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Performance Research
A Journal of the Performing Arts
Volume 20, 2015 - Issue 5: On Repetition
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Original Articles

A Professional Body

Remembering, repeating and working out masculinities in fin-de-siècle physical culture

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.

On 4 February 1910, whilst on a twelve-week tour of the Commonwealth, the physical culturist, wrestler, actor, writer and entertainer George Hackenschmidt performed what might today be considered an unusual piece of physical theatre in Masterton, New Zealand. According to the Wairarapa Daily Times, Hackenschmidt, the ‘man of thews and muscle … world-famed athlete and strongman’ appeared at the Town Hall alongside Gunner Moir, an English boxer, and Alex Bain, a wrestler, and ‘a fine sample of the brawny Scot’ (WDT 1910b: 5). The lengthy performance consisted of wrestling bouts between the three men, as well as local wrestler, Moana Paratoue, who rose to the challenge of £15 offered to any man in the audience who could stand against Hackenschmidt for at least fifteen minutes (sadly, Paratoue only lasted ‘3 minutes 45 seconds’) (WDT 1910b: 5). Alongside the wrestling, Hackenschmidt gave a ‘physical culture exhibition’, a combination of ‘physical training exercises, posture posing, muscle culture [sic] and the many feats of endurance by which Hackenschmidt has proved himself justly famous’ (WDT 1910a: 6). In addition to exhibiting his physical development, Hackenschmidt also lectured to the audience about the emerging practice of physical culture: ‘He claims that his methods render the muscles supple and enduring, and that to become really strong, it is essential to use weights’ (WDT 1910b: 5). This spectacle of modern manliness was interspersed with a number of light-hearted vaudeville acts, which included ‘monologues, magic, mirth, and melody by Clifford Eskell, Mark Osborne and other artists quite new to New Zealand’ (WDT 1910a: 6), though the reporter was not taken with the acts (‘not of a particularly brilliant order’), save for ‘several solos’ sung by Madame Blanche Carelli (WDT 1910b: 5).

Complementing this generous measure of live performance were several films of Hackenschmidt, one of which ended up in the Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision Archive in Wellington. However, this film no longer exists, except as a description on the archive's website:

[Hackenschmidt Wrestling]

Spectators are seated and in Edwardian evening dress. One holds a sign reading ‘Urban’ [the production company]. Wrestler Georg Hackenschmidt poses shirtless for the camera against a dark backdrop. An intertitle (before the end of the wrestling match) reads ‘Last Bout. Hackenschmidt Wins.’ (This rules out only Frank Gotch as his opponent). Another pair of opponents also appears. Trophies are presented. Signs indicate the presence of the ‘Press’.1

There is currently no viewing copy. (Ngā Taonga 2014)

The archive's description captures the apparatus of audience (‘Spectators are seated’), the preliminary ‘posing’ (for a camera) and the result (‘Hackenschmidt Wins’), but not the subject of the film – the wrestling – in other words, the actual performance itself. This absence raises the spectre of the archive's ability to capture bodies, especially the extraordinary, superhuman, professional body of a physical culturist like George Hackenschmidt.

‘Physical culture’ is understood to mean ‘the development and strengthening of the body, esp. by means of regular exercise’ (OED). The term is often linked to the programmes of physical development, mainly targeted at men, that emerged in Europe and the United States in the late nineteenth century, of which Hackenschmidt was an acolyte and advocate, though he is often overlooked in favour of the more famous Eugen Sandow or Charles Atlas. Physical culture is a precursor of contemporary bodybuilding and fitness programmes, but Hackenschmidt's tour of the Antipodes shows that it was also a form of theatre. From Sandow's posing routines to Hackenschmidt's wrestling bouts, performance was a medium of transmission for physical culture's philosophy. As I will discuss below, whilst historians (often drawing on Foucault's analysis of discipline) have agreed on physical culture's links to industrialization, militarism and nationalism, the body itself is often absent from their critiques, based as they are on the ideological content of the images and texts of physical culture. The absent performing body of physical culture hints towards the Western archival tendency to privilege object over process or event, or, in Rebecca Schneider's words: ‘the habit of the West … to privilege bones as index of flesh that was once’ (2011: 102). The physical culturist's body, however, is certainly not bony – the body of the physical culturist is a fleshly body par excellence. According to the logic of the archive, the fleshly body does not remain. But it is the fleshly body, a body in process in which meanings are contested and negotiated, that can tell us about what physical culture means, both historically and in its modern variants. In other words, the physical culturist's body is a performing body and not what Kate Elswit calls the ‘petrified’ body of the archive (2008).

