Randonautica #7: Random Noticing #1

(This subseries, if it turns into one — which is doubtful — attends to auxiliary, secondary, or casual observations made outside but as an effect of formal randonauting, an activity which heightens the mind’s general awareness and alertness, and encourages it to find and tease out “random” connections.)

“You do not stop a jogger who is jogging. Foaming at the mouth, his mind riveted on the inner countdown to the moment when he will achieve a higher plane of consciousness, he is not to be stopped. If you stopped him to ask the time, he would bite your head off.” — Jean Baudrillard, America

I just recently read these lines, which are excerpted from a longer observation by Baudrillard of the American jogger. I’m an American jogger myself, and I tend to perk up at attempts to understand the “meaning” of this particular pastime and the people who engage in it. My interest derives not only from personal experience as a jogger but also from how uninteresting jogging actually is, both to do and to observe. It is a very difficult subject from which to draw much sense or sensibility.

There are direct efforts, like Haruki Murakami’s memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, whose title, taken from Carver, is as deliberately flat as the long-distance runner’s experience of the miles. The only passage I can recall from this book has nothing to do with running at all. It recounts the moment when Murakami decided to become a writer, which occurred at a baseball game at the moment when a player who had hit a ball into the outfield pulled into second base for a double. Murakami’s life flashed in front of his eyes: not the life he was about to depart, but the one he was about to begin.

There is also the runner, and running, as archetype and metaphor, most famously in Alan Sillitoe’s short story The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. While running, “I’ve been asking myself all sorts of questions and thinking about my life up to now,” writes the narrator — identified only as Smith (perhaps appropriately the most uninteresting name in English). This thinking while running more closely resembles one’s life flashing in front of one’s eyes before death, but is categorically different, less a mortal reckoning than an incrementally updated accounting. With every run, a little more is added to “my life up to now.” Yet there isn’t an equal relationship between time input and thought output: “By God,” Smith blurts, “to say that last sentence has needed a few hundred miles of long-distance running.”

I’ve been reading Jean Baudrillard lately because his thinking has some overlap with the Situationists’. He even studied under Henri Lefebvre, who was a sort of godfather of the Situationists, more than a generation older, although Baudrillard himself was never a member of the Situationist International, did not consider his theories aligned with theirs (which in his opinion did not hold up over time), and claimed that he never met Guy Debord.

That is odd. The two both lived in Paris in the sixties, traveled in the same intellectual circles, and were fewer than three years apart in age. But Debord’s career arc began and ended much earlier. Baudrillard did not complete his doctoral dissertation until the year he turned thirty-nine, which happened to be 1968 — the same year, of course, as the momentous civil unrest in France, whose ideological component Debord largely created and drove. It was another thirteen years before Baudrillard published Simulacra and Simulation, the book that made him a star of the postmodern intelligentsia. By then, Debord was living in far from Paris, his production dwindling, and rapidly deteriorating in body and soul. He committed suicide in 1994.

Baudrillard had another thirteen years to outlive Debord, and most of them were arguably his prime. He published provocative, not to say notorious, analyses of both the first American Gulf War (1991) and the World Trade Center attacks of 2001. (His book about the former is entitled The Gulf War Did Not Take Place.) But these were hardly Baudrillard’s first sorties over the subject of American politics and society. He had first traveled to the US in 1970 and again during the Reagan presidency, after which he published a book called America (1986), where I found his thoughts on joggers.

Reading them, I’m almost certain Baudrillard never jogged. When I’m running I don’t foam at the mouth. I’m not on a “countdown” to anything (I don’t run with my phone or any other timepiece); if I was, I never run long enough anyway to achieve the so-called “runner’s high” that Baudrillard probably had in mind with “higher plane of consciousness.” I sometimes run right past people I know, not acknowledging or returning their waves and hellos, but not because I’m in any kind of trance: I confess I’ve nearly always seen them but just don’t want to be bothered with pleasantries while I’m chuffing along. I might very well like to achieve a state of detachment, or even a “higher plane of consciousness,” but I don’t know any runner to whom this state is actually available. Maybe you have to cover much longer distances than I do in order to outrun the very basic fact that running is boring. No one who regularly does it is uncomprehending of this. Of all the writing I’ve read about running, perhaps my favorite observation is this incidental line, no longer extant (so I’m quoting from memory), from the since-rewritten bio of a wine professional I know locally: “I like to run. (Nobody really likes to run.)”

As for my reaction to someone actually stopping me (or trying to) while I’m running, I probably can’t remember more than two or three instances of this in the twenty years since I started running. Perhaps that’s part of Baudrillard’s point. There’s something about a jogger that everyone seems to know not to distract or impede in any way, even if the jogger displays no frightening foaming at the mouth or eyes retreated deep into the interior of consciousness.

Not long after the coronavirus outbreak began, I changed my long accustomed route: the popular loop trail around Duke University’s East Campus, near downtown Durham. The trail quickly grew even more popular during the pandemic, during which many people have had more daytime hours free for leisure and exercise. I’m glad people are exercising more but don’t want to exercise near them. To avoid the crowds, I started running instead to and around  Duke’s West Campus, (For those unfamiliar: about a mile separates the two campuses; frequent shuttle buses run between them.) West Campus is farther from downtown, where I live. Like East Campus, it has a popular loop trail, too, but it’s on the farthest flank of campus, generally outside my ambit, and I’ve run to and around it only once since March, on a rainy day when I (correctly) anticipated sparse usage.

