An accessible entry point to the history of physical culture

Greta Bladh
Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Mid Sweden University

Conor Heffernan
The History of Physical Culture
116 pages, paperback
Champaign, IL: Common Ground 2022 (Sport & Society Teaching Pocketbook Series)
ISBN 978-1-957792-22-4

Conor Heffernan’s The History of Physical Culture is published as part of Common Ground’s Sport & Society Teaching Pocketbook Series, a series that aims to serve as an accessible entry point to a more academic take on the field of sports, in this case, the history of physical culture. Given its accessibility, running through its pages was an easy and enjoyable feat. Heffernan starts off with asking the reader why one chooses to exercise, and surely, there are many different reasons for engaging in various sweaty endeavors. However, by taking a historical and somewhat global perspective, the reason for exercising may no longer seem as simple as the result of an individual will to do so, but rather contextually bound to time and place. Heffernan introduces the readers to this train of thought by asking the following questions:

Why do people exercise? Where and how do they do it? More importantly why do you exercise? Have you ever considered the social, economic, and political reasons which support your ability to workout, get stronger and change your body? (p. 1).

And so the reader is introduced to a critical perspective of physical culture in conjunction with its historic review. Throughout history, certain valued physical activities have been something to take for granted for some and not others. In most instances this has meant the exclusion from these practices to a varying degree, due to gender, class and race, favoring the (white) male. To illuminate this contingency of physical culture, Heffernan provides an overview of physical culture as it had been practiced in the ancient world, including ancient China, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome and onwards in Western history. Although noting that there as some records of women engaging in physical exercise, and even some evidence of female gladiators competing in the Amphitheatre, its documentation is scarce and regarding the incorporation of women to pursue physical practices an enabling factor was, just as was the case for most men, social class.

Globalization is not unidirectional, it travels back and forth, up and down, and most importantly, enables hybridization.

The author’s historical and global take on physical culture gives an interesting view of the different ways humans have taxed their bodies in varying ways and for different reasons, such as religious rituals when honoring gods or during funeral rites, as well as for military training and the spectacle of fighting in front of a cheering crowd. Additionally, things that we encounter at the gym as something brought in by the latest training fad or seen as inherent modern gym equipment, could also be found in the ancient world, such as rudimentary dumbbells and heavy clubs.

However, similar to an array of literature pursuing an encompassing and global perspective, whatever the subject matter may be, this historic survey also tends to favor a Western and Eurocentric perspective; in fact, it is almost exclusively the chapter regarding physical culture within the ancient world that presents anything other than Western culture. Surely, Heffernan is transparently admitting to this omission, but he also defends the very same by referring to the process of globalization, arguing that due to globalization Western culture has spread throughout the globe, and by that, bit by bit, physical culture has been homogenized.

The culmination of this process could be evidenced by what Heffernan calls “the global workout” (p. 6), meaning that today you can walk into a gym anywhere in the world and it would have recognizable features and offer similar workouts as anywhere else. Against this I will not argue; however, if we continuously refer to globalization as inherently spreading Western culture, and therefore direct our scholarly pursuits towards a Western context, how can we ever state something else? If we constantly refer to Western culture as affecting the rest of the world to become its image, how can we ever see anything other than a specular self-affirmation of Western cultural imperialism? Globalization is not unidirectional, it travels back and forth, up and down, and most importantly, enables hybridization.

Physical culture as ideology: Mass exercises for Stalin on Red Square in 1936 (Source: Public Domain/Google Images).

However, given the frame within Heffernan’s work is published, i.e., Common Grounds’ Sport & Society Teaching Pocketbook Series with its ambition of accessibility and comprehensible introductions to an academic field of sport studies, to make such a thorough account of the hybridization of physical culture on a global scale would not be feasible. Still, there would be room for a reflexive comment regarding globalization and the hybridization of culture, instead of by default referring to the process of globalization for the spreading of Western culture when making reservations for narrowing the scope to that of the West while taking a global perspective.

When putting aside the above comment regarding globalization and Western culture, and despite its smaller frame and its subsequently compressed content, Heffernan succeeds with his ambition, that is,

I hope, truly, that this handbook has demonstrated the rich and sometimes unpleasant, history that efforts to physically change the body have had. Never forget that our bodies, and our ideas about what a body should or could do, reflect our very societies, our deepest desires and our philosophical belief in what it means to be human. (p. 108)

Physical culture and the activities inherent therein may seem like mundane pastime practices, pursued to strengthen the body, building muscle, losing weight, securing cardiovascular health, rehabilitating muscle and for appearance. However, after reading the book it’s evident that it not only offers an accessible entry point to the history of physical culture, but also a tangible way of uncovering one of the multitude of ways power relations are present within our everyday lives.

Copyright © Greta Bladh 2023

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