tisdag 25 december 2012

Fitness in an inflamed culture

Before I start I would like to say a few things. This post is not a critique of so called "functional training" or of CrossFit. It is not meant to be a part of the debate on gun legislation. Neither is a critique of USA or of U.S. culture. It is merely an attempt to articulate things that I have been thinking about and also an attempt to think and write about fitness and physical culture in a way that I find too rare. The post is in itself not a finished body of work but rather a part of the blog - a work in progress an invitation to debate and hopefully, if not food, at least a snack, for thoughts.

In the reactions after the Connecticut school shooting something struck me as being a central difference between my own culture and what we might call U.S. culture. Very quickly after the shootings voices on social media started calling out for armed teachers and armed guards at school. U.S. voices. My own reaction - since I might be described as a bleeding-heart-commi-liberal - was that this was preposterous. I belive that this reaction is the standard one in most of western Europe or at least Scandinavia.
But that USA is full of gun crazy fascists and that Europe is inhabited by liberal sissies isn't exactly news. Neither is it exactly a profound insight. No, what struck me is that a more fundamental difference between U.S. and western European culture is how "the natural state of things" is viewed. The main argument of the pro-gunners seems to be that there will always be "bad guys" and that we need to protect ourselves from them, with guns. This puts them in an Hobbesian world view where the natural state of things is war or conflict. Man can only respond to this fundamental condition. He can not hope to change it and it would be naive and futile to try. Another way of responding to a tragedy such as this would perhaps to look at the life of the shooter, to see it as a failure for the school system, social care, mental care etc. The difference is that this response would not rely on the idea that violent "bad guys" are a natural part of the state of things but would rather be interested in why guys become "bad guys" and what could be done to prevent it.

So where am I going with this? Well this insight - that U.S. culture in one sense seems to be inflamed, that there is an idea or feeling of constant conflict, of being under constant attack - made CrossFit make total sense to me.

The last few years have seen a revolution in the fitness industry with the entry of "functional" training. The debate over what constitutes "functional" is long and slightly tiresome so I'm not going there. What I think we can agree on is however that it must have something to do with the obstacles we meet in everyday life. What constitutes "functional" training is therefor dependent on how we perceive our everyday life. This is how CrossFit describes itself:

"We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable."

If we decide to overlook the obvious nonsense we can ask ourselves in what kind of culture that this definition of "functional" can emerge. What is needed for "functionality" to be defined as that which prepares one for absolutely everything and anything?

Let us take a short detour and look at another popular but much older movement, the Scouting movement, and their motto.

"The Scout Motto is: BE PREPARED which means you are always in a state of readiness in mind and body to do your DUTY.

Be Prepared in Mind by having disciplined yourself to be obedient to every order, and also by having thought out beforehand any accident or situation that might occur, so that you know the right thing to do at the right moment, and are willing to do it.
Be Prepared in Body by making yourself strong and active and able to do the right thing at the right moment, and do it."

The father of the Scouting movement is Robert Baden-Powell, a Lieutenant-General in the British army who used his military training manual, Aids to Scouting, as the basis of a program of informal education aimed at contributing "to the development of young people in achieving their full physical, intellectual, social and spiritual potentials as individuals, as responsible citizens and as members of their local, national and international communities."

Clearly the roots of Scouting are military. It's motto belongs in a military environment. It belongs in a state of conflict, in war. The idea that you have to be prepared for anything at all times does not belong in peace.

CrossFit is undoubtedly the most successful faction of the functional training movement. It is also undoubtedly a very american (and with "american" I mean belonging in the USA) phenomenon.
In the same way as we can find the roots of the Scouting movement and its motto in the military culture of the British army we can find the roots of CrossFit in the Hobbesian character of american culture. It is fitness in war time. It is fitness for individuals in a constant state of preparedness. It is fitness for an inflamed culture. (Michael Moore touches on the idea of U.S. culture as a culture of fear in Bowling for Columbine)

CrossFit isn't a success only in the U.S. however. CrossFit boxes are popping up like mushrooms in Stockholm and probably in large parts of Europe. Not in the whole of Europe though. CrossFit and Crossfit style training was virtually unheard of in Barcelona. A look at the CrossFit map of Europe shows some interesting differences between the different countries. Why such great differences? North vs. South, East vs. West, Rich vs. Poor, Catholic vs. Protestant, English speaking vs. non English speaking? Why do we train the way we do?

