University presses are a reticent lot. We flourish offstage, delighted to shine the spotlight on our authors and their extraordinary works. We want them to get the glory; for ourselves, we hope only for enough reflected light to reveal our individual imprints as standards of excellence. Our books and journals speak not only for themselves, but for us.
Apparently, they don't speak loudly enough. Our modesty -- perhaps a virtue in other times -- has become a liability. Many university presses face serious budget cuts and other convulsive changes. In recent months the University of Missouri, having first announced the closing of its press, reversed course to declare the press would remain open, but operate under a drastically different model. Subsequent to that the university announced that the press will retain many of its original staff, features, and goals. After the highly publicized and contentious deliberations, University of Missouri President Tim Wolfe stated that "my goal is to develop a press that is vibrant and adaptive...."
If university presses spent more time beating our own drum, President Wolfe might have recognized before he first acted that there are few modern educational institutions as adaptive as university presses. In a rapidly changing publishing culture, that's precisely what we must do and have been doing to remain vibrant. Indeed, Wolfe’s stated goal for the University of Missouri Press helps to define the next chapter in our challenge to discharge our scholarly mission.
High-quality scholarship is now a necessary but insufficient benchmark for success. Economic scarcity has increased competition within the university for shrinking resources while digital technologies and the web have created the misperception that publishing is simple and cheap. It isn’t. Yet, we directly contribute to the university’s teaching and research missions in a way that results in the widest possible dissemination of scholarship at the lowest possible cost.
Universities generally perceive their presses (if they have them — only about 90 North American universities do) as being relatively small units focused on the humanities and social sciences, areas that themselves have constituted smaller and smaller pieces of overall university allocation and focus. Our budgets are small, especially compared to those of academic divisions or of the university library. But our need for financial support when we already sell a product puzzles many administrators and creates the notion that we are not successful, critical acclaim for our products notwithstanding. Too many of our colleagues think we’re resisting the shift to digital scholarship, instead focusing on dull old print technologies. We aren’t hip and we don’t want to see that information wants to be free.
All too often university administrators don’t see their press as essential to the university’s core mission. With all due respect, they couldn’t be more wrong — but the failure to demonstrate our importance rests with us and we will begin to correct that failure now.
A revolution is taking place in scholarly communications. From something as broad as the development and evolution of the web to technology as narrow as digital print machines, changes in production, distribution, marketing (yes, even scholarship requires marketing to reach its broadest audience), and selling can and must follow. Such change requires new business models, and we’re developing them; if managed well, they could allow universities and their faculty more control over the information they create but too often cede to others.
University presses are one of the few centers of expertise regarding scholarly communication to be found on any campus, and their knowledge is broader than any other entity. Librarians are acutely aware of some dissemination issues, like price, but not so much about cost and business models. Academic computing center staff know the technical aspects of the web and are hands-down the experts on hardware. But in the broadest context of scholarly communication it is presses, charged with recovering on average 80 percent of their operating costs, that have the greatest expertise in all aspects of the big picture.
From conducting peer review (a critical step that distinguishes scholarship from other forms of publication) to creating metadata that allow broad discovery of scholarship to experimenting with innovative ways to provide that scholarship to libraries, faculty, and students on a lower cost-per-page basis than commercial scholarly publishing entities, we have been building expertise for years. It is expertise sometimes learned at each individual press, but especially in recent years also from cooperative ventures ranging from common production, marketing, and fundraising efforts to coalitions to expand international markets. That expertise can be used to help the university create the infrastructure it needs to lessen the cost of scholarship purchased from other entities.
It is self-evident that the books and journals we publish benefit faculty in their roles as authors, researchers, and teachers. Less evident is that our conduct of peer review and the luster of our imprints together support the tenure and promotion system that has characterized American higher education for generations. Sadly, this system has allowed colleges and universities without presses to "free ride" on the backs of those that have them; it costs them no more than the university press books and journals they choose to buy. Any solution to university press support might do well to address such freeloading.
Less recognized in the academic world is the degree to which university presses, through their publications, serve students. It is true that few presses publish core textbooks such as “Introduction to Economics” (though that’s an area where we are helping in the development of open-access texts), but a very large proportion of the books read either alongside or in lieu of a core text are university press publications. Indeed, our lifetime best-selling books are virtually always those read in undergraduate and graduate courses.
