Cultural Value of the Super Bowl

Fresno Bee, February 5, 2016

  • The Big Game is an artistic production
  • Culture and the arts are playful games
  • Football isn’t perfect, but it’s fun

The Super Bowl is a high point of American culture. Some snobs view football as barbaric and uncultured. But this year, the halftime show will include the conductor of the L.A. Philharmonic and students from the Youth Orchestra of Los Angeles.

This mash-up points to a link between high culture and pop culture, sports and art. The cultural continuum includes the punter and the poet, the quarterback and the string quartet.

Football is performance art. The game has music, costumes, tragedy and ritual set pieces. Like opera, the game includes pageantry, agility and pathos.

The arts are also playful games. We play music. Actors put on plays. Poets play with words. And philosophers play with ideas. Human culture is a process of making meaning through playful activity.

Some think the fine arts are superior. Poets and painters represent things in word and image. Musicians explore time and tone. Art is about abstract ideas, beauty, finitude and the divine.

Football seems less refined. It is physical activity. But there are geniuses and prodigies on the gridiron. And fans find virtue, grace, beauty and transcendence in the game. For most Americans, the pigskin is more meaningful than Picasso or Puccini.

Football’s place in our culture

Football’s importance to our culture is obvious. Our language is shaped by it. We tackle a problem after huddling up. Monday-morning quarterbacks question people’s play-calling. When it’s fourth-and-long, we know things are serious. And sometimes it’s better to punt.

It may seem odd that a mere game is so tightly woven into our culture. But games are part of every culture. An old proverb says, “All work, no play makes Jack a dull boy.” To be human is to play games and amuse oneself. Culture is the accumulated set of games we play. The Greeks wrestled and raced. In America, we play football.

Our Sunday afternoons have been filled with the rhythm of the season and the game, the drama of fourth down, and the heroics of the fourth quarter. After the Super Bowl, we will find new games to fill our time and our conversations.

We need art and sports. Once we satisfy our animal needs, we fill our lives with games. Literature, politics and sports – all are forms of play. Our pastimes can be deadly and serious. But they are recreations and amusements, nonetheless.

Culture is learned behavior. The rules and formulas of dance, music, poetry and football must be learned in order to appreciate them. No one is born knowing a language or understanding the rules of the onside kick. Love of opera or haiku is not innate. Broncos fans are made, not born.

Some critics worry that the hedonistic spectacle of the Super Bowl is a sign of the decline of our civilization. Super Bowl Sunday certainly makes it difficult to keep the Sabbath day holy. Others compare the NFL to the gladiators of Rome, warning of the demise of culture into “bread and circuses.”

But the gladiators marked a high point of Roman civilization. They fought in the Colosseum, its ruins now venerated as a magnificent triumph of Roman architecture. Thriving civilizations have surplus wealth to spend on sports and games, art and festivity. Once we have enough bread, bring on the circuses.

No game is perfect

There are other reasons to criticize football. It is a brutal game. It causes brain injuries. Players risk necks and knees. But ballet is hard on the toes. And other sports are dangerous – climbing, skiing, for example.

Football is also sexist. News about the Super Bowl as a haven for prostitution is alarming. Gambling, commercialism and alcoholic fans are also concerns. And pacifists will note that football mimics warfare.

But no game is perfect. Chess is warlike and horse racing is hard on the ponies. Our games, sports and arts are our own creation. We can remake them according to our own interests and concerns. And each generation does rewrite the rules of sports, art and culture.

We are lucky to have so many games, sports and arts to choose from. We could live without these amusements. Football is not life. Nor is opera or poetry. But art gives zest to life. And football spices up our Sunday afternoons.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/living/liv-columns-blogs/andrew-fiala/article58662308.html#storylink=cpy

The power of tears

Big Boys Do, and Should, Cry

Fresno Bee, January 29, 2016

  • Politicians weigh in on the power of tears
  • Our ideas about crying men have changed
  • Can tears be faked and how would we know?

The selfie trap

Selfie culture and mindfulness

Fresno Bee, January 8, 2016

  • Examining the tyranny of the selfie
  • Selfies are signs of narcissism, exhibitionism
  • Mindful absorption is a key to happiness

Contemplating the arts

Take time to contemplate the arts in this trivial digital age

Fresno Bee September 6, 2014 

Poetry, philosophy, literature and art are uniquely human activities. Other animals play, sing and even dance. But no other animal contemplates its own existence.

IMG_1346 - Version 2
Philosopher Contemplating Death

In our quick digital era, one wonders whether there is time for contemplation. Speed and multitasking can undermine focus needed to study a poem, observe a work of art or digest a philosophical insight.

Our digital tools give us unprecedented opportunity to explore the humanities. We can download the great works of literature and philosophy and carry them with us in phones and tablets. We can publish our own reflections with the click of a mouse. Art works are easily copied and forwarded.

This could be a golden age of philosophical reflection and poetic insight. There are hidden backwaters of the Internet where poetry, philosophy and art flourish. But much of the mainstream flows in another direction. The Internet deluges us with foolish factoids, meaningless memes, pornographic pictures and vicious videos. The rising tide of trivia can easily sweep us away.

Our attention is divided by the pace and flow of information. Even conversation suffers: We text instead of call. We dread the spiraling buffer sign and multitask while we wait. Our attention bounces along among scattered bits of quickly moving data.

Speedy multitasking is not all bad. In some cases, a brief text is all you need. When you only want data, a quick download is great. The trivia passing through our gadgets can be surfed and skimmed.

But careful, slow and deliberate attention is important. Life’s most meaningful moments deserve our time and undivided attention: falling in love, giving birth, growing old, dying. Unhurried, sustained reflection is a mature human ability, as is the ability to listen, read and think.

