Posted by: Harold Knight | 11/06/2011

The body-for-society: tourist or vagabond?

For the body-for-society

For the body-for-society

Waiting for the overture of Rags, a 1986 musical by Joseph Stein and Charles Strouse, my friend told me about some guy he met at a party—a gay man (in his 50’s?), a triathlete who, almost as soon as they met, began denigrating gay men who have gotten out of shape (fat) as they have aged. He ought, he told my friend, to write a book instructing gay men how to age well.

Today, dietary regimens tend toward the pursuit of an idealized look—a particular weight or shape—rather than the achievement of spiritual harmony. [Diet is] a project of the body-for-society, rather than one of body-for-soul. The rewards now promised: acceptedness, companionship, love, admiration, success, and a general contentment while on this earth . . . The outward appearance of one’s body has thus become a window to one’s inner worthiness (1).

Rags is better than its four-night Broadway run would indicate. Strouse and Stein have rewritten it into a moving theater piece with a fascinating score. It’s a story of Eastern European Jewish immigrants in New York in the early 20th century looking for “acceptedness. . . and a general contentment while on this earth.”

As an aging gay man, I have two problems: I have no money, and I’m one of those aging men the triathlete was dissing who’ve gotten out of shape (fat). To some, my appearance has become a window into my (according to the triathlete, questionable) inner worthiness. If “You can never be too thin or too rich,” I’m in trouble.

The real problem is not my appearance but my failure to participate in the culture of consumerism in a way that will bring me “acceptedness. . . and a general contentment while on this earth.” I do belong to a yoga center (I suppose that negates everything I’m saying), but I’m not trying to get healthy for the “pursuit of an idealized look—a particular weight or shape” or, coincidentally, for the sake of the planet. I know that the

politically correct type of consumption is now that which is (supposedly) non-material and tied to the body. Indeed, how can belonging to a gym, jogging, or even getting cosmetic plastic surgery spoil the ecosystem? In this light, the consumptive practices of the conspicuous body have become especially attractive to those highminded (and often quite “green”) elites (2).

I am possessed of very little

discrimination as to qualitative excellence in eating, drinking, etc., [that] presently affects not only the manner of life, but also the training and intellectual activity of the gentleman of leisure. . . [making him] no longer simply the successful. . . man of strength, resource, and intrepidity. . . [and requiring that] he must also cultivate his tastes, for it now becomes incumbent on him to discriminate with some nicety between the noble and the ignoble in consumable goods (3).

Last week I bought three pairs of black socks in one package at one of those monstrous consumer palaces. A month ago I bought a sport coat to wear to my father’s funeral. I believe those are the only two clothing purchases I’ve made in 2011. (I purchased my membership in the yoga center this year; I suppose I have to fess up to that.)

My kind of consumption

My kind of consumption

I have zero credit card debt. When I do get to retire, I will not have 30 or 40 thousand dollars’ worth of socks in my bureau drawer that I still have to pay for. I try, but not very hard, to leave a small carbon footprint.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a patriotic American. I understand that our

enormously productive economy . . . demands that we make consumption our way of life, that we convert the buying and use of goods into rituals, that we seek our spiritual satisfaction, our ego satisfaction in consumption . . . we need things consumed, burned up, worn out, replaced, and discarded at an ever increasing rate (4).

I’m not some sort of grouchy iconoclast. I really don’t care if you drive a Lexis or wear a different suit and tie every day. I understand that “to consume conspicuously is to display one’s distance from the material constraints of everyday life: the suit and tie display one’s detachment from manual labor.” What gnaws at my mind is that somehow this conspicuous consumption has morphed from things to bodies. I’m perplexed that in this

age of services, ideas, knowledge, and binary code—[the] traditional understanding of consumption is no longer adequate. Plastic surgery, tanning sessions, gym memberships, personal trainers; these things too are consumed, although their consumptive (and material) character might at first be hidden. Their connection to polluted rivers, contaminated soil, and overfilled landfills is more distant, more obscure, more masked(5).

For the well-dressed tourist

For the well-dressed tourist

We have developed a direct connection between the outward appearance of one’s body as a window to one’s inner worthiness and one’s participation in the consumerism that defines and perpetuates our economy. My saying any of this must be taken not with a grain of salt, but with the whole shaker full (I may simply be jealous). However,

a muscular, athletic body is the embodiment of the disciplined body because it is a body in continual need of maintenance. . .  a body that requires a degree of consumptive release: the purchasing of a gym membership, a bicycle, home exercise tapes, dietary supplements, hormone injections, “whole” foods, and the like. In short, a muscular worked-out body also (typically) implies a well worked-out wallet (6).

My concern is not my being out of shape while you are “muscular, athletic. . . the embodiment of the disciplined body.” I don’t care that the triathlete thinks I’m disgusting. My concern (the flabbiness of my aging liberalism is showing as well that of my body) is that our body images are intertwined with consumerism. (That’s certainly already a time-worn observation.) And our consumerized bodies produce more than polluted rivers.

We need people who cannot participate in the race for the “body-for-society.” We need them in order to know how successful we have become in our “discrimination as to qualitative excellence.” Gay men especially (but only most obviously) need fat people to compare themselves to.

Zygmundt Bauman hypothesizes that, as we all navigate around in the “global economy,” we fall into two categories, “tourists” and “vagabonds” (surely the distinction is obvious). He explains that

the vagabond is the tourist’s nightmare, not just because the former makes the latter ‘tremble’, not because of ‘what the vagabond is, but because of what the tourist may become’. . .  the tourist must always live with the fear that he or she may become the vagabond through nothing more pernicious than ‘ill-fortune’. . . (7).

Since 2008 that fear of ‘ill-fortune’ has become a stark reality. Economic tourists need vagabonds. And in a consumerized society, the employed need the unemployed. The body-for-society is simply another example of “the moral limits of markets . . . “  Perhaps we need “to recognise that there are some things that money can’t buy, and other things that money can buy but shouldn’t” (8).
(1) Carolan, Michael S. “The Conspicious Body: Capitalism, Consumerism, Class And Consumption.” Worldviews: Environment Culture Religion 9.1 (2005): 82-111.
(2) Carolan, op. cit.
(3) Vebeln, Thorstein. “The Theory Of The Leisure Class, Chap 7.” Theory of the Leisure Class. NOOK BOOK (2009).
(4) Lebow, Victor. 1955. “Price Competition in 1955.” Journal of Retailing, 30(1), 5-11, 42-44. Quoted in Pérez, Fernando, and Luigi Esposito. “The Global Addiction and Human Rights: Insatiable Consumerism, Neoliberalism, And Harm Reduction.” Perspectives On Global Development & Technology 9.1/2 (2010): 84-100.
(5) Carolan, op. cit.
(6) Carolan, op. cit.
(7) Bauman, Zygmundt. Globalisation: The human consequences. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998. Quoted in Morgan, Derek. “Poverty’s Ghosts.” Journal Of Social Welfare & Family Law 32.3 (2010): 211-228.
(8) Sandel, Michael. “A new citizenship: 2009.” The BBC Reith Lectures 2009. 13 June 2009. Web. 4 Nov. 2011. Quoted in Morgan.


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