Editorial

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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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

A Reply to Lauren Southern’s “Why I’m Not a Feminist”

If you have an opinion on feminism, you need to know this.

Wonderful and rare space where an academic meets popular misconception.

Everyday Geopolitics Houston

Dear Lauren,

In the last couple days, I have seen your video “Why I’m Not a Feminist” pop up a few times. In the video, you describe why you are not a feminist. At the heart of your message is the assertion, “I am not a feminist because I believe both genders should be treated equally.” Setting aside for a moment the problems with your assumption that gender can be reduced to a binary of male/female (here’s a decent introduction to that if you want), I want to talk about the misinformation you offer in your video: misinformation about feminist activism and scholarship, and misinformation about domestic violence and rape. I don’t often find engaging in these types debates online to be the most fruitful use of my energies, since people that produce anti-feminist content generally are not very open to meaningful engagement with feminist thought, however I’ve been stewing over your…

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Arguing online and cognative closure

Why do you waste your time and energy arguing with people on social media? You’re not learning anything from that echo chamber!

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If you’ve been subjected this argument/accusation because of your tendency to engage online here is some good news. A quantitative study published in the Journal of Social Media Studies suggests that the opposite is true. Those who engage in discussion are exposed to a broader spectrum of views than those who simply read a preferred source of traditional media. Those who engage in two sided conversation are also more likely to change their minds on an existing issue.

The key is engagement. If the social media user is broadcasting opinion or ideas from a news source (like many organized trolls – I’m looking at you, 4chan) with no interest in deeper understanding, or simply insulting or deflecting opposition, they’re not really learning much.

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But if you question, listen and argue (even with somebody who doesn’t change their mind) YOU are likely to be looking to broaden your horizons. While those who think it’s a waste of time might just not be keen to challenge their own worldview.
Notably, information-seeking motivations was a positive predictor of cross-cutting discussion, but a negative predictor of cross-cutting exposure. This finding indicates that those who utilize SNS for political information are actually less exposed to diverse views. The most plausible psychological mechanism to explain this counter-intuitive finding may be selective exposure; it might be that those who closely follow political news via SNS tend to seek consonant information by friending or following like- minded people or news sources they prefer. This suggests the possibility of SNS functions as homogeneous “echo chambers” where diverse views are hard to find as a result of political fragmentation. However, even for these consonant information-seekers, engaging in cross-cutting political discussion has a strong deliberation effect such that they are significantly more likely to change their original views and get more involved in the issue of discussion than those who are not engaged in cross-cutting discussion.

Cause and effect would be difficult to establish. Does arguing on the internet make you more inquisitive? Or are the arguments symptom of your inquisitive tendencies? Don’t know. The the answer is likely to be, as always, a little bit of both.

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What comics can do (for ethnography)

In 2009 I submitted my honors thesis in the field of anthropology. The central argument of that thesis was that medium of comics (as in, the format of comic-books) can (and should) be used to tell ethnographic and scientific stories. I did my best to make a good argument. I think I did OK because my University department decided to call my bluff. The following year I started fieldwork and research for a PhD. A large part of this new thesis was to be told through the unique combination of words and image that make up comic(s).

The topic of research turned out to be way, way deeper and more immersive than I had anticipated. My experiment with format had to take a back seat to the presentation and analysis of parkour culture, community and practice. It was an incredible experience for which I am super grateful. I learned so much and made so many friends! About two months ago I submitted that thesis. And, as planned, it had comics in it! Though, not as many as I initially hoped.

While I wait for my results I find the time to look around to discover that there are quite a few others who are experimenting with format. There are exciting things going on and I’m really delighted to see the work of others who share my passion for illustration and comics in Anthropology.

So, I want to fly a flag and put my stuff out there. If this is the kinda stuff you’re into (comics or visual anthropology) I’d love to hear from you!

Below are a few pages from the conclusion of my honors thesis. They’re about the capabilities of the medium of comics.

Thanks!

– Pava

P.S. Sorry! This file is en early draft! I can’t find the finals. Excuse the expressive gremlins… But hopefully it will be enough to give you an idea!

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There was more text… but I don’t want to bore you.

What do you think?