University presses have become the leading regional publishers in the country. State university presses in particular have played a major role in publishing books that help citizens recognize and celebrate what makes home, home. From histories to natural histories to cookbooks and sports books, we help give American citizens a better sense of who they are.
Finally, the dissemination and sale of university press products throughout the world has helped spread awareness of our individual universities more broadly than any other single product — including the football team. Scholars around the world are acutely aware of Temple University Press’s pioneering and prize-winning Asian American studies, while LSU Press’s four Pulitzer Prizes bring renown to its commitment to literature that matters. The University of Minnesota Press enjoys the same global accolades for its critical and social theory list and for bringing innovative European thought to North America through its well-known translation program. In all cases, the light shone on the press reflects the parent university’s commitment to serious, cutting-edge scholarship.
University presses have enriched American education and American intellectual life for over a century. These are tough times to be sure, and presses today need to share in the sacrifices being made by all parts of the university. But it will be a long-term mistake if the expertise and contributions of presses are sacrificed to resolve short-term budget problems.
Alex Holzman, Douglas Armato and MaryKatherine Callaway
Alex Holzman is director of Temple University Press, Douglas Armato is director of the University of Minnesota Press and MaryKatherine Callaway is director of LSU Press. All are former presidents of the Association of American University Presses.
Keeping the costs of textbooks and other learning tools as low as possible for today’s college students is a goal almost everyone can agree upon. How to accomplish that goal, however, is another matter entirely.
And pursuing that goal in the courts, where sweeping decisions can render in a minute what might otherwise take years to implement, is risky at best and counterproductive at worst.
Sometimes, however, savings for students can be found in the most unlikely of places. To prove my point, take a close look at Cambridge University Press v. Becker, widely known as the Georgia State University (GSU) E-Reserves case, initially ruled upon three months ago by U.S. Federal District Court Judge Orinda Evans, who issued a further ruling last Friday.
Most of the press coverage of Judge Evans’s ruling concentrated on its delineation of the many ways that colleges can continue to cite the doctrine of “fair use” to permit their making copies of books and other materials for use in teaching and the pursuit of scholarship. And, to be fair (pardon the pun), in 94 of the 99 instances claimed by academic publishers such as Cambridge, Oxford and Sage to be violations of copyright, the judge did rule that GSU and its professors were covered by fair use.
But in its fair use assessment, the court made two important rulings: (1) it created a bright line rule for the amount of text that can be copied; and (2) it established that when publishers make excerpts available for licensing (particularly in digital form), the publisher has a better chance of receiving those licensing fees (i.e., it is less likely to be held fair use). With regard to the first ruling, the key point is that the guesswork has been taken out. Specific amounts (10 percent of a book if less than 10 chapters, or 1 chapter of a book if more than 10 chapters) allowable for copy have been set.
The second ruling is even more significant. At first glance, it might seem that licensing “fees” have negative ramifications for students, as they would now be forced to “pay” for materials that would otherwise be “free.” But the nuanced reality of the ruling, at least in my view, is that this will actually do more to keep student book prices down than the commonly accepted benefits of fair use.
Here’s why: without this finding, many small and mid-size academic publishers might otherwise be priced out of participating in the higher education market and a handful of larger textbook players could multilaterally decide to raise prices within their tight but powerful group, serving to hurt students’ pocketbooks in the process.
However, the ability for all publishers -- small, medium and large -- to sell excerpts that are “reasonably available, at a reasonable price” levels the playing field for suppliers of content. This then leads to a pricing scheme that rewards the creation of effective units of content, meaning that students are paying only for what is most relevant to their studies, and not the extra materials that inevitably become part of comprehensive textbook products.
Disaggregation of content therefore, is not a license to charge students for materials that would otherwise be free. Instead, disaggregation is an enabler of the provision of targeted, highly relevant content that, in the end, may actually cost students less than their purchase of more generalized materials that often include content not taught in a particular class.
The pricing of disaggregated content is, to be sure, set entirely by the publisher. But a publisher faced with an opportunity to amortize a portion of its intellectual investment through what is, in effect, a “permission fee” per student or to hold fast to a view of “buy the entire book or nothing at all” will, I am fairly certain, come to a quick realization that unit pricing is the way to go.
