I. The working organism
I am moving forward. I am bounding along an immaculately mowed suburban nature strip, I am hopping off the gutter, I am ducking branches and dodging much slower pedestrians. At times, I am flying. My whole body hums, pumping heat, leaking sweat and odour. It is seamless.
I have been running, on and off, for years—pushed along by the joy of movement and images of a stronger, sexier body; made still by the fragility of my bones and ligaments and willpower. This is the first time I have developed any kind of habit of it. Running has now, most days, become part of my day. I run after work to shake off the day’s stress, to open my body to movements beyond the desk, to run away from my responsibilities. From the moment I wake until 4 o’clock in the afternoon I have been sitting at my desk—this desk at which I’m now sitting—reading, writing, emailing, getting angry on Twitter, compulsively twisting the few hairs of my moustache, feeling overwhelmed with the weight of work in front of me combined with all the work that is still to come, sometimes buoyed by a small, meaningless success—but, more than anything else, finding reasons to stand and leave my desk. All day I’ve danced through this very discrete set of movements.
The movements of me at my desk work are not quite mechanical, but almost. The work demands a kind of ‘machinism’ . To fulfil the image of who I am contractually obligated to be, I must sit and complete my tasks. That is why leaving my desk often feels like a kind of moral failure.
There are times when I feel I am gliding through tasks, tapping away, a flow of words and ideas stream from my fingers. There is a joy in becoming like a machine, a sense of vigour of life. There are other times when it feels like a kind of death. A death of the self, of subjectivity, of freedom, of time. I am a body that’s been fixed from elsewhere.
And so I sit here and I get my tasks done—or not. But desk work is a slow motion caving in of the body. It is a job of attrition, each day tightening, shortening and weakening the muscles around my hips, around my lower back, in my calves and thighs. The parts that are of no use to my tasks gradually atrophy.
At the end of a day, I feel the need to throw open my body, to thrash my arms and legs about, to open my chest and back, to feel my body’s vitality and strength. The movement of running enlivens my body in a way that satisfies this desire in a way that is socially acceptable.
II. The body without organs
Deleuze and Guattari talk about something they call the ‘body without organs’. The BwO, they tell us, is not a thing. They describe it as a ‘limit’. It is the provisional limit of materials, ideas and desires that produce our body’s capacities to act. It is the limited surface upon which our many little machines of desire do their work. My atrophying body at the desk is produced on a BwO, as is my driving body, my birdwatching body, my partying body, and, and, and. They explain the Earth itself is a BwO. Never whole or complete, it is always in the process of being organised and disorganised—by humans and ants and ideas and waves and massive geological forces. The Earth, in a very real sense, is not a thing, but a plane of existence—a limit which is always being exceeded.
For Deleuze and Guattari, the point of the BwO is to be able think a body that is capable of change. The human organism, they explain, is a body incapable of change. It is an assemblage already determined from the outset, in biology textbooks and medical discourse. But the BwO can become something different: it is a body capable of feeling and doing other things. Producing a ‘successful’ BwO, they explain, involves two steps. First, creating the surface of the BwO; and second, circulating the desired intensities upon it: thrills, joys, pains, sadnesses, speeds, slownesses, strengths—whatever it is we’re seeking to produce.
Their writing on the BwO is probably the closest Deleuze and Guattari come to articulating an ‘ethics’. But it’s an ethics of desire and affect rather than rules and structures. It is an ethics of what we might do rather than what we should do. Their work is often reduced to an call for unbridled experimentation. But this is not quite right. Their work is littered with as many calls to caution as it is calls to experimentation. While the aim, for Deleuze and Guattari, is to produce new affects, this shouldn’t ever come at the cost of the body’s future capacity to produce new affects, actions and sensations. They recognise that working with the forces of creation always involves working with those of destruction; and so the prudent actor is the one who experiments with care. The point is to ‘get soused on pure water’: to be the teetotaller still capable of experiencing the pleasures of drunkenness.
III. The running body
I’ve come to think that my running body is—when it is working well—a BwO. I have to follow the steps Deleuze and Guattari describe. I first produce a surface on which it is possible to circulate the intensities I desire. This involves many little preparations: eating enough and eating the right things, but not too soon beforehand; getting the right shoes, expensive ones, with the right soles, which cushion the road’s hard surface against my soft body, overcoming the weaknesses of my feet and shins and knees; applying vaseline between my thighs, slapping on a hat to shield my eyes from the sun and contain my hair; mentally mapping a route through the suburbs that minimises obstacles and maximises momentum. I do all this to better circulate the intensities of seamless motion.
It is difficult to explain to non-runners exactly how running is pleasurable.
Running involves pain. For years, I have struggled with shin splints and achilles tendinitis. My cardiovascular fitness exceeds the fitness of my hard tissues. I take up running one day and I cannot stop. The feeling is so good that I want to sustain it even at the risk destroying my capacity for producing it again. A twinge sounds in my knee, but otherwise my body feels good, it feels strong. Do I keep going? The production of the BwO involves always testing these limits, but not venturing so far beyond them that we inhibit our future capacity to generate the intensities we desire.
Running produces good pains too. Every dedicated runner is, in a sense, a masochist. This pain, the good kind, is the point. It could be said that the aim of running is the circulation of good pains: the rhythmic jolting, the contracting and relaxing of muscles, the heat and sweat and stink pouring out of skin, the burn of pushing hard up a hill, the cold shiver of adrenaline, the humming, aching vibrations of an exhausted body recently in motion.
My running body does its own thinking too. But it is not normal, strenuous thinking. The rhythmic falling of my feet onto the pavement, road, and rocky trails, it send jerks and jolts through my body. I think of how I lull my son to sleep by holding him in my arms and rocking him steadily from side to side, his body rising and falling, rising and falling. Running has the same rhythmic soothing movement. It lulls me not into sleep but into a gentler state of mind. Like the air I move through, thoughts pass through me—some linger, grow in size or shift in shape, others move along hardly noticed. It’s in this state of non-attached and non-critical thinking that minor revelations sometimes arrive: obvious connections between two things I’ve recently read, an old memory that has become again relevant, another way to put together the pieces of something I’ve been working on.
The proliferation of BwOs is not just some esoteric political project for Deleuze and Guattari; it is the force of life itself. The body unable to become different is a dead body. I maintain my running BwO because it sustains me through the day. The anticipation of creating it anew each afternoon, of circulating its pains and joys, wakes my body from its machinic stupor.
Image credit: People running, The Central Station in Aarhus. 26th August 1943, National Museum of Denmark.