Repetition is key to understanding the fleshly body of physical culture. Physical culture demands repetition, then, as now. It scripts a limited range of movements and bodily behaviours that must be repeated on a regular, scheduled basis if progress is to be made. For this reason, the practice of fitness has frequently been read as a form of discipline, surveillance and ideological interpellation. Repetition hardens bodies and inscribes ideology upon the muscles and sinew. But in another way, repetition does precisely the opposite, revealing the incomplete inscription of ideology upon the site of the body by demonstrating how the normative, culturally idealized modern man made flesh must be continually remade. To repeat, in this context, takes on a different sense, closer to ‘to rehearse’, which, in French, is simply répéter. But what is this training a rehearsal for? Simply put, for a performance of the modern man in a period of great industrial transformation, but not its actualization. It is possible to see physical culture as both an apparatus that disciplines bodies and produces subjects fit for industry and war, and at the same time an anxious and excessive theatre that challenged precisely this alienation of man from body. This is, to draw on the famous phrase of another physical culturist, Charles Atlas, its ‘dynamic tension’.2

This article first considers the relation of physical culture and fitness to repetition, a trope that appears as the basic unit of contemporary fitness, a ‘rep’. I then return to the career of George Hackenschmidt, whose body of work exemplifies the theatrical and performative origins of physical culture, a history that receives scant attention even in the most detailed studies (see Fair 2015). Finally, analysing Hackenschmidt's most famous book, The Way to Live in Health and Physical Fitness, a training manual and autobiography, I note that the text is full of repetitions (for example, of feats of strength and gains in weight and inches) that do not reinforce but contradict each other, at the same time constructing and deconstructing the physical culture ideal of the self-made man.

This article is also informed by a literal practice of repetition. Physical culture is ‘repeated’ in the bodies of men and women who practise fitness culture today. Despite enormous diversity of fitness practices in the contemporary moment (running, yoga, CrossFit) sculpting the ‘built’ body has remained remarkably consistent over the past century. In Performing Remains, a book concerning re- enactment, Schneider discusses the case of Robert Lee Hodge, a Civil War re-enactor with an uncanny ability to simulate a ‘bloated corpse’ with his body. Schneider writes: ‘Hodge's bloat is a kind of affective remain – itself, in its performative repetition, a queer kind of evidence’ (2011: 101). If a repetition in the body is ‘evidence’, Schneider is arguing, it is queer in the sense that it troubles the normative economy of what ‘counts’ as historical fact or knowledge. As a devotee of the gym floor for many years, I wonder if my performance under the bar might be a performative repetition of Hackenschmidt, every rep (always predictably the same and yet unbearably different) a ‘queer kind of evidence’? Whilst we must of course distinguish between the conscious performative repetitions of Civil War re-enactors and my training in weightlifting, my affective repetitions in the present of the fleshly past cannot help but implicitly inform this research.3


Fitness culture is built on repetition. Bodybuilding and strength training forums discuss ‘rep ranges’ and the relative benefits of ‘high rep’ and ‘low rep’ programmes. The UK fitness clothing company Repraw incorporates the word into its name. To practise fitness is to repeat a set of movements or gestures. When I train, I try to ‘get the reps in’. A normal session in the gym might contain twenty-five repetitions of squat, snatch, deadlift or clean and jerk on a ‘work weight’ and even more repetitions with the empty Olympic bar, grouped into ‘sets’. I repeat, adding increasingly heavier weights so that my body adapts, grows bigger, stronger (a concept known as ‘progressive overload’). I repeat for the affective thrill, because a single rep on a 120‑kg deadlift makes my heart pound and my breath come faster. I repeat so I will make ‘gains’. This labour of repetition is pleasurable and awful in equal intensity.

