In 1899, in one of the most influential speeches of his career, Theodore Roosevelt called on his fellow citizens to live a “strenuous life.” Roosevelt praised a life of restless movement, always active, always seeking to improve one’s strength and the strength of the nation, always trying to get ahead and to succeed in an endless struggle for survival. In the wake of Darwin and in the age of Social Darwinism, competition, personal responsibility, and constant improvement had become natural laws, considered as governing any interaction between individuals, groups, and nations.
Roosevelt preached the gospel of fitness, and its message and tone sound familiar to us, even if we have never heard of his “strenuous life”-speech before. In this blog post, I argue that today’s obsession with fitness is grounded in the Social Darwinist downside of liberalism, with a politics of inclusion and exclusion inherent in it. Fitness shaped a hierarchy of citizenship, and still does, yet the nature of their interaction has undergone important changes between the late 19th and the early 21st century.
In the second half of the 19th century, the meaning of fitness changed, from a static concept, rendering “the eternal fitness of things” and demanding the acknowledgement of preordained social patterns, to a dynamic concept. This new and modern type of fitness asked for a life of advancement and exercise, with exercise as key to “the growth and vigorous condition […] of every function of existence in the universe,” as claimed by John Blackie, whose book on “Self-Culture” was widely read in Europe and the United States at that time. A “bacillus athleticus” was said to be spreading throughout America, and fitness was considered a precondition of success in any field, whether you were workingman or businessman, journalist or judge, soldier or politician.
Modern fitness is biopolitics par excellence. By taking life under its care, fitness strives for the maximization of the vital forces. It aims at the population and seeks to make it healthier, stronger, and more productive, but it operates through the individual body, by addressing and shaping it. Yet fitness does not exert power by subjecting these bodies to a disciplinary regime, but by fostering personal responsibility, by promoting self-enhancement, by providing an infinite number of possibilities, and by shaping the ability to pursue success and happiness. The aim of fitness is strong, powerful, self-reliant bodies, not docile ones.
From the very beginning, fitness was what Judith Butler has called a “regulatory ideal.” Claiming and creating difference between more and less fit bodies and individuals is inherent to fitness. Fitness is (and here I lean on Michel Foucault’s lectures on biopolitics) “a way of establishing a biological type caesura within a population.” However, it is most important to note that Theodore Roosevelt, in his “strenuous life”-speech, established this caesura not only between those who were living a strenuous life and those who were not, but he did so also along the lines of race and gender. Roosevelt claimed that only white Anglo-Saxon men were endowed with the ability to achieve true fitness, move the American nation forward, and were thus entitled to full citizenship. Citizenship here means more than having a certain passport, and it also means more than the right to vote. It means being granted recognition as a productive member of society. In liberal societies, fitness developed into the ultimate pre-condition for citizenship recognition, with fitness being the privileged domain of white men.
With modern fitness gaining momentum, besides race and gender, body shape became more important for this “biological type caesura.” As argued by Nina Mackert, it was not until the late 19th century that the fat body began to indicate failure in the pursuit of fitness, and white middle-class Americans began to diet for weight-loss. In the biopolitics of fitness, fatness became what Foucault has analyzed as a “biological threat to the improvement of the species.” Therefore, body fat called for elimination, either of the fat itself or of the fat body and the fat person. Elimination does not necessarily mean real death, but includes, as Foucault maintains, “political death, expulsion, rejection, and so on.” Judith Butler speaks of the displacement into the abject, “those ‘unlivable’ and ‘uninhabitable’ zones of social life which are nevertheless densely populated by those who do not enjoy the status of the subject,” nor the status of full citizenship, as I want to add.
Criticizing the privileging power of fitness today, philosopher Abby Wilkerson argues that we now live in a political community based upon a “thin contract.” In neoliberal societies, having the social contract as their historical founding document, sociopolitical inclusion depends on body shape and understandings of fitness. “Having an ideal body,” Wilkerson writes, “is more or less necessary for full social inclusion, [… for] specifying who is and isn’t a ‘fit’ member of society, or subject of democracy.” Fat bodies—and here Wilkerson sounds as if she is responding critically to Teddy Roosevelt—are seen as indicating “a failure of character, a weakness of will, an inability to govern oneself.” They are perceived as threats to the power and principles of liberal societies.
In a similar vein, sociologist Nikolas Rose maintains that we live in the age of “biological citizenship.” Citizenship, as Rose stresses, requires developing a well-informed, positive, productive, and foresighted relation to oneself, one’s body, and one’s health, with health being barely distinguishable from fitness: “Health, understood as the maximization of the vital forces and the potentialities of the living body, has become a desire, a right and an obligation.“
Rose adds the politics and practices, the potential and pitfalls of genetic medicine to the picture, and his concept of “biological citizenship” helps to show more clearly how the relationship between fitness and citizenship recognition has changed from modern to postmodern times, or from “solid” to “liquid modernity,” as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman puts it. Yet in general, an understanding of citizenship as biological is anything but new. Since the age of revolutions, and throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, citizenship has always been biological. It very much depended on race, gender, and sexuality, with these categories being so powerful exactly because they were seen as biological, and biological meant unalterable. Biology was destiny. This began to change with the invention of modern fitness in the nineteenth century. The ability to work on one’s body, to modify one’s body, to improve one’s body superseded the understanding of biology as destiny—though not all at once, and not totally. For a long time, the concept of the body as destiny and the concept of the body as site of improvement existed concomitantly. Those notions overlapped and interacted. Yet in the age of postmodern fitness, the idea that the body is malleable and in need of constant improvement has become so powerful that the practices and politics of fitness reach all the way to the genetic code of the body. “Citizenship,” Nikolas Rose and Carlos Novas claim paradigmatically in their article on genetic enhancement in the age of fitness, “here as elsewhere, is to be active.”