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.

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