Monday, October 27, 2008

The Lacanian Real and Polls

I want to defend the wacky computer polls while still arguing that playoffs are the answer to buffer the wackiness.

If you canceled out team and conference reputations and style points, which the computers are supposed to do, mostly, then I don't think the outlier polls are that weird. That means forgetting what Tebow and Harvin are "supposed" to do (which means forgetting about Tebow's Heisman), forgetting that we know the SEC is the best conference, forget about our rivalries with Miami, Tenn, and LSU, forgetting about Demps' highschool 100 time, forgetting about how we won the game against Kentucky, in all its facets, forgetting about expectations, and budgets, and crowds, and SEC and National Titles... If we could do this, momentarily as a thought experiment, then I could understand if 2 of the 6 computer polls have Florida below some 0 and 1 loss teams, as well as having us below OSU, a team that has played a tougher schedule than us so far, but will drop below us the moment we beat Georgia.

In fact, this discrepancy validates the computer polls. If things were transparent, consistent, and thoroughly rational and comprehensible through some easily discernable standard, there would be no need for computer polls (and there may not be any need for them, but cutting out some of the polls, or reducing the polls to humans, will not achieve any more of the objective standard we hope for--except for cutting out the coaches poll, which is corrupted in its own standards, but that's another story).

"The real emerges as that which is outside language: 'it is that which resists symbol-ization absolutely.' The real is impossible because it is impossible to imagine, impossible to integrate into the symbolic order. This character of impossibility and resistance to symbolization lends the real its traumatic quality."

This part of the post probably belongs here, but I would like to relate our recent computer poll observations to the Lacanian Real. The above quoted piece gives us a start to a very difficult and mysterious topic. I will add that although the Real (part of Jacques Lacan's [pictured above] triad of the Imaginary, Symbolic and Real) is impossible to represent, its very impossibility can creep into our symbolic and imaginary worlds (which represent those parts that are representable, including all cultural and linguistic fields and any of our knowledge fields). So we can best look for the Real, not "as such," but in the way we encircle it and encounter it indirectly-- it might help to think of a vase and its center when thinking of our encounter with the Real, with the molding of the sides of the vase being the encounter which causes the Real of its empty inside to emerge, or be seen (the encounter with the Real is a kind of positive representation of a lack that is impossible to fullfill...the lack is never fixed in a singularly identifiable way and so it has no center which would allow us to "contain" it and domesticate it--meaning, we are not just talking about two views of the same event whereby we simply take the balance of the 2.... this also relates to the way that art, in its freedom to avoid "normal" logic, can sometimes best represent the [Real] impossibility itself, as opposed to a systematic and empirical attempt at some direct representation of some fully constituted and enclosed mythical reality/being).

There are at least two ways (ways that I am partly basing on the recent work of Slavoj Zizek, pictured left, below, and at top) we encounter the Real in computer polling in football. And these encounters represent the impossibility of representing college football teams in a transparently knowable and fair way in a list of best-to-worst through any kind of polling--in other words, no amount of "reasonableness" will save us here.

One such way is in our using of algebraic formula's which are grounded in certain scientific and mathematic principles (or any consistent standard like a computer poll), we encounter the Real in the very incommensurability that emerges between the knowledge produced by such equations and the sensory meaning that we attain from our experience with the same phenomenon being translated by the formulae. Even the empirical qualities of whatever is being studied or understood are not shared between our subjective observation and the quantities and laws that are supposed to be based upon empirically known qualities--in other words, the mathematic/scientific formula is not simply "more empirical," and, likewise, they are not "less empirical."

For example, no matter what the observation and testing of one's brain could reveal, it would always remain incommensurable with what the "experience" produced by one's brain reveals. We might also think of the difference between the outside dimensions of a building and the way we sense the size of that building from the inside. The difference here is not one that can simply be averaged out into a sensible compromise... there is no middle ground- and yet, one cannot be absolutely prioritized over the other as being more "true" or ultimately revealing.

A simpler way of articulating this, for our purposes, is to say that no amount of computer poll tinkering will ever eliminate the Real that disrupts our experience of watching teams play from our mathematical ranking of those same teams. Likewise, no amount of observing teams and their games will ever close the gap that emerges the moment we systematically rank such teams (notice that I am arguing that any kind of ranking is enough to encounter this Real of incommensurability, not just computer ranking, because a ranking is already a minimal amount of a mathematic translation, by the way, here are some examples of Lacanian formulas, mathemes, that are attempts to forge this gap that reveals the Real, in the field of "sexuation").

