Picktures and Pieces 8: Order in the Court

Order in the Court

by Randall Auxier


Here is Mitch McConnell pounding on a little piece of wood instead of a Democrat. A gavel is an interesting symbol. Obviously it symbolizes authority, but more importantly, it marks beginnings and endings. The flow of time is interrupted by the opening rap, and a finite and meaningful epoch is set off when the hammer comes down a second time, signaling something is over. So let it be written, so let it be done.

I suppose this is more or less Pete Seeger’s hammer of justice to accompany his bell of freedom and song about love. (Can you believe he was still among us until yesterday?) I always got a little catch in my throat when “The Hammer Song” arrived at the climactic chorus. I mean, who doesn’t believe in justice, freedom and love? I have a feeling that Pete is not equally impressed with all the wielders of these hammerly instruments. (And I’ll frankly confess that one of my favorite moments in American history is the image of Bruce Springsteen, Pete Seeger and Barack Obama singing “This Land Is Your Land” on the Capitol steps –and including the bread-line verse and the trespassing verse.) He was regarded as a dangerous influence on the youth of America for most of his life. The danger always really came from those who so regarded him, of course. They dragged him into court for demanding his First Amendment rights. They said he was out of order. Accused him of contempt. RIP Pete.

What I got to thinking about was the idea of “order in the court.” In the same way that striking a gavel defines a period of time, a “court” is an ordered space. So I looked it up (on Wikipedia –this isn’t real research). Sure enough, the term “court” was metonymically applied to the human tribunal some time in the Middle Ages, but was always (from Indo-european) used to refer to an enclosed space. Apparently “court” and “yard” are etymologically related, rendering the Marriott Courtyard a redundancy, I suppose. But in usage, all yards are out of doors, while some courts are indoors. Not all yards are enclosed, but all courts are. There is order here. I love courtyards, especially the ones in New Orleans. But down there they often say “enclosed outdoor courtyard.” Now I’m quite sure that’s redundant.

To bring about order, then, we need to set off a space and a time, and that led me to start thinking about the infinite kinds of order we might impose upon enclosed spaces with various devices for marking time. Different sports provide a glimpse of the possibilities. We use the word “court” for games where a ball bounces back and forth within virtual or actual set of boundaries. Volleyball, badminton, racquetball and handball, and a dozen others are played on “courts.”

Games with actual boundaries on all sides, like a squash court, are fun to play, but pretty hard to watch. Virtual boundaries, by contrast, allow us to spectate, and it is interesting that a gathering of 30,000 people at a basketball game is all imagining, with slight variations (and occasional booing when the variations become obvious) the same boundaries, and no one is really thinking about it. We imagine and virtualize space and time naturally, so unconsciously, and we do it together. I think that’s pretty interesting. We see the painted lines, and we watch the dance that unfolds within them, but we don’t think about how we create the virtual court together.

Why is this not regarded as mass hysteria? After all, there’s “nothing there.” The next time one of your adamant atheist friends is railing against the God delusion, remind him (and it’ll probably be a him) that people seem able to agree that an imaginary wall exists from the edge of home plate to infinity, even though no one can see it. The collective act of imagination that separates fair from foul territory is like the act which separates sacred from profane ground. And I think the act is a collective one, a civic one, a social one. We set aside ground to contain a virtualized activity, where imagination has the gavel. That’s about like the idea of God and like going to church, at a minimum. There may be more to it, but at the very least we set off a space and a time and enter the virtual sacred for a respite. I have had as many religious experiences at ballparks as at church, and I attend both as often as I can. I like collective imagination. It should have the gavel of space and time. That puts a new twist on the political conventions: the hammer comes down to signal that something essentially insubstantial is about to occur, but we will all pretend it counts because it happened at the designated place and at the appointed time.

But speaking of time, notice how different time is from one “court” to another. Tennis can go on forever –a single volley could. But there is the strict temporal structure to basketball, where tenths of seconds are debated, but the amount of time from gavel to gavel, so to speak, is strictly prescribed. There are infinitesimal divisions of time, but below tenths of seconds, it doesn’t matter in hoops. And then there is the concept of sudden death, but I‘ll leave that aside for now.

One of my absolute favorite things in the world of virtual time is “extra time” in soccer. I just love the idea that suddenly the referees have subjectively taken charge of the durational epoch, and no one else really knows when the match will end. Try that with basketball and see whether there is order on the court. Ha! I can see Bobby Knight’s response to a referee who says, “Coach Knight, we’re in extra time –I’ll let you know when it’s over . . .” Maybe he should take a turn coaching soccer, to see whether “extra time” humbles him. But they don’t play soccer on a court, do they? It’s a pitch. What the hell is that? Here’s the pitch!