Check out some ethnographic comics from my PhD:
Ilja in Copenhagen
Rhys
Ruz and EZ

Body Shame, Neoliberalism and Rhetoric

I’ve been reading about how bodies (as in, your body) and neo-liberal politics (like those of your government) interweave. I think its really important. Governments convince us of their plans and ideas by telling us stories with very specific language. Sometimes these tricks are transparent and silly, other times they are hidden and subliminal. When they work, we get the message without even realizing that we got it. In politics, these are called social narratives. There are tonnes of examples in how language is used to change the message. Kinda like economic and political refugees became ‘boat people’ and then ‘queue jumpers’, then, in the language of folks like Donald Trump ‘rapists’ and ‘terrorists’. This is where things get really scary and insidious.

One really clever trick of neo-liberal policy is shame. This is stolen from the Advertising industry. Advertising gives us images of beauty that most of us physically can’t meet then shames us into consuming stuff with the promise of reaching that impossible ideal (like surgery, gym memberships, cosmetics, shampoos, etc). This is the idea of ‘body shame’ and the advertising industry uses the language of ‘health’ and personal responsibility to sell their product. The neo-liberals use it to sell their agenda. We can all agree that most of us can do things to be more healthy. We can’t control everything, but generally, we can eat well, exercise, meditate or do a whole bunch of other things to make ourselves healthier and fitter. There is a level of personal responsibility involved. Like advertisers, the neo-liberal system uses the language of health to push aside real reasons behind peoples economic difficulties. It promotes the idea of discipline and merit as the only reason that a member of the public might be in economic strife.

Obviously, this isn’t true. I’m a migrant, and I saw from the experience friends and family how substantial an obstacle an accent can be when a person is looking for work. Or how difficult it can be to get that gig if you can’t afford a suit for that interview or the fare for the bus to get to the job. Countless studies show that class, race and sex play into economic success in major ways. This is a truth that is so well documented it is impossible to deny. It is very inconvenient to the neo-liberal world view. Since denial is impossible, the task becomes to silence the complaint. To get people to not talk about the real issues that challenge the neo-liberal ideal. The solution that is used is shame. If personal responsibility is drawn in, people can’t help but feel that their failures are their fault. Talking about it directly is bad, because if the neo-liberal establishment comes out and directly accuses everyone of their failure people will talk back about circumstance… an argument that wouldn’t play out well. So, instead the analogies begin. The reasoning goes, most people already have body shame, lets move this shame into the political realm:

“Neo-liberalism is a political rationality that tries to render the social domain economic and to link a reduction in (welfare) state services and security systems to the increasing call for ‘personal responsibility’ and ‘self-care’. In this way, we can decipher the neoliberal harmony in which not only the individual body, but also collective bodies and institutions (public administrations, universities, etc.), corporations and states have to be ‘lean’, ‘fit’, ‘flexible’ and ‘autonomous’: it is a technique of power.”

The genius of this is that it implicitly turns people into fat. If you get messed over by an unjust social or political system, clearly the system is to blame. If that system is ‘fit’, ‘lean’ and ‘healthy’ the whole thing turns on you – you are the waste, fat and decay. A trick of language that effects our thinking.

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While there is always a level of personal responsibility for health AND ones place on the ladder of economic success, this tactic is designed to swing that balance into the realm of impossible ideals. In reality we know not elements of health can be controlled. Illness is conditional and inherent as much as it is controllable. So is economic success. We can’t all be Steve Jobs, because we don’t have his specific skills, networks and privilege, just like we can’t all look like Scarlett Johansson because we don’t have her bone structure. Nor can we all swim like Ian Thrope because we don’t have his body type and his big feet. We need to understand the rhetorical weapons used to sell dangerous ideas. Otherwise, we reach the increasingly common reality: people start to fall by the wayside because of their circumstance and we are all too ashamed to talk about the true nature of their, and our, social troubles.

Peace.

The quote is from: ‘The birth of biopolitics’: Michel Foucault’s lecture at the Collège de France on neo-liberal governmentality Translated by Thomas Lemke

Us and them: australian politics and the rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’

Words matter. As an anthropologist, it is my job to derive meaning from the words and actions of human beings. Today I realized that through his countless verbal gaffs our bumbling Prime Minister is offering us a direct pathway into his worldview.