Well. I have no conclusion. There is a lot more to be said about the roots of CrossFit, the character of physical culture today, the militaristic origins of sport etc. etc.
I will leave you with one last question though. What would "functional fitness" look like in another culture, a culture that is not defined by "war of all against all"? Would there be room for aesthetics? Would there be dancing?


lördag 15 december 2012

Fascism, Militarism and Physical Culture - CrossFit, RKC and StrongFirst

There is something rotten in the state of "functional training".
A while ago the RKC organization was split in half. Pavel left and brought a large part of the organization core with him to start a new organization: StrongFirst.

My first reaction when I saw the logo was that it reminded me of something born out of the extreme right movement. (A guide to the symbolism of the extreme right here and here.

This brings me to something that has bothered me for quite a while, that there exists within the training community that I belong to - kettlebells, Crossfit etc. - a fascination and flirt with militarism and fascism.

Don't get me wrong. I don't think physical culture, the pursue of strength or other types of physical excellence, is fascist per se. I think humans in general should be physically stronger. There is something else though.

I started thinking about this a few years ago when I read the (massive) marketing of Dragon Door. Dragon Door relies heavily on the testimonials of their customers. In their marketing they publish these testimonials together with the name and title of the customer. A stunning high percentage of these published testimonials came from people who bears arms: police, military, body guards, special operators etc. This of course gives credibility to the claim that the RKC is all Go and no Show. If RKC kettlebell training is enough to prepare these guys it is enough for anyone.

It doesn't stop there though. At a closer look the language of the RKC also bore traces of martial influence: Viking Warrior, Tactical Strength Challenge, Breathing behind the Shield etc. A browse through the Dragon Door forum will reveal more.

With the split this tendencies certainly haven't disappeared. StrongFirst seems to have been created to cleanse the movement from some of the more "feminine" elements that riddled RKC such as a growing emphasis on movement, and to constitute a return to the basic values: Strength First. On social media pictures of tattoos of the StrongFirst logo together with the words "Loyalty, Honor, Respect" have popped up. All of them typical martial virtues.

The RKC/StrongFirst are not alone with this militarist tendency (the might be alone in their fascination for cargo pants though). It is also readily avialable in the Crossfit community. The Hero workouts bear the names of dead soldiers and part of the Crossfit games in 2012 was held at U.S. Marine base Camp Pendleton (which meant that no live footage and no spectators were allowed). It is however perhaps not so surprising to find militaristic tendencies within the Crossfit community since considering its origins in american corporate and physical culture.

An interesting difference between Crossfit and RKC/StrongFirst is the structure of the organization. Crossfit represents a more modern network type structure which emphasizes the fairly independent affiliates. RKC/StrongFirst on the other hand represents a hierarchical structure reminiscent of a military chain of command with the HKCs in the bottom, the RKCs over them etc. At the top we find the "generals", the Master RKCs. Promotion to higher levels are done regularly and seems to be based on achievement. Over the whole structure Pavel hoovers as a supreme, unquestionable leader. Needless to say we find the same structure in fascist organizations.

So, where am I going with this? Am I saying that Crossfit, RKC/StrongFirst, Tacfit etc. are fascist organizations? Not quite. At least I don't think so. But there definitely fascist/militaristic tendencies within those movements. There are cult like tendencies. There is a fascination with militarism. There is a smell of "Unity through Strength" that I find disturbing.



måndag 3 december 2012

New Life

Here we go again. Last time we spoke we were two NiNki's (No Income, No Kids) living life in sunny Barcelona. Life changes. Now we are rubbing elbows with Stockholm's hipster crowd carrying a small baby boy on our strong shoulders. The warm catalunyan sun is replaced by shining white snow and degrees well below zero. Yes, life changes and so does training. From being able to train hours every day of the week to perhaps squeezing in a few presses or deadlifts while the little one is sleeping. From sleeping the whole night through and eating well to being happy with 6 hours of sleep and living on coffee, sandwiches and cinnamon rolls. I will write about these changes and how I try to cope with them.