If “a small excerpt of a copyrighted book is available in a convenient format and at a reasonable price, then that factor [in the fair use assessment] weighs in favor of the publisher to be compensated for such academic use,” according to Judge Evans’s initial ruling in the GSU E-Reserves case. This not only stands in her recent ruling, it is reasonable because it incentivizes publishers to make their content more readily available to be licensed and it provides a mechanism by which academic institutions can take advantage of those licenses.
From the outset, the purpose of the GSU E-Reserves case, as brought by the plaintiff publishers, was to try to bring some judicial clarity to GSU’s practice of posting large amounts of copyrighted material to e-reserves system under a claim of fair use.
Now, with this latest ruling by Judge Evans, the copyright picture is beginning to clarify, but a healthy debate of the meaning of the ruling remains in order. As CEO of a company that strives to make available copyright-cleared units of content for professors to assemble into “best-of” books, I’ve just provided my take. What’s yours?
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook Inc., parent company of AcademicPub.
I owe a huge debt to university presses. They published my books -- knowing they would make no money on them. That selfless act won me tenure at an excellent university.
My debt does not end there. I run a high-minded enterprise that broadcasts interviews with academic authors of new academic titles. The university presses send my little shop scads of free books. That selfless act wins us thousands of listeners. Nor does my debt end there. Being the overeducated type, I really like the books they publish. But I don’t buy them because I don’t need to: the university presses sell them to libraries that then make them available for free to me and everyone like me. That (admittedly only partially) selfless act wins me hours of intellectual enjoyment.
There is one final debt I owe university presses, and it is the most important. I think that the citizens of a liberal democracy should be informed, and that the people doing the informing should themselves be informed. With a very few exceptions, the bottom-line-obsessed executives who run big media companies don’t believe either of these things. There is no other way to explain what passes for "analysis" on major network and cable TV channels. The equally profit-driven executives at big trade publishers may believe the former, but they have little interest in the latter — again, with a very few exceptions. Why else would they publish bad book after bad book with the ridiculous title formula "The Next Big Thing: How [Insert Simplistic Idea Here] Changes Everything”?
The apparently altruistic editors of university presses, however, care both about educating the public and about the expertise of the people doing the educating. They take the ideas of really smart, incredibly knowledgeable researchers and, via books, make those ideas available to everyone. They have the audacity to believe that the public not only deserves the best ideas available, but that the public can understand the best ideas available. As far as I can tell, they are the only folks in the media industry who share that belief — and I love them for it.
That's why I want to help them and, if you believe as I do, you should too. For, though you may not know it, they are in some trouble. For example, the University of Missouri Press just announced that it will be closing its doors. Let me count the problems they face, or at least three of them.
First, most university presses are not economically sustainable. It may look as if university presses publish books like any other commercial press. Just like Random House and the rest, they produce attractive, interesting books and offer them for sale on Amazon.com where you and I can buy them. The difference is that you and I don’t buy them, at least in large numbers: Only university libraries do because they are mandated to buy them as part of "collections development." The university libraries in essence subsidize the university presses. And that would be fine if — and it’s a big "if" — the university libraries had the resources to continue to buy all the $60 books the university presses can print. They don’t.
Their budgets have been broken by the ever-increasing cost of journals, especially scientific journals. The university presses cannot control this cost: the publishers of must-have scientific journals are too few and therefore too powerful to be brought to heel. They can, effectively, force the libraries to buy their journals at whatever price they deem fair. So the university presses cut costs where they can, namely, in acquisitions of books from university presses. Fewer library purchases mean less revenue, and less revenue means increasing reliance on the subsidies most university presses receive from their host universities. That would be fine if the host universities were all willing to pay the increased cost of having a press. Some doubtless are. But some aren’t; for example, the above-mentioned University of Missouri. If university presses can’t pay for themselves, and if fewer universities are willing to pay for them, then there will be fewer university presses.
Second, most university presses are not fulfilling their mission. That mission is to disseminate the research of scholars for the public good. In fairness, they do achieve this aim by making research available to academics and university students. Efficient "scholarly communication" is essential for research and teaching, and ultimately, though indirectly, it does the public lot of good. But the fact of the matter is that university press books rarely directly reach the public. It’s true that if you have a library card for a big university library you can get a university press book for "free." But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have the right card. Even if you don’t have the right card you are still free to buy the book if you have a spare $60. But the vast majority of the world’s population doesn’t have a spare $60.
