Extreme forms of exercise are they simply the latest techniques of disciplining subjects to digital-age capitalism.
The body is the last refuge of the hopelessly confused. — Anonymous
Now that the weather here in New England has (finally!) taken a pleasant turn, I’ve decided again to take up walking, and even a bit of running. The footpath I frequent is filled with like-minded people enjoying a few precious hours of fresh air and fair weather, but there are also those who look quite grim as they hurtle down the gravel trail, all straining limbs, rolling eyes, sinews and scowls. I understand that they are engaging in an extreme form of exercise (training for a marathon, perhaps), or maybe they just love that runner’s high that comes when the body is flooded with endorphins as a result of extreme cardiovascular stress. For a time, I was shamed into wanting to become something like them; the one or two miles I’d run every couple of days seemed paltry and weak compared to their leagues of patient plodding or manic sprinting. I tried for awhile to spur my tired donkey of a body further, but it didn’t see the point, especially as it had for so long demonstrated its respectable degree of fitness quite nicely over reasonable distances of what most people of ages past had to span on a daily basis. Thus it balked and became sore and cranky upon being forced to limp painfully for seven miles (as far as it ever condescended to go). I relented and contented myself with watching others speed past, charging in what seemed an arbitrary and destination-less manner to points unknown some eight, ten, or sometimes 15 miles away.
I never thought these runners crazy or even vainglorious. I just thought they were people who enjoyed exercise, and were far better at it than I was. But the last few years have seen a change in the way these fervent devotees of the fit body are talked about. Rather than just admirably fit people, they — and this holds especially true if the runner in question is a woman — are seen as people who are in process of accomplishing a great and heroic thing. To run a marathon nowadays is not just to actualize yourself, but somehow to make the world a bit better. You can run those 26.2 miles and cure breast cancer, end child abuse or even help a few former racing greyhounds find a good home. There’s the “Marathoners for Medicine Team,” as well as the “Great Tibetan Marathon,” where marathoners run at an altitude of 11,500 feet, all breathless bodhisattvas and limping lamas. A Massachusetts newspaper, The Holbrook Times, recently reported on one Nathan Smileye, who ran a half marathon for the benefit of a liver foundation. “’It makes it more fulfilling. It’s for a better cause than just yourself,”’ the story quotes Smileye as saying of his most recent charity run. And he has even loftier goals:
For the past three months, Smileye has run 130 miles each month to train for the marathon.
Smileye likes to compete against himself and enjoys the sense of accomplishment that training and running in a marathon gives him, he said.
When you run a marathon today, you’re no longer just someone who wants to meet personal fitness goals or just to engage in a bit of ol’ fashioned meditation facilitated by repetitive motion, but a road warrior intrepid and noble. Upon finishing a marathon, runners are greeted with heartfelt congratulations and a distinct sense of accomplishment. “I did it,” they tell themselves, rejoicing in a glow of meaningful productivity.
But what exactly did they do? What does it mean to exhaust the body, even if it’s for a charitable cause? Why not just donate the money, jettisoning the whole expensively absurd theater of the actual marathon? Or why not donate the time spent running the marathon? Clean up a park or two with all that excess energy, or knit a few hundred socks for soldiers stuck overseas. The runner involved in a non-charitable running event has an even harder time justifying their so-called accomplishments. Did they run all the way across Manhattan to inform the citizens of New York that they lost a war? Is their frantic foot stomping powering an artificial lung in some post-Soviet tuberculosis ward? Is their hot and hurried breath filtering the diesel exhaust particles spewed daily from traffic clogging the Massachusetts Turnpike?
