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Awesome post on Jack Lalanne from the Archdruid

When I grow up, I want to be as informed and insightful as the Archdruid. And to write as well. Here, on Jack Lalanne:

[T]he thing that made the media tributes so striking is the extraordinary way that they edited Lalanne right out of his actual historical context. Stories in print and electronic media alike called Lalanne a pioneer, the man who first taught Americans to exercise. It’s no discredit to the man to point out that he was nothing of the kind. Lalanne was, rather, one of the very last great figures in what was once a huge and influential movement in American culture, and has now been systematically erased from our collective memory.

The phrase that was standard before that erasure took place was “physical culture.” From the 1870s until the Second World War, across the English-speaking world and in many other countries as well, those words conjured up much the same imagery that the current Lalanne retrospectives put back into circulation, however briefly, in the imagination of our time: a genial blend of robust exercise, healthy eating, spectacular feats of strength, and more or less colorful showmanship. ...

It takes only the briefest bout of research, especially in the age of the internet, to uncover all this and put Lalanne into his proper context. Why, then, the distortion of history, reminiscent of nothing so much as those Politburo photos from Stalin-era Russia from which former members were so studiously erased? Why, for that matter, is it a fairly safe bet that when Jane Fonda passes away, the media will briefly if lavishly praise her as the pioneer who taught America to exercise, and pretend that Jack Lalanne never existed? ...

The first, a point discussed here tolerably often, is the contemporary American obsession with fantasies of progress. We don’t like to think about the fact that by and large, Americans these days are weaker, less healthy, and less capable than their great-grandparents. ...

The second reason, which is closely related to the first, is that from its beginning, the physical culture movement took a critical stance toward the products of industry and the lifestyles made possible by the extravagant use of fossil fuels. That expressed itself in a great many obvious ways – Jack Lalanne’s trademark habit of teaching people to exercise using simple household items instead of expensive apparatus, and his insistence on leaving most industrially processed foods out of the diet, are classic examples – but it also ran right down to the root assumptions of the whole movement. The core idiom of modern industrial society, after all, is the replacement of human capacities with gaudy technological crutches; we buy cars as substitutes for feet, televisions as substitutes for imagination, and so on.

Physical culture focused instead on developing the innate, extraordinary capacities hardwired into the human individual. ...

That brings up the third reason why Jack Lalanne had to be presented as a unique, eccentric, and therefore harmless figure, rather than the last major public exponent of a movement that invited everyone’s participation. His accomplishments, like those of the great physical culturists before him, depended on something utterly unmentionable in contemporary industrial culture. It’s more strictly tabooed than sex or death or the total dependence of today’s middle-class American lifestyles on Third World slave labor. Yes, we’re talking about self-discipline.

It’s an interesting wrinkle of history that imperial societies in decline normally fear what’s left of their virtues far more than they fear their vices. James Francis’ useful 1994 study Subversive Virtue: Asceticism and Authority in the Second-Century Pagan World chronicles how Rome’s rulers found the reasoned self-discipline taught by Stoic and Platonic philosophies an unendurable challenge to their authority. You can find similar conflicts in the history of imperial China, the Muslim world, or, really, wherever the decline of imperial states is well enough documented. The reason behind these conflicts is simple enough: people who are ruled by their passions and appetites can be ruled just as efficiently by any political system willing to pander to those things, while those who control themselves can’t reliably be controlled by anyone else. Thus the Roman government regularly sent Rome’s philosophers into exile, failing Chinese dynasties praised Confucius to the skies while doing away with anybody who took his teachings too seriously, and modern America uses every trick in the media’s book to marginalize those who remind us that the life of a channel-surfing couch potato might not express the highest potentials of our humanity.

The taboo on self-discipline in contemporary America is all the more intriguing because just at the moment, sadomasochism has become the hottest new fad on the American left. Connoisseurs of the return of the repressed have much to appreciate in the spectacle of a subculture that claims to place an absolute value on human equality, but is busily getting its rocks off by acting out fantasies in which male dominance and female submission are far and away the most popular themes. [ouch!] Still, I suspect that part of what set this fad in motion is an inchoate but widespread sense that there are whole worlds of human possibility that can’t be reached by drifting along aimlessly and doing whatever seems easiest at the moment. Those who have that sense and are unable to conceive of self-mastery inevitably seek masters elsewhere; we will be very fortunate indeed if that quest goes no further than latex lingerie and a fashion for wearing leather collars.

... As we move further into the twilight space beyond the world peak of conventional petroleum production, the ability to keep those resources flowing as abundantly as current expectations demand is coming into question. .....

The instinctive response to these struggles is generally to get right down there into the mud-wrestling pit and fight for a share. A more effective strategy, though, might well take the opposite tack. When a resource is depleting and no plausible replacement for it is in sight, staying dependent on that resource is a fool’s game; even if you win this round, sooner or later you’re going to lose, and time that could have been spent learning to function without the resource has been wasted floundering around in the mud. Phase out your dependence on the resource before you have to do so, recognizing that the actual requirements of human existence are quite modest and can be met in many different ways, and you put yourself in a much better position for the future [Dare I say... "Win The Future"?]

