Partisans and Purists
Do fans experience football differently to those who watch without a vested interest?
After watching a derby between Nottingham Forest and Notts County in 1934, the novelist and playwright JB Priestley observed, among other things and with no little distain, "the monstrous partisanship of the crowds, with their idiotic cries of 'Play the game, ref!' when any decision against their side has been given." To an outside observer, the supposed tribalism of football crowds appears irrational and base. The word tribalism itself carries strong pejorative connotations, a primitive bestiality and a blind obedience to the group. Such partisans are the very antithesis of the purist, an altogether rarer breed. The purist is the embodiment of the rational and unbiased football supporter, a fan of football itself, able to enjoy a heightened aesthetic experience because untainted by the irrational biases of tribal support.
But then that's the average football spectator for you — blind, irrational, partisan. However, despite his disparaging initial remarks, Priestley goes on to say that partisans are "not mere spectators in the sense of being idle and indifferent lookers on; though only vicariously, yet they run and leap and struggle and sweat, are driven into despair, and raised to triumph; and there is thrust into their lives of monotonous tasks and grey streets an epic hour of colour and strife that is no more a mere matter of other men's boots and a leather ball, than a violin concerto is a mere matter of some other man's cat gut and rosin." To enjoy the festival of the crowd, almost a conscious organism in its own right, is part of the aesthetic enjoyment of any sporting event — to lose oneself in the heaving, swaying, singing, braying mass. The psychological benefits of partisanship extend even further, to feelings of identification with the local area, civic pride, and comradeship.
The apparent and supposed superiority of the partisan is emphasised by the philosopher Nicholas Dixon. In a paper entitled "The Ethics of Supporting Sports Teams"1 he argues that the partisan not only enjoys the psychological benefits associated with offering unconditional support to the local team, but also has an ethical advantage, in that her commitment and passion is more virtuous. He says, for example, that she exhibits "the great virtue of steadfast allegiance to her team even if its fortunes decline." Most 'genuine' football supporters will, of course, display this virtue: if you cut me, I'll bleed black and white; we'll support you ever more.
Dixon thinks the same thing happens when one is in love. At the beginning of a romantic relationship, we come to love our partner's good qualities, but over time we develop something deeper, namely a love of their "unique instantiation of those qualities", their special identity. Furthermore, when some new potential partner comes into our lives, as they often do, we are reluctant simply to 'trade up', even if the new prospective mate scores higher on, or better instantiates, those valuable qualities. Love can also endure change. A partner may lose the qualities to which we were initially attracted, but we stay in love regardless. Despite the changes, there is a constant nucleus that remains the object of our love. In much the same way, I don't change my team with each new defeat — if I did, I'd literally be supporting a new club almost every other week.
Dixon goes even further, suggesting that the partisan displays a side to their character lacking in the purist — the tendency to form bonds with others, especially those with whom we are familiar. Drawing an analogy with the ability to form friendships and lasting romantic attachments, the purist "displays a character flaw that would be condemned from a standpoint of virtue ethics." Quite a claim! But what of the purist? Why is she normally regarded, as Dixon suggests, as lacking commitment, as barely qualifying as a fan at all?
The purist, we might say, is prepared to trade up at any given opportunity. Her support is based purely on their love of the game and is prepared to follow whichever team best exemplifies the virtues and admirable qualities most prized: fairness, excitement, skill and style. In a sense, as Dixon points out, the purist has the moral high ground here, as her choice is based on purely sporting excellence, rather than the arbitrariness of place of birth. If we want to teach our children the value of fairness, at least partly through the games that they play with each other, why should we also give them the strong impression that they should stick with their team even when they cheat and connive, privileging a win-at-all-costs mentality? "Rather than being a genuine fan, the purist approaches each game as a neutral, hoping that his team will continue its excellent play, so that he will be able to continue supporting it."
Of course, the loyal support of the partisan can itself be dangerous, or just plain stupid. Why would I continue to love a partner who continues to abuse and betray me? Asking for me to give them fifty quid every week? Travelling hundreds of miles every other week just to see them for a couple of hours? That really is the limit. Unconditionally to give our love and support to another becomes masochistic if the significant other is genuinely not worthy of it. Perhaps the partisan could do with learning a little from the purist, as some Liverpool and Chelsea fans, in the face of recent controversial incidents, have been unable to do. Therefore, something that could be called 'moderate partisanship' would be the best option: I'll give my whole and undivided support to my team, but there's a limit.
