A Body Without Options (Part 2)

In thinking about Cheer the other day, I ended up reminiscing about sports I liked and, to an extent, mourning.

A little known fact about me that I always enjoy dropping on unsuspecting new friends is that, for a few years, from the end of primary school to the start of secondary school, I was a passionate figure skater.

The only photograph I have of me on the ice…

Today, at a broad 6″2′, I do not cut a figure of glacial elegance in the slightest. However, before puberty, I was small enough that it somewhat made sense. But I was nonetheless the tallest kid in a small school and always broad shouldered. Looking like a wannabe ice hockey player who got lost, I loved it all the same, even if my body type wasn’t the typical figure skater look.

Living in Hull at the time, famous for its two rugby teams, to be a stocky kid was to be coached for a local rugby team. I was even scouted once at school, invited to try out for Hull Ionians junior team simply because of how I was built. The sensation that I had a body that was desirable — in a sort of utilitarian sense, I mean — was disorientating because, on the inside, I didn’t feel like the tank I was seen as on the outside.

I tried rugby all the same but I didn’t like it. The other boys there were too annoying. It was the same with football. Passion for the game was expressed through anger and aggression. If you weren’t being a cunt, you weren’t playing properly. They seemed to think I didn’t understand it. I didn’t think they understood “it” either.

It wasn’t that I was bad a football or rugby, either. In fact, when it came to football, I was a natural. It was my attitude that was apparently incompatible — but, I thought, for all the right reasons. I did win a football trophy once, for instance. “Best Team Player.” I remember everyone snickering about it because it was seen as a booby prize for taking part but not really achieving anything in terms of points scored. I took pride in it nonetheless. It felt like the award for being the least insufferable. The “Congrats, you’re not an arsehole” trophy.

Because — sometimes to a fault — socially speaking, anyway — I wasn’t competitive in sport and I wasn’t aggressive in my playing style either (no matter the sport I was playing). I had an almost pathological indifference to winning and losing and was made to feel like an alien for it. You’d maybe assume that this was a fairly innocuous affliction. If I won something, I got on with my day. But if I lost, a lack of emotion would usually make another person’s gloating feel cheap. I was always very aware of how another kid’s capacity to celebrate was relative. They could only feel good if they knew someone else felt bad. If I didn’t feel bad, they couldn’t feel good, and they would hold me in violent contempt over it. They were little sociopaths. I had little time for it.

The most important thing for me when it came to physical activity was that I liked moving and having a relationship with my body and neither of those things was dependent on anyone else. They weren’t even dependent on sport. They were the most basic, fundamental boxes to tick, and yet I was always surprised how often the actions of others would get in the way of this. I liked moving all the time, building dens, climbing trees, scurrying through self-made rabbit warrens through the edges of the school playing field or the neighbour’s overgrown gardens. With the pressure put on to provide a structured outlet for this normal childhood hyperactivity, figure skating — but I suppose it could just as easily have been dance or something else — became the ultimate outlet. It wasn’t about competition with other people or even with myself. It was just expressive and that’s what I liked about it. I didn’t even care if it looked good to anyone else. I cared that it felt good and I liked the space moving around on the ice gave me in my mind. It was mentally meditative and physically thrilling all at once.

I flourished here and so, within the space of about a year, I progressed up the skill levels at the local ice rink until I was good enough to join a class where they taught the big tricks. The spins and pirouettes. There was no emphasis on gendered roles here so I wasn’t partnering up with the girls to play support to their feminine finesse — we were all in it together — but when I reached a skill level where I was in the same class as a girl from my school, who had no idea up until that point that I skated, things fell apart.

I’ll never forget the welcome she gave me through gritted teeth. “What are you doing here?” There was a chance she was bitter… We used to live on the same street for a short time but she was such a prima donna that I once told her I didn’t want to play with her anymore. I told her to go home — in a very young, naive but brutally honest fashion — because she was taking the fun out of playing outside by being so horrible to everyone all the time. I couldn’t help but feel like that interaction from a few years previously had left its mark on her, however, and, to an extent, I didn’t blame her, so when she had the opportunity to get her own back, she jumped at it. I had entered her domain and, just as I’d rejected her from my own back garden, she was never going to let me feel a part of this new group. She pushed me out but, devoid of any fighting spirit, I just left and moved onto the next thing. She was still the bully I didn’t like from before but, now on her turf, there was no winning the argument.

All was not lost. I saw Saturday Night Fever for the first time not long afterwards and soon wanted to be John Travolta. I got really into funk, soul and disco, and swapped the ice rink for the local sports hall, spinning around to Curtis Mayfield every Saturday at a local roller disco. (This was the late 1990s / early 2000s — I promise — and not 1974.)

I also tried tennis for a while afterwards, and I got really good at that. It gave me what felt like superhuman hand-eye coordination, which I loved. It also felt like it was more about cardio than anything else, taking the explicit pressure off my legs that had started to struggle under the constant strain they were put under with all my skating, but again, I had no interest in subjecting myself to the skewed personality traits of peers with pushy parents and that was what came to define these experiences. In fact, I had no time for parents at all — theirs or my own.

