Long distance running – a step at a time

auroville_marathon

This is about running. I write this because it is not every week that limits are pushed to a delirious state. On Sunday, I completed my first organized and timed full marathon. I ran the Auroville Marathon in Pondicherry. This makes it the first long run of the year. I’ve been running 30km, 35km and lesser distances all through the last year. Never managed to attend organized runs for a variety of reasons. Had registered for Auroville Marathon -2015 and didn’t go for it. Regret that for the amazingly serene and runner friendly trail that it is. This year’s too would have met the same fate had it not been for an evening run at NLS which found me elated back at my desk and I registered for Auroville’s. In the next two months since registration, preparation for the 42 km run nosedived. In all, I managed to do 6 20 km+ runs as prep. And nothing else. Most of the evenings found me wrestling other personal and work related affairs with a terrible state of mind. I wasn’t sure that I’ll survive these 42 km on Sunday and even at dinner table on Saturday. I sat over a bowl of pasta in a restaurant and watched people pass by, from the balcony. I contemplated taking a bus back to Bangalore after dinner.

On Sunday, first 10 km saw me confident. The next 10 saw me sure-footed. The next 5 km wrecked me. A complete bonking out happened somewhere after 25 km. I stopped for a piss and lost orientation. I didn’t know the treeline from the trail and trail from the sky. It all circled around as though I was in a tin can which was given a vigorous shake. Found my footing till the next aid station and took in several cups of electrolyte. Having finished it, I guess it wasn’t so much physical exhaustion as it was the state of mind that did me in. Because physically, I finished strong. I was dreading it and it hit me! The 30s were the toughest because of a nasty knee cramp. I was hobbling through several stretches. Those were the moments which saw me laughing out loud for what I signed up for, for being stupid to be there without prep and similar such things. A short distance later I wasn’t even sure what was I doing, or what was I there for. The last 4 km is when the spirits bounced back. By then I had learnt to ignore the knee pain and keep myself running at a consistent pace with short steps. I knew I was going to complete it and make it within a decent time limit. By 4 hrs 50 mins I was done with the 42 km trail. With this finish, came a good deal of lessons too. Pursuits like these were clearly not what I am naturally predisposed to. I did it because I liked attempting it. But am I predisposed to such exercises? I think, no. It was the same when I did a brevet ride of 100 km last year. It was to explore how I take situations of stress. Nothing else.

Having completed the run, it amazes me how an unknown side of me was playing itself out – raw and hard at me. I was running 20+ distances. What I didn’t realize was that those distances I did every evening were well within my comfort zone. I didn’t know that I should have ventured out. Sunday morning was doing that. I was revolting against that. This duel, I was living in fits of hysterical laughter mixed with bursts of determination and topped with tons of lack of confidence. If I was filming myself, sitting this evening I can’t look at that recording without being surprised and embarrassed at myself. This is because with the run I witnessed how I respond to situations (and challenges) outside of my physical and mental comfort zones. It wasn’t a happy sight. But like other runners and endurance sports enthusiasts I can say that all that pain was well worth it.

This run also came at a time when I am facing a fair amount of difficulty at work and other things that I do for a living. It is amazing how all of it connects with each other. A positive mental state does a great deal to a run and it is the same with one’s profession. I am more effective in an optimistic state of mind. That has been hard lately.

The other thing I learnt is the necessity of a certain discipline in pursuits. I say certain because the form and intensity of it can be different for individuals. But having some degree of discipline is absolutely necessary. I could have fared much better if I had the discipline to train or say, be regular with my runs during the preceding months. I wasn’t ! It takes the same intensity of intent to get through work as well, especially when self-employed and in consulting. Many of the contracts that I undertake do not have demanding skills but they are demanding in time and rigour. This is where the problem begins. Not having enough of either of the two. I am capable of procrastinating endlessly.

For all these reasons, it was great to see that I ran past the finish line feeling strong. It sort of bridged a bit of that gap between the known and the unknown selves. At one point when I had stalled completely on the trail I found myself repeating the number of kilometers left. It was almost a chant. That was probably the last desperate measure I tried until I regained the pace.

Finally, it was Andy, a runner over 70 years old who crossed me at around 38th kilometer, cantering like a fine bred horse. Can’t forget the sight – he was on a consistent, confident stride and his wife rode along by his side on a cycle, supporting him. Hell of a partnership there! One of those points in the woods where I squatted on the ground, another old dude, Kumar, passes by urging me not to stop – walk, if you have to, but don’t stop. He played old Hindi songs on his phone, rather loud. That was unusual. How did he find pace with that kind of music. For his comment, I thought, don’t I know this already? There was something very inspiring when I saw him do that, right ahead of me. That is the only thing I did there onward. I can’t thank Kumar enough, for that one line. I found him doing the same all through. He is probably over 50 years old. I watched him ahead of me, behind me and alongside for the last 8 km of the trail. He never did stop! I shall never forget this.

