(Air)ientation: Saunas and Butts

After returning from a fascinating and productive trip to Oulu, Finland, I have countless observations, and it will take me a long time to synthesize my findings into more general trends and observations. Since this is the first week of school for me, my reflections may be sporadic and certainly scatterbrained, since jet lag and new responsibilities exact a toll. Nonetheless, I think I’ll start now with one specific moment of the trip to inaugurate my series of post-Oulu reflection posts.

This moment involves six butt cheeks. 

First, here’s a little background: The World Air Guitar Championships offers a package deal for air guitarists and their friends. The package includes various activities before and after the official competition, and “Airientation” was one of these events. This event involved a (somewhat factual) tour of Oulu, a trip to a sauna in a forest, and an introduction period.

During the introduction period, approximately 40 people stood in front of the group and explained their reasons for attending the Air Guitar World Championships. These individuals hailed from distant locations, such as Russia, Japan, Germany, Bulgaria, and the U.S. In some introductions, language barriers made communication challenging, but the situation never became awkward or frustrating.

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In fact, verbal introductions quickly gave way to bodily show-and-tell activities. Three individuals showed their butt tattoos, which consisted of band names and abstract designs (names omitted, unless one of you wants me to disclose your name and tattoo).

The show of the body, of course, instantly established closeness. By seeing someone’s butt, one becomes familiar with the private side of the individual, the side associated with intimacy and vulnerability. It is the part of a person that only those close to the person get to see.

Yet the show of the butts did not simply establish intimacy by circumnavigating language, but, rather, it demonstrated a bodily epistemology—a way that the body might know things and communicate that knowledge. After all, air guitar uses the body to transfer information—not through telling something in words but through showing what the body can say. To put it simply, it is two quite different things to tell someone you like NOFX and to do this.

Many scholars have written about the way that language tends to produce and reproduce authority (for example, Bourdieu’s Language & Symbolic Power), in ways that ignore what how body can communicate extra-linguistic information (as Taylor’s Archive & the Repertoire argues).

Indeed, one might see this in Justin “Nordic Thunder” Howard’s guided tour of Oulu, in which he, as part of Airientation, narrated a tour of Oulu that contained very few factual details. Most of his tour offered a semi-factual account of the Oulu area (for example, we saw zombie research facilities, historic sites of knife fights, and alien research museums). If this talk was any indicator, then verbalized truths and “facts” seem low on the hierarchy of value for air guitarists. It might not be far fetched to claim that the body speaks more truly. 

The way that air guitar privileges bodily knowledge might be seen in the sauna interactions that followed the Airientation. After introductions, we all gathered in saunas for hours to talk and relax. There is a sense in which being naked with strangers in the hardly tolerable heat of a sauna forces one both into one’s own body and into the body of others. That is, the sauna makes one constantly conscious of one’s own bodily temperature, with sweat pouring down, steam burning one’s nostrils, and the heat on one’s skin. Yet the sauna-goer is constantly aware of the body of others—the way their bodies are reacting similarly when the water is poured on the steaming rocks, the shape of their nude or semi-nude bodies, the close proximity one has to nude strangers in such a small space. To be clear, this dynamic is not sexual, but it is intimate—it allows for a knowledge of other bodies through experiencing the flesh and breathing of others. One might learn just as much from the silence in a sauna as one would in the speaking, or, at least, one learns different things in each mode.

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Now, let me skip to the Air Guitar World Championships. To see air guitarists on the world stage doing things like impaling themselves with air guitars and swallowing air guitars, I immediately think of how the body might speak and has been speaking during my trip. Air guitar on stage does not simply transform the body into a vehicle for performance, but, rather, it shows how the body has always been performing—how karaoke, dancing, aireoke, saunas, and butt showing evidence a bodily epistemology.

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