Saturday, January 31, 2015

Building Otherwise: Bodybuilding as Immersive Practice - Leslie Heywood

Leslie Heywood is certainly a name which requires no introduction for scholars of bodybuilding, having contributed extensively to the existing debates about female bodybuilding and its relationship to feminism and femininity. Here Heywood revisits many of her original arguments and offers some self critique. In ‘Building Otherwise: Bodybuilding as Immersive Practice,’ Heywood addresses an important bodybuilding issue:

If competitive bodybuilding is situated at the top of the gym pyramid, how do non-competitive bodybuilders identify other than through the derogatory label of “gym rat”?

Heywood points out that bodybuilding as an activity practiced for health of body and mind has remained relatively unexplored – in fact, without drugs and competitions, “lifting weights” is the operational term rather than “bodybuilding.” Heywood wants to move away from the usual explorations of bodybuilding as a form of plastic art (see Locks, Chapter 8, "Critical Readings in Bodybuilding")  -

 - or else the critique of weightlifting/bodyshaping as a form of self-improvement and begin to formulate a crucial doubleness that shapes the athletic experience in the gym. Rather than occupying a wholly co-opted space or an entirely transformative space, the noncompetitive athlete oscillates between transcendence and immanence, tech time and biological time. A sense of immanence, a reconnection to biological time as experienced through physical activity, has been termed by sociologist Nigel Thrift as an ‘immersive practice.’ Arguably, the immersive is the alternative to the competitive model of sport and its relentless focus on the bottom line of winning. If one shifts the lens away from a bottom-line focus on competition and the zero-sum game of winning, a different experiential model based around the idea of immersive practices begins to emerge within sporting practices that reconnects us with biological time (this is why “being in the zone” is also experienced as being “out of time”) and sheds some light on why the “gym rat” makes the gym his or her home away from home.

Building Otherwise:
Bodybuilding as Immersive Practice
by Leslie Heywood 

Once, a long time ago, I was in love: iron, muscles, veins, the incredible rush of the pump, the exhilaration of the 350 squat, the 225 bench. This, I thought, was the great equalizer, some precious, off-the-beaten track place where gender assumptions and restrictions fell away at the first lift and every vestige of historical constructions of female weakness floated away like San Francisco fog. Here, in the gym, I fit in. Here, in the gym, I had a place. A validation of my deepest longings, convictions, an unwavering sense of my own gold.

'Bodybuilders call it "the disease,"' Sam Fussell says, writing in the early 1990s ("Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder") about that cultural moment and the decade that had preceded it. 'Symptoms include a complete commitment to all matters pertaining to iron . . . you find 'the diseased' in bookstores hovering by the rack containing the muscle magazines (invariably adjacent to the pornography). You overhear them in vitamin stores, discussing the merits of branch-chain amino acids and protein powders. You scan them on the subway, their hypertrophied bodies a silent, raging, scream of dissent.' Bodybuilders, the defiant exception, had become, briefly, a normative rule: bodybuilders as an iconic American cultural ideal. 'Bodybuilders in commercials, in sitcoms, even on game shows,' Fussell writes. 'Every beer advertisement seemed to have one of the diseased pumping weights in the background . . . It had gone as far as the White House, where President Reagan was photographed pumping out a few bicep reps on his chrome dumbbells just before a briefing . . . Clearly, this whole muscle thing was no longer just my problem.'

Once, right about this time, I was one of 'the diseased,' though I never competed, not in bodybuilding. I never did steroids. But I did mainline on creatine, energy drinks, and protein powder in 10-lb containers. My everyday wardrobe included lifting straps, a thick leather weight belt stained with 20 years of sweat, and funky, thick-striped tights, made by a now-defunct company called Hotskins featuring in-your-face shades of red, purple, and black. The way people reacted to my body made it clear that they understood it was a 'silent, raging, scream of dissent': down the hallways near the English Department I'd stride in my muscle shirts, lats flared, biceps on display, my wolf hybrid in tow, and the hallway would clear, office doors discretely shut. But I didn't just work on my body. I wrote about it, continually, in books and articles that spanned the first ten years of my career. When I wasn't spending six hours doing 100-repetition "Arnold Squats," I was at my computer writing about doing them. I'd go from one activity, to the other, then back again. There was nothing else. I was in love. And then . . .

Bill Lowenburg, an art photographer who did a series of portraits of bodybuilders in the early 1990s, and whose work I often wrote about, took me to a local bodybuilding show in 1997. He was a little concerned that I was so focused on representations of bodybuilding, that my only experience with the iron world was my own obsessive gym training. He knew I needed to see the thing itself, to confront bodybuilding's semiotic indicators in the flesh. [Semiotics, or semiology, is the study of signs, symbols, and signification. It is the study of how meaning is created, not what it is.] 

