"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the problem of flow, particularly the movement-flow of bodies. Sport, in its rational industrial form, poses a body that is broken down by disciplinary technology before being reassembled in pursuit of maximal production efficiency and minimal political insubordination. This isn't just in a metaphorical sense: the disciplined sporting body is formed in a process of enclosure, surveillance, spatiotemporal constraint and discursive construct directly analogous to the processes of labour production in the factory.
We got by for a long time with an energetic conception of motion, where there's a point of contact, or we are the source of movement. Running, putting the shot, and so on: effort, resistance, with a starting point, a lever. But nowadays we see movement defined less and less in relation to a point of leverage. All the new sports - surfing, windsurfing, hang-gliding - take the form of an entering into an existing wave. There's no longer an origin as starting point, but a sort of putting into orbit. The key thing is how to get taken up in the motion of a big wave, a column of rising air, to 'get into something' instead of being the origin of an effort (Deleuze, 1995).
The surfer, on the other hand — surfer of waves, surfer of electromagnetic transmissions, surfer of relational databases and other networked information-constructs — begins to shed the weightiness of the rigid modern body in favour of a light, flowing postmodern body, a body that desires expressivity in its many forms. Skateboarders, concrete kin to the surfers of liquid waves, similarly desire expressivity as emergent from the body. While the control society attempts to herd these surfers into so-called skateparks in the same way that it enclosed athletes from an earlier era into the ludic factory of the stadium, the street skater resists this herd mentality. S/he cuts across the lines of stratification that define a city to open new spaces and opportunities for expression.
Iain Borden refers to the cultural practice of street skateboarding as a "performative critique of the city" in which the skater contours and cantilevers through, over and around the interesting architectural features of a particular urban core. In Shaun Gladwell's short video "Storm Sequence" (2000), the subject is a skateboarder on a concrete platform who performs tricks while pounding ocean swells and grey-skied backdrop signal an impending storm. The video (8:35 in duration) has a washed out appearance, as if reflecting the spray of the surf or the clouds pregnant with rain; the subject's dark clothing completes the atmospheric effect.
Given the spartan stage for the piece and the absence of architectural nuance, the skater's potential for performative critique appears to be neutered. But Gladwell slows down the moving image to make the concrete pad a dance floor on which the skater gracefully executes his ballet on a board and accompanies the image with a droning atmospheric soundtrack seemingly slowed down to match its tempo. In turn, the critique becomes a performative response to the ocean waves rumbling in syncopation with the ballet.
The skater experiences the ecstasy of flow in an embodied, haptic sense as the machinic connections form an assemblage: foot-skateboard, wheel-concrete, hybridbody-oceanswell. But for the remote observer, connected only by the gaze of the camera, there is no such ability to comprehend the ecstasy of flow; a radical reduction in the speed of the moving image and the spatiotemporal reconfiguration this implies are necessary to even begin to suggest that embodiment.
To the untrained eye, most skateboarding moves occur too quickly to appreciate the sophisticated interplay between body, board and sporting landscape. By slowing the video down to 40 percent of its original speed, Gladwell at once creates a heavy atmosphere laden with shades of grey while allowing the untrained observer — not uncoincidentally a surfer in the hyperaccelerated cognitive sense — to participate in the corporeality of the skater's lightness.
The heaviest of burdens crushes us, we sink beneath it, it pins us to the ground. But in the love poetry of every age, the woman longs to be weighed down by the man's body. The heaviest of burdens is therefore simultaneously an image of life's most intense fulfilment. The heavier the burden, the closer our lives come to the earth, the more real and truthful they become.
Conversely, the absolute absence of a burden causes man to be lighter than air, to soar into the heights, take leave of the earth and his earthly being, and become only half real, his movements as free as they are insignificant.
What then shall we choose? Weight or lightness?
Parmenides posed this very question in the sixth century before Christ. He saw the world divided into pairs of opposites: light/darkness, fineness/coarseness, warmth/cold, being/non-being. One half of the opposition he called positive (light, fineness, warmth, being), the other negative. We might find this division into positive and negative poles childishly simple except for one difficulty: which one is positive, weight or lightness?
Parmenides responded: lightness is positive, weight negative.
Was he correct or not? That is the question. The only certainty is: the lightness/weight opposition is the most mysterious, most ambiguous of all.
(Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being)
We might borrow Kundera's reformulation of the dilemma between weight or lightness and insert it into our discussion of corporeality and contemporary sporting cultures. If lightness is granted privileged status in the binary, as Parmenides does, then we must logically seek to cast off the weightiness of the body in favour of a (transcendent) lightness. Do we not accomplish this each time we plug into the ecstatic (and narcotic) electronic circuitry of sport consumption (television, radio, videogames, web fantasies, etc.)? Perhaps, but we must ask to what degree we are truly light in doing so. Is it the lightness to experience synaesthesia without ever having to move the body? Or if we do move, are our movements constrained in such a way that obstruct true lightness?
We exist in a hybrid state of here and there. Acceleration to the light-speed of the data networks entails the subordination of a plugged-in carcass made of muscle, fat and bone in favour of an extension of the nervous system into a virtual nexus of connectivity. Interface to non-space. Case, the protagonist of William Gibson's Neuromancer, yearns for such a jacked-in existence as an escape from "the prison of his own flesh". But he is pale, wraith-like, and rolls over to piss in a chemical toilet when in the matrix. Is this the lightness that we desire, the lightness of collective consciousness weighed down by the meat-anchor?
Or should we desire to invert the relationship between the two, and let the heaviness (and immanence) of the body create the potential for lightness to emerge?
One thing is for certain: we will never fully escape from our bodies by uploading our consciousness into the matrix. The matrix is created by bodies. Moving bodies, stationary bodies, shopping bodies, sporting bodies — if the matrix is a global neural net, then bodies are the mitochondria that provide the motor of its sustenance, the deltas that resonate data-constructs, and the multi-sensual fuel for creativity.
We are touched, but we do not touch. Our bodies are imaged, modeled and situated in medical-scientific discourses, but we do not know a kinaesthetic sense of self. Fortunately this sense is only atrophied and not yet vestigial.
In "Storm Sequence," Gladwell attempts to rescue the carcass of the meat-body from its withering state of affairs by making it an active part of the surfing logic of late capitalism. We might consider his challenge to be as weighty as the earlier sporting body that the surfing body obsolesces, or we might flow with the incoming waves and consider it simply as an expression of mere life — the bearable weightiness of being. Even Case accepts his embodiment in the end.
This is a call to embrace our tactile burden.