French postmodern philosopher Jean Baudrillard found the obsessive runner quite frightening. “You stop a horse that is bolting,” he writes in his magisterial America, “You do not stop a jogger who is jogging.” Elaborating this point, Baudrillard continues:
Foaming at the mouth, his mind riveted on the inner countdown to the moment when he will achieve a higher plane of consciousness, he is not to be stopped. If you stopped him to ask the time, he would bite your head off. He doesn’t have a bit between his teeth, though he may perhaps be carrying dumb-bells or even weights in his belt (where are the days when girls used to wear bracelets on their ankles?). What the third-century Stylite sought in self-privation and proud stillness, he is seeking through muscular exhaustion of his body. He is the brother in mortification of those who conscientiously exhaust themselves in the body-building studios on complicated machines with chrome pulleys and on terrifying medical contraptions. There is a direct line that runs from the medieval instruments of torture, via the industrial movements of production-line work, to the techniques of schooling the body by using mechanical apparatuses. Like dieting, body-building, and so many other things, jogging is new form of voluntary servitude.
Indeed, there is something very sad, something that reeks of voluntary servitude, in the fact that so many people seek to realize themselves through obsessive marathoning. Those thousands upon thousands of scissoring legs indicate a society that has shut off most avenues for self-realization until only the most dreary, prolonged physical exertion can pass for accomplishment, indicative of some sort of supreme agency. But stuck in a culture that glorifies only the most banal intellectual and artistic accomplishments, that curtails meaningful intellectual freedom, how can we not help but view the body as the last space wherein excellence can manifest itself? We become volunteer slaves to the body because slavery is the only thing we’ve known. And it works out quite nicely for the powers that be: At the end of a marathon, you’ve only got a pile of exhausted bodies that have done absolutely nothing to change the circumstances of their lives, or the lives of others. Frustration and anger have been channeled into pounding the pavement, and into a weary nihilism.
To me, the intensification of the cult of exercise speaks to a dangerous nihilism lurking in the hearts of people with nothing better to believe in than their own bodies.
It’s no surprise that fitness magazines are reporting an uptick in running since the recession. The most recent issue of Fitness ran an article entitled “Why I Run,” which featured short entries from women professing their of running. More than one confessed to taking up the sport to ease feelings of frustration, including those stemming from the economic downtown. “Over the next three months,” one woman confessed, “running became my own form of Prozac. I hit the pavement three or four days a week…. Those jogs didn’t give my husband a job, but they helped me keep it together and stay positive.” Revolutionaries don’t jog. They sit and steam in their dumpy apartments and channel their anger and frustration into action. But considering this is the nation that fell for “hope and change,” it makes sense that Americans would prefer to jog when faced with political corruption, infrastructural desuetude, or economic dislocation.
I have nothing against running, or exercise in general. I wake up every morning at six and wearily lift my dumbbells, thinking all the time of Winston Smith, the main character of George Orwell’s 1984, whose knee bends weren’t deep enough to please his telescreen trainer. It’s a lonely activity, and most times, given the current cultural and economic realities, I’m not sure why I do it. Will having a toned body help me pay off my student loans faster? Will my bank stop charging me so many absurd fees if I can claim well-defined quads? Will having a low resting heart rate help me find a white-collar job in a moribund economy? Yes, I’ll be healthier for it, and perhaps live somewhat longer, but do I really want to be that spry octogenarian working at Walmart? Given the state of Social Security and retirement packages, I’d be better off greeting the sun with a pack of Virginia Slims and a fifth of Wild Turkey.
During my lonely morning routine, I also think of the physical culture movement that swept Europe (and the United States) during the early twentieth century. That too was a time of great social and economic upheaval, and millions, without anything else to believe in, sought comfort in bronzed bodies saluting the sun (bodies which eventually saluted other things besides: they say nowadays that the ultra-right German Freedom Party, spiritual heir to the National Socialism, has the best gyms). To me, the intensification of the cult of exercise speaks to a dangerous nihilism lurking in the hearts of people with nothing better to believe in than their own bodies. It’s a form of death drive, that need to exhaust the body to reflect the exhausted spirit. (The New York Times recently reported on how some devotees of Crossfit, an extreme training program known for its brutal workouts, are willing to risk death — a very real prospect, apparently — to participate). And such spiritual exhaustion leaves one ripe for whatever or whoever promises to fill that spiritual void with something even more exciting than the prospect of running 15 miles in under 15 minutes.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.