Wednesday, August 18, 2004

The man-machine

An article by Mark Greif in the September 2004 Harper's (reprinted from the journal n+1) offers an interesting assessment of the American obsession with exercise. Exercise always seemed to me to be unproductive work, an intentional waste of effort, a discharge of activity in a harmless way that threatens none of the existing powerholders, as opposed to a subversive irrational expenditure of energy a la Bataille's theories. Exercise adheres to a strict rational regime which is its essential feature; as Greif notes, the most essential piece of equipment to exercise is "counting." Rather than an spontaneous activity that "recovers certain eccentric freedoms and private techniques of the self," exercise permits a surrender of the self, an effacement of any private codes for self-evaluation. One becomes machine, monitored and maintained by public notions of fitness.

If you have spent all your excess energy and all your pent-up frustration at a less than fulfilling life on a treadmill (and then have retired, drained, to your sofa in front of your televeision set), then you are a lot less likely to expend the effort to develop any political positions or participate in any civic duties. Exercise, in that way, is a peak example of selfishness, sending the message that one would rather work on one's pecs than contribute to the community. Just one more example of bourgeois atomization.

It must please captains of consumer industry to see how many people voluntarily exhibit the kind of unthinking discipline necessary for conformist consumption. If people will run in place for hours at a time just because of someone else's notion of beauty has been planted intheir heads or some magazine told them they have to to "stay fit," then they'll certainly do something much easier and buy something that they are told to. On the face of it, exercise seems renunciatory, ascetic, a refusal to consume, but in fact, as Greif points out, exercise is a kind of self-consumption (with the Thanatopic imperative to comsume onself up lurking behind it), a way to make yourself into a beloved object, since our society has taught us to train our affections only on those objects that are for sale.

The key point to know about exercise is that the pursuit of healthiness usually offered as rationale is just an alibi for something more insidious, the desire not to be a healthy human, or even a human at all, but to be a machine, to fulfill a fantasy of mastery over oneself that is only assured of total success by being, at its heart, a destructive process. Greif points to an exerciser's desire for "certain states of feeling" that hinge on being able to judge "his total healthiness at each moment based on what he ate, what he drank, how much he exercised, and what relation this all bears to the new recommendations and warnings he just heard on the television's hourly health report." Food, drink, activity are all converted into signs by which one can measure one's self-control, which is itself measured by conformity to media-driven stipulations. This apparatus allows one an illusion of mastery over death itself, but it can only be achieved by emulating it, by producing emaciated bodies that are spiritually vacant and dead. Exercise itself is an ersatz spirituality, which places its faith not in a higher power but the media reports Greif cites, and is entirely unabashed about the self-serving nature of the faith it inspires -- the dream of immortaility, the immortality of a well-maintained machine.

Greif posits a pleasure, too, in the "unending struggle" exercise sets one on, a lasting pleasure unlike the fleeting effervescent ones offered by consumerism. But these aren't opposites -- the pleasures and stuggles of shopping are as unending as the struggles for mastery of the body according to an extrinsic code. This makes "biological life a spectacle". Basicallym regulated exercise is a program for the commodfication of the body, to make it another thing on the market, and to make its regulation another covert argument in favor of markets, another way to naturalize the operation of markets at the deepest level of self-maintanence and reproduction. It accustoms us to think of our activity in terms of quanitity rather than quality (how many reps?, not, what is the point of this?). It subjects us to norms foreign to what our body actually needs (diet regimens, weight strictures, muscles not for activity but display). It makes idiosyncratic humans seem mass-reproducible, urging them to a rigid sameness so that flaws are more obvious and encouraging us to forget that indivuation could serve any other purpose but encouraging endless competition to achieve some arbitrary ideal.

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