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Powerlifting and Philosophy III: What Michel Foucault Can Tell Us about Enforcing Rules in Powerlifting

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It’s been a great many months since I’ve attempted to pen the third addition to a “Powerlifting and Philosophy” I started once upon a time. The premise of this series, originally, was to adopt different philosophical perspectives; these perspectives, I wagered, might shed new light on some of the most regularly debated (and admittedly tired!) subjects in powerlifting: meet preparation, the raw-versus-gear debate, and now, in this third addition, enforcing standards.

This article is less about how one judges squat depth than it is about how the discourse surrounding squat depth promotes self-regulation. And to make this admittedly minor distinction, I turn to the philosophical bent of Michel Foucault, a philosopher-cum-historian-cum-social theorist; there aren’t many strength athletes beyond the Misha Koklyaevs of the world–and they’re a rare bunch–that share his proclivity towards escaping classification.

But the Foucault I wish to draw from here is the one who authored the tome “Discipline and Punish”, and chronicled the epistemic shift in modern societies towards self-discipline as a means of control. The distinction Foucault makes here is between discipline—the enforcement of rules by an external power upon the subject—and self¬-discipline—the enforcement of an external power’s rules by the subject him or herself.

Self-discipline, for Foucault, is made possible by the threat of surveillance. When we live in a state in which surveillance exists as a possibility, we modify our own behaviors in anticipation of an external threat. This is why you stop at a red light on a deserted road late at night; though you could run it with no reprisal, the fear you harbor that your behavior is being monitored from some unforeseen location keeps you in adherence with the rules.

Foucault imagines in “Discipline and Punish” a prison structure named the Panopticon, in which the inmates discipline themselves out of fear of surveillance. In the Panopticon, a circular structure, jail-cells all face a central tower, shrouded by a screen. The inmates cannot see the occupants of the tower; they presume, however, that the occupants can see them. Even though the occupants of the tower cannot possibly monitor the entire jail at once, the inmates do not know when they’re being watched and when they’re not. Their response: to live in accordance with the rules out of the fear that they could be caught.

panopticon

You could say that powerlifting contains within it an element of self-discipline; lifters, unable oftentimes to observe the standards of the judges they perform for, will meet or even exceed said standards in an act of self-discipline. In a powerlifting meet, the two side judges are situated just beyond the periphery of one’s vision—because lifters cannot observe these judges and account for what they might be looking at, the response is typically one of self-discipline. My experience is usually one of hyper self-focus—I become more acutely aware of each small segment of my body, and I grow concerned whenever something moves in a way that it isn’t supposed to. If you tend to commit a particular foul on a lift, it’s as if you can almost feel the judges’ eyes on that portion of the lift.

But the concept of self-discipline need not only apply to the physical performance at a powerlifting meet—we, as a community, are engaged with the discourse of self-discipline every day. And I’m here to tell you that all of the participants of that discourse are necessary for a constructive regulation of the sport. These participants, I feel, can largely be divided into one of four categories:

1.) The Self-Discipliners

These are the individuals who enforce the regulations when they feel that the sport’s governing bodies—the federations—are unwilling or incapable of doing so. They’re on internet message boards, on youtube, on Facebook, and on literally every other available form of social media, critiquing, and re-evaluating the performances of lifters inside—and sometimes outside—of sanctioned competition.

Why are they necessary? They unify and uphold a particular standard, and they inspire self-discipline in the participants of the sport. In a sport in which no central governing body exists, it becomes the job of the athletes to willingly subject themselves to self-discipline: it’s up to the athletes to compete in one particular federation and/or perform the lifts to their own standards. Athletes willingly sacrifice potential pounds in the name of self-discipline.

What is their drawback? They inspire fragmentation and disharmony in the sport of powerlifting. I suppose this is true of all the participants in this discourse, but the self-discipliners, in particular, produce conflict. Oftentimes, that conflict is purposeful, but even this category has the dolts that complain about the use of thumb-loops on a bench press.

powerlifting judging

2.) The Deferrers to Authority

These individuals refuse to judge the validity of competition lifts on a sanctioned forum—instead, they place their trust in the governing bodies that accept these lifts. They might promote one particular federation, or they might promote a general acceptance of federation decisions regarding judging.

Why are they necessary? They lend credibility to particular federations, or even just to the existence of “the federation” as a governing body. In a sport in which federations, quite frankly, aren’t incentivized to by overly stringent with their enforcement of the rules, federations depend upon lifter support to function as a reputable authority.

What is their drawback? They elide over a lot of the extant problems with federations, including bad judging; their rhetoric, “if it got whites, it’s all right,” professes blind faith in outside government. Too many deferrers to authority allow for federations to make bad decisions with unchecked authority; too few, and “the federation” loses its cultural purpose and ceases to matter.

