October 6, 2005

Eating at Pierce and finding species-being

Many things can be found lurking in or around a plate of Pierce food (though it’s probably best not to speculate too much on what they might be) including the fodder for some serious philosophical musings.

Some friends and I were sitting in that fine dining establishment, and someone mumbled a brief lament about having to wade through the “Manuscripts.” You know, the one that makes a legal brief look like light fiction.

For whatever reason, this offhand comment sparked a discussion with profound ramifications for gym class, the Core curriculum, and those still hoping for global revolution.

Every year, most students stagger away from Marx feeling as though he’s less readable (perhaps for different reasons) than a transcript of any presidential address delivered in, say, the last four or five years. I still consider Marx the most challenging author I’ve read since arriving at Chicago; the guy’s brilliant, yes, but good lord could he have used a better editor. Yet reflecting back on that little discussion at the tail end of a Pierce dinner, it seems obvious to me that a mastery of Marx is not beyond anybody; all that’s needed is a little combining of Sosc class with gym class.

The best way to work toward understanding Marx is—ready?—through running. Running completely embodies the Marxist ideal by allowing people to reclaim their labor as their own. Through running a person is no longer alienated from his or her labor; on the contrary, individual and labor are united, one and the same: A person in essence becomes his or her labor. Running regularly allows one to come to a fuller understanding of Marx through living his ideal. If you feel a little out of touch with your species being, strap on some jogging duds, take a few turns around the quads, and maybe you’ll bump into it along the way, turning into your own little self-contained revolution as you do.

Granted, this probably isn’t quite the solution Marx had in mind. Odds are the notion of cardiovascular exercise was more theoretical back then than any talk about dialectical materialism. Really, though, it makes sense. Ask anyone who runs why they do it, and they’ll respond with some nonsensical babble about how cathartic it is, how running clears and relaxes the mind, etc. Where exactly does this fabled “runner’s high” come from though? Released endorphins? Restored chemical balance? Both explanations reek like a bull’s outhouse. No, the real reason you feel good as a result of running is because you’re as unalienated from your labor as you can get, a result probably not applicable to all physical activity. Consider a sport such as crew, which more closely resembles feudalism than anything else: You’ve got your feudal overlord cockswain lounging around in the back of the boat, barking orders and living high off the exploited labor of a bunch of poor lowly rowing serfs. And most team sports, such as football or baseball, embody a capitalist mode of production in which labor is divided and specialization in specific tasks essential.

One of the most robust criticisms of Marx is that, despite his predictions, society has yet to be shaken by a popular revolution against the capitalist system, and a global class revolt doesn’t seem to be in the works any time soon, either. Why? Clearly because of the jogging and fitness craze which first germinated back in the 1970s and is in full bloom today. Although they may comprise a small percent of the population, I’d have to say the reason we’re all still waiting for fulfillment of that utopian promise is due to runners and joggers. No matter how dreary the day job is, they are still by and large happily united with their labor at least a few times each week. As a result, things never quite reach the boiling point necessary for a real gloves-off revolution. We could try to usher in a communist era by getting rid of running and runners completely, but that seems impractical and, well, a bit hostile. Perhaps, had he lived in a different age, Marx would have been a physical trainer or a P.E. major, and the social upheaval he envisioned would have come not from one massive thrust, but millions of individuals discovering this: Run, and become your own revolution.

Or perhaps one just has to be a bit leery of what mental back alleys a Pierce dinner can lead to.