måndag 3 december 2012

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.

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