Picture the treadmill.
What could be a more conspicuous sign of our times than the sight of adult humans running on the spot compelled by nothing but the norms of society? Mark Greif, in the opening essay of his collection Against Everything: On Dishonest Times, reaches for Kafka to evoke the strange-yet-normal nightmare-like quality of this quintessentially modern scene. But the image is less that of numbers pouring into our lives evinced by ‘In the Penal Colony’ and more of an absurd drive to go nowhere very quickly, expending our lives pumping bars and legs and lungs in sense-defying loops.
The image belongs more to Baudelaire’s ‘To Every Man His Chimera’, in which travelers crossing ‘a vast and dusty plain’ are clung to by monstrous beasts. When questioned about their motivation for the journey, they reply ‘that obviously they must be going somewhere since they were impelled by an irresistible urge to go on’. None ‘resent the ferocious beast hanging around [their] neck’, and all are ‘condemned to hope forever’: the treadmill runner’s hope that an inch might be gained, an intention might be found.
In Greif’s book, more thoughtfully critical than nihilistically cynical in its application of the ‘anti-‘ posture, he takes aim at ‘things I do’. That is, by his own bumbling efforts (see ‘Learning to Rap’) to live in these ‘dishonest’ times, we are offered the perspective of the reflective participant.
On the other hand, Greif wants ‘to talk about you’ – that is, us, and the life we all live amidst the excesses and poverty of our economic, cultural and political systems. So as I trot off for my obligatory run, administer food like medicine, and listen to unashamed pop, Greif is coming along with me, if only to tell me how badly it effects both myself and others by squandering freedoms on the most trivial of pursuits.
Such a point of view is immediately obvious in ‘Against Exercise’, initially published in 2004 in n+1, the journal that Greif co-founded and edits. The exercise that we are to condemn is confined, almost by the terms of the essay, to the gym, an ‘atomised space’ devoid of the social dimension that underpins the meaning we try to make of our lives (at least in the eyes, and presumably weary legs and arms, of Greif as he wades through the mirrored halls of sweating bodies).
In the gym, the body is reduced to its biological, ‘machinelike processes’ that must be discovered and regulated. What Greif seems to be reacting to with a tone of gentle admonishment is the idea of people voluntarily entering into such an institution. This is a population cowed under the belief that self-worth, even moral worth, is based on the literal fitness of the body.
Such body ideals are imported from a number of problematic sites in contemporary culture, including sport, ideals of thinness enforced differentially between genders, and the beauty industry, whose seemingly incessant litany of body-shaming mishaps fails to induce a widespread rejection of their products or invasive images. Greif talks of gender disparities in the difference between masculine ideals of ‘expansion and discovery’ and thinness, which is reserved for women; in both instances, he argues, it is sexual desirability that is enforced as the truth about our self-worth.
If Greif were more generous in his references, he might have engaged Kathy Acker’s essay on bodybuilding, ‘Against Ordinary Language: The Language of the Body’ in The Last Sex: Feminism and Outlaw Bodies (1993). Recognising this contribution might have bolstered his case that gym-culture fails to reverse the patriarchal culture that ‘made biology a negative spectacle, a filth to be hidden’. Both Greif and Acker agree that the athleticism touted as ideal by patriarchal body-ideals reflects a fetish of disgust for our embodied selves.
Acker, however, asserts the positive potential of bodybuilding. She describes ‘wandering the labyrinths of my body’ in an encounter with ‘that which cannot be finally controlled and known: the body’. The distinction is one of attitude to the event of exercise, although Greif might claim that Acker’s almost spiritual pronouncement that in exercise ‘the impossible occurs in that meaning and breath become one’ could be subsumed under a culturally suspect elevation of gym culture.
Nevertheless, just as Greif takes it for granted that the asociality of the atomised gym leads to ‘new states of disciplining neither public nor private’ – in other words, contributes to the breakdown of privacy and the erosion of the public sphere as one of political possibility – Acker takes pleasure in the iconoclastic breakdown of language in the presence of affirmed physicality. Grief’s lament at the reduction of our bodies to numbers and counting is opposed by Acker’s meditative exhaltation in the ‘minimal and almost senseless’ language she inhabited in the gym.
If, for Acker, such an activity can remain in the province of one self affirming their physical strength and limits, Greif insists that aspects like the language of counting are necessarily imported from corporate, monetary culture, and necessarily reinforce such discourses. And yet he fails to connect this to athletic events more broadly, seeming to erect a sacred boundary between the gym and ‘sport’. Sport, according to Greif, has value for including an inherently social element in which achievements are meaningless unless recognised by others. Certainly this is true, but he is surely discounting the fact that the achievements involved in sport accentuate some of the most reprehensible aspects of our cultures: corporatism, gambling, violence, bouts of racism and entrenched sexism.
