Greetings! And welcome to the Second Season of Second Place!
It’s been a rather lengthy offseason, but I’m happy to report that SP is now back on the menu and aims to appease your rollo-intellectual appetite and to provide something of a different perspective on rollerblading—an academic perspective.
If this kind of thing isn’t your cup of tea, I politely request that you simply move along and find something else to read that really interests you. If you really do enjoy this kind of thing, though, I encourage you to engage in the conversation by commenting below or by contacting me directly via Facebook or email.
Now, here’s some quick background on me before we get started: I’m a rollerblader (and have been for about twenty years). And I’m also a writer, a teacher and an academic. My training is in both rhetoric and linguistics, though many articles and topics I’ll take up during this Second Season will be slightly outside of those areas. For now, though, I’ll just stick to my home territory.
If you want to read last season’s Second Place posts to learn more about the kinds of topics I address on this blog, click here.
Okay, enough with the housekeeping. So, let’s begin, shall we?
A few days ago, I observed a Facebook conversation thread that included some pretty heavy hitters in rollerblading discussing style and the “rules” of rollerblading. Here’s approximately what happened:
Lonnie Gallegos posted some remarks critical of rollerbladers doing ‘big spins’ without any sort of grab. Several others, including Beau Cottington, Jay Geurink, Jayson Reduta, (and others) jumped into the fold, arguing several different points of view. Despite what appeared to be a heated debate, there was some pretty solid emergent consensus that—in spite of everything else—style is still king.
For my part, though, grabbing isn’t inherently a style issue. I think in this case it’s much more of an ontological question — that is, a question about what reality consists of rather than a question about what style consists of.
See, to me, the most interesting part of this scenario is the presence of a kind of paradox. If rollerblading has no clear and discrete set of rules, how can we say what “counts” and what does not? How can there be consensus on what’s good if there exist no standards or benchmarks to measure against? In short, our “rules” of style and completion appear to emerge from nowhere. Or, perhaps more correctly, good style exists despite the fact there is no governing set of rules.
This, in itself, is a fairly well known problem in other domains. For instance, proponents of the so-called “Intelligent Design” theory of the universe decry the atheistic and scientistic ‘Big Bang’ theory on the basis that the whole universe emerges instantaneously and spontaneously from nothing.
But that’s not quite how it is.
The “nothing” that’s in question isn’t quite the pure absence of “anything” that the Intelligent Design people think it is. Rather the opposite, in fact. The “nothing” can be thought of better as a site that is strictly prohibited from possessing certain qualities. In the case of the singularity that lead to the Big Bang, that “nothingness” is merely prohibited from possessing constituents like matter, energy, space, time, etc. — but calling it a pure “absence of anything” would be quite wrong. Something was there; it’s just that, whatever it was, it wasn’t constructed out of our familiar units (again, like matter, energy, volume, etc.). So, really, it’s only a kind of “nothingness,” and those who are led astray by the term honestly have some good reasons to be confused. Realistically though, the problem is simply that little or no effort is made by the Intelligent Design proponents to understand what the scientist was trying to put into words. They also tend to want to imbue that “unknown” or “absence” with a supernatural character—which is really putting the cart before the horse—or, if you like, sending a wizard to do a plumber’s job.
Now, as we attempt to contend with rollerblading’s ontological paradox, I take a… let’s call it an anti-Intelligent-Design point of view, refusing to conflate the unknown with the supernatural, and refusing to allow people to perpetuate their opinions by force.
Rollerblading does have standards that are not entirely subjective, but it’s true that we have no “rulebook” as it were. So what are we to make the fact that a large number of us believe that grabs co-constitute certain tricks, while others of us (still quite a large number) believe that grabs are incidental to a trick?
What does this say about our (respective) views of reality? What does it tell us about our views of intentionality? For my part, I see this scenario as mirroring in microcosm the tripartite intellectual movements that span the 20th century—or what we might think of as the trans-twentieth century. I’m talking about “the Modernisms” here, but I certainly don’t expect everyone to be already familiar with them in their sundry details.
So here’s a quick crash course on Modernism, Post-modernism, and Metamodernism.
