Sweat Equity and Magical Thinking

December 3, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

Remember the Seinfeld episode about wiping the exercise machine at the gym?  (To see it, go here, push the slider to 16:30 and watch for 50 seconds.)

Elaine and Greg at the health club. A sweaty Greg is exercising on a leg machine. 
ELAINE: Hi, Greg. 
GREG: Hey, Elaine. I'll be off in a second. Another guy approaches the exercise machine. 
ELAINE: I got the machine next, buddy. Greg finishes up his workout and gets off the machine. 
GREG (to Elaine): It's all yours. Walks away. Elaine looks at the machine, then George runs over. 
GEORGE: What happened? Did he bring it up? 
ELAINE: Never mind that, look at the signal I just got.
GEORGE: Signal? What signal? 
ELAINE: Lookit. He knew I was gonna use the machine next, he didn't wipe his sweat off. That's a gesture of intimacy. 
GEORGE: I'll tell you what that is - that's a violation of club rules. Now I got him! And you're my witness! 
ELAINE: Listen, George! Listen! He knew what he was doing, this was a signal. 
GEORGE: A guy leaves a puddle of sweat, that's a signal?
ELAINE: Yeah! It's a social thing. 
GEORGE: What if he left you a used Kleenex, what's that, a valentine?

There I was at the gym in Florida on the elliptical machine (the machine that won’t come right out and say what it means), sweating and thinking about sweat. The fitness room at the condo enclave in Sarasota where my mother lives has a spray bottle (disinfectant? soap?) and paper towels, and everyone sprays and wipes the machine when they finish. I guess it’s so you don’t contract what they have, which seems mostly to be old age.

But I think Elaine had it right. Sweat is about social contagion, not medical contagion. It’s part of magical thinking – the idea that a person’s essence, spirit, power, mana, or whatever you want to call it can be transmitted physically by touch and by those things that were once part of the body. Hair is often the medium of choice, whether for voodoo or lockets. And wasn’t someone selling some celebrity’s hair on eBay? But we can also use fingernail parings, clothes, breath, or especially, precious bodily fluids

So sweat can be gross or it can valuable, depending on the source. If it’s just another struggling exerciser, we spray and wipe lest we be touched with their mundane germs. But if it’s someone whose magic we want to capture or someone we want to be connected to, that sweat is just what we need.

I kept pedaling, going nowhere fast, following this train of thought, and watching MTV. In the afternoon, viewing choice at the gym is limited, and I wasn’t up for the stock market channel or the soaps. “My Super Sweet Sixteen” was just coming to a close. A girl at the party was holding up a CD of the rap star who’d been hired for the party. “I got him to wipe some of his sweat on it,” she beamed ecstatically. The sweat transmitted his superstar magic to the CD. By touching the CD, she was now touching him and acquiring some of that magic.

Birthday parties themselves follow this same logic of magical thinking. We make the birthday girl or boy superstar for a day. We invest her or him with this magic power, and then we capture it. How?

After the sweaty CD moment, the camera panned over to the birthday girl leaning over her cake. With one long, sweeping breath, she blew out the sixteen candles. The show ended before the cutting and serving of the cake, but here’s the point: Suppose someone invites you to dine. You finish the appetizer and main course, and then your friend says, “I want you to have this wonderful pastry for dessert. But before I serve it to you, I’m going to breathe heavily all over it at close range.” He proceeds to do just that and then hands you the pastry.

Under most circumstances, we’d resent the offer as unsanitary. But at a birthday party. . . .

UPDATE, Feb. 2013:  In Australia, the National Health and Medical Research Council has issued guidelines recommending that children not be allowed to blow out the candles.  (Time has the story.)


Jim Gibbon said...

Nice post. I think you just provided the sequel to Miner's "Body Ritual Among the Nacirema."

Jay Livingston said...

Thanks, Jim. But I think the difference is that the Nacerima can explain their supposed "ritual" behavior as something that is very rational and not at all ritualistic. Just because Miner can use the anthropological language of ritual to write about brushing teeth or washing hands doesn't mean that these behaviors actually are ritualistic.

On the other hand, it's pretty hard to see the rationality behind sweaty CDs or breathed-upon cake.

Jim Gibbon said...

Agreed. This week I've been reading Harvey Whitehouse's "Modes of Religiosity" which is largely about rituals. He describes them as actions that incorporate "elements that lack any adequate technical relevance." So, as you suggest, blowing on the cake is a ritual because it lacks a rational explanation (apart from the need to extinguish the candles - but then why were they lit?) while brushing one's teeth is not because it accomplishes the task of keeping one's teeth clean.

Still, it's interesting to consider how all sorts of bona fide rituals appear to have evolved from cleansing practices that surely had rational explanations (and no doubt part of the reason Miner chose hand washing and teeth cleaning as examples).