Like our primate cousins, humans are inherently tribalistic mammals. It is instinct to divide ourselves into groups based on empathy and similarity – ‘us’ versus ‘them’. We have difficulty relating to ‘them’. We tend to think of ourselves as inherently good and not think of the others at all. ‘They’ are less human to ‘us’ – in anthropology this is called ethnocentrism. Fortunately, unlike our primate cousins, we have a uniquely developed frontal cortex that gives us the capacity for abstract thinking. Abstraction allows humans to override our biological ‘monkey’ nature. We can break our tribalistic ethnocentrism. This takes energy, empathy and focus.

A little while ago Tony Abbot (Australian current conservative head of state) used the word ‘Holocaust’ to punctuate his political rhetoric. When confronted with the fact that this trivialised a horrific incident for a large section of the Australian public, his government went on the defensive – ‘we were not using the word the way the Jews do’. Makes sense, Tony isn’t Jewish. But his use of the word showed a lack of connection to that segment of the population, a lack of empathy with ‘them’. The current Liberal government has a history of this kind of ethnocentrism. The rhetoric of ‘lifters and leaners’ also divides the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’. ‘Us’ being the economically well off and ‘them’ being anyone who isn’t. This is something that becomes clear when one has to consider that some highly productive vocations take time to develop. Time that is hard to put in when you have no economic support network.

When Tony was asked what he had done for women (as minister for women) he demonstrated his ethnocentrism once again, telling the public that his economic policy was his gift to a group whom he clearly fails to empathise with and understand.
There are two ways in which humanity evolves. One is a slow physiological adaptation, a process we share with all other biological entities on this planet, the other is an evolution of knowledge. This second process is the unique capacity to build and expand on the inventions and ideas of other members of our species. Our ability to internalise the thinking of our predecessors lead us away from our primate nature and allowed us to achieve technological and philosophical feats that are truly beautiful and staggering. In earlier times this made us feel ordained by god – no other creature can do what we can. We thought ourselves above the other apes, we saw ourselves as angels. This evolution is the outcome of our ability to internalise the perspectives of others, particularly others who think in radically different ways to ourselves. We built on ideas we ourselves could never have, and what we achieved is the outcome of our abstract reasoning capacity coupled with our empathy. Yet, this evolution is a fragile process. Isolate a human from the achievements of our fellow humans and we begin anew. A blank slate: naked, illiterate and ‘savage’. Our animal natures are still here, but they are counteracted by the collective intelligence of human society. We benefit from the unity of human diversity on the material, the moral, the intellectual level.
In Australia we saw a budget that delineates society into ‘lifters’ and ‘leaners’. Take a moment to look behind the ideological rhetoric. The idea of putting pressure on the ‘leaners’ to ‘lift’ themselves up is a mask for simple intolerance: you don’t aspire to the same things as me? There’s something wrong with you! It is a demonisation of difference. This kind of thinking strips us of our mutual intelligence and reveals the animal inside. It makes us selfish, myopic and territorial. One of the reasons we have an amazing country is that we recognised the value of difference. We though it was worthwhile to pay a little extra to make sure a member of our community didn’t die in the street, even if her/his circumstances and outlook was different from ours. We practiced empathy. We benefitted from the resultant diversity. Politically, we took a step in a different direction. We replaced the idea of empathy based on national unity with the idea of empathy for outlook uniformity. This government is devolving Australian society. It is appealing to our primate nature. I hope you will not let yourself become an ape, I hope that you will choose to remain an angel.
The Liberal Party views are not based on malice. They are based on a lack of connection with anyone who doesn’t fit a very narrow band of ‘us’. Our Prime Minister is demonstrating his own human limitations, which would be fine if he wasn’t elected to represent the entirety of the Australian public. Here lies the problem. Doesn’t matter how much this government will promise to change or listen to ‘the people’, they will never be able to surpass their ethnocentrism. They are disconnected from anyone who isn’t like them. I have no doubt that this government will do its best to serve the Australian people. But to Tony ‘Australians’ will always be Anglo, Male, Wealthy and Christian.
Refugees? Forget about it. This government can’t relate to the majority of the Australian public, let alone people from different nations and different cultures.