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Review Essay

Ben Krupp

Besnier, Niko, Susan Brownell, and Thomas F. Carter. 2018. The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Moran, Rachel Louise. 2018. Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.


It is the year 1969 and we are in the middle of a primary school gymnastics lesson in a remote town in Soviet Siberia. Two wooden rings hang from the ceiling over a padded matt, and ten boys seated on a wooden bench watch while one takes his turn. This boy, Ilyusha, timidly walks towards the rings, shoulders slumped, eyes down, clearly dreading the attention of his peers. As he approaches the mat, the gymnastics coach begins to chide:

Figure 1
Figure 1. Ilyusha begins his training. Screenshot form Trainer (Basilev 1969).

     "Wow . . . . how can you be a gymnast with shoulders like that. Lift your chest up; raise your chin; put your shoulders back. There, that's a little better. Now you are carrying yourself with the dignity of a Soviet man.

     As the coach gently lifts up Ilyusha's chin with his forefinger, he moves behind him so that they are facing the same direction. Looking over his shoulder, speaking softly in his ear, the coach describes a grand Soviet future laid out in front of them. A world of industry and technology that knows no borders.

"Can you see it?" The coach asks.
"I can see it."
"Will you read what it says on the notice?"
Ilyusha squints, "The writing is too small"—all the boys laugh.

     The coach's voice begins to reverberate, his words echoing beyond the walls of the gymnasium.

     It is 1990. On behalf of the Committee for the Maintenance of External Beauty, Ilyusha Vladimirovich Gusakov is hereby severely reprimanded for his posture. Despite repeated scolding he continues to slouch and has proven himself to be entirely incapable of a strong gait.

     Ilyusha then walks forward to begin his training.

Figure 2
Figure 2. Ilyusha and Sosnovsky imagine a Soviet future. Screenshot from Trainer (Basilev 1969).

     This scene is reconstructed from Valeri Basilev's 1969 film Trainer, a sort of extramoralized Bad News Bears of the early-Brezhnev era.1 Told in six vignettes, the film follows a gymnastics coach, Sosnovsky, as he tenderly guides a group of adorable Siberian boys through various trials: shyness, drunken fathers, classroom behavioral issues. No matter what problem the student encounters, the solution is always one of bodily guidance. Sosnovsky acts as a kind of sculptor in this peripheral Soviet world: each gentle adjustment to these young bodies is meant to mold an ideal Soviet future.

     Watching this film recently, I was struck by this particular moment as it encapsulates so perfectly the embodiment of citizenship process in a specific place and historical context. It renders precisely the lines of signification between the teaching of sport and the dissemination of nationalist ideology framed as ethical scales meant to order and stratify 'proper' social life in the Soviet Union. Ilyusha is not being taught gymnastics so much as he is being taught how he is expected to perform his gender, work ethic, and social responsibility—all of this intersecting in the auditing of the minutiae of his body, his gait, and his posture.

     In this Soviet example, situated within the context of a centrally planned economy and attendant cultural production, it is fairly easy to extract these ethical messages from this movement pedagogy. As we look more broadly at the complex landscape of recreational fitness today, which encompasses practices as varied as yoga classes, public school physical education, CrossFit centers, and YMCA leagues, we must ask how, as anthropologists, we should best read and understand comparable moments in contemporary fitness. If physical education is intimately tied to the reproduction of citizenship, what sorts of ethical practices and moral landscapes are being reproduced through contemporary fitness practices, and who are the macro actors investing in these projects? Two books published in 2018 have contributed toward our understanding of embodiment, ethics, health, and fitness in the contemporary world.

     The first contribution to this literature is by historian Rachel Moran whose book Governing Bodies: American Politics and the Shaping of the Modern Physique chronicles a century of American governmental efforts to discipline the material bodies of citizens through public policy. Moran draws lines of subsequence backward from more recent biopolitical projects (for example, transfat bans, soda taxes, and obesity panics) to bodycentric governmental policies of the twentieth century that concerned themselves with how U.S. citizens exercised, considered, and protected their bodies. The chapters are organized around a chronology of different policy eras such as World War I and the inception of scientific monitoring, the Great Depression and counteracting perceived bodily frailty, and the role of conscription in World War II. Asking questions such as "What makes a healthy body?" "What makes a strong body?" and "What kind of body does war require?" Moran reveals how conceptions of the body are intricately tied to shifts in governmental policy. For example, much like Sosnovsky lifting Ilyusha's chin and chiding him for his posture, the U.S. government concerned itself with the task of shaping the American public toward valorizing specific bodies and ethical rubrics. In its portrayal of projects like the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933–42), the Council on Physical Fitness (founded in 1956), and myriad other programs targeting the bodies of women and young children, Governing Bodies provides a fascinating description of the machinations by which these projects entrenched gendered, racialized, and classed conceptions of the American body deep within U.S. health infrastructures.

