Sunday, July 31, 2011

The Streets

"The Anthropology of Sports" is another beat or serial I've been tossing around in my head for a while now. (See here.) "Anthropology" here as akin to how Anne Carson uses it in "The Anthropology of Water" (which I wrote about here) or Joan Didion does in A Book of Common Prayer (where she talks about the uselessness of a very loving way), rather than any serious place for academic writing. If we are able to view anthropology as a style of art as well as an academic profession (and a hands-on-in-the-field backlash towards that very academic backdrop called "applied anthropology," which I think of as really just a natural result of any research to be done in the discipline), then I would place myself firmly in the former position. Interested in it in so much as it provides for my art (and I guess in the way that it is different than my art, for my life). Now I'll get on with the piece...

"The street finds its own uses for things" is just one of the great quotes that William Gibson put out into the world with his seminal cyberpunk novel, Neuromancer. The quote probably enjoys its fame due to its versatility--the image of the street itself being broad enough to be inset in the minds of twentieth century city dwellers, who seem to have an idea of what the street as an abstract term must mean, combined with the open words "uses" and "things." Basically Gibson meant anything and everything. 

It's that image of the street that really gets to me, though, and its presence throughout modern culture. Throughout the rap world for example, I can name off the top of my head the British rapper named The Streets, the character in Lupe Fiasco's The Cool, also named the Streets, and what is a bit of a reach but what I see as a brilliant evolution of idea: Das Racist's lyrics in "sit down, man," "You can stare at the street/but the street stare back at you," referencing Nietzsche's Abyss. The image has grown as it expanded so much so that the image of the street as being aware of your presence (implicit in the last two examples) is quite fear-inducing. And to show the importance of the word, Mike Skinner, the British rapper, wants to change his name. The Streets has meanings he think are no longer relevant to his music. The important part being "meanings." Definition bleeding out into connotation growing into both allegory and metaphor. 

Let's go ahead and lead off from here, Fiasco gives us the next turn in our nonfiction narrative or should I say style, map (am I writing a form of atlas?). If we look at a song like Kick, Push, we are given the effect of sport on the street. For what is skateboarding but the response to the growing amount of cement? Both the street and skateboarding are modern concepts; incorporating the age-old invention of the wheel they form new ways we negotiate with our changing terrain. Of course the street was developed far earlier, but the street as metaphor for the underground, itself a metaphor, the street as the way we now consider the term...I would postulate that this is quite young. Skateboarding is a part of it, people going down urban areas pulling tricks are perhaps one aspect of the essence of what we think of in the term "the street." At contests this is called, in fact, "street skating."

So if we consider street skaters as aspects of the street itself, then we can develop the metaphor further. I would say that street skating is everything Gibson meant when he said "the street has its own uses for things;" stairs become obstacles to jump, railings areas to grind, and all pieces of the environment are used for tricks. I would say that skaters interacting with our increasingly paved world are very much the best modern example that we have of the connotations of the word "cyberpunk;" the hacking done here is of real instead of virtual environments, but the similarities between virtual/cyber-actions and extreme sports could be what led to terms like channel and web surfing. The internet is, in all reality, simply a new face of the street, called "the information superhighway."

What always surprises me about skateboarding contests is the technical language: Tony Hawk will spill out jargon like you've never heard while watching people skate around. While this leaves me to wonder what he's actually talking about at times, I think what is apparent about it is that skating can be quite scientific when you consider it. You wouldn't expect this from a sport so often graded by judging on a numerical scale. While being technical, the sport is greatly artistic--ultimately based on value judgments, although you do have to go out and nail the trick. I think this creates a very positive sport for one to take part in. The idea of urban (or really any) youths seeing skating as an escape from the troubles of the modern adolescents seems commonplace, but do people seriously consider why this happens? The sport blends art or at least style with difficulty, with sport, is in fact the closest combination to what I consider the two sides of a spectrum. Although one can often turn his or her nose up to the concept of "the art of a game" considering such facetious, skating can and must be described at times in this way. Skating becomes a good term in this case, hearkening back to ice skating or even rollerblading, both cousins of various removes.

My father talks about how he had to use geometry in driving, judging how much he had to turn a steering wheel, or the angle to take to avoid oncoming traffic. Skating is no different, perhaps boiled down to just this, when we consider the skateboard as a tool of sport (or art) and not transport. I just can't see the negative side of children doing a lot of thought to degrees and physics, the force one has to apply to a board or the fact that a 900 is two and a half turns. It's a win-win, both an outlet from reality and an immersion in the mathematics of reality, of what can really be done with your body and four wheels on a board.

Street skating contests truly take Gibson's quote to its paradoxical end. Considering street skaters agents of the street, the creation of locations for their judging is a new use for the street engineered by the street itself. This occurred to me watching the X Games XVII the other night and looking on the created "street" made specifically to board. Once again we must praise William Gibson's ambiguity; the street makes it own uses for all kinds of things, including the street itself.

To quote Nabokov in the voice of Charles Kinbote, and also to reach a personal word count number for this point, I say in concluding, "I trust the reader has enjoyed this note."

NOTE: I have placed this post in the tab group "sports sunday." All these posts will retroactively join "anthropology of sports," but this will be the only "anthropology of sports" post tagged "sports sunday."

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