A Professional Body: Remembering, Repeating and Working Out Masculinities in Fin-de-Siècle Physical Culture

Chow, Broderick D.V. (2015) A Professional Body: Remembering, Repeating and Working Out Masculinities in Fin-de-Siècle Physical Culture. Performance Research, 20 (5). pp. 30-41. ISSN 1352-8165


Physical fitness demands repetition. Achieving a bodily ideal compels the subject to return day after day to the same designated place and repeat the same set of movements. For this reason, the practice of fitness, especially in regards to the participation of male-identifying subjects, has often been read as a form of discipline, surveillance, and ideological interpellation. In this article, I offer an alternative understanding of this repetition by reading fitness as a deeply performative practice. My focus is physical culture, a movement that emerged at a crucial transitional moment of Western modernity and which systematized men's fitness as we know it today through a popular media apparatus of magazines, postcards, books, film, and theatre where the male body could be viewed, examined, and. Exposing the entwined histories of fitness and theatre in the ‘body of work’ of the Edwardian strongman, wrestler, and physical culturist George Hackenschmidt, I argue that the performative repetitions of physical culture actually reveal the incomplete inscription of ideology upon the site of the body by demonstrating how a certain masculine norm must be continually re-cited. The performance of the built up and stripped down male body is thus an anxious performance of masculinity during a period of great industrial transformation. Hackenschmidt's body of work, both as a performer of built masculinity on the vaudeville stage and the wrestling ring, and as an author of numerous books, suggests that when men today re-enact the moves and lifts of physical culture in their fitness practices, they are (to adapt Freud's phrase) remembering, repeating, and working out, though perhaps not working through, the contradictions of modernity.


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