Monday, December 16, 2013

On Moreton Island

I sit on sunny surreal sands looking out onto the blue beyond and rusted metal close.
A jagged red wreck out to sea floundering under wave after wave of pallid, flabby bodies with plastic parts and straw-like tubes - sucking in air and wheezing it out again while they swim and swim.
They flop back to the beach and emerge to grin above their rounded bellies, sagging necks and red-rotting skin.
They wiggle their toes and waddle up to the shade, casting groans and drips and grains of sand into the pestilent wind.
A thoroughfare. The beach is a thoroughfare.
Pasty flesh moves up to the water and back while white-metal beasts rage across their tracks. A never-ending line of them: iron shell after iron shell flattening the ground below and roaring muffled roars. A responsible ranger might even call it erosion control; he himself is flung along by an older four-by, past families in deckchairs and unwitting insects. He finally reaches the drop-toilets for his duties and stops. While he slowly scrubs, a spherical, brown-chested father of three folds his arms and taps his thongs against the wooden slats. He turns around and walks into the bush instead to find some suitable ants to piss on. He burps and grins as he does; a toothy, wrinkled grin which rises slowly and stays a while. And why not? He's got his two weeks off, there's beer in the esky and the missus is taking care of the kids.
He walks back to school his son on some age-old skill, like how to tie down a ute, to rig up a rod, or to pass daddy a stubby. His son furrows his brow and nods. He makes out the instructions eagerly among the call of the cicadas and the dull drone of moving vehicles.

This is an Australian holiday. A squinty, sunburnt holiday. Occasionally wet and cold between hot and dry. And "Pass us a beer will ya".
An unthinking, four-wheel driven holiday that comes to a beautiful place and says "get out of me fuckin way," To those on foot who sit back from the tide.

I prefer the naked silence of my body and undress in the moonlight to climb a dune.
It reclines in front of me, the supple and steady sand-mass glowing a heavy blue and quivering under little gusts.
My feet are immersed and absorbed with each laboured step as sweat-drops seal globules on the ground below. My chest heaves toward the dune and back while my gaze slowly drops and drops. I throw my hands onto the sand and grasp at the receding grains. I clutch them, they move through small gaps and I try to clutch them again.
I shudder and scream in a mellow tone - I look up at the sky for the first time. A circular white-blue glow penetrating the navy of the night. It spurs me on and my chest heaves some more.
And when I feel like I'll never be able to grasp a grain of sand the ground suddenly flattens off and my back is being cradled. I run my fingers through my hair and throw a forlorn smile into the night.
One hundred metres below lies a shore being lapped by a little tide; I sigh and look at the wreck beyond, the sea beyond IT, and the tiny rectangles showing home in the very distance.

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.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Spicer's Gap trip: the ideology of de-ideologisation

It's quite fitting that the last considerable adventure that I undertook also involved a long, arduous slog up Spicer's Gap Road to a lofty campground in the Main Range.
A lot has changed since then - philosophically, I've purged myself of the idealist and spiritualist conceptions of the bush and outdoor activity that I held for so long.
Materially, I now live in a different house, am single and tend to consume more alcohol more frequently.
That last fact was particularly significant - a reasonable hangover had set in at about 1:30, just as I parked my bike at the bottom of the mountain. "Six k's with a heavy pack shouldn't be too bad," I thought. In any case, it was welcome respite from the last five hours on an under-padded bike saddle - my arse was too numb to be sore.
Well, I struggled and suffered a lot in the end - six months previous if my heart-rate had risen as high, my legs felt as heavy and my head throbbed as hard, I would have justified the decision to continue through lofty thoughts on the "purity of pain", the "authenticity of suffering" or the beauty of such a "natural" experience. But, like I said earlier, I've deconstructed these ideological conceptions, to a certain extent - here, here, here, here and here.
To put it crudely, I've realised that such ideas are utter bullshit - but the interesting thing is that despite the apparent enlightenment, I was still out in the bush, I was still on an adventure. The main difference was that this time around, the pain was slightly less tolerable.

