Sunday, November 4, 2012

The politics of "Born to Run": exploitation, the past in the present, in defence of Habermas and other long-winded points

“That was the real secret of the Tarahumara: they'd never forgotten what it felt like to love running. They remembered that running was mankind's first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle--behold, the Running Man.

Distance running was revered because it was indispensable; it was the way we survived and thrived and spread across the planet. You ran to eat and to avoid being eaten; you ran to find a mate and impress her, and with her you ran off to start a new life together. You had to love running, or you wouldn't live to love anything else. And like everything else we love--everything we sentimentally call our 'passions' and 'desires' it's really an encoded ancestral necessity. We were born to run; we were born because we run. We're all Running People, as the Tarahumara have always known.”

And thus you wipe the tears from your eyes, laces up your shoes, and leap out through the front gate and into movement. Running quotes don't come more inspiring than this.

But once you've rolled back through the front door, past the fridge for a drink and a snack, and onto the couch, what remains of this quote? Beneath its inspirational value, what meaning can be derived from these two paragraphs, and from "Born to Run" in its entirety?

 As a point of departure for our analysis, let's look at Jurgen Habermas' conception of the bourgeois public sphere. Because reading this guy was what got me thinking about that great novel again. Bear with me here...

In his incredibly detailed and difficult to read book "the Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere", Habermas describes, somewhat idyllically, a period in history when public debate was the basis of the press, not the other way around. According to the great German scholar, in early capitalism (~mid 1700s), state and society were firmly separated, only linked by the public sphere - a series of locations (salons, clubs and - crucially - parliament) where bourgeois intellectuals would meet to rationally-critically debate the literature and issues of the day. The content of the "periodicals" (early newspapers) reflected this debate, it did not shape it.

But progressively, as state started intervening in society - through social welfare measures - and society in the state - through the formation of "special interest" and pressure groups with unalterable aims, the "purity" of the public sphere (in the sense of it being a space of rational-critical debate, of reason) was corroded. It became less and less about rationalising the exercise of state power by its members trying to determine and move towards a set of common goals, and more about protecting sectional interests.

Today, Habermas argues, we still have the constitutional laws and norms left over from this period of history, but the reality is different - public debate is shaped by the culture industry and mass media, which has its own hidden agenda (profit), and parliament is less about rational-critical debate than it is about explicating a party line. To use an adage which has been beaten nearly to death multiple times: real democracy no longer exists.

What's important about Habermas' argument (for the sake of this discussion) is not its specific content, but its form. We are all to accustomed to accounts of the past which position our day and age as the pinnacle of historical development, with all other occurences, victories, losses and lives building on top of eachother to amount to the greatness of today, the greatness of now. What Habermas did was shift the pinnacle of democratic development backwards about 250 years, and to describe our situation today as a retrogression in the principles of democracy.

Democratic development is to Habermas as human happiness and health are to Chris McDougall - they are the values which underpin their respective perspectives on the history of human development. But where does the temporal pinnacle of Born to Run lie? The Tarahumara, McDougall's idealised super-tribe of ultrarunners are alive now, in the present. However, the tribe are described with terms like "ancient" in the book and linked to the humans of old, who caught their prey through the practice of persistence hunting.

Moreover, they are described as elusive, inaccessible, "ghosts" - the only window to their world comes in the form of the late Caballo Blanco, who fits quite neatly the old, wise sage archetype. He is a magician of sorts who has the keys to the past.

So because of this, I'd say that the Tarahumara are described by the author as embodiments of the past living in the present. The real temporal peak of McDougall's argument is many thousands of years ago, before spears were invented and humans supposedly ran their prey to death.

There are a few issues with this analysis:
1) Were humans ever endurance hunters?
2) What does this mean for the Tarahumara?

At the risk of sounding stupid, I'd say that the first "issue" is completely irrelevant for the point that McDougall is trying to make.

First, let's return to Habermas (Groooaaaaannnn......). I talked to a lecturer recently who said that the true public sphere, as described by the German scholar, never actually existed.And that, if it did, it was not quite as robust and dialectic-driven as Habermas had said. This point obviously merits further reading... But let's assume that it did not exist. So, in that case, Habermas is comparing our current predicament with a communicative utopia that never really existed. Is there anything wrong with that? He has imagined a better past in order to make a really strong critique of our modern communicative environment and to imagine a better future. Critiques of the present are often based on ideals (equality, justice, freedom) which have been instilled in us by years of development and the coercive mechanism of formal democracy. They are ideals which might just be impossible to fully realise in our existential reality - but this doesn't make the critiques that they are based on any less important, subversive or valuable. Habermas is effectively doing the same thing, although instead of grabbing these ideals from the empty rhetoric of the present-day coercive mechanism, he has taken them from a supposed past.

It seems that the persistence hunting theory - that humans first had access to meat by running their prey to death - is somewhat more credible than the idea of the bourgeois public sphere of rationally-critically debating citizens, but I haven't read enough about either to be entirely sure. Let's assume, for a second, that humans never actually ran their prey to death. If that is the case, McDougall is comparing our current predicament (regarding health and happiness) to a past which never existed. Does that matter? He has imagined this past in order to give weight to a number of solutions - in essence, run more barefoot, eat fresher (no, not Subway) which would actually be of huge benefit to the human population. The fact that this past may or may not be imagined doesn't detract from the tangible benefits which the solutions would provide.

But what of the people who have already put these solutions into practice and are living in McDougall's utopia?

2) Make no mistake, life for the Tarahumara is tough. (A quick note, when I refer to the Tarahumara here, I'm describing particularly those who still farm and run - many of them have been urbanised.) A while ago, I read a brilliant feature article in Nat Geo that described the huge issues which confront these people. They are periodically stricken by famine and drought, face a huge amount of crime/murder from the drug trade, their lands are subject to pollution, and the list goes on. McDougall is not an idiot - he mentions these issues a number of times in the novel, but yet he still maintains that their simple way of life should be preserved at all costs. It doesn't matter that some Tarahumara farmers barely have enough to feed their children and that others die of preventable diseases, they must keep on living their simple, healthy way of life! So, in this way, McDougall's argument could have a real negative impact on the Tarahumara.

So, while some would argue that the novel is good for the Tarahumara as it causes the readers to value their way of life, my position is the exact opposite.

Through his temporal pinnacle, the Tarahumara as the "past in the present" and his argument in general, Chris MacDougall colonises the Tarahumara again.

When the Spanish invaded Latin America five centuries ago, the native people were hugely disadvantaged (murder, disease, etc...) for the gain of the colonisers - this, to me, is the essence of colonisation. In the same way, the argument in Born to Run disadvantages the Tarahumara in the ways outlined above for the gain  of the Anglo-Saxon readers in terms of health and happiness. Without the idealistic portrayal of their way of life as a point of departure, McDougall's story, his analysis of history and his solutions to our Western problems could not exist. He needs the Tarahumara to be kept in the past and as such disadvantaged to make a compelling argument about how we Westerners could have a better future. His argument could not exist without this disadvantage.

It is fundamentally exploitative, and as such should be rethought. It's ok to dream of a better future, but not at the expense of others.


  1. As much as I liked born to run Zac you had to take it with a grain of salt. Persistent hunting sounds good in theory but man didn't develop tools for no reason. I'm betting that when man realised he could use traps and weapons to gather his food, excessive running was the activity he was trying to avoid. Born to run got a lot of us thinking about natural running and for that it is worth it's place on the book shelf. As for the exploitation of any folk whether indigenous or Anglo we will all be extinct before this problem is ever solved. Enjoy your running mate, it's as good as it has ever got. Cheers George

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