Addiction Takes a Postmodern Spin
Twenty-thirteen was the year I got super into SoulCycle. It’s gross but I don’t care because I need it and I love it (ha ha so gross). Actually, wait, that’s completely misleading because I only got into it two months ago. Whatever, it’s the best.
— Mary HK Choi, the awl.com
Replace “SoulCycle”—the spinning phenomenon sweeping the affluent, pro-fitness nation—with “heroin,” and Choi seems clear-cut for a dependency diagnosis. She has all the telltale signs: skewed perception of how long she’s been on the drug; repeated revulsion at her “gross” behavior; recognition of the compulsion but complete inability to stop. The habit consumes Choi’s resources and displaces old vices. She “stops buying clothes, shoes, cigarettes, weed, cocktails (what a racket) and pounds of bulk gummy candy” to pay for the privilege to “zone out for a spell.” She ends by proselytizing: “SoulCycle feels gross, is gross and I’m grateful to have found it. If you’ve ever suspected you’d be into it, get over yourself and go.” Even as she reviles the cultic exercise class, she desperately pulls others into the fantasy.
Choi’s story epitomizes the emerging micro-genre I’ll call the “SoulCycle Narrative”: personal pieces structured like tales of addiction and published on blogs and local news outlets, even in The New York Times. The dealer of choice is the exercise franchise SoulCycle, which, for 34 dollars, offers 45 minutes of pedaling on indoor stationary bikes, in the dark, with house music blaring. Printed on the candle-lit studio walls is a manifesto with lines like “we inhale intention and exhale expectation.” Instructors shout a mixture of encouragement, dance instructions, and new-agey, spiritual mantras: “I want the next breath to be an exorcism.” Exercise is not an uncommon contemporary addiction, but SoulCycle dresses its junkies in exclusive style1, and the new narcotic for the rich has transformed a single Upper West Side studio into a national franchise with over 1,200 employees in 40 cities. What distinguishes the SoulCycle Narrative most of all, though, is that it recounts a distinctly postmodern addiction: affirming dependence as transcendence, abandoning critical distance, embracing the irrational with irony.
Though “addiction” did not arise as a medical term until the nineteenth century, people have been telling tales of dependence for millennia. Roman historian Seneca wrote, “excessive alcohol will destroy the mind and magnify character defects.” The Bible is littered with concern over Noah’s delight in drink. Recent archeological evidence suggests 30,000-year-old cultivation of opiates, the drug that spurred the modern addiction narrative with Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in 1821. The genre passed through Charles Baudelaire’s riff on Quincy in Les paradis artificiels to its more recent forms in William S. Burroughs’ Junky and Caroline Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story.
From Quincey to Knapp, the addiction narrative traces similar story arcs with similar language. In an intimate, confessional register, it begins by recounting trepidation, building to the climactic moment of first exposure. Those initial experiences are tinged with rapture and breathless nostalgia; the retrospective narrator cannot help but yearn for unpolluted intoxication. Then comes the slow descent, coated in motifs of monstrous transformation, of being taken over by a demon. Loss of mind follows loss of friends until...rock bottom. The result is slow, painful recovery, reconciliation, and—in the better tales—shrewd insight.
The SoulCycle Narrative fits comfortably into these tropes and story arcs. Like a teeneager taking her first bong-hit, the cycling protagonist is anxious as she anticipates the initial class. She finds herself overwhelmed by social codes: online reservations booked days in advance, waitlist lurkers waiting for no-shows, an insider language with inscrutable phrases like “tap it back” and “add a quarter turn.” (Translations: Move the buttocks to the rear of the bike, lengthening the spine; increase the bike’s resistance to maximize calorie burn in the thighs.) But once the spinner takes her first endorphin-toke, there’s no going back. “The body has no choice but to submit,” says David Holmes in a pando.com piece, and the “emotional misery your fucked-up life’s been serving you” vanishes in the room just as when a fiend enters his opium den or Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole. A perfect mix of upper and hallucinogen, spinning grants the narrators energy, escape, and transcendence. In a piece on The Verge, Nitashak Tiku reluctantly attends a first class with the sole aim of speaking with Twitter’s CEO. Unsurprisingly, the social media hotshot’s a SoulCycle devotee, and Tiku thinks she can leverage the cycling endorphins to start a conversation despite the strobe lights and techno. She fails, twice, but along the way SoulCycle becomes her “new best friend.” Drugs have always been great companions, and by the narrative’s end, Tiku hardly remembers the reason she first came to the class.