For the last kilometer, the organizers had arranged for pacers. I had two lovely people who paced me just when I was living terrible troughs. I am incredibly thankful to both. Naveen, for the last km. I knew he was lying about the distance remaining. But I did speed up. At 42 km I was at a pace similar to the first five. It was courtesy his pacing.

I told one of my friend who also runs long distance that I do not prefer organized runs. I still don’t, especially the ones with sponsors plastering every little space with ads. But marathons like these, I will always run. They are a huge bundle of learning. A senior lady who wore a starched saree and canvas shoes and was attempting 10k. Such a pretty sight! I am full of admiration for such folks. Another family, was cheering on a particularly isolated stretch where they found me walking, visibly in pain. Such encouraging environment does a great deal of help. This is another thing I learn, and I am sure to follow this at school. To encourage kids to do things. To ‘go for it’. I do not think I do it enough.

I remember the indistinct pre-dawn sky when I started. I remember the bright and deep blue typical of Pondicherry sky at 9.30 am when I was nearing completion. It was almost metaphorical, I felt. What it takes is – a step at a time. And to be at it!

The after effect of this finish is that I am considering a 200 km brevet ride and signed up for the Ramanagara Half Marathon two weeks from now. I hope the streak continues and I finish the year with at least one ultrarun.

Explorations in Marxist social theory & a book review

thinkerwall_blog1

 

Image Courtesy: Wikimedia (for all)

 

This one will be a longer post than usual, but delights me especially because I could manage to get a somewhat minimal sense of the range of thoughts and ideas in the Marxist lineage, which has been a long going effort. The post includes a discussion of a clutch of the thinkers in a rather cursory form. This is guided along a fantastic anthology of essays titled Against Orthodoxy: Social Theory and Its Discontents by Stanley Aronowitz, that I happened to read as a part of a course on Development and Law. What made me pick this book is that Aronowitz has been a career trade unionist. With over three decades of work as a union member, I felt his commentaries merits a closer read. 

The development paradigm in the twenty-first century is characterized as predominantly capitalist. The processes that will achieve higher incomes, better living conditions and great prosperity for the people are believed to be those that operate in and through capitalism. Developing and less developed countries, it is seen are orienting their economies in a manner that they stand to gain from these processes of capitalism. For instance, export led growth is one such process which has gained widespread currency and for which there are rather strong success stories to learn from in Asia. If capitalism as a paradigm is believed to have occupied the center stage and is likely to stay, what then can be said of the tremendous destruction of environment, countries (as this is being written the failed states of Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan continue to contribute headlines of humanitarian crisis every week.) as well as of human lives? How is it that despite the historic devastation of populations (World Wars) as well as planet’s natural resources which happened in twentieth century alone, capitalism still survived and in fact appears to be thriving in the twenty-first century, whereas socialism faded into memory, and in some cases, disgrace?

The above are the kind of questions that Aronowitz’s book Against Orthodoxy grapples with, by the way of his writings over a span of thirty five years from 1972 to 2015. The essays in the book are critiques of social theories and ideas of some of the leading writers of dissident Marxist social theory. The central theme that binds this long running rumination is to understand ‘the system that has produced such devastation as world wars and environmental crisis’ and how does it continue to march on. The essays are united in their problem of subjectivity.

The questions posed by the author emerge from the realm of social theory and in the process of their discussion happen to throw light on major global events and patterns. For instance, he begins by asking if capitalism’s hold on underlying populations is due to its promise, and occasionally fulfillment, of a better life signified by rising levels of consumption? And is the technological revolution of our time manifested in electronically driven communications, entertainments, and fantastic productivity increases so mesmerizing that a few can resist its blandishments? This is where critical social theories from thinkers like Marcuse, Lefebvre, Luckacs, Horkheimer, Gramsci and others are examined to understand how might their ideas assist in understanding these questions better or to even frame the question as the way it was, to begin with.

This collection of essays makes an enriching read to readers with particular interest in Marxist theory and critical social theory. Another burning question that appears to simmer throughout the book is – Is the prospect of fundamental social change so fearful that even when individuals and groups recognize the system’s limitations to fulfill good life, let alone its failures, people hold on to their hopes within the prevailing setup rather than seek alternatives? Or is the radical imagination dried up so that the available past solutions are so discredited that people are forced to live entirely in the present?

It may perhaps be noted that the book does not offer solutions but on how the thinkers included here analyze the problems. The book focuses on major social thinkers within the tradition of historical materialism and dialectical materialism. This is the orthodoxy the book talks of. They agree on the problems but differ among themselves about what is their nature and what is to be done. On the methodological front the book fixes itself intently on historical and dialectical materialism.

