Physical Culture

Art and Fitness III

In the late sixties, the artist Bruce Nauman created a number of videos based on “an awareness of yourself” that comes from “exercises” rather than simply thinking or reading, as he said in an interview from the period. His current show features seven video installations that look back on one of those pieces, Walk With Contrapposto (1967-8). I wrote about it here.

Is exercise addictive?

Here is a thoughtful and worthy essay, from Nautilus, about exercise addiction. The topic certainly deserves attention. However, as a skeptic of lumping strong habits under the rubric of addiction, I was not convinced by this author that the phenomenon is accurately described by the term (as opposed to compulsion, another term brought up here). She acknowledges that no agreed-upon definition of exercise addiction exists but pushes on without trying to convince us that people who work out too much are in fact addicts. Are people who study too much addicts? Who worry too much? Who are neat freaks? Is the definition of addiction simply overdoing it? Still, making the connection between eating disorders and exercise addiction seems to me astute and cries out for of more study.

Political Bodies in Egypt

An especially interesting article in The New York Times today reports that in Egypt, among the young who swarmed the streets some five years ago during the Arab Spring, “a fitness craze has taken hold.” A really excellent turn of events for a country that ranks as the 17th most obese in the world. However, the really fascinating part are the causes that the writer, Rod Nordland, adduces for this new exercise movement. Some see it as Egypt merely catching up with increasing worldwide enthusiasm for fitness, which is to say it’s an inward turn, a “withering of the political revolution under President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.” Other comments—that, for instance, the revolution gave people permission to occupy public space in a new way–suggest that it represents a transformation of political energy, one that retains its connection to politics. I’m betting on the latter. As I note in LIFT, fitness has…

The Brain in the Body

When talking about athletes, it is common to praise their short memories: a great quarterback, for example, will instantly forget an interception so he can go right back out and throw a touchdown pass. We know why this is important in sport, but we don’t know why physiologically this is important. However, Neuroscientists at the University of Pittsburgh have reported finding the neural networks that connect the brain directly to the adrenal medulla, which is near the kidneys and is responsible for “the body’s rapid response in stressful situations.” The study showed that the areas of the cerebral cortex “that are active when we sense conflict, or are aware that we have made an error, are a source of influence over the adrenal medulla. ‘This observation,’ said Dr. Strick, ‘raises the possibility that activity in these cortical areas when you re-imagine an error, or beat yourself up over a mistake,…

Art and Fitness II

Pictures of people doing handstands in exotic locations, usually while on vacation, have become a mainstay of the fitness world in the New Frontier. I’ve been guilty of a few. Here I am on the Parthenon, for instance: One can make the argument that this particular strand of selfie culture has its origin, or at least an early exemplar, in Conceptual Art, Robert Kinmont’s 8 Natural Handstands (1969). Depictions of people engaged in fitness activities and sport are among the very oldest in art. Here, unlike those first images, there is almost no emphasis on the physique; rather it’s on the performance itself, which in this case feels like something of a party trick—and that’s probably why there’s a whiff of narcissism about it. That sense of showing off is only strengthened by the fact that it’s a self-portrait, one executed in a notably heroic setting, balanced on a rock…

New LIFT excerpt

I am really honored to have an expanded excerpt from Lift published on The Paris Review Daily. I spent most of my twenties working at what was then just a literary magazine, first as an intern and eventually as the managing editor. During that time, George Plimpton, whom I miss dearly, was my mentor and friend, and so I’m especially pleased to be able to write a bit about him on a blog I read every day.

On tech

Just read Edward Mendelson’s excellent NYRB essay, “In the Depths of the Digital Age,” in which he cites Bernard Harcourt: “In place of the medieval idea of the king’s two bodies—the king’s royal powers derived from heaven and his natural self—Harcourt proposes the two bodies of ‘the liberal democratic citizen…: the now permanent digital self, which we are etching into the virtual cloud with every click and tap, and our mortal analog selves, which seem by contrast to be fading like the color on a Polaroid instant photo.’ ” It would be interesting to consider and discuss the burgeoning of today’s physical practices, and the new asceticisms they have engendered, as a response to our increasingly robust digital selves. This would not be a new phenomenon: various fitness practices, from gymnastics to sport, arose in the early 19th century in response to the technologies of the Industrial Revolution and to…

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