Next comes withdrawal from old communities. Holmes is reticent to advertise his habit because he thinks he will be unfairly judged as “a person who craves status and exclusivity.”2 He hides from watchful eyes and cites other cyclers who are even more dependent. Several pieces quote fanatics selecting apartments due to SoulCycle studio proximity, ensuring their dealer is always within reach. One woman rearranges her work schedule to leave prime class-booking time free. “I would do anything I could to afford these rides,” she says of her thirteen-class-a-week lifestyle. “Don’t knock it until you try it” says a shirt. “This isn’t spinning, it’s a way of life” echoes another cycler.
In the classic addiction narrative, those statements would signal a turn toward crisis, the first hints of rock-bottom, withdrawal, and treatment. The SoulCycle analog, though, makes no such move. Holmes opts for the perplexing resolution, “if we are elitists, then it’s a close-knit community of elitism—an in-crowd of equals,” fully embracing his drugged-up cohorts, all but glorifying the economic barrier to being “equal.” He acknowledges the transience of the high, the need for another fix within hours—but ultimately affirms his behavior: “Surely there are worse things to be addicted to.” So the SoulCycle Narrative ends not by confronting the drug, but by accepting it, indeed celebrating it. While the habit may be expensive and indulgent, the narrative deems it beneficial and, mostly importantly, connective.
Connection, in fact, is what makes SoulCycle a distinctly postmodern addiction. The traditional narrative of dependence is told by an outcast whose consumptive habits have made him a modernist monad: someone, like Edvard Munch’s subject in The Scream, who stands alone, observing the world at a harrowing distance. But the SoulCycle spin-off reels with spiritual exclamations of how riders pedal—and breathe and exorcise—to a single beat: a transcendence of subjectivity that spurns ecstatic wonder without any of the darkness that makes most addicts shriek. In his famous case-study on postmodernism, Fredric Jameson calls this the swap of modernist “expressions” for postmodernist “intensities.” Intensities are “free-floating and impersonal”—developing between cyclers rather than within them—and they are dominated by a “peculiar kind of euphoria.” If modernist addiction confronted the horror of isolated expressions, postmodern addiction ends with the acceptance of relativism and affirmation of irrationality. The moral quandary of a connection so soaked in wealth is forgotten amidst all the endorphins. If the body has not broken down, if the pack rides together, the next squat can be popped like a pill without shame.
Postmodern addiction, then, no longer plagues the individual, but rather satisfies her so fully she forgets the rest of the world. Perhaps most insidiously it allows for and incorporates its own critique. Though the SoulCycle Narrative is filled with complaints about the price and the practice—half the riders, like Choi, revile themselves for going—any objections are irrationally abandoned at its end. Jameson, too, noted that postmodern capitalism elides distance between an analyst and a cultural phenomenon, so “the luxury of the old-fashioned ideological critique, the indignant moral denunciation of the other, becomes unavailable.” The SoulCycle Narrative is too bound up in its own luxury to hit rock bottom, too connected to the pack of riders to stop and think about its place in the broader cultural fabric. The critic holds her ironic relationship to spinning right up until she enters the candle-lit room. But then, in the wake of her contemporary spiritual nihilism, a rider’s connection to that pack is simply too wondrous to resist: “the visual culture of consumerism” fills her “voids” and she is blinded in euphoria. She will die gloriously, sweating like the Übermensch in a room beyond good and evil—even if the rest of the world burns.
1 Literally. The brand has an overwhelming assortment of paraphernalia: water bottles, skull-shirts, leggings, sweats, fingerless gloves, bandanas, “embroidered cashmere socks,” even their custom candles. Plus, there’s supplemental material on the best Soul-music, Soul-diets, Soul-lifestyle. For every Bob Marley and White Castle reference in stoner tales, there’s an Avicii-remix or chia-seed smoothie in those of the cycler. The bike itself comes for a reasonable $2,200: the equivalent of two months of every-day SoulCycle or a few-year membership at a well-equipped gym.
2Never mind that he clearly is that person. “I am one of the privileged few who have reserved their spots for the 8:00 AM session,” he says, describing the intense competition for bikes that causes people to pay double ($60+) for priority access. In the SoulCycle addict community, “privilege” does not denote the financial luxury of affording a class, but rather the good fortune to have beaten out other riders for a bike. The “unprivileged,” one presumes, are those who clicked too slowly, who remain burdened with that extra thirty dollars. A January New York Times piece “A Race to the Front Row” describes the “status symbol” of peddling in the front of a class. By delineating the haves and have nots within a spin community, the article boldly ignores the status symbol of just belonging to the community. Sterilized, safe competition arises between members of the elite—for a front bike, for a favorite instructor.