1. Modernism: Modernism is an artistic, intellectual, and cultural movement that arose in the late 19th century concurrently with several important theories about reality, most of which maintain that the relationship between man and his environment are much less straightforward than previously believed. Realism—the movement in art that attempts to perfectly and flawlessly recreate reality—is entirely rejected. The modernists contend that human mediation plays a role in everything observed and produced by human beings, and so no clear one-to-one representations are possible. The modernist alternative is to believe that symbolism (including language—which is purely symbolic) offers a better purchase on the successful communication of thoughts, feelings, and reality. In short, a photograph of a person who is sad does not communicate feelings of sadness (or, say, depression) as well as something like this:
What we see, typically, is that Modernism is characterized by something called “utopic syntaxis”—which is the idea that an ideal order exists and can be understood through investigating the symbols that create the “whole.” In the Picasso displayed here, we see that manifested as an implicit sadness that is real, knowable, and easily communicated by using the appropriate “grand narrative.” In the painting, we can easily locate “sadness” as the grand narrative that the artist was portraying, and we can be fairly certain of that because of Picasso’s use of a) a slouching posture, b) a melancholy expression, and c) use of monochromatic blues—all of which, in our culture at least, symbolize and communicate sadness.
2. Postmodernism: In Postmodernism, things become quite a bit more complicated. This perplexing and difficult mode of thought emerges in the mid 20th century, and many attribute its nascence to the atrocities of World War II, citing the Nazi holocaust in particular.
Essentially, Postmodernism rejects all of those things held dear by the Modernists. In particular, the Postmoderns deny both that meaning and the communication of meaning is possible. The kind of symbols and symbolism championed by the Modernists, the Postmoderns argue, are entirely flawed and can never be universal. If no symbol is universal, they reason, all meaning is communicated through culturally constructed means, and therefore no symbol can ever accurately describe (or co-create) reality.
A corollary of this is that meaning is, quite simply, impossible—which is quite a bold and perplexing thought.
What’s left then, is the idea that every human product (art, science, literature, architecture, rhetoric, etc.) is always a monstrosity begotten by the juxtaposition of (at least) two unlike things—or, what academics call “dystopic parataxis.”
To help make this clear, take a look a piece of postmodern architecture:
Here, you can see what appears to be a giant, even incoherent, amalgamation of architectural styles “masquerading” as a single, unified building. The building itself appears to be a contradiction, but it is only a contradiction if one assumes that buildings must be stylistically coherent (i.e. the way a modernist thinker would).
Basically, the postmoderns take everything to be a monstrosity, because everything is (always) the result of combining incoherent and fundamentally unstable parts (hence “dystopic parataxis”).
3. Metamodernism: To get a good sense of what Metamodernism is, we should first look at its prefix “meta.” The Greek root “meta” can be taken to simultaneously mean three things: with, between, and beyond. So, one would rightly expect that Metamodernism is that which is “with” the other two kinds of Modernism, “between” both of them, and simultaneously “beyond” them both all at once.
In effect, “Metamodernism” understands the impulses of Modernism, understands the impossibilities of them posed by Postmodernism, and then resolves not to despair over the contradictions. Metamodernism keeps a straight face while locating itself between two things that are simultaneously possible and impossible. You could also say that the Metamodern is that which exists in between two self-nullifying ideas.
It’s a bit like this:
Metamodernism gives us a way to negotiate with (and between) contradictions and produce something that “goes beyond” or transcends both of the parts from which it was created. This is why academics will say that the Metamodern is that which emerges through “atopic metaxis”—or, a “nonplace place between two impossible spaces.”
Let’s put this all in the context of rollerblading so that it will be a bit clearer.
Now, in an effort to maintain some impartiality, let’s avoid taking up Lonnie’s example of grabbed spins and substitute instead a grinding trick—the backslide, say.
Here is the “Modernist” view of backslides: Since all tricks have an ideal form, we can determine rationally what the ideal form must be by delineating the appropriate parts that would construct it. In the case of a backslide, we know that the foot must be locked onto the rail (or whatever) in both the boot groove AND the frame groove. The other crucial constituent of a backslide, is a grabbed foot—but let’s be clear, there are very strict culturally enforced guidelines about the nature of the grab.
