In a previous post, I discussed my feelings about the transformation of climbing into a luxury sport, at least at a certain end of the socio-economic spectrum. I posted a Youtube Video of an ad made by Citibank that features Katie Brown and Alex Honnold.
Here's the video:
Given the dismal economic picture in the US right now and the fact that big American banks in particular have had a great deal to do with it, it was natural that the ad would spark a certain degree of controversy. A forum post on Mountain Project and another on Super Topo both alluded to Alex Honnold selling out to the "1%", an argument that was roundly quashed by most of the people who bothered to respond.
I thought to myself, this is interesting. Since when did climbing become so capitalistic? Obviously climbers have "sold out" before. We all have to some degree. But that a cadre of apologists for squillionaires in suits would praise their economic masters in a climbing forum caught me a bit off guard. A remarkable number of posters stood up to defend Fortune 500 companies (and thank heaven for that) because, somehow, without them we would be unable to, well, do pretty much anything. And this was offered up without a trace of irony, nor any suggestion that such a state of affairs might be less than desirable, especially given the self-image of climbers as individualistic, self-reliant, or independent. I saw a few posts suggest that somehow because Alex and Katie received compensation for this ad, that the money was (paraphrasing here) "going back into the climbing community" and this was a good thing. Not sure exactly how that was going to work, anymore than Jay-Z's T-shirts are going to help anyone but Jay-Z himself.
Now I am not suggesting that Alex should do anything in particular with his own money, though we may all want to think before we put our money there. This video provides a useful corrective to the consumerist (and fairly sexist "what girl wouldn't need new shoes?") picture of the world that Citibank would love us to believe in.
To me the bigger and more important question is that of meaning, both in our lives and in the sport of climbing. In other words, is climbing about striving for something outside commodification and marketing? Are there actually values worth sacrificing our material well-being, even risking our lives for? Alex's incredible achievements in the realm of free-soloing, to name but one example, seem to indicate there are. The commercial he was in indicates the opposite.
As I see it, climbing, and on a broader philosophical level, Western capitalist culture itself, is on a collision course with materialism in its deepest sense. The problem with materialism, philosophically speaking, is the basic equation between input and output. Expenditure of power equals a predictable determined result. Basic physics stuff. No sense of moral engagement or ethical questions about the well-lived meaningful life. In the end we are presented with a multi-sensory fantasy of endless and meaningless power played out in all its forms, from political to physical, applied in ever-more spectacular but increasingly hollow actions, creating ever more empty, even hopelessly self-contradictory, forms.
For example, I don't know if anyone else noticed the ironic position of Katie Brown at the end of the ad, a position intended to convey a sense of excitement and desire. She stands suspended over a seemingly infinite expanse of, well, emptiness, perched on a tower of visibly eroding sand, a point that appears to be a dead-end, a place of no hope or return. Maybe this image, intended as the perfect consummation of consumerist desire, is also an apt metaphor for the unsustainable and vertiginous trajectory of the Western economic system, of which Citibank is a prime example. The sport of climbing would do well to think a bit more carefully about how far it wants to go down this path.
Now I know this kind of negative thinking runs against the current of most climbing writing out there on the Web. A climber new to the sport, given the virtual amusement park of videos, blogs, news items, and so on, would think that all was well in the sport. And truth to tell, there are a lot of cool rides out there. But there is a lot of selling going on as well and I wonder if we are all really aware of what we are giving up long-term in our quest to fulfill our short-term desires. Going pro has its cons.