3.) The Non-Discipliners

These individuals test the boundaries of the rules rather than self-disciplining in order to meet them. They rely upon a governing body to enforce these rules and are willing to bend—or even break—the rules if said governing body were to allow it.

Why are they necessary? The non-discipliners and the self-discipliners, collectively, keep the rules from being unreasonably interpreted and enforced in either a strict or a liberal sense. No matter who you are, chances are you can think of one person you know who wants the rules enforced too strictly—whether that means a strict or even an exaggerated interpretation of the rule, like the dude that believes “only ATG squats should count in competition,” or that “wearing a belt shouldn’t be considered raw”—and one person you know who wants the rules enforced too loosely. And chances are, you consider yourself to be at the “right” medium, in between these two respective poles.

What is their drawback? If unchecked, the sport would devolve into a circus if the non-discipliners had their way. And yet, without non-discipliners, athletes would routinely hinder their own performances by performing beyond the expectations of the rules. At the highest level of competition, some rule-skirting is necessary to push the competitive standard: can you imagine watching a NFL game with no penalties, a NBA game with no fouls, or a 100-meter dash with not a single false start? The loss of those infractions would not necessarily make those sports better—it would just hinder the performances of those overly cautious athletes.

powerlifting judging squat

4.) The Non-Committals

These are the individuals that don’t take a side, at least not explicitly. They mostly keep their opinions to themselves on the subject of rule-enforcement; in other words, they do the best they can to remain outside of this discourse.

Why are they necessary? Their agreeability keeps the sport from becoming too riddled with conflict. If every participant were a self-discipliner or a non-discipliner, powerlifting would be so overcome with the sort of toxic tete-a-tete that these two factions generate that there would be little enjoyment left for anyone. Bitterness and hostility, on both sides, wears all parties down—the agreeable non-committals keep the sport from becoming too contentious for its own good.

What is their drawback? Well, as Foucault would acknowledge, even a non-response is a contribution to a discourse. You could say that by refusing to voice an opinion, they become complicit in the errors of the other three respective categories.

My point, in writing this article, is to make the argument, through Foucault’s concept of self-discipline, that not only is a certain element of self-discipline necessary for the sport of powerlifting, but that self-discipline must be balanced by the non-discipline, deferrals to authority, and non-committal stances that other lifters associate themselves with. Together, these groups give powerlifting’s discursive community a healthy balance. While the sport is not perfect, this balanced discursive community makes the sport better. Regardless of what side you find yourself on, try to see the value in the existence of your adversaries.

Comments
  1. Hey! Just found this web site and I am excited to read more articles following this one. I agree with your point that we need folks on all sides of the debate. I just wish the powerlifting community was more supportive of its highly competitive sect and intermureal sect. I’ve trained with several teams and many people by themselves and the one things I’ve disliked was the unchecked amounts of hate in the sport. Crossfit, say what you will about it as a sport, has thrived because of its openness and positivity with its constituents of all levels. I feel like powerlifting has too much inter-athlete discourse and negativity which results in beginners and intermediate level lifter being forced away from the sport or even trying to seek advice and coaching.

  2. Everett Wade

    I didn’t know you read Foucault. This is an interesting take, and it’s not often my interests in cultural theory and powerlifting intersect–so, thank you. I think two important points are
    1) Foucault isn’t necessarily making an argument about how things SHOULD be in D & P. That doesn’t mean that you can’t argue that something should be a certain way, and you didn’t say the Foucault’s writings endorsed the current power relations anymore than they did the older power relations. It’s just a minor point of clarification.
    2) You might have mentioned the panopticism in reference to the entire Youtube / Facebook culture as well. This is what makes certain lifters lift more strictly than the judges would ever demand: they know their lifts will be scrutinized by other viewers, and it is this idea of being watched, and not the penalty of redlights, that motivates their stricter lifting. They know that even if they aren’t penalized by their judges, the all-seeing eyes of the internet are on them. I think this is actually closer to the concept of panopticism, while the judges represent a more direct set of power relations, since while it is mediated through sight, there is a direct penalty for violating the rules.

    1. Kyle Keough

      I’m so glad you read this, Everett! I didn’t mean to imply proscription in Foucault, and so you’re absolutely right to make that clarification. These little essays are sometimes exercises in liberal (mis-)quoting for me.

      And I agree with your second point, too. I like that the judges offer a spatial metaphor–the arrangement of the judges is half-circular and conjures an inside-out panopticon, in which the surveilled replaces the surveiller at center, but the better connection is to mediation through internet culture. After all, what better medium through which axial visibility (awareness of the spectatorial body, the head judge, etc.) and lateral invisibility (no awareness of the community that accesses footage through the internet) can be achieved?

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