A more robust defence of the purist can be made, however. Stephen Mumford, like Dixon, a philosopher, actively privileges and praises the virtues of the true purist, arguing that the issue turns to a large extent on the respective aesthetic experiences enjoyed by our two different types of supporter. But how and why do different types of supporter have different aesthetic experiences? Obviously, a partisan may enjoy the game less if her team loses, trudging home disconsolately and awaiting the barbs of colleagues on Monday morning, while the purist enjoys the spectacle even if their adopted team loses, shrugs their shoulders and flicks the channel to see if Barcelona are playing. But the differences, according to Mumford, go even deeper than that, as we'll see after a brief journey through Schopenhauer.
Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher, placed an extreme amount of importance on the enjoyment of aesthetic experiences. In The World as Will and Representation, he argues that the world is indifferent to human suffering — and suffer we do. Human existence, Schopenhauer says, has no intrinsic meaning or value, and is characterised by suffering, pain, and misery. This is because humans are animals that have will and desire: we have desires (and needs) that we seek to satisfy, and our will drives us on to do so. Unfortunately, as soon as one desire or need is satisfied, another arises, making our lives a continual succession of new desires in need of satisfaction that ends only in death. In fact, happiness may be defined in purely negative terms, as the temporary absence of pain.
Fortunately, we have three choices open to us. Firstly, suicide. Those of us unwilling or unable to end our own lives can consider the second option, that of pursuing an ascetic lifestyle, the denial of the will-to-live, by which we renounce our desires. Sadly, Sky Sports packages are not widely available to the residents of caves half-way up isolated mountains, so the third of Schopenhauer's options might be more viable: we can temporarily remove ourselves from the constant striving and misery of everyday life through art and through the aesthetic experiences that attend our genuine appreciation of it.
Some types of art, however, are superior to others, or at least lend themselves to a superior aesthetic experience. Starting at the bottom of the art form league table, but not yet cut adrift from those above them, is architecture, followed by landscape gardening, sculpture and painting, and poetry. But running away with it at the top of the table is music. The reason for the hierarchical ordering is that Schopenhauer believes that the different types of art allow us better access to the Platonic Forms, or Ideas, the 'in-itself' of the world. The problem with art, excepting music, is that it is still connected to the will and to the striving of everyday life. We cannot experience art (again, excepting music) without understanding it through the prism of our needs and interests, thus distorting it and lending it a subjective bias. But music is different: music releases us from the endless striving and suffering and desiring of life.
Schopenhauer describes it as follows: "When an external cause or inward disposition suddenly raises us out of the endless stream of willing, and snatches knowledge from the thralldom of the will, the attention is now no longer directed to the motives of willing, but comprehends things free from their relation to the will. Thus it considers things without interest, without subjectivity, purely objectively... Then all at once the peace, always sought but always escaping us on that first path of willing, comes to us of its own accord, and all is well with us... For that moment we are delivered from the miserable pressure of the will."
In this sense, the having of a genuine aesthetic experience demands a kind of disinterestedness, a denial of the will and all it strives for. Usually, we see the world around us in the self-interested context of how specific aspects of it might be utilised or manipulated to help us satisfy our desires. But through the aesthetic experience of music, we become detached from ourselves and from the pressures placed on us by our desires and needs, and can enjoy it objectively, for its own sake.
This is beginning to sound rather like our purist, the rational and unprejudiced football fan who supports her team, or teams, for the virtuous qualities it embodies, and Mumford reinforces this impression through his defence of the purist. Just as the quality of our aesthetic experience of art depends on our ability to become detached from our desires, so too does our aesthetic experience of sport. So whereas Dixon sees the purist's flexible and conditional support as a drawback, to the extent that he suggests purists are not genuine supporters, Mumford sees it as a positive benefit, allowing her to enjoy a heightened and authentic aesthetic experience.
The purist, Mumford argues, perceives the game differently to the partisan, the latter having what he refers to as a 'competitive perception'. Reporting on a match he saw between Hearts and Celtic in 1996, Mumford recognises that our desire to see our team win at all costs distorts our perception of the game. Sitting with the Hearts fans, he observes them calling vociferously for corners, free-kicks, and even throw-ins for their team when it was clear that the ball was Celtic's: "In their perception, the ball really did seem to have come off a Celtic player before leaving the field… Were they being disingenuous? Could this really be two different and honest perceptions? I decided it could be."
This leads Mumford to suggest that purists and partisans simply perceive the game differently to each other. Drawing on the thesis of the theory-dependence of observation, he says that "one's beliefs and desires can determine what one sees." Again, this reminds us of Schopenhauer's idea that it's possible to avoid the distorting effects of the will in our aesthetic experience of art. (This is a good reason to demand that referees are neutral.)
But if the purist and the partisan just see the game differently, then on what basis are we allowed to suppose that one interpretation is better than the other? The implication must be that the purist sees the game more objectively, for the simple reason that they lack the unconditional loyalty and passion that might otherwise distort their perception, blinding them to the objective reality of what's in front of them.
