Friday, April 11, 2014

The Body Electric

The following is an analysis of the book The Body Electric.

            At the beginning of the 19th century society was still mostly split between the upper-class elite and the working class, but as machines became more and more prevalent in places of industry there became less and less of a divide between the two classes.  The white-collar worker became a reality as machines began replacing what had previously required the work of men.  So with machines now doing the work there was a great increase in production at factories.  Increases in production lead to a need for an increase in sales and marketing and from there the widespread of the white-collar job was initially formed.  These white-collar business workers no longer had to spend upwards of twelve hours a day shoveling coal, molding iron, or working in textile mills.  This left them and their families, who were now making a greater salary than their ancestors had received, with much leisure time: a concept that had not even crossed the minds of the generations before.  No longer did the patriarch arrive home after a long day and immediately seek the sanctity and comfort of the bed.  Families went out together, socialized with other families, and mostly shopped.  They had acquired all this money with which they had previously not be privy to and what better way to rid oneself of excess than to exchange it for the goods which one desires.

            With the new lifestyle of the business class worker came a tax on the mind.  Chopping wood is not intellectual stressful however many blocks one halves, but punching numbers all of the day can have quite the toll both emotionally and in turn physically.  This effect has been widely attributed to the ailment neurasthenia.  What many would today attribute to simply stress or too much work was purported by many in the 19th century to be a case of an imbalance or imperfection in the body of the worker.  In less than a generation an entire new societal class structure had been created in which the mind was more important than the body.  “… a strong body came second to a strong character… physical health was important, but it was not as conscious a pursuit for most men as were moral strength, religious piety, and cultivated intelligence.”
            The solution, which would be presented by many men throughout the 19th century, to this epidemic of sorts was that of exercise for the muscles of its sufferers’ bodies.  The masses had tired of the difficulty of Turnen, gymnastics, and the imbalance towards the upper body which it created.  And Calisthenics, while easily accessible and performed by everybody, had little effect on the strength of ones body and seemingly only enabled one flexibility.  The only way to correct this imbalance of the body was to exercise all the muscles of the body equally to unlock the stores of energy hidden away on the inside.  “Only machines could power modern bodies by reaching into their reserves and bringing to the surface ‘an actual deposit of organic strength.’” (49)
            Having been absorbed into the machine-age during the mid to late 19th century, the American public would have been acting out of character to not put the same stock into the next big technological advance, electricity, as they had previously.  For decades people had been surrounded by the miracle cure for their ailments, be it of opiates, cocaine infused products, old wives remedies, or gypsy oils.  The better the salesman, the better the product.  Electricity permeated the popular culture of the late 19th century.  Telegraphs, telephones, lights, and such were not yet a part of everyday life for most people but were a wonder none-the-less.  People were amazed and perplexed by the ability to communicate seemingly instantaneously with a person hundreds of miles away and the idea of ridding the world of the night by the use of lights.  While the science of electricity was not known by most the lore was.  Electricity was a magical being.  It seemed to have limitless potential and infinite applications.  It is not surprising that the public would be taken away by the products which incorporated electricity and proposed to cure all ailments when one is able to see the susceptibility of the people of this time.  The fact that there was no medical proof for electricity’s effectiveness on the body made no difference for these people where amazed by electricity all by itself so why could it not be the be all and end all cure?  Combine this with the fact that its continued success pretty much forced those in the medical field to change their ways, if not their beliefs, in order to compete with the cheaper and more popular mechanisms and electricity was destined to have a lasting effect even though unintended by its architects.

            “Energy drinks” are merely soft drinks purporting to provide its consumer with a bountiful amount of energy to enable mental alertness and physical ability.  While these drinks do contain energy, literally calories, they contain much less than is typically found in any nutritional food.  Calories are what power the body and give it energy, and these drinks usually contain such small amounts that they wouldn’t actually have any affect.  What these drinks do usually contain are stimulants such as caffeine which mislead the mind into readiness mode.  This caffeine gives the brain a jolt for the short period of time.  Not only is caffeine meaningless as food source, it is highly addictive and detrimental to ones health and wellbeing.  In addition to caffeine this drinks often times contain previously unknown “natural” supplements.  The most common and most advertised of these ingredients are guarana and taurine.  Guarana only grows naturally in the Brazilian Amazon Rainforest and its main output is caffeine of which it contains about three times as much as a coffee bean.  Taurine is a naturally occurring acid, in bile, and has been shown to have absolutely no benefit whatsoever as energy-giving.  These energy drinks advertise their ability to replenish their constituents’ bodies with a boost of energy with vitamins and strange sounding ingredients hoping to give the on-the-go consumer the idea that these ingredients are of benefit to them.  However, it seems as though these drinks may actually do more harm than good.  It has been shown that caffeine can have long-term detrimental effects on the cardiovascular system, it would not be a great leap to believe that those special ingredients would be just as bad given they have the same mind tricking effects. 

This article originally written February 26th, 2008 for OU HSCI 1133 - Science and Popular Culture.

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