Friday, November 22, 2013

Loving and hating: Trail running and psychoanalysis

I fly through the forest over rocks and roots, my body calm and still, my legs spinning wildly - I'm immersed in a fluid rhythm, a rapid forward-dance. I follow my breathing, which follows my stride, which follows the music repeating itself in my head. And occasionally my ears turn outward to hear a whip-bird's sharp bell-tone resound through the vines and leaves. The leaves! They glow a lucid green in the afternoon sun. They bunch together in places and spread out in others. They adorn the dark, muddy ground in brown when they die and fall. And I move. I move past creeks and waterfalls, up a step or two, on a slight rise, and then a glorious downhill. And the forest surrounds me, embraces me, cherishes my light, scratchy footsteps as I propel my pale flesh along a little dirt-canal.


I'm describing paradise - this is running, and I love it.

But if I repeat myself again and again; if I casually register the sun falling lower and lower and then crashing towards the horizon as I preoccupy myself with more important things, with my head and legs, with my "me", with the internal something of consciousness that apparently drives everything forward; that is, if I keep running, how then do I feel about it?

Sooner or later it becomes an object of hate. Make it stop! Horror pervades me, my features contort - surely I'm bleeding inside! The pain is too much - every step, it pulsates. Every step, it hurts. What to do? I cease and the feeling persists; I keep going and it grows. Just get me off this damned trail, out of this damned forest!

Why and how can we hate and love the same thing?
Whether it's been one hour or ten, it's still just running. It's the same repetitive motion - just a little faster and bouncier at times and slower and ploddier at others.
"But of course there's a difference," many readers would say. After one hour, you're still fresh, and after ten hours you're tired. We love exercising when we feel fresh, we hate it when we're tired.

But this is obvious - what I'm more concerned with here are the reasons why someone would persist with something that they love to the point where they hate it. Why would someone happily run themselves into fatigue in order to despise this cherished activity? Again, we are assaulted by an obvious answer: because it feels good when we finish! Because it feels good when we stop doing something that we hate! We get a massive endorphin release at the end of a long and painful run.
But then why not just take a shorter run then get mildly drunk? considering the trauma that ultramarathons inflict on their participants' bodies, this might even be a healthier option.

Alternatively, we could justify it through a bit of kitsch-philosophy - "because it's an amazing experience!" This term, "experience", is stupidly nebulous, it covers a broad range of actions. If you get ridiculously drunk and nearly die in hospital, "well, you can write that one off to experience." If your heart gets broken, "just think of it as an experience." If you run out of money and are forced to sleep on a park bench for a week "oh well, at least it was an experience." I'm convinced that this word's main role within language is to make people feel better when they should be feeling bad, disgusting, upset or guilty - or better expressed, it allows them to inscribe a traumatic event into their personal history in a positive way. It allows them to maintain the narrative coherence of their personal fiction; of their teleological life-story which must always be moving towards the good, moving towards the better; when an event occurs which has the potential to disrupt or even break this continuity. That is, the word "experience", when uttered by a friend, forces us to extract a didactic kernel from an otherwise angering, depressing, devastating, etc... life event.

This question - what are the reasons why someone would persist with something that they love to the point where they hate it? - is generating a series of false answers. Maybe we need to refine it.

Before we learn to run we learn to hate.
Before we learn to run we learn to love.
We love and hate running - but how do we learn to direct ourselves toward an object in this way? That is, how do we learn to hate and love the same thing, the same object? And equally importantly, what function does this relationship with, this directedness toward, an object serve?
Answering this question may help us to discover an answer to that unanswerable question - why do we run?
It's pretty obvious that with what we are asking, we are taking running as an object of our desires, our feelings, our passions. So maybe we should ask a more fundamental question - in our personal history, as children, what is our first object?

When we come into the world, we are one with our mothers - at first there is no separation. And then the umbilical cord is severed and we are removed from each other - we are now two. But we, as newborn babies, have no idea that this is the case - indeed, "growing up" is essentially a process of learning this separation, of understanding it, of coming to terms with it. That is, in order to become an "I" within language, we need to know that we are separated from the maternal body - once we learn this, we can also know that we are separated from the rest of the world. And this knowledge allows us to become a unified subject who is able to manipulate objects in the world, both materially and through language. This fundamental process of running away from the maternal body is given a name by Julia Kristeva in Powers of Horror (1982, CUP) - "abjection". So how do we run away from the maternal body, how do we repel it? We must direct ourselves toward it with feelings of disgust, abhorrence, revulsion, even hatred; and Kristeva argues that this doesn't just occur in our formative years - in order to maintain stable subjectivity throughout our lives, we must repeatedly engage in rituals which abjectify representations of the maternal body in particular, and the feminine body in general. In The Monstrous Feminine (1993, Routledge), Barbara Creed argues that watching horror films is one of these important abjectification rituals - we see visual allusions to the maternal body (think of the blood-elevator scene in The Shining, or the man giving birth to a monster in Alien) which make us feel disgusted, and then when the narrative tension is resolved and the film ends, we feel better. It's almost as if we re-live our personal pre-history through these films - we are confronted with a horrifying representation of the potential return to the mother's body, we fear the loss of our stable subjectivity, but ultimately succeed in our struggle to separate ourselves from it - there is a nice, contenting conclusion.

