I was out climbing a couple of weekends ago. On the Sunday, cold and with raw tips, creeping hangovers and out-of-condition arms still sore, we caved in for a user-friendly sport cliff. The kind of crag with a five-minute walk in, where you can tick everything in a couple of hours, convince yourself you’ve done something and drive back back to Melbourne for a bowl of pho on Victoria Street before the winter sun slips below the horizon.
Despite being user-friendly, there was much huffing and wheezing and sleazing and poor footwork and general laziness and falling and yelling and bad climbing. Nothing unusual there we often fall off before reaching our limit and our list of projects is only bettered by our list of excuses.
Then the camera came out, and everything changed.
A mate was on a route he’d been flapping around on like a pelican trying to take off, when suddenly he became a graceful swan. The climbing morphed into a thing of beauty; feet placed with precision, technique flawless, head high, eyes intent-yet-composed, breath steady without the slightest hint of stress. He clipped the chains, lowered off. Piece of piss.
Now, this was a route well below what he is capable of cruising, and one which he had ticked so many times that were he actually ticking a piece of paper he would have worn down a H2B pencil. Deservedly, he received a barrage of shit for being a showpony, after so obviously flicking the ‘on switch’ once the threat of posterity appeared. But it did get me to thinking about motivation. Not the chronic ‘train hard for long term gain’ variety. More the acute ‘what will get me to try harder right now’ kind.
The first thing that came to mind was ‘hot climber from my target demographic’. The peacock effect is a well documented though understudied phenomena, Why? Because it’s so obvious. When there is a cute girl up and about, I try harder. (To make yourself the star of the story replace ‘I’ with ‘you’ and ‘cute girl’ with the gender that fires your loins.) I hold on a little longer, squeeze a little more out of burning forearms, try to look composed, unless I think they are into lunatic-Neanderthal-yelling-and-screaming and then I go for that instead, but the salient point is the behaviour is stylised and the better climbing is a symptom.
The camera lens and the peacock effect speak pretty clearly about motivation. We don’t want to look like dickheads. But they also speak about the benefits of having a vehicle to concentrate focus through. Maybe you’re not thinking about your audience all the time, but the knowledge of the audience is making you think more about your climbing, about the moves, about your body and its positioning. Focusing on how you look then can easily translate into better climbing. Ergo better climbing through narcissism.
That Sunday was as good as I have seen my mate climb technically. It wasn’t so much that vanity was forcing him to try harder than he would have otherwise – this was no a muerte thrash for glory. He just climbed better, was aware of his body, the way it was working, he took care with his feet, he thought about what he was doing and not about how his little armsies were tired and his little fingies were all hurty.
(No one has yet postulated that the spread of gadgets to capture photos and video, along with the social networks to share them, have played a role in increasing the level of climbing. But we’ll throw it out there.*)
At a highbrow stretch you could claim the lens effect is a bastard-child version of the Lacanian Gaze. Something borrowed straight from the an Adelaide Uni Cinema Studies class circa 1991. It would go something like, “the knowledge of being looked is accentuated by the threat of posterity and is a spur to try harder.”
Yeah, some will say when you’re at your limit you don’t notice the camera. Probably true but that doesn’t mean that the lens effect is not something worth thinking about if only as a tool to focus. That doesn’t mean that the camera is the reason why we climb but when the paparazzi are in the house it often affects the way that we do.** Result: get your camera out.
Was he really a showpony? Yes. Is it more complicated than that? Yes. But he’s still a showpony.
* I also think the enabling effect generated by the proliferation of recorded digital content is increasing the level of difficulty of climbing, but that’s another article, on Networks.
** of course, this whole theory is thrown into chaos by our experience of The Void as Climbing Perfection, but we humans are complex and contradictory so the two can easily co-exist, and again, that’s another blog.