clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

A Theory of Hockey: Pessimism, Nihilism and the Search for Truth

New, comments
Schopenhauer, via <a href="">Wikimedia Commons</a>, copyright expired.
Schopenhauer, via Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired.

Derek and Bruce have, from time to time, disagreed about the state of affairs surrounding the Edmonton Oilers, their (mis)management and the idea of luck. From what I gather via Derek, who commissioned me, (and I use that term loosely), to write this piece, Bruce is of the mind that some of the failures of the last few seasons can be attributed to incredibly horrific luck, the kind of bad luck the likes of which has rarely been seen in the history of the game. Luck is, of course, a reasonable explanation for many of the bad things that have happened to the team. How else could one explain the steady stream of injuries to star players for years now, illness taking down half of the team last season, the ever-worsening Rexall ice conditions and running with the youngest defense in the league a few years back? (Anyone know where Sebastien Bissaillon is these days?)

Derek on the other hand takes a different view. He is of the belief that the crap we are collectively witnessing is on account of a team that has been designed to fail, that luck can't possibly explain all that as gone wrong since the Stanley Cup Finals in 2006. I have my own take on it as well, but that is not what I have been commissioned to write about. Given that I am something of the resident theorist around these parts, Derek has asked me to explore his idea of what's gone wrong: His is a pessimist's view, characterized by the utter failures of the (mis)management team. His words to me in the email asking me to do this were the following:

...It is my position that because the Oilers set themselves up to fail, bad things happen to them. And bad things compound themselves because they've managed themselves in to a position to fail with a lack of depth, bad players, bad decisions, bad contracts, rushing players, etc.

I will explore three philosophical interpretations of why things are as they have become-the first being the Pessimism of Arthur Schopenhauer with the next being the Nihilism and Master-Slave morality of Friedrich Nietzsche. Finally, I will attempt a post-structural reading of the Derek-Bruce debate through an exploration of meta-narratives and the way we perceive and write about history. The goal is to write an Oilercentric interpretation of these philosophies in an attempt to get to the heart of why everything has gone so terribly wrong. It begins after the jump.

Arthur Schopenhauer

I must begin first with an overview of Schopenhauer's theoretical position in order to frame Pessimism. Schopenhauer effectively takes up where Immanuel Kant's epistemology (theory of knowledge) left off, taking what Kant called the forms of sensibility, space, time and causality, and then developed what he called  "Understanding." Understanding does not exist independently of our ability to perceive and determine relationships, as it is the very root of experience; not only what we think in the abstract, but also our very perceptions are completely intellectual and subjectively determined through causality, which is the primary force behind Understanding. To Schopenhauer, the world is his representation, and from this small seeming concept, he developed his response to Kantian epistemology through his Critique of Pure Reason. Schopenhauer breaks this all down into four specific categories of analysis:

1)   Becoming

2)   Knowing

3)   Being

4)   Willing

I could get into a really detailed explanation about all four of these, but only the last category, "Willing", seems to apply directly to our inquiry, to which I'm sure many of you are responding, "finally Sheps, you wordy bastard!" Willing is thought to make it possible for a subject of knowing to know himself directly as ‘will.' A subject knows his acts of will only after the fact, in time. Action then, finds its root in the law of motivations, the ground of acting, which is causality, but viewed internally. In other words, not only does a subject know his body as an external object in space, but also internally, in time alone; a subject has self-awareness and a sort of limited agency, in addition to knowing his body as an idea of self-perception. Yet under these assumptions, whenever one makes a choice, "we assume as necessary that that decision was preceded by something from which it ensued, and which we call the ground or reason, or more accurately the motive, of the resultant action." Choices are not made freely, it seems, but action inevitably results when a particular motive influences a person's given, unchangeable essence of character. In On the Freedom of Will, he states:

...Everyone believes himself a priori to be perfectly free, even in his individual actions, and thinks that at every moment he can commence another manner of life. ... But a posteriori, through experience, he finds to his astonishment that he is not free, but subjected to necessity, that in spite of all his resolutions and reflections he does not change his conduct, and that from the beginning of his life to the end of it, he must carry out the very character which he himself condemns.

