Sunday, July 24, 2011

Running Free

This is the second post by longtime friend and guest blogger, Zach V. I'm always excited to have different voices and perspectives speak out on philosophy and running. Thanks, Zach!
As soon as the division of labor comes into being, each man has a particular, exclusive sphere of activity, which is forced upon him and from which he cannot escape. He is a hunter, a fisherman, a herdsman, or a critical critic, and must remain so if he does not want to lose his means of livelihood; while in communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wishes, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic. -- Karl Marx

If you’re a runner, you’re probably a Marxist. That’s because--strange as it might sound today--Marx was fundamentally concerned with human freedom. And what is more liberating than running?

When runners are asked why they run, they often say that they want to ‘get away from it all’, to feel ‘self-reliant’, or to simply be ‘free’, as a recent advertising campaign phrases it.

This, however, is a weak notion of freedom, as Marx (and Hegel before him) realized, because it is merely negative. When you’re defined in terms of what you’re not, you’re not really making a meaningful statement about what you are. The Bill of Rights, for example, lays out numerous negative freedoms. You cannot be barred from speaking your mind in America. But this kind of freedom doesn't prevent the quality of what is said today from being very bad.

marx-bio.jpg (9551 bytes)
An attorney, scholar, activist, president of a drinking club, facial hair champion, and ultramarathon runner.

A more positive notion of freedom and a more accurate description of why we run would have to do more than say what we're not. It would have to take into account the creativity inherent in human nature and the reality of what people actually do with their freedom.

It’s for these reasons that Marx thought action was what defined people. It enslaved them or made them free. You are what you do. And, in Marx’s time like today, many people do not harness their full creative powers. Marx saw that those with money just let other people do things for them. Those who had to work in factories became machines themselves, like Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times.



The society Marx envisioned wasn’t one ruled by the Inner Party. It was governed by Renaissance men and women who were free to make the lives they wanted to live and become the people they wanted to become. Marx wanted the ideal of the Renaissance to be shared by everyone, not just a privileged few.

Today, many people run when they have absolutely no reason to. Your grandad would have thought you were crazy for running. A lot of people still think we’re crazy. Sure, there is the runner’s high. And it’s a great stress-reliever. But I think something else is going on here.

Maybe we don’t have to run, but we still need to run because we’re complex and creative beings who want to accomplish things--the true definition of freedom. What is more liberating than being able to say, “I ran a 5k” or “I ran a marathon”?

Freedom?

There are, of course, other ways of fashioning ourselves than by running. But since many of us now have desk jobs in air-conditioned office parks, running makes a lot of sense. After exhausting days at the office, we still have the energy to run because it stimulates a whole different set of activities and thoughts.

Running is one part of my quest to improve myself, fulfill my capacities, and continue to be more free. When I think of who I want to be, it’s not a Runner, or a Programmer, or a Partner. It’s all of these things, and more. It’s the man Marx wanted to be--or at least the one he wanted everyone to be able to be.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Understanding the Body, Becoming a Body

In the Critique of Pure Reason, Kant writes of what he calls the "transcendental object," and he refers to it sometimes as the "= x." Das ding an sich--the thing in itself. Kant's point when writing about the transcendental object is that objects are somewhat slippery to the human mind. Kant believes that we never truly apprehend things as they are. We see, instead, a kind of messy blend of sense-impressions and mental concepts. His ultimate point: the thing in itself is unknowable.

Little known fact: Kant won the Koenigsburg Turkey Trot 5k 5 years straight (1750-1755). Two years later an achilles injury led him to hang up the flats and turn his obsessive mind towards becoming a billiards hustler.
Though this sounds a bit like skepticism, Kant's view is different from common-sense skepticism which essentially denies any capacity for knowledge. Though Kant believed we could never apprehend the world as it is, he thought we could apprehend it better. We could refine our mental concepts so that they better mapped onto the world. We could also improve our capacity for sensation--we could learn to sense the world better so that our intuitions of objects become riper and fuller.