     Aligning these diverse projects into a single narrative, Moran offers readers the concept of the "advisory state" to refer to an underexplored realm of state governance concerned with the guidance of bodily norms and practices without the use of physical force or legal obligation. As a conceptual resource for understanding the relationship between the state and the body, the "advisory state" resonates with a wealth of writing on biopolitics and modernity, yet unfortunately, it is never put in conversation with this extant literature. That body of work also questions how 'the body' became a central object of governance over the course of the last two hundred years. While this observation reveals my own ascription to certain disciplinary biases, it is nevertheless the case that, while Governing Bodies devotes itself to the important task of understanding the very material impact of state policy on the bodies of American citizens, it avoids paying attention to the broader global systems and motivations that undergird these policies, something an engagement with the interdisciplinary literature on biopolitics would have helped address.

     Fitting conveniently into the intersection of bodily practice and global systems, anthropologists Niko Besnier, Susan Brownell, and Thomas F. Carter have collectively authored the second volume under consideration here: The Anthropology of Sport: Bodies, Borders, Biopolitics. Intended as an introductory text, The Anthropology of Sport is a long-awaited and much-needed successor to Kendall Blanchard's 1985 volume, also titled The Anthropology of Sport, which has served its purpose for over thirty years. Unlike its predecessor, however, the authors of the current volume find the practice of sport to be concerned more with identity, process, and practice than competition. Moving freely between theoretically rich work by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, the authors create a vast chronological survey of writings about sport that span centuries of human history, from Aztec ball games to contemporary figure skating. The eight concise chapters of the book are organized thematically, addressing subjects such as gender, race, nationalism, imperialism, and medicine. Leaning on established thinkers on this subject matter, such as Alan Guttman, Johan Huizinga, and Henning Eichberg, the book pays particular attention to the manner in which macro-economic, and national projects have steadily become more and more invested in these seemingly playful bodily practices. Despite this ambitious emphasis on global and historical contexts, the authors manage not to lose track of the sheer experiential joy of sports practice, articulating with precision the capacity of research on sport to traverse multiple scales of analysis, shedding light on the intensely local as well as the precisely global. As an eminently teachable introduction to the anthropology of sport, this is a text that will no doubt provide the foundation for many undergraduate syllabi over the next decades and may entice some scholars from the undergraduate ranks into more advanced research. In the neoliberal spaces in which we exercise and learn about our bodies today, we need more research that helps us understand how systems of power become embodied through fitness and recreational practices.

     These two volumes will assist anthropologists of human movement, and of sports in particular, build a better understanding of fitness as biopolitics, as the engendering of productivity and health of a population. However, we must also not lose track of the ways in which sport can generate meaningful experiential worlds in excess of the power dynamics that seek to enroll them in the service of state/nationalist agendas. As the technologies meant to extract value from the human body become increasingly sophisticated and efficient (with advances in fields such as wearable technology, tissue donation, and athletic-cosmetic surgeries), it is important for new scholarship to focus also on the moving, communicating, lived body at the center of these new tactics of governance. Thinking back to little Ilyusha standing on the mat, in the complicated and amalgamated spaces in which exercise and bodily training happen nowadays, we need to ask "Who gets to teach our Ilyushas?" "What ethical rubrics are being sheltered within these pedagogies?" and "What possible distant futures are they describing?"


1 The Bad News Bears is a 1976 American sports comedy film directed by Michael Ritchie starring Walter Matthau and Tatum O'Neal. The film was followed by two sequels—The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training in 1977 and The Bad News Bears Go to Japan in 1978—a short-lived 1979–80 CBS television series, and a 2005 remake. Wikipedia, accessed March 25, 2019.


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