This relates directly to Steve Tambellini's apparent predilection to dithering. So why then does a subject like Tambo 3.0 act the way he does? Where a sufficient motive appears in the form either of an intuition, perception, or abstract conception, the subject will act according to his character, or ‘will.' He is who he is, as he is an unchangeable character whose flaws are apparent and obvious, yet he is acting according to his inherent nature, precisely as Schopenhauer has predicted. An Oilercentric example of this would be despite all plans to the contrary, when the actual moment comes to act, like acquiring the right players, making certain that the team does not have too many obvious flaws, the playing surface is not old and shoddy, and that injury replacements are available in the system, we do so within the constituents of the rhetorical situation (the various representations present in a subject's experience) and are often surprised by what we actually say and do. In the case of the Oilers the last few years, the public is treated to a lot of rhetoric in the moment of action and surprising results, (err, lack of results), come to be. The social sciences find their ground in this aspect of the principle, as does our Oilercentric understanding. The (mis)management team as individuals often seem to recognize their acts of will as flawed only after the fact, as evidenced by the sacking of two coaches in two years, the apparent effort to gain the services of one Manny Malhotra, resulting in the Colin Fraser acquisition, the flushing of Patrick O`Sullivan and Marc Pou(liot) and the shipping out of the old, embittered leadership core. The Principle of Sufficient Reason explains things in reference to one another, but it always leaves unexplained something that it presupposes, (in this case, good choices for the present and future of the team) and the two thing that are absolutely inexplicable are the principle itself and the "thing in itself", which Schopenhauer connects with the will to live. 


Ok, now onto Pessimism-The logic behind that lengthy explanation of Willing is due to the value that Schopenhauer places on will over reason. This is a very simple way to explain why a pessimistic view of the Oilers is so applicable. If a subject (any individual can be both object and subject) only knows his acts of will after the fact, it makes sense that there really isn't any logic or reason behind the actions of the mismanagement team. If will is to be valued over reason, it is logical to assume that the (mis)management team has absolutely no idea that they are running the franchise into the ground, not recognizing that this will is inherent to the essence of the individual. In this case, Tambo dithers because Tambo knows no other way to live his life. Schopenhauer explores this relationship of will and reason, using the metaphor of reason being like a "lame man who can see but rides on the shoulder of the giant Will." I picture from this example a very small, gimpy Tambo as "Reason" riding on the shoulder of KLowe's "Will," and it makes me laugh.

Will is based more in desires or drives as sources of motivation and Schopenhauer uses the analogy of the life cycle to drive his point home. He further discusses the fact that will leads to suffering due to the selfishness of desires as a motivator leading to perpetual conflict. His proof of pessimism rests in this notion of biological survival, effectively that the world is already broken and damaged, that the littlest bit more damage could cause something irreparable, and that essentially, we are already inhabiting the worst possible world. Personally, this view is a bit extreme for my taste, leading to a dangerous kind of nihilistic position, but then again Nietzsche did refer to Schopenhauer as "The Educator" and claimed Schopenhauer's writing felt as though it spoke directly to him.

The "truth," however, of which we hear so much from our professors, seems to be a far more modest being, and no kind of disturbance is to be feared from her; she is an easy-going and pleasant creature, who is continually assuring the powers that be that no one need fear any trouble from her quarter: for man is only "pure reason." And therefore I will say, that philosophy in Germany has more and more to learn not to be "pure reason": and it may well take as its model "Schopenhauer the man." It is no less than a marvel that he should have come to be this human kind of example: for he was beset, within and without, by the most frightful dangers, that would have crushed and broken a weaker nature. I think there was a strong likelihood of Schopenhauer the man going under, and leaving at best a residue of "pure reason": and only "at best"-it was more probable that neither man nor reason would survive.

