There is something tragic but symbolic about a 24 hour gym. I can clearly recall the first time my mind really registered that these places existed, late one Friday night. Where I was headed as I passed by the gym is not the detail I remember – it’s the feeling of shock, of repulsion, at the sight of a couple of people spending their Friday night dutifully pounding the treadmill under flourescent light accompanied by the bland nothingness of the TV screen.
I should say here, I have nothing against gyms specifically. Nor am I attached at all to the hedonist notion that a Friday night should be for wild partying. While I’ve never been a gym member and I have my critiques of the role of the gym in our culture, I am an advocate for the virtues of looking after your physical health.
But late on a Friday night? On any night? There’s just something wrong about it. Like the body you are maintaining is so out of the natural rhythms of life that it has ceased to be human anyway. On a treadmill taking a simulated journey, under simulated light, maintaining a simulated self.
Once upon a time, for better or worse, it seemed to me that late nights belonged to those who wanted to escape the mundane rhythms of 9 to 5 capitalism. It was a time that belonged to the hedonists, the adventurers, the loners. With the responsible and respectable tucked away safely in bed, the world took on a different side, opening up a hidden world of the impulsive, the present, the unknown.
This notion of a delineation in time between the captivity of the working weekday and the freedom of the night was entrenched in our culture – Friday on my Mind, Working for the Weekend, etc etc. Taking it to another level were the nocturnal types who had altogether rejected the 9 to 5 timetable – the bohemians and adventurers.
The 24 hour gym seems symbolic of the steady expansion of capitalism from the 8 hour day on the production line that was once its domain; steadily infiltrating all times and all localities. Shift work and unpaid overtime on the smartphone has expanded production hours; service industries have extended the factory floor; and in subtle ways the expansion continues.
The entertainment industry began the colonisation of the nocturnal hours. The nightclub, the festival, the rock concert – scenes which were once the site of the counterculture became commodified. Advertising and culture eventually turned these experiences into a product like any other – and as ever it was promoted using the fear that not to own it would be missing out. Going out at night became as essential a part of being a capitalist subject as dragging yourself out of bed in the morning. For more and more people, their employment hours became the late night. For a time, many of those working nights would have considered themselves still a part of the throng who were dodging the 9 to 5. These days it seems a willingness to work whatever hours you are told to is just a normal part of the mad scramble for a job, any job.
Following decades of privatised services and technological development, it is now difficult to think of any part of life that is not part of the commodification process.
That’s what the gym seems to symbolise. The people on those treadmills are working, sure, but no one is paying them to do it – in fact they shell out for the gym membership. We pay for the constant, nagging feeling that we should be improving or maintaining ourselves, so we can compete with all the other products in the great marketplace of life.
The cultivation and promotion of the self has gone way beyond compiling a CV for a job interview, now becoming an integral part of day to day life. More often than we are consuming or producing objects, it is likely that we ourselves are the product.. Our curated social media profiles, our eternal quest for the perfect Insta selfie, showing off our literary knowledge on Goodreads, our professional history on Linkedin. All of them generating income for tech companies and data harvesters, all of them relying on the unending, unpaid work of ourselves.
In 21st century techno-capitalism, we are totally immersed in the process of commodification. There is no escape. Seemingly everything we do and everywhere we go is part of that mystical thing, “the market”. This reality is ubiquitous, overwhelming. It is everywhere we go and see, though it rarely seems quite as evocative of animals trapped in captivity as the sight of someone running on a treadmill at midnight on a Friday night.