parkour

PART ONE: Optimism and Parkour as Transformative Practice

From 2008 to 2015 I lived parkour. It was my job to study this practice and the people who practiced it. I was working on my PhD and was lucky enough to be there during the flowering phase of the development of the discipline. I also got to talk to many of the early players in the community – the gurus, the coaches, the gym owners, innovators, charlatans and community leaders. I archived the fights about legitimacy and definition that unified and divided us online and I contributed to the debates through weekly parkour panels. This is the chunk of parkour history that is mine and I’m still working on the graphic novel that will archive that history. The PhD is long since done and it is a testament to my love and optimism for parkour. I thought parkour was loaded with transformative potential.

It wasn’t all roses. I saw and spoke about the potential threats that might co-opt our young practice and subvert its potential. In parkour panels I pointed out that commercialism, populism and ego might undermine the things that are unique and beneficial about parkour – as they had with many other lifestyle sports – and transform it from a practice for all into another inaccessible, elite, commercial spectacle. That’s still a concern, but now there are developments that I never saw coming.

What’s so special about parkour? To me, parkour offers a pathway to inner happiness – psychologically speaking. This isn’t touchy-feely spiritualism, it’s neuroscientific spiritualism. In neuroscience and psychology, spirituality isn’t about religion, magic or planetary vibrations. It’s about connection. To borrow from one of many neuroscientific papers on the subject: “Spirituality [is] the belief in a meaningful life imbued with a sense of connection to a Higher Power, the world, or both.” This sense of connectivity is increasingly hard to come by. The features of post-industrialised societies (like cities, endless commercial imperatives, neoliberal hyper-individualism, the competitive ethos, structural rationalism etc.) have an isolating effect on all of us. Even though we see more people in a day than a European peasant from the 1800s would see in a lifetime and are digitally connected to every ‘friend’ since high school, for many of us, social circles are smaller and more precarious than ever. Cities and modern architecture provide comfort and safety but also direct our movement and literally constrain the world by obscuring our view of the horizon, creating a sense of containment and fragmentation. This can make us feel disconnected from the broader environment. Historical beliefs and cultural stories about how the mind and the body are oppositional make us feel like being smart and being fit are somehow mutually exclusive, alienating some from their bodies and others from study, mental stimulation and critical thought. But connectivity – to others, our environment and our complete selves – which we experience as ‘spiritual’, is super important to our mental health. Studies from the early days of city living show suicide rates as higher for those disconnected from community, place and a sense of spirituality. Contemporary neuroscience regularly adds to a growing body of evidence on this topic.

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Parkour from the David Belle era (there was a time when he was broadly UNDISPUTED as a sole founder of the discipline with only a few exceptions, believe it or not) seemed purpose built to take apart isolating social narratives. It was non-competitive, because competition added to risk, created and enforced hierarchy and was antithetical to individualised exploration. It cultivated an aspiration for pro-sociability, because it came from the European body-culture tradition of military and civil service. It was ego denying and meditative, because Belle and the Yamakazi were inspired by eastern martial arts philosophies. It insisted on self-challenge and self-improvement, because the young founders were motivated by a search for self through strength, trial and dedication. It cultivated a community of practice, because it was infused with rhetoric of participatory play. It was also occasionally uncritically chauvinistic, classist and often failed to live up to its own values – because it was largely taken up by young men and we tend to make mistakes before we grow up to know better (or, sometimes, not) – but it did a great deal of good to those who took it up and it was loaded with potential. Still is. Parkour did the job of creating connections. It connected people to their environment; it connected people to their bodies and to their creative problem solving capacity; it connected people to others. In neuroscientific terms, it is spiritual. Lots of people I met (over 750 interviews in total) described it as such. It transcended activity, in my notebooks people call it ‘lifestyle’, ‘meditation’, a way of ‘melting with the world’, ‘connecting with a part of myself’ and ‘finding something I thought I had lost’.

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I see parkour as a respite from the cultural ailments of the modern world. A patch of European body culture in a world of commercialized, competitive sport. An island of eastern philosophy in a sea of western self-obsession. A playground in the middle of a one way speedway. A place that let you take a breath in the middle of a stressful rush.

If I sound enamored, I am. I allow myself to indulge because I think many readers will agree. But an island stands out because it is surrounded by water – it is an anomaly to the norm. Parkour was powerful because it was different (foreign), and there are lots of people who have trouble processing foreignness. They are confused by it and this confusion manifests in action. Practitioners of parkour have probably seen the most extreme version of this confusion directly in people who are threatened or frightened by training. People who want you to ‘do a flip’ to turn something they don’t understand into a performance. Or gleeful celebrations of injury in the comment sections of ‘parkour fail’ videos. Or sometimes, people who threaten, intimidate and even lash out because you’re using public property in a way they don’t understand. All this is common.

