"Beyond a Boundary": the Aesthetics of Resistance

Benjamin Graves '98, Brown University

The problem with cricket (or perhaps the problem with America), as Neil Lazarus argues in his "Cricket and National Culture in the Writings of C.L.R. James," is that although C.L.R. James' materialist interpretations of culture and politics are deeply rooted in his fascination with cricket, scarcely any Americans understand cricket well enough for James' insights to carry much meaning. As opposed to baseball, say, Cricket is a rural, expansive, pre-modern game that resists the temporal rhythms and spatial limits of work-time capital. Whereas baseball emerged in America alongside the industrial revolution, Cricket is distinct insofar as its origins are primarily rural, pre-Victorian, and of the privileged land-owning class.

Drawing upon the cricket experiences of Learie Constantine, W.G. Grace [who James claims "built a social organization" (173)], and himself, James demonstrates two guiding points: 1) that cricket is an artform worthy of the "classical" status given opera, theatre, or painting, and 2) that cricket's aesthetics enact a stylization of social resistance against British colonialism.

James' first point of contention, as Neil Lazarus notes, stands in stark contrast to the perhaps Eurocentric suggestion of T.W. Adorno that art is "autonomous" from the commonplace banality of everyday cultural practices. By contrast, James would argue that cricket's commonplaceness and accessibility are in fact the determining factors in its aesthetic and political interest. Whereas critics like Edward Said are primarily bibliocentric (focussing on canonical Western literature), James is a diverse cultural critic sensitive to the nuances of music, sports, and low-culture productions.

"Cricket," as James argues, "is first and foremost a dramatic spectacle. It belongs with the theatre, ballet, opera and the dance" (196). In a chapter entitled "What is Art?", James juxtaposes cricket with ancient Greek sporting rites in order to emphasize the Marxian implications of cricket's aspirations towards "teamwork." As Neil Lazarus points out, James suggests that cricket is not "like" art, but rather "is" art. In the passages below, James demonstrates the nuanced aesthetics whereby the batsman's posture and stroke become a mode of social representation. James recalls the "cutting" (a particular style of batting) of Arthur Jones, and compares it to the famous accounts of William Beldham's "cutting" a century earlier:

My second landmark was not a person but a stroke, and the maker of it was Arthur Jones. He was a brownish Negro, a medium-sized man, who walked with quick steps and active shoulders. He had a pair of restless, aggressive eyes, talked quickly and even stammered a little. He wore a white cloth hat when batting, and he used to cut. How he used to cut! I have watched county cricket for weeks on end and seen whole Test matches without seeing one cut such as Jones used to make, and for years whenever I saw one I murmured to myself, 'Arthur Jones!" (5)

There at the centre of all this was William Beldham and his cut...I said earlier that the second landmark in my cricketing life was a stroke--and I mean just that--one single stroke. (6)

The stylistic specificity of "cutting" is of some relevance here; a cut is a difficult stroke in which the batsman strikes across the underside of the ball so that it angles off to the vacant spaces behind the batsman. The point is that the shot is deliberately difficult--a gesture of mastery that serves little if any practical purpose. To James, the "cut" signifies a belligerant affront to the exigencies of colonial rule--a stylization of emancipatory ambitions. To "play it safe" is unthinkable to James, who considered such play the "welfare state of mind" that conceded liberatory ambitions to British Keynesian economic rhythms. In other words, what makes cricket such a vital political instrument to James is its aesthetics, and not, for instance, an emphasis on winning or losing.

How might cricket (or sports in general) serve as a metaphor for political antagonism in postcolonial literature? Notice how James describes politics in terms of cricket metaphor, and cricket in terms of political metaphor. Where many authors would make use of sexual imagery, James instead portrays cricket as an instrument of revolution!

Again, what's most striking is the trans-historical value James accords a sport--a gesture towards universalism that many argue is James' weak point. Does James fail under the criteria of historical specificity? And how does he compare to other anticolonial writers such as Frantz Fanon? James (or "Nello," as his admirers address him) frequently illustrates the solutions to contemporary social problems using ideas drawn from classical or renaissance literature. Does this suggest a historical continuity between disparate periods that simply doesn't exist?

Political Discourse Home C.L.R. James Theoretical Relations [Caribbean]