Hundreds of millions of average people, of course, do have $60 to spend on books. So let’s say you’re one of them. Are you going to buy a university press book? No. Why not? Many academics will tell you that their work is too complicated for common folk to understand. They don’t buy it because they can’t "get it." In some disciplines — mathematics, the hard sciences, quantitative economics — that may be true. But in most disciplines it’s not true at all. A good history book can be understood by most people. But people don’t even buy those.
Again, why not? The reason is that most people don’t have the time or inclination to read. That may sound outlandish, but it’s true. Given the choice (and they have the choice), most people would much rather listen or watch than read. Americans, for example, listen to and watch "media" of various sorts for many hour everyday. In contrast, they read for pleasure for about 15 minutes a day, and they very rarely read books. In short, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. They are trying to reach the public through expensive books, but people do not want expensive books.
Finally, the university presses do not "get" the Internet. They have blogs and online stores, and in some cases even distribute electronic material. Some, like the University of Michigan, are a lot further up the learning curve. That’s good. Nonetheless, most presses still treat the Internet as if it were another distribution channel for expensive books, like a brick-and-mortar bookshop but better. But here’s the hard truth: the Internet has destroyed the market for expensive books and, more speculatively, university press books in general.
Let’s say you — Jane or John Q. Public — want to know a little something about Subject X. Are you going to go to the library to get a book? No. Too much hassle. Are you going to order a university press book from Amazon.com? No. Too expensive and, besides, reading books takes too much time. What do you do? You go to Wikipedia, where you’ll find much of the content of university press books digested into short, convenient, and totally free articles.
But let’s say you want to know more about Subject X. Again, you aren’t going to schlep to the library or fork over $60 for a book you don’t have time to read. Not when the Internet gives you other options. And it does. You could listen to a free podcast interview with the author of a book about Subject X, or you could watch a free video of a course about Subject X taught at a big university. Let’s say, however, that you want to read a book about Subject X. The library and the university press are still both options, but even now you aren’t ready to get out of your chair or plunk down $60.
Not when you can go to any number of sites (Google Books being the biggest) that offer free access to books in multiple electronic formats. Let’s say, finally, that you want a particular university press book about Subject X. Now the library and Amazon.com become more attractive options. They are not, however, the only ports of call. A quick search uncovers an electronic version of the book on file-sharing site. It’s pirated, but it’s also convenient and free. You download it. Again, the university presses have the wrong tool for the job. People have never wanted university press books; now, with the Internet, they don’t need them and, if they do, they don’t always have to buy them.
So what should university presses do to get out of this mess? The obvious answer is to stop printing books, start distributing them electronically, and pass the savings on to both libraries and consumers. This would help a lot, particularly if the university presses could find away to give their books away on the Internet. This may sound ridiculous, but it’s not.
What would it cost an open-access university press to produce an academic book? It could get the “content” for free: academics are quite happy to give their manuscripts to university presses because publication wins them tenure, promotion, and esteem. It could have manuscripts vetted for free: academics are willing to evaluate manuscripts because they consider it a part of professional service. It could have manuscripts edited and formatted for very little: increasingly, university presses outsource these technical tasks resulting in significant savings. It could distribute books at very low cost: since there is no printing (though print-on-demand could be offered), all the open-access university press needs to do is mount the books on a server. Since the books are not sold, there are no marketing costs.
What’s left? The big expense is editors. Even an open-access university press would need skilled people to find good manuscripts, work with their authors, and shepherd their books through publication. In terms of salary, benefits, and overhead, editors cost roughly the same amount as faculty members, say $100,000 annually on average. A press with five editors, therefore, would cost something in the range of $500,000 each year.
That’s a fraction of the annual budget of an existing five-editor university press. Still, half a million dollars is a lot of money. Since the books would produce no revenue (remember, the open-access university press gives them away), this expense would have to be absorbed by the sponsoring university. Where would it get the money? Hypothetically, out of the library budget. If university presses give away their books, university libraries won’t have to buy them; if the university libraries don’t have to buy them, then they can shunt the money saved to the university presses.