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What is more interesting, insidious and tricky is the inability to comprehend the foreignness of parkour that comes from the community itself. Some people loved parkour for everything weird that it was. They embraced the novelty, obsessed over the French origins, did their best to work out a coherent philosophy to stay true to (a tricky task, since the founders had yet to work that out themselves). They saw the value in what was there and loved it as is. In my thesis I called them the purists. But for many others parkour needed to be tweaked. People are generally committed to the ideologies in which they are raised and often see difference as flaw or incompletion; in anthropology we call this ethnocentrism. It’s really common and the growing parkour community is no exception.

Making something different into something familiar by changing its values to match your own is easier than changing your values in light of new information. There’s bigotry in that, a kind of cognitive inflexibility. It’s this inflexibility that I see as the biggest threat to parkour. And it comes in many forms.

Next: PART 2 – Ideology of Improvement In the Face of Limitation, Fear and Depression

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Living on the Edge: The Value of Graphic Social Science

Comics are great for science. The ‘comics’ medium (not to be confused with comedy and the comics that preform it) is a tool of communication and research that has great potential for the social sciences. But, new methods are always met with skepticism. It’s up to those who are native to the medium to convince the scientific community of its benefits. And to share some of the difficulties that come with breaking new ground.

My name is Alex. I am a ‘comics’ native.

It all started with trains. There’s a wonderful thing happening on public transport. It started about seven years ago. For me, it began with a moment in which a young woman walked onto a train, sat down and opened up a copy of Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi. Right there! In front of everyone! She was reading comics. Then, it happened again. This time it was a young man with a copy of Fables by Vertigo. I was both overjoyed and scandalised. They were doing it right there, in the open, with no shame. And it just keeps going on – I’ve seen it a bunch since then.

I have no doubt that people have been ‘shamelessly’ reading comics in public for years. And I know that this says way more about me than them. In fact that’s the point. Comics are my language. As a migrant kid who spoke no English but came from a family of readers, comics were my first foray into the Anglo culture. Back in the early 90s, when I was first introduced to the medium, they were a way to read without being able to understand the language. They were addictive and off-the-bat; an irresistible, dangerous flirtation. You see, coming from a family of readers, illustrations were for kids or ‘the stupid’. Yet, I always liked to draw. Worse yet, I never saw an issues in punctuating those drawings with a few words of dialogue.  This is how I saw it: words are great, but pictures have so much more to say. Why not have both?

Fast-forward to today. I’m a anthropology researcher with a bunch of experience in the field and the workplace. I’ve got a book (or two) I’m working on. Both monographs spend some time exploring the boundaries of mixed media. Both speak in the language to which I am a native. Here is a fresh piece of that work. This is a part of a conclusion to a current manuscript. I hope you’ll forgive refferences to prior content. On these pages I ask the question: can comics be ethnography?

Heads up: In these comics I use the word ‘comics’ deliberately, in a way that defines conventional grammar. In the book I am writing I argue that ‘comics’ is a term that we should use to describe a medium separate from the comic – the funny, ironic or conversational. I have some strong ideas about how they can make a good ethnography…

 

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That was a part of a conclusion to a monograph that is under construction. In it I talk about comics history and its grammar. So far, everyone loves it, until they hit the logistics of publication. Over the last year I’ve spoken to some highly reputable academic publishers. Each one has been excited by the manuscript, but confused by the format. “This is great! We love it for the comics,” I’m told. “But, can we have less pictures?”

I understand the mentality behind this contradictory response. It’s the same mentality I have on the train when I see comic book readers. I’m excited by the change, but I react through the stigma I grew up with. Comics? In public? Are you childish? Stupid? These attitudes are the result of stigmas I seek to unpack. Worse yet, there is a matter of tradition and subsequent logistics of the academe.

The written word has the unquestionable monopoly on academic analysis. For publishers, the convention defines a physical restriction on publication. Any academic who has submitted a manuscript has been asked some version of the following question: How many ‘plates’ or illustrations do you have? This is telling. We haven’t used ‘plates’ in printing for a long while. That term comes from the days of hard press, when individual pages would be laid out in physical plates that would emboss (press) ink onto the page through brute force. Those plates were unique and craft intensive objects; to be thrown away once the physical object was worn out from the physical force of ongoing use. Plates were expensive to make, picture plates were the most expensive of all.