So we met at a show in a tiny rust-belt Pennsylvania town with weathered buildings, shut-up shops, and crumbling highways - 

- so unlike when, in the privacy of my own home, I lingered over images of bodybuilders in Flex and Muscle and Fitness and Women's Physique World, so unlike the safe space of my gym where everyone had know and supported me for years. Here, on a cold, gray evening, a vanished world creaking through the rusted signs lining the boarded-up windows of Main Street, the distance between what bodybuilding signifies, the fantasy structures it sustains, and what it actually is, the actual place that it has in the world and the audiences it serves, was simply too great for me to deny. The women in black stilettos or clear platforms backstage in that high school gym, their red press-on nails, hair in big curlers, clutching a dumbbell to pump themselves up, the audience with its Carhartt jackets and gold chains, the air outside so cold you could hardly breathe, the old-model Chevys in the parking lot with their sagging mufflers and mismatched doors, a high-school auditorium never refurbished, dirty carpet, seats torn, splinters of wood shearing off a well-worn stage - this was the staging area for all my bodybuilding dreams. Yet even given the starkness of this scene, my impressions of impoverishment took years to sink in. Instead I tried to give these impressions a philosophical justification: bodybuilding is a defiant performance in the face of the abyss, a brave acceptance of non-meaning, a disavowal in which you knew all the limitations and myths, but did it anyway. In Bodymakers, for instance, I describe Lowenburg's portraits of bodybuilders as revealing 'how much our poses -- detached from them though we may be -- mean to those who strike them, a sense of how those poses, though ontologically meaningless, are nonetheless all we have and create complicated patterns that join us.' As if the meanings we impose create a world all their own. Like the bodybuilders, like my postmodern academic compatriots, I was a big believer in the power of self-creation. Postmodern narratives, and perhaps maybe especially the American postmodern, with its roots in the mythology of American exceptionalism (the idea that America is special, exceptional, because of its history as a nation built upon the strength and individuality of freedom fighters and frontiersman), could make anything seem grand. But on that dark Pennsylvania night, bad lighting casting shadows on a rickety stage, the doubts began to creep in.

In Iron Maidens: The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World, Kristen Kay

 - describes  experiencing a similar sensation in the aftermath of her foray into women's bodybuilding subculture, in her case as the playwright/director for the New York City-based show called The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World which took place in 1993. Following the frenzied, much-hyped build-up to the show, and then the disappointment of the show itself and its  post-celebration party, she writes, 'I took my place among the sea of bobbing heads and shuffled toward the underground corridor to meet my train home feeling unsettled by the notion that the stories we tell ourselves and others are often only partly true.' The female bodybuilders, Kaye found, signified a mythological power that was only mythic. Much like the ideology of American exceptionalism that was beginning to fray around the edges

see here - 

  - the idea that America was an unconquerable superpower whose hegemony knew no boundaries and whose reign was immeasurable, extending indefinitely across time - 

  - everything Kaye told herself about her position as playwright/director, as well as everything Laurie Fierstein -- the bodybuilder who was the show's conceptualizer and organizer -- told herself about her position as creative visionary body artist, and everything the female bodybuilders told themselves about what their lives and bodies and activities meant, were revealing themselves as palpably shabby, hollow.

Outside of bodybuilding's insular subculture, bodybuilders, perhaps particularly female bodybuilders, can seem like the bewildered and beguiled practitioners of a much broader philosophic world-view and economic practice. In this light they might seem to function much like the remainder, what Derrida called le reste, of American exceptionalism, that thing that the system just can't accommodate or swallow, the thing that reveals the workings of the system itself. 

 - [Linguistic theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida often spoke of what he termed le reste, the remainder, that thing that 'escapes the horizon of the unity of meaning,' that which exceeds the parameters of discourse, that for which discourse cannot fully account. The remainder is 'what is left unclaimed,' and as this kind of orphan, female bodybuilders can be seen as the literalized figure of le reste, the remainder outside speech, the excess flesh for which there is no name. As such, they are subject to ridicule and exclusion, even stigmatization, exiled from any group except their own (and they sit uneasily there) and the sexual fetishists ("schmoes") who largely bankroll their bodybuilding practice. In Iron Maidens, Kristin Kaye notes that female bodybuilding has always been a sort of endangered species, writing about extinction as 'the process or fact of disappearing completely from use; the decreasing or dying out of a behavioral response created by conditioning because of lack of reinforcement.' If you consider the second definition, then women's bodybuilding has been facing extinction ever since it began. Indeed, since the mid-1990s, Kaye notes, 'sponsorship dollars, prize money, and press coverage for female competitors have dramatically decreased', nudging the sport closer and closer to its demise.]

Their distorted jaws, their deepened voices, their fake nails, breasts, tans and frizzy hair,and, worst of all, their eyes like children who have been hurt and disappointed one too many times, all reminders of the relentlessness of this fantasy machine, so powerful it persuades you to give up absolutely everything, your very flesh, to its flim-flam stories and car-barker whims. Working with the female bodybuilders, Kaye writes, 'you saw mythic images of strength . . . Literally larger than life, they seemed untouchable, powerful in being exceptions to the rule. Yet look again, and you saw the hint of nervous girlishness that lingered in their ever-ready smiles and eyes that quickly scanned each others' bodies; you could have mistaken the scene for a high school bathroom on prom night.' Here Kaye marks the distance between mythic image and lived actuality that I began to experience backstage at that Pennsylvania high school, the dawning realization that the broad liberatory claims I'd been making for the practice of female bodybuilding were as much imagined as real (of course, my training in postmodern theory contributed to my thinking that the two are or can be one and the same). 