[I]t’s too often forgotten that the vast majority of the energy and technology most of us use each day goes to provide support of various kinds for an individual human body and mind. If that body and mind require less support from outside their own boundaries, there’s less need for the energy and technology in the first place. When every other source of power runs short, that’s the power that remains.

This doesn’t necessarily mean that you ought to break out the Indian clubs and kettlebells and download a couple of old physical culture manuals off the internet, or for that matter pick up an old Jack Lalanne book or two, though I certainly wouldn’t discourage anybody who chooses to do this; there’s a certain definite attraction, after all, in the prospect of reaching one’s nineties with the kind of physique and vitality that most thirty-year-olds only dream about. What it means, rather, is that a certain capacity to cope with physical challenges, take over responsibility for your own health, and get by comfortably in most situations without a great deal of technological assistance, are all useful items in the toolkit of anyone who hopes to face the difficult years ahead with any degree of efficiency and grace.

I bow in awe to the connections made.

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CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Don't do that.

Agreed, the post you highlight here is well worth reading and thinking about. (Would someone clue me in on the reference specifically to "the American left" regarding S&M?)

Submitted by jm on

Check out the comment thread for a bit of clarification. John Michael Greer responds:

Ann, that's interesting. I've met a lot of ardent feminists and social justice types who are busy in the BDSM scene as collared submissives in their off hours.


Marku, hmm. It may be more localized than I thought. Well, nobody ever claimed that archdruids are infallible.

In any event, I think Greer is being judgmental. See this, for example, this response to a commenter defending the lifestyle:

S, the claim that acting out fantasies of domination and torture is an expression of equality makes my head hurt. Still, whatever turns your crank, I suppose.

One thing I know about BDSM from a close friend who is in that scene is that you can't generalize about participants' motivations. It isn't necessarily about "torture". There are as many different reasons as there are people. The important thing to keep in mind is that the relationships are consensual and, despite appearances, it is actually the bottom who holds the power.

What any of this has to do with a perceived lack of self-discipline, I haven't a clue. It would have made a lot more sense to me had Greer used the fetishization by the American Left of military service as a counterpoint to the taboo on self-discipline in contemporary America. This is way, way more prevalent (and destructive) than BDSM.

That said, it was an excellent post. Thanks for linking it lambert.

CMike's picture
Submitted by CMike on

Thanks for suggesting I read through the thread over there.

Submitted by lambert on

From the post:

busily getting its rocks off by acting out fantasies in which male dominance and female submission are far and away the most popular themes.

So, 2008 anyone? That was the context I started from. No doubt matters have evolved since then, since the cohort engaged in this behavior won themselves a small share of power and a little money.

I'm in live blog mode now, so I can't give this a lot of attention, but what I would say is: I think there's an implicit contrast (right or wrong) that the Archdruid is drawing between the D/s "game" of "discipline" and actual self-discipline. One might even draw a parallel between the dungeons and other apparatus and the "technological assistance" that he deplores.

My sense is that the post, in this aspect, is too schematic (but the intensity of feeling makes me think that some personal experience is involved). That said, I have it on "not especially reliable" authority that in fact D/s is ubiquitous in the bedrooms of Versailles -- especially in the hotel bedrooms -- and that, in a city where power is the currency, that makes complete sense. So, and definitely speculating freely here, it would make sense that, from 2008 - 2010, "progressives" (the Druid says "the left") with a share of power would partake of all the joys of empowered Versailles courtiers, and, as one commenter says, in a "non-judgmental" way. Policies "on the table" and practices in bed could be two sides of the same coin, no? At least when one has climbed the greasy pole to a certain level?

Don't know. Don't know what to think. What I will say is that the forces that Obama's misogynist fans let loose in 2008 are certainly still echoing, and it would be strange if the echos were muffled by the bedroom door. Whether as "play" or not.

NOTE Then again, there's this. So, interesting comment thread at AD, too. Thoughtful, informed. If you haven't bookmarked that blog, do so!

Submitted by gob on

That is excellent, connecting the disdain for self-discipline with the decline of the polity. I had made the personal connection some time ago, lamenting my own lack of training in self-containment and undertaking a thorough self-retraining; the connection to popular culture is too obvious to miss, but the historical parallels were beyond me.

Zolodoco's picture
Submitted by Zolodoco on

I've been making a similar connection at work. The more the employee needs the paycheck to survive the easier they are to control and the fewer concessions you have to make. I'm saying this in the context of an office environment. Say you have programmer A who makes $60k a year, but has $15k in consumer debt, an auto loan or two, a mortgage, and an additional handful of mostly unnecessary bills to pay each month. They're a lot easier to deal with than programmer B who makes about the same, but has no debt, lives in a shitty apartment, and puts away about 2/3 of their income.

I would also like to say that while mainstream culture here has mostly forgotten the physical culture movement, it and its early proponents have seen a revival over the last 20 years in the fitness world. We even have the modern equivalent of pedestrianism coming back through the ultra running and minimalist running communities.

Submitted by lambert on

.... I'm eating too much.

Gained back five pounds of the 20 I lost. The secret is simple! Don't eat so much!

jjmtacoma's picture
Submitted by jjmtacoma on

We all get a little "fluffy" when there aren't as many beautiful fresh greens easily available.

Thanks for the work on the live blog of Cairo!