*The Philosophy of Racquet Abuse:  Serena Williams at the US Open Women’s Final

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The US Open Women’s Final on Saturday between Serena Williams and Naomi Osaka was as unusual a match as any in the annals of professional tennis history and has generated an intense commentary which will doubtless continue for the next few days and, among tennis professionals, into the foreseeable future.   Let me state at the outset that, with this brief essay, I do not intend to contribute to the chatter in the ordinary fashion; rather, I intend to focus on one issue, “racquet abuse”, and pursue the philosophical and cultural implications of this idea.  Let us dispense quickly, for the benefit of those readers who have little interest in tennis and have not kept abreast of the “controversy”, with the fundamentals:  the match pitted Serena Williams, who had 23 Grand Slam singles titles and was in quest of her 24th, which would have tied her with Margaret Court for the world record, against 20-year old Naomi Osaka of Japan who was in the final of a Grand Slam tournament for the first time.  At their only previous meeting, earlier this year, Osaka had defeated Williams quite handily; but the latter, who had given birth to a daughter just months ago, was not quite in her element.  The outcome at the US Open was expected to be rather different.

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Williams was down by one set, and—though the outcome of tennis matches, as indeed of other sporting matches, is often uncertain except when the match is extremely lopsided—the young Osaka was most likely on her way to a victory in the second set and thus the match when trouble erupted.  Williams got called for a violation of the rules by the veteran Umpire, Carlos Ramos, on the grounds that she had received illegal coaching from the stands.  Williams denied that she had received such coaching, and told Ramos that she would rather lose a match than win it by cheating.  Some 10-15 minutes later, unable to capitalize on the service break she had achieved and finding herself being outplayed by Osaka, she smashed her racquet on the ground and was docked a point for “racquet abuse”.  It is immaterial whether Williams was expressing her frustration at squandering her advantage, or whether she felt outraged at what she perceived to be the insinuation that she was violating the rules or, quite simply, cheating.  Her heated words at Ramos would turn into a volley of recriminations; her “rant”, as it is being called, can be heard clearly on video.  She threatened Ramos that she would see to it that he would never again preside over any of her matches:  one hopes, whatever one’s view of the matter, and for the sake of the integrity of the game—or whatever integrity is possible in an age when professional sports is only another form of blood-capitalism—that such a threat will never be acted upon.  Indeed, it is imperative that Ramos should be called upon to preside over another Serena Williams’ match, unless the tennis world is prepared to capitulate to the whims and dicta of a sporting superstar.  And, then, to cap it all, Williams went on to call Ramos a “thief”, since she had been docked a point.  For this third violation of “verbal abuse”, Ramos, playing by the rule book, docked her an entire game.  Williams went on to lose, 6-2, 6-4.

We need not be detained by the details, and there is much in this set of events that calls for an extended commentary.  The words “sexism” and “racism” are in the air, quite predictably so, but let me turn to the little explored question of “racquet abuse”.  The discussions thus far in the public domain have focused on whether docking a point for breaking one’s racquet from a player’s score sheet is an excessive penalty or should even invite a penalty at all. The common, all too common, view is that players are “human”, as though this were not a self-evident truth, and that in the heat of the moment a player might lose his or her cool.  The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) rulebook sets out the player’s code in Chapter 8, and the portion on “Racquet or Equipment Abuse” appears under “Offenses” and states the following:

Racquet or Equipment Abuse i) Players shall not violently, dangerously or with anger hit, kick or throw a racquet or other equipment within the precincts of the tournament site. For purposes of this rule, abuse of racquets or equipment is defined as intentionally, dangerously and violently destroying or damaging racquets or equipment or intentionally and violently hitting the net, court, umpire’s chair or other fixture during a match out of anger or frustration. ii) Violation of this section shall subject a player to a fine up to $500 for each violation. In addition, if such violation occurs during a match [emphasis added], the player shall be penalized in accordance with the Point Penalty Schedule.

