A Body Without Options (Part 1)

Last week I binge-watched the new Netflix series, Cheer, about a life in the Navarro College cheer squad.

Following certain members of the team as they prepare for the Daytona national championships, each episode explores their struggles and hardships and the support and discipline that cheerleading provides them…

Yeah, it’s pretty by-the-numbers…

But it’s captivating watching them throw themselves — quite literally — into cheerleading, navigating the sport alongside their various neuroses, suffering frequent injuries but always getting back up again.

Here, cheerleading is presented as a sport of extremes and one that seems to be getting more extreme every year. More flips, more jumps, more complicated maneuvers, pushing against the capabilities of what a young body can do and heightening the trust required in your fellow team mates to create an immovable bond. And it is a young person’s sport. They talk repeatedly about how there is no competitive cheerleading above the college level. Once you’ve graduated, you’ve aged out.

It’s your one and only chance. It’s all or nothing, until you’re ~25, and then you’re out, and you watch, as a viewer, how the bodies of alumni are so different from those still actively competing. They’re all a lot stockier — just as strong, perhaps, but less nimble — and they are also a lot more settled. The visible weight of their bodies seems to reflect their social status as grounded and well-rounded individuals, in stark contrast to the flying teens required to throw themselves like strands of thread through the eye of a needle. The mat is a microcosm of their young lives in almost every sense.

As a result, college cheerleading becomes this extremophile militant finishing school, where you push yourself to your limits and (hopefully) win big before you take your sense of discipline and your relentless work ethic and your communal consciousness into the State and the Family and then live out the rest of your days.

I struggled with this side of things a bit and couldn’t help but start philosophizing.

Most recently I’ve been thinking a lot about philosophical explorations of embodiment and bodily relation, attempting to work my way through Deleuze’s book on Spinoza, Expressionism in Philosophy, in which he explores Spinoza’s (and also Leibniz’s) Anticartesianism in which “expression” becomes an category of existence that better encapsulates the entangled nature of human experience than cogito ergo sum.

“Being, knowing and acting are the three forms of expression”, Deleuze writes, and he traces the emergence of this thought in Spinoza’s God, nature. Being, knowing and acting are drawn out from a consciousness of God’s acting upon the world and so the act of creation and the very essence of our metaphysical emanation within the world unfolds us across the world in which we see God.

God, nature then becomes, for Spinoza, a positive feedback loop between ourselves and our consciousness of the world outside ourselves. Deleuze articulates the radicality of this position with far more clarity. He writes that expression

at once gives back to Nature its own specific depth and renders man capable of penetrating into this depth. It makes man commensurate with God, and puts him in possession of a new logic: makes him a spiritual automaton equal to a combinatorial world. Born of the traditions of emanation and creation it makes of these two enemies, questioning the transcendence of a One above Being along with the transcendence of a Being above his Creation.

This is Deleuze’s concept of univocity. What we can say of God and nature is always also applicable to humans or things. The body without organs is a univocal way of thinking things in their parallelism. A mind is a body is a world. The world is a body is a mind. However, whilst Deleuze notes how Leibniz and Spinoza both express this sentiment, he sides with Spinoza’s particular interpretation because, as he sees it, Leibniz introduces a finality to this process. Univocity, for him, as with Spinoza, is “an absolute rule” and so to predict its end and restrict it to a set of known categories is to predict an end to expression as such, as if it is possible that we will eventually say and do all things, as if the world and the human body and everything in between will not continuously reevaluate their limits as our understanding and our technics continue to develop. It is a positive feedback loop all the way down. As Deleuze describes it:

Expression in Nature is never a final symbolization, but always, and everywhere, a causal explication.

It is here that the enforced cut-off of cheerleading becomes a poignant problematic. In applying a sense of finitude to its own process, it restricts the embodied imagination of these athletes in an oddly ideological way, creating a false ceiling where they believe they have pushed beyond to the very limits of what a body can do in their present moment and this somehow makes the compromise of a settled life more important. This is your one path to the limit-experience of cheerleading and, from such heights, there is a single path back down again. To deviate from it is to sin. To stray from it is to let down your team. You retreat when we tell you too. Then, and only then, you must take all you have learned at the limits of embodied experience and apply it to a life lived within its means. Those means may seem infinitely extensive and far reaching on the mat with our fellow team mates but it cannot last forever and so, if you are to pass this extension on to your offspring, it is necessary that you learn how to step back and step down into the social traditions that have made this experience possible.

Cheerleading becomes a sacred experience, almost religious in its habitude. Sundays are for limit-experiences. Every other day you humble yourself against the glory of the superego. It becomes, at once, a control value and an accelerant for radical embodiment. The control value, however, always has the final say.

