Test. Guillaume Vallet, the body from simple tool to capital resource
Sports halls and stores, nutrition shops, exhibitions of muscular bodies on social networks… In Western countries, the production of muscle mobilizes significant resources and occupies a nebula of actors. Lecturer in economics at the University of Grenoble-Alpes, Guillaume Vallet is also a bodybuilder. In his latest work, « La Fabrique du muscle », he analyzes the fascination for this « production of matter » and studies it as a real work of the individual on himself.
In addition to being a lecturer in economics, you practice bodybuilding yourself. Why did you decide to write a review of « The Muscle Factory »?
As a practitioner, this sport seemed to me to have an « extreme » dimension, die-hard, which seemed interesting to me to decipher, because we live in a world that values performance, beauty, perfection, the appearance of health… I wanted to analyze the issue of masculinity associated with this practice. I sought to understand why this “relation to the body” has become a mass practice today, and what link it maintains with the capitalist system in which we live. We live in what I call “vulnerability capitalism,” socially marked by fear and uncertainty, and technically characterized by the power of technology. This encourages individuals to consider that their salvation would pass through the production of a « hyperbody », which creates new spaces for the accumulation of capital: coaching, gyms, nutritional products, global firms producing sports equipment, social networks , etc.
In our uncertain world, what you call the “production of the body” now occupies a considerable place. When did this story start?
The fascination with the body is not new. Since Antiquity, we can see practices that value the body, associating it with the idea of beauty and performance. But I consider that the capitalism that emerged and spread globally during the 19 e century marks a break. Now, in line with scientific progress, we are discovering the body’s potential and the idea of increasing it, improving it, making it stronger. From now on, in the current production system, the body has ceased to be a simple tool: it has become a resource that can potentially be valued as capital on various markets, whether that of work or seduction. Modern sport, which in my view embodies a product of capitalism, exacerbates this dimension while channeling individuals. It participates in this movement by creating new spaces for the accumulation of capital.
Why do more and more people want a muscular body?
The individual is more and more sent back to himself, summoned to construct himself through his actions. This does not mean that there are no more collectives, but it is up to the individual to choose his reference groups. In this context, the individual turns to his body, considering it as a key resource for existing, because he directly owns this resource – unlike money – and enjoys an apparent freedom to do something with it. Hence the promotion of the model of the entrepreneur, which includes the sportsman, because he appears as the one who “built himself alone”. Furthermore, we give importance to health, and the appearance of health. Our economic system works on the idea of investing in human capital, as well as presenting oneself in interactions. In the “capitalism of vulnerabilities”, having the appearance of a healthy and healthy body to give a positive image of oneself has become decisive. There is therefore a link with the positioning of individuals on the labor market, because the production of the body according to the expected standards makes it possible either to compensate for failing professional work – the body then becomes an object to be constructed and which makes sense, in relation to to professional work which is not – or to better enhance the existing position on the labor market. Bodybuilding executives have told me that their muscular body allows them to better situate themselves in their activity through the associated confidence, which then becomes “moneyable”. Moreover, current capitalism is marked by the importance of services, by definition “immaterial”. This means that individuals need to produce the « visible », and the development of the body is part of it. It is therefore not only a question of social class relations or level of diploma. Skilled individuals working in services may feel this need for material production via the body. Ultimately, the production of the body shows us, in my opinion, that individuals still consider work to be central to their lives. They don’t reject it on principle, but they want to choose the work they do.
What is the role of social networks?
“Vulnerability capitalism” is marked by a platform economy that gives importance to “connected” technologies. Not only can we « improve » our body thanks to these, but the technologies of social networks encourage us to constantly project our actions, within a culture of image and immediacy. The body is then placed at the heart of the process, with the idea of staging it to send a message to others, and hope for social valorization. This resonates with the entrepreneur model: social networks promote the image of influencers, who appear as entrepreneurs. The latter “succeed” thanks to the dissemination of their actions on the platforms. Thus spreads the belief that anyone can “become someone” by publishing their life on social networks. In this context, the person who stages his body via the networks appears to have succeeded for a relatively low entry cost. Although, of course, the system is much more complex.
Bodybuilders do not apprehend their work of “production of the body” in the same way according to whether they belong to the working classes or to the most educated and well-to-do classes of society. What differentiates these practitioners?
Sociologists like Pierre Bourdieu have shown it: we can distinguish class sporting practices. The working classes seem statistically more attracted to direct contact sports and the production of “strong” bodies. The body can be considered by its members as the first directly accessible resource, unlike other forms of capital. In addition, body work “speaks” to them more than professional work, which does not make sense. Hence the attraction for bodybuilding, for example. But this vision seems reductive to me, because today, in the “capitalism of vulnerabilities”, everyone is called upon to undertake to get out of it by themselves. The process of weakening, real or perceived, affects even the most qualified, which encourages them to “undertake their bodies”. This process remains marked by inequalities, because not everyone has the same chances of “successing” in their physical development project. This is all the more frustrating as individuals have the impression that “everything is possible, everything is at hand” provided they want it. There may therefore be individual feelings of failure and guilt, as well as the development of social stigma. The obese body, for example, is presented as the reflection of a carelessness that should be condemned.
Does this planetary quest for muscle mark the triumph of the Protestant work ethic over the body?
Yes I think so. This work is always “sacred”; it is its meaning that changes. We always live with the belief that it is by our own efforts here below that we will get out of it, and that work would be the best way to get there.
Are bodybuilding and individualism synonymous?
Only in part, because if the production of the associated body is indeed a personal project marked by a form of individualism, it is also part of social norms, in collectives, and in a structuring relationship with others. The manufacturer espouses a collective history that precedes it, will survive it, and goes beyond it. Moreover, in connection with what I have underlined, even if the practitioners say they practice « for them », which is true because this type of sport really sends the individual back to himself, they need others to value their tangible capital: validation on the symbolic market of “signs” on social networks, valuation on the labor market, validation of the reference community, etc.
In your book, you explain that excessive control of one’s body can be alienating for individuals. In your opinion, does there nevertheless exist a “production of the body” that can turn out to be emancipatory, even progressive?
Yes. I think that sport in itself is great, it’s even its first ontological trait for me. But its use for mercantile reasons can pervert it. It is the same for individuals. As with any life project, I think it is necessary to achieve a balance between the different spheres of existence and the types of capital that one possesses. Sport is liberating if it is associated with professional, friendly and above all family integration. The potential problem is that current social norms force us to “want to exist” so much that we can conceive of sport as the only path to salvation. In this case, the risk turns into uncertainty, and the individual is likely to get lost in his bodily development project.