Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Marx was wrong about alienation, but also kinda right.

Marx was wrong about alienation.

He could never have predicted the extent to which we are not only willing to alienate ourselves from the products of our labor, our bodies, our minds, our location, etc., but will pay big money and renewable monthly fees to make it happen.

Marx was worried that the machines of the industrial revolution would create such a dislocation in experience that we could never recover. What would he say about iphones. Or jet planes. Or techno-music. Or corporate cubicles. Or this self-same internet on which you are reading these self-same words that spin out of a place you have never seen and come to you almost perfectly scraped clean of their origins.

He would say: the human capacity for alienation appears to have no limits. Even Marx would have to admit: his fundamental concept, the hinge to the revolution, was just plain wrong. We appear totally willing to dislocate ourselves from experience pretty much willy-nilly. Not only that, we actively push for more dislocation, more speed, more stuff, more money, more of everything. Such is the state of contemporary culture -- and it appears that no revolution or respite from either willy or nilly is in sight.

These thoughts occurred to me as I ran through the finally-crisp air of a blackening October evening, feeling that feeling that runners know. The simple feeling of being at home in a body that is unattached to any implements, barely clothed, feeling the earth beneath one's feet and the sky vaulting endlessly overhead. This is non-alienation.

I thought: Marx must have been a runner.

Running is a quite simple example of non-alienated labor. The work we do when we run does not disappear into the ether; it's not zipped off at the speed of electromagnetic waves and zipped around the earth. It doesn't look like emails or spreadsheets. It is not exchangeable for money. The work done by the subject comes back to the subject. We work our muscles and they become stronger. We move our body and it becomes leaner. After months and years of this running, it marks our bodies -- the way we walk, the clothes we wear, the thin and faraway look at the edges of the eyes. The work stays with us.

There is great satisfaction in that, especially in a culture in which alienation is pretty much a fact of life, something we enjoy and are comfortable in.

We are living in the middle of a running boom, and I must admit the thought has occurred to me that this boom is a consequence of a more extreme degree of alienation in culture. There is a sense in the wider culture these days that the relationship between work and reward, between labor and its fruits, is becoming more and more fragile.  It's this sense that spawns the bumperstickers about the 1% or the pushback against social welfare programs for freeloaders or even the general fatigue with politics and the sense that political work is simply vacuous. All of these forms of protest stem from a worry about alienation -- a worry that work is no longer valued, that we now sort out the fruit of labor according to a corrupt scheme (call it government; call it oligarchy of the rich and powerful; call it whatever boogeyman you like to dream of.)

Running is not really a protest against all of this. Running is not a form of revolt or political action. It's more like just simply opting out for a while from the system of willy-nilly appropriation and re-appropriation of labor. It's being in your body and doing work.

We go outside. We do work. We enjoy that work. It makes us healthier, happier, stronger, faster. We do it with friends, and laugh while we do it. What effect do we proletariats of running have on the wider culture? We don't know. We can't say. Certainly not revolutionary effects.

I think that lack of relation with the political is a positive in the end. Perhaps the strictest Marxists would want to see running as just another form of bourgeois alienation -- as the most selfish form of labor, as labor without results, without engaging in class war or what have you. Yet another simulacrum among all the rest.

But Marx himself? His beard gives him away. He was a dreamer, a poet, a wild man, a pamphleteer. He needed movement himself to write -- it was well known that he would do laps around his table when stuck on a concept, walking furiously around and around, until the ideas came.

It seems to me that our politics are always founded in certain typical experiences, and the absence of those experiences are what we would term alienation or lack of authenticity. There are certain experiences that we need, that we want, that we feel reflect our fullest selves, and that guide our political ideals.

I wonder what experiences gave Marx the content of the idea of alienation? Was it writing itself, for the prolific Marx? The way the words take even the clearest thoughts away, reduce them to meaning, make them stale, open them to misinterpretation, cliche, or confusion? The way even the best essays are only suggestive, never complete, never finished.


Our world gives us countless examples of alienation, countless moments in which we feel carried along by forces greater than ourselves and indifferent to us. Running gives a counter-example: in running, we carry ourselves. What do we do with this counter-example? What lesson does it teach? What duties does it impose?

