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".

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