Sport and Enlightenment


As far as the Enlightenment is concerned, sport discards the faith in reason and the pedagogy which departs from man as a reasonable being. It insists on a muscular body and a belligerent character, which is expressed in Coubertin’s maxim mens fervida in corpore lacertoso. It is a Social Darwinist basis for the “will to power”, its “anthropological” foundation being in greediness. Sport, just as the bourgeois physical culture which abandoned the emancipatory traces of the Enlightenment (on which the philanthropic and dancing movements were based), is dominated by a technical-productivistic rationality: the body is reduced to a machine, and movement to the mechanics of movement. The perfect functionality of a machine, which means that the body becomes an instrument for producing performance in a pure sense, becomes the highest esthetic challenge. Sport does not represent the realization of the emancipatory legacy of the Enlightenment, but one of the most fatal tendencies in the development of the Enlightenment thought, which was pointed out by Horkheimer and Adorno: “the transformation of the Enlightenment into positivism”. (9) It is precisely Horkheimer (Adorno) who insists on the criticism of the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance prevalent in sport: “What is not given to the measurement of calculability and usability is suspicious to the Enlightenment” – “the number has become the canon of the Enlightenment”. (10) And he continues: “Bourgeois society is ruled by equivalence. It makes the dissimilar comparable by reducing it to abstract quantities. To the Enlightenment, that which does not reduce to numbers, and ultimately to the one, becomes illusion; modern positivism writes it off as literature. Unity is the slogan from Parmenides to Russell. The destruction of gods and qualities alike is insisted upon.” (11) In sport, there is no dialectical confrontation between good and evil, freedom and slavery, old and new… Quantitative shifts without qualitative leaps become an expression and a measure of “progress”, which creates and illusion that capitalism is capable of “moving forward” forever at the expense of the destruction of man and nature. In sport, there is no “cultural time” (Bloch), which means there is no historical movement; it is dominated by a mechanicistic time with a mythological aura (“immortal spirit of antiquity”). The “history of sport” is reduced to a linear sequence of figures to which the names of impersonalized champions are attached. Sport represents the means for creating the cult of capitalist “progress”: quantitative comparison becomes a superhuman force to which man is fatally submitted. Sport most convincingly confirms Horkheimer and Adorno’s conclusion from the “Dialectic of Enlightenment” that “the curse of a constant progress is a constant regression”. (12) At the same time, there is a “reflexion on the destructiveness of progress” (13) and on the “renouncement of all hope”. (14) Sport is based on technological rationalism which is a manifest form of the destructive capitalist irrationalism. The absolutized principle of performance, expressed in the record as the market value of result and thus the end in itself, represents a manifest form of capitalist reproduction, based on the absolutized principle of increasing the profit: the speed of the reproduction of capital is the power dictating the rhythm of social events and conditioning the dramatics of human life. At the same time, in sport there is no will for creating a world based on reason and freedom – the most important emancipatory intention of the German classical philosophy; it is dominated by physical strength, speed, stamina, as well as a ruthless (destructive) belligerent character. Capitalist degeneration of the emancipatory physical culture corresponds to the degeneration of the emancipatory spirit of the Enlightenment. From a world founded on reason, we have come to a world founded on the number.

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