Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Medium of Running

I just finished Neil Postman's The Disappearance of Childhood. Postman draws on McLuhan's idea that the media is the message, drawing connections between the notion of childhood and print media. He argues that childhood is a specific effect of a print-media culture and wonders what the effect of new media, centered around the image, will be on childhood.

Postman's account was written in 1982 and his main worry is the television, which is rapidly losing ground to the internet as the main communicative medium of public life. So, his analysis is a bit dated, but the crux of his main argument--that forms of media are not neutral conveyors of information but also work to set the conceptual and practical limits of culture--is still highly relevant, if yet to be applied to the internet. In other words, forms of media do not just communicate culture; they are the very conditions of culture, as culture is no more and no less the sum of forms of communication. A culture is what it communicates.

Anyhow, this is a long-winded way of getting to the point that I want to make, which is that one of the reasons I am drawn to running is that it resists two of the dominant modes of communication that make up our lives as middle class Americans. Let me explain.

1. The medium of running is not instantaneous. Think of running as an act of communication among three selves: your past self, your present self, and your future self. Today's run has been set up by a multitude of runs that act in conjunction over years of time to produce the act of running in the present. Today's run carries the shape and consistency of thousands of prior acts of the self. Just so, today's run will act in conjunction with those runs and with future runs to create the runner of tomorrow.

Here is a mode of communication that depends on repetition and duration to produce transmission. What is communicated is a richer self, one with a past, a present, and a future. Compare, for example, the communicative form of a text sent over cell-phone or an email. Here the act of communication is isolated, singlar, and transitory. It is as easily produced as it is forgotten. This sort of communication is a-temporal, and the sort of life it produces is one without a past or a future--and hence, without even a present. With running we are more present because running creates a rich and ongoing dialogue between past and future. It allows for communication between our past and future selves.

2. The medium of running is embodied. Just as running is an act that enriches our sense of time, it also enriches our sense of place by reminding us that we are bodies and can move. One of the predominant characteristics of internet communication is that we write from nowhere to nowhere. Emails appear in our inbox. Message boards compile comments like bottles washed up on sea-shores. Messages from nowhere to no-one.

Running, however, takes place somewhere. We runners have our magneto-loops, the paths that we repeatedly trod. On my regular routes, I know every rise and drop. I know the effort it takes to reach halfway. I know which ways the wind normally blows, when I will be running into the sun, which routes are too muddy when it rains, which routes have shade. I have long runs and short runs, flat runs and hilly runs, fast runs and slow runs. I know shortcuts and how to take the long way home. I can run on empty streets at rush hour in downtown Nashville.

We also cherish--and sometimes dread--new runs. Runs where we don't know what lies around the next bend. Or how high the hill will climb or which way to turn. We get lost, occasionally, or end up on a path that is hardly runnable. Or run into friends. Or meet strangers. Running does not just happen in a place: it restores our very sense of place, allowing all of the feelings that are associated with living somewhere and being someone.

The medium of running communicates to us that we are animals that can move--and this means becoming acquainted once again with space and time on a living scale. Contemporary modes of communication in their immediacy and transcendence of space are working to eliminate the richness of a life that covers ground. Running can wrest a little bit of that richness back. We give ourselves a past and a future and become present in a place. We communicate as we run.

4 comments:

  1. Hey Jeff, I just came across your blog recently. You might be interested in a book I edited, Running and Philosophy: A Marathon for the Mind. If you read it, I'd love to hear your thoughts about it.

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  2. I have indeed read it. Great compilation! Just sent you an email... Thanks for checking in.

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  3. I follow the second point completely, but not too sure about the first point. I compare ongoing communication over time with a family relative to running. Both involve independent events, which recur over time, and the former is part of a long-term (familial) relationship, and the latter part of a potentially long-term hobby (running).

    If I compare family communications by email to those by phone, I don't see that much of a distance.

    So I don't see that the digital or phone communications are necessarily more transitory or isolated than the runs. Each may be individually forgotten, but form part of a chain (personal/family relationship in one instance, running hobby in the other). The chain of each may die (lose touch or feud & stop communicating with relative, or stop the hobby).

    I must admit, I've never been sparked to ponder (however briefly) this comparison before.

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    Replies
    1. Amores, why didn't I respond to this earlier? That's a very good point: communication, insofar as it actually happens, depends upon a rich and diachronic relationship. That sort of relationship could be built through contemporary media (though I still think that something in the media itself militates against the construction of this sort of relation.)

      A lot of our communications now, though, through facebook or message boards, lack just that sort of rich relationship--which is perhaps why they end up crashing and burning. Flames of misunderstanding.

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