Notes on: Rossiter P  (2007)  'Rock Climbing: On Humans, Nature, and Other Nonhumans', in Space and Culture, 10 (2): 292 - 305.

Dave Harris

Rock climbing is a cultural activity taking place in a natural space. It can be seen as transformative, where cliffs become climbs. Climbing itself has a history and a literature. It would be wrong to see climbing as simply transforming nature into culture, though. In practice, other dualisms also have to be rethought including  'Nature - culture, human - non-human, and mind - body' (293). These are difficult to transcend, but they can be opened out. Climbing literature itself suggests, for example that nature is somehow alive, while actor network theory restores the role of climbing equipment and other factors such as  'rocks, cliffs, vegetation, water and animals' (293).

The relation between climbers and literature is seen as either immersion in a quest for meaning, or a desire for mastery. In the first narrative, selves are challenged and changed by climbing. Relations between nature can sometimes  'take the imaginary form of an intersubjective dialogue', but quite how nature can be a subject is left unexamined. Poetry often takes over. Among others quoting the reflections of climbers is Csikzentmihalyi, who used rock-climbing as one example of  'flow': his climbers sometimes also talked about a 'blurring between subject and object... the need to merge one's thinking with that of the rock, to participate together with the rock in the process of climbing, to engage in a dialogue' (294). Other climbers referred to the need to interact with different sorts of rock with different sorts of movement. Some believe the mountains have powers of their own,  'the humour, the activity, the intentionality of nature' (295). There are tales of survival as nature steps in at the last moment.

In the second narrative, of mastery, nature has often seen as having shape and meaning only after humans interact with it -- rocks are a blank canvas, for example. Even the poets want to possess nature and claim particular routes. For some climbers,  'Life... [means]... a muscular tussle with nature' (296). As well as a property relation, there is even a colonial relation, in the Australian context at least, involving  'small declarations of terra nullius... [with no thought for]... the issue of whose land it is on which these masterful  relations are displayed' (296). Climbers are also eponomysed, encouraging  'a cultural amnesia' about the aboriginal inhabitants. Finally,  'adventure climbing is tinged by an intense ambivalence and narratives of heroism, of conquering self and nature, offset by the experiences  [that climbing might ultimately turn out to be]... "stupid, banal, worthless"'  (296 - 7).

 Despite these tales and the various poetic reminiscences, it's still hard to see how nature might have agency. One possibility is that our emotions are intimately connected with non-human nature as in Lingis (2000) --'emotions are inter energetic moments of selves and worlds...embodied interpretations of the clamour of the world' (297). Abram  (1996) suggests that the natural world actively participates in our perceptions, providing a kind of pre-linguistic experience. Both writers ask us to re-imagine our relations with nature and what it means to be embodied.

Rock climbing indicates one implication of 'intercorporeality'  (298). Bodies of rock and flesh exchange material with each other, as in  'the mutual defacings that characterize climbing' (298). Climbers always deface and leave marks. Defacing cannot be avoided for Rossiter. However,  'the cliff simultaneously defaces them... the climbers memorialized in the cliff. In a meeting of bodies, the removals, scratchings, rubbings, mutual roughing up, the climbing body becomes part of the memory of the earth' (298 - 9). Similarly, climbing leaves a muscle memory, so that  'a climbing body emerges. If the climber stops climbing for a length of time, the climbing body disappears' (299). Defacement also involves other networks, as when the state intervenes to regulate it -- especially the marks left by Australian Aboriginal people.

Climbing involves the management of fear, often on a personal basis. However, fear could also be seen as  'an internatural encounter' (299), with transfers between rock and body at their most  'perceptible and compelling... In frightened climbing bodies, volitional capacities and their imagined fixed boundaries are thrown into the sharpest relief' (299).

Is this anthropomorphism? The idea is simply to provoke thought beyond the usual dualisms to grasp the relations between nature and culture. Haraway also tried to do this, and ended with a number of metaphors such as the cyborg. Haraway was right to suggest that it is not just human forms of activity in agency that we need to look at, and thus we do not need to humanize nature. Latour sees an actor as  '"anything that modifies a state of affairs by making a difference"'-- using a tool makes a difference, although we do not need to suggest that the tool causes the action. Instead, there are different sorts of causality, authorization, permission, influence and so on  (300).

Agency therefore lies in networks, interrelations or '"chains of influences" involving humans and non humans' (300). Michael  (2000) sees that environments can therefore offer a range of possibilities specifically for human capabilities and action, as in the concept of  'affordance'  (300). In this sense,  'the environment is active, alive with possibilities', with cliffs offering possibilities, including  'the becoming of innovative identities. In this sense, climbing bodies... are neither the pure originators of climbing nor the discreet effects of climbing. And the same too might be said of cliffs' (301).

In addition, climbing gear also significantly mediates the reaction between climber and cliff. Climbing gear makes climbing itself possible. Crucially, it modifies feelings of fear, as a result of  'a combination of a technology and a craft of placement' (301). Climbers can interact with their gear, which  'affords micromoments of self overcoming' (301) -- good gear overcomes poor-quality holds, and the opposite, but this is only known actually on the face. 

The whole notion of a  'promiscuous entanglement of chains of the human and non-human technologies and non human natures', another way of putting the notion of interconnected affordances, might be similar to what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as  'assemblages' [and this is discussed further on 302 -- Deleuze and Guattari would go all the way in seeing assemblages as the crucial units, a flux that produces both human and non-human moments]. The point is not to seek human intentionality as a privileged moment, and as the origin of assemblages.

The discussion shows the difficulty about thinking nondualistically. There do seem to be  'non dichotomous moments in the exchanges between human and... natural bodies', illustrated in discussions of rock climbing  (302). These moments challenge simple use of nature as immersion or as raw material for conquest, and make nature much more  'lively'. This is not to say that nature is a subject, but that it does have possibilities. These, like human possibilities are realized only in networks. What interacting with nature does is to produce  'complex spaces that are at once technocultural, material, natural, disciplinary, resistant and discrete yet constantly changing' (303).

New sorts of inquiries seem to be required. This new turn might illuminate older discussions about space as gendered, for example, In climbing, women initially had to enter what looked like a male domain, but they now occupy 'a prominent place within climbing cultures' (303), much more so than in other outdoor activities. Is this just a result of female achievement, or is it because the masculine nature of climbing was misconceived in the first place. Seeing climbing identities as constructed from networks means that they are not simply gendered: dichotomies like  'feminine - masculine and dependence - independence have limited utility in both patriarchal discourses and feminist critiques... there is always considerably more going on when spaces are differentiated sexually or otherwise... the unruly assemblages recognized as climbing afford for the human actors unpredictable opportunities for embodied resistance to the fixing of both bodies and spaces' (304).

References cited
Abram D (1996) The Spell of the Sensuous, New York: Vintage
Lingis, A (2000) Dangerous Emotions, Berkely: University of California Press

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