Oxford: Berg. ISBN: 1859734936.
The Theory of Practice and the Practice of Theory
Douglas Cunningham Spencer
In Skateboarding, Space and the City Iain Borden aims to write a history of the ‘production’ and ‘reproduction’ of space through the ‘body-centred’ practice of skateboarding (Borden, 2001: 9,12). This is also an exercise in which Borden applies elements of urban and social theory developed by Henri Lefebvre and the Situationist International in post-war Europe. As such the ‘work’ of this history is to claim a special status for skateboarding as a practice which in many ways fulfils the criteria outlined by Lefebvre and the Situationists regarding the contestation of existing, and socially repressive, ‘productions of space’ (to use Lefebvre’s terminology). However, while the author appears to find a satisfyingly neat ‘fit’ between theory and practice, this review will attempt to trace, and critically question, the manoeuvres employed to produce this claim.
Before addressing these issues some introduction to the relevant theoretical context is necessary. This will allow me to relate how Borden uses the above mentioned theories, as well as the notions of ‘counter-culture’ and ‘subculture’, in his own theoretical practice.
Lefebvre and the Everyday
In Skateboarding, Space and the City, Borden is openly indebted to the ideas of the French philosopher, sociologist and urban theorist Henri Lefebvre:
In particular the work of Henri Lefebvre, and of urban geographers such as David Harvey and Edward Soja who have drawn heavily on Lefebvre, has postulated that space is part of a dialectical process between itself and human agency; rather than an a priori entity space is produced by, and productive of, social-being. Time, space and social-being are inter-produced. Space-production cannot then be reduced to theories of it, but must be seen as a process involving not only theories but also practices, objects, ideas, imagination and experience. (11)
In addition to his spatial theories, Lefebvre’s understanding of the significance of ‘everyday life’ inspires the author’s account of skateboarding as a ‘quotidian’ practice (Lefebvre, 1984): ‘
. . . everyday life emerges as both the site of increasing domination on the part of capitalism and also one where resistance, recovery and reassertion of other socio-spatial practices may occur. The everyday is not the banal, trivial effect of politics, but the place where politics are ultimately created and resolved. (Borden, 2001: 12)
Drawing together the spatial and the quotidian, Borden adopts a Lefebvrean schema to understand skateboarding as a popular social practice occurring historically within a set of terrains in which uses, meanings, and significance are dialectically contested. Borden posits his study as a contribution to the development of a new architectural history, intended to produce a radical understanding of space as a relationship of flows, practices and objects.
The Sociology of Boredom
‘We are bored in the city’ begins Chtcheglov’s proto-Situationist ‘Formulary for a New Urbanism’ of 1953 (Knabb, 1981:1). In the seventh prelude of his Introduction to Modernity, ‘Notes on the New Town’, Lefebvre writes:
Here, in the new town, boredom is pregnant with desires, frustrated frenzies, unrealized possibilities. A magnificent life is waiting just around the corner, and far, far away. It is waiting like the cake is waiting when there’s butter, milk, flour and sugar. This is the realm of freedom. It is an empty realm. Here man’s magnificent power over nature has left him alone with himself, powerless. It is the boredom of youth without a future. (1995:124)
For Lefebvre and the Situationists (with whom the former was briefly allied), post-war capitalism had reached a new stage of development in which it had not only colonised the economic sphere but had also invaded, organised and ‘managed’ all personal, social and cultural relationships to an unsurpassed extent, to produce a new ‘totality’ of normative social control. Within what Debord later termed ‘The Society of the Spectacle’ (Debord, 1983), the role of the image as the principal mediator of all social relations was crucial. From a spatial perspective, Lefebvre held that the ‘abstract space’ of early modernism had been superseded by a new ‘contradictory space’, in which modernist urban zoning, the high-rise, and the ‘new town’ had fragmented the experience of everyday life into an experience of functionally programmed divisions such as work/leisure, rural/urban, and private/public (Lefebvre, 1991: 292-351). In short, while material scarcity had been all but abolished, the human cost was an impoverishment of the experience of everyday life, the commodification of ‘leisure’ and the banishment of adventure and authentic pleasure from the ‘totality’.