 - [Kaye's initial awe and sense of female bodybuilders is compromised when she sees who the predominant audience for the show really is,and how most female bodybuilders are forced to make their living: 'An endless sea of slightly balding, slightly paunchy, kind of pasty men surrounded me. Schmoes. I didn't know who they were at the time, but they struck me as remarkably generic. There was certainly a handful of New York artist types mixed in, but these paunchy men were the primary audience for The Celebration of the Most Awesome Female Muscle in the World. I felt nauseated realizing that the producer was right. They certainly weren't there for "art." 'If the competitive arena has failed her, the commercial arena ignored her, and the public arena scorned her, the Physically-Advanced Woman must consider that impulse . . . exotic dancing, private posing, domination, and "muscle worship." It's mixed-wrestling, "lift and carry," and those videos you see advertised in the back pages of magazines. They include many of the top names in bodybuilding.' A "schmoe" is the name for men who sexually fetishize muscular women, and who are their primary audience: 'A man who pays money to wrestle with a woman who is often more muscular and stronger than he is, for sexual gratification, although no overt sexual activity is performed.]

Kaye's hands-on experience was one I never had before that night. When she observes that 'despite the pride they took in their personal transformation, you couldn't help but feel a kind of loneliness when they described their muscles as shields of armor; when they admitted to childhood sexual abuse or noted that most other competitors they knew had been abused and that their muscles had been built as a kind of protection and isolation; when they recounted that the world thought of them as freaks and competitions as freak shows', she has an experience of the distance between the imaginary and the real that I had been trained to theoretically dismiss. But I could only do so in theory -- I had yet to observe that while bodybuilding memoirs such as Samuel Fussell's Muscle and Paul Solotaroff's much more recent The Body Shop (2010) -

 - show males becoming bodybuilders partially to overcome a sense of physical inadequacy and masculinity and to "get laid" and thereby boost the male ego. 

 [Paul Solotaroff's account of his bodybuilding blitz in the 1970s depicts a nightmare world of home-brewed steroid stacks and male prostitution, and locates his participation in this world in his naturally slight frame, lack of attaining the hegemonic signifiers of masculinity, and a problematic childhood. It very much struck me reading his memoir next to Sam Fussell's (both, perhaps not coincidentally, had literary fathers) how for male bodybuilders the physiques they build to "get them laid," while for female bodybuilders hope to build themselves into something more substantial than a "lay." It is a tragic irony of female bodybuilding that the very practice some use to heal themselves from experiences such as sexual abuse simply reinscribes that 'you-are-your-sex' modality when the bodybuilding industry hypersexualizes them. Katie Arnoldi's novel Chemical Pink, while not a memoir, explores some of these issues.]

Bodybuilding, the thinking goes, makes one substantial, something more than a female sexuality that exists to support male fantasies of prowess, but the bodybuilding industry itself then does everything it can to resexualize female bodybuilders and make them precisely into the emptiness they are building themselves to avoid. My experience of this "real" that night was enough to make me turn away from female bodybuilding as a source of liberatory potential for women and girls, and instead turn to women's sports more generally.

[That female bodybuilders competing at the highest levels often have to support their bodybuilding "habits" by performing for "schmoes" who experience them and pay for them to be sexual fetishes is perhaps the ultimate tragedy of sports in terms of its potential for the "empowerment" of women.]

Looked at in this kind of doubting light, from a perspective of one who has begun to recover from 'the disease,' bodybuilding began to appear very different. Indeed, as the years wore on and the world horizon shifted from the glorification of dot.coms and the so-called "information economy" to a focus on ecological crisis and the externalities produced by the very companies that serve as its infrastructure, in the context bodybuilding begins to look even more absurd, even more excessive than it did in its heyday, when it more closely matched the goals of "grow or die" economics. From this skeptical perspective, one informed by the logic of 'the disease' but also outside it, one might ask, for instance, what Monsanto, British Petroleum, and competitive, steroid-based bodybuilding have in common, and be able to come up with a convincing answer. It might be said that the practices of all three institutions (factory farming, the petroleum industry, and bodybuilding) involve externalities of blatant damage and waste, that their practices are unsustainable, and that the specific ways in which they're unsustainable are rapidly converting them into historical anachronisms.

In this narrative, then, I wish to make three central claims:

1) that competitive, steroid-based bodybuilding and its long-term detrimental health effects can be read as a synechdoche (a figure of speech in which the name of a part is used to stand for the whole) for globalization and its "grow or die" imperatives that ignore externalities such as long-term environmental damages;

2) that bodybuilding was more fully part of the mainstream in the late 1980s/early 1990s than it is now for specific economic and cultural reasons, and that, as a strangely literal embodiment of the economic global fetish with capital growth, bodybuilders now seem like a historical anachronism, out of step with more austere times;

3) the "New Austerity" emphasis allows us to explore the potentiality of bodybuilding in a different modality: that of immersive practice (a sense of immanence, a reconnection to biological time as experienced through physical activity). 


Postmodernism was the word that aspired to describe the era of surfaces, the elision of content, the "image is everything" rush of consumerism that characterized the deregulated 1980s, a deregulation that ushered in the era of "globalization," and that preached an equality of image if nothing else. Every day was a form of theater, people playing with signifiers to make their look present the message of the day, image of the day, "self" of the day. A carnival of surfaces, a "be-all-that-you-can-be" free for all. Postmodern theory pronounced the death of the self, the author, and that everything was text - that is an endlessly re-arrangeable collection of signs that had no fixed, pre-determinate pattern of shape, and this was the true nature of reality according to this mode of conception. The perfect world for the emergence of the bodybuilder as a dominant cultural image, and bodybuilding as a mainstream practice.

