Thursday, November 22, 2012

Notes and sketches of ticks and plains

I was meaning to write these notes earlier but I got side-tracked with all the extra walking and finding a good spot and setting up my solitary camp and eating dinner. As I write this, I'm still side-tracked by the occasional tickles coming from my balls and lower legs which throw me into a fit of scratching and checking for blood-sucking critters.
To be completely honest, this trip is nothing but an elaborate side-track. I lie here on my belly peering out of the zip of my tent at the forest fires 100km to the east, at the bottom. They burn hard and orange and comfort me on this lonely shoulder in the Main Range.
After a few fruitless checks a tick materialised on my balls, so I removed it and pressed it with my pen until it burst. Yet the faint tickles persist.
I get afraid when I hear quiet sounds approaching my olive tent and whirring flying creatures overhead. The crickets whisper relentlessly, while the almost inaudible roar of the trucks in the great distance, passing through the gap, fills the momentary silences.
Earlier I walked down a flat road on a hot plain. The peak stood firm in the distance, bolted to the sky behind it, leaning into the wind. My face was turned down at the tar and it burned red and hot. This was inevitable (and there goes another brown tick off my leg. It's still attached to my pen's tip as I write. I should trust my tickles) excessive lathering of sunscreen could not prevent it.
On this hot plain, I thought of a ridiculously pretentious, somewhat Zizekian answer to the question "Why?":
To learn what I had always already known.
To become what I had always already been.
And it goes on.
I thought myself a clever visionary, but the whittle of a long walk and numerous murdered ticks caused me to reconsider.
The popping sound that marks their death is very loud, and I am now surrounded by their corpses. I always hope that this one is the last, but they continue to appear from unfelt crevices. Their stupidity is frustrating. They have me snared every time, yet continue to crawl, always searching for a fleshier, warmer sliver of skin. I fear that I will be scratching all night.
Compared to this, the long slog up Spicer's Gap Road (The truck sounds come from Cunningham's Gap to the North) with my heavy blue pack seems of little consequence.
Nevertheless, I will digress to describe it:
A rolling climb on wide brown, hemmed in by paddock, then by open forest, then by denser thickets. Small wallabies skitting away. Hues of green and straw. It is the kind of country which brings the myth of Australia into being.
That ending was less abrupt than I'd hoped and it fences in a reality that really has no bounds. Don't take it seriously. I feel like this caution has murdered it further.
I'll now brush my teeth for Civilisation's sake and settle down with a book: Gerald Murnane's "The Plains".
I feared that this would happen: I'm having trouble telling which ticks are alive and which are dead.
This doesn't make me stronger. It frays my edges until I realise that I need them repaired.
And yet I waiver between this and utter calm.

I opened my tent expecting to find a nascent sunlight but instead I'm hemmed in by a grey waft. I notice the grass trees now - they're contorted and ominous against this cloudy background. They stand out. I can only hope that it'll burn off.
I had dreams of unfaithfulness and an impossibly big and rugged peak but when I woke up I remembered my thoughts for my love and realised that the top of the mountain, Spicer's Peak, isn't quite as distant.
Now to climb it, although I will be careful.

Another ridiculous unwhittled thought that I now write with embarrasment: (wo)men aren't made on the mountains they climb, but on the warm, flat gaps between them.
And yet I'm compelled to describe the climb:
Large clumps of grass sprawling in the wind, criss-crossed by a thousand possible dirty tracks. To the left, a lofty space - desire and fear embodied in nothingness. Beneath my feet the slippery, tussocky terrain held precariously together by various rocks. I eroded my way up the side of the mountain and found dense, bearded rainforest where I had expected wide-open relief.
The mangled tea-trees clustered me to the summit, and wanted to herd me over the edge. I resisted and returned, pausing my downward scuttle to see a lyrebird hop into view and let out a beautiful scream.
I traced the faint brown lines down the mountain, pausing only to negotiate rocky spurs and impossible-looking descents 30 metres ahead, as well as to collect my pack.
As a quick and irrelevant aside, the fog burned itself into a bright morning within an hour of my grass-tree anxiety.
I write this now as it's approaching late morning and I'm rid of my delusions of adventure (what is "adventure" but a delusion?). Crawling across the side of a lesser peak and making my way impossibly back to the plains and a lake and the promise of cool water and iced coffee.
I never reached the lake.

