Can you skate theory?

Skateboarding, Space and the City: Architecture and the Body (to give this academic monograph its full title), is a work of architectural history — which is to say that it is not about the history of buildings, the history of the built environment, or the practice of architecture. Iain Borden’s book is a theoretically informed examination of the ways that human bodies (which are always the real subjects of governmentality, according to Michel Foucault) relate to the urban fixities which they encounter, and the ways in which space is produced in this encounter; it is also a history of skateboarding, which is the practice through which these ideas are explored. Borden is heavily indebted to the theoretical writings of the French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre, whose influential book The Production of Space outlines an account of space as a socially constructed property, rather than a geometric volume enclosed by the structural elements of buildings, or an abstract pre-existing container. This idea of a ‘social space’ seems useful (I only know Lefebvre’s work at second-hand), although the apparent theoretical density of the book in hand might have been leavened somewhat had the term been qualified in that way: that the term ‘space’ is used unadorned to speak of both social spaces and physical volumes is confusing. I am also willing to concede that it may have been necessary, however, in order to avoid reproducing the idea that physical space as we understand and experience it is a given. The space that we experience when we go to a town centre to park, shop, attend a meeting in an office, sit on a bench to eat our lunch beside a municipal fountain, is not the space that a skater experiences when they grind rails and benches or ollie over steps, for all that these are the same elements we have engaged with in our own spatial production.

I am guessing that Borden’s book is essentially a case study intended to show how Lefebvre’s theoretical work can be applied to one particular social practice, although it may be that many other such studies have been attempted. Conversely, it is obviously also intended to show that skateboarding as a social practice is worthy of scholarly attention, and that it critically challenges the authorities of urban development in unique and particular ways. Borden himself is (or was) a skater, as well as an academic, and as such he straddles two quite separate and self-contained modes of urban knowledge and practice. Whether he intends at some point to skate an architectural-historical theorisation of the city remains an open question… His theoretical account of the skater’s experience and production of space is clearly dependent on his own past participation in that domain, and it is hard to imagine someone without that direct experience being able to grasp exactly what is intended by the many skaters whose words are quoted in this work. Borden had access to an extensive archive of skating magazines and fanzines, many of which would be hard to find in academic libraries, but most scholars would have been at a loss as to how to interpret that resource.

Skateboarding, Space and the City is not primarily a history of the sport or art of skateboarding, but in the course of its thematic examination of it, it outlines its development across several decades, and describes its changing relationship with authority, capital and the built environment. As such it is a fascinating read for anyone interested in skate culture, which should include anyone who is interested in youth- or counter-cultural forms of resistance to normative social forces or sites of authority and power. While some might view such a book as a colonisation of skate-culture by intellectual authority, re-inscribing it as something that can be wholly encompassed by propositional forms of knowledge, I think it is fair to say that Borden writes with respect for skating as gnosis, and it is equally arguable that his monograph is a redistribution of cultural capital from the academy to the street. Whether the street is interested in spending it, or has the least idea what to do with it, is another open question (or is it the same question that I asked above? Can Borden, or anyone else, skate his theories?)

Borden quotes the lyrics of a Bay Area funk band at one point in his book. The band, Tower of Power, are little known in the UK, so I was surprised to see this reference, and even more surprised that the song he quoted is coincidentally one that I have been studying as a technical exercise on bass guitar for the past several months. ‘What seems hip today/ may soon become passé’ runs the lyric. This seems particularly apposite to a practice such as skateboarding, which Borden shows several times to be uninterested in its own histories. It is over fifteen years since he wrote this book, and it is hard to guess (as I am not a skater) how relevant his understanding of skateboarding might seem now. In a sense, creative and social practices can only become visible to scholarship once they are done and dusted; but Borden does as good a job as I have seen in the arid environs of academic discourse, of representing the vitality and immediacy of an inherently marginal example.

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