A Conceptual Analysis of Movement Culture

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A Conceptual Analysis of Movement Culture

Sigo Riemer


Most articles about movement culture are written by trainers, teachers, gurus, influencers – whatever the term you may prefer. This one is different in that I am neither, but rather write from the sidelines of movement culture. I have a small child and an office job, but no Youtube or Instagram channel. Nonetheless, I have engaged in movement culture more or less for the last five years or so.

Asking myself what movement culture is I came across some ideas I would like to put forward for discussion in the following. I will treat movement culture as if it were like any other activity people engage in, because that’s how I see the term and also see other people using it. I will also touch my topic only on a purely conceptual level, treating in a rather abstract fashion. One might object that this is exactly missing the point and that movement culture is about individual felt experiences. After engaging in movement culture for a while now and reflecting on my experiences I disagree, however. Movement culture is best approached on a conceptual level, I think.

Many movers have a tendency to short-circuit their thinking about movement culture to bodily sensations. They emphasize that it’s all in the uniquely felt experiences and freedom. I think that’s missing the communal dimension of movement and generally inhibiting reflection and discussion. We should not let that happen!

Thinking about my individual movement practice I found many links to other people, a whole society of influences actually. Focusing only personal experiences misses the community part, but also blurs the context that is giving meaning to movement.

What is movement culture?

There are very many reasons to get into movement culture: having fun, health, personal contacts, or just being drawn in by online videos, for example. Looking at the movement landscape from afar, you can already make out some things that are visibly absent: there is no exclusive focus on performance such as in sports, no hype of certain body shapes like in fitness, a pleasantly marginal discussion of nutrition esoterics, and there is as of yet no big-industry movement brand.

In the absence of all of these things, however, there is so much going on that it is hard to summarize. This is because movement culture, by its core principles, is a very individual yet pluralistic phenomenon. So much so, I think, that it defies the capitalist producer-consumer structure. Yet at the same time, it is very susceptible to becoming the next big fitness industry fad.

Movement culture is hard to put in words. It’s certainly, among other things, a visual culture. You know it when you see, but struggle to define it.

For me, movement culture came into being with the affordable possibility of filming yourself and sharing the videos online. Movement culture relies on moving pictures, or actual meetings between people. Still pictures in a book would not be able to capture the complexity aimed at in movement culture, words would probably not be able to produce the same appeal.

I think, it started with people sharing movies, with the intention of having other people do the same moves shown. The person sharing could be called an influencer, the person repeating the moves an influencee. As everybody can produce and share these videos, the question of originality was at the beginning of movement culture (I would say, it’s not so much anymore): who’s the influencer, who’s the influencee? Everybody is both, of course, but influencer’s need to justify their status. Remember, for example, the clash between Ido Portal and Coach Sommer about “stolen material” a couple of years ago. (In general, movement influencers like to speak about “material” they have produced via “research”.) Today the notion of sharing and influencing in all directions is more common, there’s more culture so to speak, but the original structure of influencers and influencees is still in place, as some movers aim to make living off their movement.

What is it that participants in movement culture do? The impossibility of settling this question definitely gets you to the core of movement culture as I see it. Movers might engage in all types of activities that do have a much more specific definition, from gymnastics, breathing training, capoeira, dance to ice diving, etc, but in the end they might do a bit of everything – at some point – and seeing all of these activities in accord with their identity as movers. So movement culture potentially encompasses everything (some might say, that the movement leviathan can only swallow “bodily” disciplines, – but does not every human activity have some relation to the body?). If that’s true, there is a question at the core of movement culture, rather than an answer. This question is: what shall I do (now)?

Two important facets of movement culture are made explicit with this question: the temporal dimension of movement culture and its individuality. As this is also the existential question par excellence, it is clear that movement culture has a philosophical touch and makes it very compatible with esoteric and spiritual practices (more on this below). It also makes it the perfect vehicle for a new kind of service industry marketing.

The important thing about movement culture, for me, is this attitude of openness and exploration, so important actually that I would say movement culture is this seeking stance towards physical endeavors. Surely, practitioners of other disciplines also look for experiences and assess their methods; the movement culture enthusiast, however, assesses the disciplines themselves, choosing whatever seems appropriate for him/her at the moment.

The anxiety of influence is at the core of movement culture, I think. As there is a lot of influence out there, we all need to check in with ourselves constantly. If there is a goal in movement culture, it’s probably authenticity.

Movement culture is clearly not a sport like running, but it is also not a phenomenon such as parkour. While parkour, for example, has some reference points that can be summed up in terms like obstacle, or moving (you can’t do isometric parkour on a flat surface), movement culture hasn’t, I think. There is no specific place, or time of day, or gadget typical for movement culture. But all potentially could become part of movement culture in the practice of a certain individual at some time.