'That's when it hit me,' Fussell writes, describing his reaction to his fellow bodybuilders as he ate and lifted and dieted down with the best of them.

'Bad theater. Every word they uttered, every move they made seemed rehearsed -- as rehearsed, in fact, as any performance I'd sen on stage. That explained the pregnant pauses before delivering the lines I knew from the magazines. Lines like 'You gotta stay hungry,' or 'you work hard, good things will happen.' Much of being a bodybuilder, I gathered, meant playing at being a bodybuilder.'

A very literal form of "play" in which your own body is the construction site, the bodybuilder's dream is the dream of endlessly re-arrangeable flesh, the manipulation of the material without limits, the ultimate victory over "nature": 'while legs spasmed through the night, writes Fussell, 'I'd dream of Tom Platz, the so-called "Golden Eagle."' Precisely describing the way a postmodern sensibility informs bodybuilding, he writes that 

 -- more than any other bodybuilder, [Platz had] given up everything to reverse the course of nature. He had been born with a miserable structure, his hips wider than a yardstick, his shoulders narrower than a ruler. But through sheer industry, through set after set of 315-lb squats for 50 straight reps, through training sessions interspersed with vomit and blood, Tom hurdled these obstacles and became Mr. Universe.  

You don't like the body you were born with? You don't like the shape to which your genetics have contributed? That's okay, that's just fine, because you can physically remake yourself however you'd like. Here Fussell gets at the way the concept of postmodern plasticity combines with earlier ideologies of self-determination -- ideologies intrinsic to the larger cultural dream of American exceptionalism -- to create a cultural context in which bodybuilding could flourish for a time. 

In a brilliant analysis of the ideology of American exceptionalism, literary critic Donald Pease defines that 'exceptionalism' as 'a fantasy through which U.S. citizens bring contradictory political and cultural descriptions into correlation with one another through the desires that make them meaningful.' [The New American Exceptionalism, 2009]

Those desires are connected to the desire for autonomy, the celebration of the individual and America as a nation of unique individuals), and the desire to start fresh, unencumbered by the past or one's origins. Those correlations have a long history related to the United States' foundation as a colony that rebelled against its sovereign to create alternative political, social, and cultural structures: 

 -- "American exceptionalism has been taken to mean that America is 'distinct' (meaning merely different) or 'unique') meaning anomalous), or 'exemplary' (meaning a model for other nations to follow), or that it is 'exempt' from the laws of historical progress (meaning that it is an 'exception' to the laws and rules governing the development of other nations)."

Perhaps most influential to the American psyche is 'the belief that the U.S. was unencumbered by Europe's historical traditions' [Pease, 2009]. While the desire for a sense of personal sovereignty and power seen in bodybuilders may have universal inflections, there may be a particular "Americanness" for bodybuilding in that the ideology/fantasy of American exceptionalism has parallels with a bodybuilder's preoccupation with difference from "the masses." Like the bodybuilder who seeks to escape his genetic somatotype and remake himself to a better purpose and image, the ideology of American exceptionalism sought to excise the political, social, and individual body from its European and particularly British antecedents and start again a new foundation, the earlier foundation razed clean. The preoccupation with breaking free from the past, forgetting and ignoring the past, and starting to build anew is one that has been directly imported into bodybuilding psychology and subculture.

Anomalous, exemplary, and unencumbered -- these three adjectives are key descriptors of bodybuilding lore, absolutely central to beliefs about the fundamental project bodybuilding becomes. As Fussell describes the attitude he and his fellow builders share: 'I want to look like something you've never seen before.' I understood. The shock value is all. It's saying, or rather screaming, 'More than anything else in the world, whatever it takes, I don't want to be like you. I don't want to look like you, I don't want to talk like you, I don't want to be you.' This uniqueness is something that is worked hard for, achieved, an undeniable difference encoded in the flesh. A difference worth, apparently, compromising one's long-term health, and even dying for: 'I told myself that taking steroids was a Faustian bargain. I was selling my soul to the devil in exchange for transcending what was permitted to ordinary mortals. I was my own alchemist, I said, transmuting the base metal of myself, the dross, into gold.' Transmuting the dross into gold, building a physique that is valued for its difference, exempt from the physical laws that limit the development of others, providing a physical ideal to which others could of should aspire, Fussell enacts the fundamental exceptionalist drama of the bodybuilder, neatly combining its different strands into a living, breathing work of transformed flesh.

Historically speaking, bodybuilding began at the turn of the twentieth century, was mainstreamed in the 1980s when Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator became the masculine ideal, and began to fall out of favor at the end of the 1990s, when on a mass scale gyms converted themselves into "fitness centers" and "no grunting" became a fitness center rule. At my own gym, my training partners and I were reprimanded by the gym owner for letting the local newspaper take a picture of us for a fitness article -- we were 'too big,' he said. He was running a fitness center, not a gym, and he didn't want to intimidate anyone. We talked about it indignantly for days, but we knew our days were numbered. Now, chains such as Planet Fitness market a "no judgement zone" were supposedly everyone can train without being evaluated for the quality of their physique, and grunting from the strain of lifting heavy weights is explicitly forbidden in the gym rules. The brief moment of bodybuilding hegemony was dead.