Approaching these conditions dialectically, Lefebvre and the Situationists sought their transcendence not from within the traditional source of revolutionary class struggle, but from the new conditions created by the ‘totality’ itself. The boredom of everyday life, or, more accurately, its refusal, would be the motor of new revolutionary forces bent on adventure, the satisfaction of ‘real’ desires and non-productive pleasure as a goal in itself. Within this schema ‘youth’ occupied a special position of hope for change, a libidinal driving force that might transcend ‘contradictory space’ and usher in a new ‘differential space’ which would counter alienating division and the performance of social ‘roles’ with the authentic, playful and heterogeneous life of the ‘total person’. Their hopes were given impetus by the events of May ’68 and the role played by ‘counter-cultures’ and ‘youth’ within these:
For Lefebvre, as for many of the French authors marked by the experience of May 1968, that ‘celebration’ and ludic ‘eruption’ of intensity and desire marks the type of rupture that could convert a dominated ‘leisure spatialisation’ into focused resistance and revolt through a sudden respatialisation. (Shields, 1999:185)
The Sociology of Boarding
Returning now to Borden’s argument, skateboarders as a ‘counter-cultural’/’subcultural’ group, primarily consisting of ‘youth’, seem to offer a similar example, or promise, of this ‘respatialisation’:
The urban practice of skateboarding implicitly yet continuously critiques contemporary cities. Furthermore, where capitalist abstract space contains within itself the seeds of its successor – Lefebvre’s putative differential space in which socio-spatial differences are emphasized and celebrated – practices such as skateboarding may thus partially prefigure what this differential space might be. (Borden 2001: 173)
Borden also asserts that,
. . . although a ‘counter-culture’ or ‘alternative society’ is always difficult to define, skateboarding concurs with Lefebvre’s idea that a new society might include a primacy of use over exchange, a countering of quantity by quality, and that the centralized rationale of capitalism and state can be challenged through ‘local powers’, however small. (246)
Before going on to challenge such claims we need first to examine their nature in more detail. How exactly is it that the practice of skateboarding manages to challenge ‘local powers’ and prefigure ‘differential space’?
The practice of skateboarding seems to radically invert the logic and experience of urban capitalism and its abstract and contradictory space. Where contradictory space rationally zones the city into discrete spaces of work and commerce, the skateboarder ‘drifts’ through the urban, in the fashion of the Situationist ‘psychogeographer’, seeking out adventure, opportunity and pleasure. Where the city builds functional paths, ramps and stairways, the skateboarder submits these to a ludic reinvention as elements in an ad hoc adventure playground. Today’s skateboarder would seem to embody, even if not ‘consciously’, the theories and practice developed by Lefebvre and the Situationists, in order to challenge the bureaucratic rationalism of urban planning, and refuse its attendant boredom and impoverishment of everyday life.
However, it is only from this perspective that the skateboarder can appear as such a figure. Borden’s own practice here has been to fold the practice of the skater back into theories produced within other historical and spatial conditions. This operation necessarily obscures subsequent developments in the relationship of ‘youth’ and ‘counter-cultures’ to consumerism, and bypasses more recent thinking about the analysis of social practice that raise serious methodological questions about the author’s conclusions.
A Recipe for Theory
Borden claims a certain ‘outlaw’ status for his skateboarders as figures standing apart from and against the rule of the commodity, ever on the run from its repressive legislation:
Skateboarding is constantly repressed and legislated against, but counters not through negative destruction but through creativity and production of desires. . . . It involves great effort, but produces no commodity ready for exchange. It is highly visual, but refutes the reduction of activity solely to the spectacle of the image. (2)
Pursuing his ‘repressive hypothesis’, Borden calls upon the notion of ‘subculture’ to theorise skateboarding as a collective act of resistance: ‘Skateboarding, like other subcultures, attempts to separate itself from groups such as the family, to be oppositional, appropriative of the city, irrational in organisation, ambiguous in constitution, independently creative of its marginal or ‘sub’ status’ (139).
Such a heavily romanticised account of subcultures, always equated with resistance, always standing apart from dominant and commercial values, can only be produced if a certain specific interpretative strategy is applied by the subcultural theorist. But in the same volume from which Borden draws upon Sarah Thornton’s introduction to produce the account given above, Stanley Cohen questions the methodological soundness of this approach and the problems it raises:
[There exists] the constant impulse to decode the style [of the subculture] in terms only of opposition and resistance. This means that instances are sometimes missed when the style is conservative or supportive: in other words not reworked or reassembled but taken over intact from dominant commercial culture. Such instances are conceded, but then brushed aside because – as we all know – the style is a bricolage of inconsistencies and anyway things are not what they seem and so the apparently conservative really hides just the opposite. (Cohen in Thornton & Gelder, 1997: 156)
Following this ‘impulse’, Borden produces his vision of skateboarding as a ‘resistant’ subculture by frequent recourse to the rhetoric of its adherents. Declarations from skateboarders, culled from magazines, fanzines and interviews, such as ‘In skating, nothing is defined, everything can be new. There are no laws’ (Borden, 2001: 163) or ‘Skaters are a different breed. . . . A breed that exists within a steel, asphalt and concrete framework’ (244), are held up at appropriate points to support Borden’s arguments. Typically such statements are offered as ‘from the horse’s mouth’ evidence of the subculture’s radical essence, and the possibility that self-mythologising discourses might be at work is not addressed.
