Modern social myth is what leads us to casually, and with little awareness of the absurdity of our claim, explain that this or that is the way it is because that’s how the world works. Explanations like these are empty. They give no detail or insight. More importantly, they provide no history of why things are the way they are. They are statements implying naturalness. It is the breaking down of social myth that cultural critic and co-founder of the intellectual magazine N+1, Mark Greif, takes on in his essay collection, “Against Everything.”
Exercise is the first subject to have Greif strip its social myth away. Exercise is such a familiar widespread cultural habit that it easily communicates the destruction of myth throughout the book. Myth has lead us to accept exercise as one of the many obligations of life itself. Like all effective myths, it hides the subjectivity of the cultural object behind a false pretense of naturalness. Exercise is required for a healthy and successful life; it is the domination of the body, which is inclined to sluggishness. People who exercise are perceived as more attractive, successful, and popular. This guise provides a convenient prejudice against those who would carelessly dismiss the necessity of exercise. Those who fail to partake in it, according to Greif, are considered “self-destructive.” To refuse exercise is to be abnormal, and lazy.
Yet, Greif is not the first to identify and deconstruct contemporary social myths. Greif’s book is eerily similar to Roland Barthes’ 1957 book, “Mythologies.” A French philosopher and literary theorist, Barthes outlined the role of myth in the enforcement of social values, values that usually benefited the ideologies of the bourgeoisie and the media. Barthes’ work builds on semiotics — the study of signs and their signification in society — a field that Greif does not mention by name, but clearly borrows from.
Both Barthes and Greif acknowledge that these social values derive a substantial part of their influence through the appropriation of the natural. “What allows the reader to consume myth innocently is that he does not see it as a semiological system but as an inductive one.” “The myth-consumer,” Barthes writes, “takes the signification for a system of facts.”
Greif and Barthes pick apart an assortment of social activities and functions to uncover the hidden values they subsist on and propagate. For Greif, it is American culture. For Barthes, it is French society. Greif argues that society’s growing obsession with exercise flips the patriarchal disgust with the biological into a “positive spectacle.” Our bodies are no longer humiliated by the natural and the shameful, but by the inability to properly mold our bodies into a regulated physique. The natural body is one of fitness, muscle, and thinness. The unnatural is all that is not fit, sexy, or healthy. Exercise is just another building block in our society’s relentless desire for truth based in “medical sciences or revelations of permanent, ‘evolutionary’ human desires,” writes Greif.
We are obsessed with the latest study dictating exactly what we can and cannot consume or use. The myth of exercise traps us in an endless cycle of social surveillance and dictation. Calls to “love your body” only exacerbate this myth. By claiming the body is no longer shameful, the myth removes what little defense was left against partaking in this obsession with the physique. Myth turns the privacy of the physical into prudery and repression.
Barthes, in Mythologies, writes that “myth has the task of giving an historical intention a natural justification, and making contingency appear eternal.” It is this naturalness that hides the true intentions of social myth from us. The myth of exercise has a convenient connection to this natural justification: the human body. This can be seen in the myriad of diets that purport to realign our eating habits with those of our early human ancestors. Since we “evolved” to eat certain foods during our prehistoric days, diet sellers argue, we should return to that paradise. No diet seller will mention the possibility that we have evolved out of that primordial diet. Or that we are more than evolutionary animals with little to no self-determinism. To acknowledge these possibilities would eradicate the simplicity that such diets provide. “Myth acts economically,” Barthes writes, “it abolishes the complexity of human acts.” Myth simplifies.
Barthes highlights how pervasive this simplification can be. His example is a cover of a French magazine with the picture of a young black man, in French uniform, saluting with eyes pointed up. Barthes unwraps the image as a propagation of French imperialism. The black soldier references the solidarity of France’s imperial subjects across race and continents. It glorifies the subjugation of its colonies. Leaving no room for the destruction and oppression that lead to forced incorporation of Africans into imperial French forces, the racial sciences that led to their conscription, or their use as cannon fodder on the Western Front.
Pulling back the covers of myth exposes the reality of the situation. The reality could be oppression, judgment, consumerism, petit-bourgeois society, or sexualization. Depending on the myth, its aim can vary. Myth might want you to believe the object is natural, evolutionarily ingrained to the point of unquestionable. It might want to whitewash or hide the truth. Or, it might aim to create a dichotomy.
The beauty of “Against Everything” is not that it is against everything. Greif dissolves that assumption on the first page: “This is not a book of critique of things I don’t do. It’s a book of critique of things I do.” He does not take a match to every sentimental stuffed animal and childhood blanket. If myth abolishes complexity, Greif reintroduces it. “To wish to be against everything,” Greif writes, “is to want the world to be bigger than all of it, disposed to dissolve rules and compromises in a gallon or a drop, while an ocean of possibility rolls around us.”
Reintroducing complexity does not necessitate the renunciation of everything once loved. By peeling back the layers on exercise culture, to show the sexual struggle at the heart of it, self-awareness is introduced. To be made aware is to be given the pathway to freedom. Myth locks us in place. How are we to enjoy our hobbies and accoutrements when they are foremost tools for our social enslavement? By all means, do not give up exercise. Discover the perversions fused to exercise, isolate and exterminate them (in your actions and consciousness), and partake in it — now free from the rat race.
To free yourself from the rat race is needed more than ever. Society develops more and more ways to inundate us with myth. Mass consumption and entertainment are its most effective conduits for this, not to mention the various figures and movements struggling for your allegiance. It should be no surprise that the widespread obsession with what is natural, organic, and evolutionary among human desires and behaviors is a conduit for selling. Truth is merely a guise for another product to be marketed, or another influencer to gain a following. Barthes’ work proves useful against the endless bombardment of social and consumerist values. In the end, to stand athwart myth, according to Barthes, is to “cut oneself off from those who are entertained or warmed up” by myth.