Recently, I checked out a film ostensibly about the origins of professional football in America called “Leatherheads”. I decided to watch the film mainly because I am a football aficionado (though, doubtless, most football fans would cringe at my use of such a term!). The film starred (among others) George Clooney and (unfortunately) Renee Zellweger (admittedly, my long-standing reluctance to see this film was in no small part motivated by the fact that Zellweger was a major character in the film) as a reporter and Clooney’s sometimes love interest. By the time the film was over, however, I was smiling at the “moral” of the story–one which I felt a strong affinity for. Interestingly enough, this film stands as an excellent warning of the immanent dangers of our current, thoroughly professional society.
On the surface, the film half-comedically depicts the rise and fall of a particular “professional” football team (the “Bulldogs” from Duluth, MN) in the Jazz Age of America (mid-1920’s). At the beginning of the film, the tragic hero “Dodge Connolly” (played by Clooney) is the aging (it is implied that he is in is mid-40’s) romantic (in the philosophical sense) star of the Duluth Bulldogs, playing muddy, leather-helmeted, casually officiated, sparsely attended (less than 20 fans in one scene) rugby-esque football matches in previously (and sometimes currently) cow-occupied fields.
At the end of the opening scene (involving this game), the “referee” informs Connolly that Duluth most forfeit the game (a game Duluth was winning) because a local urchin ran off with the (only) game ball, and–according to said ref–the home team (in this case Duluth) was responsible for providing the game ball (the absence of which necessitated a forfeit by Duluth). Agitated, Connolly disputed the wisdom of this decision, and was told by the ref that the decision was in accordance with “the rules”. Dumbfounded, Connolly declared that he did not recall such a rule, and further, that the “rules” of the game were somewhat ambiguous (to say the least) and uncodified in any case. This exchange provides an innocuous foreshadowing of the ominous developments to come….
The changes to come are, in a beautifully tragic twist, a sadly ironic result of Connolly’s best intentions regarding his fellow teammates. In an attempt to save the dissolution of the Bulldogs for financial reasons (which would lead to the unemployment of the players–a hardship that Connolly showed great concern over), Connolly’s finagling leads to a scenario whereby the Bulldogs would sign a Princeton University all-american hero (a former decorated WWI veteran–Carter “the bullet” Rutherford) to play for the Bulldogs for an exorbitant sum in exchange for the increased revenue expected (and confirmed) by the meteoric rise in spectator interest and attendance.
“The Bullet”, however, brings with him a level of seriousness (albeit with a generally amiable disposition–recall the difference between “friendly fascism” and “classic fascism” as denoted by Bertram Gross) regarding preparation, exercises, game-strategy, and general off-field behavior that is sharply at odds with the romantic “get drunk and bar fight till sunrise the night before” preparation of the wily and more circumspect veteran, Connolly. This ominous (though seductively positive on its surface) cloud of seriousness eventually envelops not only the Duluth team (as shown in a scene where Connolly’s team-mates decide on a “curfew” the night before to the sad amazement of Connolly), but the entirety of the sport as a former politician of high national standing is selected as the “Commissioner” of professional football, and an official book of “rules” is drafted and implemented (the movie also depicts the tentacular spread of professionalism outside of the sport with the scene in which the new radio announcer scolds the veteran journalist for swearing on the radio).
Eventually, this all leads to the climactic moment wherein “the Bullet” is traded to the Chicago Bears the week before the Bulldogs are scheduled to play the Bears at Soldier Field in Chicago. Connolly bravely announces his intention to beat the Bears with his bullet-less Bulldogs before a characteristic all-night drunken brawl before Sunday’s matchup (there is a lot more to the plot that I can’t go into here, in that the drunken brawl actually leads to an opportunity for Connolly to help another character, etc. etc.).