My Dad, in his youth, had been a talented swimmer who competed at an international level and really encouraged a relationship with the water in me but I walked away from it because I wasn’t interested in being coached by him. He was tough and not very nice and I didn’t like that side of him — something which I think broke his heart a bit but it just wasn’t in my personality to respond well to barking about a need to beat other people or myself in races. Going backwards and forwards fast felt like the most boring kind of swimming there was. (I liked and was best at diving — hardly a surprise.)

I was developing a physical relationship with myself that was devoid of goals. I progressed naturally — as anyone will do if they practice anything — but was otherwise allergic to any external force encouraging a competitive nature. I didn’t care about what anyone else was doing. I just wanted to express myself. Today, swimming still makes me really stressed. I love the water but not getting in it. I would prefer not to.

It was all irrelevant within a few years. Puberty hit soon enough and I remember being so aware of the changes to my body. I gained a lot of “puppy fat” and also had a quite catastrophic growth spurt which was coupled with horrific growing pains in my legs — pain so intense I’d get fevers and hallucinate. (I still remember these hallucinations vividly — Lovecraftian entities at my window and objects flying around my room — these were as informative to a relationship with my mind as the waking pain was to my relationship with my body.) I remember thinking that my sporting days were over when I had a roller disco birthday party one year but I couldn’t skate for the agony. At the hospital the next day, I had x-rays and the doctors discovered that my awkward growth spurt meant my bones were growing at different rates, with my knee joints rubbing against my knee caps and shaving off bits of bone that were getting lodged in my knee cartilage. My ankles went through something similar and any time we did track at school I was guaranteed to roll over on them but there was nothing to do but ride it out with pain killers.

I’ve had problems with my knees ever since. The pain gets really bad in winter when the cold hits. I’m very aware that the general wear and tear of an active life never made me stronger but only brought about more pain, giving me the knees of someone probably twice my age. The number of activities that I’d be able to comfortably partake in — physically and emotionally — dwindled. It was around this time I became interested in photography as an activity that I have always felt is as much about the mind as it is the body. Photography was about exploration, walking, navigating your environment, thinking through sight and movement and responding to encounters. It was also quite solitary but, even with other people around, it wasn’t meant to be competitive. It was about bouncing off each other’s bodies and movements and even including each other in your compositions. It was casually and naturally collective.

This sensibility won out in the end and I went to do an undergraduate degree in photography. I think back to that moment of decision in my life now a lot and wondered if it would have made more sense to do English Literature or Philosophy… I discovered my love of writing whilst studying photography but I think the physical nature of the course was essential. Spending out days physically exploring the world around us and moving and constructing things was what gave the written component such life. The same is true today. How much of my writing is inflected with diaristic elements? Hopefully the above goes some way towards explaining why.

I think about this trajectory from exercise to art quite often and it always makes me laugh when the usual insults and dismissals about inactivity are uttered around these parts, as if writing all the time means sitting on your arse… I mean, it does, but it comes after a great deal of activity. If I can’t relate something to a lived experience, it doesn’t have the same power for me when I’m writing it down. Nevertheless, I can’t count the number of times an intense and over-long blogpost has received the response: “Jeez, dude. Go outside.” In my head, I usually think: “I’ve just come from there… That’s why I’m writing…” It’s all expression.

There are also comments made online about my weight from time to time and I won’t claim that they don’t sting. The few pictures that I have posted online over the last few years no doubt give away the fact that I’m a big guy. I’m tall and broad and, sometimes, quite rotund. My weight fluctuates constantly but my overall size never really does. How much padding I’m carrying around ebbs and flows but I still take up a far amount of space in the world regardless.

These weight fluctuations respond to my mood. I’ve struggled with eating disorders since my early 20s, going through cycles of bingeing and purging when I’m trying to ignore some internal crisis or barely eating at all when my heart is on my sleeve. (The best shape I’ve ever been in was in 2017, for instance, the year after Mark died.) And what I find interesting about this, which I’ve realised during my own self-reflection, is that this is as much an extension of that once proud relationship to my body as any form of exercise. It’s an attempt to physically flush out emotion and distress or keep it outside of myself when the social situation is set up to encourage that. People talk about going for a run or jogging and this making them feel better and encourage it if you have depression as if this relationship with your body will keep the mind at bay. But this dualist understanding of mental ill-health is dangerously ill-informed. I’m fairly certain I’ve told this story before but I remember once, living at home and having been in bed for a week, sometime around 2015, my Dad knocked on my bedroom door and said to me, frustrated but also somewhat compassionately, like the swimming coach of my childhood, that lying in bed for so long might be one of the worst things you can do to your body, and I didn’t know how to explain that that was more gratifying than energising. It is the mind acting upon the body — more often for the worse rather than for the better — but it is a working upon the body nonetheless.

I still wish I had that drive though — that drive to be physically active in a way that was communal and supportive. Having had nothing but negative experiences, it’s something I feel I have an almost pathological aversion to, bringing to mind nothing other than bullies and snide comments and a painful sense of indifference to the entire enterprise. And it hurts sometimes, because it’s not as if I don’t want those experiences. Exercising on my own only makes me feel lonely.

