Saturday, December 12, 2009


Leave it to the French to take something ordinary, like "street climbing" and turn it into haute couture. If you've never heard of "Le Parkour," as a sport or pop culture phenomenon, then you're in for a treat. Translated, "le parkour" is the art of displacement, when one runs through a series of obstacles. As a French discipline, it sits somewhere between military urban warfare training and martial arts. Le Parkour is a component of French military training that emphasizes negotiating urban terrain to gain both position and advantage. What's interesting to me, is the how often Le Parkour requires mastery of what naturalist and sport climbers would term "dyno" moves.

Of course, I doubt Americans will be surprised to learn that the true origin of le Parkour rests in flight (a.k.a. retreat), a discipline that encourages students to make the most of all surfaces in order to protect oneself. Within French urban culture, however, Le Parkour is a mixture of its history and contemporary street culture. Like skateboarding, the sport draws the younger crowd who gather to compete and share trade moves.

The most notable expert in Le Parkour is David Belle. He is, by most accounts, the Bruce Lee of Le Parkour. And he's amazing:

Reading the Wikipedia entry describing Le Parkour (click here), it seems to me that this is a sport similar to climbing. Both require critical thinking and discipline, a sense of inner play and possibility. Both sports, too, require the sort of people who aren't afraid to take risks in order to gain self-confidence. In a BBC article (click BBC), Belle asserts that his mission is "to make people understand what it is to move." Watching his videos on You Tube, I can attest to my own blossoming understanding of how his work in Le Parkour could and will influence my work as a climber.

What's more interesting to me, however, is the ways in which Belle asserts that his version of street climbing is a philosophical act visible through practice. This reminds me of all the climbing videos I have watched since my injury, and the many ways in which one's personality or worldview is made visible through rock climbing. Though Belle was first claimed by gymnastic folk and runners - le parkour was once termed "free running" in the U.S. - it seems to me that the sport's epicenter on grip and forearm strength, mental discipline, and overall agility could make it a French kissing cousin of both rock and sport climbing.

For Belle, Le Parkour is a sport of "you against you" - and this is something climbing presents too. And the more I watch Belle, his training videos and performances, the more I understand what he means about "movement." Facing the rock or the urban landscape, one does confront obstacles. In that confrontation one learns more about personal freedom and self-respect than anywhere else. In my scholarly pursuits, I term this confrontation "displacement" and "process" - so it shouldn't be too surprising that I'm fond of climbing and le Parkour because it turns the cerebral into the physical. This is why I encourage my students to join me at the climbing wall, too.

Though most would have us separate the philosophical from "the real," I fail to see that separation as natural. To me, this breaking between mind and body is a byproduct of WWII mechanisms, ones that brought the university together with the military in order to gain advantage (and ultimately nuclear power). In the 1940s and 50s, America loved its scientists. Only after the bombings in Nagasaki and Hiroshima did the average joe get a view of what nerds were capable of and I think it scared them.

Scientists have been suspect since, throughout the "space race" and the Cold War, science was at the heart of espionage. So it seems the division between the "smart science people" and the "regular people" had everything to do with the circles in which they moved. Culture compartmentalized, and the "regular" people cast suspicious eyes at those in their ivory tower labs and libraries. It hasn't been cool to be a nerd since.

Even James Bond had to deal with science as villain in Goldfinger, and popular culture since often posits science as dangerous.

Technology presented, too, the "confrontation of one's humanity" like the Stanley Kubrick film, "2001: A Space Odyssey":

In the 1973 film, Westworld, Yul Brynner portrays a rogue robot. I saw the movie when I was a kid, maybe five or so, and had many nightmares featuring Mr. Brynner until I saw him in The King and I. The film was based on the premise as technology as vacation - with better actors and twists than the later Total Recall with Alnold Governator of Californie.

Anyway, my point is this: as typical plot themes go, technology rarely gets to be a hero. And the compartmentalization of people and knowledge, the ways in which theory was separated from praxis (though the two are braided together even when we can't name the theories at play), limited movement. This limited freedom and movement eventually became, as most social constraint mechanisms do, a collective preference. In our case, the exact opposite of movement is stability - a term government officials and politicos, financial "experts" and commentators throw around with unfortunate regularity.

It was French language theorist and philosopher Jacques Derrida that introduced us to the nature of binaries and controls through language, and his response to stability - he argued this stability was about hierarchal structures - was play. Derrida provoked play every chance he got, as a way of moving through language and through thought. So I'm not surprised David Belle focuses on movement and philosophy, nor am I surprised to see the organizations supporting play as an engagement with imagination such as the Norfolk Council's "National Play Day" co-sponsored by Le Parkour Alliance:

My interest in movement, of course, stems from the fact that my own physical movement is limited by my injury. And as I process my emotive responses to my physical limitations, I return again and again to the connection between personal freedom and physicality. Mental and physical are visible to me in wholly new ways. And the more I think about it, the more I wonder if the charges that climbing, Le Parkour, and other nonconformist sports are "reckless" and "dangerous" are made because the sports put into physical movement, in tangible ways that are witnessed, the need and right to think for oneself.

Both climbing and le Parkour require critical engagement with surrounding spaces - the spatial theorist in my finds this fascinating. Both require a willingness to push back common tropes or meanings surrounding what is safe. Both require one to be physically and mentally present at the same time. And it seems both attract intelligent people who seem to be living out their personal theories in the real world. When I'm climbing, I'm processing my own physicality, my lived realities, and my body as miraculous machine. It's the movement up the wall that brings me in tune with my mind.

So I think I'll be adding some of the training moves/exercises from Belle's le Parkour to my workout schedule as soon as I can. I think training should be about play, about building strength and self-respect. I won't be back-flipping or anything, but I will be concentrating on grip and forearm strength, mobility and balance. I'll also be thinking more about urban landscapes and movement, about freedom and place. But I'm a nerd. Be afraid. Be very afraid.

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