I was watching the Olympics yesterday and the 10km walk was on. Oxymoronic competitive walking is basically running, except at least one foot must be on the ground at all times. This simple limitation makes competitive walking look like the petulant, non-compliant stomping of a majorly wronged four-year old. Competitive walkers keep their shoulders loose and punch forward with their elbows, which either drives or is driven by the hips, which themselves (the hips) rotate around complexly like a Spirograph on a waterbed. En masse, competitive walkers look like some kind of preschool protest march against the removal of choc milk. There’s also an undeniably pre-pubescent quality to the competitive walker’s body, which adds to the motif. It’s thoroughly ridic.
The Olympics flirts with Guinness World Record levels of highly-specific silliness with non-sports like Trampolining, Equestrian Dressage, and even Laser Pointing. Enough has probably been said about the Freudian, post-colonial interpretation of the Olympics — i.e. the idea that the Olympics are to conquest as cigars are to penises. Less has been said about the Olympics’ strange sports and their micro-communities and what it might say about society at large.
You’re not alone if watching a pouty 10km walk fills you with ire. Easy to imagine the year is 1997 and a cadaverous boy named Joe Penzi gets a third-place running ribbon and is told he’ll never be a runner, but that he’s got the narrow hips and torsional shuffle of a Racewalker. Joe Penzi cannot be the next Jesse Owens but he can be the next Jesse Owens of Racewalking. So Joe’s lawyer parents fly in infamous Dan Hazel from Atlanta, GA, as consultant/trainer, and so begins Joe’s pastiche montage of increasingly competitive long-distance shuffling, which concludes when Joe wins Gold and gets a sweet endorsement deal for Adidas’ sweat-wicking ankle socks. On TV he is described opaquely as: “Joe Penzi: Athlete.”
This is partly due to an everybody-gets-a-ribbon culture in school, but it’s also (I reckon) reflective of how community manifests in developed nations in modern times. Like, Racewalkers all have an account on Racewalk.com, subscribe to /r/racewalking, and are members of a local racewalking group on Meetup.com. Male Racewalker’s wives all have coffee during racewalk training and share stories about rictus-inducing hip injuries, the infamous Dan Hazel from Atlanta GA’s coiffure, and how their non-racewalker-wife friends just don’t get what it means to be married to a Racewalker. One doesn’t just racewalk, one is a Racewalker.
My personal Racewalking: Improvisation. Improv for the uninitiated is completely made-up theatre, which is either intentionally funny or intentionally serious and then somehow unintentionally funny. The only tunnel to Improv in the public consciousness is through syndicated Comedy Central 90's hit Whose Line Is It Anyway? and the short-lived Australian show Thank God You’re Here. Improv fills me with billy goat levels of buoyant glee. It’s the only performance art where the performers consistently have more fun than their audience.
The number of improvisers in Perth is roughly equal to the number of recreational fencers, lapidarists, or celiac vegans. Improvisers divide themselves in to two major camps: Short-form improvisers, in which regular audience interaction drives episodic games, and long-form improvisers, in which a single word from the audience catalyses the entire show. Both short- and long-form improvisation then have their own myriad smaller spur trails in to even more refined performance categories.
Another example: My younger sister was in a band once. I’d describe them as “indie” but their fans called them more of a “dark indie folk” and no doubt this was based on something to do with inverted minor-sevenths or lyrical irony or multi-instrumental soundscaping, or something equally aurally impenetrable to a 20-something myself who would, at the time, describe his music tastes as: “Prog.”
My postulate is that this is what “Community,” now means in individualistic countries: Tightly bordered, impenetrable bubbles of aspergic-level obsessions. Pictorially imagine the game Asteroids on a really difficult last level, dense polyhedrons bouncing off each other. Post-University, all of my friends have come from one of two Asperger bubbles: Climate activists (esp. those interested in actually being outdoors*) and improvisers (esp. Chicago School, truth in comedy, slice-of-life improvisers).
I call this “small community.” Perth, my hometown, is a fantastic place to live if you can find your small community. In an individualistic country, you’ll want to be in to horseback polo, tabletop warfare gaming, slam poetry, ecofeminism, or homebrewing. If you’re Barry Baldspot, a dun 9–5er, amicable but vague, and your listed Facebook interests are: Sport (watching it), Indian (that place down the road), and Travel (Bali), I’m concerned for your ability to find community in Perth.
Barry Baldspot would likely have no issue here in Arusha, which is a place of “Big Community.” Life here is structured around major load-bearing pillars — church, tribe, nation, and soccer. Tanzania’s socialist history and it’s Ujamaa policy of national unity and interdependence has created a peaceful, collectivist way of living. In Arusha, one gets the sense that simply being outside is to be a part of a community.