The real challenge facing the open-access model of the university press is getting the ball rolling. If every university press gave away its books, then every university — not to mention the public — would benefit. But someone has to go first, and that someone is going to incur considerable costs not borne by later participants and free riders. After all, the first university press to give away its books will receive nothing in return until the second university press begins to give away its books.
This is a knotty problem, though a number of possible solutions present themselves. The first option is for an altruistic university to begin the process by launching an open access press and absorbing the costs thereof. Such a move might attract similarly altruistic participants. Then again, it might not. A second option is for a consortium of university presses to band together and agree to give their books to one another for free. If this arrangement resulted in considerable savings, it would likely attract other participants.
Finally, a third option is for a foundation to subsidize the transition from closed to open access. The foundation could make grants available to “first mover” universities to offset their expenses until enough institutions have signed on to make the open-access system cost effective for everyone. These options are not mutually exclusive. Some universities have the resources to act as altruists. Others are already in formal groups that might serve as a basis for an open-access consortium. And still others have longstanding relationships with foundations that might support a move to open-access.
As promising as the open-access model appears, it does not go far enough in fixing the broken university press. The reason is simple: even under the open-access model, the university presses are still envisioned primarily as producers of books. This would be fine if everyone loved long, serious books. But almost no one does, the principle exception being academics. Therefore, if university presses want to reach the public, they must begin to think of themselves as the purveyors of ideas rather than the publishers of books. Of course the university presses should still produce books, for there may be no better way for scholars to communicate with one another over vast stretches of space and time. They must, however, also use nontraditional means to "get the word out" about authors and their work, means that appeal to the public.
Some of these new forms will be textual. For example, university presses could post short summaries of their books, aggregate reviews of them, invite experts to begin online discussions of them, cite them on appropriate Wikipedia pages, and so on. Most of the new means of dissemination will, however, inevitably be audiovisual. We know that people would rather listen and watch than read. Heretofore, university presses have had no economical way to take advantage of this predilection. A/V production and distribution were prohibitively expensive. No more. Today good audio and video can be produced and distributed at incredibly low cost and with very little training. Thanks to new media, university presses now have a host of novel ways to "get the word out" about authors and their research. These include podcast interviews with authors, videos based on books or parts of books, and online chats in which authors speak to audiences about their work (a sort of Internet version of the "reading").
What I’m suggesting is that university presses need to do more than publish titles — they also need to help make their authors public intellectuals. Traditionally, public intellectuals have been few and they have enjoyed very large — often national — audiences. The reason for this had little to do with people’s interests and everything to do with the practicalities of the broadcast media. Every "channel" in the broadcast media was (and remains) very expensive.
It costs a fortune to run The New York Times, National Public Radio, and CNN. By necessity, the high costs of broadcast media limited the number of "channels" available and, therefore, the number of public intellectuals who could be featured on them. Broadcast media could only connect huge public intellectuals to huge publics. They could not connect interest-specific public intellectuals to their interest-specific publics.
The Internet, however, can make these connections because it permits economical, finely calibrated "narrowcasting," that is, the transmission of specific information to specific interest groups. Of course print and -- to a much lesser extent -- radio and television also allowed some narrowcasting. Academic journals and industry newsletters are perhaps the best examples. But the scale of narrowcasting on the Internet is orders of magnitude greater than anything known before. Take the blogosphere for example. Here tens of thousands of interest-specific public intellectuals talk to tens of thousands of interest-specific publics concerning every imaginable interest. If you want to know about it — beer brewing, Italian shoes, organic chemistry — you can probably find someone with considerable expertise blogging about it. That’s truly remarkable.
The university presses are well-positioned to take advantage of Internet narrowcasting precisely because they essentially manage a group of experts — authors with books — who are very motivated to reach their publics. Every author wants an audience, even academic authors. The university presses have traditionally helped their authors find their audiences by publishing and promoting books. It’s time to admit that they largely failed, not for any lack of trying, but because the book was the wrong tool. Blogs, podcasts, videos, and types of “programming” not yet conceived or invented offer a much better method of reaching the myriad of communities of interest. If university presses use these methods, everyone wins: the author gets an audience, the audience gets a public intellectual, and the university press fulfills its public-spirited mission.
So, to return to our initial question -- “What should university presses do?” -- my answer is this: spread good ideas by any means available.
Marshall Poe is an associate professor of history at the University of Iowa and editor-in-chief of the New Books Network.
