Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Blogging to My PhD: Richard Sherman and the Postmodern Self

I'm currently reading Lester Faigley's Fragments of Rationality. I'm not very far into it yet, but it aims to be an exploration of the subject in composition in the midst of postmodernity.

As Faigley explains, postmodernity has left us with "no universal human experience, no universal human rights, no overriding narrative of human progress." Instead, our sense of self is through a "consciousness originating in language." Most interestingly, he says that "the subject is an effect rather than a cause of discourse."

So while we think of a stable, individual self (an author) who creates a text, it is paradoxically the text that creates that author. 

As Faigley explains, it creates a "momentary identity that is always multiple and in some respects incoherent." 

I am interested in looking at how the multiple (and conflicting) perspectives of readers ultimately craft the identity of the author. Every time we read something, we are reading an identity on to the creator, and those layers of identities that we collectively place onto that author end up becoming a "momentary self." 

This weekend, we were given an excellent example of this practice in action. Moments after Seattle Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman made a game-winning play, a reporter stuck a microphone in his face and captured this now-viral response: 

I used this clip to talk to my students about audience today. It seems clear to me that Sherman has a very specific, very narrow audience in mind when he says "Don't you ever talk about me."  He's talking to Crabtree. If we're analyzing this text on its effectiveness at sending a message to the intended recipient, I'd say it's pretty effective. In his own discussion of the now-infamous 30-second clip, Sherman said "You know, I don't mean to attack him. And that was immature and I probably shouldn't have done that. I regret doing that." Some of the many, many, many articles written about the interview have focused on the history between Sherman and Crabtree, specifically that Crabtree insulted Sherman at a charity event and (according to Sherman himself) ignored Sherman's immediate post-game handshake and pushed him in the face.

But that's not what has thousands of people analyzing the interview. That's not what has provided us with hundreds of blogs posts (to which I will add my own) and hours of sports show commentary. Richard Sherman has become a lightning rod that is attracting strikes from multiple perspectives. He has become, in the words of Lester Faigley, a particularly complex "momentary self."

I've seen people justify their reaction (positive or negative) to Sherman in many different ways. Let's look at some of the identities that have been read onto him in the aftermath of that game.

Sherman as Thug

Let's get the most damaging one out of the way first. Richard Sherman is a young black man who grew up in the city of Compton, and his outburst has been read as an affirmation of his "thuggish" identity. Some who used this term are claiming no racial animosity when they use it, but that's a pretty ridiculous claim.

Sherman has again spoken out on the issue himself, saying today in an interview that "thug" is just a more socially acceptable version of the n-word.

For people who are using this incident to read the identity of "thug" onto Sherman, his outburst was just a convenient latch to hook pre-existent stereotypes onto.

It's a stereotype Sherman was battling before this interview ever aired, as his now-eerie appearance in this Beats by Dre commercial released a day before the game demonstrates:
He answers reporters with the same wooden, rehearsed phrases we expect (and, apparently, require) of athletes when someone asks him about his "reputation as a thug." He shoots a look of dismay and the crowd falls silent for two beats. The tension is palpable. He is a real person impacted by these cruel cuts, but he can't react to them. We won't allow him that reaction, which brings us to the second identity that has been read onto Sherman.

Sherman as Seahawk

The expectations that we put onto athletes are ridiculous. We want them to be passionate yet polite, powerful yet controlled, elite yet humble. We put them on pedestals and then chide them for their egos. We pay them astounding salaries and then judge them for their wealth. We insist on the hardest hits that we can replay in slow motion and then denounce them for their violence.

Anything an athlete does that is unsavory can be read as "unsportsman-like." Several of the people criticizing Sherman are doing so because he was acting irresponsibly as a representative of his sport, his team; he shirked his collective responsibility to act on their behalf.

It's a strange place. We judge him as an individual, but we use his representation as a Seahawk to do so.

Sherman as the American Dream

Still others have come to his defense because he represents something much larger than himself, something much larger than the Seahawks, much larger even than the NFL. They see him as a representative of the American Dream itself.

Sherman grew up in Compton, well known for its violent reputation. His father is a reformed gang member turned garbageman. Sherman worked hard, taking Advanced Placement high school classes and graduating second in his class, after which he chose to attend Stanford instead of other, more sports-oriented schools because he wanted a first-rate education. When he called himself the "best" in that video, it wasn't coming from someone who hadn't worked for that reputation. 

His story is the one we say that we believe in but rarely get to see. For many, his presence in the NFL and success in school is a ray of hope for a faltering American Dream. That's a lot of pressure for one human being to carry. 

Sherman as Son

But it's not the only pressure he faces. One of the more interesting reactions to his interview that I saw came from a woman who reacted as a mother. In this post, a woman writing as DomesticPirate focuses on the slight of Crabtree shoving Sherman after he extended his hand in a show of sportsmanship. She compares it to how she has taught her own children to react to bullying:
If your child tried to take the high road (such as congratulating his opponent, this person who was one of his biggest critics, and offering a handshake), only to be literally shoved in the face, could you blame him for snapping?
Several commenters disagree with her, using their own parenting principles as the grounds for their disgust, including this comment from Kim Zlatin:
Funny b/c when I saw this happen live, the first thing I said to my husband was, "where is his mother?". Sore losers are one thing because of the emotions that come along with being disappointed, but a poor winner is so tacky. 
Wherever you come down in this debate, the interesting thing in this discussion is that Sherman is being read as a proxy child, a representation of mothers' responsibility to teach their children how to navigate a complex world of manners and insults.

Who is Sherman?

So what's the "right" way to read Sherman? Is he a hot-headed egomaniac who ran off at the mouth to fulfill a personal vendetta when he should have been thinking of his team? Is he a highly skilled professional athlete who was reacting off of adrenaline and passion in the heat of the moment? Is he a calculated, intelligent marketer who captured this moment to showcase his own "brand"? Is he a sacrificial lamb that the media is offering up in a moment of hysteria? Is he a cautionary tale about what happens if you don't teach your sons manners? Is he a role model who demonstrates to kids what hard work can get you?

Is he all of those things? Is he any of them?

In his own response (which you really should read), Sherman said this:
It was loud, it was in the moment, and it was just a small part of the person I am. I don’t want to be a villain, because I’m not a villainous person. When I say I’m the best cornerback in football, it’s with a caveat: There isn’t a great defensive backfield in the NFL that doesn’t have a great front seven. Everything begins with pressure up front, and that’s what we get from our pass rushers every Sunday. To those who would call me a thug or worse because I show passion on a football field—don’t judge a person’s character by what they do between the lines. Judge a man by what he does off the field, what he does for his community, what he does for his family.
Sherman realizes that he is being read through all of these different lenses, and he knows he can't prevent those readings. He also does not offer any alternative, simple, stable self. He is that person that you read in that interview, however you read it. He is owning that "momentary identity," but he is also reminding you that he has other momentary selves, and he's asking that maybe you read those, too.

In a postmodern world, perhaps that's the best we can ever ask for.

Photo: Solo, Sam Howzit

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