The intensity of a workout. The excess of overtraining.
The intensity of the sexual act. A push towards Sadean excess.
The intensity of living in a body. The excess of a body taking up too much space.
The intensity of living in the head. The excess of a body that refuses to take up any space.
Thirsting for disappearance.
Relentless, continual, failing to stop.
Going too hard, to excess.
Maintaining the intensity, giving it your all.
Regardless of the context, the language of excess skews to the negative, a moral implication that what is excessive is wrong. The language of intensity divides itself between an elevated jouissance or a Protestant work ethic, the idea of a “refusal to give up.” In fitness culture, intensity measures the level of effort you are put into any exercise. This is supposed to be a neutral term, but language is rarely neutral. Consider further: ‘intensity’ as neutral term of measurement, contra ‘intense,’ either an unexpectedly high level of engagement (excitement) or a “polite” way to mention an idea of excess.
The resonance of the word corporeal for me always invokes a sense of meat.
In a Cartesian split, the body itself is, perhaps, excess.
Generally the point when you’ve gone too far is considered the point of excess.
When you think of a body, at one point do you feel like weight loss becomes excessive? At one point does adding mass (bodybuilding) become excessive? At one point does dropping body fat become excessive? At one point does adding body fat become excessive? What inspires this push towards middle ground? Does your idea of health depend upon averages, mediums? Is the idea of health, for you, an idea inherently tied to moderation? Or is it tied to desire?
Why is a nude body considered excessive (beyond the bounds of taste) on Instagram, but not in an old masters painting?
Why is an obese body considered excessive but a body wasting away is considered a lack?
Too much flesh. Not enough flesh.
If you refuse extremity, does that mean the only bodies that you are ok with are bodies that look the same? Average? In the middle?
The moral implications of aesthetics.
I make no qualifications that I am drawn almost exclusively to works of art that get labeled as intense. For me, something that is intense, excessive, is something beyond what I get to experience in normal existence. I can speak only for myself, but why would I want to see something merely reflect the world? I am already living in it. I want to walk away from experiencing a work of art feeling like I was able to touch upon something beyond what the world already offers. I recognize that my thoughts on this squarely place me outside of the greater population. This is not an apology.
Similarly, I make no qualifications that I want my own work to achieve a level of intensity. Sometimes intensity can be approached via excess. At other times, there’s a way to approach this “intensity” via a level of manipulation of materials (language, light, colors, speed). I don’t want to limit these thoughts to any specific medium.
One time, after a reading of my own work (& I should qualify that this was before I had fully committed to many ideas that I now hold regarding performance), the wonderful Kevin Killian (RIP) made a comment about how my work was very “intense.” There was a level where I could tell Kevin didn’t exactly offer it as a complement, but I couldn’t help but grin ear to ear when he said it. I said yes, that’s the hope.
“Seek the extremes, that’s where all the action is.”
I have spent more time finding a truly meditative flow state while pushing myself to extreme levels of intensity than withdrawing into a center, a calm level of “release.” This is not tied to any ostentatious sense of pretense, rather I don’t believe that calming the mind is a way for me personally to achieve this state of flow.
I’ve taken many yoga classes where the teacher suggests (or even insists) that the idea is to not push yourself, to just “listen to your body.” While I understand that this is what many people either want (or need) to hear to use yoga as something for an empty idea of easily-marketable “self-care,” this simultaneously suggests that if you’re “trying too hard,” if you’re edging towards any extreme of physicality, then you just want to “show off” to other students in the room.
As someone who spent most of his life wishing he was literally invisible, spent trying to be as small and out of the way as possible, to be able to actually escape my head I discovered I had to be willing to take up space, to push for the large actions, and to be truly ignorant of whether or not anyone was paying me any attention. The awkwardness of trying to make yourself physically small and invisible because you feel out of place or unwanted can be swallowed up when you can let your body grow larger, be the body that is moving too much, be the body that is a body in itself, a body for itself, a body not existing for other bodies in the room. (I should note that I actively sought out yoga teachers that provided space for me to realize and thrive in pushing my own physicality to its edges—thankfully, not all yoga classes are merely lady-temples designed to worship market forces).