The values, ideas, representations, that we impose upon the act of moving through a natural space are purely ideological.
Cue a brief diversion through theory: the French philosopher Louis Althusser gives us our preferred framework: "Thus, ideology appears as a certain 'representation of the world' which relates men and women to their conditions of existence (In Philosophy and the Spontaneous Philosophy of the Scientists, Verso:1990, p. 25)." This term broadly represents the ideas that we have about the world which allow us to act in it effectively, obscuring the scientific truths of the way in which it functions - its "a distinctive kind of cement that ensures the adjustment and cohesion of men in their roles, their functions and their social relations (ibid, p. 25)".

For instance, the religious ideology of "divine right" in the middle ages prevented the serfs from realising that they were being exploited by the nobles. But the various political revolutions in Europe a couple of centuries ago didn't cause a fundamental de-ideologisation of the people - the old ideology was replaced by a new, bourgeois form. Today, the most visible component of this is juridical ideology of the "rule of law" which prevents the masses from realising that the legal system favours a small, elite sector of the population over the rest.

This apparently stupid ideological mystification can't really be exorcised from any of the ideas we have about the world - "Ideology is so much present in all the acts and deeds of individuals that it is indistinguishable from their 'lived experience', and every unmediated analysis of the 'lived' is profoundly marked by themes of ideological obviousness (ibid, p. 25)."

And this is where we return to my time in the bush. My Spontaneous blog posts last year, were marked by the ideologically obvious themes of the "purity of pain", the "authenticity of suffering" or apparently "natural experiences". They take little thought to deconstruct (see the posts linked above), but let me go further, and say that these "good" experiences allowed me to function properly as a member of the bad social totality (e.g. hiking/running kept me healthy/happy so that I could go to work, pay the bills etc...), and so helped this totality to reproduce itself. So (to borrow a phrase from Marx) the good was the "mode of appearance" of the bad. And even if it had made me less likely to work or pay the bills, it still provided an outlet for my angsty energy which did not pose any threat to the reproduction of the system.

But hang-on, am I not now still going on adventures? Despite having destroyed the "themes of ideological obviousness", on this fine day in July I was still out there, climbing a mountain.
We have two options:
- either I have actually de-ideologised myself (impossible! Says Zizek),
- or my very de-ideologisation is the new form of my ideology.

Here, a long passage from Zizek is appropriate:
"The most elementary definition of ideology is probably the well-known phrase from Marx's Capital: "Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es" ("they do not know it, but they are doing it"). The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naïveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it. That is why such a 'naive consciousness' can be submitted to a critical-ideological procedure. The aim of this procedure is to lead the naïve ideological consciousness to a point at which it can recognize its own effective conditions, the social reality that it is distorting, and through this very act dissolve itself. In the more sophisticated versions of the critics of ideology -that developed by the Frankfurt School, for example — it is not just a question of seeing things (that is, social reality) as they 'really are', of throwing away the distorting spectacles of ideology; the main point is to see how the reality itself cannot reproduce itself without this so-called ideological mystification. The mask is not simply hiding the real state of things; the ideological distortion is written into its very essence.
We find, then, the paradox of a being which can reproduce itself only in so far as it is misrecognized and overlooked: the moment we see it 'as it really is', this being dissolves itself into nothingness or, more precisely, it changes into another kind of reality. That is why we must avoid the simple metaphors of demasking, of throwing away the veils which are supposed to hide the naked reality. We can see why Lacan, in his Seminar on The Ethic of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that "the emperor has no clothes". The point is, as Lacan puts it, that the emperor is naked only beneath his clothes, so if there is an unmasking gesture of psychoanalysis, it is closer to Alphonse Allais's well-known joke, quoted by Lacan: somebody points at a woman and utters a horrified cry, "Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked" (Lacan, 1986, p.231) [in The Sublime Object of Ideology: Verso, 1989, p. 28-30]".
 This completely nullifies the first possibility. Insofar as the social reality continues to exist, insofar as I am still out in the bush, I am still under the spell of ideology - it's just a much more subtle form of this phenomena.