Many horror films are also adorned with an opposing image - the beautiful woman (think of Sigourney Weaver in Alien, or the elegant lady who kisses Jack in The Shining), the object of desire. This seems paradoxical - why would the same film present both a positive and a negative feminine/maternal representation? Why would it be engaging for the audience to be directed towards the film with alternate feelings of disgust and desire?

We must separate ourselves from our mothers in order to make them the first object of our drives. Who is the first giver of care, of food, of nourishment and love? Who do we, as infants, cry out for when we need anything? "Mum! Mum!" Freud's second-most-important insight was that our relationships with our mothers determine our relationships with the opposite sex for the entirety of our lives - we abjectify the materiality of the maternal/feminine body but we also objectify it, want it, long for it. For a unified subject, the mother, and hence the feminine, is split between disgust and desire. That is, we direct ourselves toward this primal object with feelings of hate and feelings of love.

And is this directedness not brought into play when we think about running? Is running, in the same way, not a split object of hatred and love?

Yes, I would say - but in a slightly different way. Unlike the horror film as presented on a screen in front of us, as an object separate from ourselves, running is something that we do, something that we are immersed in - when we run, we are subjects within our object of love-hate. But in so far as we are on the run, in it, unseparated, unseparable from this action, it cannot actually be an object which is opposed to our subject - at the best of times, when we are feeling good and moving through a beautiful landscape, when we are "in the zone", we are one with running.

So maybe our love for running re-enacts a sort of pre-oedipal love, a childish jouissance which exists prior to our maternal separation, prior to our stable subjectivation, prior to our "symbolic castration". I will return to this point tangentially - first, some theory.

This last concept was developed by the influential French psychoanalyst, Jacques Lacan, in the 19-somethings -  "symbolic castration" describes the violence done to a subject by their entrance into the world of language and the law, into the "symbolic order". According to Slavoj Zizek, in this process, the subject experiences the "gap between 'what I really am' and the symbolic mask that makes the subject into something. The subject is thus castrated from the 'real' "I" by projecting something else...I am what I am through signifiers that represent me, signifiers constitute my symbolic order (quoted in the Texas Theory wiki: Our symbolic Castration)."

With a slightly different angle, in New Maladies of the Soul (1995, CUP), Kristeva notes that symbolic castration involves a successful transposition of drives - anal, oral and genital - into the realm of language. Think of flirting, for instance - it is an elaborate and exciting linguistic  metaphorisation of two people's desire for genital fulfillment.

And when we run long distances, this metaphorisation is stripped back, representational language is quelled and our drives are directed elsewhere. The oral, for instance - many ultra-runners will binge on crappy food; everything from doughnuts to lollies to chips; during a race or on a long run. The anal - when I go running with a select group of friends, it's only a matter of time before we start talking about poo. And finally, genital - we also tend to chat about balls (seriously), but more importantly, there is nothing more satisfying than taking a leak at the side of the trail. And the pure motion of running surely excites these latter two erogenous zones; we complain about chafing in those sensitive areas, but the constant friction is surely pleasurable (on a subconscious level) before it becomes abrasive.

While running, we do not seek to satisfy these drives - oral, anal and genital - through the metaphorised means of language, but rather in a more direct fashion. That is, we deny our symbolic castration, and immerse ourselves in a place, a space, which is prior to this process (Kristeva's semiotic Chora?). But this disavowal is essentially psychotic - we cannot remain in this pre-symbolic realm, we must somehow eject ourselves from it in order to return to the metaphorised world of language and the symbolic order, to return to "real life".

So we get to the end of our run and we stop. That is enough for those people who prefer the linguistic satisfaction of drives to their primal, pre-oedipal, enactment. But what about those of us who are constantly drawn to the pre-symbolic realm - what about the dreamers, the artists, the lost souls who are looking for something that seems to be in the future but is really in the past?

They cannot simply stop running and return to the symbolic - that would be no fun! First, they must learn to hate, to abhor, to abjectify, this action, this time and space, which they already love.

And that's why we run ourselves into complete and utter exhaustion, why we run ourselves into a hatred of running - "fuck, this hurts," We think. "Maybe real-life isn't so bad!"
This is precisely the reason why someone would persist with something that they love to the point where they hate it.
That is, for those of us who are near to psychosis, running until we don't want to run anymore makes symbolic castration bearable. Like a horror film, it is an elaborate abjectification ritual which allows us to make a contented return to the symbolic order, to the world of the Law.


 I see a sign up ahead, I fly past it and barely catch the words - my legs are throbbing forwards, pulsating with painful motion. Light spills forth from in front of me. The trail widens, The trees stand aside and the green above and brown below give way to blue and tarmac grey. My feet slap down on hard ground and the pain should get worse.
But it doesn't - I float the final few hundred metres to the car.

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