And now I sit back in my tiny room, surrounded by the sprawling relics of what feels like an impossible trip. After a scorching plod back along the plains as well as fortunate lifts from a cafe owner and a woman whose name was conveniently embossed in dark ink on the side of her neck, I found myself 80km away from Brisbane on the Cunningham Highway. I found a wide turning lane that was perfect as a regrettable home and shoved my left-thumb into the spring heat. Storm clounds moved silently to my right.
The man who gave me a lift came in a red ute with p-plates. He was seventeen and as I occasionally glanced across the handbrake at his brown eyes, I saw myself vaguely reflected.
"I don't want money for its own sake," He said. "I just want it so that I can get a house and a nice dirt-bike bike and car". I agreed somewhat on a structural level, which manifested itself in nods and "yeah", and so it went to Jindalee where I seamlessly caught a bus and a train to mum's house to eat dry chicken and drink juice.
And now I sit back in this tiny room and in the backyard outside my window, obscured by blinds, people are talking of the beautiful house and "I love what you've done with...".

I'm a little more perplexed by these sentiments than I usually would be.

A long sleep has put me even more in mind of mountains, when yesterday afternoon on the long, hot road I turned my back to them.

Spicer's Peak (with narcissistic guilt I write "1222m") is the largest tooth on the right-hand-side of the skyline, to the left lie endless possibilities of ticks and loose rocks and notes and sketches.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology 2: Odysseus' DIY, the subject, fascist enjoyment and satire

In Homer's Odyssey, according to Horkheimer and Adorno, the protagonist enjoys a bit of DIY in his free time. As a young man, he built the "marriage bed" for himself and his wife Penelope around an olive tree.
"...his durable amateur handiwork: as a prototypical bourgeois he is smart enough to have a hobby. It consists in a resumption of the craft work from which, within the framework of differentiated property relations, he has long since been exempted. He enjoys this occupation, as his freedom to perform superfluous tasks confirms his power over those who have to do such work in order to live (Dialectic of Enlightenment, 1992 ed: 58)".

There is clearly a parallel between this situation of the recreational bourgeois handyman dominating the blue collar worker and the recreational bourgeois runner dominating those who run for a living. The two can be boiled down to a simpler underlying structure - "I have freely chosen to do this time- and energy-consuming act for pleasure, whereas physical necessity dictates that you must do it" - in this way, it is a taunt of the oppressed by the oppressor. "I enter your hell for fun and can leave whenever I want to," Says the bourgeois handyman, the recreational runner, through her or his actions. "But you are condemned to endure it for eternity".

However, this argument falls down when we consider that very few people still run for a living - a couple of tribes in the Americas and Africa who occasionally run to hunt, as well as the people living in countries such as Kenya and Ethiopia where professional distance running is a viable way of earning a living.

To surpass this objection, we could pose the taunt in a different way: "I develop my physical abilities merely for pleasure, whereas you are required to do so in order to live". Thus the taunt of the recreational runner is directed at all those who still partake in manual labour in order to make a living.

However 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. On a more conscious and less ridiculously esoteric and representative level, the runner is taunting/admonishing the couch potato - "we have the same amount of free time, yet I employ mine in the pursuit of health, fitness and strength, while you spend yours in the mindless consumption of mass culture (watching TV, movies, etc...)". On first sight, this appears to make running a highly anti-systemic pursuit - the time spent running is time that could be otherwise be spent consuming material that enforces the values of the society in which we live. But the important question here is, does the actual act of running support or subvert these values?

Many ultrarunners (myself included at times) like to think of ourselves in the practice of our sport as a bit weird, out of the mainstream, somewhat alternative. By running for many hours at a time we're doing something ridiculous, "weird", even potentially dangerous.

But is this really the case? By running further than 42.195km (the standard marathon distance) at a time are we really challenging the norms of modern society? Or are we actually embodying these norms in a more extreme way?

In the following post, I'll string together a few disparate arguments to come up with some kind of unified answer to these questions.

"I guess a big reason why I run is the ability it allows me to tap into this more primitive, primal mode of existence that it seems like modern man has been divorced from" - Anton krupicka, two-time champ of the Leadville 100 mile.

From what I've observed, this attitude is pretty common in us ultrarunners with a "nature-boy/girl" streak. It's very likely that Anton is referring to is the fact that, while running trails, we're moving through the forest like our pre-civilisation ancestors. It's also likely that, on a deeper level, he's talking about a return to somewhat of a pre-enlightenment notion of subjectivity.

