Non-Productive Expenditure; or, the value of excess

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?

Maximalism. Minimalism. 

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.” 

—Lee Lozano

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. 

Against Physical (Mono-)Culture

I came to yoga, and thus it should be said, to any sort of physical practice whatsoever, via Georges Bataille. The few times I’ve confessed this to anyone has mostly gone without comment, as unfortunately I’ve found little overlap between those invested in the writing of Georges Bataille and those with a serious yoga practice. Despite the lack of overlap, both “yoga” and “Bataille” share the sad reality that they have been seriously compromised by their most accessible contemporary experience: Bataille is, more often than not, “the guy who wrote The Story of the Eye” (generally understood as little more than “transgressive” fiction/pornography); while “yoga” has become a commercial experience of self-care primarily indulged in by upper-class/privileged white women. Anyone seriously invested in either Bataille or yoga will pale at these descriptions of course, as they remove any actual meaning & fail to even approach the actual experience of either.

My interrogation into Bataille has ranged from “present” to “all-encompassing” for over a decade at this point, while my yoga practice began four years ago, only to start to fade into the background when I began to explore acrobatics (for want of a better term) two years later, but I recognize that it will always have place in my life. Of course, with all of this offered as prolegomena, there’s a different point I’m aiming to arrive at.

Bataille himself, in “Method of Meditation” (which is a cornerstone of my own studies), titles the second section of his essay as, “My Method Is At The Antipodes Of ‘Yoga’.” So, naturally, there’s a dichotomy to address here: how could I have entered the practice of yoga via the writings of an individual who explicitly states that his “Method” is in direct opposition to “Yoga”? Bataille (arguably in the same “mode” as the practice of contemporary yoga itself, but with strikingly different ends in mind) understood many of the embodied elements of a yoga practice as being technology that could be divorced from the religious context (or, as Bataille himself labels it, “the moral and metaphysical beliefs”) of Hinduism. The history of “yoga” and its spread to the West is vastly complicated and storied (and honestly durationally shorter than one would assume), so I’ll save my thoughts on that for another day, but risking pointing out the fact that taking the technology of yoga and “discarding” the religious context is what makes it truly work for most practitioners in contemporary society without endless further commentary allows us to venture further into what it is that I aim to discuss here, namely, the problem of monocultural dominance throughout the “world” of physical culture. 

I will offer one caveat here, before moving on: I truly don’t believe that learning a physical/embodied “action” in one context and discovering that it is useful in a different context is colonizing or erasing the cultural context that said “action” comes from; even the most precursory research reveals that much of the asana practice the dominates yoga today was itself taken and adapted from a variety of sources: contortion, Indian wrestling, Swedish physical culture, etc. The issue comes down to a semantic one, and it’s an issuing of ascribing a specific meaning to the word “yoga” (a meaning that culture has ascribed to the word primarily out of a desire for easier marketing). As meaning is differential, to ascribe meaning to a word is to establish its own context. Grotowski’s entire Theatre of Sources project was interested in identifying corporeal/embodied elements of ritual and figuring out what the “root” of these sources were, what physicality (a way of walking? spinning? lifting the hand?) carried the seed of the “energy” that could be harnessed for use in very specific ritual acts—Grotowski sought the “source” of these energetic currents, not the end-result that it found itself in. Naturally, especially during the current moment in which I’m writing, these opinions could be considered wildly controversial and it could be found irresponsible to only address these issues in the most precursory fashion. But because I’ve spent more time thinking about certain ideas than writing about them, there’s going to be a level of catch up I need to play, so without risk of losing the plot even further, I can merely offer up the fact that these are ideas that I will be returning to in the future.

Contradiction and Physical (Mono-)Culture

My introduction to yoga via the writings of Georges Bataille is important here merely to introduce the idea of dichotomy or contradiction in relation to my own approach to an idea of physical culture. As someone who stayed far away from physical culture for years because of everything it stood for, as I slowly inject myself into it (and vice versa), I find it extremely positive that the dominant culture is shifting away from a closed-off, monocultural position. Now, more than ever before, there are more accessible modalities of movement offered as ripe for exploration. There are still, of course, the monocultural mainstays of the last few decades: the growing cardio machine sections of big-box gyms, group fitness classes that replace the importance of recovery or progressive overload with loud music and pumping endorphins, yoga classes that market the potentiality to “unwind,” and the grunting, performative masculinity of the weight-room. None of these things, arguably, are inherently “bad” in any sort of objective sense, but the fitness industry’s weakening insistence that anything outside these modalities is superfluous (what this meant before was actually just “unmarketable”) makes space for a push toward more open modalities: functional fitness (presenting the idea of fitness as relevant for all bodies, not just “pretty” bodies or bodies that desire to be “pretty”), accessible opportunities to learn about mobility (instead of just being told “stretching after you work out is important), and well-funded and publicized research pointing to the importance of allowing physical activity to return to the realm of “play” (even for adults!) has finally opened the door to individuals formerly put-off to slowly dip their toes into the world of physical culture and reap the benefits. 

