Exercise and Academia

November 3, 2014

The most common use of the word “exercise" today is actually a reduction; a sort of occupational therapy to deal with everyday life. People exercise to get rid of stress, to rejuvenate, and to be in shape.  When I walk around in São Paulo or Rio, I can’t help it but smile when I see people entering "academias" (the word Brazilians use for gym) to exercise.  In the beginning, I thought it was funny because I imagined some sort of inverted Platonism with thousands of people collectively lifting tons of metal over and over again—I envisioned Platonic solids going up and down without any real purpose. It's a joke I've had to explain many times and, in explaining it repeatedly, it has lost its humor.  I now understand that this misreading is actually a symptom of the illness of everyday life.

Paradoxically, an expanded notion of "exercise" can actually open the possibility to other forms of life. Especially because such a notion of exercise tears down the membrane that separates work from learning, for example. Or in more abstract terms potentiality from action, theory from production, etc. An exercise is at the same time actual—it happens—and potential, it could be something else. This, however, requires one to understand the term in relation to the history of its uses and to understand it as a type of critical technology that can be applied in a variety of contexts.

For instance, a pedagogy based on the notion of exercise inverts the typical relation with "knowledge" because instead of being transmitted—from teacher to student— it is generated each time someone does an exercise.  The fact that knowledge is generated instead of transmitted influences the architecture, the grammar and the politics of education as well as the economy and ownership of knowledge.

The notion of "exercise" I use has a family resemblance with the propaedeutics of the philosophical schools of Late Antiquity (the Cynics, Stoics, and Epicureans) as well as with monastic rules of the Early Middle Ages.  Repeating an exercise is an act that generates knowledge and gives form to time and to life. There is a vital and great risk in it because each repetition contains the possibility of failure.  When a monk copied a text, he was doing an exercise. And though this process may seem very dry and repetitive, it generates knowledge; not just because there is a new copy of a content, or even because of the marginalia added, but rather because the act of copying, repeated every day, actualizes and deepens an intimate relationship between  contents, materials, instruments and, in this case, with the act of writing. It was this anonymous and collective work that slowly constructed the notions of "page," "text," "illustration," and “book" that we still share.

Interestingly, the majority of academic art programs keep the studio class as a core component.  The genealogy of the studio class goes back to the Bauhaus, to the experiments of William Morris and to the medieval structure of guilds and brotherhoods, all of which were based on exercises. One shouldn't underestimate the importance of studio classes in the self-reflexive and critical development of 20th century art up until now.  I emphasize now because in the last decades the weight of "theoretical" thought has under-recognized this intimate relationship between contents, materials, tools and actions mediated by exercises.  It is symptomatic that departments of theory and art history have uncritically incorporated the academic architecture and grammar of social sciences while ignoring the critical processes—and potential—of the exercise.

I am not saying that one thing should replace the other.  On the contrary, I think that there is an opportunity for a dialectics in which exercises allow one to rethink the forms in which knowledge circulates. Even though our window of opportunity is small, in this potential future scenario, the prospect of people entering an academy to do exercise turns out to be quite beautiful.