Experience and Running

The French philosopher Michel Foucault writes that "experience is trying to reach a certain point in life that is as close as possible to the 'unlivable,' to that which can't be lived through. What is required is a maximum of intensity and a maximum of impossibility at the same time."

When he made this statement, it was as a response to phenomenology, which is the philosophy of experience: the sort of philosophy that looks to describe the ordinary experience of everyday life. Phenomenology is perhaps best captured by Husserl's demand to "return to the things themselves." Phenomenology as a practice of wisdom and truth thought its mission was to describe the reality of the events of ordinary life.

Running blogs can be read as rough phenomenological treatises. Their authors attempt through a variety of styles and genres such as the race report or the training plan or the setting of goals to articulate their experience of running. What makes much of this effort at articulation somewhat repetitive, tedious, and self-absorbed (count the number of times that the pronoun "I" makes its appearance in your standard running blog entry) is that most bloggers misunderstand the nature of experience: they think that it can be animated by certain schema that have been defined and determined in advance.

The primary schema that pretends to organize experience, but actually militates against it, is the idea of the process of steady improvement towards a goal race. We see the runner struggle through mild setbacks, through battles with motivation, time constraints, pernicious and vile bodily functions, and the ongoing specter of aches and pains, but we know all along that these are merely plot devices intended to carry out the main story, which is one of triumph at the goal race. This triumph in turn redeems and makes meaningful any and all of the struggles along the way.

In this way the experience of running is tamed, tranquilized, and essentially anesthetized. It is made intelligible and wrapped up into the larger myths of our essentially progressive and individualistic culture: we are here for the purposes of self-betterment, any difficulties along the way are merely tests of that larger project, and we are capable of building better selves by putting our heads down every day and working steadily even if absolutely blindly at whatever project life throws our way. Running is reduced to a sounding board for the dominant cultural mythology, yet another tabula rasa upon which culture incessantly scrapes its tired ideas.

When this happens, running is not an experience at all. Experience, contrary to the popular view does not just happen. It is possible to live for weeks, months, even years without experiencing anything at all. We only experience to the extent that the experience itself breaks through the monotonous drone of normality. This is what Foucault means: experience is an effort to break through, to carry life to the point at which it is unlivable, and there, in the purity of the rupture of the normal, to find life quite strange, and uncanny, pinned and struggling and wild.

If running is not to be simply the repetition of the normal, if it is not simply narcissistic and self-indulgent, it must work patiently, yes, and madly, yes, towards the obliteration of the incessant vision of the progressive and heroic self that plagues our lives. It is only in such obliteration that experience shows itself: in those moments when the world shifts and whirls and our own selves become not heroic but absolutely alien, trotting aimlessly down the empty pavement. Or when the effort is impossible and yet still gives despite our intents to stop, there at the maximum horrifying intensity. Only there is the experience: there alone is the possibility of renewal. Everything else is tired and brutal mimicry.

This is what I mean (see particularly 1:13-1:30):


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. are you saying that experience is by its nature unexpected? i think you are saying you cannot plan it, okay, but unplanned and unexpected are two different things. even if you do not plan something, you can still expect it. are you saying that by definition, experience is unexpected?

  3. Not only do you have to expect experience, you have to work to have experience. This work may even take a plan. It is difficult to even arrive at the place where one can have an experience. It takes work and effort, though what this work entails is different from most things that generally fit in that category.

    The point is this: the threat to experience is the common schema. Having an experience demands developing a different mode of attention, and very often all we do is somewhat haphazardly overlay experience with ideas and mythologies that pretend to "explain" experience, but actually function to prevent experiences from happening. They do this by substituting an idea or a simple narrative for the actual experience. It is this substitution--the "tired and brutal mimicry" that keeps us the actual effect of an experience, which is always transformative in the sense that it unfolds the possibilities and limitations of a life.

  4. okay so first off i had it a bit bassackwards there thinking that you were saying experience is unplanned. so now i see you are saying it is something we can/should/must plan for in order to have it. i must work to have experience. okay. i am up for that because experience seems worth the effort.

    i believe then what you are saying next is that i must think outside the box, yes? "the threat to experience is the common schema". that sort of tells me what NOT to do but not exactly what TO do.

    i am willing to do the work. what is it that i am supposed to be doing? perhaps this - pay closer attention, don't pre-judge a situation or a person or a feeling, don't classify or explain an experience based on past experiences even if they feel similar.

    this is interesting because i think i am already doing this so perhaps i am fooling myself.

  5. I read your blog, and I think it is full of experiences, FWIW.

    I don't know, maybe I exaggerated the idea a bit or made it more complicated than it seems, but I guess I wanted to say that running can be a practice that refreshes our abilities to experience: to break habits, to have new sensations, to think in new ways. To be awake instead of that person who gets beaten down by the same old thoughts, the same old sounds and sights.

    Further--and this is the main point of the post--one thing in particular that inhibits the having of an experience while running is the mythology of self-improvement because that mythology requires a persistent self that can be improved over time. That mythology works well enough and I use it often. However, running can break up this "heroic I" in ways that go beyond the project of self-betterment and end up fracturing that myth and even the idea that "I" have an improving self at all.

    Sometimes it's just oh breath in my lungs and footsteps and rhythms and loose and tangled thoughts. There: experience beyond the tyranny of an ever improving I. Foucault called this process de-subjectification. Yes, it's a way to wake up into new experiences.

  6. i think my life is full of experiences, fwiw. heh. and, this -- sometimes i like to experience asking questions.

  7. I appreciate the questions!

    Here's a quote from another philosopher, John Dewey, that is relevant to the original blog entry and also the conversation at hand:

    "Try the experiment of communicating, with fullness and accuracy, some experience to another, especially if it be somewhat complicated, and you will find your own attitude toward your experience changing; otherwise you resort to expletives and ejaculations. The experience has to be formulated in order to be communicated. To formulate requires getting outside of it, seeing as another would see it, considering what points of contact it has with the life of another so that it may be got in such a form that he can appreciate its meaning. Except in dealing with commonplaces and catch phrases one has to assimilate, imaginatively, something of another's experience in order to tell him intelligently of one's own experience. All communication is like art. It may be fairly said, therefore, that any social arrangement that remains vitally social or vitally shared is educative to those who participate in it. Only when it becomes cast in a mold and runs in a routine way does it lose its educative power."

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