RtO: The Use of Pleasure in Baseball

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “The Use of Pleasure in Baseball”

It’s possible for baseball, in its measurements and mysteries, to be read as a text. But an endless text, like Ecclesiastes, or Moby Dick, or The Divine Comedy, or any writing that is inexhaustible in its manifestations. When asked why his writing was so dense and impenetrable, Michel Foucault responded, (I paraphrase) “Do you think I want to be understood?” I think the same of baseball. It rewards endless readings, and it resists understanding.

Foucault knew he had cracked the code of the structure of industrial society and was therefore sharing secrets of philosophical and political reality that few have expressed before (most readily to mind, Nietzsche) and few in his contemporary milieu perceived. Now 50 years after his first publications, his influence tintinnabulates.

Foucault’s great theme was power, its uses, manifestations, flows, and failures. His great project was to examine the institutions of post-Enlightenment western society for the structures of their power. His great insight was that power doesn’t just say no and restrict freedom; power is productive, and moves in all directions, available to any who can compose it for themselves. As each player who takes the field in a baseball game, so can any one person in a society, utilize their own intellectual, physical and social skills to gain control of their bodies and their will to succeed. One way to achieve this discipline is to do what gives pleasure.

Foucault’s great intellectual twist was to examine power at the furthest extent of its reach, ‘where it is less legal in character,’ where what happens between two people in the normal course of business may not always be in keeping with society’s strictures. Here, where the rubber meets the road, where a manager has to ride a star phenom to hit to the opposite field, or bunt, against his own desire, where transactions of power are free. The old manager must convince the young hope-to-be star. Somewhere between them power is generating.

Michel Foucault
Michel Foucault.

In torturously complicated language, Foucault laid out a remarkably clear road map to the kind of personal liberation that allows one to be truly free, even as the institutions of the state inevitably intrude. By Foucault’s ‘inversion’ tactics, if you are a despised minority (for example this year’s Washington Nationals, as when they were swept by the Braves in those uncommonly lovely first days of August at Nationals Park) one tactic of empowerment is to co-opt the labels of the majority, to manifest those preconceptions in the extreme, and to be proud of it.

If you (Nats), being written off in the Post and by fans, are almost willing to consider that the season is lost, that you are buried, that it might be time to let it go –

– one of the most moving stories I’ve ever heard is this: When a young doctor on the staff of the Nagasaki University Hospital had the ceiling of his office collapse on top of him on August 9, 1945, 11:02 AM, his first frantic, panicked, violent impulse was to fight to uncover himself from the crushing weight on his back, to stand and to strain upward. He said he nearly went insane in a vain attempt to push up to escape what was certain death. In fact, he realized that he was going to die and that all his straining was not going to save him. He said then he became ready to die. He had faced the imminent possibility of his death, and he had relaxed. He knew it was over and there was no point. Then he realized that he might escape by going down. So, he kicked and pressed downward and shortly the floor below him collapsed, and he escaped to witness and attempt to alleviate the immediate and psychotic horrors of the after-effects of the nuclear bombing –

– I suppose I think of this story of resurrection now is because, well, because of this year’s Washington Nationals. Those merciless, face-eating zombies.

If they can come back from the dead (15 1/2 games out of first place, early August), that is a Foucauldian identity they can take and make their season a statement. These are ‘identity politics.’ Once they let the goal go, and simply play the game to win, fighting like every game is a playoff game, then they can have fun and become the comeback zombies, and maybe make the playoffs. To abridge Foucault’s knotted ideas of asserting identity and power in baseball and against the institutions of the state then, ala Gertrude Stein: Follow your pleasure to gain the knowledge to exert your power to follow your pleasure to gain the knowledge to exert your power to follow your pleasure to gain the knowledge to exert your power to follow your pleasure.

Michael Jackson zombie
Can the Nationals rise from the dead a la the Michael Jackson zombie?
This is the professional baseball player! Who has followed their pleasure more than a professional athlete? They are being paid an average of millions of dollars to play a boys game! They can only be thankful that a society exists where such a thing can happen, and they can behave accordingly. When they respect the game, and learn its history and its drama, and they practice obsessively on fundamentals, they gain the knowledge that allows them to exert their power, both to play the Game and the Business, both of which are treacherous.

The institutions of the state, and the game of baseball, are there to structure your life one way or the other. The question is, are you going to manifest your skill in the most productive manner? Are the Nationals about to relax into digging themselves out of a grave? I believe they are still in the playoff race, and I expect the next weeks to be better than what’s come before.

And if not, like Ecclesiastes, and Foucault, we accept a certain submission, in order to fully evidence our individual power. Then a new day will come to face it all again. Foucault said that discipline was the key. And that pleasure was a close second.


Y.S Fing loves baseball the way that his parents wish he loved Catholicism.