Some of the material on university press budgets was inspired by Bryn Geffert’s lecture "Open Access and the Future of Scholarly Publishing,” at Smith College on April 9, 2012.
It always feels awkward to find that a publisher has sent me a new book on sports. As someone who escaped the sort of small Texas town where high school football is a sacrament, I’m averse to following athletics of any kind, unless watching professional bowling on TV every so often counts, which it probably doesn’t. The only other exception that comes to mind is an abiding fascination with Muhammad Ali. (But at this stage, Ali is as much a minor figure in world history as he is a major one in the sweet science of fistics.)
So when a sports title arrives, I seldom look at it. But a book denouncing the entire athletic-industrial complex as a quasi-fascist form of social engineering and capitalist brainwashing? That stands out as a departure from the norm, anyway.
Marc Perelman’s Barbaric Sport: A Global Plague (Verso), published in France last year, appears in English on the cusp of the Summer Olympics. It happens that the first three of its 19 essays are devoted to the Olympics, with particular emphasis on the ones held in Berlin (1936) and Beijing (2008). Perelman sees the official rhetoric of international goodwill as so many flowers covering the chains of oppression. Everyone involved in the spectacle becomes complicit with the regimes hosting the event.
Even to a defiantly unathletic nerd, that seems like going overboard, and it's hardly unrepresentative of Perelman's perspective. The games are just episodes in the rise of “an unequaled social, political, and ideological power … spreading across the planet like a pandemic” -- so that “the everyday lies of billions of people” become “contaminated, consumed, infected by its constant assaults, its capacity for insidious infiltration, its innocent-seeming mischief.”
Quelle horreur! But it gets worse. The author is a professor of aesthetics at the Université Paris Ouest-Nanterre La Défense, as well as an architect. “Art, as the main product of the imagination or as visualized thought,” he writes in another essay, “and games as free enjoyment of the human body, are being tendentiously supplanted by sport in the role of the sole activity, the sole theater of permanently visualized invention and pleasure.”
If hyperbole were a footrace, Perelman could outrun Achilles. He also enjoys the gift of endurance. An appendix to the book reprints “Twenty Theses on Sport,” first published in 1975. The rest of the book consists of glosses and elaborations of its arguments. Perelman indicates that “Twenty Theses” was a collectively authored text, from the twilight of the far-left intellectual activity inspired by the events of May ’68. He makes a brief reference to how badly the French Communist Party took this intervention. (I wish he’d said more about that. It bears mentioning that L’Humanité, for many years the CP’s official organ, still prides itself on being one of the first newspapers to have a sports page.)
The critique that Perelman et al. framed in the mid-1970s was very simple: Organized athletics were just one more aspect of social alienation, serving only “to fill the masses’ minds with trivia to keep them from thinking about political struggle.” Perelman’s two essays on the structure and function of the modern stadium play variations on the stupefaction thesis. The first of them is devoted to restating -- a number of times, and in various registers -- the point that the crowd in a stadium gets so noisy during a game that you can’t hear yourself think. (Others have noticed this, of course, but without drawing out the dystopian implications, and certainly not at such length.) The second essay, presumably written some years later, offers sundry Baudrillard-esque reflections on the Jumbotron.
The 20 theses are succinct, but Perelman develops them, or at least expands them, at some length, often through a mode of description it is tempting to call “hysterico-phenomenological.” His first essay on the stadium is perhaps the best illustration of this method:
“The mass completes the living circuit specific to the place, and its surface (the spectators in the stands) become an outer ‘skin’ twitching and rippling with the whole range of emotions, blotched too with eruptions of neurosis. As with the visual, so with the aural: during the game, the energies of increasingly energized spectators are released in surges of sound, a mass wave-form surface like a sticky liquid, rising and falling in volume with the emotional state of the mass. The spectating mass in the stadium ‘builds’ itself into a profoundly unified ‘architected’ surface, in symbiosis with the concrete and steel frame whose vibrating and rippling skin it has become, with a liquid, slick sound-surface animated by a living emotional wave….”
Let me interrupt to say that this excerpt is in many ways typical of the whole book, given both its repetitiveness (for the ellipses, read “plenty more of the same”) and the evident strain on its metaphor’s coherence (the “sound-surface” is both slick and sticky).