Friedrich Nietzsche

Nietzsche via Wikimedia Commons, copyright expired

Nietzsche's take on pessimism is inspired by but in some ways the opposite of Schopenhauer's, even referring to his Pessimism as "passive Nihilism." According to this reading, Schopenhauer's doctrine advocates a separating oneself of will and desires in order to reduce suffering. Nietzsche characterizes this ascetic attitude as a "will to nothingness," where life turns from itself. This reduces life to nothing of value found in the world. This eradication of all value in the world is a hallmark of the passive nihilist, although in this situation, the nihilist appears to be inconsistent.

While Schopenhauer veered towards a sense of decay and resignation, and an overwhelming sense of tragedy, Nietzsche's take is oddly hopeful. In The Birth of Tragedy, he asks, "Is there a pessimism of strength? An intellectual predilection for the hard, gruesome, evil, problematic aspect of existence, prompted by well-being, by overflowing health, by the fullness of existence?" This pessimism of strength seems less likely to apply in the case of the Oilers organization but more likely the way that Derek himself seems to reconcile his own subject position on the matter, almost occupying a subject position similar to the pessimism of strength found inside Nietzsche's slave morality.

I know this doesn't make much sense, but hear me out before you disregard this section as the ravings of a lunatic. Slave morality is created in opposition to what the master morality values as "good." Slave morality does not try to force its will upon the community by strength but instead through subversion. It does not seek to transcend or topple the masters, but rather fashion them into slaves as well. The essence of slave morality then is in utility; the "good" is what is most useful for the whole community, not simply for the advantage of strong. Derek, Scott and even Ben and JW have been doing this for quite some time, via advanced statistical analysis as well as insightful and often hilarious critical commentary, demonstrating the failures of the current regime (the current Oiler "braintrust" if you will, not to mention several members of the mainstream media who get their marching orders from said regime), demonstrating that there is no actual common good as perceived by the masters. As Nietzsche states in Beyond Good and Evil:

...How could there exist common good! The expression is a self-contradiction: what can be common has ever been but little value. In the end it must be as it has always been: great things are for the great, abysses for the profound, shudders and delicacies, for the refined, and, in sum, all rare things for the rare.

The Master and Slave

In essence, the best way to bring about change is to according to this line of thought, is to coerce those who would be masters to think and act like the rest of us, placing power into the hands of the community rather than having it remain in the hands of those who see themselves as good and noble, like KLowe and other men of his ilk. And let me assure you, the more often RX1 sells out and the local media types continue to let the team and those who run it go unchallenged, the longer they will see themselves as masters. As it is, the master would only see what is good for himself as good, and what is harmful to him is itself harmfulnot allowing for any room to see other interpretations of good and bad, harm and harmlessness. Now of course this is a problematic rendering of the situation, as a post-structuralist's reading of Nietzsche would likely not have endorsed the slave position as the preferred, but rather assert that change would likely occur through a shifting of morals away from both master and slave positions. A more traditional reading of Nietzsche, such as that of my colleague BCB at my regular blog, would instead suggest that the Master moral is the preferential position, but that we most certainly need to find new Masters (read: fire Tambo. Perhaps replace him with MBS?) It is only the Master that can cause ‘good' change, since that change is a reflection of their will-a Slave's change is not the reflection of his own will but instead the negation of another's will.

Now then, what have we learned about the state of affairs vis-à-vis an understanding of some classic German philosophy, aside from the fact that I clearly have too much time on my hands? Well, for starters, Derek's position is very applicable, as demonstrated by Schopenhauer's Pessimism, Will, and the curious case of Steve Tambellini. On a second level, Derek himself seems to embody a pessimism more closely aligned with Nietzsche's interpretation and inversion of Schopenhauer, not to mention much of this entire website's warm embrace of the Nietzschian slave-morality found in subversion.

