Notes on a Sarcopenic Culture

The intention of this essay is to serve as a starting point for a larger, ongoing project to investigate the historical, cultural, philosophical aspects of how we perceive the physical strength of the human today. The context is the critical culture of the academic, the thinker, the scholar--those whose meaning in life is derived from some form of deep thinking and intellectual output. That culture, while invigorating, ennobling, and at times, refreshing, often spares little room in developing the body as they do the mind. The situation was described in a piercing essay by the Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima, as one "the estrangement of body and spirit in modern society." [1] This is no more reflected for the graduate or doctoral student in training, the freelance writer, the adjunct professor, the artist, for whom the body remains a mystery.

Why is strength important, beyond what a kinesiologist or medical profession would say? By and large, it is easy and almost immediate to opine on why reading, studying, and so on are healthy activities for the brain. After all, such activities and the ability to think abstractly are defining human traits. If our ability to conjure up designs in our head and materialize them were, as Karl Marx suggested in Capital, what separated us from the rest of the animal kingdom, this would only be possible because we are able to act upon them objectively. We can, using our muscles, force them into reality, whether it's something as complex as putting together a space shuttle or IKEA furniture. Strength then, as powerlifter Mark Rippetoe once suggested, is the means by which we are capable of mediating the world around us. And yet much to our collective chagrin, strength and strength culture remains a highly neglected frontier as an ontology in its own right.

Put in another way: what new and exciting forms of experience can we generate as we train to get stronger? How might our very relationship to the space our bodies inhabit, and through which we move, give way to a new understanding of the self? There are few thinkers in this regard. Mishima appears to alone in expressing an ontology for the strength and the aesthetics of human body. Yet from the crevices of philosophy, particularly the Greeks, we find the subject of strength and training as an exhortation. In Xenophon's Memorabilia we find the oft-quoted speech, prompted not by any particular reaction from Socrates' interlocutors, but in reaction to the sight of Epigenes. Socrates brashly remarks at the poor state of his friend's physical appearance, to which man, embarrassed, replies "Well, I am not an athlete". This is more than enough to send Socrates on an incredible monologue, which ends with the following:

"Besides, it is a disgrace to grow old through sheer carelessness before seeing what manner of man you may become by developing your bodily strength and beauty to their highest limit. But you cannot see that, if you are careless; for it will not come of its own accord." [2]

What is so striking about this passage is its radical suggestion that without training, we are incomplete as individuals. Epigenes' retort, "I am not an athlete" is indicative of the response many I feel in academia and elsewhere, would also give to the philosopher. It is Mishima's saggy, formless intellectual whose existence is spent largely thinking by candlelight well into the early hours of the morning. It is a sarcopenic culture, in short. A culture prone to shedding of muscle mass and strength, not on account of old age, but through unconscious neglect.

We seek to define what it means to become stronger and strength as a way to understand corporeal knowledge.