Of course, when any cultural shift occurs, especially a shift situated within or at least alongside of an industry that (at least pre-COVID-19) was a major mainstay \of late-capitalism, there comes a point where the self-appointed leaders of any counterculture begin to move away from a more equitable ideology (here being the idea that physical culture does not have to fit the pre-existing monoculture) and toward the development of digestible structures that are easily duplicated and sold using the same discourse and “closed-door” structures that the former monoculture (in this case: big-box gyms, endorphin raising group fitness classes, etc) have upheld for years. To an extent, it makes sense: we are all operating within the confines of systematic wealth inequity. But for a physical culture theoretically rooted more in creativity than the former monoculture, the idea of buying into a system instead of revolting against it will yet again do little more than reveal impotence toward change: you’re merely replacing one system of control with another.

As culture is always to some extent cyclic, we find those who have been specifically invested in the culture as a career for most of their lives shifting and renouncing their former follies in favor of their new savior (the personal trainer shifting focus to “movement teacher”). I imagine this is everywhere in physical culture, but because my attention is fixed on “movement culture” more than any other, this is where I’ll be considering it. As hesitant as I am to indulge in the term “movement culture” as having any sort of meaning outside of marketing (for in itself it functions as an empty signifier), I’ve come to accept that the modalities that I am currently most interested in exploring are often situated within the useless umbrella term.

The Folly of “Form Follows Function”

While I will forever insist on being antagonistic towards homogeneity in terms of physical expectations (which is to say, the idea that one must look a certain way to be considered fit or whatever), I feel like it’s remarkably important to consider that replacing one standard with another is not progressed, it’s simply re-configuring a model of gate-keeping. It’s keeping the doors closed, not opening them. One of the tenants of movement culture (and because I know folks tend to be extra literal when responding to things on the internet, I’d like to point out that 1) I’m reducing a larger conceptual framework to make it easier to examine structurally, 2) I’m not actually referring to any “strain” of movement culture specifically here, rather I’m considering larger repercussions that move across the platform of choice for movement culture: Instagram) seems to be that, while it’s perfectly acceptable to spend hours practicing your handstand to find that perfectly straight line, as long as you’re using your hours of training as an experience in mindfulness, traditional “pump-style” hypertrophy training is a mistake and a waste of time! Because I guess you can’t approach hypertrophy training with mindfulness? Because inherently putting your body in a certain shape with “perfect” alignment (hey there yoga teachers that don’t understand bodies are all different) can be a practice of mindfulness but exploring the mind-muscle connection that enables a the way you’re moving a weight around with the sensation of blood flow into a muscle as a sort of embodied sensation…isn’t? For a culture obsessed with “generalist” skills, there seems to be a specific list of pre-approved disciplines that can be on that generalist skill acquisition list. There also seems to be a bizarre blind spot to the reality that both hypertrophy training and skill training carry a pure appeal to aesthetics: cleaning up your handstand line is as inherently “empty” as trying to make your biceps bigger; neither make life easier on a functional level. 

With one door opening and another closing, what I often find very disappointing in certain digital encounters with the IG “celebrities” of “movement culture” is how some individuals seem incapable of moving outside of narrow personal experience when framing the idea of a practice. As someone who teachers skill-based physical movement, I of course believe in the idea of doing the work yourself, as a teacher, and investigating methodologies and how they work. A teacher has the responsibility to understand what they’re teaching, and they also have a responsibility to understand that what worked for them will not necessarily work for someone else. Because I believe in this on a basic level, I get very depressed when someone very visible in the movement world dismisses an entire realm of movement because it didn’t work for them: i.e., “When I was practicing bodybuilding my mobility was shit and I felt awful all the time and couldn’t move with anything even approaching fluidity, so bodybuilding itself is inherently bad,” or  “When I was doing 35 hours of yoga a week and blindly listening to my guru instead of paying any attention to the reality of my body, I was actually horribly unhealthy so yoga itself is inherently bad,” etc etc etc. Subjective history becomes dogma, and in the same way that the former monoculture of fitness refused to allow space for play, functionality, dance, fluidity, etc, the new culture is starting to refuse the space where an individual is allowed to come to terms with what they need (or want! not everything has to be “natural” or “healthy,” as those are mythical & empty ideas in themselves!) in their own body, without judgment. 

