Alva Noë & Baseball

I do not watch baseball, though many of my favorite passages and anecdotes are inspired by the sport. There is DeLillo, of course, in his prologue to the monumental Underworld, whose opening line — He speaks in your voice, American, and there's a shine in his eye that's halfway hopeful. — remains one of the best ever written.¹ And there's the wonderful paragraph in Neal Stephenson's In the Beginning…. Was the Command Line, describing Ronald Reagan's early career as a radio announcer:

…[Reagan] used to call baseball games that he did not physically attend by reading the terse descriptions that trickled in over the telegraph wire and were printed out on a paper tape. He would sit there, all by himself in a padded room with a microphone, and the paper tape would creep out of the machine and crawl over the palm of his hand printed with cryptic abbreviations. If the count went to three and two, Reagan would describe the scene as he saw it in his mind’s eye: “The brawny left-hander steps out of the batter’s box to wipe the sweat from his brow. The umpire steps forward to sweep the dirt from home plate,” and so on. When the cryptogram on the paper tape announced a base hit, he would whack the edge of the table with a pencil, creating a little sound effect, and describe the arc of the ball as if he could actually see it.

Reagan, here, is generating tension, suspense, climax, emotional involvement, all from a stream of sparse details, narrative constraints. He is telling stories from prompts; in short, he is writing fiction.

And the prompts, printed out and demanding improvisation, originate with a scorekeeper.

*

Alva Noë's Strange Tools is a book — as many commentators have already pointed out —in the tradition of Dewey'sArt as Experience. It is written by a philosopher instead of an art historian. It is pragmatic; it avoids the vestiges of structuralist and post-structuralist style (in other words, is eminently readable); and it addresses the arts inclusively, from choreography to literature, music, fashion, and the visual arts.

His central argument, if I am not unknowingly misrepresenting it, is grounded in his concept of "organized activities," a term encompassing such diverse phenomena as interacting at a dinner party, interviewing for a job, driving a car, and dancing at a wedding. Noë sets out some parameters of what specific characteristics organized activities possess:

  1. Organized activities are biological,² ritualized, and cognitively involved interactions ("cognitively involved" in that they affect and require the diverting of attention; "interactions" in both the interpersonal and non-interpersonal sense).
  2. Organized activities are always structured temporally. They are a negotiation between parties, and they both orchestrate and are orchestrated by participants. There is a script and a structure which influences, constrains, and inspires action.
  3. Actions within activities are neither fully, deliberately conscious nor originating solely in the nervous system; they occur at an "embodiment level," a kind of consciousness exemplified by a jazz pianist improvising a solo. There is a structure within which the pianist is operating, a chord progression which guides his musical decisions, and while some (especially macro-level) musical judgments will be consciously decided while or before soloing, many of the keystrokes will come spontaneously, as if possessed.

As much as we dance, we are danced. Successful engagement involves giving into a pre-existing structure, the known norms of the organized activity which is dance. And art, crucially, is a way of modeling and responding to just such an organized activity, of inventing, exemplifying, perfecting, evolving, and (especially) interrogating or challenging elements of the activity. It organizes and reorganizes our biologically-originating behavior, a sort of mapmaking or sense-making of a structure within which we, as humans, are embedded, and which is therefore, to us, invisible.

Responding to an organized activity, of course, requires engagement on art's part with said activity, creating a constant feedback loop between the two.

Choreography is shaped by the biologically originating activity which is dance, but it also bears considerable influence on how dance evolves.

(I think it is worth asking, at this point, how much utility is gained from using the term "organized activity" instead of the word "culture" — and whether, if it is in fact the case these terms are interchangeable, Strange Tools is moving past the obvious.)³

For writing and speech, a "dense, historical, many-layered scriptural-linguistic structure, caused by "the availability of… [an] image of language," emerges. The image is the art form of written or literary text, and the way everyday conversation is conducted is influenced — despite their innumerable differences in form — by the written word. Moreover, the written word, to Noë, is not merely or even primarily a way of representing speech. It is a way of reorganizing the organized activity that is thinking, a mode of idea notation which only additionally began to be used to transcribe speech. "The best theories of the origins of writings," Noë writes in defense, "suggest it derived, originally, from techniques of making for the purpose of counting. Writing was literally scoring at the beginning. The first writers were bookkeepers and they wrote not to represent their speech but to keep track of goats and bushels and transactions…"

Which brings us again to scorekeeping.

*

From Strange Tools,

…let's return, once again, to writing in the case of written language. We can gain insight if we consider what might seem like a fringe and esoteric graphical practice, score keeping in baseball.

A baseball game lasts about three hours and consists of a messy and complicated stream of activity… Given the fact that there are an open-ended number of ways to individuate events, there is a practical infinity of movements, actions, and events that can occur in a baseball game. But there is a special activity known as keeping score… Keeping score at the simplest level is keeping track of who's winning. But at a more sophisticated level it means keeping track of what happens more broadly.

Scorekeeping will often include things like batting order, balls and strikes, foul balls, stolen bases, home runs, and outs. And of course, these individual events add up to points, to victories or losses. Scorekeeping allows you to "replay the game" to some extent, as Noë writes (also in scare quotes), but there will always be losses in fidelity. Some scorekeepers may keep track of smaller details, like the speed and style of a pitch, or else the angle and distance of a batted ball. But they cannot possibly chronicle every detail: the individual ripple of each wave of grass as wind sweeps over the diamond; the headspace of the shortstop after a botched play. Which makes scorekeeping an act of incredibly lossy compression, an attempt to capture something which in its entirety is uncapturable.

This kind of compression, the intentional neglect of details, is an act of extended, (and in the case of scorekeeping, real-time) curation. Like all curation, decisions are made based on the importance or relevance of informational bits. "Important" requires a subject, a priority, or an organizing principle, of course — important to whom? to what end? within what values system or hierarchy? The exact same is true of attributes like "relevance," or any other curatorial filters.

Lossy compression is not just the essential characteristic of scorekeeping but of all representation, including language. It is curative, it is eliminative, it prioritizes.

And here we approach truism.


[1]  From the rest of Underworld's first page:

It's a school day, sure, but he's nowhere near the classroom. He wants to be here instead, standing in the shadow of this old rust-hulk of a structure, and it's hard to blame him — this metropolis of steel and concrete and flaky paint and cropped grass and enormous Chesterfield packs aslant on the scoreboards, a couple of cigarettes jutting from each.

Longing on a large scale is what makes history. This is just a kid with a local yearning but he is part of an assembling crowd, anonymous thousands off the buses and trains… and even if they are not a migration or a revolution, some vast shaking of the soul, they bring with them the body heat of a great city and their own small reveries and desperations, the unseen something that haunts the day… going to a game.

[2] "Both philosophy and choreography take their start from the fact that we are organized but we are not the authors of our organization"; in other words, there is a biological basis for the organized activities, and art is our attempt to either reorganize or make sense of it.

[3] One of Strange Tools' more interesting arguments is that this instinct to art is a brand of autopoiesis, a way of orienting and regulating and maintaining the boundaries of the self: "Living matter is organized toward its own self-maintenance and self-production in the face of physical processes that enfold and threaten to dissolve it"; art is a protection against our dissolution.