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The difficulty of maintaining regimen in spite of our modern desires

By Elspeth Probyn - posted Monday, 20 October 2003


Marking - it's the backbone of teaching life. But especially with large classes, it seems endless. To keep markers and students awake, it's a good idea to throw in a tricky question.

In a recent mid-term take-home exam for an undergraduate course on bodies and identities, we lobbed in this question: Discuss the relevance of Foucault's notion of the regiment to modern-day life.

For those not familiar with Foucault - including the students who hadn't done the readings - the question is incomprehensible. Even for those who have dutifully read the second and third volumes of the History of Sexuality, it's a toughie.

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Most of the students bypassed it in favour of the more straightforward question about 19th century discourses on sexuality. By and large, students "get" Foucault's famous critique of the repressive hypothesis and the role of confession. Light bulbs go on when they read that oft-repeated quote: "The most defenceless tenderness and the most bloodiest of powers have a similar need of confession … Western man has become a confessing animal." Fed on a diet on talk shows, reality confessionals, this thought finds ready relevance to their lives. Doesn't Sex and the City just prove that Foucault was right?

Well maybe. Regimen, however, is a different kettle of fish. The question wasn't tricky because it's hard to describe what Foucault meant by regimen. The exam question included the relevant quote from their readings: "Diet itself was a fundamental category through which human existence could be conceptualised. It characterised the way in which one managed one's existence". Taken from the Uses of Pleasure Foucault discusses a mode of regulating an ethics of existence supposedly practiced by the Ancient Greeks. Regimen ensured the correct balance of exercise, foods, drink, sleep, and sexual relations.

The trickiness of the question lies in whether regimen is relevant to our lives. My hunch is that it's never been more relevant, and more impossible to practice. However, that would hardly do as an exam response. So in the spirit of trying to do what we asked of our students, I've been thinking about the relevance of regimen.

An obvious place to start is with the plethora of diets on the market. When I was young I tried many a diet - the grapefruit one (which was tough in mid-Wales where they didn't exactly grow on trees), the boiled egg diet, the pints of warm lemon juice, and the ultimate and potentially fatal diet of complete abstinence. Since then I've given them up but recently I've been fascinated by the Atkins diet.

For those of you who don't read the mags in supermarket queues, the Atkins' diet is hot. Like all hot news, it's recycled. Dr. Atkins' Revolutionary Diet appeared more than ten years ago and has sold some 10 million copies. Sadly the good doctor died last year after slipping on ice. He really deserved a more appropriate end - say, along the lines of Roland Barthes' death by bakery truck.

The Atkins diet has become the favoured mode of losing weight for the middle class. It's even in among chubby academics. The lovely idea is that there's no deprivation, at least in terms of eating steaks with béarnaise sauce, lobster thermidor, and fried eggs and bacon for breakfast. As Dr. Atkins' continues to exclaim from the grave, fat's not the problem; carbohydrates are the food of the devil.

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So bread, potatoes, rice, flour, and sugar are out. So are calorie counters. After a week or two on the induction phase, the magical moment of lipolysis sets in. This is supposedly when the body begins to burn its own fat, with the attendant and attractive feature of ketosis, which you will notice on your breath and in your urine. Sounds foul, but he reassures us that it's "biologic utopia".

There is, of cours,e something truly obscene about the overweight and affluent sitting down at Dr. Atkins' table groaning with "platters of fish, a lobster in drawn butter, well-seasoned fish, turkey and duck and a juicy steak". It's not the spectre of the starving that makes it obscene - although there's that too. It's that his diet is premised on a truth. Processed foods, white flour and sugar are bad, and yes they will make you fat. But what's obscene is that carbs are what fill the trolleys of the poor.

Some would say that the Atkins is a total disconnect from reality, and from the rest of the world. There's something strange about divorcing yourself from staples that have kept the population going for some 6000 years. Where would Irish or Chinese cultures be without the potato or rice? What about the French sans baguette?

However, others - and not necessarily supporters of Atkins - point to evidence that humankind and our genes have yet to evolve sufficiently to cope with the onslaught of insulin-producing carbohydrates. Apparently archaeological evidence shows that bones began to weaken after wheat, rice and potatoes were introduced into the diets of different peoples.

It's all a bit hunter-gatherer, you-Tarzan, me-Jane. And whatever the scientific basis, the Atkins diet certainly isn't congruent with the ideals of the regimen. One of the key aspects of regimen was to promote balance, restraint, and to further conditions for the care of the self. In Foucault's argument, modernity is marked by the injunction to know the self - not take care of it. The widespread paradigm of the psychological sciences turned our gaze inwards, to the never-ending task of interpreting our inner desires, and away from a view of the world guided by aspiring to an ethical balance of all human activities.

Eating, drinking, sex, reflection, writing, dreams - all combined and practiced under the ideal of the "right measure" is a thing of the past. So the correct answer to that tricky exam question is that regimen is nigh on impossible to practice now. However, we can still think fondly of it as we order that steak with butter maitre d' - oh, and hold the potatoes.

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This article was first published in The Australian on 8 October 2003.



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About the Author

Elspeth Probyn is Professor of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney.

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