Enduring repetition is part of the discipline of fitness. However, in critical scholarship on fitness, discipline tends to be seen in a negative light. Repetition in fitness structures the body's movements and gestures, as well as its use of time and space, compelling the body to return, day after day, to the same place, often at the same designated time. Fitness culture therefore is sometimes read as a sort of leisure-time double to the Fordist/Taylorist mechanization of the human at work. At best, as Jennifer Smith Maguire argues, fitness culture is emblematic of twentieth-century individualism and economic neo-liberalism, where ‘control over one's life is reduced to a command of the body, which is often disrupted by impositions from a disorderly social world – highlighting the limits of the individual's social control’ (2008: 195). At worst, the ‘technology’ of physical fitness is, according to Brian Pronger, ‘body fascism’, developing the body ‘for its potential as a resource’ (2002: 100–1). A Foucaultian reading of the body and power supports these critiques; as Foucault argues in his 1980 text ‘Body-Power’, through practices of ‘gymnastics, exercises [and] muscle building’, power invests the body by increasing the subject's knowledge and mastery over it (Foucault 1980: 56). Fitness is thus part of a complex network of knowledge and power Foucault calls ‘governmentality’, controlling the subject through self-surveillance rather than direct repression. As Pirkko Markula and Richard Pringle write, ‘by imposing a regime of physical fitness on a population, it is possible to govern individual bodies’ (2006: 70). Such readings of contemporary fitness are supported by related historical scholarship on the sporting body as a site of citizenship, nationalism and militarism. Physical education as a ‘social good’ has been a feature of numerous regimes from state- sponsored training in Ancient Greece to the Muscular Christianity movement of Victorian England, which connected a strong body to moral character as well as ideas of racial purity that served imperial projects underway in Africa and Asia (Wee 1994). In Germany, Friedrich Jahn's turnverein (gymnastics) movement has strong links to militarism, and the Nazi celebration of the nude muscular male in art, ‘a gendered image symbolizing will, aggression and power’, has been argued to have legitimated the fascist masculine ideal (Mangan 1999: 111).

My training notebook, on first glance, demonstrates exactly this repetition as surveillance (fig. 1). Page after page is filled with names of exercises I have performed hundreds of times before. Beside these are an expected number of sets and reps and a weight at which to perform the repetitions, usually set by my trainer. During training, I have inscribed a series of ticks, and notes either celebrating my success or admonishing myself with things to concentrate on next time. The marks on the page resemble scratches counting down the days on the walls of a prison. I am reminded of the philosopher Jean-Marie Brohm's description of sport as ‘a prison of measured time’ (1978 [1976]).

▪ Figure 1. Training notebook (extract). Photo Broderick Chow

By prescribing movements, sets and repetitions (along with other self-governmental advice on nutrition and sleep), a fitness programme can be seen as an apparatus that captures and dominates the body. Whilst exercise science has moved on, the contemporary programmes originated with physical culture. The term ‘physical culture’ appears in 1787 for the first time in Adolphus Vongieur's A Treatise on the Bane of Vice, where the author writes of ‘gross and stupid men – born without talents, void of literal education and physical culture’ (1787, cited in OED). The usage, clearly, is strongly normative. In the nineteenth century, the term comes to be associated with systematized modes of training promoted by Eugen Sandow, George Hackenschmidt, Apollo (William Bankier) in England, Bernarr MacFadden and Charles Atlas in the United States, and Edmond Desbonnet in France. These men espoused a ‘Greek ideal’ of arete (Fair 2015: 20) or personal excellence, which could be attained by programmes of weight and strength training. The strongmen pioneered techniques now familiar to modern exercisers through experimentation. Their primary medium of communication was magazines, which themselves were highly repetitive, repeating the same columns (‘Practical Hints on Heavy Weight-Lifting’) from issue to issue, often for years at a time. Seeming to validate the critique of physical culture's panopticism, editorials were often explicitly patriotic or nationalistic, especially in The Superman, a British monthly of the interwar period. Threaded through with decontextualized quotations from Friedrich Nietzsche, calls for national ‘strength’ and appeals to readers to form a ‘Paladins League of Youth’, The Superman was obviously a magazine of the far Right.4 In the first issue, for example, Dr J. Warshaw in an article on the ‘Philosophy of the Superman’ writes: ‘unless the race advances, it will assuredly slip back. We have to choose between Superman and Subman – and the latter is already a real menace in our midst’ (Warshaw 1930: 8). Such attitudes have understandably led some historians to conclude that whilst ‘the relationship between fascism and the physical culture movement was complex and contested’, nonetheless it ‘played an important role in cementing the link between manliness, physical fitness and patriotism in interwar Britain … stimulated by anxieties about perceived physical deterioration’ (Zweiniger-Bargielowska 2006: 596). In this same vein Michael Anton Budd argues that the aim of the movement was to channel ordinary men's dangerously liberated energies towards work (1997: 47–9). He draws attention to the ‘reader's contest’, which encouraged men to send in their own images to be judged by other readers, enabling self‑objectification. In other words, physical culture built subjects fit for citizenship, work and war.

