The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Why Harry Potter beats football as a topic of conversation

July 25, 2007

I was going to reply to Peter’s comment on my last post about Harry Potter in the comments section, but it started to get too long and I thought I’d better make an actual post out of it. I am also going to try to do this without revealing anything of great significance from the plot of the seventh book (which I finished yesterday), but I can’t guarantee that I won’t let something slip.

Also, at this point I am just going to be replying to Peter’s contention that “Harry Potter is nothing more than an ‘intellectually more acceptable’ activity than football,” suitable for the same kind of “water cooler chatting” and Monday-morning quarterbacking characteristic of causal football fans. I am not going to talk about my overall reactions to the seventh book and the now-concluded HP series; I’m not sure that such a discussion is really all that appropriate for Duck, so I’ll be reactivating my long-dormant personal blog tomorrow or the next day and posting some reflections there, in case anyone’s interested. [Teaser: when I get around to doing that post or those posts I’m going to argue that HP is myth, not literature, and needs to be evaluated accordingly — and in fact it’s largely the same myth as Star Wars and Hamlet and a bunch of other prominent components of the “Western tradition,” which is certainly part of the reason for its global success.]

Okay, here goes.

Even if there are some similarities between being a fan of HP and being a fan of football (or any other professional sport), there is one important difference in that the object of fandom has a different — oh, let’s call it conceptual range — and as such makes possible different kinds of conversational exchanges. Putting this bluntly, football fans can basically talk together only about football, but HP fans can talk about a lot of other things through HP, because the vocabulary provided by the common experience of reading the HP novels and participating in other elements of HP fandom is a richer and more mythic vocabulary with a much broader range of applicability. Talking about game-playing strategy does not allow one to raise the kind of ethical and philosophical issues that talking about HP does — at any rate, not as easily. And I for one would rather have people talking about HP than football, as it makes for better conversations.

Let me elaborate. When we spectators talk about a professional sporting competition, we talk from our vantage-point as outsiders — we watch, we read, we know things about the game and the players. So that gives us a shared basis from which to discuss plays that might have been made, excellent and dismal playing performances, chances for success and failure in future games, and so on. But our conversation is limited to the game and its playing; we are, as it were, constrained by the social fact of a manifest performance (the game) and the institutionalization of future performances (the rest of the season, the structure of the post-season, and so forth). Yes, we can talk about that structure too, but we are still talking about the game.

I like talking about games of which I am a fan. I also like using those games and sports as examples of other things — using football to talk about war, using baseball to talk about politics, etc. Useful pedagogically, for one thing. But notice that in this case we are not really talking about the game as much as we are instrumentally deploying our shared knowledge of the game to talk about something else — and that instrumental deployment is limited, and sharply limited, by the existing structure of the game and the way that it is played. As such, “war is like football” is and can only ever be an analogy, and a somewhat artificial one at that because one can always see the manifest differences between the two domains.

So we have two kinds of conversations made possible by shared sports fandom: conversations about the sport itself, and conversations using knowledge about the sport as a basis to make analogies. But what it is much much harder to do from a shared basis of watching a sport is to start talking about moral and political issues, because those issues are by and large already solved in the very structure of the sport itself! Issues concerning, say, the moral dilemmas of having both an ideal and the power to implement that ideal in the face of opposition simply do not arise in the performance of your average game of baseball or football. Nor do we get to talk about appropriate action in the face of overwhelming evil, or the balance between liberty and security, or the proper response to death…In short, we don’t get to talk about most of the issues that interest social theorists and intellectuals and political commentators and people who read blogs like this one. [Yes, yes, we can pull a George Will and attempt to extract some moral lessons from baseball, but those parts of Will’s book ring the most hollow and the most strained — he’s better as a straight-up baseball analyst.]

But in talking about HP, we can’t help but talk about those issues. This is because HP, as a story, covers a lot more ground — and as a richly detailed alternative world but one that remains recognizable to us Muggles, it can’t help but present us with situations that are both strangely familiar and distant enough to permit them to be discussed in a relatively non-partisan way. Being a HP fan, getting caught up in the excitement to the point where you learn to speak the language, provides us with a new way to examine those pressing and perennial issues. Dumbledore’s explanation, for instance, of why he refused to take the position of Minister of Magic, is quite Weberian, and it presents an opportunity to discuss whether his rationale for remaining a teacher and not becoming a politician makes sense. While discussing Dumbledore, though, we would be simultaneously discussing the whole panoply of issues involved in the tension between science and politics, and discussing them in such a way that other HP fans, who have also wrapped themselves in the language and the trappings of that fictional world, would be drawn into the discussion.

Sports are not mythic. Sports stories might be mythic, but then we wouldn’t be talking about the sport as much as we’d be talking about the story. HP is mythic. It might not be literary genius — it’s not, but then again, neither was Star Wars — but it is a rich source of a common moral vocabulary. And that’s why it’s a better conversational topic than football.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.