Ramos was, then, clearly within his rights in penalizing Williams for “racquet abuse” by issuing a point against her, as specified in the Point Penalty Schedule.  (Note:  I am aware that professional women tennis players fall under the jurisdiction of the WTA, Women’s Tennis Association, but the rulebook is one and the same.)  But just exactly what is “racquet abuse” and why should it incur a penalty at all?  It is understandable that, had Serena threatened to hit another player with her racquet, she would have been called out for her offence—and that the penalty would have been far more stringent.  Let us suppose that she had destroyed communal property:  here, too, it is unlikely that anyone would have disputed the decision to penalize her.  But Williams destroyed her own racquet and in common law one’s possessions and property are for one to dispose as one pleases.  There may well be circumstances under which the state might prevent one from treating one’s own property or possessions as purely one’s own and might even claim jurisdiction over them.  If, for instance, I was in possession of the sole copy of the first Bible printed in the Americas, or I had made my home in the oldest surviving building in the state of California, I might well be prevented on pain of severe punishment from burning the Bible or tearing the building down and using the lumber for my fireplace.  Yet the most that can be said of Williams is that she squandered a few hundred dollars:  more likely, given capitalism’s voracious appetite for pecuniary inventiveness, the destroyed autographed racquet will end up on the auction block and become worth a few thousand dollars overnight. For all we know, it may even be used to raise some money in the name of charity, or it may find a place in a museum.

The answer to the question is obvious:  racquet abuse calls for a penalty because it shows the lack of sportsmanship.  This answer is, not so obviously, little more than drivel.  We are not living in an age of chivalry; the very word, “chivalry”, is no longer part of the lexicon of most modern societies.  (Ladies, in any case, cannot be chivalrous; that quality is strictly a masculine preserve.) The idea of “sportsmanship” is attractive in the abstract but it exists only to be violated, mocked, and transgressed at every turn.   Patrick Mouratoglou, who showed not the slightest hesitation in admitting that he had indeed been coaching his pupil from the stands, giving it as his justification that every coach did so, had something rather more revealing to say:  “It is not a big deal breaking a racquet.  She [Serena] will struggle to get back from this.”  The fact that he thinks is it “not a big deal” suggests to me that there is something seriously amiss.  Mouratoglou, I make bold to say, exemplifies the modern condition:  he is only functionally literate, and thought is entirely alien to him.  He is, of course, far from being the only one partaking of this sinister condition.

Williams has made her living from tennis racquets and acquired a fortune in the process.  Her disrespect for the humble racquet is all the more disturbing for that reason.  I suspect that a racquet to her is only an object which serves a purpose; it exists to be instrumentalized.  Not surprisingly, Williams has a habit of abusing her racquet: in 2014, during a WTA final against Caroline Wozniacki, she smashed it repeatedly on the ground and after the match explained with a hint of thrill in her voice, “I don’t know how many times I hit it but, boy, that racket will never do me wrong again.” Her racquet is to her also a disposable object, purely inanimate.  There is a story to be told about homo consumerus, with a nod to the orgiastic delights of shopping experienced by certain specimens of homo erectus, but I have a different story to relate at this juncture.

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A garlanded tool at Vishwakarma Puja, Delhi.  Source:  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7Iy3vUwSrmw [video footage]

That story begins with an exploration of the worker and her tools.  Vishwakarma Puja, the Indian ‘festival’ which is observed in factories, workshops, and industrial areas, has always struck me as one of the more inspired instantiations of worship.  Vishwakarma is the divine architect, credited with having built the city of Dwarka and crafted the weapons of the Gods.  In much of India, especially northern and eastern India, during the annual Vishwakarma Puja workers—carpenters, welders, mechanics, electricians, smiths, artisans, electrical engineers, network engineers, and others—lay aside their tools and worship them.  This is a grateful admission of the fact that the worker acknowledges the life-giving properties of his or her tools.

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Vishwarkarma Puja, Amrtisar, 2012.  Source:  https://www.indiatoday.in/india/story/vishwakarma-day-keeps-all-markets-closed-today-121403-2012-11-14

It is singularly interesting, then, that the professional tennis players’ code includes a provision against “racquet abuse”, a provision all the more arresting in that it specifies that a player may not even abuse or throw the racquet “in anger”.  My own view is that modern culture, which is nothing if not barbarous in its self-aggrandizing and narcissistic drives, often retains a place, howsoever unself-consciously, for characteristically pre-modern ways of thinking. The ATP code is but a reflection of norms from which we have all become distanced, never more so when money does all the talking. Serena Williams owes, I dare say, a great many apologies, most evidently to the young Naomi Osaka and the Umpire Carlos Ramos.  But her road to redemption can only begin with an apology to the humble racquet with which she crafted an entire universe for herself and her adoring fans.