However, the textual media of physical culture (which are most easily archived) are only one side of the story. The pioneers of physical culture were not only strongmen, but also showmen. Theatrical spectacles, such as vaudevillian exhibitions, wrestling matches and physique competitions were an equally crucial, albeit overlooked, medium of transmission as magazines.5 These performances of physical culture reframe the repetitions of it by ordinary men as themselves performative, making panoptic repetition something closer to rehearsal. Physical culture is thus not (only) a practice in which a body is disciplined to a norm, but one in which a subject engages in an active, agential process of (self)-construction. In this way, the texts might be read as ‘scriptive’, rather than disciplinary. In her work on nineteenth-century material culture and racialization, Robin Bernstein invents the heuristic concept of ‘scriptive things’ to examine how texts and other objects in the archive prompt behaviours (or ‘performances’) whilst at the same time ‘simultaneously allowing for resistance and unleashing original, live variations that may not be individually predictable’ (2009: 69). Physical culture and by extension fitness programmes thus all provide the space to ‘go off script’, creating new uses, affects, relations and communities far from what is intended. In what follows, I want to demonstrate how going ‘off script’ is embodied in the repetitions of George Hackenschmidt's text The Way to Live, which scripts contradictory behaviours that challenge the physical culture's disciplinary nature. First, let us turn to his life on the stage and in the ring.

▪ Figure 2. George Hackenschmidt in suit, signed Berlin, October 1907. From the Estonian Sports Museum (via Wikimedia Commons).


Georges Karl Julius Hackenschmidt was born in 1877 in what is now Tartu, Estonia. At 17 he abandoned a career as an apprentice blacksmith to travel to St Petersburg to train with Dr Vladislav von Krajewski, a physical culture and wrestling enthusiast. Hackenschmidt gained renown as a wrestler throughout Europe. He eventually made his home in the United Kingdom, whilst touring the world wrestling and giving physical culture demonstrations. He later served as a physical education tutor to the House of Lords, and wrote many books that range from straightforward manuals to philosophical treatises that reflect a strain of contemporaneous vitalist thinking in both the natural sciences and philosophy. He died at 90 years of age in 1968.

Hackenschmidt's arrival on the scene in England in 1903 was exceedingly theatrical. According to Graeme Kent (1968: 146), one evening at the Alhambra Theatre in Leicester Square, the Cornish‑American wrestler Jack Carkeek put out his usual challenge to wrestle any man from the audience. That night, one attendee accepted. In Kent's description, ‘It was a young man, beautifully built, clad in immaculate white tie and tails. In front of the amazed audience, the young man stripped off his clothes to reveal that he was wearing wrestling trunks.’ Carkeek rebuffed Hackenschmidt as a ‘famous foreign professional’, and no bout took place.

This anecdote warrants close examination. At face value, it is a simple athletic challenge. What is not immediately apparent is that this moment is a re-enactment, a repetition, of an earlier theatrical moment that announced the arrival of another self-made strongman, Eugen Sandow. This is documented by F. R. Slade‑Jones in the first issue of The Superman:

the public interest in the sport was initially aroused when Eugene [sic] Sandow jumped the stage at the old Imperial Theatre, adjoining the old ‘Royal Aquarium’, and to some extent exposed claims of C. A. Sampson, who had been attracting crowds to the theatre and was self-labelled ‘The Strongest Man on Earth’.

(Slade-Jones 1930: 9)

The re-enactment, conscious or unconscious, of the theatrical challenge demonstrates the tension between representational/theatrical self-fashioning and the ‘real’ performance of feats of strength inherent to physical culture. In other words, we tend to consider strength or athletic skill as ‘real’ without considering the theatrical frame in which it is received. Hackenschmidt's career similarly oscillates between the theatrical and ‘real’. Whilst there is no evidence he ever fixed or willingly threw a match, Hackenschmidt's matches were much closer to today's theatrical form of ‘professional wrestling’ than the genuine sport of Graeco- Roman or freestyle wrestling practised at the Olympics or on American college campuses. In fact, his career was largely determined by his manager, the theatrical agent C. B. Cochran. In addition to booking his matches, Cochran made the athlete into a showman. Early on, the public quickly tired of Hackenschmidt's matches because his exceptional physical strength ensured they were ended too quickly. On Cochran's advice, Hackenschmidt began to extend his bouts in order to give his audiences more of a show, deliberately allowing his opponent to gain the upper hand, but briefly, before triumphing, which is broadly the same dramatic structure used in pro-wrestling today (Kent 1968: 150). By 1910, the Hack's showmanship was used to denigrate his wrestling skills in the press. Quoted in the Los Angeles Herald, the Turkish wrestler Yussiff Mahmout witheringly says: ‘Hackenschmidt is an actor. He doesn't know how to wrestle. He is a star at the Graeco-Roman style, but that is merely show stuff. He knows nothing about out-and-out wrestling. His long suit is giving theatrical exhibitions’ (LAH 1910).

