I have to admit I wasn’t sure what to expect when you suggested Mark Greif’s Against Everything to me as something we should review. I’m finding it’s giving me a huge amount to think of – and a lot of what he’s covered, I’d thought about a lot before, so it was interesting to compare my thinking with his. Shall we start from the beginning? We’ve both talked before about our fairly new gym regimes. I must admit there was a little part of me that got almost paranoid after reading “Against Exercise”: was I regarding myself purely in numbers when used each machine; obsess about the change or lack of as a result; how did I behave in these surroundings? Did my body act in “lonely solitude . . . as if it were still in private”?
While I deny that I am consciously trying to delay death – at least in the sense that I am trying to delude myself that I will not, eventually, expire – I know that I go because it keeps me at a level of health that I need to actively maintain more than some people. I feel like I have a small degree of control over myself, and that matters to me, because of my mild asthma, and being more prone to picking up colds. Exercise means I keep these to a manageable level. I think if you ever had the experience as a kid of being sick a lot with the illness by-products of a condition like asthma (bronchitis, wheezing), you relish the chance to at least feel like you have some say in being healthy. And perhaps because of that, I don’t have the obsessive outlook – the one of vanity that he suggests dominates the mentality of the gym alongside keeping death and illness at bay. Thinness isn’t an issue – I don’t look at other women and think, I could/should be like that; the gym isn’t my instrument to transform myself. Nor do I think thinness (in women, as there seems to be extreme arguments around these days) is the measure of health. Only a doctor gets to tell me if they think I am healthy or not; it certainly won’t ever be measured by me in terms of how I look in gym gear or how many calories I’ve burned. The gym doesn’t make me ashamed of my body, it’s merely an instrument to maintain a sensible level of fitness, which in turn is an aspect of my life, but not the overriding one. I think that’s healthy.
I did find it wryly funny, his line about ‘the proselytizing urge that comes with it (exercise)’. Because of course we had been talking about our routines to an extent, and I probably made the comment that it might be painful as well as a pain to do, but you have to admit you feel pretty good at the end. But thankfully we’ve never lingered over paragraphs singing the praises of protein shakes or post-workout pressed juices like we do with books. Shun me if I do. And besides, you smoke, we both like a drink – I’m not sure we’ll ever qualify as ‘serious’ in that particular world – although hypocrisy is the flip side of the health coin, but then any obsessive focus, especially when it becomes a lifestyle, is at risk of that sort of behaviour. It reminded me of an old interview with Traci Lords, the ex-porn star back in the 90s: she shot an exercise video, and between takes would be out chain smoking. And you look at her then – she physically embodied health, youth, and beauty. It goes to show you that ‘looking’ healthy is never indicative of health – or what some people now might refer to as the ‘right’ kind of health. We’re getting to the point where the attitude amongst the more extreme fitness and food bloggers is essentially you only deserve health if you follow x y z regime and anyone not adhering to it is looked at with contempt.
And the superficial look extends into observation: how do we behave in the gym? I just pop in my earbuds and ignore people, mainly. I think when I was younger, I probably would have spent an amount of time worrying about how I looked to others, but now, I don’t care – that’s probably getting older, being comfortable with myself. I do think the gym culture now makes some people much less confident and even worse, competitive with it: all these boot camp type classes, etc. As if your worth and health is tied together and measured by how much you can beat yourself up in an hour, then deny yourself afterwards in food terms. But to go back to observation, there are definitely people who go to the gym to be noticed – although I can’t quite work out if it is unconscious or conscious behaviour. The guys who like to grunt really, really loudly as they do their weights and then do that funny walk to the mirror where they sway their arms and hips, the woman who surreptitiously eyes all the other women around her. There’s actually one at mine who seems to want to prove her superior regime to everyone by sweating profusely and not wiping down the equipment she uses. Whenever I see her do it, I always feel like I’m watching a nature documentary where an animal is marking a tree or a rock.
