Injuries, Organizations, Bodies

What is peculiar to what is initially at hand is that it withdraws, so to speak, in its character of handiness in order to be really handy. --Heidegger (SZ, 69-70)

Heidegger is talking here about the way in which really useful things make themselves invisible. When our practices are running well, they flow smoothly along, and we do not notice them at all. The sign of health is a sort of invisibility of the body. And this is one thing that the runner seeks through his practice. The great run is not centered in the body at all, or at least not the body that we normally imagine. The run is not felt in the legs, but in the mind, or--to use a quaint word--the spirit. Running, we say, is flying. Floating on invisible wings.

The flip side of this truth is that the unhealthy body makes itself noticed. Heidegger puts it like this: "The more urgently we need what is missing and the more truly it is encountered in its unhandiness, all the more obtrusive does what is at hand become, such that it seems to lose the character of handiness. It reveals itself as something merely objectively present, which cannot be budged without the missing element." It is only when the body is injured and malfunctioning, that the body presents itself as an objective thing. We begin to see it, to pay attention to it, to be transfixed by it. Out of broken things rises the theoretical mind, the sort of mind that looks at objects instead of being carried along by them in streams of practical movement.

I sprained my ankle on my run last Sunday, fracturing my fibula. This event took my ankle and placed it in the center of my consciousness. An ankle. How strange. We (the ankle and I) have conversations, the ankle mostly complaining, me mostly ignoring its complaints--like an old couple. I wear a plastic brace to protect it, and I walk funny. I will be unable to run for four weeks, says the doctor. My ankle reminds me of this hourly.

Injury is, as they say, a part of the sport. This is true because our sport is about remembering the body. We put it to work so that we can hear its complaints. We turn it into a "handy" object for accomplishing our goals not only so that we can ride the rush of its well-ordered invisibility, but also so that we can communicate with it in a certain way. The running schedule, the workouts, the trials, the races that we put it through are ways of organizing it--literally, turning it into tools--so that it can articulate its demands back to us. We make it bump up against limits, breaking it so delicately and precisely, thereby giving it a voice, this constant companion.

One of the tendencies of contemporary life is to organize the body along certain very rigid lines. The computer is a primary means by which the body is organized. It is curved into a chair, with the arms tucked in front, the fingertips, ass, and perhaps a dull ache in the back the only mode of communication. The position is oddly fetal, hunched, religious, submissive. It is a passive pose, one that organizes the body as a kind of vessel for the mind.

Running is a means to break that pose, to reorganize the body as an active structure moving along different lines. When I run, the body moves with my mind; the active-passive relation is reconstituted as a harmony.

Injury breaks down this pose again, reconstituting it along a different, social axis. Just as we are hunched, bowed, and exposed in front of our computers, the limp of injury constitutes us as passive centers of attention: people hold open doors, gaze with concern, step aside as we walk down the hall. None of this is intentional: their healthy bodies react to the presence of an injured body. But the injured body is very active in relation to the mind; it draws consciousness to it relentlessly. This is part of what's so tiring about injury. In injury, the body's power over the mind is quite strong.

I have spelled out here three organizations of mind-body relation.

(1) The seated body is dominated by the rapture of the mind in front of the computer screen. Here, a clear dualism between body and mind emerges, each tending towards absolutely different purposes. The mind flits quite wildly. The body sags heavy.

(2) The injured body dominates the mind through its persistent uselessness, which chains attention. Again, a dualism emerges, the mind made regular and dull by the attempt to escape the injured body, like a dog yanking at the end of its leash.

(3) The healthy running body: here we have a free organization, one where body and mind are integrated. The body is not chained by the mind, nor is the mind chained to the body. There is, instead, a unity that merges out to vague edges. The whipping and ethereal channels of the mind are filled out into the grounding materiality, the rich sensation of the body in its world. Not the body we normally imagine. Not normal modes of imagination.

It's going to be a long four weeks.


  1. So sorry. Have you formulated a plan to maintain some level of fitness?

  2. Well, the doc says I can ride the exercise bike. The problem is that the sprain still limits my range of motion, and the break is beginning to hurt more. So, right now I'm mainly just walking around on it. Hopefully soon I can either get in the pool and swim or ride the bike a bit.

  3. i had one of those runs yesterday that is amazing, like flying. an amazing, amazing run in the cold rain. the sort of run that i thought - while i strapped on the boot for 6 weeks last summer - i'd never have again.

    so i tell you now - have hope! you are a phoenix. this is your flame. you will rise again.

  4. Thanks, ace. In the grand scheme of things 4 weeks is nothing, and I'd just come off the longest uninterrupted stretch of training in my life, really. So I was due.

  5. Nice post. Amazing how the mind and body drive each other at times.

    That just plain stinks about your ankle. Sorry to hear. Remeber - from a setback we sometimes make our greatest strides forward. Heal well.

  6. Sorry to hear - Be smart - get all that important non-running stuff done.

    I find I have amazingly productive days at work when I am injured

    - keep the faith

  7. Sorry to read about your ankle. Rest well and I hope it fades to invisible again and you no longer are having conversations with it.


  8. Thanks, everybody. The ankle is feeling better--I think I'll be back at it soon.

  9. You'd think with all this time on your hands you would have more time to write Blog entries.


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