Deleuzian Athletics: On Running and Writing

Near the beginning of his essay “Mediators” (Negotations 121-34), Gilles Deleuze writes:

The kind of movements you find in sports and habits are changing. We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there’s a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports—surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding—take the form of entering into an existing wave. There’s no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting-into-orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to “get into something” instead of being the origin of an effort. (121)

I see what Deleuze means. Last January, I took up running, and as I have increased my running distance and pace over the past few months, rehabbing a few minor injuries along the way, I think more and more about resistances (like inclined surfaces), starting and stopping points, my posture, etc. Indeed, my life sometimes seems ruled by maps like this one of today’s late morning run:

IMG_0373Yet to represent the activity of running with a map like this—a map that clearly indicates location, route, milage, etc.—excludes so much of what goes into running: the ritual before leaving the house, the gearing-up, the warmup, the assessment of weather, the beginning, and all the obstacles, affects, percepts, accidents, and shifts in ground, pace, wind, traffic, and color along the way. I came to a full stop about two miles into my run to take a photo from the Newport Cliff Walk. In what sense is this stopping and photographing not part of the athletic movement?


It’s important, then, to note that while Deleuze is making a claim about changes in actual sportive movements in the late 1980s and early 1990s that he is also making a claim about a change in “conception,” that is, about the way we think about sportive or athletic movement. Though it may not be visually obvious, the activity of running—like hang-gliding or surfing—can also be thought of as an attempt to “get into something.” At the very least the desire to run, and the continual renewal of this desire feels like “something” I—whatever “I am”—do not control. Though I often feel ruled by starting points and stopping points and rather simple maps of my athletic efforts, these efforts rarely feel like the origin of my running.

And what of writing? Deleuze’s detour through contemporary sports is meant to illustrate his frustration with contemporary philosophy’s turn to “eternal values”:

We’re in a very weak phase, a period of reaction. Yet philosophy thought it had done with the problem of origins. It was no longer a question of starting or finishing. The question was rather, what happens “in between”? And the same applies to physical movements. [. . .]

[Despite the changing movements in sports] philosophy [is] coming back [. . .] to the idea of the intellectual as the custodian of eternal values. We’re back to Benda complaining that Bergson was a traitor to his own class, the clerical class, in trying to think motion. [. . .] In barren times philosophy retreats to reflecting “on” things. If it’s not itself creating anything, what can it do but reflect on something? So it reflects on eternal or historical things, but can itself no longer make any move. (121-22)

Since Deleuze so clearly wants to think of thought and of bodies as things that move and that get taken up (often without conscious intention or effort), I think there is more going on here than a simple analogy between contemporary sports and the activity of philosophy (or the lack thereof). He indicates a connection between athletics and creative work in his essay “Literature and Life” (Essays Critical and Clinical) as well. Here’s a brief passage:

Writing is a question of becoming, always incomplete, always in the midst of being formed, and goes beyond the matter of any livable or lived experience. [. . .] To become is not to attain a form (identification, imitation, Mimesis) but to find the zone of proximity, indiscernibility, or indifferentiation where one can no longer be distinguished from woman, an animal, or molecule [. . .] Becoming is always “between” or “among”: a woman between women, or an animal among others. [. . .] All writing involves athleticism, but far from reconciling literature with sports or turning writing into an Olympic event, this athleticism is exercised in flight and in the breakdown of the organic body—an athlete in bed, as Michaux put it. [. . .] Language must devote itself to reaching these feminine, animal, molecular detours, and every detour is a becoming-mortal. There are no straight lines, neither in things nor in language. Syntax is the set of necessary detours that are created in each case to reveal the life in things. (1-2)

I need to think a good deal more about the connection between athletics and creativity—running or hang-gliding and writing philosophy or literature—before I follow up on these rich passages. But I do want to end with a series of questions: is there an unfinished and immanent concept of “athletics” a component of Deleuze’s concept of “activity” or (more appropriate) of “movement”? If so, how might we flesh out the map of this concept? Who are its personae? What are its components? What problems make it possible to do its own activity? And how might the athleticization of running and writing alter how we think of other activities? Reading, for instance? Or teaching? Or criticism? Could it be said that literary studies has become reactive in the way that philosophy had or has? Are we now custodians of things, facts, and values? What might a criticism devoted to the “between” look like? (And not just a criticism that applies Deleuzian concepts.) What might reading “between” lives and works enable?

Reading on . . .

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