“Against Exercise” ties in very well with the section “On Food” – they go together even more so now due to their extreme view of what it means to be deserving of health – and within that, a distinct reward/punishment structure. One only needs to look at something like the Telegraph’s food lifestyle section: one article is praising the excessive delights of cronuts, the next one is about superfoods to live longer, food bloggers practically saying certain foods will cure you. While I do think the UK isn’t nearly as bad as America in some ways for that kind of food-as-religion (or cult) mindset, the really damaging part is still present: that choice and culture aren’t respected. I love my vegetables, but if they aren’t organic, I’m apparently killing myself. The trainer Tracy Anderson said something to that effect several years ago. There was a recent Vogue article where the author, a California transplant, marvelled in horror at moving to London in the very late 90s to discover Borough Market was located under a train line, and stall owners weren’t all California-stereotype friendly, and you couldn’t get a cold-pressed juice. Food and health here are distinctly tied to a certain income. Less so, with things like farmer’s markets, but then you have to live by one to benefit. The idea that some people can’t afford to buy only free-range, organic, etc. never occurs to them – or if it does, it’s never a question of not having money to pay utilities, etc. That’s an incredibly alienating mindset, and one that excludes anyone not in a particular socio-economic bracket from being a person worth consideration.
Greif says about food, “we devote ourselves to ways to make it difficult”.
What we’ve done is to make food representative of status, and in doing so, deliberately exclude a lot of society.
Yes, there’s the trickle-down effect: any Midwestern town probably sells wheat sourdough or gluten-free bread; there are mass-produced green juices available in any Morrisons. But the bar of food respectability keeps getting higher – that is to say, more ridiculous. The new thing comes along, and if you can’t afford it, you must not care about your body. That’s the message. Talk about guilt. But I suppose this has been around as long as the concept of slimming started. Looking at it in the context of women, sometimes I wonder if this is just all code for losing weight.
He notes the canon of food writers – at least the ones of a different age, people like M.F.K. Fisher – they wrote about the pleasure of eating, and I think their writing assumed, in general, that we ate to live but enjoyed it. That isn’t to say there was ridiculous gluttony – of course, that’s been going on from the start. Roman banquets, French gourmands. I was reading something about Grimod de La Reyniere – he was a gourmand and food writer – and he has a recipe for what can only be called the Ur-Terducken: about 16 different birds stuffed into each other. Greif rightly makes the point gourmandism was closely aligned to snobbery, and now healthy eating has joined that club. But overall, it seems to be less about enjoyment now – or enjoyment seems forced to me, when I read some of these blogs and articles. So it’s hardly surprising, seeing these food extremes in the media. It’s just a very loud battle to tell you how you ought to live, which is what he also notes when he refers to the “fraternal warfare” of the “new food order”. We all have to make our food choices as best we see fit, according to ethics, finances, culture, and health. There is no single template for all, even though he says “we have no language but health” in how to define our eating. Which ultimately is why I find it so mystifying and interesting that people feel the need to police the choices of others for this when they wouldn’t want to be policed in any other area of life themselves. Both exercise and food seem to be especially sensitive to the notion of guilt and blame on a societal scale, as if homogenising the solution would result in Utopia.
Like you, I think there’s something attractive about reading a book of essays covering subjects which we already spend a lot of time considering, although that does have its own challenges for the author. Can he come up with some revelation which will crumble our entrenched opinions? Can he present his arguments with as much passion and flair as you might when discussing the same topic over a bottle of wine with your inamorata? If a stranger approached you in a bar and muttered something about Kafka setting an updated version of “In the Penal Colony” in a gym, would you lean in for further discussion, or smile vaguely and edge away from them?
That opening line about Kafka, and the gym user’s obsessive use of statistics is an interesting one; for me, this is a symptom of a much wider trend, and Greif could just as easily be talking about call centres, or schools. In I Hate the Internet, Jarrett Kobek writes very eloquently about the way that we are constantly being mined for data by Google. I still find it disconcerting when my phone tells me how far I’ve walked in a day, or suggests restaurants that happen to be round the corner.
Society is increasingly being shaped by techno-libertarians who believe that they can use data to create political policy, so is it any wonder that we look to measure our own bodies in this way?
The thing that struck me most in this essay was the line about gym equipment replicating the work of manual labour – Greif described our use of levers, pulleys and so on as “nostalgia for the factory”. I thought he could have gone further by separating the form of the muscle from the function; so, when I go to the gym at the moment, I’m building my upper body strength, but for no practical purpose, except perhaps to help me get better distance when I hurl a paperback across the room. So we move into an aesthetic category: the muscle as a thing in itself, rather than as an instrument of labour. I don’t imagine that a modern day Walter Pater or JK Huysmans would spend a lot of time in the gym, but I’m sure they would appreciate the efforts of those who did.
