One of my favourite books—I have read it about ten times—is Michel Foucault’s, The History of Sexuality: An Introduction. Just when I thought I was ready to move on to Maurice Merleau-Ponty, just when I thought I was out, Foucault pulled me back in. Oh great Saint F, please forgive me for the sin of almost forsaking you and for all the sins I am about to commit. What’s that you say, my haloed master? You command me to go forward in peace and sin some more? You urge me to don a tight leather mask and wrist restraints? Really, oh blessed bald one? What if I also attach a chained lodestone to my body, and hang limply from an overhead bar, feeling the cartilage stretch between my vertebrae? In other words, what if I do weighted wide grip chin-ups because I think they would similarly reconfigure my body.
According to Foucault: ‘We must not think that by saying yes to sex, one says no to power; on the contrary, one tracks along the course laid out by the general deployment of sexuality. It is the agency of sex that we must break away from, if we aim—through a tactical reversal of the various mechanisms of sexuality—to counter the grips of power with the claims of bodies, pleasures, and knowledges, in their multiplicity and their possibilities of resistance.’ Oh yeah. Though the late Foucault recommended S and M practices as one way to accomplish this ‘tactical reversal,’ I think that bodybuilding is another way. I hereby claim that lifting weights can develop bodily knowledge and proliferate physical sensations. Now I just have to convince you that I am right.
I first had this idea when I was not thinking at all. I was only feeling. On Monday I was doing legs with DYT, whom I have not uncoincidentally begun to refer to as ‘Mistress A.’ We had already completed six sets of fifteen lying leg curls (from 70 to 90 pounds), followed by four sets of fifteen leg presses at 320 pounds, and then we moved on to the hack squat machine. While my ass was at my ankles, weighted with about 120 pounds on my shoulders, I was flooded with intense sensations. Rising to a standing position took all of my concentration, all of my effort. I did not deliberate, I simply pushed, feeling a warm, intense energy, first in my stressed glutes and hams, and then throughout my entire body. I exited the machine dizzily in between sets, feeling a wave of delicious nausea–no that is not the right word. It was more like an unsettling hallucination. My body was engulfed; I was overwhelmed; I no longer existed.
I tried to describe this sensation to DYT, finding it difficult to put into words. Of course, she immediately understood, having experienced something similar during her own bouts of intense training. I noted that some people might mistake this situation for pain, though it was not at all painful. I reasoned that when faced with new perceptions which did not fall into standard categories of pleasure, people resorted to labeling them as painful, when they were actually something else, something like intensity, effort, strain, or pressure. ‘In our contemporary consumer culture,’ I pronounced in my usual pompous manner, ‘we are accustomed to seeking comfort at all times. Any other kind of encounter is received negatively.’ DYT agreed that many of her clients, especially the newbies (and there are lots of them crowding my gym now during the January rush) insist that working out ‘hurts’ them. When she asks them to be more specific about the pain they are feeling—where is it located? what is it like?—they are at a loss to explain. That is because they are not feeling pain per se, at least not the kind of pain you feel when burning your forearm on the roasted sweet potato pan, fresh from the oven. That is going to leave a scar, my friends. They are instead feeling something new, something that is not comfortable, something outside of standard discourse. If they ‘push through’ this uncertainty and explore it, they will not only begin to enjoy working out, but they will also reshape their bodies and identities.
I don’t mean that they will gain self-esteem through the new found confidence achieved by conforming to a standard bodily ideal, becoming thinner and thus ‘better looking.’ I imagine that most people will find that becoming more attractive makes life more rather than less complicated. On the contrary, I contend that they will literally develop new bodies with new possibilities. They will learn how to feel and experience a wider range of physical sensations, for perceptions are not just naturally occurring, they are introduced and learned, like math at school. Just speak for yourself, you workout crazed freak, you might be thinking. But I doubt that it is just me; I think any number of different kinds of physical activities, especially bodybuilding, can produce the ‘sensational multiplicity’ that Foucault advocated.
Feel free to disagree, and to try some other approach, like sado-masochistic fist fucking. As for me, I will be at the gym, tying myself into the iron maidens, strapping on my velcro wrist wraps, caressing my dead lift hooks, and placing a bar across my raised forearms before sissy squatting deeply and transferring all my weight to my secluded quads. Maybe Brian Pronger was correct to argue that weight lifting is about punishment. But he was wrong to think that it was always in accord with power rather than resisting it. Bodybuilding does not inhibit bodily transcendence; it both exceeds and extends physicality.