Climbing and the Cooptation of Desire
“It’s not just about money, and I can’t give you the answer. You have to look at how the whole system works.”
The 2016 NY subway ad campaign for TaskRabbit features a photo of a bemuscled, shirtless man ascending a climbing wall, accompanied by the words “hanging shelves.” TaskRabbit’s trademarked motto is “We do chores. You live life,” and indeed, the website can match you up with someone who will hang your shelves while you go to the climbing gym. And what an imperative. You: live life. Who in their right mind wouldn’t live life?
In summer of 2015, Mt. Katahdin, the highest mountain in Maine and beginning (or end) of one of America’s most beloved hiking trails, the Appalachian Trail, saw two “firsts.” Jacquelyn Lowman, a communications professor who lives wheelchair-assisted with multiple conditions which cause her to be unable to walk, was the first person with paraplegia to summit Thoreau’s iconic mountain, with the assistance of eleven people and her service dog, Saint. She was literally carried on the backs of others, in a custom made, backpack-like structure, almost the whole way up. Many of those carrying her could have been up and down the mountain before lunch, she reports, but her own ascent took a total of three days.
Photos of Lowman being carried by a centipede-like chain of people who must stay in close proximity so she may be passed from one to another, as she clings to their backs with all her upper body strength, upend everything we think we know about what constitutes climbing and thus what counts as a first ascent. Her gender, age, and life story—indeed, the climb itself—are not easily intelligible in terms of either productive or reproductive success (though Saint appears to have kept a blog of the whole event, reporting on “Mummy’s” well-being). Not only does Lowman’s body resist the obvious norms, but she’s also not a good fit with the “supercrip” narrative, much more easily coopted by the corporate imaginary, in which all obstacles are to be overcome and the act of climbing is reduced to that overcoming. Her first ascent went basically unnoticed by the press, and the same goes for her 2017 bid for the whole length of the AT.
That same summer, professional ultrarunner Scott Jurek set the new speed record for a supported thru-hike of the AT, with the assistance of his wife, Jenny. Finishing at the Katahdin summit, he celebrated his victory by shaking a bottle of champagne and spraying it all over the summit sign, for which he received a ticket from a Baxter State Park ranger for littering. The speed record catapulted Jurek to ultarunning fame, including the cover of Trail Runner magazine and multiple other interviews, in which he finally disclosed his real motivation for running the AT: his wife Jenny’s second miscarriage and their burning desire to have a child. It’s not hard to guess what happened after Jurek set the new record: according to his feature in Backpacker, Scott and Jenny once again found themselves pregnant, “carrying more weight than normal.” What does setting a speed record on the AT have to do with conceiving a child? By the end of th article, the coincidence of the two achievements seems so inevitable that the question doesn’t even arise.
The cover of Jurek’s new book, the New York Times bestseller Eat and Run, includes a blurb that reads, “what a triumph…. Jurek defies unimaginable challenges.” And yet—and with all due respect for his accomplishments—everything about Jurek’s rise to fame is precisely imaginable, intelligible within the reigning imaginary of what it takes to have a life. The lean machine that is his vegan body coupled with his rather normative (as they are expressed in the media) desires and their fulfillment in the form of reproductive and economic success—indeed, in the seamless convergence of the reproductive with the economic—is all in compliance with good life-building and what counts as winning. When faced with the question posed to all climbing—why climb the mountain?—George Mallory famously answered “because it’s there.” Jurek’s answer—“because we want a baby”—is not only a different answer, but a different kind of answer, a fundamental shift in what counts as an acceptable response to this classic, paradigmatically existential question. At the risk of making too fine a point, it bears mentioning that TaskRabbit also uses another image underneath “hanging shelves”: that of a toddler hanging from a jungle gym.
