The Marathon and On

Disability, Endurance, Aspiration

Here’s a brief description of my dissertation project. If you want to hear more, get in touch! I’d love to hear from you.

Marathons, commonly understood, require participants to traverse 26.2 miles. So what is being referenced in the many marathons that don’t involve running, events that graft the marathon’s suffix onto other kinds of activities? In the summer of 2015, a hot-tub-a-thon featured members of a Indiana fraternity collectively soaking in a hot tub for eight hours[1], a see-saw-a-thon featured an Illinois high school student council taking turns on the playground ride for twenty-four hours[2], and a shuck-a-thon at a San Diego restaurant featured seven chefs shucking more than 5,600 oysters over seven hours.[3] These events occurred among an array of pet adopt-a-thons, haircut-a-thons, walk-a-thons, and dance-a-thons that have taken place each week in the United States for decades. My dissertation asks what this curious *thon formation tells us about the culture from which it emerges and then details the system of values it synthesizes into a single form.

I begin my study with the telethon, a format first introduced by one of television’s earliest stars, comedian Milton Berle. On the evening of April 8th, 1949, Berle asked television audiences to tune into NBC the following day to witness what he called a “television marathon.” After performing a quick series of jokes when he appears on screen, his tone turns suddenly, powerfully solemn. “Ladies and gentlemen,” he says, “seriously for a moment. […] From this theatre tomorrow starting at 12 noon over the NBC network, over WNBT in New York and the eastern area […] we are going to do a 24-hour marathon television show.” He reiterates: “Right here in this very gorgeous theater, I will be on the television cameras for 24 consecutive hours.” He mentions the motivation for the event only very quickly, noting that “Here in America, we are very, very concerned about our great health.” The big event, he says as he’s about to leave the stage, “is all for the Damon Runyon Memorial Fund,” a foundation established in honor of the American writer and newspaperman who died of throat cancer years earlier.[4]

Berle and the Runyon Fund were the first to introduce what would later become known as the “telethon,” a fixture of the American television landscape in the latter half of the 20th century. This format became stunningly successful among nonprofit and civic organizations, especially those related to disability that called for pity, charity, and an American spirit of generosity. Though the first telethon asked for money for cancer research, the “picture of health” that Berle mentions became central to the many telethons that emerged in the following decades and that continue today. I investigate the ways that the telethon fashioned itself as a marathon: through emcees’ performances of conspicuous endurance, middle-of-the-night content that featured as a crucial test of the show’s transformation of physical into moral prophylaxis, and notions of temporality routed through representations of the cultural figure of the Child that produce tenuous yet functional demarcations between disabled and nondisabled Americans.

The “-thon” suffix references the positive valences of the marathon’s test of stamina, spotlighting cultural values of ability. In various chapters, I explore many kinds of media marathons in the 20th century: “talk-a-thons” featureing politicians delivering speeches or debating at great length, sometimes from the floor of a senate in breathless filibusters or on a radio station answering questions from constituents; “moviethons” that were the name used by local reporters for long programs at drive-in movie theaters; and other events, like the “global jukebox” of the 1985 Live Aid concert held in London and Philadelphia and broadcast around the world, that were described as “marathons” of media and entertainment. And then of course there is a whole range of events not always routed through the mainstream media but are nonetheless instances of coordinated collective action and communication: Penn State’s well-known dance marathon simply called THON, walk-a-thons like Relay for Life, bike-a-thons, bowl-a-thons, read-a-thons, pet adopt-a-thons. The list, like these events, goes on and on.

A 1954 article in American Speech notes the rapid expansion of the suffix in journalism, concluding that “it is impossible to foresee to what lengths the use of the –thon suffix will be extended.”[5] While the author proposes that its rise might be due to journalists’ pleasure in using the portmanteau, I investigate another explanation: that the -thon has a formal coherence whose appearance and popularity is tied to its formulation of a powerful American ideal of ability and strength that relies on disability as an abject corroborating contrary to collective desires for normalcy.