Why should we excuse these manifestations of exercise culture merely because they include more than one unfortunate participant? If anything, sport extends its tentacles far more evangelically than the ‘solitary evangelist’ of the gym-goer. The attempt to have a conversation without a mention of some sport – football(s) in winter, tennis, cricket, soccer in summer, horse-cruelty in spring, petrol-guzzling in autumn – is like the attempt not to mention the weather in the course of small-talk. Our media is frequently overtaken by an obsession with some or another athletic pursuit rather than the daily cruelties of our government.
Greif’s essay is not the source for a critique of sport, but he does provide expansive analyses in other directions. Noting the way in which exercise often reflects a ‘nostalgia for factory work’, he observes that subjecting ourselves to such regimens must be ‘punishment for our liberation’ from certain forms of biological necessity. Yet when we ‘hide our reasons’, as we do with so many daily habits, they are cunningly replaced by the aura of ‘the jurisdiction of the obligations of life itself’. We become blameworthy for failing to conform to impossible body ideals, failing to pay for gym membership, failing to punish ourselves for attempting to enjoy life.
Taking pleasure in life is an indulgence in this train of thought. Have we worked enough to have a beer on the weekend? Shame on us! We should be toning our bodies in order to become better workers, more productive. As with many insidious aspects of ideology, ‘a love … can develop for your pains’. This pleasure is what Angela Carter in an essay on health-food obsession calls ‘masochistic self-indulgence’, and asks ‘mightn’t there be some degree of repressed violence in all this?’ To answer a rhetorical question: yes, the violence of a society and culture enforcing its ideals on our bodies, which we internalise and then take pleasure in fulfilling.
Carter joins the fray in the 1970s with characteristically acerbic remarks that fall ambivalently on the spectrum of feminist commentary on various trends in essays collected in Shaking A Leg (2013). Most relevant for Greif would have been her assessment of a newspaper series on enforcing public health, an essay called ‘Health on the Brain’, published in New Society in 1976. Carter had a keen eye for burgeoning neoliberal tendencies in British society, and the essay includes such gems as the pious healthy exerciser lured by the ‘Mephistophelean cigarette offerer, the wicked chocolate profferer’.
The ‘nonexerciser’, writes Greif, ‘is lumped with other unfortunates whom we socially discount [and] joins all the unfit: the slow, the elderly, the hopeless, and the poor.’ Exercise gives an ‘economic character to health’, and the body is treated as a resource, as capital, expendable and maintained only in the service of the economy. In the context of privatised health systems, and public funding cuts instituted by conservative governments worldwide, exercise represents the expectation that we simply look after ourselves better and thus get less sick.
The injunction to regulate our health with exercise operates in the same vein as that parasitic succubus of the self-help industry. Blaming individuals for social problems, it provides quick-fix consumption as a solution to systemic problems. To borrow an image from Kimberlé Crenshaw, the sight of a sick cow in a field might induce blame at the farmer, but zooming out to the sight of industrial pollution infecting the field reminds us that framing is everything. It is precisely illness, unfitness and misanthropy, argues Angela Carter, along with the host of psychic symptoms of modern times, that protect us from this industrial pollution, if self-destructively.
This brings us to the strength of Greif’s essay, and the tone of the book as a whole: a reflection on what bodies mean under the barrage of social, political and cultural demands. It is in the domains of health and sex, he concludes, that ‘we demand our truth today’, using the revelations of science and economics to submit to confirmation bias, and give us the sense of inevitability about our most superficial and contingent concerns. ‘No one will inherit our good health,’ reminds Greif. Simultaneously, the ideals asserted upon bodies in exercise denote the ‘dream of a body unencumbered by the excess of corporeality’.
The contradictory obsessions manifest but unspoken in the gym are the sites of the systemic violence of our economic and social structures – capitalism, sexism, racism, homophobia – ‘carried on psychically’. Grief does not delve into the details of various bodily oppressions. Instead he offers that the ‘consequences are not only the flooding of consciousness with a numbered and regulated body, or the distraction from living that comes with endless life-maintenance, but the liquidation of the sense of the public’ in which we might contest the ideals in the first place. This – the line of treadmills – ‘is not the future we wanted’.
In these essays, I am reminded that critique can be entertaining and joyful, even flirtatiously collusive with the very thing it aims at. At least, it can if you fall into the aggressively middle-class-white-college-bro category (‘the little bourgeois’, suddenly awakened by being pushed by police in the final essay) so dominant in publishing. Yet with readable prose, and dabs of self-awareness, Greif mostly redeems himself, even if he doesn’t always make it to the mirror at the back of the gym.
Pointing his privileged eyeglass at ‘everything’, from Radiohead and punk to the Kardashians and reality TV, from food and hipsters to war and police violence, the collection is threaded through with four reflections on ‘The Meaning of Life’. Starting with the ‘closest thing to us’, the body, he brushes each scene and situation of his life and cultural intake with a lightly philosophical tone, remaining quietly cynical about everything, and intently hopeful about some.
Greif has aimed to make n+1, and his essays in Against Everything, ‘a venue for the unknown’ – that fantastic place ‘where hope might come from’, even if that place must be ‘unafraid to be against everything’.