The prevalence of the image within the subculture is a particular threat to its radical status. The fanzines and magazines devoted to skateboarding are richly illustrated with photographs of its stunts, leading exponents, fashions and brands. This mediation of the subculture through the image, the power of its representations to codify its practices and engender imitative behaviour, would seem at odds with a critique of ‘the spectacle’ and the emphasis on everyday experience promoted by Lefebvre and Debord. The role of the image, its importance to the subculture, is nevertheless acknowledged and addressed by Borden: ‘ . . . when skaters undertake a run, they are not so much performing an act of pure physical spontaneity as reproducing through body-actions the activity of skateboarding as codified in moves and communicated as a set of produced images’ (123).
Borden argues that the image works not to compromise any radicalism inherent to the skater’s practice but to enhance it through enabling a greater collective experience: ‘Skateboarding it is thus revealed, accords with the notion that there is nothing inherently regressive about spectatorship and images. . .’ (126).
In the context of a book that draws so extensively upon sources which precisely do critique the socially mediating role of spectacle and image this is a curious and unconvincing argument. Moreover, it does not persuade that skateboarding ‘produces no commodity ready for exchange’. While media images might enable and promote communities finding new ‘use values’ in the urban environment, it does not preclude the extraction of ‘exchange value’ from the same communities, or their ‘audiences’, for clothing, video games and other celebrity endorsed product, as part of the same process. It is Borden’s chosen perspective, from the vantage point of theoretical positions constructed in the post-war period, that obscures his view of the subsequent relations between ‘youth’ and consumer culture. Intent on having skateboarders herald a Lefebvrean ‘differential space’, or perform a Situationist urban ‘derive’, the author cannot acknowledge the extent to which the practice is implicated within patterns of ‘lifestyle’ consumerism and its putative oppositional status compromised. Rather than constituting some critical ‘outside’ to commodity relations, ‘youth’ today forms one of the most active sites of consumerism. The exercising of ‘individuality’ and the expression of ‘difference’ have become virtual imperatives in a market that encourages self -actualisation through ‘lifestyle choice’.
The point here is not that skaters are cultural ‘dupes’, or that their practice and experience is ‘inauthentic’, disqualified merely by the fact of its existence within patterns of consumerism. (Borden offers convincing accounts of the active agency and inventiveness of skaters in relation to the given built environment.) However the larger claims – of the inherently oppositional nature of subcultures, of the resistance to commodification, of the transcendence of ‘contradictory space’ – are the products of the author’s own practice, his desire to have his subject fit a Lefebvrean schema.
Michel de Certeau, specifically analysing the practice of theory in dealing with the practices of everyday life, critiqued the process whereby social practices are taken from their original contexts and made to mirror theoretical propositions. In a section of The Practice of Everyday Life, titled ‘Cut-out and turn-over: a recipe for theory’, he describes this procedure:
The first move cuts out certain practices from an undefined fabric, in such a way as to treat them as a separate population, forming a coherent whole but foreignto the place in which the theory is produced. . . . The second move turns over the unit cut out. At first obscure, silent, and remote, the unit is inverted to become the element that illuminates theory and sustains discourse. (63)
Following this recipe, Borden first has the practice of skateboarding be a ‘subculture’, an ingredient rich in opposition and resistance, and then has it mirror theory in order that it might show the necessary resolution to Lefebvre’s narrative of spatial production.
The practices of everyday life, in everyday space, are rich in agency, invention and subversion, as much as they are habitual, controlled and restricted. Such practices produce and reproduce social space in ways that are both planned and unforeseen. The outcomes will fit no more neatly into given theoretical schema than they will the ambitions of those who ‘manage’ public space.
Debord, G. (1983) The Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Red.
De Certeau, M. (1988) The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Gelder, K. & Thornton, S. (eds) (1997) The Subcultures Reader. London: Routledge
Knabb, K. (ed.) (1981) Situationist International Anthology. Berkeley: Bureau of Public Secrets
Lefebvre, H. (1984) Everyday Life in the Modern World. London: Transaction Publishers.
Lefebvre, H. (1991) The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell.
Lefebvre, H. (1995) Introduction to Modernity: Twelve Preludes September 1959-May 1961. London and New York: Verso.
Shields, R. (1999) Lefebvre, Love and Struggle: Spatial Dialectics. London: Routledge.
Douglas Cunningham Spencer is Lecturer in Historical and Critical Studies in the Department of Critical Theory and Practice at Buckinghamshire Chilterns University College, UK. He is concerned with spatial theory and the application of continental philosophy to fields such as architecture, design and film. His work has included contributions to the journals Here & Now, Things and Genre, and collaborative theoretical and exhibition work with architectural studio Plasma. He is currently preparing an essay on Solaris and hermeneutics for CTheory.