▪ Figure 3. A cabinet card depicting a semi-nude Hackenschmidt, posing to show off his well-developed back and triceps. Photographed by A. Huber of Vienna. Courtesy of The Library of Nineteenth Century Photography.

Hackenschmidt's career as an athlete and performer thus consists of a series of performances that stage and restage a dominant, normative, masculine ideal – muscular, able, self-made and, above all, strong. That these performances are staged is a subtle but important distinction, for it shows that the repetitions of training do not make the strongman image real, but only real within the shadowy realm of representations we call the theatre. As Judith Butler argues in Gender Trouble, the (gendered) norm only exists in as much as it is repeated, re-cited and reiterated (1990). Pointing to drag performances, Butler suggests the possibility of performances of gender that ‘trouble’ dominant norms. But it is not only drag performances that trouble – these demonstrations of strongman masculinity, seen in this light, can also be seen to queer the normative dimensions of physical culture, since they expose the male body for viewing and consumption. This reading opens up possibilities for what the built male body signifies: at the same time as it responds to anxieties over modern manliness in a period of industrial, economic and political transformation, I suggest that the built body also performs the possibilities for the new man in the twentieth century, a longing for unalienated labour and freedom of self outside of economic relations. I now want to examine this possibility in Hackenschmidt's writing.


Hackenschmidt was a prolific writer. His first book, The Way to Live in Health and Physical Fitness, was published in 1908 and remains his best-known. He published another manual, The Complete Science of Wrestling, in 1909, which explained numerous wrestling holds, each illustrated with a posed photographic plate depicting Hackenschmidt with an unnamed opponent. The remainder of his books were published after a long period in 1937 (although probably composed at different times). These were: Fitness and Your Self, Consciousness and Character, Self-Improvement … , The Three Memories and Forgetfulness, Attitudes and their Relation to Human Manifestations and Man and Cosmic Antagonism to Mind and Spirit.6 As the titles suggest, the later books were much more philosophical in tone. Whilst his books never entirely abandon physical fitness and individual strength as a goal, the use to which the built body should be put changes throughout his oeuvre, so that by 1937 he argues that the physiologically strong body should serve the individual and, importantly, free consciousness. The importance of freedom is expressed most strongly in Consciousness and Character, where he rejects ‘dictation’ (that is, being ‘dictated to’), since a dictated thought is not ‘strictly thought. It is more truly an automatic reaction, similar to the reaction of a piece of machinery of which a control lever has been pulled’ (1937b: 158). His most critical book, Fitness and Your Self, published whilst he was an exercise consultant to the House of Lords, begins by castigating the British government for their physical fitness campaign, ‘which has as its object the producing of an A1 nation’ (1937a: 9). ‘A1’, he explains, is a military term categorizing the fitness of soldiers, and a nation of citizens drilled into military fitness would be, he argues, a ‘rigid, lifeless dictatorship’:

For a human being to have been drilled and disciplined into such a state of body that he functions as an automaton, all his individuality and personality must have been supressed. A nation which had become A1 along these lines would be a nation of standardised human beings … a nation from which nothing creative or beautiful could emerge, a nation merely of units functioning as the separate cogs of a social machine. (2)

Discipline and automatism are anathema to Hackenschmidt's thinking, which can be situated amongst the vitalist debates of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, in science and philosophy. For example, in the same book he writes:

we shall realise that the natural processes, by which the bodily parts came into being and took the form which enables them to carry out movements, were not mentally applied as exercises must be. They took place as the result of an intelligence which must belong to our life- quality itself (34–5)

This passage, amongst others in his later works, reflects the long‑discredited vitalism of early twentieth-century biologists such as Hans Driesch, Johannes Reinke and J. B. S. Haldane. But whilst Hackenschmidt draws on biological discoveries (such as cell processes), it is in support of his aim to integrate physical movement and consciousness, and, by extension, moral character. The thinker he most resembles is Henri Bergson, with whom he shares a suspicion of automatism, which Bergson (1896)[1962] warns against in Matter and Memory. By prescribing physical exercises to support his ideas of consciousness, Hackenschmidt's later books might be seen as a form of experimental, practical philosophy. For Hackenschmidt, ‘bodily self-consciousness’ brings the human being closer to truth and reality, for consciousness is related to the ‘life- power’ (1937a: 63). Problematically, however, the strongman is put in the paradoxical position of trying to prescribe a series of exercises, to be repeated daily, which will bring the reader to this state of higher free consciousness, at the same time that he critiques prescribed exercises for producing automatons.