Of course, in the narrow sense, the point of the Bears-Bulldogs game is to “win”. So, once the Bulldogs and the Bears take the field, it is mutually understood (and acknowledged) by both sides that victory is desirable. However, this evaluation does not answer the more important and more difficult question of why they should take the field in the first place, i.e. why play the game at all (both in the narrow sense of that particular game and in the more general sense of why have the sport of football at all)?
As Max Weber points out, the epoch of modernity is characterized by “instrumental rationality” where such meta-level teleological questioning is wholly replaced by the less circumspect focus on efficiency, thus leading to the grim and inescapable “iron cage of modernity” (this is also the precursor to seeing–in Marxist terminology–the “bureaucrat” or “professional” as a unique class distinct from the “capitalist” or “industrial proletarian”, with the result that rule in the interests of this class is “fascism” or “fascist socialism”…see e.g. also “The Bureaucratization of the World” by Bruno Rizzi, “The Managerial Revolution” by James Burnham, “The Dynamics of War and Revolution” by Lawrence Dennis, “The Next American Frontier” by Robert Reich, “Friendly Fascism: The New Face of Power in America” by Bertram Gross and “Class Politics in the Information Age” and “America’s New Economic Order” by Donald C. Hodges).
Thus, as it becomes clear, how one answers this question of why bother (and, crucially, whether one raises the issue at all–a position critically implicated as fascistic in some circles) sharply determines how the game is played and how the participants are affected.
Thus, at the end of the game, Connolly employs a trademark tactic (i.e. cheating) to defeat the Bears to the consternation of the new Commissioner (who, in an earlier conversation had explained that if Connolly engaged in such “antics” he would be summarily expelled from the sport) and the faintly amused amazement of the doltish “Bullet”….
In the concluding conversation between the romantic Connolly and the “Bullet”, the modern man cannot conceive of why Connolly did what he did (both parties knowing full well Connolly would be expelled) and thus asks “why?”. Connolly–acknowledging his imminent expulsion from the new “professional” football league–answers the mystified Princeton footballer’s query with a dirty though happily exhausted grin and a (to the modern “Bullet”) cryptic assertion that at least “it was fun”….. (or, as Feyerabend quipped, if Freedom conflicts with Truth, we should abandon Truth, because Freedom is the necessary condition for “happiness”).
Existentialism (of a particular variety anyhow) appears to offer one possible philosophical source of Connolly’s riposte (unsurprising since existentialism burst upon the intellectual scene as a horrified response to the crudely authoritarian fascism of WW2). In the opening sentence of his essay “The Myth of Sisyphus”, Albert Camus writes:
“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide”.
Camus argues that there are many interesting philosophical questions but that–in order for those questions to be relevant–one must first answer the serious question of suicide. Thus, there is a framing forestructure which shapes the arena (in the attitudinal sense and otherwise) in which these various philosophical questions are raised. In a discreet nod to Weber’s instrumentalism, it is clear that the “bullet”–the pristine standard-bearer of “modern man”–cannot answer such a question and indeed, is not even able to conceptualize the question (or even less so, its relevance) itself in the first place.
Now, one could argue that the environment fostered by increasing “professionalism” is actually–contra Connolly, et al–quite “fun” (and arguably is so for a small, though evergrowing?, segment of society–the classic “nerd” group that Mikhail Bakunin referred to half-derisively as “savants”) . And perhaps to that there is little response (perhaps modern life is literally the “Revenge of the Nerds”, hehe). But then I reflected on the attitudinal “source” of such “professionalism” in Weber. As Steven Seidman notes in the anthology “Contested Knowledge: Social Theory Today”, Weber argued that “modern bureaucracy….encourages individuals to value a secure and orderly social environment” (p. 49) which, in turn, prevents dynamic social change.
And then I remembered that it was Weber who famously turned the tables on Marxian causality by noting the contributing work of a “protestant ethic”–a “spirit” within the people–to the development of a particular mode of political economy. Thus, to use Weberian methodology on Weber, perhaps there is an underlying “spirit” that leads to a readier acceptance of the “order and security” promised by modern bureaucracy.