Do such shifts in imagination and desire have environmental effects? Ironically, the category of “environmental effect” is no longer appropriate to describing dynamics in which bodies and environments mutually act on each other so dramatically. What we have named the Anthropocene is not the one-way street of human impact and anthropogenic change, but includes action in the opposite direction, as environmental loss drives and shapes biopolitical imaginaries. Taking what Rebekah Sheldon calls “somatic capitalism” in her work on reproductive labor, and extending it beyond reproduction to include the optimization of bodies, it becomes clear that biopower’s relationship to the environment is no longer limited to the question of “footprint,” as more and more people head for the proverbial hills in the course of getting a life. An environmentalist critique of advanced capitalism must also include an examination of what “Nature” means for/to/in the process of somatic production, as what might be called late biopolitics “siphons vitality rather than exerting discipline, swerves and harnesses existing tendencies rather than regulating their emergence.”
“Intelligibility” falls short as a category of analysis when such siphoning of vitality is at stake. What it means for something to “come to matter”—a technical term in today’s environmental humanities—has less to do with what is intelligible and more with what moves us libidinally. When only the optimized life is one worthy of the life-force, the nature and future of desire come to matter for the environments humans encounter in the course of life-building. We might thus adapt Nicholas Mirzoeff’s notion of “the aesthetics of the Anthropocene” to develop a narrower idea, namely an erotics of biopolitics. “The Anthropocene is so built into our senses that it determines our perceptions, hence it is aesthetic,” he writes. More specifically, biopolitics is so built into our libido that it determines what we desire. Hence it is erotic. Sheldon shows that biopolitics needs bios, but it’s crucial to clarify that this is not limited to the concept of life, but must include the life of life, all the ways in which life escapes the efforts to govern it. Biopolitics needs desire.
Desire—the reason one does anything at all—is not just one thing among others to colonize or coopt. Not only does such cooptation have consequences for the environments these bodies use to fulfill their desires—as we know already from the footprints left by everyone trying to have a life, from folks walking their dogs around the block to scuba divers visiting the dying Great Barrier Reef in its last days—but more difficult to describe is a different “environmental” phenomenon, in which desire itself is subject to those same dynamics of attrition and scarcity. Desire has become something to sustain. As Dominic Pettman writes in the collaboration we call “libidinal ecology,” “This key term [sustainability] applies to the wider environment, but is also — tellingly — used in modern discourses of love and desire. How to sustain the resources on which we live: raw materials, energies, and desires?”
The Anthropocene—which I use here as more or less interchangeable with biopolitics, following Sheldon who argues that the Anthropocene is nothing more than “the earthly effect of biopolitics, its geological unconscious”—emerges as this simultaneity, the dynamic, ongoing cocreation of environmental and affective loss. And not just as two things that happen at the same time or spur each other on, or, as it is often presented these days, as causally related (as when we hear that environmental loss has adverse psychological effects). Instead, contemporary climbing culture shows these to be two interlaced facets of something like a death of life at the hands of biopower’s ever-tightening stranglehold. As Pettman states, “What we are willing to pursue, sublimate, or deny ourselves becomes (or is revealed to have always been) not only a question of personal or political identity, but also environmental influence, limitation, and potential.” But that’s only half the story. As those environments become sites of projection for the lives we wish we had—you: live life!—they become ever more endangered, and the more fragile they are, the more desire, as the life of life, becomes something vulnerable and receding.
None of this means that climbing itself is in danger. On the contrary, it’s ever more popular. But this is no contradiction. It’s entirely possible to climb more and more dedicatedly precisely because one is climbing in the end times. We are living through the end of mountains in more than one sense. The ongoing attrition of mountain wilderness, coupled with climbing as a sport, becoming increasingly about perfecting technique in those sexy climbing gyms, could lead to a future in which climbers haven’t been on a mountain for generations, or perhaps even seen one, except in photographs. But alongside this emerges a more immediate loss, the exhaustion of mountains in the aesthetic sense, of the desire that renders bodies irreducible to everything biopolitics is able to extract from them. To paraphrase Timothy Morton, there will be no environmental poetry because we will all be dead inside.
 Steve Friedman, “Walk Hard” in Backpacker (June, 2016), 70-81, 81.
 Nicholas Mirzoeff, “Visualizing the Anthropocene.” Public Culture 26:2 (Spring 2014), 213-232, 223.
Rebekah Sheldon, The Child to Come (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press), 178.
 “Imagine all the air we breathe becoming unbreathable. There will be no environmental poetry because we will all be dead.” Timothy Morton. The Ecological Thought. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 31.