So where does this leave Bruce then? To be honest, I am not entirely sure. I've been communicating with him over the last few days in an attempt to learn his position without committing any sort of heinous slander. Let me tell you, it has been difficult. Bruce is an enigma-in a land filled with advanced stats, a general distrust of the mainstream media, and writers like Ben Massey, Bruce is thoughtful, thorough, and respectful of tradition yet hardly conservative or reactionary when it comes to the idea of making change. He writes stories about hockey history that are passionate and insightful and it is obvious that he is a student of the game who carries more of a hopeful torch for the future.

My understanding of the luck angle is that bad luck is still a part of the mismanagement, as Bruce readily admits, but only if you stretch it far enough and through a pessimistic lens. To quote the man himself:

For the record I don't think Oilers have the worst luck in the league, but I do think they have had an extended run of being in the lower echelon of "luck" w.r.t. injuries since '06. But if you stretch your pessimism far enough, that's on the organization for having shitty ice, fire-able training staff, yada yada. So obviously it's not luck at all, but mismanagement.

This reads to me like Bruce actually began to buy into the idea of the (mis)management, adding the contextual factor of luck to his explanation. I think Bruce's critique lies more in the position that (mis)management is the sole "truth" behind the decline of the Oilers, a "grand narrative" if you will, and has started to embrace, perhaps unknowingly, a post-structural world view. But is the (mis)management really the grand narrative, or is it more of a counter-history, an alternate telling of the same story, casting doubt upon the "absolute" truth as presented by the Oilers organization? I guess that depends on whom you ask. In this situation, as Bruce seems to have implied, context is key to understanding.

The Grand Narrative

What is a grand narrative you ask? In a nutshell, a grand narrative, sometimes known as a meta-narrative, is a totalizing, all encompassing way of looking at the world, our place in it and how we view both the production of and utilization of knowledge. In a sense, it is a discursive way of describing an absolute truth. In critical theory, grand narratives are abstract ideas that attempt to be comprehensive explanations of historical experience or knowledge. The prefix meta means "beyond" and is here used to mean "about", and a narrative is a story. Therefore, a meta-narrative is a story about a story, encompassing and explaining other 'little stories' within totalizing schemes. I am going to add yet another theorist to the mix, a French thinker named Michel Foucault, whose work I examined in relation to Dustin Penner and MacT a few years back, and see where a more contemporary philosophical reading could take this problem.

In much of Michel Foucault's early work, such as the Order of Things and Archeology of Knowledge he attempts to break down notions of how grand narratives have become such a normalized part of the greater human experience. In these texts, Foucault looks at the way that history is both written and recorded, seeking to make some sort of sense as to why history is often written as linear, and demonstrates that knowledge production is a part of power and power relations: To oversimplify a little, he examines and critiques the notion that history is objective and often written by the winners; therefore, it is constructed in such a way that the mass audience believes historical truth as absolute, as the one truth, rather than allowing for the idea that there can be more than one idea of what reality actually can look like. He sees this as a problem, given the subjectivities (read: bias) found within any particular writer, that writer's interpretation of fact and truth, and how that is transmitted into any particular text. Foucault focuses on ruptures, divergent moments, multiplicities and the idea of counter-history and counter-memory to account for these subjectivities within texts.

Bringing it back to the Oilers, the idea of the rebuild espoused by the organization is the narrative currently being used to bait the general public into believing that everything is okay. Derek has pessimistically contradicted this hope with the concept of (mis)management as his own counter-historical narrative, showing the flow of power relations and knowledge production, much like Foucault suggests. I could throw out my own theories, too, but nobody reads my blog aside from Derek anyway. The purpose here is not to argue which theory is correct, but instead to demonstrate that seeing things in absolutes is problematic. There are likely aspects of both of these ideas that are correct; just as luck has played into the decline, so too has (mis)management, and if you ask me, it can be traced back to the Smyth trade and what I have called "the curse of the mullet." Context is everything. Finally, it seems there is only one course of action that remains to bring about a more desirable future: Revolution.