Hopefully without undermining my own point, I’ll now jump into my own subjective example: I have seen many instances (from “both sides,” so to speak) of individuals making claims that intentionally building arm/shoulder/chest muscles (versus just building lean strength) is inherently counter-productive, or even prohibitive to opening your shoulders (for backbends, handstanding, etc, anything that requires overhead flexion). This is akin to telling someone they shouldn’t bother trying to achieve a personal goal because they don’t have the right body for it. I.e., it aligns with the thought process of “I can’t do yoga because I’m not flexible!” While it might be harder, that doesn’t mean it’s impossible or you shouldn’t do it. In the past two years, because I’ve been intentional about training for both hypertrophy & overhead shoulder flexion simultaneously, I’ve managed to both add immense size to my arms/chest while also increasing my active overhead flexion. I found a contortion coach who approaches contortion in a way that fits with my goals and my body; her coaching is very different from Mongolian contortion and other various traditions more reliant on developing passive flexibility. My coach’s active-flex approach works better for my body & my goals, and because it’s an “open” way of learning rather than a closed way, it’s allowed me to have and make progress on what is often viewed as disparate, exclusive goals. 

The Semantic Issue

Like most things in a world that thinks it’s too smart of its own good, the primary problem with culture can almost always boil down to semantic discrepancy. Because language itself is magic, I ultimately have no desire to define terms for anyone else, my interest is only to be able to articulate & communicate my own interests and desires so I can best find the route to follow to achieve them, or, when teaching, figuring out how to use language to get someone else further on the road to their goals. If someone’s primary interest in “movement culture” is adding another modality to their toolbelt in order to make themselves seem sexier to paying clients within the industry of physical culture, then I’m not sure I have anything to offer—but worry not, I imagine there’s an e-course you can purchase to help with that! I jest, but honestly, if you can be honest with yourself and identify your primary goal as participation in a capitalist industry, then just own that and go with it. You’ll be better off. You have bills to pay, no one should begrudge you for that. What I’m asking is that anyone self-identifying within the idea of the culture start being a bit more clear about their intentions, if not to others, at least to themselves. The collapse of the yoga industry in the time of COVID-19 and a widened awareness of cultural cluelessness/bypassing is due to the fact that the western yoga industry was not actually selling any real access to mental health or embodied peace, it was most often only ever selling the “idea” of signalling “goodness” and “peace,” most often using methods that excuse the practitioner from having to do any actual work. I’m often concerned that much of the movement industry is trying to package this same sort of empty mindfulness using more traditionally masculinist overtones (thus merely recalibrating rather than eradicating a (bullshit) gendered fitness divide: “yoga is for chicks, while the gym, I mean, movement culture is for bros”).

As I mentioned, I don’t have the desire to define what someone else is or should be doing, my concern is to be able to communicate and be held accountable to my own intentions. To do this, I must invoke, once again, my entrance point into embodied practice itself: Georges Bataille. My interests mirror (but are not dependent upon) Bataille’s articulation: an interest in the ecstasy of the impossible that follows “the dissolution of [both the] self and of the objects of consciousness.” Grotowski’s research into the holy actor has also informed (which is to say, it has helped me to further articulate) my intent: “training to immediately access one’s own psychic impulses.” Sometimes this is a sensual ecstasy derived from a good arm or chest pump, sometimes this ecstasy comes from finding a sustained freedom during the airtime of a round-off back-tuck (bringing myself closer to an impossible idea of levitation, the float), and sometimes this ecstasy arrives through using my body at a level of continual excess: pushing myself to a level of intensity unmatched in the way I normally navigate the world. These are not the only things I am after, rather I offer them as mere specific examples, to suggest that there neither needs to be nor necessarily even can be a singular motivation or goal in physical training. The system should not close the door, it should open it so anything or anyone who wants to walk through can.