Jean-Marie Brohm and the elite athlete

Here I aim to present some of the ideas on sport expressed by french marxist socilologist Jean-Marie Brohm in his essay The Myth of Educative Sport. It is by no means a complete recapitulation or critique of Brohms ideas but rather an attempt to use some of his ideas to create a platform from where it is possible to question and discuss physical culture.

The focus of Brohm's essay is elite sport "(...) since this is the driving force behind mass and leisure sport and is indeed the stimulant of predominant physical activities in general".
Brohm thus not only means that elite sport in some way affects mass sport but also that it is a central factor - together with labour - in how humans relates to their bodies (in "state, capitalist society"). 
"(...) it is through the model of sport that the body is understood in practice, collectively hallucinated, fantasised, imagined and individually experienced as an object, an instrument, a technical means to an end, a reified factor of output and productivity, in short, as a machine with the job of producing the maximum work and energy."
An analysis of elite sport is therefore by extension capable of giving some fundamental insight on the relationship between the modern westerner and his body, on how the body is created in and perceived by our society and by ourselves.
I will not go deeper into a critique of this thesis  at this point but it suffices to say that it is far from obvious that it is through elite sport and labour that we understand and define our body - i.e. that elite sport and labour are the two main factors determining our relationship to our body. Other factors that comes to mind are fashion, popular culture (TV, music, film) and commercials.

Worth noticing is also the fact that Brohm doesn't question the division between mind and body, i.e. that the body might be inseparable from us in reality but that it is intellectually can be separated from "the soul" or "the mind" and be studied as a separate entity. This might be viewed as an obvious fact - that we have a body rather than that we are a body - but it is actually one of the most basic philosophical questions that has been debated in both western and eastern philosophy since its birth. Needless to say it is an enormous question and far out of the scope of this post but it is valuable to keep in mind.

For Brohm the elite athlete is a political figure. It is a figure created by the current regime as a role model for what constitues an ideal citizen. In the world of elite sports a myth about the "(...) outstanding individual devoting himself  body and soul to the accomplishment of his 'physical duty', demanding total self-denial and going as far as the 'supreme sacrifice' - death" is created. The elite athlete embodies the models of behaviour promoted by bourgeoise society: "the cult of duty for its own sake, the sense of sacrifice for the community, the ideology of the super-ego, obedience, discipline etc...".

This imaginary of the elite athlete/citizen is more than anything about an overcoming of the weakness of the flesh, of the body. It is therefore about pain and the overcoming of pain. In the individual athlete this is manifested in his dependence on pain and exhaustion. In viewing pain and exhaustion as a form of pleasure. The elite athlete has for Brohm internalized a form of masochistic behaviour. For the elite athlete the "comfort zone" is a bad word and to stay in the "comfort zone" is a sign of some kind of personal flaw.

Brohm's analysis relies heavily on the language used by athletes, trainers and sport journalists. In the world of Youtube, advertising and other social media it is easy to find examples of this "overcoming of the flesh". The whole genre of "motivational" films, pictures and quotes is the art form of this "internalized masochism". The stories of Muhammad Ali forging his body into an indestructable punching bag for George Forman to beat himself to exhausiton on, or Lance Armstrong not only overcoming cancer but also using it as a opportunity to rebuild his body to an even more perfect machine than it was before has brought a tear to the eye of many men. 

For Brohm this focus on pain and the overcoming of pain works as a legitimation for the pain inflicted on the masses, e.g. political prisoners, by the powers that be. 
"By conforming their body to the severe prescriptions of their masters, the slaves come to forget their condition as slaves and ignore the social conditions responsible for their slavery.
The athlete's overcoming of the flesh functions as an "opium for the people" not only by normalizing it but also by making it into the norm, turning it into effective self repression. Pain does not need to be inflicted to the people as an instrument of repression since they happily inflict it on themselves and if it needs to be inflicted they have been taught to accept it by idolizing the elite athlete and his struggle to overcome it.

These are some of the main ideas in Jean-Marie Brohm's The Myth of Educative Sport. I hope to write another post on one of his observations that I have not touched here later: the similarities between the language of the athlete's body and the language of the industrial machine.