Living in Your Own Private Nowhere Place
say what u will, but watching women fight on the same card as men in a sport that i’ve cared about for a long time has really meant a lot to me these last years. prob wouldn’t have finished art angels if ronda didn’t exist. there was immense pressure to work w/ producers/ engineers, to not try new things but play it safe and give up what id worked so hard for. but getting so deep into ufc and watching all these incredible women make their mark alongside the male fighters, despite the cruel articles, online harassment etc. was the main things that inspired me to block out everything and focus. i can’t imagine walking into that ring. thank u so much ronda rousey and amanda nunes. i will always remember what i felt like to watch these amazing fighters in real life. lol sorry for the cheesy rant but damn what a crazy day!!!!!! respect to everyone who fought in ufc2017--i was on the edge of my seat the entire time. also if y’all r ever in vegas check out nacho daddy. legit vegan cheese. —@grimes, Jan. 1st 2017
The musician Grimes credits the completion of her 2015 album, Art Angels, to watching women, or at least one particular woman, Ronda Rousey, compete in UFC. She posted this now deleted tribute on her Instagram on New Year’s, 2017, the morning after I had just entertained a conversation in my kitchen on the same subject. It was New Year’s Eve and this guy was trying to convince me that UFC was the ultimate sport, that all sports were mimicking warfare, and that manon-man combat was the purest essence, or origin, of all of athleticism.
His partner protested his thesis, and he quickly rebutted, “But you don’t like sports.”
“But I do,” I said.
“What do you like about sports?” he asked.
“Strategy, limb extension,” I said.
He began shaking his head and I could tell his next move was gonna be to tell me about all the strategy involved in chasing another human around a cage, but his partner beat me to it.
“Yeah, so why does every UFC match end with five minutes of one dude slamming another dude’s head against the ground?” she challenged.
“Because that’s the core desire of winning every sport,” he said. “It’s the survival instinct, to kill or be killed.”
I am a very competitive person. There have been many times where, in the heat of a competitive moment, I have been less than my best self: too aggressive, too angry, too petty. More than I can even begin to count. But I would never characterize these moments as the origin of my drive towards athleticism. Rather, I always considered this kind of behavior a regression, and one doesn’t regress to center. We regress to extremes. To regress is to lose center.
At the time, I couldn’t articulate why I resisted his sports-as-warfare argument so much, save for the unspoken assumption it left for a male-dominated athletic hierarchy, the exclusion of other forms, in something that I know to be both inclusive and accessible. It felt like agreeing to his argument meant a quick pivot to this hierarchy, which felt static—and I believe that athletics are anything but static. But his argument stuck with me, not only because I didn’t want to be wrong, but because I wanted to know why I was right. Because being wrong felt like more than a loss of theory, it felt like a linchpin in my world view. It felt personal.
So I started paying attention. I asked a lot of cis men who like sports their opinion on this theory, and their answers often reminded me of my dad’s first reaction when I came out to him many years ago. I had asked him if he thought homosexuality was a sin, and he kind of staggered to repeat the same Christian rhetoric that I was raised with, but with a sort of confusion like he had never actually parsed out the individual words before. That is, a slow revelation that his old language no longer held true to his actual experience as he tried to articulate it. That is, he doubted himself.
A lot of these men doubted themselves as they answered my questions. I talked to my cousin-in-law, my brother, my students, random guys at the bar while I watched Warriors games. Many of them would say something along the lines of: yes, competition breeds aggression, which often results in anger, which potentially results in violence; so yes, athleticism is derived from combat. But what about fun? I would ask. What about playing with your friends and taking it easy so that someone shorter can get a shot in? What about because it feels good to be out of breath and trying?
One Lyft driver who fought for UFC told me he did it for the chicks. Another guy told me that fighting was fun, which I could see to an extent. So I clarified, it’s not that I don’t think UFC is a sport, I just don’t think it’s the ultimate sport. I don’t think the root of athleticism is violence. He shrugged. But despite the confidence of their beginning arguments, most of these men had a hard time factoring in sportiveness, or play, into this theory. At this point, the conversations usually shifted to stats and if LeBron had a chance against the Warriors this season. (Answer: never.)
The idea of athleticism as derived from warfare comes back to a certain fear-based way of thinking that plagues many conversations in our country at the moment: toxic masculinity, nationalism, the debates around gun control and immigration, you name it. It’s a narrow line of thinking that isn’t interested in nuance or context, but instead emphasizes extremes as the ultimate motive, or justification. This kind of logic leaves little room for actual discussion since its principles are built not on growth and understanding, but on power and being right. Rather, it dismisses anyone who says otherwise as disrespectful, irreverent, ungrateful, weak.
This kind of fear-based thinking—to see things as either kill or be killed, win or lose, life or death, all or nothing—reminds me of Margaret Atwood’s essay, ‘Writing Utopia,’ and the kind of people who try to create utopia as a structure. She writes,
The Utopia-Dystopia as a form tends to be produced only by cultures based on monotheism—or, like Plato’s system, on a single idea of the Good—and that postulates only a single goal-oriented timeline. Cultures based in polytheism and the circularity of time don’t seem to produce them. Why bother to try to improve society, or to even visualize it improved, when you know it’s all going to go around again, like clothes in the wash? In the background of every modern Utopia lurk Plato’s Republic and the Book of Revelation…
As Atwood describes it, utopias are a product of cultures with a “single idea of the Good”—people working to manifest Good on Earth by way of intimidation, force, death, and fear of eternal punishment. In this model, the purpose of life revolves not around taking pleasure in the Good, but obeying a fear-based binary in Good’s name. At the root of this logic is an oversimplification of utopia’s original motivations for Good and all of its inherent complications: love, morality, respect, fairness, equality, equity. It’s a binary that ignores its actual substance, as most binaries do.
