Physicians and scholars reflect on search for ‘Utopian body’

By Deborah Gilbert
New and Information Services

The image of the high-performance athlete has evolved over the centuries, reflecting both changing scientific thinking about human physiology and popular attitudes toward sports, according to John Hoberman, professor of Germanic Languages, University of Texas-Austin.

Hoberman presented his reflections at a conference on “The Utopian Body: Medicine, Technology and Ethics,” Jan. 30 at the Rackham Building. The conference, which was co-sponsored by the Institute for the Humanities and the Medical Center Program in Society and Medicine, brought together scientists, physicians and scholars in the humanities to reflect on the multiple implications of the world’s search for physical perfection.

“By asking a physician to respond to an art historian and a clinician to respond to a literary scholar, we are taking tentative steps toward seeing what the worlds of science and the humanities might be able to tell each other,” explained Institute Director James A. Winn.

Other speakers at the conference included art historian Barbara M. Stafford of the University of Chicago, who spoke on “The Aesthetics of Medical Ethics”; Robert A. Aronowitz, of the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, who spoke on “Between Two Utopias: Changing Ideas about Angina Pectoris”; and David B. Morris, author of The Culture of Pain, who spoke on “Utopian Bodies/Dystopian Minds: Depression, Pain and Disability.”

Hoberman argued that high-performance athletes are “charismatic figures” in contemporary society, in part because they express the “long and little-known relationship between high-performaance sport and scientific ambition,” a relationship that is often, in fact, spurious and harmful.

Centuries ago, the Greeks pursued competitive athletics “with a fierce and, at times, ruthless intensity, and they were systematic enough to manipulate the athlete’s diet to enhance his performance,” but they did not measure performance or keep records, he added, which kept their “Promethean ambition” somewhat under control.

In the late 18th century, Hoberman said, attitudes began to change. For instance, a French text on physical exercise speculated that while the human body had certain limits, the “powers of the mind, while not infinite, are indeterminable.” How far can the human body go, the author wondered?

Similarly, the Germans developed the Romantic concept of Leistungssteigerung or the “boosting/intensifying of performance.”

In 1802, the Reports on the Physical and Moral Aspects of Man by French physician Pierre-Jean-Georges-Cabanis, said that changing individuals’ habits could lead to a transformation of the human race so that it would be “indefinitely perfectible: after a fashion, capable of everything.” All that was required was experimentation with the daily health regimen.

The contemporary view of the high-performance athlete finds its chief metaphor in the body as machine or a human motor. Now, Hoberman said, the ideal of optimum productivity, which includes preserving the body for another day, is scorned. It has been replaced with the ideal of maximum productivity, no matter what the risk to physical health.

Despite the current “advertising and Olympic propaganda” that perpetuates the “ideal of the Utopian body,” the reality is that “entire branches of high-performance sport today are medical dystopias,” dreadful and wretched. Worse yet, the public is indifferent to the stress endured by athletes, who are thrust into a “gigantic biological experiment,” Hoberman concluded.


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