Maybe that’s fine. Maybe that’s a legitimate ethical position to take as an expressive being-in-the-world. Deleuze and Spinoza, however, would disagree. Such a thought process makes ethical the soul’s limiting of the body in the name of a higher cause, precisely what Spinoza was rebelling against. As Deleuze writes, explaining Spinoza’s Anticartesian “parallelism”, Spinoza’s thought “overturns the moral principle by which” the actions of the body are the passions of the mind. He continues, first quoting Spinoza directly:

“The order of actions and passions of our body is, by nature, at one with the order of actions and passions of the mind.” What is a passion in the mind is also a passion in the body, what is an action in the mind is also an action in the body. Parallelism thus excludes any eminence of the soul, any spiritual and moral finality, any transcendence of a God who might base one series on the other. And parallelism is in this respect practically opposed not only to the doctrine of real action, but to the theories of preestablished harmony and occasionalism also. We ask “Of what is a body capable? Of what affections, passive as well as active? How far does its power extend?” Thereby, and thereby only, can we know of what a soul is in itself capable, what is its power. Thereby we find a means of “comparing” the power of the soul with that of the body, and so find a means of assessing the power of the soul considered in itself.

To encourage this embodied exploration to such extremes in childhood only to curtail it at its peak starts to resemble a violence. Deleuze continues on this point:

Reason, strength and freedom are in Spinoza inseparable from a development, a formative process, a culture. Nobody is born free, nobody is born reasonable. And nobody can undergo for us the slow learning of what agrees with our nature, the slow effort of discovering our joys. Childhood, says Spinoza, is a state of impotence and slavery, a state of foolishness in which we depend in the highest degree on external causes, and in which we necessarily have more of sadness than of joy; we are never more cut off from our power of action. The first man, Adam, corresponds to the childhood of humanity. This is why Spinoza so forcefully opposes the Christian, and then rationalist, traditions which present Adam to us as reasonable, free and perfect before his fall. Rather should we imagine Adam as a child: sad, weak, enslaved, ignorant, left to chance encounters. “It must be admitted that it was not in the first man’s power to make a right use of reason, but that, like us, he was subject to passions.” That is to say: It is not sin that explains weakness, but our initial weakness that explains the myth of sin.

It is with this in mind that I found the most interesting member of the Navarro cheer team to be a young girl who had auditioned for Navarro college and got in based on her “potential”. She’d had a troubled upbringing and came from a working class background. She had an assault charge against her name and repeatedly throughout the series her past comes back to haunt her. Her prior passions always, at all times, threaten her position within the team whilst, at the same time, she resents the external obstacles that have made this such an achievement for her against the relative ease of the other cheerleaders, and these external causes never quite go away. First, she’s a victim of revenge porn. Then, at the end, she’s busted during a car stop for having — it is suggested — weed in her car.

Despite having a hugely successful year at Navarro, and even entering the history books, so they say, for being able to perform a certain combination of skills that no one else ever has, she’s booted off the team for the possession charge and returns home.

They downplay her post-Navarro experience but I couldn’t imagine the torture of it. At first, early on in the series, she’s openly hostile. She has imposter syndrome, all too aware of that fact that everyone has a chip on their shoulder due to some sort of hardship but, for the most part, all she sees is rich kids regardless. She overcomes that perception and ingratiates herself into the team but she never escapes the trailer park kid inside. “Don’t you want family; kids?” the coach asks at one point, and she says yes, and the whole experience is then reframed as an opportunity for her to escape her former self, transcend her class and settle.

The last we see of her, she’s back at home, no longer a cheerleader, dancing with friends at an EDM concert, covered in glitter. Despite the melancholy of her voiceover, she’s still living her life and continuing her relationship with her body and the world around her through movement and dance. The reject she is supposed to have, presumably, is that she is doing this whilst eschewing the rules and regulations of the middle class microcosm in which she had previously found herself.

I wanted to reach out to her and be like, “Hey, ignore all this bullshit, framing you as a disappointment and a failure. You’re still living it.” She’s still exploring her body through these extremes of experience. So what if she wants to get high and dance rather than throw herself into human pyramids? She may not be cruising towards cheerleader stardom but she’s still a body. Just because they are not channeled into this extremist pressure point shouldn’t mean she is somehow missing out. Better that she sustains that experience and this relationship to herself throughout her life, allowing it to persist rather than burn out. Her sidestepping from a given moral code is more preferable than accepting her destin as a middle-aged body without options.

To be continued…

One thought on “A Body Without Options (Part 1)

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