The split between subject (human) and object (nature) that characterises enlightenment (i.e. the kind of thought employed today) is well described by Horkheimer and Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment: "The 'happy match' between human understanding and the nature of things that he (Bacon) envisaged is a patriarchal one: the mind, overcoming superstition, is to rule over disenchanted nature (2002 edition, pg 2)". So in our modern patterns of thought, the human mind/will is the subject, which is divorced from and acts on nature, the object. An extreme comparison is instructive: "Enlightenment stands in the same relationship to things as the dictator to human beings (pg. 6)".

I believe that, in the above quote, Anton is alluding to trail running as facilitative of a return to an older conception of subject/object where nature, in its totality, is the subject and the human is simply an extension of this subjectivity. When we are running trails, many of us feel like we're immersed in, we're a part of, we're one with, nature. So while running on trails, we are enacting a pre-enlightenment concept of subjectivity - this represents a challenge to, a subversion of, one of the founding principles of modern society.

But unfortunately it's not that simple.

"Which brings me to the question I've been asking myself a lot this week...why the heck am I doing this? I welcome all comments, but I guess for me it is about the challenge, the insatiable urge to do better, to go longer and to go faster. To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top." - Brendan Davies, referring to the Great North Walk 100 mile run, which he later won in course-record time.

"To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top." - This is another common sentiment among ultrarunners. We speak of driving our bodies, pushing them through unthinkable pain to achieve our goals. This is an extension of enlightenment thinking - my mind (subject) is separated from and acts upon my body (object) in order to achieve a goal. My mind "stands in the same relationship to" my body "as the dictator to human beings" -. In this way, by running ultras we are enacting, supporting, the notion of the subject in modern society.

But what is the nature of the goal that we're trying to achieve by finishing a race? Our "unified answer" lies within this question.

Fascist ideology is instructive in this regard.
Fascist ideology, best exemplified by Franco's regime in Spain or Hitler's in Germany, "is based on a purely formal imperative", according to Slavoj Zizek (Sublime Object of Ideology, 1989 - pg 89):
"Obey, because you must! In other words, renounce enjoyment, sacrifice yourself and do not ask the meaning of it - the value of the sacrifice lies in its very meaningless; true sacrifice is for its own end; you must find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in the instrumental value: it is this giving up of enjoyment itself, which produces a certain surplus enjoyment (89)."
In the quote from Brendan used above, he asks the obvious question: "Why the heck am I doing this?" It is a question familiar to all ultrarunners on the night before a massive race, or during its closing kilometres when the end of the run is not yet near enough to be mentally grasped. That is the secret of ultrarunning - the goal in itself, (running 175km as fast as possible in Brendan's case), is arbitrary, even meaningless. The true meaning of the endeavour lies in the process of reaching the goal - "To take my body to places it's never been and come out on top". As ultrarunners, many of us "find positive fulfilment in the sacrifice itself, not in the instrumental value". By renouncing the enjoyment of relaxation during training and racing, we "produce...a certain surplus enjoyment".

Fascist ideology and ultrarunning ideology are simply a more extreme embodiment of capitalist ideology in this regard. Or rather, for the purposes of this argument, capitalist ideology is a more moderate version of the preceding two. Every day that we go to work, we sacrifice the pleasure of relaxation, hobbies, etc... for the attainment of a goal: money, material goods, our well-being and that of our family. But for most people living in developed countries, this sacrifice is not merely instrumental - many people (not all) could still survive while working less and less hard, and some enjoyment is gained from the sacrifice itself. It goes some way to explaining why many wealthy retirees become depressed when they finish work - they may materially fulfilled, but they no longer have a means for self-sacrifice (and [I say this cautiously for fear of misappropriating the term] they no longer belong to a certain symbolic order). We sacrifice a part of ourselves to the god of capital, to the symbolic order, to society, for the surplus enjoyment generated by the sacrifice itself.

Both ultrarunning and fascism represent a more extreme manifestation of this element of capitalist ideology since, for the former two, the final goal attained through the sacrifice is much less substantial.

But there is a key (and obvious) difference between ultrarunning and fascism that should help us to answer the original questions - By running further than 42.195km at a time are we really challenging the norms of modern society? Or are we actually embodying these norms in a more extreme way?

Fascism is an inhuman distortion, an amplification of capitalist ideology that has lead to widespread death and repression, and human suffering on a huge scale. Ultrarunning, on the other hand, is relatively harmless. The only victim of ultrarunning is the competitor's body, which we hope will heal itself eventually anyways.