In terms of control, I don’t have any illusions about prolonging life – as a northerner who smokes and drinks, I consider myself to be well into middle age at thirty-ish – but it has definitely changed the way I relate to my body. I’ve always had a negative body image (I suffered from an eating disorder in my early twenties), but regular gym visits have helped to channel my desire to control and manage my earthly form in a more positive-seeming way. I suppose, though, at a time when a lot of people feel powerless, it’s no wonder that we look to exert control where we can: an ordered body existing in a disordered body politic.
After a literary night out recently, I stumbled into the UCL Student Union Bar, and I was struck by the number of undergrads there who clearly worked out. That would have been almost unheard of when I was their age. It would be interesting to place them alongside the pasty, thin students of my generation. I guess in both cases, peer pressure, insecurity, and youthful bravado all play a part. We drank, smoked and self-harmed; they drink, vape and row.
On your point about gym etiquette and behaviour, like you, I’m a silent headphone-wearer, but I do find that there’s a voyeuristic element to exercising as well. Those mirrored walls… I should clarify, I don’t go to the gym to stare at women; since I’ve started going, though, I’ve become quite fascinated with the bodybuilders who work out there. I suppose it’s as much a work of body modification as tattooing, and demands the same level of commitment as dandyism, so it has a certain beauty to it (n.b. not the spotty-backed steroid-using trolls who troupe down there on Tuesday lunchtimes). And, of course, there’s the gym scene from If…, one of the sexiest moments of cinema history. Actually, gyms have always reminded me more of dungeons than doctor’s surgeries: benches of instruments laid out on display, strange contraptions with ropes and pulleys, machines to splay your legs, the sound of exertion and smell of sweat…
Back on topic, we’ve heard a lot this year about ‘locker room talk’, but that homosocial element of exercise and gym use doesn’t really enter into Greif’s thinking here, which is a shame – it would be interesting to read his thoughts on the way that the setting can apparently allow for certain types of conversation which would be frowned on elsewhere…
From the gym, to a topic which I have much less interest in, food and health. I’ve always deliberately avoided knowing much about nutrition, calorie content and so on – tied back to what I said about my eating disorder, I think it would have been quite dangerous for me to learn about it. I liked Greif’s analysis of food writing in terms of art history, although I did find myself switching off a bit at times during this one. I’m interested in the magical thinking that surrounds a lot of food writing: why are we so likely to believe claims about antioxidants and superfoods? Every week, the Daily Mail announces that some food or other causes or cures cancer – we seem to be searching for some kind of trick, which we haven’t been let in on yet.
In Manchester, the food trends have gone the other way: a meal out means ordering a pile of meat and cheese with a ridiculous name like ‘crack baby’. I guess this is a reaction to the self-righteous superfood culture that you talk about. Vegetarian restaurants tend to be located out in the more self-consciously bourgeois suburbs, although there used to be a very good one in a row of terraced houses in Moss Side. I didn’t eat meat for 15 years or so, and I do appreciate the mainstreaming of vegetarian restaurants, just because I remember how awful they used to be; there was always a smell of lentils and spices that hung in the air…
So, how are you finding it so far? I’m not sure I like his style that much yet, although maybe reading on the train isn’t the best environment for this type of writing. Still, there’s a lot for us to pick over. And I’m sure the essay on punk will give me lots to complain about…
Mark Greif is a founder and Editor of the journal n+1. He lives and works in New York, where he is Associate Professor of Literary Studies at the New School. He is the highly acclaimed author of The Age of the Crisis of Man, and his criticism and journalism have appeared in publications including the London Review of Books, Guardian, Times Literary Supplement, and New Statesman.
In the kingdom of kitsch Thom Cuell would be a monster.
Tomoé Hill is an editor at minor literature[s]. Her reviews, essays, and non-fiction can also be found at Berfrois, 3:AM Magazine, and Numéro Cinq.
Against Everything is published by Verso Books. Author bio courtesy of the same.