For instance, the grab must take place on the soul plate of the skate—never on the toe or heel of the foot, and never above the soul plate (for instance, holding one’s ankle or shin). Further, the grab should last the entire length of the grind. In other words, you have to achieve your grab before your backslide foot locks on, and you must continue that grab through the whole duration of the slide, letting go only after the grinding portion of the maneuver is completed. (Other factors play a role too, but they are treated as universal across all tricks: normative “rules” like no jumping on 1-2, don’t touch the rail with the hands, land with both feet at the same time, etc.)
We can call this the “Modernist” view because its perspective is drawn out from “utopic syntaxis”—again, the idea that an ideal form can be constructed from the proper combination of idealized fundamental symbols (locking on appropriately, grabbing the foot appropriately, etc.). You might be inclined to see this perspective as “traditionalist”—though I contend that “Modernist” offers a much better account of it.
Now here’s the Postmodern view of the backslide: The “symbolism” of a grab to denote style and control is absolutely artificial. A grabbed foot cannot signify style and control because style and control are not the kinds of things “begotten” by holding a foot. Style and control are juxtaposed against one another (note that the two are not synonyms) to produce a “coherent monstrosity” in the form of an un-grabbed backslide. A particular kind of foot-grab can never be a requirement for creating (and contributing to the creation) of any trick because the “rules” that make such a mandate are both artificial and simultaneously nonexistent. Thus, the Postmodern view holds that a backslide is a backslide whether or not the rollerblader grabs his or her foot appropriately.
And, here’s the real kicker: an un-grabbed backslide—from the Postmodernist perspective—is simply called (you guessed it) a “backslide.”
What we’re left with in a Metamodern perspective is the need to navigate between the previous two kinds of Modernisms. The Metamodern feels compelled to acknowledge simultaneously the strengths AND the contractions of both previous worldviews. And in the absence of any firm ontological grounding, it spontaneously generates an entirely new creation. But beware: it’s extremely important not to oversimplify at this point, because the obvious mistake one could make would be to assume that the Metamodern backslide is the same as the Postmodern backslide, but that would be incorrect. While the Metamodern backslide looks just like a Postmodern backslide, the two are quite different.
The most apparent difference between the two is in the name: what the Postmodern simply deems a backslide, the Metamodern actually changes. For the Metamodernist rollerblader, the new name for the “new trick” is actually this: an Un-grabbed Backslide.
The reason the name change and the acknowledgement of a “no-grab” is important is because of the way the point of view was created. The Modernist backslide assumes that there are rules governing what counts and what doesn’t count. The Postmodernist backslide throws out the idea that rules are even possible. And the Metamodernist backslide names an absence as a means to navigate between what it considers two incompatible impossibilities. This is why we say that the Metamodern backslide emerges through atopic metaxis (literally a “no-place in-between”) because it solves the problem to its own satisfaction while navigating between two previous worldviews (and ontologies) that self-contradict.
So that’s that.
If you think a grab is required for a particular trick to be correctly instantiated, you’re a Modernist.
If you think the rules about grabbing are a load of crap, you’re a Postmodernist.
If you specify your intention to not-do something, you’re a Metamodernist.
Lastly, I’ll say the following. To some people, this whole analysis may appear to be “making a mountain out of a molehill.” But I think it’s extraordinarily important to take on complexities with an appropriate response. In my view, the problem is that little tolerance exists on this matter (and indeed, others like it) mostly due to a lack of understanding and a lack of available vocabulary to account for our differences. Going through three separate worldviews and, ultimately, three separate ontologies, we are not “hiring a wizard to do a plumber’s job.” What we’re doing is choosing to have the courage to combat those would who mandate our cultural norms by force, and we’re simultaneously denying the possibility and necessity of supernatural forces in our rollerblading lives. Just because a grab/no-grab debate seems unsolvable doesn’t mean that it is unsolvable.
There are well-established ways to navigate between contradictions and impossibilities that are manifested in tangible, material ways. We simply have to make the choice not to despair when we face the unknown.
As always, thanks for reading.
*Author’s note: I am humbly grateful to rollerbladers Jarrod McBay and Ben Price, as well as my colleagues Daniel Singer and Brian Nicolette for their extraordinary assistance in the development of the ideas that led to this post.