25 June 2005

Some versions of extremism

Faster pussycat, more, more!

American Mania: When More Is Not Enough
by Peter C Whybrow, MD (Norton)
Extreme Cuisine
by Jerry Hopkins (Bloomsbury)
Amped: How Big Air, Big Dollars, and a New Generation Took Sports to the Extreme
by David Browne (Bloomsbury)

It is historically a common complaint that the world is faster, more vulgar, more difficult to cope with, in short more extreme, than at any time previously. And yet those who most loudly decry such perceived changes often seem half in love with them. At least, if you criticise a culture of excess and yourself use sensationalist language with which to do it, you’re part of your own problem. This is the most salient stylistic feature, for example, of Peter Whybrow’s American Mania.

Whybrow diagnoses the whole of US society as suffering from mania. Since he is a practising psychiatrist, he should know better than to apply such medical concepts to a whole culture, but no matter. There is a “frenzy that grips America”. Computers and mobile phones force everyone to work harder and lose sight of the good things in life. “In the lexicon of America’s Fast New World,” the author intones, “the word technology has replaced tranquility.” (Do modern American editions of Wordsworth really speak of emotion recollected in technology? Interesting if true.) People don’t hang out enough with their friends and family, thus ignoring the social bonds that Adam Smith said were a necessary corrollary to the free market. They overeat in compensation, so that “nearly one-third of the U.S. population now struggle[s] with the complications of obesity”.

Some high-powered people — international lawyers, bankers and so on — tell Whybrow that they have seen the error of their hypermodern ways. Now they don’t take their laptops with them on holiday, and they try to be happy with what they’ve got. In the end the message is: chill out, dudes! Which may not be the most useful advice to a soldier serving in Iraq, or a mother slaving in Wal-Mart. Whybrow picks a specific phenomenon that applies to rich people, generalises it as a mental disorder of the entire country, and then recommends a feel-good Californian therapy regime. The book as a whole is an example of what you might call Extreme Sociology.

Nonetheless there is some truth in Whybrow’s description of the development of a bigger-faster-more culture, where “the 12-inch dinner plate, the 32-ounce soda, and the 64-inch TV screen became the norm”. The notion that more is inherently good is comparable with a tilt in usage of the word “extreme” itself, which only recently acquired a modern connotation of heroic envelope-pushing, as in the term “extreme sports”. How did this change happen?

The word “extreme” comes from the Latin extremus, the superlative form of exterus, outward, and so originally meant outermost: at the limit of something. It is in this sense that the Catholic Church uses “extreme unction”: it is the last sacrament given to a dying person. But the strictly superlative usage was not honoured for long. Shakespeare, for one, thought that something could be more or less extreme (he uses the constructions “not so extreme” and “extremest”), a usage that Samuel Johnson later mocked in his Dictionary. And so the word passed from a purely descriptive term to one expressing a form of moral disapproval. There was a spectrum of possible behaviour in any context, and acts near one end or the other would be denounced as “extreme”. Too much physical exercise was “extreme”, argued Bishop Joseph Hall in 1614, while William Cowper by 1734 was denouncing the “extreme” dress of avaricious parsons.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the words “extremism” and “extremist” were invented, and their helpful rhetorical function has remained transparent: to call someone an “extremist” is to denounce someone merely for his position on the imaginary spectrum of ideas, rather than to engage with what he is actually saying. An extremist is someone who will not listen to argument, and to whom in turn we should not listen.

But somewhere over the last decade and a half, another meaning has emerged. It had always been possible to use “extreme” in a positive sense, provided you paired it with an inherently positive term, as in “extreme joy” or “extreme delight”. But now “extreme” all by itself can connote something like a moral good. The school of software engineering known as “Extreme Programming” does not involve its practitioners sitting at their screens 23 hours a day and subsisting entirely on caffeinated sugar water, but is a sensible, structured approach to problem-solving. Parents who want to make Christianity appear more groovy to their children can offer them a copy of the Extreme Teen Bible, which has chatty boxouts anticipating questions (such as “What’s up with all the wives?”), and sells the Good Book as the ultimate version of Heat magazine:

Genesis has loads of famous stories and people, from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Joseph. It’s a who’s who of the lightly populated days of the earth. […] Genesis gives us the real scoop on these people who established the original cultures of the world.

The word “extreme” can even be used in both senses at once, as seems to be happening in the title of Jerry Hopkins’s book Extreme Cuisine, a compendium of gastronomic adventure that details how people around the world eat slugs, or spiders, or monkey meat, or still-moving lobster, or live baby mice rolled in spices and dipped in soy sauce. On the one hand, “extreme” expresses our reaction of disgust, on the other hand it invites admiration for the author’s omnivorous curiosity. Yuck, but wow.

It is David Browne’s excellent book on what are commonly known as “extreme sports” that offers the best clue as to how extreme came to mean good. Browne hangs out with skateboarders, inline skaters, BMX trick cyclists, snowboarders, and freestyle motocross riders, who perform death-defying stunts such as mid-air backflips on motorcycles. If you thought such people were merely gung-ho adrenaline junkies who have landed on their heads once too often, you will learn here how dedicated, talented and intelligent these athletes are.

And, tellingly, they hate the phrase “extreme sports”, preferring “action sports”. As one man explains to Browne: “The connotation of extreme sports was danger, not skill level. It was about jumping off buildings, which took a lot of balls but no skills.” Skateboarding and the other sports Browne discusses are not about moronically defying death, but about the personal challenge of learning to perform ludicrously difficult moves for no other reason than the pleasure of mastery. Many of the athletes he talks to emphasise their childhood disillusion with team sports: the fact that you could lose while playing well, or the fact that if you were no good you were not allowed to play at all. Thus what outsiders call “extreme sports” and regard as a symptom of peculiarly modern thrillseeking are more like an updated version of Thoreauldian self-reliance.

Regardless of the rejection of the concept “extreme” by the sportspeople themselves, the word is omnipresent in the world of marketing. As Browne notes: “By the time of the Sports Business Marketing and Sponsorship Forum, it was possible to lead an ‘extreme’ lifestyle simply by visiting the nearest supermarket or mall. Before heading for work, one could shave with Xtreme 3 razors, scrub one’s teeth with Aquafresh Extreme Clean toothpaste, freshen up with dabs of Xtreme Sport deodorant, and if so incline, apply one of Clairol’s Extreme FX line of hair colors.” He comes up with an impressive number: at the time of writing, “1,141 products incorporating the word Extreme or Xtreme […] were trademarked (and still active) with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.”

Thus “extreme” means simply “good” most commonly in communications that are trying to sell things to us. The term “extreme sports” was invented by marketing droids, not by the practitioners themselves. It would be interesting to know for sure whether advertising itself drove this linguistic change. Buying more stuff is good; buying excessive amounts of stuff is even better. Extreme is no longer too much but just very good indeed. Simply by buying a tube of toothpaste, you too can buy into the dream of edgy risk-taking, of bigger, faster, better. There is no such thing as too much profit, or too many possessions. In the commercial world, extremism is recast as pure virtue.