Snowboarding and Strategies of Refusal: Goddess, Cyborg, Switch
(submitted by barbara fornssler and sean smith to the 2009 sport, sexuality and culture conference at ithaca college)
Framed as a necessary departure from Donna Haraway's theoretical cyborg, the figure of the "switch" is introduced to understand the complex relationality experienced by the athlete-subject in a moment of Olympic competition. Appropriated from the complex sexual politics of BDSM culture, the figure of the switch allows for a renegotiation of Haraway's cyborg by creating a space in which the submissive/dominant dichotomy between the emancipatory feminist cyborg and the patriarchical military-industrial cyborg may be explored as a contextual and meshed embodiment of contingency and historical decision-making in strategic situations.
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The race begins and four bodies careen out of the starting gates to dart headlong downhill. Immediately, one of the challengers is shot off the track and into the safety net lining the course. Then another one drops, and another, until it is just Lindsey Jacobellis out in front, substantially ahead of her nearest pursuer. Four sources of energy on the video screen have been quickly whittled down to one, Jacobellis absorbing the electromagnetic flows from the other three as millions of viewers crane towards their screens to watch her race to the finish line. She knows she's out in front by a large margin and as she nears her final goal the adrenaline rushes, though she is hardly aware of her pounding heart.
This is the logic of theatre.
Almost at the finish line, about to achieve the orgasm of modern sport, the athletic body speaks of its own accord. In the moment of climax, Jacobellis chooses a different model of gratification. She hit a short rise in the snow and pulled a method grab. Ecstasy!
But snowboarding itself is not immune from its own spectacularization. Indeed, the sport came of age in the era of digital cameras and handheld personal videocameras, and thus from the very beginning, snowboarding was spectacle. Given enough attempts, one will almost always get the optimum photo or video clip, detached from the aura of its icy production environment.
This is the logic of film.
In this case, however, given the primacy of the sporting theatre, Jacobellis was only afforded one take for the camera … and she wiped out. Face plant.
Chance? Aleatory perturbations in laminar flow as she soared through the air?
Or does the athletic body dip the edge of the board ever-so-slightly, the boundary between human and machine ever negotiable? Does the lumbar vertebrae straighten imperceptibly skyward and tilt the axis of rotation backward just a few degrees? In other words, does the athletic body effect not a rational agency, but an affective agency comparable to a doubling of Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory model?
The agency of the snowboarding body to ignore the linear pursuit of the record and attempt a method grab at the moment of ecstasy should be considered authentic to the expressive genealogy from which it emerges. But if Jacobellis had completed the trick it would have been simply folded into the spectacle of Olympism in the process, as an avalanche may sweep away adventurous boarders who have ventured out of bounds in search of fresh powder. The completed trick would have had greater sign value than that of her face plant.
In the end, as the body lays sprawled helplessly on the snow while a pursuer pulls up from far behind to claim the gold medal, it is the ecstasy that is left open, a libidinal investment that refuses its return to the wish-desire and its sign of negation. In crashing, Jacobellis is loyal neither to the cyborgian body-machine-image complex of the Olympic athlete nor to that of the recreational snowboarder, though she is of both domains. She is Switch.
This is the logic of the network.
[Chorus: "Thanks be to God(dess)."]
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This paper interrogates the figure of the switch through a case study of American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, who crashed in the 2006 Olympic boardercross final while pulling a trick only a short distance from the finish line and a certain gold medal, ultimately having to settle for silver. In this case, the switch engages in sport as dominant or submissive — as Olympic versus freestyle snowboarder — dependent on the context of encounter, allowing for a new agency of the subject that is affective through its movement and sensation. The emergence of Jacobellis' fall just prior to the climactic point of victory stands as a double strategy of refusal — a negation of the spectacle that makes explicit the identity of the switch and its implications for a new feminist politics.