 

*Homosexuality, the Hindu Past, and the Problem of Colonialism—A Few Notes

Part II of Decriminalizing Homosexuality in India

(in three or four parts)

Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, portions of which criminalized all same-sex relations between adults, has rightly been described as a vestige of colonial-era legislation.  For that matter, much of the legislative and administrative apparatus through which India is governed today, including the Indian Penal Code, is a legacy of colonial rule.  The Indian Penal Code was drafted by a commission that, as I mentioned in Part I of this essay, was led by Thomas Macaulay, rather more infamous as the author of the Minute on Education of 2 February 1835 which, if I may it put this way, formally inaugurated the regime of English language in India.  Macaulay’s ambition was to facilitate the rise of a class of intermediaries educated in English who would help in the machinery of governance.  By most accounts, he succeeded admirably well; indeed, according to the most critical perspectives on this question, the colonization of India by a certain elite, steeped in the ideas that were part of Macaulay’s intellectual inheritance, continues apace.

The long history of same-sex relations is well outside the purview of the present essay, but the “inheritance” of the West of which I speak included “An Acte for the Punishment of the Vice of Buggerie” (1533), passed during the reign of Henry VIII (1491-1547) whose love for fornication with women—six wives, and doubtless many other women with whom he shared his bed—conjoined with the sexual attitudes of the time, might help explain in part why an act that would penalize sodomy was passed into law.  Most histories of Section 377 do not look past the Indian Penal Code, and show no awareness of the fact that Macaulay and the Commission did not create the IPC from a vacuum.  The Criminal Law (India) Act of 1828 had already specified “buggery” as a capital offence, adding that penetration rather than completion of the act, marked by “emission of seed”, was sufficient to procure conviction.  England’s own Buggery Act would go through various twists and turns, and by Macaulay’s time was known as the Offences against the Person Act (1828).  Buggery, as it was still known at that time in common parlance, and even in legal usage (thus Act 24 & 25 in Victoria’s reign, 1861, which make reference to “the abominable crime of buggery, committed either with mankind or with any animal”), remained a capital offence in England until 1861.  Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code (passed in 1860, put into effect in early 1862), let us recall, specified as much as a term of life imprisonment for “unnatural” acts of intercourse between men, or between a man and an animal.

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India’s history of same-sex relations outside the colonial fold remains a complicated one.  Let us dispense immediately with the most cliched example of Hinduism’s real or purported permissiveness towards the question of sexuality: I refer, of course, to the Kama Sutra.  A few years ago, Interfaith Radio, Los Angeles, interviewed me for the segment on “Homosexuality and Hinduism” in the series on “Gay in the Eyes of God”.  My interviewer stated quite emphatically at least twice that a text such as the Kama Sutra, which may be dated to around 200-300 CE, would have been quite impossible in the West.  The word she used to describe the likely attitude of the West towards the Kama Sutra until perhaps a few decades ago was “scandalous”.  The Kama Sutra is far more than a manual of love-making, but this is not the place to describe its place within the purusarthas, or the four ends of life as described in Hindu texts:  kama (love), artha (economy, material well-being in this world), dharma (conduct, duty, virtue), and moksha (liberation or spiritual emancipation). Suffice it say that it has some exciting bits, some charming and naughty parts, and some boring parts—something of the nature of sex, perhaps?  As I have advised my undergraduate students who have taken my introductory course on Indian civilization, they would be well-advised to have an orthopedic surgeon standing by if they are adamantly determined on attempting all the sexual positions described in the Kama Sutra.  The author of the Kama Sutra, Vatsyayana, borrowed a good deal from other manuals on love-making, which were extant at that time and have since been lost.  It is certainly true that there is nothing comparable to the Kama Sutra from that time period, or even from centuries later, in the West—though there is, of course, an erotic literature from antiquity, of which we find ample evidence in the love poems of Sappho, or in the celebration of the mystery and beauty of sexual love in the Song of Songs [also known as Song of Solomon], even if it was read by Church fathers and others as an allegory of God’s love for Israel.