I explore the –thon as a mosaic of the interchanges between disability and media in the United States. I start with the telethon, a key touchstone in the public imagination of disability and media after World War II, and I end with the hackathon, an event that introduces a do-it-yourself ethic while preserving much about ritualized endurance. In an ambulatory chapters between these two poles, I trace a return to jazz-age fascination with endurance events in the 1970s, perhaps most obvious in the 1969 film adaptation of Horace McCoy’s 1935 novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? I also explore the emergence of popular walkathons like those staged by the March of Dimes and investigate the ways that Frank Shorter’s 1972 win at the Munich Olympic marathon inspired what many have called the first “American running boom.” In addition, I attempt to trace the many “-thons” that emerged in the latter half of the twentieth century in the U.S. and occur hundreds of times each week across the U.S. today.

LEFT: Anti-telethon activists called Jerry’s Orphans interrupt a local broadcast of the MDA telethon in Chicago. Two activists in wheelchairs are on the stage, behind them tiers of volunteers working the call center. One of the hosts is on one knee talking to one of the activists, Mike Ervin. Captions read: STOP THE TELETHON NOW.  RIGHT: David Sengeh, winner of the Lemelson-MIT "Cure It!" 2014 Challenge, tinkers with his winning invention, a wearable prosthetic interface.

As I trace the continuities in the –thon form across the latter half of the twentieth century, I will be particularly attentive to a key problematic that undergirds much of my study: How is it that the most successful and popular –thons are also the ones that most consistently portray disability as other than what it is? From the telethon to the hackathon, disability gets managed as a device to achieve other means (e.g., as proof of the need to donate to charity or as proof of the good work of technological advancement). When -thons unpack disability on its own terms, as something natural to the human experience and relational within uneven social landscapes, they often fail. –Thons succeed most often, it seems, when presenting disability as a tragedy, a reminder of the good fortune of able-bodiedness or a warning about what might come. Yet these systems of symbols that orbit around disability are unnatural themselves, produced by ideologies of ability that attempt to stabilize the experience of disability even despite its exceedingly complex nature. Thus –thons can be understood as having important pedagogical functions. How can we see –thons as rituals fashioned as tests of physical fitness and civic penance that also operate as occasions for teaching the American viewing public about its own moral health? These questions suture each of the individual chapters and constitute some of the study’s key themes.

 Who Aspires, Who Aspires to What?

While this project examines particular -thons I hope my research suggests a larger category of media. “Marathon media,” as I call them, are media that refuse to quit, that go on and on, that rely on demarcations of time to signal something beyond time itself about the importance of trying and trying again. Marathon media are American moments of endurance, through which we lay bare shared aspirations about what it means to be healthy, normal, and active participants in society. What strikes me most about mediathons is how they crystallize American ambitions, certain steadfast longings for the capacity to move or be normal or stay, however improbably, autonomous. Marathon media are about aspirations.

In addition to signifying a certain kind of desire, “aspiration” is something more fundamental, something essential, of the body. To aspire is both to hope and to breathe. Could it be that media help perform the state of being out of breath?

I’m thinking of which aspirations are sanctioned, who can aspire to something, and who can aspire at all. I’m thinking of breaths that are easy or held, short, choppy or drawn out. I’m thinking about whose breaths we hear, whose breaths endure, who can take a deep breath. I’m thinking about whose breaths are snuffed out.

