Le Parkour: The Body as Politics

As an eighteen year old climbs up on top of a telephone box, a couple on their  Saturday errands  prepare to tell him to get down. By the time they have cantered over he is back on the ground, thanks to a reverse back-flip. This is greeted with applause from his friends and whitened knuckles by the couple, as they grip securely to their shopping bags pretending nothing untoward is going on. Welcome to the world of Le Parkour or ‘free- running’ as it is more commonly known, a subcultural movement which combines mental and physical agility to achieve oneness.

Television documentaries such as Jump Britain have described this activity as ‘urban ballet’ given the sense of ceremony or ‘Tai-Chi’ like deliberation which comes with the performed movements. On a more realistic level, and one away from the television cameras, however, it appears as a hybridized leisure activity – incorporating elements from gymnastics and break-dancing to enable elegant and graceful movement over ‘obstacles’ found in the urban environment. Having studied a group of Parkour enthusiasts for the past couple of years in Nottingham, UK (NottsPK) I have become as intrigued by their ‘sport’ as I have been with public reactions. Because Parkour takes place mostly in urban space, it has been seen as a kind of reclaiming of the streets. Although this is undoubtedly true, it is the reclaiming of the body which I find of particular interest and the implications this has for health. Before expanding on this further though, we should take a brief historical look at how the body has been used elsewhere to construct identity.

Many socially marginalised groups have positively employed the phrase, ‘The personal is political’ for celebrating their identities. Within sections of the gay community this is best exemplified in the ‘hanky code’ whereby different coloured bandanas signal individual sexual preferences and interests. Encoding sexual activities enables conversations to develop in which they are ‘talking’ rather than ‘listening’. I see this as a political act,  taking control of your own identity. The resulting sense of self is visual and proud and, in its defiant construction around sex, celebrates [and subverts] a common prejudice used to marginalise gay men.

Similarly the feminist movement in the early 1970s attempted to reclaim ownership of the body through the politics of abortion, ‘access’ and diet. Taking control of the body and using it as a boundary enabled a certain level of self-control, particularly in relation to identity.

By this logic, voluntary mistreatment of the body must also be thought of as political and personal expression. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the MTV spin off show Jackass. (1996 – ) The programme revolves around a group of men recording a series of humiliating and dangerous pranks on camcorder such as BMX jousting, shark hugging or being shot at. The group leader, Johnny Knoxsville, warns with subtle irony ‘Do not try this at home.’ This bodily mistreatment clearly struck a chord with the public as Jackass: The Movie (2002) grossed US $64 million.

While Jackass may be read as another example of the ‘levelling-down’ process, an analysis of the body in Jackass provides an alternative explanation. Using the body as a cultural text, self harm and mutilation give material expressions to certain cultural anxieties, like the supposed ‘crisis of masculinity,’ and are a basic inversion of the destructive machismo which epitomised 1980s classics such as the Rambo and Rocky films. Both explanations are plausible, but Jackass also entails a rational assessment of risk. As people encounter greater daily intervention into their lives from bureaucratic forms of governance, such as ‘health and safety’ legislation and the whole ‘culture of blame’ which this has created, the message of Jackass is simple:  This is my body and it is the one thing which you can’t control, so sit back and watch me smash bottles over my head and fire nails into my arse.

I situate Parkour within this tradition of bodily empowerment and as a more nuanced reaction to similar anxieties. In Jackass the body is treated with contempt, as something expendable, which could be seen as indicative of a wasteful capitalist modernity. In Le Parkour we see an inversion of these values so that self-preservation, finesse and agility are favoured. The goal is to move as fluidly between objects with the minimum of fuss and hopefully no injury. Through this experience a kind of oneness is achieved with the body, mind and environment.

Le Parkour can be thought of as an urban philosophy as it has a clearly defined manifesto but rather than having one specific ideology, it is formed out of multiple narratives drawn from a wide range of influences such as fantasies, escapism, cult icons, films, books, comics etc. It also extends into philosophies of self-improvement and self-awareness drawn from both the West and the East. In many ways this is emblematic of many new forms of modern identity which have grown out of internet forums and chat rooms; thus Parkour as philosophy is a kind of cultural sponge which is able to absorb information and influences without ever losing its shape.

This is possible because Parkour centres around emotive rather than factual language and thereby opens itself to interpretation and play e.g. one word which pops up more than others is ‘fluidity’, which itself implies the ability to change and transform smoothly. For fluidity to be achieved, participants must overcome four obstacles: mental, social, martial and family.

The mental obstacle – and perhaps the most difficult of them all – entails conquering your fears and gaining the necessary mental strength and confidence to make a particular jump. As different movements vary in complexity and risk so too the rate at which strength and confidence are perfected depends individually. Working together as part of a large cooperative helps as each group member is able to guide and reassure the other. When one member performs a particularly risky jump it then motivates another to try.