The progression in Hackenschmidt's writings from standard physical culture manuals to a series of books, on the eve of war, that express anxiety over the instrumentalization of physical fitness demonstrates the complexity of physical culture as a movement. It also demonstrates that the behaviours and corresponding values ‘scripted’ by physical culture media cannot simply be taken at face value. In fact, the multiple contradictions encountered by the readers of these texts might have prompted unpredictable performances from the ‘resistant performer [who] understands and exerts agency against the script’ (Bernstein 2009: 75). A close reading of Hackenschmidt's first book shows this tension already in operation.

The Way to Live is divided into two distinct halves: a training manual, followed by an autobiography. We might surmise that these were two independent texts placed together to increase sales (indeed an advertisement for the magazine Strength and Health divides the sections in the 1941 printing held by the British Library). However, this quirk of publication produces for the reader a sense of the text's doubled, contradictory structure. The book plays with repetition in two different ways. On the one hand it literally prescribes repetition, setting a number of reps for every suggested exercise: ‘Exercise 1. … Hunch shoulders as high as possible for ten repetitions, increasing by one with every third performance of exercise up to twenty repetitions; then increase weights by 5 lb. and commence afresh’ (1908: 61). Repetitions are prescribed for thirty‑five exercises, which are written in the same workmanlike style, meaning that this section of the text cannot be read as a literary exercise, but must be used as a guide. It only ‘works’ if its script is followed. On the other hand, the autobiography that forms the second section of the book seems to repeat the advice of the first, as lived experience. But rather than reinforcing the advice of the first section, Hackenschmidt's autobiography undermines it.

Hackenschmidt begins by following the standard physical culture line of mens sana in corpore sano: ‘It is a well-known fact that the majority of men to-day are relatively weak, whereas the struggle for existence demands now more than at any previous epoch that we should all be strong!’ (14). The physical development of strength is prescribed as a necessary response to changes in the expectations of masculinity brought on by industrialization and urbanization. Man, Hackenschmidt contends, ‘has been separated from the natural physical advantages, which were freely offered to him in bygone centuries’, therefore ‘he should surely avail himself of efficient substitutes which are offered to him by trained and practiced physical culturists’ (12). Because the muscles are controlled by the nerves, for Hackenschmidt strength training is also a training of the ‘will’, a psycho-physical connection that is commonplace in contemporary fitness culture, but in the context of the early twentieth century it draws on fears about the ‘new’ disease of neurasthenia, literally a ‘weakening’ of the nerves resulting in symptoms of fatigue, headache, anxiety and depression. For Hackenschmidt, the vice of idleness leads to destruction: ‘Hope after hope slips successively from [the idle man's] grasp, and finally he sinks into a more or less dangerous mental illness, the result of which may easily lead him to seek release in self‑destruction’ (17) The text, with its references to ‘evil consequences’, is suffused with Christian imagery. Exercise is being figured as a ritual – not exercise, but ‘exorcise’. However, repetitive exercise is not only intended to prepare the man for industry, citizenship and war, but also is a way of engaging with the vitality of the body, the key to a man's self- mastery and fulfilment (or ‘true enjoyment of living’) (18).

▪ Figure 4. Cabinet card depicting Hackenschmidt posed. Similar images appear as photographic plates in The Way to Live. Courtesy of Plymouth City Council Library Services.