 This trajectory wasn't random, rather neatly following the expansion of the global economy and deregulation and the relentless emphasis on economic growth despite externalities. Like a global economy gone wild in an excess of production and consumption, not considering any of the environmental costs, the clear-cut forests, destruction of marshlands, dammed-up streams, many bodybuilders -- especially competitive but also non-competitive -- ingested various kinds of steroids and all kinds of pharmaceuticals in the effort to pump themselves up. And pump they did -- bodybuilders in the 1990s through and through to today became almost impossibly big, starting with Dorian Yates and running through to Ronnie Coleman, who is more than 300 lbs in contest shape. Even bodybuilders themselves are questioning this direction: 

 -- Notice how ESPN showed a lot of bodybuilding shows back in the 80s and early 90s. Turn the TV on right now and you will see water polo, chess, hot dog eating contests and poker. But not bodybuilding. Our sport has always been a sub-culture, but with the mass monsters of today we took out every chance we had to succeed and make bodybuilding mainstream. I look at this as neutral, because bodybuilding is not a normal activity, and that's a part of why I love it and it's special to me. It's not for everyone. Personally I like the mass monsters because it sets out new goals in which me or you could go after [sic]. It shows that it's possible to achieve. I believe that for bodybuilding fans the turnaround to size is somewhat good, but when it comes to the general public we are taking ten steps back. 
from online discussion "In the World of Bodybuilding, How Big is Too Big?"

"The general public", which may have embraced extreme muscularity as an ideal more in the mid-1980s through mid-1990s than it does today, seems to have reverted to its characterization of bodybuilders as excessive narcissists. Aware of and sympathetic to the kind of stigmatization bodybuilders face, Lee Monaghan's study of the knowledge specific to bodybuilding subculture attempts to put bodybuilding drug use into perspective: 

 -- the reported global 'abuse' of steroids among gym members - anomalous with the supposed healthism of exercise and widely considered dangerous and polluting - renders 'bodybuilder' synonymous with the pejorative label 'risk taker' in many people's minds. With Western scientific and popular discourse such deviancy is claimed to manifest in the materiality of the body. A possible long-term hazard of drug-assisted bodybuilding, not immediately apparent but instead dependent upon the probing of biomedical science, is damage to internal bodily organs such as the liver, kidneys and cardiovascular system. Moreover, the marking of deviancy on 'excessively' muscular fe/male bodies is in a more recognizable fashion - the inscription and projection of powerful cultural meanings - represents another possible risk for those bodybuilders who transgress the normative ideal of the 'fit-looking' body. 
Lee Monaghan, "Bodybuilding, Drugs and Risk.

See also: 
Accounting for Illicit Steroid Use: Bodybuilders’ Justifications Lee F. Monaghan
in "Critical Readings in Bodybuilding"    
As Monaghan so convincingly shows, bodybuilders are well aware of public perceptions and exist in perpetual dialogue with them even as they take pride in their difference from dominant standards. Monaghan's study 'explores the sustainability of the "risky" practice of bodybuilding as participants endeavor to construct and maintain "appropriate" bodies and identities' [from: Bodybuilding, Drugs and Risk]. While Monaghan never comes to specific conclusions about whether bodybuilding is sustainable as a lifestyle, in the next section I will argue that bodybuilding, if it is performed as an immersive practice (what many call "weight training"), is sustainable over the life course, while competitive bodybuilding is anything but.

As Monaghan points out, "bodybuilders" are far from a monolithic category, with variability informing the overall conceptions of the "ideal" body in terms of location, individuals within a specific location, and variability of that conception over a bodybuilder's lifespan. My analysis, while allowing that there are a wide range of reasons why people bodybuild, and very different understandings and formulations of its meaning, focuses largely on the underlying premise -- that growth (in this case physical growth of the already-mature body, facilitated by the (over)consumption of food, supplements, and in some cases, drugs) is good. Whatever meaning an individual bodybuilder may assign to his/her growth, I'm interested in exploring the symbolic connections between over-consumption as an individual practice related to bodybuilding, and over-consumption as an externality produced by the global economic fetish with growth. Just as the growth mandate in the global economy produces externalized environmental damage that results in phenomena such as climate change, the extinction of species, over-utilization of resources and destruction of habitat, the growth mandate in a bodybuilder's individual life is often similarly externalized. Moreover, the ideological shift from a blind emphasis on growth to a more moderate emphasis is paralleled by a similar shift in the mainstream fitness industry from the hyper-muscularity of bodybuilders as an ideal to the more general category of "fitness" as an ideal. While no one has the right to prescribe for any individual what is "too big," it can be observed that the "greening" of marketing and its emphasis on avoiding wastefulness has had the effect of further stigmatizing bodybuilders and their growth projects. My further point is that, as in all sports, bodybuilding in its competitive modality tends to incur externalities in a way that training in an immersive modality does not.