Australia used to have “Big Community” too. Once upon a time, Barry Baldspot would’ve been a proud Rotarian, coached his son’s touch rugby team, and went to church on Sundays. He would’ve been able to borrow his neighbours’ lawnmower and he would’ve known all of the employees at his local farmer’s market by name. Barry’s life would’ve been full of phatic little discussions about quotidian struggles. When people talk about the “Decline of Community,” (or any socially conservative, value-laden permutation thereof) they really mean “Big Community.” Life has never been better for special-interest nerds and “small community.” But it is worse for everybody else.
There have been attempts to revive “Big Community,” in Australia. Rotary clubs have become more gender/age-progressive and churches more liberal and less somniferous. New mediums and forms of associational life have emerged, such as Parkrun, which connects people to run together in public parks, Befriend, who run events and courses to promote social inclusion, and Meetup, which is a platform-level intervention. Large organisations are starting up social clubs and running org-wide fitness challenges. The goal of all these initiatives is to get people who would normally stand in the corner with a red tumbler full of Coke Zero to hang out and chew the fat instead. Now Kith, basically.
For me personally, I always found these non-interest based associational events kind of sepulchral. There are trestle-tables with hard plastic red-and-white crisscross coverings, big bowls of salt and vinegar chips, fruit salads with too much rockmelon, and pitchers full of 35% sugar OJ. There is squeaky linoleum, trapezoidal power point projections, and polo shirts tucked in to jeans. Some guy approaches me through the fog of protoplasm and really wants to talk about his struggle with Generalised Anxiety Disorder and like how this conversation is a really big deal for him.
These events have the weary melancholy of an AA meeting, over-40s speed dating, or an empty IKEA bedroom. The common denominator of the room is desperate, olfactive loneliness. It’s a whole bunch of people without any common interests trying to shuffle towards some kind of group identity. It’s like if you sucked the coloured shells off a packet of M&Ms so they’re all pasty white and matching. I find quiz nights particularly suffocating and they make me want to die in my big uncomfortable bucket chair. I don’t know who won the premiership in 2004 or even what sport we’re referencing and who would want a gift basket full of rocky road anyway.
Attempts to revive “Big Community,” by either re-invigorating older institutions or creating new ones seem to amount to a kind of linguistic Weekend At Bernie’s. “Community,” is dressed up and paraded around and we’re told Community Is Back, Hey Guys Check Out Community. But I feel like maybe Community is actually stone cold dead, and some well-meaning organisation has stuck a rod up it’s corpse’s arse, and I’m going crazy for being the only person who has noticed. I haven’t actually seen Weekend at Bernie’s but as a late-80s film I’m guessing there was some antagonist who actually knew all along that Bernie was actually dead, and he could often be seen in cut-away shots peering from behind an outhouse or palm tree, and I guess I feel like that guy.
I don’t think we in the West can revive Big Community through these kind of trestle table events full of people with creepy Dennis Hopper smiles. You cannot fight the vast, gaping maw of our modern weltschmerz with gentle denial. We can’t go back the way we came.
I’m criticised a bit for being long on diagnosis and short on treatment (mostly by myself), so here goes. My treatment:
Revived Community can come from two places — shared meaning-seeking and shared struggles. Improv and the arts in general come from, I think, this sense of bewilderment that asks: What the hell is going on?, which may be ascribed to an atavistic human impulse towards finding meaning. I like to think most artists are trying to ask this question, and acknowledging this can rupture the borders of form and style.
Then like you have shared struggles, solidarity stuff, which is your Love Makes a Way, Idle No More, or Reclaim the Streets. If artists are concerned with diagnosis, community organisers and activists are concerned with treatment**. Shared strugglers ask: What the hell can we do about it?
So I think maybe some self-awareness around our joys and struggles can create a kind of Pan-Associational Revived Community, conveniently PARC. I think you can’t have PARC without lots of people going: “What the Hell Is Going On?” or “What the Hell Can We Do About It?” and also being fully conscious that those are the questions they’re asking.
Maybe once you could have Big Community without these questions, back when the world could fit in our tinny heads. I reckon that’s not the case any more and we’ve all got to huddle around the fire and ask each other some difficult questions.
So if you’re a Racewalker, I think you’ve got to do a little peering-inside. Think back to when you were eight and were told you couldn’t be a runner. You’ll find yourself asking one or two questions (a) Why Am I Doing This? and/or (b) Why the Fuck is Dan Hazel Infamous? Fuck Him and Fuck His Hair. I think He’s Fucking My Wife. Let’s Get Together and Key His Car. I’m Joe Penzi, Motherfucker. Hear Me Roar!
That concludes (some of) my thoughts on community.
*- I’m appalled at the number of environmentalists that hate the outdoors. I don’t get it.
**- Fully conscious that my two major listed domains, artists and activists, refer roughly to my mid- and late- twenties respectively, and this whole thing might be some schematic projection of my own unacknowledged beliefs about what is good and worthwhile.