Jack LaLanne

JA_Jack_LaLanne_Health_ClubsToday we mourn the passing of Jack LaLanne, age 96.  LaLanne defined the notion of American fitness.  In the early part of the 20th Century, everywhere we found modernity, we also found the idea of National Fitness.  The idea was that the vigor and discipline of the individual body was a reflection of the power of the state that body belonged to.  Even Foucault and Nietzsche weighed in on this notion.  There is plenty of room for absurdity here--think of the iconic image of Ben Gurion doing a headstand on the beach in Tel Aviv--and I think no form of theater exploited that absurdity better than Japanese post-apocalyptic Butoh, but as movements go, National Fitness has had a profound effect.  (I've written about it's influence on China here.)

Before LaLanne opened his Oakland Fitness Gym lifting weights just to "look" fit was a cultural marker of homosexuality.  I suppose it still is, in some ways, but the idea that fitness itself had a long list of positive things going for it opened abstract exercise routines like weights or jumping jacks to everyone.  Before that change in mindset, athletes and jocks were just supposed to have been born that way.  If you didn't get big, fast, and powerful just by playing the game, too bad, get a desk job!

jack-lalanne-profileIt's hard to imagine what the world was like back then, just like it's hard to imagine what it was like when everyone thought the world was flat.  Today, "training" is a prerequisite for sports.  Before LaLanne, training was a form of cheating!  Really!

There is an obvious parallel here with the mentality of dueling.  Back in the old days when gentlemen fought duels to maintain their honor, to train in fencing was un-gentlemanly.  It was a form of cheating.  When guns were used for dueling, it was considered un-gentlemanly to practice target shooting for the same reason, it was cheating.  In fact, for over 100 years, the definition of dueling pistols was that they had no rifling!  Rifling is the spiraling etched into the inside of a gun barrel that makes the bullet go straight.

So it's worth considering that the idea of fitness is really tied to the end of class in America.  Many commentators have already noted that fitness has been tied to the rise of the middle class.  It's also worth considering that if "working class" is now just a style of fashion, dressing like a superhero is truly a pardim shift.

I use to love watching Jack LaLanne on TV when I was a kid, he seem to me to be a kind of real-life superman.  But where as Superman was imaginary and made his living disguised as a newspaper reporter, LaLanne was real and made his living actually dressed as Superman!

As a tribute to this great man, now join me in doing 50 Jumping Jacks.