What's my solution to this? Defer this Real (tragic) emergence by letting it flourish in the Real of actual games and in the tragedy of drawing a line (and thereby deciding), between the 5th and 6th best at-large teams (as opposed to being between the 2nd and 3rd ranked teams overall). Obviously, I'm talking about a playoff. But I need to clarify the other kind of emergence/encounter with the Real I hinted at, and it relates to my above comment about the "Real of actual games."

A quick example may help. We can relate the three Lacanian registers, the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real, in a very crude way, to a game of chess. The characters on the board, who they represent to us-a queen, bishop, pawn, etc, is an imaginary function. The rules that govern their interaction and movements on the board is the symbolic function. But the impossibility of ever knowing ahead of time how these characters will play out within any particular game is the function of the Real.

You might notice how the Real is not its own substance that can be represented, but can only be represented by the impossibility, or lack, that it introduces, or rather, reveals, in our knowledge. It is encountered retroactively, you might say, because even pre-symbolic, and pre-imaginary "fullness" or "wholeness" is only possible to think of after the emergence of the imaginary and symbolic order. The lack, or impossibility was always there, so our attempts to cover over such impediments only produce new encounters with the Real--this constitutive lack is actually productive, making all of our subsequent efforts to account for it or fill it, possible, i.e, giving us more polls because of the immcomensurability of polls, rankings and the actual games and teams.

And so, in elections (according to Zizek) and in football games, we see a kind of suspension of reality that is the emergence of the Real. No matter how much polling is done before an election, there is an extra, almost mystical quality that gets introduced with the election itself that no poll could account for--we tend to call it, "the will of the people (has spoken)." But before that "will" speaks, we are talking about a collection of individual votes that have no guarantee in contributing to a social makeup--- our social reality, our society, is actually suspended momentarily by this anxious unknown of outcomes. To release our anxiety over encountering this Real, we quickly narrativize the election and what it means, even though no such meaning is guaranteed, known, or understood during an election. To relate this point to sports, think of how a 1-point loss or win is analyzed. You would think 49% of the analysis should talk about the failures of the winning team (assuming the analysis is worth anything and isn't just reiterating who won the game), but this is never the case, right?

By the way, Phillies fans are currently experiencing that anxiety of the Real right now as they observe their favored status being up 3-1 in the World Series. Hopefully, this feeling is stronger than the anxiety that Longoria and Pena are experiencing as they wonder how their bats could (irrationally and unknowingly) be so cold, bringing the series back to the Trop, where the Real the blocks and disrupts is in the form of catwalks.

So I want the Real to be reserved as much as possible to the actual games. In playoffs, we don't have to kid ourselves in believing that the winner is obviously the best team, we can just call them champions and celebrate that fact. The games themselves may turn out quite differently than our expectations, which is better than letting computers give us an outcome that is radically different than what we expect.

We can better get over the tragedy of the Real by relegating the decisive playoff factors to the playing out of conference championships because it has a seemingly more objective standard than even computers can produce (even if the objectivity is illusory, like the polls). Florida not playing Auburn or Alabama this year in their pursuit of an SEC championship in the regular season does not seem as bad as a Tulsa not playing any SEC teams and getting a higher ranking than Florida... and conference championships also relieve our anxiety in similar ways--- Georgia can live with Florida not playing Alabama better if they know Fla will have to beat Bama in a championship game to win the SEC. And the fact that Florida and a 12-0 Tulsa can both make the playoffs (in the 11/5 playoff format) may further put off our anxiety and allow us to experience it in the Real of the games themselves-- instead of the Real being encountered in its most horrific ways in every poll, every week.

Of course, the "5" of the 11/5 format (11 conference champions, 5 at-large teams), still allows for the Real to creep in at every moment of the season. But this "5," is less horrifying than encountering the Real of having the same amount of SEC teams make the playoffs as the Mid-American Conference. The point of the Real in these circumstances is that the Real always returns to its place, inherent to all of our formulas and meanings is the Real of some lack, non-closure. So to attempt to eradicate it (the remainder that is the Real), by say, a vote by everyone in the country on the top 2 teams, or a computer that measured every muscle movement on every play to gauge who is best, would amount to the most terifying, totalitarian, scenario one could imagine.

A few more crude summaries of things mentioned in this post are here:

And an entire book on some of these topics, online, relating to movies, mostly (chapter titles at top):

More on such things will likely be posted, in the future, at


Dave said...

"Readers unsure how to comment to Lacanian post on Gators blog"

Dave said...

"Slavoj Zizek endorses 119 team playoff"