Gyms and Poets [by Jennifer Michael Hecht]
How do you decide to get your Ph.D. in Cultural History, thinking about poems and pictures all day, and end up with a Ph.D. in the History of Science?
It’s funny you should ask. You go to Columbia University on Manhattan’s right shoulder where they keep threatening to hire a Cultural Historian, but never quite do. What they did have was a hella Historian of Science and history of science turned out to be poetry, basically, so once I picked it up I knew I was never setting it back down.
Why is history of science so delicious? I begin with a fast friend of mine, about whom all y’all may already have strong opinions and probably not good ones. So I should just shut up about it, but in truth, forsooth, I can’t tell you what I believe about the world without giving Michel Foucault props.
I have long joked that Philosophers of Science talk about how science works, and Historians of Science talk about how science doesn’t work. Historians of science tell the history of scientific beliefs in terms of how those beliefs shared values with the wider culture of the era. When you do that for sciences that try to evaluate and explain human beings, you find the science pretty much just traces out the wider cultural beliefs.
Not just in the past either. Even now.
In trying to understand ourselves and our world, let’s say we start with nothing. How should we begin?
As we stand around wondering this, one of us drops dead. Someone says, I don’t want to drop dead like Fred. Can anyone tell me why Fred dropped dead, so I can avoid it?
Think about how focused on that question today’s science is. Isn’t that a little funny just by itself?
Now, how can we guess why he died? Well, I see a group of people over there and no one over there has dropped dead. Let’s start our investigation with the question “What is different about them and us?” Whatever it is, that will be what killed Fred.
Strictly speaking it’s true, whatever it was that happened to Fred was local to Fred who was local to us, so the difference between them and us is, by our definition of terms, what killed Fred. But there is something wonderfully off base about it, right? Because it could be anything that led to Fred’s death yet we are going to get real serious about testing a few possible correlations. We choose to study the difference in what we eat, as if it is of course the place to be looking for the correlation. Then we go after it like crazy, asking old people whether they ate more kiwis than potatoes, and doing decades-long studies of hundreds of thousands of people.
So the first step down the rabbit hole is that we choose human longevity as the most interesting aspect of science. I mean, come on people, look at the amount of science reporting that is about what you should have for lunch so as to prolong your aging years. We are as manically interested in longevity as the Ancient Egyptians were about “the next life.” It’s a cultural trance that’s gone way out of control. (All cultures are interested in death but some cultures go nuts around the subject, and I think we qualify as grade A nuts out of control.)
[Check it out. The reality is that you are a blinking thinking consciousness with two opposable thumbs in an unthinkably vast unthinking universe. You exist for what amounts to a blink of an eye, in cosmic terms. In cosmic terms the whole of planet earth the whole history of the Earth exists in a blink, there are galaxies upon galaxies and they have time enough to be born and live and die and our whole solar system even our whole fricking galaxy the Milky Way is as a breath inhaled and a breath exhaled in the great giant real truth of time and the universe. So what the fuck are you worrying about the Stairmaster for? (Unless you love the Stairmaster in which case go have fun on it.)
So right. First of all, it doesn’t really matter how long you live. This isn’t theater, there is no way to miss the end. All bits of it are about as good as all the others and it seems a great treat because we all got in and we all got in together. The together is the magic part. What matters is being alive and mentally healthy enough to live in the real world with all its actual weird magic, while you’re here.
So the first step down the rabbit hole is to be so ever-lovin concerned about longevity. Next is to believe that food and exercise are what is different between those people over there, where no one dropped dead, and these people here, where Fred did.
Foucault’s book Discipline and Punish showed me this: We think of incarceration as civilized and cutting off a finger as cruel and unusual, but if I asked most people if they want to be locked up in a cell for ten years or lose a finger, they’d choose to lose the finger. Foucault’s History of Sexuality showed me this: We think of the Victorians as being really distant from sex, but the fact is talking about not having sex is a lot like talking about sex. They never shut up about it. Skirting a piano stool so we don’t see its indecent legs is an act of sex mania.
With training from Foucault and Freud, who both told me that bold claims sometimes actually mean their direct opposite, I came to believe, for instance, that gyms are occupying precisely the role they did in Ancient Sparta and in Fascist Germany. Being obsessed with bodies is actually a pretty rare thing in human history and we’re in lousy company.
It always means We are strong even though the peons do all the real work for us. We have special arenas marked as leisure where we get muscled at play.
If you are a poet, you shouldn’t freaking care about this. Only workout at the gym if you like it. You’ve been invited to the planet for a long yet short stay. Go make something you enjoy making. Next time you want to go somewhere leave enough time to walk there, or part of the way. Sweep your own leaves. Forget the weights. Unless you like it. In which case, knock yourself out. I’m just saying, the universe is vast and fine, and the universe of the mind is equally extensive and divine. What’s in between is a little piece of meat that is admittedly easier to get your hands on than the universe or the inner life. But still. Feeling guilty for not going to the gym is ridiculous. You don’t have to go there. Go there if you like it. But that place isn’t what it says it is. If it doesn’t feel right to you, that’s because there’s something a little wrong with it.
If you want to know more, read The Happiness Myth.
Hookay loves, excellent work staying alive since last post, most of you. Let’s see if we can do even better this week.