Movement culture is the openness to everything, from parkour to isometrics, to whatever, the willingness and conscious activity of engaging in and experiencing something new. That’s why the problem of “learning” and the presence of “teachers” is so common in movement culture. The question practitioners of movement culture constantly pose themselves is: what shall I do now?

That’s where the influencers come into play. Their work can be described as fighting to establish new paradigms of movement in the public sphere, which can gain traction among the influencees and by which they secure their status as influencers (because they presented it before influencees reposted it). Some typical examples of these paradigms are handbalancing, chest-to-bar pull ups, QDR, etc. Of course, endless other options are possible but performing these very likely will mark you as an enthusiast of movement culture.

In case “establishing new paradigms of movement” sounds trivial, think again. These paradigms serve the important purpose to provide movers with some common ground, some shared pursuit which people can speak about. Without these we might be all lost in our idiosyncratic endeavors, no hope to meet a kindred spirit.

What are movement practitioners such as myself looking for, one might wonder, if movement culture as a concept mostly means exploration, lacking further substantial content? Inspiration, I think. (Health, well-being and fun are also to be found in movement culture, of course, but are not exclusive to it, can be found in other disciplines as well.) Like philosophers engage with the terms and thinking of other people to develop their own, movers want to immerse themselves in “new” or at least different moves — not become like the people they learn from but to develop themselves, to further find their own ways (an unending pursuit).

The search for new experiences does not rule out repetition, of course. As most readers of ThinkMovement will have experienced themselves, new experiences can also be made just by repeating the same thing. A move or workout can feel completely different after you have practiced it a while – in the end, at the appropriate level of awareness, each day in your body feels unique. Also, repetition opens up one’s perspective for nuances, individual particularities, specific conditions of the day. Like each person has a unique way of pronouncing a word, so everybody does push ups slightly differently, the exercise itself remaining the same.

This concept of movement culture explains a few things. For one, it underlines the importance of individual engagement in a pluralistic universe of possibilities: surely you can share your experiences and ideas (just like I do mine here) with like-minded individuals, but in the end each mover is on his/her own unique journey. Where that leads only you can answer. But to be on that journey, movers need to use their agency constantly, countering the endless influx of influences, using it for their own so as not be made passive by it.

There is no single “method” or way of engaging in movement culture, there are only methods and ways, each potentially interesting for an individual at a given time.

Seeing movement culture this way also clarifies why many of us are so critical of movement influencers “selling out”. The stain of capitalism is particularly hard to pardon to the movement guru because she/he (by practicing movement culture) is supposedly engaged in an independent, individual ,and somewhat artistic activity. We want our explorer to be looking for new experiences, not selling us a prepackaged convenience item. It certainly makes me uneasy to see the pursuit of freedom as another kind of “job”. That being said, movement culture can be considered a great laboratory for a new form of sustainable and fair economy (I guess most influencers and influencees understand that we all must live.).

What this view of movement culture also shows are some opportunities and threats which might loom further down the road. Let’s begin with the pitfalls: one danger that I see is that movement culture could become a totalitarian type of “schooling” project.  As it can encompass everything, the danger is that “teachers” for every little bit of life in your day pop up to help you “improve”. (Think you can already chew your sandwich? Think again! Develop your chewing muscles and your whole life will transform along with the food in your stomach!) In that scenario, movement culture would be the endless activity of the hyper-busy person of today, for whom there’s always something to do, to learn, to improve. (Need a break? Take a supercharged break! Want to sleep? Learn to sleep first!) The curiosity I highlighted as important would be replaced by a never ending feeling of deficiency that needs to be addressed by a never ending succession of cures and programs.

Another, less harmful, danger could be that with movement culture going mainstream it flattens out to the simple repetition of specific moves. Without individual exploration, people would visit a movement culture class just like going to a Thai Bo session. In that case, current movement culture enthusiasts would probably just look for a new umbrella term for their endeavors.

And what about the opportunities? Like the reverse of the threat just mentioned, movement culture could become even more individual. In fact, it’s already getting there, I think, with platforms such as ThinkMovement and more (non-commercial) influencees sharing their ideas and experiences among each other. New ways of sharing evolve, new meetings await.

As movement culture is already an existential endeavor, linking it to more openly “spiritual” practices from esoteric and religious sources is easy. As far as I am aware of this is currently being done already (I think of Physical Alchemy here, and of Andre Miller’s solemn Instagram channel). This can yield exciting new perspectives and, on a broader level, could help spreading a more wholistic understanding of mind, body and society.

There are certainly a lot of exciting things ahead, but movement culture needs the input of all, needs the ongoing exchange, discussion, and correction of its community. (It probably does not need a designated movement brand). Thinking about it again, I concede that maybe it is wrong to consider movement culture as some unified activity. Maybe there is only a movement community; it’s definitely the most important feature of movement culture.

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