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?


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