Running and Two Aspects of the Body

ESPN recently published its body issue, which has some pretty amazing photos of athletes in the nude. The pictures are a reminder of how the activities that we do form and shape our bodies--and how our bodies also move us to certain activities.

Runners are pretty body-conscious folks. This can be positive and negative. Being more attuned to our bodies means that we are more reflective about what we put into them, how they are resting, whether they are gaining or losing weight, how they look in a mirror, etc. This attentiveness to the body can be healthy. It can also be unhealthy, as the high incidence of eating disorders among competitive runners sadly attests.

One way to frame this attention to the body is through the concept of control. Distance runners are, in a certain sense, making an effort to control their bodies. Through training we sculpt and shape the body around a very particular purpose: running fast over a long distance. As every runner knows, the body is not always a compliant partner in this task. Like every object, it rebels to a certain extent from our efforts to control it, "liberating" itself from our attempt to dominate it and turn it to our purposes through injury, fatigue, depletion, and weakness.

We cannot dominate our bodies, this is one thing that running teaches. We have to interact with them, perhaps as an artist interacts with a piece of wood. (Incidentally, in this prefab world, this sort of intimate relationship with objects is increasingly rare, and the chance to regain this relation may be one reason we love to run.) Through this interaction, we don't precisely control the body, but perhaps we organize it along certain lines and through certain habits.

Gilles Deleuze helps us think about this notion of bodily organization through his concept of the "body without organs." This concept struck me as totally strange when I first encountered it. What could he possibly mean by a body without organs?

Deleuze is drawing on the Greek etymology of organ, from organon, which means something like "tool" or "instrument." "Organs" and "organization" both derive from this prior root. An organ is essentially an object that has been organized by nature or habit along certain lines for a particular function. The actuality of the body is its present organizational structure; its habits, traits, feelings, and emotions that it normally presents. This is the body with organs, the body as we see and understand it, the normal body with its normal organization.

The body without organs refers to the virtual dimension of the body. This is the part of the body that is the bodies we might become, the things it is possible for us to feel, the not-yet-organized parts of ourselves. It is strange to think of the body along these lines because we are so used to seeing our bodies and the bodies of others as clearly demarcated objects with very particular capacities. Our bodies seem very concrete to us, but Deleuze's concept reminds us that they are in-formation and in-decay at all moments. We have at every instant both an actual body and a virtual body. A body that is organized and a body that is becoming, in movement and in a kind of fertile or dangerous disarray.

Here, perhaps, you can see the body without organs emerge.
In my last post, I wrote about how racing tough requires breaking out of our preconceptions. There is a connection to be drawn here to Deleuze's concept of the body without organs. I think that in the latter stages of a race, we encounter our bodies in just this way: disorganized, dispersive, vague, whirling, and utterly strange. The virtual aspect of the body, the body without organs, overwhelms in a certain way the actual aspect. This is a pretty rare occurrence in everyday life, as normally we monitor the edges of our bodies cautiously so that their smells, movements, and functions do not bother us or other people. The community event of the race is a rare social moment when the task is not to monitor, but to let go of the body, to see if it could be something else, something different than it was before.

To return to the ESPN body images, these strike me as very classical shots. They present the body in various ideal forms and to a large degree present the body as an object that can be controlled and organized along very precise lines. However, these images disguise the virtuality of all of these bodies. We don't see the grimaces, the ice baths, the pain, the pills, the effort that went into the making of these bodies. We don't see the decline that they are bound to pass through. They are bodies that are perfect in their actuality, but invisible in their becoming.

I think this is why I find the pictures quite fragile in their beauty. If we remember the body without organs as we gaze upon these perfectly organized bodies, we become aware of the fact that a strong and able body is actually one of the rarest things in the world. When it is possessed, it is only for moments and instants, in the freeze frame of a camera. The rest is the wild and relentless urge, the body without organs, a teeming and pushing potentiality beneath the frozen frame of the actual.


  1. Jeff, this body without organs reminds me of how I used to feel when I was dancing. I would be thinking, how can I be do this, my heart rate is slow and my breathing is slow, yet I am moving so fast. So happy I got to experience that. Never did when I ran, but did when I swam one time after I had taken acid. Sadly, I haven't felt like that in a while, but if I got back in shape, you never know. Better not sign this one...

  2. Next time someone asks me why I race, I'll send them a link to this post.

  3. @Anonymous, drugs, dancing, and swimming are all tried and true methods of uncovering virtuality!

    @Josh, thanks and cheers!


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