Organized Session

SHOT Joint Session

Expertise and Exercise

Organizers

Katherine Contess

Brown University

Hongwei Thorn Chen

Tulane University

Chair

Scott Kushner

University of Rhode Island

Metadata

Session Abstract

From instructional images on cooking and exercise to consumer fitness monitors, contemporary media and technologies turn bodies into sites of data collection, governance, and pedagogy. This panel approaches these technologies as infrastructures of embodied knowledge, which aim at producing and maintaining knowledge about the body while simultaneously shaping it. Drawing on approaches from STS and media studies, the panelists chart how the body has been measured, recorded, and circulated via different media and technical systems across a range of historical and geographic contexts. Together, we tell a geographically expansive story of the transition of the body from working instrument to an object of optimization and wellness technology.
Hongwei Thorn Chen's study of "industrial knowhow films" in Nationalist China (1927-1949) illustrates how film became an idealized medium for circulating scientific expertise and embodied craft knowledges, both representing industry to the masses and teaching techniques and practices to workers. Katherine Contess investigates the increasing convergence of exercise devices and media platforms, tracing the genealogy of the treadmill from postwar laboratory instrument to consumer object through which numerical ways of knowing the body have reached non-experts. Adam Christopher Hebert examines the deployment of athlete tracking technologies in the Olympics as means of understanding sports media as "open machines." Melanie Woitas's paper examines how Jane Fonda's 1980s workout videos were a driving force in creating markets for both the VCR player and specialized sporting apparel, as well as a means of disseminating scientific knowledge to the general public in the form of "aerobics."
This is a joint proposal for both SHOT and HSS. All four panelists engage with the history of technology and history of science fields, touching upon historical topics in biology, education, health, physiology, biochemistry, and exercise science.

Presenter 1

Performing Expertise, Reforming Customs: Cinema, Industrial Technique, and Embodied Knowledge in Semi-Colonial China

Hongwei Thorn Chen

Tulane University

Abstract

The Guomindang era in China (1927-1949) witnessed significant state and philanthropic investments in the country's educational film infrastructure, with a decided focus on the role of film in communicating industrial knowledge and establishing a public face for developmentalist economic planning. A key player in this enterprise was the missionary-run University of Nanking, which produced dozens of "industrial knowhow films," in cooperation with GMD state and wide-ranging industrial institutions throughout China. As process-based surveys of myriad Chinese manufactures, from silk to soy sauce and embroidery, the films became part of ongoing debates over the status of scientific expertise and craft knowledge in China's economy amid global inter-imperial conflict. Taking as my case studies films about silk and embroidery, this paper examines how film supplied the state, overseas missionary institutions, and global industrialists a set of conventions for visualizing, circulating, and reimagining both scientific expertise and embodied craft knowledges, such that they could be inserted into fraught discourses of economic development and national identity. As I argue, educational filmmakers and the varying institutions they worked with drew on cinema's unique status as a "synthesis of art and science" in order to establish it as a space of communication between expertise and its public performance, reframing the relationship between work, technology, economic productivity, and citizenship. At the same time, film's slippery epistemological status and its connection to urban entertainment cultures frustrated its incorporation into institutions of legitimate culture, creating crises of media governance that would endure for years to come.

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Presenter 2

From the Harvard Fatigue Lab to Peloton: Towards a History of the Exercise Treadmill

Katherine Contess

Brown University

Abstract

Today, the increasing convergence of fitness and media has resulted in a surge of exercise devices cum media platforms, including the Peloton Tread and the NordicTrack. These devices' built-in screens and speakers allow users to stream live classes in the home, performing every movement in step with an instructor's mediated image. This paper traces the genealogy of the treadmill, focusing on its postwar transition from laboratory instrument to consumer object. The Harvard Fatigue Laboratory (1927-1947), which studied the physiological and biochemical effects of physical fatigue, was a pioneer in using the treadmill in experimentation. As the lab moved away from its interest in factory workers and scientific management and towards the project of aiding the Allied war effort, one thing remained consistent: the treadmill was the preferred mode for inducing fatigue during experimentation. In order to measure the body, it required a device that, paradoxically, enabled movement in place-a device that induced fatigue but also allowed researchers to utilize delicate non-portable machinery for collecting data about the body.
From its emergence as a laboratory instrument for producing truth about the body, to its current iteration as a hub of digitized wellness technologies, the exercise treadmill has, I argue, not only been a key site in the postwar quantification of the human body, but also a media platform through which these numerical ways of knowing the body have reached non-experts. Contributors to the Fall 2015 special Fatigue Lab section of the Journal of the History of Biology [Heggie; Oakes; Scheffler; Johnson 2015] paid little attention to the material infrastructure that researchers used in experimentation. This paper will expand the scope of previous research on the lab, focusing on these machines as instruments of knowing the body.