This is the purpose of science, art, and also of education. The experimental method allows us to isolate concepts and test whether or not they match up well with the objects they are meant to represent. Artists experiment as well, teaching us to experience the world in new ways through painting, music, literature, film, etc. They give us new angles on sensation, allow us to feel, see, taste and hear differently. A well-developed mind is able to sense the world richly--and it also has the conceptual apparatus to be able to express and share those sensations. Intelligence, on the Kantian view, doesn't just allow us to manipulate the world better. It gives us the capacity to experience the world more fully, to live in it more deeply, and to share it with others.

This is a great story, and it is mostly true. There is a tension, however, between the conceptual work of intelligence and the aesthetic, sensitive work. We've all experienced the way in which overanalyzing experience can strip it of its vague, sensed peripheries--the "gray areas" that are not merely the excess of a concept but are rich and vital centers of experienced life. The gray areas of life are usually not gray at all. They escape intellectualism through their vibrancy and polyvalence: their inability to be captured by the rigid categories of the mind. We've also been frustrated--on the other hand--by our muteness before some of our most profound experiences. Life is buoyed by intuitions, epiphanies, and moods, most of which we can only gesture towards in language.

In running, too, there is this difficulty. Many of the best endurance athletes are able to externalize their bodies, to treat them as an object, with scientific precision. This is what Alberto Salazar and Galen Rupp have been doing with Rupp's body over the course of the years. They have a 20 year plan for his development. They treat the body of Rupp with almost scientific precision, measuring its adaptation, its biochemical markers, charting a path that is aimed at athletic perfection. Though most of us who take our running more or less seriously are not nearly as relentless (or intelligent) in the scrutiny of our bodies, part of the joy of distance running is in treating one's body as an object: controlling its efforts, its fuel, its recovery, learning how it adapts, etc. In this way, we treat it as if we can truly apprehend it in itself.

One mark of an objectified body is the removal of hair from the legs.
But curiously this objectifying of the body also threatens to alienate us from the body. The other joy of distance running is in living in a body, feeling a body, becoming a body (what Deleuze calls "becoming animal".) In order to run and race well, there has to be a moment when the mind of the runner is overcome by the body. We stop analyzing, stop externalizing, and we race. We annihilate the conceptual half of the mind and let it be overcome by sensation. We get in the flow and we go. In these moments, we do not apprehend the body as an object--the body apprehends us. We do not "know" the body; we become it. If Rupp did not have the ability to do this, to perform this feat of mind-immolation, he perhaps could put up some great statistical performances in the lab, but he would never be able to compete on the world stage. If Rupp knows how to listen to the music, he also knows how to play it.

It strikes me that these are two different forms of discipline, each of which we have to practice in training. On the one hand, we have to learn to externalize ourselves, to see ourselves from the perspective of a coach or another runner. Otherwise, our training lacks coherence and organization. This is where running logs and heart rate monitors and various other instruments of analysis are useful. On the other hand, we also have to practice becoming our bodies, which is something else entirely. This aspect of training has more in common with artistic practice than scientific method. The discipline of becoming the body means practicing being overwhelmed by sensation, moving with it, letting it organize you, repattern your mind and your movements. Otherwise, our training lacks freedom and creativity.

If Rupp symbolizes the externalization of the body taken to the extreme, perhaps Henry Rono is the epitome of the runner who races and trains intuitively. Read this account of Rono racing.

Too often these two modes of discipline are put into opposition, but running teaches us that in experience both elements are essential. The body is two types of object. It is both something other than me, and it is me. The challenge is not to choose one or the other of these relations, but to keep them both living. We feel and analyze, each in its own measure, according to its own discipline.

Perhaps if life could be reduced to the categories of the mind or the categories of sensation, we would know more fully who we are. We could attain some sort of absolute knowledge. The runner would know, through analysis, exactly how fast he could race a marathon. Salazar would know, absolutely, what Rupp can or can't do. We can't know, but this is no cause for skepticism. We can know better. The runner understands this: life is not about the knowing; it is about the trying. What the skeptic sees as a failure of the human mind, the runner sees as a chance to understand better, to become faster, to be different.

Like life, running is an adventure in uncertainty. We follow hunches and intuitions, half blindly. This is what makes intelligent analysis, when we are able to muster it, so valuable. But those moments that analysis cannot reach give us the thrill, the impulse, the doubt, and the desire that wrap us up, consume us, and carry us ever-onward.
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