Le Breton, D (2000) 'Playing Symbolically with Death in Extreme Sports', in Body and Society, Vol 6, No. 1: 1--11.
[This is an interesting piece based on accounts given by extreme sportsmen themselves, with some theoretical commentary. From what I can see, the underlying framework appears to be based on Durkheim's notion of the sacred, and also the work on anomie and egoism: the latter suggests that people must find limits against which to define socially acceptable egos. Le Breton seems to be arguing that as social limits cease to be imperative, and, possibly, as notions of death become more privatized, so individuals need to define the limits of their egos by playing with death in extreme sports].
Participating in dangerous ordeals provides a 'mixture of fear and intoxication, of emotion and sensation' (2). Participants themselves often refer to 'fun' to describe this mixture. Csikszentmihalyi has talked about experiencing 'flow', while Klausner (1986) refers to 'stress seeking'. Le Breton prefers a vocabulary referring to 'a personally generated spirituality achieved through the ordeal or activity' (2). The problem with flow is that it also describes activities that do not involve extreme risk. While flows states appear to be autonomous and autotelic, individuals can manage the balance between risk and competence fairly completely. Klausner suggests that seeking stress is based on a 'quest for strong emotions' (3), sometimes seen as a quest for adrenaline. This is not always subject to a careful balance. Instead, stress seekers seem to go through [a career], where panic can be associated with the first stage, followed by lowered anxiety, and then raised anxiety as the activity comes to an end, or with a final stage of enthusiasm and fulfilment (this is based on ethnographic work on parachutists by Lyng 1990) There is thus a 'dialectic of fear and pleasure' and a series of definite stages in the event (4).
Extreme sports involving risks from nature seem to involve challenging and uncontrolled episodes that engender fear and anxiety, and the pleasure lies in overcoming these unexpected stresses. [A number of statements by extreme sportsmen seem to confirm this, page 4f]. Pleasure in recovering and cheating death seems to be particularly intense, and this intensity of pleasure is unobtainable anywhere else. Choosing to seek out such stresses in the first place offers particularly pleasurable satisfactions on survival.
In situations of extreme challenge and intense commitment, the body also becomes an adversary, something to be struggled with. Enduring muscular pain becomes a test of sincerity and character [more sportsmen's reflections support this view, pages 5 and 6]. Suffering is seen as offering positive values as well -- information, reminders of the risk. Extreme sports people make a symbolic deal with death, where death is 'metaphorically solicited rather than approached for real' (6).
Extreme sports and ordeals offer possibilities for dramatic performance. Thus players tend to see themselves as masters of the activity overall, despite the risk and unpredictability. It is also a way of cheating death, albeit for a short moment: overcoming risk is 'the guarantee of a life lived fully' (7). This is a sacred experience for le Breton, although one devoid of specifically religious references. Such experience can make other routes to spirituality look banal, including commercial routes to ecstasy. Extreme sports are conducted with passion. They offer 'a new and eminently modern form of "wild mysticism"' (8). [One climber cited here describes climbing as a form of meditation, while a bungee jumper describes the adrenalin rush and a moment of absorbing sensation in the jump. One recollection is worth quoting in detail -- a climber fell onto a narrow ledge but managed to overcome his fear to get himself off, despite extreme hazard]:
My personality left me, the links with the earth were severed: was no longer frightened or tired; I felt as though transported through the air, I was invisible, nothing could stop me, I'd reached that state of intoxication, of dematerialisation that skiers seek on the slopes, pilots and the sky and divers on the high board (le Breton, page 9 quoting Lachenal).
Participation offers an overwhelming rush of sensation and provides people with a feeling of inner strength, fullness of being, a 'culminating moment' which provides a justification. It is a 'moment of illumination, of trance' (10). It is related to the sacred, but at the same time a personal generation of meaning [that is, not collectively generated?]. Once experienced, it validates much of the rest of life. 'It is not just a choice, a particular state of grace, but the decision simply to jump from a crane or a bridge held by an elastic or to run for hours or row for weeks' (10).
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