It's at this point that I'd direct anyone who's interested in the theory of ideology to read Zizek's book The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989).

As for anyone who is interested in the rest of my adventure, writing about it would only be playing in to the old, idealist ideology which I've supposedly overcome. The new ideology, the one which has allowed me to keep going for adventures, requires that I do not write about them.

But obviously I haven't completely surpassed the old - I feel the urge to post a pic from the summit:

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Return of the truly political: the idiotic wisdom of DK

 With a bit of distance and time, this piece now appears to me as an angry, off-the-cuff rant. Nonetheless, I still feel like it contains a kernel of truth. As has become customary over the last few posts, most of my general ideas and inspiration come from the work of Slavoj Zizek - in this case I have to mention his 2002 book "Welcome to the Desert of the Real", published by Verso.

How does one "be alive" in our post-political world?

We are all guaranteed life. The state apparatus' main function today is to keep its subjects as alive and healthy as possible, so that they can commit as much of themselves as possible to the production of goods and services. So that they may give themselves wholeheartedly to the capitalist mode of production, to the "market".

In this way, we, as formerly political subjects, have become objects of life-administration. The great political struggle of the 20th century is over: neo-liberal market economics won, and communism lost.

But what is the price of this victory?

Foucault explains it better in The History of Sexuality Vol 1 (Penguin Australia 2008:138):
"Now it is over life, through its unfolding, that power establishes its domination; death is power's limit, the moment that escapes it; death becomes the most secret aspect of existence, the most "private"."
On suicide (139):
"This determination to die, strange and yet so persistent and constant in its manifestations, and consequently so difficult to explain as being due to particular circumstances or individual accidents, was one of the first astonishments of a society in which political power had assigned itself the task of administering life."
Enter terrorism, high school massacres, and a whole host of other phenomena. The only way to truly rebel against this life-giving power seems to be through gruesome, spectacular death. It seems that the only way to truly be alive, in the sense of removing oneself from the objectifying structure and becoming re-subjectivised, is to kill and to die.

So what are the alternatives? If my four posts of Ultrarunning and Capitalist ideology have proven anything, I hope that it is that running long distances is not a true escape from power, but a method of admitting ourselves to it more willingly, of quelling our wishes to resist it. It is endemic transgression. The same goes for many other apparently rebellious past-times from rockclimbing, to drinking, listening to alternative music, dressing like a hipster and so on.

The peculiar and sad thing about ultra-running is that it offers itself as the only way to truly be alive today, in an existentialist sense, through struggle and suffering. But where does this struggle and suffering ultimately go? What end does it fulfill? Nowhere, nothing, none.. The participant expends a huge amount of energy and increases their fitness. And then goes back to work. It offers life but gives ultimate non-life.

So what is the alternative? The alternative?

A return of the truly political. Struggle and suffering NOT committed to the narcissistic pursuit of heath and individual self-fulfillment, but committed to the betterment of humanity. There is a fine line between pointless, endemic transgression (e.g. ultrarunning) and ultimate annihilation (e.g. terrorism). That line can only be the pursuit of a truly utopian and, let's not be afraid to say it, communist, vision of democracy.

The alternative is radical emancipatory politics.

In a twisted way, Dean Karnazes, the supreme ideologist of ultrarunning, is right when he says that:
 "Most people never get there. They're afraid or unwilling to demand enough of themselves and take the easy road, the path of least resistance. But struggling and suffering, as I now saw it, were the essence of a life worth living."
What he unfortunately misses is that we must choose the ultimate end of this "struggling and suffering" wisely.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Reality as fictive reality: sex, Indonesian genocide, Ann Trason and other topics

“As soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.” - Slavoj Zizek in Tarrying With the Negative.

Let me open with a somewhat personal divulgence. When I make love, the experience is conditioned by the erotic scenes of the many Spanish art-house films I've seen over the years.
It's quite hard to pin down the exact nature of this conditioning. Sometimes, images from the scenes are brought into conscious thought, and I unwittingly reenact the sensual movements that I've watched so many times before. On other occasions, I'll sing the background music in my head, and inadvertently give myself a consistent rhythm. But most commonly, I'm absorbed by the act itself - the effect of countless hours of watching bare, sweaty flesh sliding on itself (in between intricate, melodramatic plot-lines) is purely subconscious. So the conditioning is somewhat fluid - it depends, it changes.