Of any sport, bodybuilding marks the ultimate postmodern dream, the transcendence of genetics, of the non-conforming flesh, and for American builders, at least, that dream is shot through with the residues of ideologies of American exceptionalism -- America is different, and it is its "duty" to grow and dominate and show everyone else the way, just as bodybuilders see themselves as exceptional and greater forms of humanity than others. Mr. Universe and all that implies, the bodybuilder's dream of surfaces is the drama of size, and the drama of size has its shadow side, its barely concealed externalities of excess and waste:

 -- EAT BIG, SLEEP BIG, TRAIN BIG was the edict obeyed by all of us. In our muscle stable, we averaged 5,000 calories a day. The stove was constantly burning, the oven baking, the refrigerator cooling, the cupboards storing . . . Nimrod injected himself on a daily basis with Vitamin B12 in order to maintain his extraordinary appetite. Vinnie could be heard throwing up every afternoon from an excess of food even his body couldn't take . . . to us, food represented fuel for the future. Every chicken breast and beef flank we ate was consumed in the hope that it would help make us into the giants we dreamed of being. [Muscle, Fussell]

Eating to the point of excess, consuming more than the body can process, bodybuilding's primary drama is first one of scale -- of continual, unlimited growth -- and it shares this aspect with the global economy, whose "grow or die" imperatives have 'taken place without reference to environmental consequences such a global warming, ozone layer depletion and the loss or irreplaceable scarce resources' [Brown, Chris, in A World Gone Wrong? Chapter 49, The Global Transformations Reader].

Like the global economy blind to the externalities its fetish with consumption and thereby economic growth entail, and the permanent damage those externalities produce [the cost or benefit that affects a party who did not choose to incur that cost or benefit, bodybuilders sacrifice everything, including their long-term health, for size. As sport psychologist Alan M. Klein wrote in Little Big Men, his groundbreaking study of bodybuilding

'the physiological effects of steroid use are increasingly clear. A variety of health risks are associated with taking them, ranging from increased risks of heart disease and liver disorders to shrinkage of the testicles, the development of breast tissue, and acne . . . steroid use can adversely affect the . . . normal function . . . of the liver and kidneys.' 

The use of Human Growth Hormone (HGH) can permanently enlarge the bones of the face, and in women, steroid use is also associated with permanent changes in voice. These externalities to the process of bodybuilding are simply ignored by most builders, who continue to practice and compete even though, in the words of one of Klein's subjects, 'When we're up there (on the posing platform), we're closer to death than we are to life'. Any attribution of "health" to the world of bodybuilding is purely specious. 

Another aspect shared with the global economy is an emphasis on image -- the final "package" rather than the production process itself. The image of the bodybuilder that most people remember are those in muscle magazines, which represent a contest state that, because pre-contest dieting and water restriction is so severe, can only last for at most a few hours. The work that goes into building the contest-ready physique has fleeting results, so fleeting that even in the grip of 'the disease,' Fussell writes that:

 -- it had begun to dawn on me that the whole building thing might be merely a parody of labor, and I myself a well-muscled dilettante . . . the iron we lifted didn't help build a bridge or a battleship or a skyscraper. It enlarge our biceps and spread the sweep of our thighs. The labor of farmers and factory workers and longshoremen had a kind of dignity and purpose ours didn't.

Of course, Fussell writes at precisely the time 'farmers and factory workers and longshoremen' were being downsized, replaced by corporate factory farms, or outsourced to Third World countries where people would work for pennies on the dollar. In the so-called "information economy" or " economy," labor was supposed to have transcended its material base, and all that was left was a "parody of labor," a profound disconnection -- like bodybuilding -- from what it signified, and what it was. The post-industrial information economy signified a freedom from the dirt and grit of industrial production, when in actuality that production was merely outsourced to continents where the environmental restrictions were not so strict and labor was cheap. Bodybuilding signifies an escape from the self, from "natural" limitations, a signifier of potentially unlimited growth and power. What it is, however, is a kind of subordination of the self (as well as all one's expendable income) to the brutal routine of excess steroids, excess food, excess supplements, excess training, and finally, excess flesh. 'Between my clients and my own workouts, I was now spending twelve hours a day at the gym . . . I saw nothing but iron casualties' [Fussell]. Concerned about the poor, broken, down-on-their-luck builders he saw around him, physical wrecks doggedly returning to the gym each day with, over years, diminishing paybacks, he mentions his concerns to his friend. 'What, do you think this has anything to do with health?' Nimrod asked, shaking in mirth at the idea' [Fussell].

Always a highly individualized practice, bodybuilding, despite its subcultural aspects, has been seen, and perhaps largely experienced as a departure and disconnection from others: 'I loved iron not for its offering of a community,' Fussell writes, 'but for its promise of solitude, for the chance to escape from everyone and everything.' James Howard Kuntsler and many others diagnose one of the most pernicious problems related to globalization as precisely the erosion of community, the retreat of individuals into the enclaves of their McMansions, silent neighborhoods where no one speaks and no one knows each others names.

 In elegant and often hilarious prose, Kunstler depicts our nation's evolution from the Pilgrim settlements to the modern auto suburb in all its ghastliness. The Geography of Nowhere tallies up the huge economic, social, and spiritual costs that America is paying for its car-crazed lifestyle.

The future, Kuntsler insists, will depend on the reestablishment of local production economies and vital communities who share goods and services on a daily basis. In such a future, bodybuilding would have no place -- unless it is practiced otherwise, in an immersive mode.