In “The Gay Science”, Nietzsche notes that–contrary to utilitarianism–pain and pleasure are the opposite sides of the same coin (thus one cannot maximize one while minimizing the other, see Book I, sec. 12). And, foreshadowing certain critiques, Nietzsche points out that the governing science of “socialism” (read “bureaucratization”) actually only offers a reduction (towards elimination) of pain AND pleasure.
But why should anyone prefer this in opposition to Nietzsche’s affirmation of science as a “great dispenser of pain” which in turn opens up “immense galaxies of joy”?
Here we find Nietzsche’s erstwhile intellectual mentor Schopenhauer with the pessimistic observation (which leads to the negation of the Will as the best hope) that for those who think pain and pleasure are comparable, one only has to compare the “feelings of an animal engaged in eating another with those of the animal being eaten” (from “On the Sufferings of the World”). This Schopenhauerian logic is, thus, in some sense life-denying in that it leads to the uniquely pessimistic conclusion that life generally is bad or “evil” (and non-existence is preferable).
But this then brings us back to our earlier point with Camus. For example, if life really is as Schopenhauer asserts, then suicide (perhaps mass suicide?) would remedy that suffering (Schopenhauer has certain arguments that reject this, but we can leave that alone for now). Further, if the social domain is constructed to be life-denying in the sense that the pursuit of “immense joy” is crushed in the interests of “preventing suffering”, then we are literally working our way (in suit and tie with an eye towards the clock) exhaustingly and morosely towards a painless and empty existence. And then the question is again raised, why live at all? The absence of life (brought on by death–suicide if self-inflicted) is surely “painless” and empty in this sense, so a modern life organized as such would not differ in form from the state of non-existence. As I see it, there are two distinct domains here: (1) the living and (2) the dead.
If one wishes to avoid suffering, then choose (2).
If one wishes to experience joy and pain, then choose (1)
Thus, any society which has as its organizing principle the reduction of suffering is the worst kind of totalitarianism in that it imposes the ontological conditions of death upon the living without the hope or possibility of escape (i.e. death). If life is aiming at the ontology of death, then where does one go to live?
So how does one escape this relentless organizing? According to Weber, hope for social change lies in “charismatic individuals”. But it is precisely these individuals that are marginalized in the bureaucratic society. Similarly, Nietzsche argues:
“The change in general taste is more powerful than that of opinions” (Gay Science, Book I, Section 39)
When inquiring as to how such a change in taste comes about, we find a Weberian charismatic picture:
“What changes the general taste? The fact that some individuals who are powerful and influential announce without any shame, hoc est ridiculum, hoc est absurdum (this is ridiculous, this is absurd)” (id).
Which brings me to the impact of professionalism as an ideology of the bureaucratic class in academia (after all, this discussion is all within the general context of academic philosophy). To change taste, one must argue at the level of–and using the rhetorical devices of–taste (something the political right-wing in the USA has known and practiced with measured success for some time now). Such changes have far deeper and more profound total impact than arcane debates in the university setting. Whereas academics of the previous century where among the vanguard of increasing social freedom, the academics today are more concerned with publishing, tenure, and endless debate over trivialities that not only fail to increase social freedom, but actually contribute (in the context of ideological/epistemic support) to the increasingly narrow neuroticism that is characteristic of modern life (which is what Weber essentially predicted). However, academics are susceptible to these criticisms in a way that the general public is not (as I see it). Academics, despite the ever-increasing demands of the professional society, retain a certain “savant-like” ability (generally speaking) in comparison to their peers, and a somewhat agreeable schedule (compared to others in their class). Thus, academics are doubly to blame for succumbing to the social standards and ideology of “professional” society. But perhaps–given the aspects characteristic of one who eventually attains a position as a professional academic (as opposed to the public intellectual)–this is to be expected….
Where are the Marquis de Sade and the Good Doctor Thompson now, when we need them most?