Sunday, December 23, 2012

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 3: Lessons from "The History of Sexuality"

I'm sitting here in the small boat of my mind, about to push off of the pontoon of reasonable reason (if it's at all appropriate to describe the previous two installments of "Ultrarunning and"... in this way) and into the murkier reaches of post-modernism and critical theory. There's a bunch of space beside me for interested readers, but anyone who could potentially mistake my paddling action for a fierce intellectual-wank should turn around and walk to the opposite end of the pontoon.

In the last installment, I made a brief introductory argument about how the bourgeois who runs (or more broadly, who choses to do some kind of physical activity) for fun or personal development is metaphorically taunting the person who must run (or develop their physical capacities) in order to make a living, to survive.
But alas, it was soon dismissed:
"this argument would seem to apply more to the sport of triathlon (if it does to anything at all), which is becoming increasingly populated by corporate types and rich people in general";
and described as ridiculously esoteric.

Then I started reading "the History of Sexuality: Vol 1" by the late Michel Foucault, a man who was to the intelligentsia what Kilian Jornet is to ultramarathon running - a fucking juggernaut. Anyways, I was plodding my way through the Frenchman's thick text, when I came across the following passage:

"The emphasis on the body should undoubtedly be linked to the process of growth and establishment of bourgeois hegemony: not, however, because of the market value assumed by labour capacity, but because of what the "cultivation" of its own body could represent politically, economically, and historically for the present and the future of the bourgeoisie".

Read that passage a couple of times, but it doesn't make a lot of sense outside the context of Foucault's ideas.

Basically, he argues that we haven't actually been repressing our sexualities for the last two hundred and fifty years as many have suggested, but that from the middle of the eighteenth century onward there was a concerted effort from society to poke and prod at our sexualities, to harness them and to make them speak for themselves. The most instructive example is that of psychoanalysis, a field which produced a huge amount of discourse on sex; every mental malady, from neuroticism to schizophrenia was related back to the patient's sexuality through discourse. Before this time, the emphasis was supposedly placed on blood as opposed to sex, that is, the dominant "technology of power" was one of sanguinity as opposed to sexuality; the dominant class (nobles) were obsessed with their blood-line, the purity of their breeding, etc - their blood was what set them apart from the other classes.

Now, the dominant class (bourgeoisie) is able to look to "the health of its organism when it [lays] claim to a specific body". Foucault was referring mainly to sexual health/"normality", but I think that health and fitness in a more general sense can function in the same way - they can be used to assert membership to the dominant class on an individual level and, more widely, to distinguish this class as superior to others.

As I once read in some chauvanist men's health magazine "Fit is the new rich". In our case, it could be reworded as "fit is the new pure-blooded".

This technology was originally deployed in the form of "works...on body hygiene, the art of longevity, ways of having healthy children and of keeping them alive as long as possible, methods for improving the human lineage".

The thing about ultrarunning is that, until rather recently, it has remained at the fringes of this dominant technology of power. For example, the "pedestrians" of the nineteenth century ran for wagers: the first recorded 24 hour race, held on October 12, 1807, where the legendary Captain Barclay ran against Abraham Wood for a grand prize of 600 guineas. The rich people who put these bets up were obviously interested in this activity, but they were ultimately sanctioning insanity as opposed to actually participating in it themselves. Fast forward to 1974 when the eccentric hippie legend Gordy Ainsleigh's horse had gone lame a week before the Western States 100 mile endurance horse-ride. He bumped into the rich director of the horse race, Drucilla Robie, who told him that his misfortune "might even be a blessing in disguise". He toed the line on foot and ran the 100 miles in under 24 hours. Again, here we perceive a certain amount of bourgeois interest, but no active participation.

Now, over the last decade or so, the dominant technology of power has finally turned its head to ultrarunning, seeing it as an easily-deployable and effective method for class distinction. Easily deployable: the character traits required to complete an event longer than 42.2 kilometes, such as tenacity, determination, endurance, etc..., are necessarily held by many bourgeoisie (e.g. lawyers, financiers, doctors, politicians, etc...) - they couldn't reach their positions of power without having these characteristics - meaning that it is actually quite easy for them to take up a sport like ultramarathon running. Effective: the majority of the people who have not reached these positions (i.e. the working classes) may not possess these same characteristics, or they may just be too preoccupied with putting dinner on the table and paying the bills to piss copious amounts of time down the drain through running - it's less likely that they would become involved in the sport. These two factors combine to create a relatively easy way for the motivated bourgeoisie to distinguish themselves from the working class.

It now seems that ultrarunning was rather ripe to be picked by the deployment of sexuality (which includes the deployment of health). An index of this is the fact that recently, a huge market for "gear" has arisen around the sport - one which was previously almost non-existent. This is partially because more people with a large disposable income have started to run ultras in the last few decades, but the other side of this is the fact that the gear which is now available has made it even more appealing for wealthier people to take up the sport - rendering this method of class distinction even more effective and deployable.

Coming to the end of this long, turbulent boat-ride through murky waters, it seems that we've followed a similar route to that of post #1, but this time Foucault, as opposed to Zizek, lent me his paddle. It felt like the kind of implement that could be better used by more experienced hands - I'm sure that some passengers fell or jumped overboard along the way. For those who stayed the course, I hope you enjoyed the ride.

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