So what, then, is an "immersive practice"? If the competitive model of sport tended to see transcendence of the body and its limitations as a goal, its reshaping as the only desirable end, and the body as the raw material for transformation into something better, and that model of sport is a subset of a globalized economy that approaches the natural world as a similar source of raw material for the production of consumer goods that have value while the natural world has value only as a resource, not in itself, sport might be reconceptualized as along some of the lines that the global economy is currently being reconceptualized. As so many ecologists, sociologists, and even economists have argued, current patterns of consumption are unsustainable, and we can no longer afford to ignore the biological/ecological dimensions, as these are linked to current environmental crises such as diminishing oil and water supplies, global warming, the destruction of ecosystems, and the extinction of species. As I will argue, bodybuilding defined and practiced differently from the competitive model of sport, can, like other physical practices, serve as a mediatory experience between humans and "nature" that can increase our ecological awareness and investment in that ecology -- an investment that, in a globalized culture characterized by the ethic of self-fulfillment, is not easy to foster. As Phil Macnaghten argues, however, 'in an individualized society environmental concerns are likely to be felt most acutely when they impinge on the body, typically in relation to questions of food and health.' [Macnaghten P. Embodying the Environment in Everyday Life Practices,  Sociology Review. 2003;51(1):63-84.] Physical practices such as bodybuilding -- because they can so powerfully connect (as well as disassociate) us to our own materiality -- might be one way of fostering, in environmental historian Peter Hay's words, a 'pre-rational impulse' that for most people 'establishes identification with the green movement . . . a deep consternation at the scale of destruction wrought, in the second half of the twentieth century, in the name of transcendent human progression.' 

This book is a major work in the field of environmental philosophy that sets out to describe and explain the many strands of thought that underlie and support the environment movement. Author Peter Hay says his aim in writing the book has been to provide a faithful account of 'the main feeder streams that flow into the swift-running river of Western environmental thought'. In his home state of Tasmania, Hay is well known as a poet and his lyrical style gives the book a fresh, timeless style. 

This is a role for bodybuilding that is counter-intuitive and has been little discussed, and its logic can be most clearly seen in those dimensions of sport that are defined not solely as competition, but also as an "immersive practice."

Despite an emphasis on competitive models of sport perpetuated by the dominant sports institutions and media, a different understanding sport is possible even within sport constructed in these terms. The biological dimensions of sport experience, as many athletes have found, can themselves be experienced quite differently from the usual regime of measurement and statistics. Rather than an enemy that needs to be transcended or its limitations conquered, looked at differently, the biological becomes something to be embraced. This is another, more positive potentiality that emerges from physical training. This potentiality was there from the beginning but was backgrounded, since, as Mary Mellor discusses, in the cultural logic of transcendence the biological is erased -- 'the social relations underpinning current patterns of unsustainability are those that place value on the transcendent/technological at the expense of the immanent/biological.'   

‘Ecofeminism and Environmental Ethics: A Materialist
Perspective’ - Mary Mellor (2005)

While athletes experience that erasure when they construct their daily practice as a competition between each other leading to the "higher" goal of competing more effectively, something else can be seen as happening simultaneously alongside the reckless quest for "perfection" in these terms.

That "something else" is an alternative experiential modality. This is an experience variously represented as "being in the zone," "flow," being outside of the usual sense of time (the sped-up, hyperreal of technologized time), or being connected to something larger. This kind of effortless physical state of extraordinary achievements marks a different kind of experience than that measured by the scales, measuring tapes, and record books of technologized time. This sense of immanence, a reconnection to biological time as experienced through physical activity, has been termed by sociologist Nigel Thrift as an "immersive practice."

"Immersive practices" are those that constitute a "background" within which 'nature is encountered as a means of gathering stillness, both inside and outside the body. A central component lies in the temporality of the practice' (Thrift, quoted in Macnaghten , Phil ( 2003 ) ‘Embodying the Environment in Everyday Life Practices’, The Sociological Review, 51 ( 1 ) : 63 – 84). That "temporality" is the kind of flow state that physical practices so readily foster. Sports which take place out of doors more easily engender this state of flow, but even if not practiced outside, as is the case with most weightlifting, one can still experience this physical practice in this modality if the state of mind is right.

Flow. "In the zone," "athletic high," "creation space," "optimal experience," call it what you will, it's a silent enclave, a soft bed of pine needles hunkered down between the protective branches of enormous trees. Neurologists will tell us it is electrical impulse, neurons igniting in the brain. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, who coined the term, will tell us it is focused attention, the space where we impose order on the chaos and entropy of life (Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly ( 1990 ) Flow).

It is beauty and meaning, it is quiet and calm, it is everything that gathers in us channeled forward to some end, the goal that is paradoxically the moments themselves, sped up, slowed down, outside time, suspended like a spider spinning and dancing its way across its web. And catch flies I might, but as Joseph Conrad's plaintive narrator Marlow says, 'it is like a running blaze across a plain, like a flash of lightning in the clouds. We live in the flicker -- may it last as long as the old earth keeps rolling! But darkness was here yesterday' (Conrad, Joseph ( 1988 ). Heart of Darkness, ed. Robert Kimbrough, 3rd edition). Flow is flicker, flicker flow, channels of energy gathered and released, where self-consciousness disappears, chemical signals conjoined into a steady-state where you and it are noe.