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Khajuraho:  Kandariya Mahadeva Temple.  Source:  https://lakshmisharath.com/stories-erotic-sculptures-of-khajuraho/

Proponents of the idea that Hindu culture has an easy-going attitude towards sexuality almost invariably also point to the famous temple complexes at Khajuraho and Konark, though the preponderant number of the sculptured figures in erotic poses or positions are not engaged in homosexual or lesbian relations.  The Lakshmana temple in the Khajuraho complex which can be dated to the 10th century has a frieze where a man is clearly seen performing oral sex on another man, but should one read this as decisive evidence of the wide acceptance of homosexuality in India?  Perhaps the “evidence” is less conclusive than one would like to think so, and this apart from the question of how one might interpret the large Khajuraho group of monuments as a whole.  To understand why that is the case, we can return, albeit briefly, to the Kama Sutra.  Chapter 9 of Book Two is the portion that is most germane to a consideration of whether the acceptance of homosexuality was widespread in Hindu culture.  Its subject matter is “Auparishtaka”, or what the Victorian-era rake and translator of the Kama Sutra, Richard Burton, described as “Mouth Congress”, that is oral sex.

While the text is unequivocally clear in its description of fellatio, the interpretation of the character of the parties to the act can vary immensely.  It is not commonly realized that ancient Indian texts, not only philosophical works such as the Upanishads but even law treatises (dharma sastras), sex manuals (kama sastras), and works of grammar (vyakarana), were almost always read with one or more commentaries at hand.  The commentator’s gloss could be critical.  However, a modern reader, even without a commentary, might find much room for ambiguity.  A translator such as Burton rendered the male sexual partner of a man as a ‘eunuch’, though the term used in the Sanskrit is generally tritiya-prakriti, ‘of the third gender’.  The two men in a homosexual relationship are more accurately described as having more ‘masculine’ or more ‘feminine’ characteristics.  A more contemporary translator such as Alain Danielou, The Complete Kama Sutra, is more sensitive in rendering the Sanskrit terms in colloquial English, though it doesn’t help when he speaks of oral sex as “buccal coition” (for example, KS 2.9.25, 28).  There is more than the suggestion that many homosexual relations were quite undesirable, and the evidence of verse 40 from Part I, Chapter Nine seems quite unimpeachable:  “The various forms of buccal coition should be avoided by Brahmans, men of letters, ministers and other government officials, as well as by those who have become famous.”  The insinuation here is that while homosexual relations will doubtless be encountered, men of a certain class standing should certainly refrain from them.  On the other hand, Vatsyayana was entirely willing to go the entire length in accepting homosexuality as part of the order of nature, and taking it as a fact of life that some men are attracted to other men and may be inclined to choose them as life partners:  “There are also citizens [men], sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married [parigraha] together” (KS 2.9.35).

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Mural at Mattanchery Palace, Fort Kochi:  Shiva and Mohini are locked in embrace (left), while Parvati, the consort of Shiva, looks at them astride a white bull (right).

In this vein, one might summon a great deal of other textual and visual evidence.  The Puranic literature is prolific in the stories of sexuality:  in my radio interview from more than five years ago to which I have adverted above, I offer some additional pointers.  There are stories of gods seduced by beautiful women, gods making out with other gods (if unknowingly), men who become pregnant, men and women who cross-dress, and more.  The culture of pre-modern India certainly cannot be accused of prudishness, whatever else one may say of it; yet, it is also unmistakably the case that all this seems nearly impossible to divine from the present state of India, where heterosexual marriage exercises an oppressive crush, monopolizing social life, societal norms, and the imaginary of the nation in every domain.  My own reading suggests two formulations which I am hopeful may be of some use in contemporary discussions of homosexuality in India and, in particular, the nature of the “Hindu inheritance”.  There is no singular Hindu view of homosexuality, even if both the proponents or detractors of the view that Hinduism was hospitable to same-sex relations are convinced that the truth is unequivocally on their side.  One might plausibly argue that homosexuality, on the evidence of Puranic literature, should not necessarily be viewed as the opposite of heterosexuality but rather as constituting something of a continuum with it.  Secondly, and more decisively, the Hindu past furnishes no evidence of homophobia.  If some critics should construe Hindu texts as not celebratory of homosexuality, they are nevertheless recognizably more accommodating of views and lifestyles outside the norm of what these days is termed heterosexual normativity.  Those who are now committed to obstructing the Supreme Court’s ruling on Section 377 of the IPC, and one hopes that their numbers will be insignificant, would do well to bear this in mind.

 

(to be continued)