Overcoming mental obstacles leads to a certain degree of confidence arguably will translate into other areas of personal life. It is for this reason that Le Parkour can be seen as a philosophy of self-help and realization. The underlying message is if you can make a jump which seemed impossible, what is to stop you from sorting out emotional and mental problems in other areas of your life.

It should be noted that some movements are clearly built upon physical agility and power and therefore easier for older, taller and more disciplined bodies to achieve. Self- confidence in itself is not enough. But the fact that you are able to realise these limitations of your own volition is important as it is only by emotionally relating to something that we are able to fully comprehend it. Far too often in life restrictions are imposed on people without allowing them to discover for themselves. It is perhaps for this reason that Parkour enthusiasts on forums such as Urban Freeflow, turn to the wisdom of movie idols such as Bruce Lee. ‘If you always put limits on what you can do, physical or anything else, it’ll spread over into the rest of your life. It’ll spread into your work, into your morality, into your entire being. There are no limits.’

Le Parkour is described as ‘the way’ on the UF website, which suggests that it is a particular way of perceiving reality. While Parkour’s ideologies are influenced by films such as The Matrix (1999) these may also have had a physical influence as well. One thing which The Matrix, comic super heroe’s such as Batman and Spiderman, and computer games all have in common is that the characters can do super human things with their bodies as they swing and fly through the metropolis. Technology has been criticised for creating inertia, obesity and an artificiality in everyday human existence. Yet could it not be the case that engaging in such fantasies has inspired individuals to redefine and expand the limits of human potential? Le Parkour in trying to overcome mental objects and achieve seemingly impossible movements seeks to reverse the potentially negative effect of technology while heightening human experience and the body in the process.

As Le Parkour is performed in public space, individuals must be prepared to overcome certain social obstacles or stigmas such as people staring, pointing, ridiculing etc. In letting go of inhibitions and ignoring negative comments by passersby (who are rare I should point out) can lead to more confidence in other areas of life. However, in my experience it is the observers rather than the participants who go through the real anxiety. On numerous occasions I’ve seen people try to coerce one of them down from a wall because they might injure themselves only to be shocked when they exit with such panache.

Martial obstacles come in the form of authority figures who move participants on because they’ll ‘cause damage’ or are unwittingly on ‘private property’. As frustrating as this may be, the group I studied never argued back or were rude. Arguing with authority figures who weren’t listening because they were ‘just doing their job’ was seen as a waste of time and stopped them from doing what they were here to do. It was easier to just move somewhere different.

Contemporary sub-cultures like Le Parkour are often described in terms of moral decay whereby social regulation has broken down, metanarratives have crumbled, and youth have been left to run wild. But Le Parkour clearly refutes such claims. In explaining their ‘art’ to law enforcement agencies, they are learning to reason. They are also learning humility, tolerance, and understanding, thereby re-embedding a sense of order in a supposedly atomised and increasingly fragmented society. Indeed, they are actively encouraged to show concessions towards authority figures in arguments over space as in effect they are ambassadors for this relatively new discipline. Failure to be civil could lead to the activity being banned in certain areas and thereby ruining it for other enthusiasts.

Perhaps the most formidable of hurdles to overcome is the negative attitude of relatives, in particular parents. This can be intensified by negative representation in the media which tend to favour the more extreme aspects of the discipline rather than the more everyday practise that I witnessed. But you only need to watch this group of kids working with each other to realise that everything is calculated risk and clearly well thought out and planned before anything serious is attempted. Similarly, there are endless videos and training advice on the UF website. As one member of the group once pointed out to me, ‘my mum’s just glad I’m not doing drugs or getting’ in fights’.

The ability to persuade loved ones to trust and support the decisions you make with your life helps to develop communication and reasoning skills which will spread into all areas of lived experience. These may seem like a new set of values but really all recreational activities, in particular sports, promote a certain degree of friendship, fair play, respect, team work, problem solving etc. However what differentiates this urban sport from more traditional sports is that it is built around cooperation rather than competition.

Risk clearly has an important role to play in Le Parkour as it has to be managed to minimise injury and courted to fully enjoy the extreme experience. But what it really offers participants is the opportunity to draw a thick line between life and death. There are many false or thin risks in modernity which have made death appear ubiquitous: killer bugs in hospitals, terrorism, GM and processed food, overzealous health and safety intervention, etc. The list is endless – but such ‘risks’ make everything seem to be a potential danger.

Le Parkour reacts against this gross and perhaps inevitable trivialisation of knowledge. The constant intervention by the state and its systems ‘for our own good’ (and often it is), has meant alternative forms of expression and self diagnosis have emerged. As history has proven time and time again, how we use our body and the boundaries it enables us to make are as integral to our mental and physical health as they are to our identity.

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