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The cult of the toned female body

When Gilles Deleuze claimed that what Foucault had theorised as the panoptical, carceral society of disciplined, docile bodies — economically productive and politically impotent — had come to an end more or less with the Second World War, to be incrementally replaced by “societies of control”, he would probably not have been able to anticipate precisely what bizarre forms this new kind of society of control would assume, beyond those he briefly and with uncanny accuracy sketched in his “Postscript on the Societies of Control” (October, Vol. 59, 1992, pp. 3-7).

In fact, one may be justified in talking of societies of “self-control” to some degree, because — just as the prisoners in the Foucaultian/Benthamite panoptical prison ultimately internalise the warders’ (in principle) constant surveillance, and start monitoring their own behaviour, so too — in today’s societies of control subjects practice “self-control” in surprising ways, which are nevertheless consistent with the logic of societal control.

This was brought home to me forcibly today, at the annual SAJAH conference here at NMMU, when I was listening to an excellent paper by one of our postgraduate students, Lauren Liston. Her paper was entitled “Bodies without mirrors: Ecofeminism and the malleability of the body”, and part of her argument concerned certain manifestations of (self-)control as understood by Deleuze in contemporary society. These may be “read off” some instances of consumption-oriented (and -orchestrated) physical behaviour of individuals (in this case, women) in upmarket gyms.

The exercise routines are focused on the optimal, “smart” training and development of the body into a veritable finely tuned (and toned) machine, with mirrors playing a pivotal role in monitoring one’s progress towards a cyborg-body under the sway of a kind of techno-narcissism. Not only is this body-ideal the object of technical perfection, but techno-consumerism is also brought to bear on it in a graphic manner. Lauren elaborated on the smartphone applications that one can download to monitor your body-functions across a range from blood-pressure to heart-rate, AND (what a bonus for the technophile yuppies of today) link your “body-profile” with those of your friends, which you can access through the app in question.

Not only does this self-monitoring amount to “control of the self” in Deleuzian terms, but at the same time you participate in your own reduction to a politically insignificant and irrelevant, merely numerical entity. In other words, the more you become engrossed in your own development of a four-pack (women) or a six-pack (men), the less it is necessary for law-enforcement and other agencies of raw control, or the subtler forms of corporate and government control such as access code-monitoring and census surveys, to extend their serpent-like coils to encircle you.

The encompassing function of this techno-narcissism in the society of control should not be ignored. Apart from the function of self-control through the focusing of individuals’ leisure time on the elaboration of their body as a technically and physically optimalised product, avidly comparing your body-image in the mirror to its presumably less toned or “cut” counterpart on previous training occasions (and, of course, to those of your ‘friends’), there is the techno-consumer aspect (referred to above) of this quasi-religious phenomenon. Ms Liston puts it this way:

“First-world women are being sold a brand new fitness ideal that is more and more difficult to attain because it necessitates continuous modulation involving constantly augmenting levels of self-control. This is because health and fitness industries promote female bodies that are no longer just thin but toned, not just muscular but cut. Arguably, these current ‘athletic’ bodily archetypes engender the formation of ‘technological’ bodies, which reflect the fusion of techno-scientific discourses and health within global consumer culture. And in this way, women’s bodies are … shaped by an amalgamation of technological information and economics, emblematic of Deleuze’s ‘societies of control’ — as evinced by certain advertisements for fitness/health clubs.”

She further pointed out that health phenomena such as anorexia and the deliberate cultivation of hyper-obesity on the part of women may be understood as instances of “symbolic resistance” to the culturally promoted concept/percept of the (supposedly “healthy”) female body. Instead of sanctioning such “violent expressions of resistance”, Ms Liston turned to the ecofeminist idea of “the female body in its embedded practice of immediate altruism”, characterised by care and compassion for (human and non-human) others, which she rightly understands as more humane. This is what she dubs “a body without mirrors”.

Although she did not take her argument in this direction, one could easily establish a link between her exploration of this kind of techno-narcissism with a range of other contemporary cultural phenomena, such as the veritable cult of “super” sports teams (in soccer and rugby, among others), all of which are heavily invested in financial-economic terms, and which ultimately serve the same political purpose that the technologisation of the female (and, for that matter, male) body serves in the current context of financial-economic hegemony. Not only are the competitions in which these teams compete huge money-earners — on the field as well as on television networks — but, like the gym-obsessed exercise-junkies of our time, they serve the very handy purpose of depoliticising an already politically apathetic population even further.

As long as people can have their weekly sports-fixes on telly, chances are that they will lack the interest and the energy to engage in truly “political” activities, in the Ranciérian sense of stating the claim to “equality” of those left out of the upper echelons of social hierarchies. Sometimes people do reach the end of their tether, though, as seen in the really political protests in Istanbul at present on the part of people who resist the destruction of a park for the establishment of yet another shopping mall.

One could also draw a connection between this manifestation of Deleuze’s “societies of control” and the “space of flows” of Manuel Castells’ “network society”. It is significant that Ms Liston spoke about “first-world women” — the cult of the super-fit, muscular, but increasingly less feminine body is being distributed along the communication and economic networks and spatio-temporal flows of this now increasingly global society, but those who are still largely “unconnected” are, perhaps mercifully for them, still left out of the loop.

Lauren Liston’s presentation was not the only excellent one among those of NMMU Faculty of Arts postgraduate students who participated in the SAJAH conference. Among those I listened to I must single out Corné du Plessis’ “Sensation and de-territorialisation in experimental computer gaming”, in which he drew illuminating links between a Velazquez painting of the pope, Francis Bacon’s transformative “study” of Velazquez’s painting, and a recently introduced video-game that achieves a similarly transformative, “de-territorialising” (Deleuze) spatial (and potentially political) effect.

Both Melissa Sydie and Lisa Weideman presented thought-provoking papers on “Religious materiality within the Gaia movements” and “Dialectical materialism and the eco-socialist Cuban Revolución Agricola”, respectively. Their papers gave one hope, not only because they evinced the intellectual engagement with serious topics on the part of committed young people, but also because both papers gave an account of socially, philosophically and economically relevant movements unfolding today. Lisa’s paper, for instance, made it clear that, beyond peak oil, the rest of the world will probably have to emulate some of the oil-free Cuban agricultural innovations that Cubans were forced to develop after their oil supplies from the USSR were cut off about two decades ago. The irony of this will only escape the most uninformed.


  • Bert Olivier

    As an undergraduate student, Bert Olivier discovered Philosophy more or less by accident, but has never regretted it. Because Bert knew very little, Philosophy turned out to be right up his alley, as it were, because of Socrates's teaching, that the only thing we know with certainty, is how little we know. Armed with this 'docta ignorantia', Bert set out to teach students the value of questioning, and even found out that one could write cogently about it, which he did during the 1980s and '90s on a variety of subjects, including an opposition to apartheid. In addition to Philosophy, he has been teaching and writing on his other great loves, namely, nature, culture, the arts, architecture and literature. In the face of the many irrational actions on the part of people, and wanting to understand these, later on he branched out into Psychoanalysis and Social Theory as well, and because Philosophy cultivates in one a strong sense of justice, he has more recently been harnessing what little knowledge he has in intellectual opposition to the injustices brought about by the dominant economic system today, to wit, neoliberal capitalism. His motto is taken from Immanuel Kant's work: 'Sapere aude!' ('Dare to think for yourself!') In 2012 Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University conferred a Distinguished Professorship on him. Bert is attached to the University of the Free State as Honorary Professor of Philosophy.