In the era of digital printing, we still talk with the terminology of 19th century technology. For academic publishing, the tech has moved on, but the attitudes have remained the same. For all the benefits that comics might offer and all the excitement that sympathetic academics might have for its innovations, our community doesn’t know what to do with the novelty of this communicative method. The stigma is strong, and it goes all the way back to Plato. We still think that the word is pure, closer to the ethereal ideal, and the image is profane, closer to the material – Cartesian dualism incarnate. This dualism, and it’s puritanical ancestor, is being made increasingly redundant by contemporary neuroscience. Yet, it is also why these monographs are still unpublished – editors are unsure about what to do with this new marginal text. Such is life on the edge.

The best way to brush a chip off your shoulder is to have someone point it out. Here I am looking for allies and critics. I know I’m not the only comics native. And I’m still committed to the cause.

P.S. If you’re a publisher, and you’re interested in challenging formats, let me know! I really am staking my career on it.

– Dr Pava

Parkour and the link Between Competition and Depression

Dear parkour friends,

I tend to favor novelty, so I’m not a huge fan of turning everything into sport. And my concerns and findings were often expressed in my comics. But as I dig deeper, I am finding some disturbing links between competition and depression that parkour practitioners might be interested in.

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But first, let me introduce myself. I’m doing some research on the book that is to come out of my PhD. I’ve recently completed a study about parkour and the people who practice it with samples from Australia, America, Canada, England, France, Denmark, Russia and Ukraine (with some brief visits and glimpses into other places). One of the things I wrote and drew about – I’m the guy who is behind the Parkour Panels – is how parkour can be practiced by those who are strictly against competition, as well as those who think that competition is good and, even, inevitable. Many of you will have met me. For those who haven’t: Hi!

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Panel from all the way back 2011….

Now that my PhD is in the bag I’m looking to expand on some of those ideas. While reading has been great, I’m currently going through a book which is central to this topic. It’s called The Happiness Industry, and written by Dr. William Davies, an American sociologist. This book summarizes much of the more academic research I found on the topic of adding competition to all kinds of activities: from parkour to running entire nations. As I took notes I realized that the content is really important for those in parkour communities – particular in America, Canada, Australia and the UK where the sportification of parkour is well under way. I thought I’d share some of my notes with you…

Having done a great deal of research on the subject, here is what Dr. Davies has to say.

” … It transpires that competition and competitive culture, including that of sport, is ultimately related to a disorder that was scantly discussed in 1977 but which has become a major policy concern by the end of the century. As the 1970s drew to a close, Western capitalist countries stood on the cusp of a whole new era of psychological management. The disorder at the heart was depression. ”

Davies points out that the competitive societies inherently rate greater levels of social inequality. Where competition is limited in the social sphere (like Scandinavia) rates of depression are much lower. In America and the UK, where competition is promoted as a social virtue, rates of depression are epidemic.

“Yet there is more to this than just a statistical correlation. Behind the numbers, there is troubling evidence that depression can be triggered by the competitive ethos itself, afflicting not only the ‘losers’ but also the ‘winners’… That competition makes many people ‘seem inferior’, has been proved far more valid than even left-wing 1970s school teachers could have imagined; it also tells them that they are inferior.”

What follows are a number of case studies that have surfaced over the last few years that show that elite athletes are highly prone to mental illness, particularly depression. I won’t type out this long section, instead I’ll just give you these links – directly related to his examples.

“A study conducted by Georgetown University found that college footballers are twice as likely to experience depression as non-footballers. Another study discovered that professional female athletes display similar personality traits as those with eating disorders, both linked to obsessive perfectionism. And a series of experiments and surveys conducted by the American psychologist Tim Kasser has revealed that ‘aspirational’ values, oriented around money, status and power, are linked to higher risk of depression and lower sense of ‘self-actualization’. Whenever we measure our self-worth relative to others, as all competitions force us to, we risk losing our sense of self-worth all together. One of the sad ironies here is that the effect of this dissuade people, including schoolchildren, from engaging in physical exercise all together” (studies cited).

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“Perhaps it is no surprise, then, that society such as America’s, which privileges a competitive individual mindset at every moment in life, has been thoroughly permeated by depressive disorders and demand for anti-depressives. Today, a third of adults in the United States and close to half in the UK believe that they occasionally suffer from depression…”

In the process of working on my PhD I found many people who unquestioningly pushed towards competition in practice. I’ve also heard a lot of slander for those who chose to practice on their own terms – that they weren’t serious or that their scene was not as evolved.

I hope that this can broach the divide a little. Give us all cause to pause and consider: If parkour is practiced for self-improvement, what role do competitions play in this process. And, if competitions are about business, how far are we willing to go in marketing our practice… particularly if it hurts the students we are trying to inspire and makes it inaccessible to others.

For more about the connection between depression and competition, click on the links in this sentence.

love!

– Pava