Because of the widespread suffering it causes, fascism is certainly not funny. But ultrarunning has no real victims. And because of this, it can be funny. It's ridiculous, hilarious that someone would put themselves through so much pain in order to gain, taking the Glasshouse series of races as an example, a large mug. So I'd say that by running further than 42.195km at a time, we are in a sense satirizing capitalist ideology. We embody the norms of modern society (arbitrary sacrifice) in a very extreme way, and by doing so we are indirectly making fun of these norms, thereby challenging and subverting them.

We laugh at ourselves in the act of running an ultramarathon. The non-ultrarunner, by laughing at us, calling us stupid and crazy, is really laughing at a more extreme version of themselves. This irony generated by ultrarunning is definitely subversive in this way, but is probably also ineffective.

It's like The Importance of Being Ernest, Oscar Wilde's play which satirised the ridiculous customs of the Bourgeoisie at the turn of the century-before-last. I can guarantee you that many of the people who went to see this play were those that it sought to lambast. Would its content have caused them to rethink their stupid formalities? It's possible, but highly unlikely. They would probably have had a hearty laugh at the play, then moved on, back to their world of unnecessary politeness and frivolous customs in general.

In the same way, outsiders read and listen to the stories of and about ultrarunners, have a laugh, think "that's a bit odd" and then move on.

In fact, by giving people (and ourselves) a caricature of themselves to laugh at, we are rendering their sacrifice, their self-mutilation under capitalism, bearable. It is an outlet, a vent, a way for them to dissipate the negative feelings, the symptom, associated with this sacrifice.

And so we help them to make this sacrifice day in and day out: we support the system that we satirise, the system that we claim to subvert.

Similar ideas were explored in Ultrarunning and capitalist ideology: "facilitative consumption".

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Water striders and the serious nature of frivolity

The top of the small brown pool reflects the sun's filtered rays onto the trees around it. Their large boughs hang perilously over the water's gleaming surface, piercing and twisting the light as it strains to break through. The sun is losing the battle - deep into the afternoon, the yellow rays will soon drop to orange and red against the gums before they retire for the night. The rising hum of the cicadas forebodes this defeat with devastating certainty and the other insects go peacefully about their business; mosquitoes swinging on an erratic path through the warm air, flies hovering over the pool and water striders skimming across its top.

These slim insects spread their long legs across the surface, flitting them back and forth to dart around the pool. They run into each other, brush antennae and feed on the abundance of other insects that have strayed too close to the water. This glossy top holds them up, lets them move, feed, interact. It sustains them, allows them to exist.

A big brown Christmas beetle bumbles loudly into the clearing above the pool before running into a branch and falling back into the forest. It reemerges slightly lower in the air, glances at the inviting mirror below it and pauses slightly before dropping like led into the centre of the pool.
Splash, and its ripples are cast violently to the edges, disrupting the surface tension and sending the striders into a fury. Some lose a leg or two to the water, others are completely submerged. The rest speed frantically around looking for the culprit.
The beetle flounders in the depths for a few seconds before it begins to rise.
This motion is unstoppable, the beetle is full of air and can do nothing but  rotate its spindly legs. It's terrified yet perversely excited - in less than a second the striders will descend upon it, and it will have to lash and struggle and bite for its life. "Bring it on," the beetle thinks.

And sure enough, its small black eyes poke through the glossy wall. Before its back has done the same, a few of the enraged striders have darted together and are eating the brown bug alive.

We often forget that the surface tension created by our views and assumptions is as supple, is easily penetrated. We skate around on these views and assumptions, making jokes with others who share them, teasing out-groups and highlighting their stupidity. And when a big brown Christmas beetle crashes in and breaks this tension - challenges our assumptions and points out the flaws in our arguments - we are enraged, we attack, we bite back.

"Stop being so serious, we're only joking" we chide.

But what we fail to realise is that behind the frivolousness of the joke lies a deadly serious set of assumptions about the world. Prior to the challenge of the irrupting beetle, our seriousness is internal - the offence, the violence of the challenger lies in the fact that he/she reveals this underlying seriousness, de-masks it, lays it bare for all to see. In doing so, she/he breaks the illusion of the seemingly-stable surface - its a lot weaker than we think. And so we retaliate with more violence - with insults, name-calling and if we're smart enough, we break the surface tension of the challenger's own worldview.

And the Christmas beetle is quickly devoured by the water striders unless other beetles come to its aid - unless others validate the legitimacy of her/his challenge. If not, its muffled chirps are drowned out in the fury of the onslaught.

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.