Sunday, December 04, 2011

Techniques of the foot: barefoot running as an alternative aesthetic regime

Here's an abstract for a paper I am yet to write. I proposed it for a special issue of a journal a few months ago, but it wasn't accepted. This afternoon I read this blog post by Anton Krupicka in Running Times which reminded me of this 'shelved' abstract:

When I wake and head out the door for a run I pull on my shoes almost without thinking. As extensions of my body proper, snug to my feet and laced tightly, my running shoes recede from conscious attention in what Drew Leder identifies as a process of ‘focal disappearance’. Accepted through habit as augmentations of my body, I feel the world from my shoes, the ground beneath sensed as it unfolds before my advance.

While frequently forgotten in the action of running, the shoe also has a marked tendency to ‘dys-appear’, suddenly presencing itself as a source of pain and distress. As shoe and foot move independently of one another – exacerbated by faulty design, poor choice, or lack of fit – repetitive impacts and adhesions can dangerously re-shape and re-work the foot, deforming it, fracturing it, eroding it. ‘Why does my foot hurt?’ asks the author Christopher McDougall at the opening of his influential book Born To Run (2010). Perhaps the culprit, he surmises, is not the foot, nor the basic action of running, but the running shoe itself. The running shoe is, after all, a relatively recent development, particularly the so-called ‘technical’ shoe with its combination of padding, hi-tech materials, and ability to control and correct movement.

In this article I will explore recent debates and controversies relating to the design of running shoes and the emergence of ‘barefoot’ running celebrated by McDougall. But, rather than conduct this within the existing frames of sports injury, biomechanics or evolutionary anthropology, I will approach these debates in terms of aesthetics. If, as John Dewey has suggested, connection with the environment is the foundation of aesthetic experience, then an investigation of the mediating function of shoes between the body and the physical world is, at root, an aesthetic one. ‘Barefoot’ running can therefore be considered as involving an alternative aesthetic experience to that of shod running, one which is centred on a more pronounced tactile and sensory engagement between the foot and the ground, along with a foregrounding of the autotelic aspects of running itself.

This article will draw on the phenomenology of the body developed in the work of Drew Leder to examine the differences in sensory perception between shod and barefoot running, set against Alison Gill’s analysis of the rhetoric of running shoes and John Bale’s examination of ‘running cultures’. My aim is to argue that the divisions and debates over running shoe design and barefoot running are more fundamental than marketing, fitness and biomechanics, but involve the intersection of radically different aesthetic regimes founded in differing conceptions of the engagement of the human organism with its environment. The practice of ‘barefooting’ is revealed as a means by which its practitioners seek an experience of the world that is more grounded, vital, dexterous, and perceptive.

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