This point can be taken even further, for if Dixon supposes that the purist is someone who supports a team for the qualities they embody, then Mumford supposes that the more genuine purist is one who supports no team at all. For the most authentic aesthetic experience, to see the game "for all its beauty and drama", the purist must not have any investment in any one particular team. Thus, they have no interest in where the beauty and the drama come from, only that they can experience it, and without experiencing it through the distorting prism of partisanship. In this way, the true purist doesn't switch allegiance from one game to the next, depending on which team is the fairest or who plays the most attractive and exciting football, for she has no allegiance in the first place (although it might be said that some teams display certain virtues on a more continual basis, allowing Mumford's purist to develop some degree of allegiance).
If this is indeed the case (and I do not think that it is), then the analogy drawn earlier, between supporting a football team and one's love for a partner, is misplaced, or at least the wrong inference is drawn. Mumford agrees, and develops the following analogy: "The purist is more in the position of a parent with a number of children… The parent wants to see all their children do well in life and realise their full potential. They do not choose a favourite among their children and hope for them to do better than their siblings."
In that case, it would be a mistake to think that the partisan is more passionate about the game — it's simply more likely that the passion of the purist is less conspicuous. Invoking John Stuart Mill's distinction between higher and lower pleasures, Mumford says that the purist enjoys the game in a deeper and more satisfying way. They can, for instance, focus more on "the style of play, the tactics, the movement of the ball, rapidity, grace, economy, incisiveness, and so on." To be concerned with the identity of the winner or the final score is "a crude measure of the worth of a game".
A number of objections could be raised at this point. Firstly, why the sharp distinction between partisans and purists? Isn't the dividing line drawn by both Dixon and Mumford artificial and arbitrary? I think so, for the reason that the distinction fails to capture the actual lived experience of many football fans. My evidence here might be considered anecdotal and personal, but I think valid generalisations can be made.
Now, I would count myself as a partisan — I am elated and relieved when my team wins and sometimes depressed when they lose; a grey cloud of misery often hangs over me until the painful memory has faded somewhat. But that does not automatically exclude my having purist, and often sheer puritanical, feelings towards the game itself and even towards my own team. I don't exactly expect my team's players to endorse and then follow a strict moral code derived in the Kantian manner, but I would be ashamed if any of them scored or won a game by cheating. I like to think that I can appreciate the good performances of teams other than my own, even when they beat us. Despite being a partisan, I can also enjoy the finer side of the game, taking an interest in tactics, watching matches from a range of European leagues, and reading the Swiss Ramble blog. And through it all, I remain more than partial to my team, and can't envision a time that I don't support them unconditionally, even though they often depress me and occasionally disgust me.
If this is the case for other football fans, and I think that it is, then the distinction between the purist and the partisan begins to break down. As ever, the truth lies somewhere in between. Making analytical distinctions is a favourite pastime of philosophers, parcelling and packaging the world into discrete and distinct entities that may or may not reflect the lived experiences of those to whom they're relevant. Experience shows us that these distinctions can be broken down, deconstructed, multiplied and subverted and are therefore at best meaningless, and at worst dangerous.
Furthermore, and here's the second objection, the main part of Mumford's argument is based on the theory that the purist actually has a superior or more genuine aesthetic experience, which obviously raises the question: can we enjoy meaningful aesthetic experiences from watching sport at all? Can sport be said to be an art? We can obviously say that sport can be the subject of art, as Lowry's wonderful "Going to the Match" demonstrates on its own. Douglas Gordon and Phillipe Parreno's film/art installation, Zidane: A 21st Century Portrait, is also, ostensibly, a work of art, and yet it blurs the line: can Zidane's performance against Villarreal, upon which the film remorselessly focuses, itself be considered art? My temptation is to say yes, as it embodies the grace, elegance, poise, and balance that Mumford thinks are key aesthetic sporting qualities. It also embodies the striving, determination, and occasional brutality of football (Zidane is sent off for violent conduct towards the end of the match).
Linguistically speaking, at the pragmatic everyday level of language-use, we naturally attribute aesthetic qualities to sport — "that was a beautiful goal", "Xavi's pass was a work of art", etc. Certainly many football players and managers have been obsessed by the supposed superiority of the aesthetic approach, privileging 'attractive' football over the win-at-all-costs mentality, a feature of football brought out nicely by the famous and oft-mentioned enmity between César Luis Menotti and Carlos Bilardo, the aesthete and philosopher versus the arch-pragmatist.
Intuitively, most football supporters understand this, even if they don't necessarily go along with it. We may, for instance, disagree on the exact source of aesthetic enjoyment. After all, we might get just as much enjoyment from watching a valiant backs-against-the-wall 0-0 game, especially if one of the teams is demonstrably inferior to the other, as we do from a 4-3 thriller characterised by awful and comical defending. The increase in the number of Premier League goals per game over the last few years might be cause for celebration for some, but bad news for fans of sophisticated defenders and defending. It depends where we find the beauty of football and that might be at least partly subjective.
