Roman Eichler


Urban Sport-Subjects – sportive Self-Making and the urban Space


The actors of practices like skateboarding, BMX, in-line skating, parkour, cross-golfing or urban climbing have left spatially fenced, institutionalised facilities of sport, transcend their traditional programs of movement and move their bodies with new gestures, rituals and forms of representation in public urban spaces. Well-worn subject forms such as those in institutions, e.g. schools or sports clubs, do not yet exist within these scopes of informal sport. These new sportive cultures are insofar a particular sphere, as subjects and spaces are in a continuous flow. The practices provide an experimental ground, on which new ways of self-making can be tested practically and – at the same time – a ground, on which possible courses of action within urban spaces can be fathomed, extended and recoded. By participating in a dynamic interplay of bodies, space and artefacts, the individual merges into a yet evolving form, whose individual or social meaning cannot be solely deduced theoretically nor captured just by its medial representation, but only through empirical research into observable and experienceable practices. With these urban sportive practices, processes of subjectivation emerge, in which 'the city' or 'the urban space' becomes an important element of the individual self and his world. The project's goal is, to provide praxeologically oriented empirical insights into an urban sports culture as a subject culture and, hence, at the same time contribute to developing a praxeological analytic of subjectivation.

The empirical object is fixed-gear-cycling, which is centred around individual and collective (sometimes organised as competitions) means of locomotion with track- or fixed-gear-bikes ('fixies') in the city. In contrast to other post-traditional sports, fixed-gear-cycling decidedly joins into a broader complex of practices, i.e. the urban traffic(-space). The puristic bicycle without gears, freewheeling or conventional brakes provokes a quick and 'pragmatic', i.e. fluid movement in the interspaces and gaps of traffic; a seemingly 'stubborn' dealing with the momentum of a body-bicycle-unit amidst urban traffic, which is often perceived as risky or deviant. A further peculiarity is the phenomenon's fuzziness: the actors do not integrate or identify themselves exclusively via the usage of a fixie, but (also) via a certain style of riding and living, which is related to bike-messenger culture, traditional cycling-sport and the bicycle in a more general sense – which, then again, becomes particularly palpable through the fixie.

Against this background, my central questions are: How do what kinds of 'bearers', 'participants' or 'elements' become regularly connected with each other, so that we can talk about a certain practice or subject culture in the first place? How does the individual become a competent and recognizable participant of the practice and what characterises this process as a (specific) process of subjectivation? What are this practice's relationships to the social context and the subject forms existing there?

Methodologically, my project is as open as possible, following a “toolkit approach” (Nicolini): with a generative 'optic', developed from thin practice-theoretical assumptions as well as basic questions emerging from subject-analysis, the theoretically and empirically 'fuzzy' phenomenon successively gains an intelligible contour and the basic approach becomes more and more expansive or specific. The analysis' empirical material ensues from participatory observation in Berlin and Oldenburg, interviews with key actors, who competently and acceptedly embody 'the' scene, and an “analytic autoethnography” (Anderson) of my personal experiences with the fixie; additionally, I analyse weblogs, films and print media. In my field research, I focus on the “interobjectivity” (Latour) of practices of subjectivation, since certain artefacts and a particular way of dealing with spatial arrays is constitutive for this practice. I followed a motto, borrowed from actor-network-theory and multi-sited-ethnography: follow the practice, follow the processual entanglement of different 'bearers' and 'participants'. The participatory research began, where any fixie-user is plausibly palpable: the usage of a fixed-gear-bike. Its specific handling, but also further artefacts (e.g. clothes and accessories) as well as interaction in urban traffic(-spaces) were analysed micro-ethnographically (Streeck). The intention was to carve out style-generating moments or moments with effects on subjectivation within a gradually accessible bundle of practices.

The transformation of individual habits of locomotion and the irritation of collective locomotive habits emerged as a central theme: contingent, yet potentially already available spatial and symbolic-normative scopes become realised – often in defiance of rules and conventions. Thus, new thresholds become established and stabilised, within which the individual and society arrange themselves – and become arranged themselves – in new or peculiar ways. For the successively improving calculation of individual bodily scopes as well as the scopes of traffic, a merging of body, bicycle and other artefacts into a (vehicular) unit is crucial; only against the background of this hybrid quality, the 'fixed-gear-subject' becomes comprehensible.

The participants successively develop a complex engagement (abilities, attitudes, credos) within a process of informal learning; particularly a specific, situative awareness and a strange familiarity with spaces, 'normally' not used. On the one hand, traffics'(-spaces) appear as quasi-natural, impersonal environments, as floating, threatening, yet controllable ambits from the fixie-users' points of view. Flowingly and speedily 'snaking' through this environment, the participant can experience his self as a 'competent' cyclist – an experience they can share with a community of riders. On the other hand, the traffic-space is a social environment, structured by explicit rules and locally specific conventions of locomotion, within which these actors meet other road users in a seemingly disrespectful, yet very conscientious manner.

Fixed-gear-cycling proves to be a comparatively open scene, in which – alongside the actual practice of riding a fixed-gear-bike individually or collectively – cycling-culture and the social status of the bicycle as a means of individual urban mobility are 'negotiated' in a broader sense. Fixed-gear-cyclists do not only experience their selves as members of a still very dynamic scene, but also as convinced cyclists and (special) road users. Playing with rules and spaces can lead to explicit contestations of collective orders: realizing interspaces and situational potentials within traffic circulation fundamentally ties in with cultivating a critical attitude towards the established subject order of cyclist/motor-traffic arrays, whose inherent social tensions become palpable in conflicts between 'fixie-bodies' and 'car-people'. Disobeying road traffics' rules and conventions does not only challenge them, but also the social primacy of “car-culture” (Furness), which everyone of us can experience daily. The fixie-user can be understood as the performative 'ideal type' of the even fuzzier subject form of the self-confident 'urban cyclist', who increasingly gains discursive contours.

Analysing the scopes of fixed-gear-cycling does not result in findings about the reproduction of social orders, but brings the transformative dynamics of practices of subjectivation to the fore. Hence, its analysis provides insights into current social tensions and re-orientations in urban spaces, which relate to the material shape and the technical mediation of the self. These sport-subjects are always and at the same time (specific) urban subjects, too; their practices are not just an indicator, but a catalyser of social demands concerning urban mobility.

(Changed: 19 Dec 2022)