The following section offers a snapshot of the thinkers and aspects of their ideas that are discussed in the essays. Marcuse was a critical theorist who saw theory and action as a continuum. He speaks of “technological rationality” in capitalism, while believing that theory must specify material conditions for realization of human liberation.

A fascinating thought that shines through in reading Marcuse is the idea that labour movement’s fate is a barometer of political prospects. This is of tremendous relevance to the contemporary reading of labour movements in developing countries especially. Further, technology is constructed in conceptual sense as a form of social domination. Marcuse points out that individuality no longer mean self- development but instead the relentless pursuit of personal interests. He argues that Marx’s view that as soon as conditions are present, the workers knowledge of their own interests is sufficient for revolutionary action is not true because monopoly capital has found the means to level the proletariat and deprive it of the collective knowledge by which to lead itself.

From a brilliant commentary on Marcuse, Aaronotiwz trains his gaze on sociologists Raymond Williams and Likacs as well as on aspects of methodology. Raymonds, as a pioneer in cultural studies believed in labour movement. He believed it to be “the fundamental cultural institution of the working class and that workers remained “the key to any possible emancipatory social transformation.” On a somewhat parallel note the author notes that one needed a method that was sensitive to history and allowed for the interpretations involved in understanding to evolve.  And in the process, returning to the key question on understating the process of development he proposes that “knowledge about the object of study as well as a broad, deep comprehension of the world” is necessary for the development of understanding.

In another essay Aronowitz explains that Lukacs’ was an attempt to craft a theory in which the subject as much as the object played a formative role in forging history. His argument that the commodity form itself – a category of political economy – transformed relations among people into relations between things. This “thingification” of everday life thereby reified and appeared to make eternal capitalist system itself (this is in some ways derived from Marx’s “fetishism of commodities”). For Lukacs concept of alienation becomes a structural feature of the capitalist system of production and especially of social and political reproduction – here he departs from conventional Marxist theory of ideology.

The everyday life along this exploration of critical social theory enters the inquiry in this book with Lefebvre. The idea of “urbanism” is also credited to Lefebvre. His investigations were directed to the key question of why and how global capitalism, despite a century of unrelieved wars, revolutions, economic crises, and political turmoil in the both “advanced” and developing world, managed to survive. He notes that “whatever happens, alterations in daily life will remain the criterion of change” wherein daily life cannot be defined as a “sub-system” within a larger system. This too appears to be a departure from Marx’s conception of society and its processes.  Daily life is the site of and the crucial condition for the “reproduction of the relations of production”. Its colonization by the state and by economic relations provides the answer to the question of the survival of survival of capitalism in the wake of its horrendous 20th century history. The right to difference is for him a fundamental principle, especially for the effectiveness of the Left’s struggle for democracy.

In the series of essays, everyday life as an inquiry gives way to theory of political organization with which Gramsci’s ideas are explored. This makes a brilliant read for those who are looking forward to an introduction to Gramsci and neo-Marxist political thought.  Gramsci examines the concrete processes of social transformation and particularly how revolutionary forces out to proceed from the present conditions of economic, political and ideological hegemony to a moment when the “historic bloc” of excluded classes and other social formations may contest and win power. In India, one could think of the political party AAP and its electoral win in New Delhi at this juncture. In AAP one can see the observation that “every party is the expression of a social group” fitting well.

Perhaps for the reader of critical social theory and with interests in later thinkers like Horkheimer and Friere the last two essays would make for a high point of this brilliant collection by Aaronowitz.

Horkheimer is quoted by the author which at one level magnificently captures the state of the current state of political Left in India and at another level is a masterstroke in social theory in its prophetic nature –

“the revolution won’t happen with guns, rather it will happen incrementally, year by year, generation by generation. We will gradually infiltrate their educational institutions and their political offices, transforming hem into Marxist entities as we move towards universal egalitarianism”

With Friere the author deals with his ideas in power relationships as well as humanism, which are as rewarding a read as the rest of the book.

In summary, Against Orthodoxy is a book that maps the trend from from Revolution to Radical Democracy and grapples with the question of how capitalism still finds such a widespread acceptance. The book takes on the enterprise of revising and re-contextualizing Marxist theory. Along the course of the essays it points to battle fronts in which Left must venture if it has to combat capitalism arguing that the solutions would emerge if this fine interlinked web of social reality and self-consciousness is examined in enriched forms. The book in its writing style is dense and makes a difficult read but merits effort if one ones to get closer to the heart of Marxist social theory and critical social theory. And finally, it is a treat for readers interested in philosophical enquiry.