Picking up a bit further along, we read that, in a stadium,“The voice of the mass, like an event horizon in space/time, is capable of modifying the place when at maximum intensity.” Here, again, we find an homage to Baudrillard -- in particular to his weakness for making scientific references in ways he didn’t quite understand. The influence of the hyperreal is transmitted by proxy, like a subatomic virus in the mainframe of an ionized genome.
The book's center of gravity, its enabling presupposition, can be found in the second of the 20 theses: “Sport as an institution is the product of a historical turning point. Sport appeared in England, the birthplace of the capitalist mode of production, at the beginning of the modern industrial epoch.”
This is not, strictly speaking, true. But Perelman is not someone to tolerate a beautiful theory being roughed up by a gang of rude facts. His discussions of the Olympics mention the ancient games one time, very much in passing. Elsewhere, he does allow for the existence of “old-world physical contests like Real Tennis, the many ancient regional variants of football, or the polo-like Central Asian game of buzkashi, played with a dead goat.” (Bukkasi is the national sport of Afghanistan, where the modern industrial epoch is not likely to be welcomed for some time yet, although it now seems to have a small following -- in modified form, sans goat -- in the United States.)
So organized games existed in ancient and feudal societies, and some of them do bear an unmistakable resemblance to the sort of thing now shown on ESPN. Yet “sports as an institution” remains essentially capitalist, because these other athletic endeavors don’t count. “Sports as an institution,” for Perelman, exists only by virtue of globalization, mass media, and the need for commodified leisure-time entertainment. Isn’t that a circular definition? Perhaps, but there’s a fine line, sometimes, between dialectics and tautology.
Another dimension of the argument is that sport “is a powerful factor of sexual repression” -- even though the calendar for the French national rugby team offers “a blend of sport and pornography (‘sporn’ for short) displayed in shameless homo-Greco-gigolo style.” At the same time, the modern stadium “engenders the possibility of an extreme confusion between collective orgasm and the individual’s feeling of dissolving, losing, melting his conscious self inside a macrocosm.”
Well, I don't know about that, but it sure makes the words “spork” and “Jumbotron” sound even more lewd than before.
Barbaric Sport ends with an open letter, signed by a number of intellectuals, calling for a moratorium on building new sports stadiums in Europe. They represent “an astonishing extravagance of public expenditure,” especially in the midst of an economic crisis: “The cost of building stadiums, then their permanent upkeep and the general maintenance of sites which most of the time are not in use, amounts to colossal financial losses that increasingly tear holes in state budgets.”
The complaint seemed valid -- and familiar. I’d heard broadly similar concerns expressed by my friend Dave Zirin, the sports editor for The Nation and at one point the leftist-columnist-in-residence at Sports Illustrated. When Dave talks about football or basketball, it almost makes me want to follow a team. He’d seen a prepublication copy of Perelman’s book, and I wondered what he’d thought of it.
“The kind of analysis that Perelman provides," he wrote back to me by e-mail, "is honestly just not very helpful in understanding the modern age of sports.” While I’d been distracted by the book’s hectoring tone and conceptual shakiness, Dave focused on its extremely one-sided picture of competitive athletics as monolithic, meaningless, and brain-numbing. He knew better.
“Sports has always had two traditions running through it,” Zirin said, “and we need to be able to understand and reckon with both. It's an institution that can produce a George Steinbrenner but also produce a Muhammad Ali. It's an institution that revels in sexist imagery, but it's also given us Title IX, radical legislation that has changed the quality of life for tens of millions of American women. It's an institution where there are teams called the Washington Redskins and it's an institution where racism has been challenged more visibly than perhaps in any other arena in U.S. society (Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Smith and Carlos.)”
As a contemporary instance, he gave the example of the Miami Heat: “This past year, they did what we are told athletes no longer do, and posed in their hoodies after the murder of Trayvon Martin. They used their hyper-exalted platform to try and shape their world. That should be recognized and celebrated.”
And finally, Dave addressed the most nagging problem with the book -- the aspect that had reminded me of how upset the Puritans were when James I issued a proclamation allowing (even encouraging) his subjects to play games on holidays and Sundays, once they were out of church:
“I don't think Perelman really appreciates that the number one reason people watch sports isn't because they are brain-dead sheep, but because they derive joy from the experience. And in our society, for far too many people, joy is in short supply.”