For the past three Tuesday evenings, I’ve been leading “Making a Conceptual Revolution: The Practical-Critical Philosophy of Fred Newman”—an offering in the Institute’s Revolutionary Conversations series. It’s been delightful spending time with 30+ people from varied walks of life and varied levels of familiarity with Newman and his work in therapy, philosophy, theatre, independent politics, youth development or education. Some had never met him and some had worked with him for decades. All were open and curious.
I had the pleasure and privilege to work with Newman for 35 years and am always looking to create places and spaces to share him and his work with others. During these Tuesday evenings, I told stories about our writing relationship, assigned some readings, showed video clips, and worked and played and created with people’s responses, questions, confusions, disagreements and excitements. I was hoping to give people a new sense of Newman and the significance of his thought leadership, regardless of how well they knew him, and to help them experience themselves as participants in the making of a conceptual revolution. I think we succeeded in creating both.
Among the materials I shared was an excerpt from a transcript from a workshop Newman led in the 1990s on “The Myth of Identity,” in which he brings his love of baseball to bear on the revolutionary activity of becoming. To me, it’s like Newman, baseball and becoming—meanderingly clear, pointless and, more often than not, awesome. Judge for yourself!
When I was thinking about this this morning, as is so often the case, my mind turned to sports. One of the things I love most about sports is that what we’re experiencing in watching a baseball game or a basketball game, or whatever kind of game we’re watching, is looking at – actually experiencing – becoming. We’re experiencing, in some fascinating way, becoming. You arrive at the game, and the teams arrive at the court, and they are, in some sense, what they are. They are the people who show up. Michel Jordan shows up, and he’s the greatest ball player who ever lived. You’ve got the NY Yankees ’98, the greatest team that ever played, etc. What baseball fans, and basketball fans, but baseball fans in particular, really relish, if you will, is the “is” ness of that experience. This is the greatest team that ever was, this is the NY Yankees. In some sense or another, that’s who they are. But then this extraordinary thing happens. The game begins, and it no longer makes a difference who they are. Because you’re not watching who they are. You’re watching what they are becoming. You’re watching their “becomingness.” You’re watching something now being created before your very eyes. You’re seeing this thing happen.
Suddenly, the greatest ball player who ever lived is doing something unbelievably stupid. This guy at third base, who you never heard of, who you’ll never hear of again, is doing something extraordinary. This is the becoming of that momentary experience. The “are”ness of the situation starts to wind up in a kind of a dialectical relationship to the becoming of the situation. It’s Michael Jordan making the great plays, not simply again, as if this was something that he simply does because he did it four days ago or four weeks ago or four months ago. It’s even a funny piece of language that we use to say “Jordan’s doing it again.” He’s not doing it again, it’s a whole new thing that he’s doing, and that’s the excitement of it. A lot of people watch Jordan hit his final jump shot at the end of this season, and they say, “Why is that so exciting? It’s just Jordan doing it again.” It’s not just Jordan doing it again, it’s Jordan doing it, creating it – it is becoming, it’s another component of the process of him creating the myth and reality that is Michael Jordan.
This creative act is what we’re watching and we focus on the happening of it, not just on what it is. We see something that is becoming. We’re watching an emergence of something, and we’re seeing that before our very eyes. There is a wonder to that. There is a marvelous statement by the author Bernard Malamud, who wrote a number of sports books, about the fascination of baseball. He says one of the fascinating metaphysical features of watching a baseball game is the metaphysical recognition – and it’s a real recognition, it’s not just philosophers who’ve thought about this – that the game of baseball could go on forever. This is an interesting feature of games that have no time limits, (the way basketball does). This game can go on forever. What does that mean? Is that literal? Is it metaphorical? Is that figurative? No, no, it’s literal. There’s no part of the rules of the baseball game which require that anyone ever make an out. People can keep getting hits, one after another. Batter after batter, eight in a row, nine in a row, ten, twenty, a thousand, a million.
There’s no rule in the game that says that the pitcher ultimately has to get somebody out. Maybe they never get anybody out. You just keep pitching and the game goes on, and it’s a continuous experience of becoming. That potential is always there in watching the baseball game. I think it’s not just an abstractly interesting feature of the game. I think it is present in the continuous experience of the game. I think it’s very much connected to the first point I was talking about. It is this experience of no longer being so totally overdetermined by what is, which so characterizes most aspects of our lives, but being more completely focused on what is becoming, on what is evolving. In this case, it happens to be a game. This is not to suggest that this game is therefore more important than anything else. In some ways it’s not very important at all. In some ways its lack of importance is precisely connected to how beautiful it is. But it is a certain kind of human experience. Forget the importance of it in the grander scheme of things. Forget even the importance of it in terms of your life or what’s going to happen when the game is over, but it is a certain kind of human experience of becoming. We can watch life transform and emerge in ways that are more difficult to do in most heavily structured non-becoming oriented contexts.
In most situations we’re not looking for transformations, we’re looking for things to be stable. We are in our daily discourse, in our daily movement through life, fundamentally, if you will, utilitarian. We go to the bakery, we want to get bread. We don’t want to look at the becomingness of the bakery. What we want is the finished product. We want the bread to show up as rapidly as possible, to go from the baker to us in exchange for some money, and we want this thing to happen in a thoroughly utilitarian fashion. We’re not concerned very much to look at the process by which this is all happening, because our lives are lived in accordance with a set of utilitarian principles. We have to do these things, we like doing these things, so as to get them out of the way. That’s the wonder of going to the game. The beauty of going to the game, I mean, if some people go to the game, and some people do, and it’s really sad and tragic, some people arrive at the game and they start from the first inning, they start looking at their watch. When is this going to be over? You want to say to them, “Why did you come?” For the most part, the beauty, the metaphysical and psychological beauty of coming to the game is to lose yourself in the becomingness, the endlessness, the process of the game. It’s not simply the beauty in the abstract, it’s the beauty of watching the becoming. A lot of people have a hard time hearing this in Western culture, where becoming is thought to be an inferior phenomenon. Being is everything, becoming is just a derivative notion that happens between two states of being. Becoming is a kind of second-class citizen in Western culture.
But becoming, is arguably what life is most fundamentally all about. I understand that there is a certain way in which we in our culture insist upon a kind of commodification process which establishes certain things as having an identity, or having a certain existence, and that has a tremendous utility in certain kinds of ways. But if we over-utilize this commodification, if we over-identify with the identified object and under-relate or under-connect with the processes that are consistently taking place, the transformations, the emerging phenomena – if we don’t connect to that, then in my opinion we lose out on much of what is most wonderful, most growthful, most developmental, most significant, about life. We lose, in some respects, the beauty of life, in favor of simply knowing where things are on the kitchen shelf.