When the author turns to his own life and experiences, the text begins to undo the arguments of the first section, somewhat unconsciously. By engaging with Hackenschmidt's own story, the reader believes, he might more precisely understand how this series of prescribed movements will transform him into a man like Hackenschmidt. But this is not the case. In fact, the story seems to be akin to the vaudevillian lecture-demonstrations described in the newspaper reviews of his New Zealand tour. With an abrupt shift of tone, Hackenschmidt's autobiography begins with a moment of theatrical self-mythologization. The Hack is not like you, dear reader, for he was a child of exceptional strength: ‘By the time I was eight or nine years old I used to order about a small army of boys of my own age – being admittedly the strongest of them all’ (102). From here, the narrative becomes a series of repetitions, of feats of strength and wrestling matches, interspersed with measurements of his development. At 18 we know his chest is ‘41 ¾ in. normal and 44 in. expanded’ (103) whilst a few years later, after training with his mentor Dr Von Krajewski, it is’47 ¾ in. normal and 51 in. expanded’ (111). He endlessly records his feats of strength: ‘I snatched up 256 lb. with both hands. / With the right hand jerked 231 lb. / With the left hand jerked 205 lb. / With the right hand pressed 269 lb.’ (110). The repetitive descriptions of wrestling matches render portions of the narrative nearly unreadable. At several points he lists all of the competitors of the wrestling tournament in which he is competing, along with their nationalities – these lists go on for more than three-quarters of a page.

The compulsive, data-gathering nature of this narrative repeats the compulsive nature of today's fitness culture avant la lettre. It also reminds the reader of the ritualistic re- citation of exercise. There is a quiet challenge posed to the ideology of physical culture by Hackenschmidt's exposure of the way in which the self‑made man is never a finished product, but must constantly be remade. In other words, the strongman is not something that is, but an idea that is rehearsed and performed. This is confirmed by Hackenschmidt's training schedule, which leaves room for neither work nor study (93). Playing the strongman, in other words, is an entire day's work. This is a contradiction inherent to physical culture and fitness culture: for Hackenschmidt, the ideal regime of physical self-improvement towards being a productive social being, able to master one's own labour, requires devoting one's entire working day purely to working out, to ‘unproductive’ labour. Hackenschmidt's labour of training is only productive because he is able to sell his physical capital as a performance. Like all early physical culturists, it is the apparatus of performance – the vaudeville stage, photography, film – that turns this labour during leisure time into waged labour proper.

The distinction between productive and unproductive labour underlies the unspoken ‘queer’ narrative of the episode that launches Hackenschmidt's career: his encounter with the wealthy bachelor Dr Von Krajewski. Taking an interest in the 17‑year‑old Hack, Krajewski invites him to St Petersburg, where he organized a ‘private club of men of fashion who came to him weekly and worked hard with weights and dumbbells, and practiced wrestling’ (Hackenschmidt 1908: 109). The two would bathe together daily, after which they would ‘practice … weight lifting till we got dry’ (116) Professional strongmen and wrestlers would give private ‘exhibitions of their art’ whilst being ‘carefully examined, measured, and weighed’ (109) The Doctor, whose being ‘seemed to melt in his love for feats of strength and agility’, was the source of Hackenschmidt's later philosophy of physical culture, and the greatest influence on his life. He later describes hearing about the Doctor's death before a wrestling match; it seems the physical exercise allows him to exorcise his grief.

The episode is striking for its homoeroticism, but rather than simply read this passage as ‘secretly’ gay-coded, we might read the episode as ‘queer’ in a different sense. These performances of physical culture away from society queer the normative framework of productive labour that physical culture is meant to support. These ‘men of fashion’ withdraw from the world – Hackenschmidt actually gives up his apprenticeship as a blacksmith to live with the Doctor – in order to, through performances of strength, work out its contradictions. In light of the Taylorization of work, the strongman is what I like to call a ‘Professional Body’, a labourer turning labour inwards. By working only on the self, the Professional Body takes the ideology of the self-made man at its word, revealing its fragile, illusory quality.

In The Way to Live the sets and reps of muscle building are less a disciplinary apparatus for industry or productivity, than a form of discipline that is its own object. Hackenschmidt's young life was entirely devoted to this labour of the body, a labour that produced nothing but more of the same. Read in relation to Hackenschmidt's ideas of the vitality of the body, and his later writings, I want to argue that this suggests what physical culture longed for was the possibility of unalienated labour. Far from mindless bodily discipline, Hackenschmidt was suggesting the possibility of freedom in reps.