One of the most common pop arguments against watching porn is that it causes the male viewers to copy the self-indulgent and at times sadistic practices of the male stars when they engage in sexual relations of their own. The problem with this argument is its use of the word "copy" (and synonyms). It tends to create an image of a man in the bedroom with a girl, on the cusp of the act, thinking "ok, so, how do most pornos begin?" and then later on trying to consciously reenact the particular techniques that he's seen on his laptop.

It opens a gaping hole in the argument, which can be easily widened: "I don't think of porn while I'm having sex".
That's why the relatively simple and psychologically obvious idea that watching porn subconsciously conditions its viewer's sexual behaviour is a lot more important for understanding its potentially negative effects.

Sometimes, though, people will violently materialise conscious fictions.

So it was with Anwar Congo and his associates, in Indonesia, in 1966. As described by Zizek in Living in the End Times (Verso: 2011), today, Anwar's group are respected politicians, but in that year, they killed 2.5 million alleged communist sympathisers. On a talk show in 2007, this genocide-perpetrator remarked that the "killings were inspired by gangster movies" (pg 322). A documentary was made about these peculiar characters a couple of years later, and the film's publicity material explained it thus:
"...when we realised what kind of movie Anwar and his friends wanted to make about the genocide, the reenactments became more elaborate. And so we offered Anwar and his friends the opportunity to dramatize the killings using film genres of their choice (western, gangster, musical). That is, we gave them the chance to script, direct and star in the scenes they had in mind when they were killing people (quoted in ibid, 322-3)."
This is an extreme example of a phenomena that is endemic to the human condition. Because while Anwar and his buddies needed to "experience their reality itself as a fiction (ibid, 323)" to distance themselves from the sheer brutality and horror of their actions, we in the post-political developed countries do so in order to tolerate the banality and meaninglessness of our own.

But there is a small gap in the analogy. While many people will make direct associations between the content of movies, videoclips, etc... and their own actions in the course of their daily work/lives, we most commonly experience our realities through the fictive aspects of other real actions.

How often are metaphors from racing and fighting evoked in the course of our daily lives? A US presidential candidate delivers a knockout punch in a decisive debate, while we just get over the line with meeting our Key Performance Indicators at work, while two branches of a store go head to head to deliver the best results.

An interesting example was given by Dan Bleakman, a friend of mine and founding father of Ultra168, when he wrote about the birth of his daughters in 2011. The title of the post itself, referring to caring for his twins (and dare I say, life in general), lends itself nicely to my point: The ultra-marathon that never ends.

"Indeed, I’ve barely taken a step running since last Monday 12th December when these two little things were born, but the constant 3-4 hour cycle of looking after the babies reminded me massively of my recent run at GNW. When broken down into its rawest form, an ultra is about getting from CP to CP, and managing that transition as smoothly as possible.
Looking after these tiny little things is kind of a similar process. We wake them up, change them, feed them, wrap them and then go back to sleep. That’s the transition phase. Then we have 2 hours or so when we’re moving between CPs before getting ready for the next one. And then repeat the process 8 times daily. Sometimes however that process doesn’t go to plan, so we have to adapt, just like you would in a race. Indeed, maybe as part of antenatal classes they should make you go out and run a miler!"
 "Life is like one big race", as I've read many times before.

Another example is given by a piece written by legendary ultra-marathoner Ann Trason: Growing Up at Western States. In it, she elaborately compares the experience of running a 100 mile race to living through 100 years from birth to death:
"This might seem really silly, but I look at Western States as life in a day. The start is like being born...The first 16 miles I run like a child, becoming a teenager...I have this adolescent confidence that I can do anything. I am totally hyper until about mile 20, where, approaching adulthood, I start to worry about what I'm going to do with my life. Then I hit the canyons and its like having a midlife crisis...Then I'm 50 years old, cruising along, looking forward to retirement, which is eventually marked by a great downhill section at mile 60 (in Running Through the Wall, ed. Neil Jamison, 2003, pg 201-2)."
 And so on.

