This Academic Life
JoggingThe other day I started a running program, in which I wake up at about 6:30am and go for a 30-40 minute walk/jog every other day. I even bought some good running shoes and CoolMax clothing to facilitate this endeavor, and have begun to prepare time-appropriate playlists to listen to in my iPod while I exercise. So it's a comparatively major redirection of resources.

Why have I done this?

There are, of course, arguments about the health benefits of a more active lifestyle, and academics -- who earn their living sitting at desks typing, and sitting or standing in classrooms teaching, and sitting in archives and libraries reading (you get the picture) -- are confronted by a strong set of temptations leaning away from regular physical activity. Now, these arguments are based in medical science, which treats the body as a machine and emphasizes how regular exercise keeps all of the parts in working order. They go hand in glove with an entire "naturalistic" critique of the modern industrialized way of life, purporting to offer something demonstrably superior precisely because it is more "natural." While I find this a fascinating claim, what fascinates me is not its truth or falsity, which I tend to remain largely agnostic about; what I find fascinating is the prevalence of the commonplace and its successful deployment in the constitution of "jogging" and "fitness" as activities, industries, ways of life.

But what about the "fact" that jogging has been linked to numerous healthy outcomes, including a reduction in body fat and enhances cardiovascular function? These links aren't just correlations, either; they are sustained by specific delineations of physiological mechanisms. And I know people who have lost weight and gained both energy and muscle tone by running regularly. Don't these instances prove that jogging has health benefits, and thus justify the activity "objectively"? Once again, what fascinates me here is social prevalence of a set of commonplaces about the body and its proper functioning, which are then concretely deployed in attempts to account for various things. "Body fat" exists inasmuch as we have a conceptual system that supports the notion and interconnects it with other indicators in meaningful ways. This doesn't mean that we all have to be conscious of "body fat" in order to have any; rather, it means that the conceptual system itself is complicit in the production of "body fat" as a meaning-full indicator of something (in this case, "health").

Scientific realists would disagree, of course: first there's body fat, then there are conceptual systems that take account of this. But I remain unconvinced that we have to go that far or that we have to make that leap from "the world as it reveals itself to us, given the cultural resources which we use to make our ways within it" to "the world as it really is in itself [bangs fist on table]." At least, it isn't necessary for me when I started jogging. Pragmatically, we have the fact that treating the body as a machine can sometimes produce useful results, and that's a strong component of my thought process culminating in this new commitment. Of course, we have all heard the stories of the guy who ran every day for years and then dropped dead of a heart attack, so the correlation is in no way perfect; in accord with my general commitment to mechanism-based explanations, I am convinced not by the statistical linkage but by the plausible delineation of physiological causal mechanisms -- which may not produce robust correlations in open systems. [I know that there's a tension here. I'll get back to it in a moment.]

But also, and perhaps equally important, is the self-identity aspect of the practice. Fitness can be thought of as a Foucauldian "technology of the self," a way that we produce ourselves as selves capable of engaging in various activities. Taking possession and control of some of those technologies, exploiting the ambiguities within them and the ambiguities between them and other similar technologies, increases the agentic space available to a person. Academia, as a set of social practices, "hails" its participants into a rather sedentary mode of existence -- and thus exacerbates the mind/body split with which we have all been saddled. In a way, then, my jogging is a form of resistance: a more or less deliberate attempt to not be wholly defined by any one version of "myself."

Finally, there is the fact that the community of runners is a great example of a distributed knowledge system. Runners share tips and tricks with one another, much like computer users [power users, anyway -- unfortunately too many people remain clueless about computers, especially in academia. Academics can be a liberal bunch politically, but when it comes to technology and to pedagogical practice, as a group they're positively reactionary] or musicians. The "theory" of running is distributed among multiple nodes, and is shared through books and clubs and mailing lists and the like. Hence, engaging in running means joining a community of runners, which is quite appealing. Joining said community means adopting some of the community's standards for what constitutes "health" and the like, thus solving the problem that I identified in my argument above: how do I know that running "works"? The answer is that in joining a community of runners I have accepted a set of (necessarily vague) community standards that I subsequently use to make that evaluation.

But wait, isn't this a tautology? "I think that running works because I think that running works." Not quite: instead, it's "I think that running works because the public conceptual resources with which I am now thinking about the issue lead me to conclude that running works." Why I have adopted those conceptual resources is contingent, and probably has to do with factors as idiosyncratic as the fact that my mom started running a few months ago, the fact that I can use my iPod to produce a sonic bubble universe during my runs, the fact that my wife and I recently decided to reorganize our daily schedules so as to make more space for family time (that's a whole different entry on "academia and family life" that I will write one of these days), and the presence of runners in my everyday environment -- including people whose opinion and assistance I value on other matters, and with whom I work closely in other (non-running) contexts. In other words, it's a network phenomenon, involving the transmission and (re)production of identity components via concrete social channels that are only locally fixed.

Yes, I do really think about these things while jogging.

[Posted with ecto]

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"Academia als Beruf," or, an occasional record of the various aspects of my life as an academic. Written by "21stCWeber," an arrogant handle I know…but I must confess that I do want to be Weber when and if I grow up :-)



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