I keep mainly to the paved roads around West Campus, which have been little used since Duke shut down most of its operations in March. After the semester formally ended and students moved out in May, the area was almost totally deserted. It’s common for me now to pass only a few people and just two or three cars in the half hour I’m generally over there. That makes it a great place to run under any circumstance, and even more so under the current one. I don’t have to think much about traffic or keeping my distance. I can simply put one foot in front of the other and take in “trees, birds, drizzle,” in the very mundane but, in my opinion, pretty accurate description of what tends to occupy the runner’s mind in motion. It was written by the novelist Don DeLillo (a regular runner), one of whose books was dismissed by a critic as “postmodern flâneur fiction.” The traditional practice of the flâneur is closely connected to the experience of randonauting, especially in  randonauting’s proto-Situationist form of the Dérive. I will probably have more to say about flânerie at some point.

Two days after I read Baudrillard’s description of the jogger — which reads more like an invention, as does much of his America — someone tried to stop me running.

He was driving a car a few dozen feet ahead of me, the nose of the vehicle emerging from a small side-street not much longer than a driveway-length descent into a dead end at a cluster of buildings. Its ascent from there emptied cars into the road I was running. As I approached, he called out: “Excuse me!”

I ignored him. I was surprised that I ignored him. I didn’t mean to, but I did, very firmly — I was aware that I chose not to hear him.

It was as Baudrillard said: You don’t stop a jogger. But not because the jogger might bite your head off. The reason you don’t try to stop a jogger is that the jogger won’t stop.

The driver called out to me again. I was still approaching; still I didn’t stop. I found it remarkable that I didn’t stop. The core of my mind, not the reactive part of it, had firmly determined — predetermined, I felt — that I was not going to stop. I did turn my head toward the driver to indicate that he had my attention, and I slowed down in order to give him time to say something else. I could have spoken. I don’t run fast enough to get winded, but I didn’t speak. The extent of my engagement was eye contact and reduced speed. I was going to make no further concession.

He asked me if I knew where Building K was.

[You can skip the next paragraph, or possibly five paragraphs, if you just want to know what happened next.]

College campuses somehow always seem to be be hard to navigate, especially for drivers. As a general rule, campuses are meant for pedestrians, not cars. The layout of the streets seems unplanned, a maze that has come to form itself somewhat accidentally around the college’s evolving arrangement of buildings and complexes of various and often unalike types, sizes, and shapes. Roads don’t logically connect. Many abruptly stop at restricted parking lots or simple dead ends. Instead of addresses, which can be entered into a smartphone map’s search bar, buildings often bear names. This is all very different from most urbanity, in which roadways are usually built first and beget architecture after the fact.

We happened to be right across from the large parking lot of Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Duke University basketball team plays. Their coach is probably the most famous college basketball coach in the country, and possibly in the history of the sport. His name is Mike Krzyzewski. The patch of grass outside Cameron Indoor Stadium is called “Krzyzewskiville.” It’s where undergraduates camp out for tickets to games, sometimes for weeks through cold and freezing rain. “Tenting” is something of a rite of passage at Duke, an endurance lottery contest underwritten by official rules and overseen by monitors.

Mike Krzyzewski is known colloquially as “Coach K.” The playing surface of Cameron Indoor Stadium was officially named “Coach K Court” in November 2000. (This name-within-a-name structure is in the same tradition as nearby Durham Bulls Athletic Park, where the playing field itself is called “Jim Goodmon Field” after the person whose money paid for it.)

Running near this K-Zone, it occurred to me that there might also be a nearby location called “Building K.” I also wondered if the man asking me for directions had his nomenclature confused and was in fact looking for Cameron Indoor Stadium itself, which he was close enough to see from his car.

I elaborate on all of this because the entire train of thought crossed my mind in the handful of seconds it took to pass in front of his car, no more than half a dozen strides.

I said, “No, sorry,” and kept running.

Something that has been on my mind for a while now, since well before the coronavirus pandemic, is the notion of boredom. Last fall, I spent some time reading the philosopher and poet Benjamin Fondane, who died in his forties during World War II in a concentration camp (he was a Romanian-born Jew living in Paris). From Baudelaire — who is widely credited with popularizing the character of the flâneur — Fondane drew a connection to the protean, animating force of boredom:

It is boredom that is the source of sudden changes, of wars without reasons, of deadly revolutions; there is no more effective cause than boredom. A need arises, the need to feel oneself existing, to break the monotony of being, of the purely thinkable. Murder, vengeance, the joy of destroying for the sake of destroying are given free rein in a people who a short time ago seemed peaceful and wise, the supreme flower of a fully realized civilization. Historians will say afterward that political, economic, and social causes explain this outburst; of course they will, but they will not have grasped the elementary fact that the people were bored.

A little further on, he is a quarter-century ahead of Debord’s critique of the spectacle:

One wants to feel oneself existing; but it is impossible to exist in already given cognitive frameworks […] which proclaim that existence is… mere appearance.

Finally, another notion of what boredom begets, by DeLillo the postmodern flâneur:

[T]he work itself, you know—sentence by sentence, page by page—it’s much too intimate, much too private, to come from anywhere but deep within the writer himself. It comes out of all the time a writer wastes. We stand around, look out the window, walk down the hall, come back to the page, and, in those intervals, something subterranean is forming, a literal dream that comes out of daydreaming.

I wonder how long that man drove around looking for Building K.

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