But there is an obvious difference between Dan's experience and Ann's. For the latter, we have to rearrange the abovementioned the popular adage  -  in her case "A race is like one big life".

The similarities between the two are more important: both Dan and Ann (and everyone else in the world) experience reality (be it caring for twins, running 100 miles, working, etc...) through the fictions constructed around other real actions.

Dan talks about caring for his daughters in relation to running ultras being about "getting from checkpoint to checkpoint". While this is true in the sense that we need to break-down the distance in order to mentally deal with it, this idea conceals the fact that on a concrete, fundamental level, running an ultramarathon is just a series of meaningless, continuous steps or even just a set of repeated muscular contractions. We play mind tricks, we impose fictive characteristics on this basic reality in to render it livable - indeed, Ann transcribes every-day reality into a meta-narrative about the stages of life. Again, these stages themselves are somewhat fictive, constructed - many adolescents lack confidence and are not hyper, many people don't have midlife crises, some don't get to retire until later than 65 and, obviously, most people don't live to the age of 100! Even if someone's life does correspond to Ann's idea in its general structure, there are thousands of individual days, thousands of individual moments that are not, in themselves, constitutive of this grand narrative.

To repeat myself one more time, when we are doing something, the way we understand this "doing" is conditioned by our experiences of doing something else. But, as I hope the above examples have shown, we are never thinking of the brutal reality of that something else, rather we are conceptualising its reduced, idealised qualities.

Hopefully, this has rendered Zizek's quote somewhat comprehensible and taken it a few steps further: “As soon as we renounce fiction and illusion, we lose reality itself; the moment we subtract fictions from reality, reality itself loses its discursive-logical consistency.”

There seems to be a somewhat Hegelian dialectical movement going on here - from abstract (the reality itself) to negative (the fiction) to concrete (the reality experienced as fictive reality) that deserves a greater expansion. Fodder for a future post, perhaps.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 4: the work of ignoring

"The pain of training is nothing compared to the pain of not reaching your potential." - Josh Cox, US 50km record holder.

An incredibly inspiring statement.

We train for the purpose of reaching our potential as a runner, for the purpose of becoming the fastest runner that we can possibly become given our material circumstances.

But if someone actually manages to reach their utmost potential as a runner, what happens? They are the very best that they possibly can be - but unless they are endowed with incredible genes, they are still just one insignificant runner out of many millions.

It's a huge ego-boost, and symptomatic of our ideology of individuality. It allows the person to tell themselves that they are the best (that they can be) while remaining absolutely nothing, thereby giving them the impetus to keep on running, thereby allowing them to tolerate their otherwise intolerable existence.

This injunction to "reach your potential" works on another level.

Potential for what? The potential to become an incredibly efficient machine, which devotes large amounts of time to repetitive, monotonous movement. The potential to become a mere object - not thinking, simply moving as quickly as possible.

Our "potential" in this sense is the absolute limit of our subjectivity - what we avoid in the countless hours of mind-numbing training is the deepening of our knowledge, of our understanding, of our ability to think outside the dominant logic. 

Sure, we say that we have awesome mind-opening experiences while running long distances, allowing us to view the universe from an entirely different perspective and empathise with others, etc, etc, etc... However, from what I've observed over the last few years, the general spread of ultra-runners seems to be like the general spread of the rest of the population, but with a few twists -  the average salary is bumped up by about $30,000 and many of the people have a liberal and eco-flavour (without being entirely committed to the ideas of radical democracy or environmentalism). So these apparently "mind-opening experiences" don't seem to generate much more than a vague kind of "yuppification", that is, if those liberal-bourgeois values weren't there in the first place.

It's almost as if we try to fulfill our banal, objective, mechanistic potential in order to avoid striving for our potential to "realise our full humanity", to emancipate our thought, to penetrate ideology.