Once, in a “movement” workshop (that I ended up only attending two out of three days of), I worked with a teacher who was almost visibly disgusted with my refusal to forego intensity. Six hours into the second day of the workshop, after I had spent many frustrating hours trying to access whatever he was insisting upon (using cues that very clearly were not funcitoning in any capacity for me), when it had become apparent he had more or less given up on getting through to me, I arrived at a point where I was finally able to learn something from the workshop. I was able to say, more or less, “fuck it,” and found a way to engage with his material outside of the structure he was insisting upon it within.
In the last hour of day two of the workshop, we were invited to create a sequence to explore in repetition, to explore how somatic experience could mediate the meditative state of flow. He suggested we pick actions that were physically simple and easy to repeat. I did the opposite, not out of spite but because there were specific movements I knew I would enjoy repeating for an unknown duration, choosing to sequence a pike press to handstand, exiting into a bridge before rotating through wild-thing back into a bear crawl/downward dog starting position. I then repeated this sequence for an unknown duration, though I imagine it was a minimum of 15-20 minutes. By the end I was exhausted and dripping with sweat, but I felt free in a way I hadn’t felt all day. After the exercise we met to discuss the experience. I offered the reality of what had happened and how wonderful it felt, and was met with minor annoyed dismissal again, but I was past the point of caring because I felt great and had finally accessed something that had been out of reach for me for the last seven hours.
Despite not necessarily “enjoying” my experience of the workshop, I’m still very glad I attended, as I did indeed learn something. I became able to articulate the fact that there are times when I need to physically exhaust myself to be able to access my own psychic or inherent impulses. It should have been obvious, as even when I began practicing yoga I was always more attracted to fiery and uplevel classes than anything that someone would have argued was the level I should be starting at.
The idea of exerting energy (or work) towards a useless goal (in formal terms, “non-productive expenditure”) is an idea located squarely outside of American society, or really capitalism in general. Why would we work for nothing? What is the value in doing something we are not rewarded for? Bataille speaks to this, of course, in his configuration of the “Accursed Share”—an idea that draws its inspiration from the fact that the sun gives off more energy than any of us, as humans, know what to do with. The sun doesn’t get upset when it exerts energy that isn’t used. It merely is. However, Bataille proceeds to connect this non-productive expenditure to the idea of sacrifice, and tying in Marcel Mauss’s ideas surrounding potlatch and early anthropological studies, suggests that many non-productive expenditures actually provide a social or communal role. Non-productive expenditure provides a sense of release, an emptying out, an opportunity to reset, to return to the zero-degree. Sacrifice is similar, as the act itself functions purely on a level of narrative, meaning that there’s a metaphysical function. Christianity posits the death of the son of God as a sacrifice for the redemption of sinners. The act of killing itself was non-productive, rather, like the sun burning itself out, the expenditure served in the creation of the sacred.
I look at it this way: my body contains energy, and the energy needs to be burned off in some capacity or else I would never be able to find myself at rest. Many people pour all of their energy into productivity (capitalism), creating a situation in which they find themselves without any sort of release, merely waking up to repeat the situation day after day. When I participate in non-productive energy expenditure (for instance, training to the point of physical exhaustion not out of the principles of specific adaptation to imposed demand, but rather to merely clear the energy my body has produced so I can touch upon an experience of what the day actually feels like) I am offered a potentiality to clear myself out. In my twenties I sought the same thing via binge drinking, but unfortunately there’s an imposed sense of entropy in that degree of non-productive expenditure; you go into the negative, you encounter the blackout and miss the zero degree where you can find the freedom of release; rather you just wake up in the morning with something missing (technically I suppose all that’s missing is electrolytes, but anyone who has experienced a hangover can understand that a functional understanding of a bodily process does not make it any less miserable).
So now we arrive at something larger. Are we seeking our own freedom, or are we looking to follow someone else’s route? In aiming for ecstasis, it makes sense to try someone else’s route, but in trying it make sure you’re paying attention to whether or not it’s actually working for you. My point here is not to insist upon excess as the only available route, but rather to insist that excess as a route should not be excluded. What works for me might not work for you, and to me that’s the beauty of the world we live in. Insisting upon a scientifically noted average, the middle line, a one-size-fits-all route to personal freedom, refuses the potential for personal exploration. Personal freedom is only “personal” if it’s yours, it can’t be prescribed by anyone else.