Reading The Way to Live, I am struck by the way my daily practice re-enacts and repeats Hack's. I don't have eight hours a day to devote to my labour of self-fashioning, but each time I clean and jerk, snatch, or press, I repeat an historical moment, an encounter with the past that takes place in the site of my body. Alongside other bodies on the gym floor, I am rehearsing for a role. And even though there will almost certainly never be an opening night where I perform strength on the vaudeville stage, I rehearse this role with a singular and at times obsessive dedication. In each rep, I discover more about my corporeal self that drives me to return again. I want to be careful not to make any grand claims for fitness as resistance; only to suggest that the disciplining reps of training are more complex than commonly understood in both the popular and scholarly imagination. Hitting a ‘PB’ (personal best) on a snatch or clean and jerk is a complicated feeling: the rush of my body's boundless possibilities is accompanied by a new understanding of my physical limitations and vulnerability. I am aware of the way in which this feeling ties me into certain capitalist and commercial structures – gym memberships, personal training, specialist equipment and so on. As Maurya Wickstrom notes in her analysis of Niketown's ‘brandscape’, brands conjure a similar, affective feeling of being ‘off the grid’, or outside the market, in order to bind consumers to their products (2006: 27). Yet, the seductive nature of physical culture's affective power is such that this mimesis of unalienated labour might in some sense become real; that by playing at self‑making we might indeed find a potential for change within the constraints.

Reading Hackenschmidt the writer in the context of Hackenschmidt the showman reveals a dynamic tension between the normative dimensions of physical culture and its possibilities for self-actualization. This research raises further lines of enquiry, such as how physical culture performances on the music hall or vaudeville stage were received by audiences. I might tentatively suggest, though, that it is unlikely that audiences consumed these spectacles as rallying cries for nation and industry. It is reasonable to assume they responded to such demonstrations of strength, which were sandwiched between magic tricks and juggling, as we do today: they were entertained, awed and anxious. The strongman performance is anxious because it is contradictory: whilst we can see the hard body as an armoured one, the stripped body is also vulnerable, and each feat risks the potential of failure.

In his reading of Marx's and Engels’ The Communist Manifesto, Marshall Berman focuses on the distinction between ‘stripped’ and ‘veiled’ subjectivity (1982: 106–7). The bourgeois revolution strips the subject as (economic) relations between men become ‘nakedly’ revealed for what they are (94). In one sense the stripped body of the physical culturist resembles Marx's ‘new-fangled man’, which is why it appears at this point of crisis and transition, when few knew how the transformative but relentless productivity unleashed by the bourgeoisie would be contained. But as we have seen, building the body can also be a form of ‘veiling’. The strongman's muscles are costume, donned again and again in performative citations – thus he is not the actualization of Marx's new man, but a representation of its possibility. In this way, within the site of the body, physical and early fitness culture worked out, but did not work through, the anxieties of modernity.


I would like to thank the Department of Arts and Humanities at Brunel University London for providing a period of leave to complete this research. Early versions of this paper were presented at the Theatre and Performance Research Association Conference 2014, the Amateur Sport and Performance Symposium at Queen Mary, University of London, and the American Studies Association Annual Meeting 2014 in Los Angeles, California. Many thanks to my weightlifting trainer, Kristian McPhee, for the reps and the valuable conversations in-between sets. And of course, the #gainz.


1 Hackenschmidt famously triumphed over all comers, save for the American Frank Gotch in 1908, a legendary bout that is often regarded as an early example of the spectacular mediatized form of professional wrestling.

2 Atlas, according to legend, devised his system of ‘dynamic tension’ after watching a tiger in a zoo. He concluded that because the tiger had no need of specialized weights to develop its muscles, muscular development could be promoted by pitting muscle against muscle, an early form of isometric exercise. The system was advertised in comic books with a famous strip in which a boy transforms into a strongman to take revenge against a bully who kicks sand in his face.

3 This article is part of a larger project in which historical investigation is accompanied by an autoethnographic study of Olympic weightlifting. Occasionally I use a thick descriptive mode here to explicate aspects of my historical reading that rely on embodied knowledge.

4 The Superman's photography was also more strongly erotic than previous physical culture magazines, exemplifying the link between authoritarian politics and the libido analysed famously by Herbert Marcuse.

5 Nor were they in any way marginal or subcultural: Sandow's Great Competition in 1901 took place at the Royal Albert Hall (Fair 2015: 20), and Hackenschmidt's match against the Great Madrali in 1904 filled the Olympia (Webster 1968: 40).

6 These final two works were translated and published in Hackenschmidt's country of birth, Estonia, in 1998, under the interesting title Valitseda elu, or ‘Govern Life’. The writer Atko Viru contributed an afterword entitled ‘Georges Hackenschmidt: Jõumees ja filosoof’, or ‘Georges Hackenschmidt: Bruiser and Philosopher’.


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