It's like Luminosity, the online brain-training program. According to the brief YouTube ad that I am repeatedly forced to watch, the user completes a series of simple game-like exercise to improve their mind's processing speed, attention and memory. Again, we are objectifying our mind, helping it to achieve its mechanistic potential in a frantic attempt to avoid any deeper thought.

This stupid injunction to DO something without stopping to ruminate over what it is that we're actually doing is central to today's ideology - one of the main slogans of Blackberry's recent "Be Bold" ad campaign summed it up perfectly: "Don't just think, do".

Slavoj Zizek, gives an even better example: "When we are shown scenes of starving children in Africa,
with a call for us to do something to help them, the underlying ideological message is something like: "Don't think, don't politicize, forget about the true causes of their poverty, just act, contribute money, so that you will not have to think!”

Really thinking about how we are implicated in this poverty - how we are only affluent because they are poor (see the doco "Stealing Africa") - would be too difficult for us supposedly-compassionate ethically-acting liberals to fathom. It would shatter our self-identity. Not thinking about the causes of the poverty allows the system to continue to function undisturbed. We perform this "work of ignoring" in the service of capitalism.

It reminds me of something Adorno wrote - the exact quote evades me - along the lines of "it's impossible to act ethically in bad reality". We feel like we act ethically, but in order to do so we must ignore the bad reality. 

Running a lot, Luminosity and throwing money at charities are just three forms of this "work of ignoring", which is so central to obfuscating the contradictions of, and thereby upholding, capitalism today.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Contextualising the whinge

I'm not running at the moment due to some sort of weird chronic-fatigue-like virus. I know that there are millions of people in the world who have real problems to deal with - famine, starvation, war, etc - which are much worse than mine, but just for me, not being able to run is horrible, it's the worst thing ever.

Aren't I just a brilliant compassionate liberal. I realise just how big the problems that others in the world face are in comparison to those that I do. I understand and am grateful for my position as a citizen of a first-world country with access to all the material goods, health-care services, education, food, etc that I could ever need.

But there's a spanner ready to be thrown into the works here. I'm not stating how minor my problems are for the purposes of highlighting the burdens carried by others - it's completely the other way around. I am describing a different social reality - that of people in the third world - to justify contextualising my own problems. Once this has been done, I can complain all that I like, because I'm smart and cynical, because I supposedly understand that my problems are relatively minor. In this way, I'm using their problems to legitimise the fact that I am complaining - how less ethical would my outburst be if I hadn't mentioned the real issues of famine, starvation, etc...? In that case, I'd just be a whingey brat.

This is a similar kind of argument to the one that I made about the less-compassionate underside of "Born to Run" - here we perceive a certain colonial exploitation. Without the problems of the people in the third world, I could not complain about my own - I need their problems in order to feel ethically sound. I am creating/maintaining/using their negative circumstances for my benefit - I am exploiting them.

Us do-gooder liberals are so used to contextualising in defense of others. An example: we once had a discussion in Spanish class about bull-fighting - should it be banned or not? Many people said "yes, of course, it's a practice that is brutal to animals", but my friend said "no, porque es su cultura" ("no, because it's their culture"). What he meant was that, within the Spanish cultural context and as a result of the nation's historical development up to this point, many people in Spain do not see it as a brutal, unnecessary practice, and that this activity is part of their cultural identity, part of who they are - therefore, we should respect it; we should leave it alone. The flaw in this argument is obvious - the cultural value of the practice doesn't stop the bull from being put through immense amounts of pain.

Before now, I haven't noticed that we often make those arguments in relation to ourselves - On a fundamental level, the line is: "within the historical development of my nation and my current social context, my life is the worst fucking shit ever".

My mum once said that "there's nothing worse than having the newspaper left out on the wet lawn".
There was no end of laughter for my brother and I - "ummmm mum...holocaust? Genocide?" It's as if the complaint would be rendered tolerable by mum saying "I know there are much worse things happening in the world, but I hate having my papers left out on the lawn, it's horrible!"

Like the suffering of the bull, the thing that must be kept in mind here is that it's ultimately still a useless whinge - no amount of contextualising will change this.