I already tweeted about this when I first started writing this post and it led to an interesting conversation between Reza, Robin and Amy. (Particularly proud of this one, just fwiw.)

Reza told a funny story:

Then you haven’t heard about when I was an aspiring runner, getting into local tournaments. [1]

I always thought I had a future and my friends were always cheering me. Until the jurors told me, no you are ahead of everyone else because you missed three rounds of coming back to the starting point! That was it, I became a philosopher. [2]

I mentioned how this sort of trauma reminded me of what Joshua Ramey says about philosophy and “initiatory ordeals” — and this is something I remember talking to Robin about in relation to the Ccru on a few occasions.

Ramey begins his book The Hermetic Deleuze by declaring that “what connects Deleuze to Artaud is the conviction that what matters for life, and for thought, is an encounter with imperceptible forces in sensations, affections, and conceptions, and that these forces truly generate the mind, challenging the coordination of the faculties by rending the self from its habits.” (I’ve written about how the negative side of this sensation informed Deleuze’s philosophy once before.)

How this connects to the above personal history, at least within my mind, is that my relationship to my body — even in its most woeful state — has been something hard won through its own fateful collapse, through the personal experience of having weak knees and the social experience of its competitive rejection, but rather than trigger a theorycel isolation I have simply moved onto other activities through which I can continue to explore this relationship.*

Yesterday I wrote about how you can see this same drive to connect with your body even through physical and mental hardships as having a place within Deleuze’s concept of univocity. Ramey goes on to connect Deleuze’s univocity to the Hermetic tradition instead, in which, he writes:

materiality and spirituality are profoundly united, and that life itself is a process of theandric regeneration in which the nature of the divine is both discovered and produced in an unfolding of personal and cosmic, evolutionary and historical time: “As above, so below.” In short, hermetic thought identifies the very process of natural life with a manifestation of encosmic divinity. In this tradition, there is no clear distinction between the rational and the spiritual; philosophical speculation is viewed as an attempt to explicate transcendental structures common to natural and spiritual realms.

Put another way, this is a similarly why philosophy and psychoanalysis are just natural bedfellows — because both, at their core, are about the excavation of trauma. Whereas psychoanalysis focuses explicitly on the individual, philosophy focuses on the collective — even civilisation itself. (This is why, to an extent, I think “Dark Enlightenments” are inevitable expressions of the death drives within our collective unconsciousness.) It was the Ccru, most effectively, who conjoined mental and cosmic trauma together for the dawning of the 21st century, throwing God out of the equation and replacing Him with capitalism, and the work that has continued since then has extended this “as above, so below” approach to thinking the world in ways that, I think, are incredibly useful for carving out a path ahead.

Reza went on to argue, however: “When you become a philosopher, it always comes with this realization that you became a philosopher because most probably you sucked at every other human endeavor.”

Reza was probably being a bit facetious but it’s an interesting stereotype all the same. (The number of people who liked and retweeted that comment speaks volumes.) That isn’t true in my case. Or many other people’s cases that I know. In fact, there are so many philosophers who harbour secret talents that they could perhaps take on professionally were they not fated to a problem. In fact, I was reminded, in that instant, of talking to Thomas Moynihan about his book Spinal Catastrophism and his bemusement at people constantly being surprised by the fact that he drew all the illustrations in the book himself. I remember we only half-laughed at my response to his bemusement: “You’re not supposed to be good at more than one thing.”

There is certainly a relatable truth to the fact that many of us philosophy types feel “good for nothing” in our daily lives, but that is more a fact of not fitting into productive flows rather than not being good at other activities. Jokes aside, it is important for me personally to recognise — in myself — that I have other ways of navigating this world. Philosophy is not a vehicle but a map, or even a cartography for plotting where I’ve been. The “vehicles” I jump in to explore the world are photography, roller skates, music, writing. It is essential to recognise that philosophy is a thread that runs through these things but it not a vehicle in itself because, as Thomas Murphy later explained, brutally, in response to Reza’s comment:

Every theorycel has such an origin story. Just imagining theorising about something rather than simply doing that something. Risible. [1]

The theory/praxis distinction is also just theory, mere metaphysical silliness employing binary symbolic oppositions. Repetitive language tricks to make up for failures in virtuosity in other spheres. Tragic really. [2]

To think of philosophy — or any activity for that matter — as a last resort is surely to surrender the Leibnizian body to its own finitude. (Again, this was discussed yesterday.) To be a theorycel is also, in its own way, to be a body without options.

* As an aside, Deleuze’s comments on learning to swim in Difference & Repetition come to mind here:

The movement of the swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs. … We learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do’. Our only teachers are those who tell us to ‘do with me’, and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce. In other words, there is no ideo-motivity, only sensory-motivity. When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other – involves difference, from one wave and one gesture to another, and carries that difference through the repetitive space thereby constituted. To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself.

It is precisely this expression of a “sensory-motivity” over an “ideo-motivity” that I found myself always championing whilst watching Cheer.

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