It takes time and concentration to understand Shakespeare or Plato or Picasso. Deliberate, undivided effort is needed to write a poem, construct an argument or analyze a work of literature. The same intellectual skill is needed in the sciences, in law and in other fields. But the humanities are unique in forcing us to slow down, breathe deeply and contemplate.

Shakespeare once compared his love to a summer’s day. That’s a fact (download Sonnet 18 and you’ll see). But what does it mean? Summer days are slow and luxurious. Unfortunately, beauty fades, as does summer. Is there hope? Shakespeare hints that poetry holds beauty in place against the ravages of time.

Does the Internet also preserve us against swift-footed time? You could post Shakespeare’s sonnet on your website along with your other pictures and memes. But copying and pasting is not understanding. Meaning cannot be downloaded. There is no app for insight.

Good poetry is precise. Haiku can be inspiring. Shakespeare’s sonnets are 140 syllables long. Concise communication is a useful art. But we’ve shaved this down to tweets of 140 characters. And we’ve compressed the time we need to reflect upon the meaning of things, while filling the void with data.

Data transfer is to thinking as sex is to love. Human beings could exchange DNA in a quick genetic data dump. But love is much more than this. Love is a mysterious communion of souls haunted by a whiff of eternity. It involves contemplation: You linger, savor and dream about your beloved.

The same is true of poetry, philosophy and other attempts to fathom the human spirit. Lingering, savoring, dreaming and contemplating are the modes and moods of the humanities. Through them we rise above the manic din of data exchange and hover for a moment in defiance of swift-footed, devouring time.

Our electronic exchanges are like quick splashes of water that run off dry land without sinking in. Philosophy, poetry and the arts are stickier, gentler and denser. When given time and attention, they provide deep irrigation for the human spirit.

It is not surprising that the value of the humanities is best expressed in metaphor. Metaphors force us to slow down and think. It is not enough to simply state that the humanities are valuable in themselves — that’s a fact to be posted, tweeted and repeated. We also need to see that poetry, philosophy and art provide an oasis of contemplation in a desert of data.

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/09/05/4107180_ethicstake-time-to-contemplate.html?rh=1#storylink=cpy

 

Calendars, Politics, Religion, and History

Culture has deep influence on Easter

Fresno Bee, April 18, 2014

Political and religious histories give shape to our lives. Holidays like Easter remind us of the deep influence of culture. The power of culture extends even into the way we organize and count time.

Consider the mystery of the date of Easter. The Easter date is determined according to an arcane system, which links the phases of the moon and the occurrence of the vernal equinox. This is based upon the ancient calendar for calculating the celebration of Passover. The Easter dating system, codified in the fourth century, continues to influence us. Secular spring break is linked to this ancient notion of ritual time.

To complicate matters, western and eastern churches celebrate Easter according to different calendars (although they converge this year). Eastern churches rely on the Julian calendar, named after Julius Caesar who instituted it. That calendar does not properly calculate leap years. Over millennia, it slowly became untethered from the solstices and equinoxes. Western churches updated their calendars in the 16th century under Pope Gregory XIII.

Popes and emperors determine how we keep time. Two of our months are named after Roman Emperors. July is named after Julius Caesar. August is named after Augustus. And our calendar is the Gregorian calendar, named after Pope Gregory.

Our seven-day week appears to reflect the Judeo-Christian creation story: God labored six days and rested on the seventh. But the Genesis story is not the only source. The names of the days of the week commemorate the seven ancient planetary gods: Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Saturday is named for Saturn, Sunday for the Sun and Monday for the moon.

The English names for the other days of the week reflect the names of Germanic gods. For example, Thursday is named for Thor. This trace of paganism in our calendar is a reminder that our culture is an impure mixture.

All of this makes one wonder whether we know what we are doing when we commemorate these ancient stories. Does it make sense to celebrate a Christian holiday like Easter on a day named after the Sun in a calendar with Roman imperial residue?

Things could be different. Christians might like to rename the days of the week to purge the calendar of pagan elements. Secularists might want to update the calendar and make it more rational. Is there a good reason for seven-day week that is not connected with ancient theology?

A scientific calendar would fix our odd 12-month year and its irregular number of days per month. A more rational system would make each month exactly four weeks long. We would then need 13 months (plus one day) to complete a 365-day year. (Do the math and you’ll see!). But perhaps superstitions about the number 13 would prevent that.

In the 1790s French revolutionaries attempted to rationalize the calendar. They created a 10-day week, along with a decimal system for clocks. The revolutionaries also introduced a decimal system for measuring other things, which eventually became the European metric system.

Unlike the metric system, decimal calendars and clocks did not catch on. Some traditions are apparently woven too deeply into the fabric of our experience. It is difficult to imagine a week without a Thors-day or Easter not falling on the Sun’s day.

We inherit a cultural matrix of meaning, language, traditions and symbols. Although our cultural inheritance is not permanently fixed, it does form a nearly immovable background for our lives. Imagine how difficult it would be to change our calendar or time-counting methods.

However, the Easter season reminds us of the possibility of freedom and a new future. The Hebrews escaped from Pharaoh during Passover. Jesus escaped from death at Easter. Whether these stories are true or not, one cannot deny the transformative power they symbolize. This includes the most radical change in counting time: the move from B.C. to A.D. Imagine the difficulty of the cultural shift that led from Roman paganism to Christianity.

We are captive to the great cycles of objective time. The motions of the planet — the equinoxes and lunar phases — are all beyond our control. But human beings give meaning to these changes and create a cultural world that is as real as the stars themselves

Read more here: http://www.fresnobee.com/2014/04/18/3884398/culture-has-a-deep-influence-on.html#storylink=cpy