A diverting thing to do, when putting off the next set of reps at the gym, is to look at each machine arrayed about the walls and try to think of them as a set of individual glyphs; an international script repeated in evil-smelling rooms across the world, and legible to anybody who has passed the induction. On one level this is visually true: a seated leg press, when it has a body curled within it, does look like it has the looptail and serif of a capital G; and anything that works your laterals instantly possesses the crossbar of a T, H or A. It’s true on a functional level; the machine clearly affords its use, once you’ve read it over a few times. But it is also true on a metaphorical level. Like letters, which (in the case of the Latin symbols) have gone through a adaptive mutation over 9000 years (or so) from direct, mimetic picturings of everyday and sacred objects to abstractions with only the most vestigial attachment to their original forms, gym machines are representative symbols: but not of concepts or objects, but of activities.
If you watch, out of the corner of your eye, somebody in a CELTIC TRIBE hoodie using a tricep pulldown, you can just about see the trifling resemblance their movements still bear to the older physical contexts from which they emerged, and which our bodies evolved to perform. Just as a capital Latin ‘A’ went through a grinding series of skeletal adaptations from the Proto-Sinaitic ox head pictogram into the Phoenician aleph – becoming more efficient, more utilitarian, trimmed of conceptual drag – the machine stands as a iconification of past human efforts which they were made to replace; a serf bailing hay, a hunter flinging a spear, or a baker stretching out spelt in a quern and drawing it back under the granite. These activities were necessary, communications of energy, but full of inefficiencies; so much superfluous equipment, time, space, ritual, environment, context and culture were necessary to sustain them. They consumed lives. Now, we have apparatus to stand as the kernels of these vast, lived spheres, shorn of any bloat; crosses between pictograms and ideograms of human effort, performing their function in minutes rather than days or years. In their self-contained significance, they can be strung into modular syntaxes; making the transfer of energy as efficient as possible.
Before you know it you’ve learnt to, quite literally, read a room. What’s more, 45 minutes have passed, and it’s time to hit the showers; and that’s a whole other lexicon to study.