Or are these questions just the return of alienation once more? A relatively feeble attempt to take those strides, that cool air, that night sky, that steady breath, that moving body, and ask that it be something more (or less) than simple satisfaction in activity: a body born to move, simply moving?

Saturday, October 5, 2013

The Daily Run

Runners are generally creatures of habit. We have our standard loop, our daily schedule, and we stick to it more or less. Though they always sounds nice in theory, runners know that exploratory runs in new directions or in different cities are fundamentally disruptive to the training schedule. We prefer to know every inch of our path; it makes getting around it easier mentally. Our hardest workouts are done on the most uniform surface possible -- a 400m oval, which in its simplicity and uniform nature is a striking metaphor for the habitual nature of the runner's activity.

The deeper the runner gets into heavy training, the more essential habit becomes. When the body begins to resist the miles, when the legs feel heavy, or the brain fogs from fatigue, the easiest thing to do is what one did yesterday -- hit the standard loop. We have run it so many times that it almost literally runs itself. We are responsible for a minute or two of effort, but once out the door and on the loop, the loop itself seems to carry us around.

In the same way, the rhythm of running imposes a sort of order of habit on daily life. We put our runs into place, then the rest of life falls in around that order. You see this rhythm carried to the extreme with the streakers. For the streaker, the run takes on an almost metaphysical quality -- it becomes not just a form of exercise or a way of moving the body, but a reality, a necessity, as real to that runner as the rising of the sun and as cold and hard a necessity as the stars that shine on a clear winter night.

These rituals and repetitive behaviors make runners seem obsessive or compulsive, and in a way we are -- some more than others. We worry that all of this running is a symptom of a loss of freedom, that we run like panthers pace a cage. But repetitive behaviors are not always obsessive or the mark of psychological damage, and routine or habit is not always dull. Indeed, some form of daily rhythm is essential to the health of every living organism. A life without routine of some sort is simply a disorganized life.

The older I get, the more I realize that freedom is about the establishment of routine. The very nature of meaningful and free action is bound up in repetition. To live a life with purpose is to make choices that lead us to develop and grow along certain channels. If we find the right channels, they deepen and grow more complex and variegated each time we return to them. This process is often imperceptible; our lives and personalities grow through a force that is similar to erosion.

Not to find these deep channels, not to return to them -- to live as if each day were brand new! This sounds lovely, and this advice is doled out often. But such a life would be a life of surfaces without depth, a life of noises and screens and words, but not music, not art, not meaning. The great musicians and the great athletes know what the runner knows: that talent is discovered and refined through the erosive force of habit.

It is true that ritual and repetition can easily give way to boredom and mechanical routine. Every runner experiences these things, perhaps just as often as the experience of strength or talent or identity. It is tempting to say that these things -- boredom and purpose, mechanical routine and deep meaning -- are two sides of the same coin, but I think such a statement avoids the problem we regularly face.

In its simplest form, the problem is this: control, order, and organization are necessary to life, but in their most rigid forms, they are the worst thing that can happen to life. As we face the challenge of becoming free and productive adults, we seek to impose some degree of control over our lives, but then chafe constantly at the way in which this control, once established, seems so quickly to turn against us -- to begin to control us.

Is there a way out of this bind? I don't think so. It's the bind that life puts us in: we must adapt to preserve ourselves. Running is both of these things, both adaptation and preservation. It's an attempt to adapt to life; an attempt to build strength and endurance, to learn to deal with pain, to enjoy our bodies, to live outside and in the world, to work alongside our friends. It's an attempt to preserve our life; an attempt to find calm, to escape the demands of contemporary life, to delay the onset of age, to heal minds made foggy by too much talking and not enough moving.

What's my point here? I think it's something like this: let's be careful not to call every routine a compulsion, characterize every rhythm as a type of monotony, or separate the idea of habitual action from the search for freedom. These things come together for us in the same way that the wooden legs and resistant mind of the early miles of the daily run almost magically transform themselves into free and full movement and refreshed consciousness. Just so, dull routine becomes deep experience, reminding us that beauty lies just beneath the gray tones of ordinary life, waiting always to erupt.

This is the lesson of the daily run.
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