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Presenter 3

Faster, Higher, Stronger?: Olympic Bodies in Motion and the Loss of the "Open" Machine

Adam Hebert

University of Pittsburgh

Abstract

The 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will be the first to feature Intel's 3-D Athlete Tracking (3DAT) system, a real-time overlay which renders athletes' quantified movement through space. That the system is marketed as "capable of understanding 'the form and motion of athletes," and that Intel is also lending its facial recognition software to the Games, is hardly surprising; in part this is one more example of the shift from a society of discipline to what Deleuze called one of "control." Yet the history of Olympic media has been a particularly rich field of experiments and exercises, of dead-end media objects and various "tests" to track and understand contingent movement, now increasingly filtered through real-time response computer-driven automata. In essence, the goal is to smooth out all the "bumps" of yesteryear, and to offer the most epistemologically verifiable information about bodies in motion.
I argue that the major shortcomings of these new approaches to tracking fitness and athleticism are technological, and that both aesthetic and ideological defects follow from such a technological shift. By abandoning "imperfect" wearable-camera systems, and by using prescribed fields of view and automatic tracking, this approach evacuates the experience, feedback, and strain of the camera operator's own bodily engagement. In addition to looking at such experimental cases of body-mounted ski cinematography and extreme, unpredictable telephoto lens tracking, I also deploy the work of Gilbert Simondon on the importance of "open machines"-sensitive to feedback and indetermination-and the parallel development of a pedagogical "technical mentality," which does not lose the human or the ethical in the face of technocracy. I thus focus on the technological mediation of sporting bodies on both sides of the lens, while also asking larger questions about how we think technics vis-à-vis sport, fitness, and the infrastructures within which they continue to play a major role.

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Presenter 4

Exercise Teaches You the Pleasure of Discipline: Between Female Self-Empowerment and Self-Submission in 1980s Aerobics Videos

Melanie Woitas

Independent Scholar

Abstract

There is hardly a fitness trend that is so closely associated with popular female sport as
aerobics and at the same time fundamentally underestimated. Although there are many
aspects that require intensive discussion in this context, in my lecture I would like to highlight
two essential points that are necessary to understand the influence of aerobics.
I argue that without aerobics, a market for sporting equipment which was and still is designed
in a variety of ways for self-optimization would have developed differently and more
slowly. For the first time in American history, women of the middle class were perceived and wooed
as consumers who not only had the well-being of the family in mind, but also wanted to and
could consciously spend money on themselves. Until then, sport was a male-dominated field,
which offered no space for items such as sports bras and leotards. The aerobic videos, the first
fitness video ever, laid the foundation for a strong and rapidly growing sports goods market
and paved the way for sporty accessories such as leg warmers in everyday fashion.
At this point I would like to dive deeper into the American middle class of the early 1980s and
trace the way Jane Fonda could build a fitness empire and revolutionize the way of doing
sports. A second point that is closely related to consumer behavior is the classification and evaluation
of self-optimization strategies. Jane Fonda, who suffered from bulimia for over 30 years,
advertised her videos as a means for a strong, optimized body that corresponds to the current
ideal of beauty. Fonda gives advice on self-empowerment, which she believes can only be achieved with physical fitness. If you don't have a tight body, you can't have a healthy mind and fight for things like equality. What influence did Jane Fonda have on the development of the feminine ideal of beauty in the 1980s and to what extent did this shape the sporting goods market and the consumer behavior of Americans?

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