But is the aesthetic dimension of football an essential aspect of the game? Again, it depends where you stand. Peter Arnold, among others, makes a distinction between purposive and aesthetic sports. Arnold defines purposive sports, such as football, in the following way: "The aesthetic is not intrinsic to their purpose, which is to win by scoring the most goals, tries, baskets, points or runs." Therefore, there's no requirement, legally or morally, to bring aesthetic qualities to the performance. Aesthetic sports, on the other hand, are obviously based, to a large degree, on the aesthetic aspects of the performance: there is a "concern for the way or manner in which they are performed." The awarding of points in sports such as gymnastics and diving (I'm going to avoid the obvious Luis Suárez/Gareth Bale joke here) qualitatively focuses on relevant aesthetic qualities.
Here's an excerpt from an expert's summary of Ludmilla Tourischeva's gold medal-winning floor exercise at the 1972 Munich Olympics, quoted by Arnold in an article entitled "Sport: The Aesthetic and Art": "Of qualities of form, she displayed poise, controlled balance, cleanness of line, and each in turn — an arched, curled, twisted and extended torso; her long supple limbs described sinuous and circular movements and her shapely flexible fingers made florid gestures in space. Her footwork had a precision at times forceful and firm and yet again dainty with impeccably shaped and patterned placings."
On this theme, Mumford acknowledges the "aesthetic pluralism" of sport, meaning that different aesthetic categories apply to different sports: speed, strength, grace and so on. Furthermore, most sports, and football is a perfect example, provide spectators with a further aesthetic dimension — the unfolding of a drama as the teams battle for a limited resource, namely victory or first place. Some sports, however, cannot provide such drama — quantitative sports, such as long jump and running, rely on measurements (of time and distance) to determine the winner, while qualitative sports, such as figure skating, rely on the application of aesthetic criteria. According to Mumford, the drama of such sports "tends to be less regular and is not what the nature of these sports is all about." Sports in which teams are in head-to-head competition, on the other hand, optimise the potential for sporting drama.
Nonetheless, the main point is that, despite the enjoyment of observing the unfolding drama of a football match, aesthetic qualities are not necessarily inherent to football, even though they may be highly desirable. Footballers can succeed if they are slow, weak, fat, graceless, and so on, although they're clearly more likely to be more successful if they possess none of those qualities. We can, it seems, say that some players are better than others, depending on the criteria we choose to apply, suggesting that the principle of aesthetic pluralism holds within football as well as without. The question is whether any specific criteria are objectively more significant than others, in this case because they add to the aesthetic experience of spectators — technique, flair, vision, and so on. In other words, and drawing on the insights of lazy football analysts, the kinds of qualities attributable to, say, Barcelona's tiki-taka merchants, but not to, say, the Stoke City bruisers. Of course, Barcelona are superior to Stoke because they're simply more successful, but is it possible, or even appropriate, to say that they're superior because they're more aesthetically pleasing?
The extent to which the appreciation of such qualities is objective, or whether they can be applied only subjectively, is moot. Many of the defining philosophers of the Enlightenment, and especially David Hume, argue that there is something more at play than a purely subjective choice when deciding which aesthetic criteria are more significant.
Despite the fact that we all have a feeling or a sentiment towards an object offered up for our aesthetic judgement, there are, Hume argues, "standards of taste". The general appreciation of a work of art over a long period of time is one standard, as evinced by the continued affection of football fans for the Ajax and Netherlands sides of the 1970s, to give but two examples. Another standard is given by paying attention to the opinions of those with refined and delicate sensibilities, such as critics and experts. Of the current crop of the best football teams in the world, which ones will be remembered, and which will be fondly remembered? That's a question perhaps best left open.
Many will resist Hume's conclusion that there are standards of taste that go beyond subjective preferences. We find our enjoyment where we can, and if that means celebrating the ugly goal that wins our team the cup, then so be it. If my team avoids relegation by playing defensive and aggressive football, then what's to be done? There's no point in going down in a blaze of glory after a season chock full of high-scoring defeats. After all, winning friends is easy, winning points less so.
How far are we prepared to push this argument? At some point, aesthetic criteria shade into moral criteria: it's an obvious example, but was Luis Suárez right deliberately to handle the ball and prevent a goal in the World Cup quarter-final against Ghana? Would you praise or blame your player for taking a dive to win a last-minute penalty? Perhaps ambivalence is the most appropriate response to both situations, as it would be if through some unfortunate sequence of events we suddenly found our team gaining promotion under the management of John Beck. I guess I'll just have to put up with the stiff neck, like it or lump it, if that's the price of success.