography, p. 23).

So tomorrow I’m going to attempt something that I’m pretty sure has never been done before: a deconstructive live football blog. I’m lucky enough to be going to Wembley for the FA Cup Semi Final between Arsenal and Reading. I’m a big Arsenal fan, and I can’t wait for the game. But before the live blog (which may be hindered by technological glitches, but I’ll give it a go), I wanted to explain why I think Derrida and football go together.

I think football, and sport more generally, generate such strong feelings in people, and have such a hold over so many lives, because they give people the experience of the undecidable. For Derrida, undecidables are the new concepts that are revealed by the double-movement of deconstruction (inverting binary hierarchies, then moving beyond the system of binary oppositions). For Derrida, undecidables ‘inhabit philosophical opposition, resisting and disorganising it, without ever constituting a third term, without ever leaving room for a solution in the form of speculative dailectics’ (Positions, p. 40).

Undecidables can be seen as internal to all our settled ways of thinking, and deconstruction works to reveal this to be the case. But Derrida does not think that we can simply reside in the undecidable (Memoires for Paul de Man, p. 22), with all decision-making infinitely suspended. He recognises that people must act, that the undecidable must be resolved one way or another. But he does affirm that we must retain fidelity to the undecidable nature of our decision-making.

This is what Derrida meant when he wrote about the ethical and responsible decision. It is not the decision that is ‘right’ or ‘just’ based on any pre-known ethical rule, or based on calculations of all available knowledge correlated against the demands of some ethical system. Rather, it is a decision made in the urgency of the present, not outside all reason and knowledge, but not determined by reason or knowledge. As Derrida wrote in The Other Heading:

When a responsibility is exercised in the order of the possible, it simply follows a direction and elaborates a programme. It makes of action the applied consequences, the simple application of a knowledge or know-how. It makes of ethics and politics a technology. No longer of the order of practical reason or decision, it begins to be irresponsible (p. 45).

The responsible decision is that which goes through the ordeal of the undecidable, resolves it one way or another without ever being certain that you are right.

When we watch sport we are witnessing the undecidable of the fixture resolve itself into a result. Before and during the game the result is a complete unknown. We may make predictions based on the relative strengths of the competitors, based on form or on recent history. But we simply do not know how things will play out.

Arsenal are clear favourites for the game tomorrow. They are second in the Premier League whereas Reading are 18th in the Championship. Arsenal have won eight league games in a row (a record winning streak for the Premier League this season) while Reading haven’t won in five league games. Arsenal are the holders, and have won the FA Cup a joint-record eleven times, while Reading have never reached a final. Arsenal have never lost a competitive fixture against Reading. But I know that means nothing. I remember last season’s semi final when we were eight minutes away from going out to Championship side Wigan. I remember 2011 when we lost a League Cup Final in the last minute to relegation-fighting Birmingham.

On Saturday the undecidable of this fixture will be resolved one way or another. In the event of draw after 90 minutes we’ll go into extra time and penalties. The fans at the stadium and watching around the world will put themselves through the ordeal of the undecidable, and hope their team comes through the other end victorious. But they cannot know before if their hopes and predictions will be proved right.

It is this resolution of the undecidable that is unique to sport. The arts all arouse passions and elicit emotions, but they are scripted, choreographed, written down – the ending is known by someone, if not by you. And since the time of the Ancient Greek playwrights have always employed their skills to generate tension and suspense in an audience who know how the story will end. Improvised music and drama provides a better challenge to my distinction, but while the mainstream arts rival sport in terms of audience size, I think it’s fair to say that improvised theatre does not.

While there are clear exceptions (watching Lars von Trier’s Melancholia in the cinema was one of the most visceral and terrifying experiences of my life), the arts do not provide the weekly gut-wrenching experiences, the pure exhilaration and the pure despair, that sport does. Theatre-goers don’t pay money to get angry, to swear and shout and hurl abuse, but they do at football stadiums. As fellow Arsenal fan Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch about his first trip to Highbury:

I’d been to public entertainments before, of course; I’d been to the cinema and the pantomime and to see my mother sing in the chorus of the White Horse Inn at the Town Hall. But that was different. The audiences I had hitherto been a part of had paid to have a good time and, though occasionally one might spot a fidgety child or a yawning adult, I hadn’t ever noticed faces contorted by rage or despair or frustration. Entertainment as pain was an idea entirely new to me, and it seemed to be something I’d been waiting for (p. 11).

I said earlier that I’m excited about the game tomorrow, but that doesn’t mean I’m looking forward to it…

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