Two columns of two images each. On the left, two images from William Pope.L’s eRacism showing a man in a dark suit crawling on concrete. In one image he’s in the street next to parked cars and in the other he is on a sidewalk. In the other column, two images from the 1990 “capitol crawl” protest. In one image, a young girl climbs steps on her hands and knees. In the other, two people crawl up the steps, one going forward and the other backward. The man in the left column is Black and the people in the right column are disabled.I’m thinking of the work of endurance artist William Pope.L, whose project called “eRacism” involved him crawling unfathomable distances, often in a suit, pushing a potted flower. I’m thinking about how his crawls evoke a crip aesthetic of temporality, how similar they seem to the famous Capitol Crawl of 1990 when disabled activists got out of their wheelchairs and climbed the steps of the Capitol building, steps that represent American culture’s persistent refusal to build the literal and figurative ramps that will bring disabled people in the front door. I’m thinking of those for whom being out of breath is not a choice, is not healthy, is not just what happens on a morning run. Since being out of breath is so often offered as evidence that one is working hard, what do we make of the bodies marked as socially invalid who can never catch their breath?

I’m thinking about Eric Garner’s breath, his asthmatic breath that was repeatedly cited as a justification for his death, a racist trope of invoking the pathetic nature of disability as a way to offload culpability from the ones who truly took his breath. I’m thinking of a poem by Ross Gay that reminds us that Eric Garner worked for some time at a parks and recreational center horticultural center,

which means,
perhaps, that with his very large hands,
perhaps, in all likelihood,
he put gently into the earth
some plants which, most likely,
some of them, in all likelihood,
continue to grow, continue
to do what such plants do, like house
and feed small and necessary creatures,
like being pleasant to touch and smell,
like converting sunlight
into food, like making it easier
for us to breathe.[6]

I’m thinking of what Fanon said, that we revolt not for a particular culture but “simply because, for many reasons, we can no longer breathe.”

What of these aspirations, the ones that get snuffed out, if they’re heard at all?

Marathon media – not just particular mediathons but the constellation of American values that produce ideologies of endurance in and through media – are often noted as tests of strength where the unspoken assumption is that any body can try and all bodies are imagined as likely competitors after the fact. But what marathon media make natural is the other kind of endurance test, the ones American ideologies of ability foist upon deviant bodies when those bodies cannot or refuse to assimilate. Thus analysis of marathon media might call for something we don’t yet have: a way to understand how time, ritual, and capital align according to media logics of the body. This analysis can explain the cultural valences of marathon media while deftly pulling back the curtains of the ideologies that bedaub tests of endurance.

What we need is a philology of aspiration, a way of conceiving how Jerry Lewis’s breath gets taken as proof of his good work and yet the breaths of the many people on the run from a hypertrophied surveillance state gets taken as justification of inequality. Marathon media are the twenty-first century’s chief tools for managing and policing the breath. Running after, from, or through marathon media are bodies we don’t often see, and not accidentally so.

Media marathons are important public performances about aspirations, literal and abstract. What I’m trying to see in them is not simply a particular relationship between charity, disability, and ritual, but perhaps a much larger system that attempts to make visible certain sanctified ways that certain people can take certain breaths while making it impossible, for deviant bodies of many kinds, to breathe.

[1] “An Evansville fraternity hosts annual ‘Hot-tub-athon,” 14 News, http://www.14news.com/story/28895789/an-evansville-fraternity-hosts-annual-hot-tub-athon.

[2] Charles Menchaca, “St. Charles East See-Saw-a-thon set for Friday, Saturday,” Kane County Chronicle, http://www.kcchronicle.com/2015/04/21/st-charles-east-see-saw-a-thon-set-for-friday-saturday/atg8cuq.

[3] Amy T. Granite, “Carmine Lopez Wins Shuck-a-Thon Contest,” DiscoverSD.com, http://www.discoversd.com/news/2015/aug/06/ironside-oyster-shucking-charity-competition.

[4] Admiral Broadway Revue, “Hollywood,” first broadcast 8 April 1949 by NBC and DuMont, Paley Center for Media Collection, Catalog ID T:26282.

[5] Eugene Nolte, “The ‘-Thon’ Suffix,” American Speech 29, no. 3 (October 1954): 229.

[6] Ross Gay, “A Small Needful Fact,” published at http://www.splitthisrock.org/poetry-database/poem/a-small-needful-fact.