In the same way, the urge to oversimplify athleticism to a high stakes, life or death, locus instead of acknowledging its substance as imaginative (dunk contests), excellence-defying (records breaking), transformative (rule changing), and joyful (best moments of play) is to deny it of its potential, and to deny it of its humanity—which is nuanced and complicated, occasionally as distasteful as it is inspiring.
Another interesting thing about those attempted architects of utopia is that the word literally translates to “nowhere” from Latin. When I first considered utopia’s etymology, my mind read “nowhere” as an end stop, an impossibility. But the more I started thinking and talking about it, nowhere wasn’t a brick wall, but a moving target: unfixed, ungrounded. Nowhere as liminal: a hoop nailed above a driveway, a soccer field in an empty lot, skateboarding on business park curbs. Nowhere as unstructured, self-determined places. Nowhere not as no place like I had previously thought, but as no one place, or rather, every place.
What is it about wanting to locate something, to pin it down, that changes the nature of that thing? Or maybe that’s the wrong question. Maybe the better question is what is behind this desire to locate a thing—to give something a structure, a straight line, a binary, a boundary?
The fact that playing sports can bring out the worst in me makes sense in a weird way, as it also brings out my best: joy in my body, camaraderie with my friends, intimacy with a place. Something about the acceleration of the physical that accelerates the emotional. In these moments where body and spirit meet, I can either choose to wrestle with this tension, or I can give into it. I don’t believe that sports necessarily build character. I think, for some people, sports have been the arena where they learn to tackle some of the age-old confrontations within themselves, whereas others simply don’t.
In Contemporary Athletics and Ancient Greek Ideals, philosopher Daniel Dombrowski writes,
To say that athletic competition is like war or business is to arbitrarily settle many of the interesting and complex philosophical issues surrounding athletics. And to say that it leads to character development is to beg the question or where it could, in fact, do so. It is clear that participating in a hotly contested athletic event reveals the character of its participants (or lack thereof), but does it build it?
These angles on athleticism—sports as war and sports as character-building—create a familiar binary that makes up much of how we think about sports mythology. One looks to athletics for a combative origin as a sign of human’s survival instinct, and the other as a moral tool by which people grow up. But both miss the mark. Later in his book, Dombrowski says that “Athletics are at once liberating and absurd.” He says that the only thing we should expect from athletics is a mixed moral result, and however ambiguous, this is some of the first sports theory I’ve read that actually resonates.
What both of these angles are missing is the role that play has in athleticism. If competition is at one end of the athletic spectrum, play is at the other, and to lean into either too heavily throws the balance of the whole restraint, or sport. Without play we have war; without competition we have frolic. It’s what’s happening in the undefined middle that composes athleticism.
I know that athletic competition has many origins other than ancient Greece, including Mayan, Aztec, and Egyptian, but I was curious about its Greek origins because of how contemporary American athletics reflect the Greek model in our civic and cultural institutions. Like the Greeks, we look to sports to mark the passing of time via the Olympics and various professional league seasons. We build our cities around parks in order to create a place for quotidian exercise, retreat, and social engagement. We make heroes out of our athletes, and our sports teams stand proxy for a city’s reputation.
Dombrowski looks to Homer to define the role athletics played in ancient Greece, and comes up with three different examples: 1) the informal, lighthearted games of the Phoenicians found in The Odyssey, 2) the more formal, highly competitive games commemorating the death of Patrokoles in the Iliad, and 3) the ultra serious, deadly archery contest to settle the throne of Ithaca at The Odyssey's finale. Out of these three examples—aimless competition, serious competition, and fatal competition—it’s the second that I find most interesting. As macabre as a funeral match might sound, Dombrowski describes it as “a reaffirmation of life in the face of death.” In the ceremony of grief, athletics served as a drama of life experience for the Greeks, where humans could honor the dead by experiencing all of life’s thresholds in a single expedited event: camaraderie, competition, disappointment, endurance, joy, frustration, pain, success, loss.
The result was a mixed moral result, which is to say, life.
I like this example, because it feels closer to what I’ve always loved about sports, even if I couldn’t articulate it late night in my kitchen on New Year’s Eve, 2016. It acknowledges the spectrum of moving through life as a spirit in a body, what Aristotle called hylomorphism: the idea of “the material part of a human being as integrally connected to, as informed by, the structure given to it by the mind or soul.” Greeks often referred to humans as “soulbodies” or “mindbodies.”
This connection is why this whole argument felt personal, why I’m still thinking about it over a year later. It’s why Grimes saw herself in that UFC match. Here she saw a familiar form, fighting in an otherwise male-dominated organization, in this case an actual cage—something I can only imagine as encouraging to an unconventional young woman making unconventional synth-pop music in a maledominated industry. I get that. I don’t care for UFC, but I recognize the intensity of its draw, and what that intensity might be reflecting back for its viewers, as bodies connected to, and informed by, the structure given to them by their minds and souls.
And while I can easily see UFC’s connection to warfare, its intensity also reminds me of the drive or the release it takes to accomplish any significant nonviolent feat—which is to say that I wonder if UFC’s draw is less about violence and more about being human. The difference is that one is a single-story kind of thinking—not that unlike “Make America Great Again”—a fairy tale, a myth created to preserve a system that works for those telling it. And the other is something else, something often confusing and less satisfying: an undefined middle, a nowhere place, an every place, a life. ❍