Intrigued by the title, I recently purchased Mark Greif’s Against Everything–a collection of contrarian essays. In his first essay, “Against Exercise,” he makes the case that the rise in gym rats bears a negative correlation to the decrease of civic activity. He lays down the following premise, which strikes me as sound:
A hidden sphere, free from scrutiny, makes the foundation for a public person–someone sure enough in his privacy to take the drastic risks of public life, to think, to speak against the others’ wills, to choose with utter independence. In privacy, alone with one’s family, the dominating necessity and speechless appetites can be gratified in the nonthought and ache of staying alive.
In order for a person to prepare for the inevitable opposition that he will face in the public arena, regardless of what stance he takes, he needs a true safe space in which he can broadcast his fears, hopes, beliefs, dreams, disappointments, etc. without the fear of media-like scrutiny and critique. The understanding, as in the ancient Greek understanding, of citizenship is that we will, after sufficient domestic refreshment, fulfill our civic duties and suffer what we must in order to participate properly in the public sphere. However, given the growing trend of disassociation and given the shrinking levels of social trust, we are more likely to turn inward and antisocial. (This essay was published in 2004, before the smart phone virus and all its related social oblivion-creating effects reached the epidemic level. Reading it now is comparable to returning to watch the first episode of The Walking Dead, knowing where it leads.)
Where does gym membership then come into play? Greif makes the following connection:
[T]he true payoff of a society that chooses to make private freedoms and private leisures its main substance has been much more unexpected. This payoff is a set of forms of bodily self-regulation that drag the last vestiges of biological life into the light as a social attraction.
Whereas before men like Cicero took bold public stands and gave thrilling speeches that would be the imaginative fodder for young Southern men hundreds of years later, we, not able to muster up either the will or the eloquence of someone like Cicero, do what we can: publicly display primal biological functions. As a result, “[a]ction in public before strangers and acquaintances loses its center of gravity in the lived experience of the citizen and is replaced by the activity of exercise in public, as speech gives way to biological spectacle.” We are no longer citizens concerned for the civic body; rather, we are individuals who care for our own physical bodies–yet still yearn for the importance that only a public acknowledgement can confer upon an action.
As someone who had been able to resist gym membership until about a year ago, I find this essay engaging and thought-provoking, but not totally convincing. While I signed up initially because a membership would give me access to heavy weights and jiu-jitsu and combat knife classes, I have noticed–and so have others!–since then very pleasing changes to my body and will continue my membership for, if for no other reason, vanity purposes. Though I am no longer as civic-minded as I once was, I do not think that any lingering desire to return to a fuller participation in my community played a significant role in my acquiring a gym membership, nor can I say that my sweating in front of the same core twenty to thirty dudes acts as a surrogate for more meaningful public interaction. Perhaps, though, that is because I have experienced, through church, different groups, and even my job as a teacher, what robust community involvement requires and feels like; I know that publically-displayed squats or deadlifts cannot compete–or substitute. However, for those who have never truly tested themselves in the public square, perhaps pumping iron may serve as the only way they can test their mettle.