So what, concretely, is flow? 'Play, art, pageantry, ritual, and sports are some examples,' Csikszentmihalyi says, and divides flow's conditions of possibility into steps:

1) Set an overall goal, and as many subgoals as are realistically feasible;
2) Find ways of measuring progress in terms of the goals chosen;
3) Keep concentrating on what one is doing, making finer and finer distinctions in the challenges involved with the activities;
4) develop the skills necessary to interact with the opportunities available; and,
5) keep raising the stakes if the activity becomes boring.

Csikszentmihalyi's formulations are based on years of research, and have been applied widely from athletics to artistic practices. The "auto-telic" experience is particularly important for Csikszentmihalyi, encompassing as it does many of the other sub-concepts of flow. 'The key element,' he writes, 'of an optimal experience is that it is an end in itself . . . the term "auto-telic" derives from two Greek words, auto meaning self and telos meaning goal. It refers to a self-contained activity, one that is done not with the expectation of some future benefit, but simply because the doing itself is the reward.' This seems a contradiction: goal-directedness is is so important that it is the very definition of the self, 'the self being the sum and organization of the goals.' Can a goal not have an end? However, he mentions a 'benefit' almost immediately after: 'one of the most frequently mentioned dimensions of the flow experience is that, while it lasts, one is able to forget all the unpleasant aspects of life.' Immersed in a flow activity, we are left with 'as little room as possible for noticing the entropy of normal life.'

Flow is unlikely to be experienced in the competitive mode of measurement, and clocks, pounds and standards. If the 'doing itself is the reward,' the mindset where one is lifting to achieve the right definition in one's biceps and hamstrings to appeal to the capricious judges at a bodybuilding show is not likely to produce flow. While the competitive model of sport involves an internal focus while training, concentration on one's breathing, heart rate, poundage lifted, etc., based around improving one's performance, what I'm calling "immersive sport" has links to sport as a form of spiritual practice. In this model, sport is approached as a vehicle though which, as Professor Shirl James Hoffman puts it in the foreword to Sport and Spirituality
 [Parry , Jim , Robinson , Simon , Watson , Nick J. and Nesti , Mark ( 2007 ) Sport and Spirituality: An Introduction ( London and New York : Routledge )].

Sport experienced as an immersive practice can involve competition -- training hard to perform your best -- but it can also involve the pure joy of sheer participation, an appreciation of the body in movement, a way to step out of the ordinary frenzy of our daily lives filled with the barrage of things to get done and instead experience pure absorption into the activity itself, and a supsension of all other distractions. 

Sport formulated as an "immersive practice" takes a practitioner out of tech time and into biological time. The immersive is an alternative to the competitive model of sport and its relentless focus on comparison, on the bottom line of winning to the exclusion of the bodybuilder's health, which in turn embodies the global economy and its relentless focus on economic growth to the exclusion of other factors such as public health and human welfare. If one shifts the lens away from the zero-sum game of winning, a different experiential model based around the idea of immersive practices begins to emerge within sport that reconnects us with biological time (this is why "being in the zone" is also experienced as "being out of time").

The immersive modality is only possible separated from the competitive, comparative world of bodybuilding where your lifting (and other) practices have the end goal of making you bigger, better proportioned, and with a lower bodyfat percentage as opposed to anyone else involved in the same activity. It would involve lifting that foregrounds how you feel and backgrounds how you look, and that sees other lifters not as competitors in reaching a particular physical ideal but rather as people who appreciate a similar kind of physical practice -- more like yogis, whose focus in their practice is internal, and rooms that they practice in usually don't have mirrors in order to reinforce this focus. All the health benefits of lifting -- stronger muscles, bones and joints, mood elevation, heightened metabolism, ad everyday, functional strength -- accrue without competition. A form of bodybuilding that is sustainable might be reformulated and practiced differently in such a way that the focus is no longer on growth but on functionality and health, a different kid of building, a form that, indeed, many bodybuilders would not recognize as bodybuilding but rather some lesser, ordinary practice.

Nonetheless, the power one feels when lifting, the links between the movement and the breath, the sense of complete focus one can experience as an end in itself would be an immersive bodybuilding, a bodybuilding practiced otherwise that is more congruent with the present historical moment where everything, including bodies, are being downsized. Maybe it's as simple as calling it "weight training" rather than "bodybuilding." Still, it is "weight training" done and experienced in a particular way. Like Americans struggling with the legacy of outsized American exceptionalism and confronting their actual, less prominent place in the globalized world -- part of a much larger network, not "special" or different -- in order for their practices to be sustainable, bodybuilders might see themselves in less narrow terms such a 'more than anything else in the world, whatever it takes, I don't want to be like you. I don't want to look like you, I don't want to talk like you, I don't want to be you.' (Fussell), and more in terms such as 'my physical practice tangibly reminds me of my materiality as part of a much larger increasingly vulnerable ecosystem, and we need to find a way out of this together.' De-emphasizing preoccupations with measurement and size, bodybuilding as an immersive practice can participate in a re-conceptualized 'flow' modality that brings the individual and his/her bodily processes and practices into alignment with the world around them, the beginning of a physical practice that might lead to a different conceptualization of and relation to the larger world that is sustainable: one that understands the relationship between one's practices and those of everyone else, one that experiences immersion in physicality in order to conceptualize oneself not as a machine but as a flesh and blood materiality irrevocably connected to the bodies of others, and those bodies to the larger ecosystems that are the precondition of our existences.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Blog Archive