Low and Mighty

24.09.17

As self-domesticated animals we retain strong links to our primal history and physical nature through our relatively unchanged biological makeup, particularly that of the brain.  But despite this fact, or perhaps because of it, we seem to be focusing our efforts on moving further away from, denying and even erasing all traces of this shameful past.

We place ourselves above animals and even use this as a derogatory term to describe other.  Flies, dogs and pigs to list a few, have all had the misfortune of having their names sullied by the connotations of man.  Animals are evidently lower life-forms, and thus, humans who share animal characteristics are repulsive pigs who deserve to die like dogs.

But the relationship we have with our beastly brethren as evidenced by our common expressions is only just the beginning of the story.  Perhaps the most significant aspect of our domestication is the move towards a sedentary lifestyle, and particularly the rejection, stigmatisation and devaluation of physical labour.

On one hand, slavery, mechanisation and technological advance are all about reducing the physical input of the individual for the sake of convenience and ultimately profit, but at the same time there are interesting, perhaps unintended consequences of such systems.  Physical work becomes associated with poverty and lower status, in the same way that pigs are linked to filth, grime and unsanitary living conditions.  If your job is manual labour, it usually signals that you are not clever enough, or well-educated enough in order to easily obtain a more sedentary position.  Moreover, it places you firmly at the bottom of a hierarchy which is quite clearly delineated between not just rich and poor, but between those roles that require the body, and those whose primary focus is the intellect, or at least just the brain.

The slave was liberated, only to become the operator of a piece of time-saving machinery, having once been the machinery himself.

So physical effort is viewed as something to be avoided, which also means that opportunities to benefit from Darwinian happiness associated with the body in movement are wasted.

There are however, well-paid physical jobs such as those of professional sportsmen, but despite their million-dollar income, football players remain manual labourers, and lack the status of other competitors in other sports such as horse or motor racing.  In both the previous examples there is a large financial barrier to entry: most children cannot afford a horse, a racecar, or even lessons, but what they can do is learn to use their own bodies with minimal equipment.  In any case, the divide can be seen within sports and physical occupations themselves.  Professional boxing has different physical demands and financial constraints compared to golf for example.

A loss of contact between humans and their animal heritage is profoundly mirrored in their actual loss of contact with the earth itself.  Squatting has been replaced with sitting in chairs, shoes separate our feet from the ground, and mats mask our contact with the floor.  The earth is dirty, like the animals who roll in it, and separation from this dirt is a sign of wealth.

Compared to the outside world, a modern gym is a sterile environment in which to habitually re-enact contrived movements for the sake of “health” or aesthetics.  In this way, humans can take their necessary movement medicine without having to get dirty, and risk the damage to their status that comes from contact with the earth and their animal nature.  A practice that not only embraces, but demands connection with the floor is fundamentally counter-culture, just as eating with cutlery is deemed to be civilised.

We are not upstanding citizens, we are low-down, dirty dogs, and these ideas are clearly reflected in our cultural metaphors.

Stand up for your beliefs by stooping so low and remaining grounded in physical activity I say.  In fact, we could even think of construction metaphors in which foundations are laid and built upon, as reflecting the same idea that domestication is about moving further away, not only from the ground and eventually the earth itself (think space travel), but from our ancestral roots.  In this sense, the negative connotations of being on the floor (down and out) may arise as a direct consequence of several metaphors which are based on the concepts up = good and down = weak.

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