Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Extreme Landscapes of Leisure: Not a Hap-Hazardous Sport
204 pages, hardc., ill.
Aldershot, Hamps.: Ashgate Publishing 2011
Extreme Landscapes of Leisure: Not a Hap-Hazardous Sport is a book by the anthropologist Patrick Laviolette, who currently holds a position as Associate Professor in Anthropology. He works at the Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Tallinn University in the Baltic Republic of Estonia. Over the years, Laviolette has researched various aspects of material culture, which has centred on themes such as landscape, material metaphor, installation arts, maps, performance, documentary films, and co-operative organisations. He has carried out fieldwork at specific locations in the UK and New Zealand. The results of these interests are clearly present inExtreme Landscapes of Leisure. The book is published by Ashgate Publishing, and is divided into seven chapters. It covers about 200 pages, and includes pictures, tables, figures, references and index. All in all, this makes Laviolette’s work easily readable; it is not a concentrated academic text with a beginning and an end. As reader, you are not tempted to put it aside after just browsing the first pages. In a sense, one could consider Extreme Landscapes of Leisure as a sort of an anthropological scrapbook – it contains illustrations and employs a rich visual language. The reader follows Laviolette’s personal voice, as the book is narrated in first person. Laviolette has used autobiography as main method, meaning that we hear and meet humans from the anthropologist’s perspective.
Laviolette’s writing project is two-folded, as I see it. On the one hand he is concerned with the diverse meaning of landscape, while on the other he addresses the main issue, various leisure activities. Considering landscape first, this is a subject that the anthropological community has taken great interest in over the last 15 years or so. The study of landscape is a difficult one, but, in short, copes with theorising on various meaning that landscape can take. While many disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences focus on theoretical constructs such as “organisation”, the “social” and “society”, they very often tends to forget, and perhaps, ignore, that humans interact with and shape their material surroundings. Humans live and cultivate the environment they live in, especially the landscape, which they are increasingly pursuing for leisure activities. Anthropologists have pointed out that landscape does not constitute one theoretical concept, but can be part of a cultural process and constitute different ideas, depending on who is framing the analytical perspective at hand. But Laviolette takes this one step further. He presents an interesting approach; inspired by a mix of theoretical flows consisting of, among others, existentialism, phenomenology, freudism and studies of religious practices, Laviolette is interested in the meaning of “active imagination”. Laviolette states that his book “explores the conceptual links between a prospective anthropology of the imagination and a reflexively based existential phenomenology of our bodily senses, movements, as they experience danger, fear and euphoria in these conceptual areas”.
The reader follows Laviolette’s personal voice, as the book is narrated in first person.
Moving on to Laviolette’s second aim, where he intends translating the approach above, it soon becomes clearer that the following chapters explore either how the anthropologist himself, his single informant or a couple of them, a group of individuals, pursue defined leisure activities and their associated meaning of risk and danger. While leisure has often been seen as opposite to the meaning of labour, a zone providing escape from reality and or a deed for relaxation, a more common trait with leisure and tourism is that it nowadays takes a more extreme and dangerous form, which Laviolette claims to be a positive one. This often calls for control of leisure activities by either some state authority, or by certain groups claiming to know what is best for those taking part in new leisure practices, which have not yet been accepted or is seen as part of mainstream culture. Laviolette appears to be concentrating on those who are doing the groundbreaking work of starting it all off – the pioneers, those who “invent” new leisure activities and their perception of them. And to me, these are the social groups that Laviolette tracks. It also becomes clearer that Laviolette mingles with people who share more or less the same background as him – middleclass people, academics or intellectuals, which in turn gives Extreme Landscapes of Leisure a special facet; it is an in-depth study onto how they spend their spare time and what it signifies. This is exemplified in the chapters that deal with the Dangerous Sports Club of Oxford, cliff jumping and surfing, and what these communities value and are concerned with. If I am to pick one chapter that is certainly worth reading, it has to be the one on cliff jumping, a chapter where Laviolette himself challenges his fears and personal boundaries, and jumps off from a cliff into the seawater.
© Halvdan Haugsbakken 2011.