Treadmills and earworms

by craigepplin

A recent post on The Funambilist got me thinking about running in place. The post describes an invention from 1824: a treadmill that forced prisoners to walk constantly if they wanted to stand still. The difference between this device and its more familiar contemporary counterpart is the same as the difference between discipline and control. The prisoner suffers an imposition from the outside, whereas the gymgoer is self-motivated to undergo “the common yet very much individual will of sweating.” No one forces us to run on the treadmill, but the affective disposition of our times–“a low-level fear,” in Brian Massumi’s words–nudges us in that direction. Jon Beasley-Murray, in whose book Posthegemony I read the Massumi quote, sums up our culture of control and circulation and fear:

As internal borders are dismantled, such that it is hard to distinguish beween factory, madhouse, hospital, and everyday life, and as the external border between reason and terror comes under attack, society’s increased porousness allows for the capillary circulation of low-intensity affect, ubiquitous and disturbing, and part of a new mechanism of universal control. This at least is what Massumi suggests with his discussion of “low-level fear. A kind of background radiation saturating existence.” Everywhere we see warnings and dangers: trans fats and second-hand smoke, street crime and AIDS. (167)

The “low-level” modifier means that this is not the sort of fear that grips us suddenly, but rather one that we hear about or read about and that makes us manage the risks we run, modulating our waistlines, our diets, our moods, our time. Radiohead spelled out the anodyne end goal of all this management years ago: “Fitter, happier, more productive.”


The treadmill is obviously part of that management strategy. It is a means of self-care and self-improvement. And it has a soundtrack, or at least a musical analogue. Steve Goodman argues in Sonic Warfare that the banal environs of Muzak prove an apt cipher for the transition from the world of the prison treadmill to the world of the gym treadmill: “Muzak […] provides a sonic microcosm of what Deleuze described as the shift from disciplinary societies to societies of control.” Elevator music corresponds to a sonic “modulation that no longer needs to correct individual action directly” (144). The insights gleaned from this sort of sonic control have led to the deployment of other sorts of soft weaponry, in particular the earworm as a vehicle for sonic branding. We are susceptible to infection by sound the way we are vulnerable to any other sort of catchy worm or virus; in this case, contagion happens by “a program for modulating the auditory nervous system through contagious vibration” (146-47). The earworm, in other words, is one more means for capital to enter our bodies directly.

The two technologies go together not just as isolated techniques of control. Rather, they are often immersed in the same physical space: For many people, the act of running on a treadmill is inseparable from the act of listening to pop music. This bundling together mimics the management strategies we deploy individually. Ensconced in our headphones, we choose our own musical infections (the same way we choose the pace of the treadmill), which help ease the physical pain of submitting to the unvarying rhythm of the running machine. Capital thus gives us the disease and the cure, which turns out to be just another sort of disease. After all, behind the counter at the pharmacy the nicotine lozenges are right next to the cigarettes. Etc.