Virtually on the ledge at El Camino del Rey – sublime wondering and the wandering semantic.
May 8, 2012 6 Comments
A few years ago an elderly (but sprightly) uncle sent me a link to Daniel Ahnen’s famous POV (first person point-of-view) video of his perilous wander along the perishing elevated pathway at El Camino del Rey near Malaga, Spain. I’m not sure why he sent it to me, as he didn’t know about my – at that stage half formed – interest in studying urban exploration and access/liability issues. Perhaps he felt I needed to get out more.
Actually, I think he sent it to all his contacts, perhaps it struck a cord with him, for over the years he had dabbled with home movies, once directing a spoof cliff top rescue with his family one idle Sunday afternoon (artfully turning the Super 8 camera at an angle to turn a gentle slope into the appearance of a steep cliff). Or perhaps it was the affinity with his more recent adventures filming inside new sewer tunnels as a favour for the local fire service. Whatever it was, that email brought Ahnen’s You Tube clip to my attention for the first time.
In this post I want to think about how it is that this walkway (and the act of walking it) is framed as an aesthetic endeavour, and how it is that this place and Ahnen’s video have each been co-opted by a variety of users and viewers. In short, to think about the ‘sublime’ importance of perilous heights as formulated by Immanuel Kant and others and also of ‘the wandering semantic’ as conceptualised by Michel de Certeau.
I will say something of the path itself along the way. But what I assemble here is compiled from other sources. I have never been there and don’t have a stomach for heights. Mine therefore is an indirect – a virtual – engagement with this place and its peril. And that’s my point…
As Ahnen’s video shows, the walkway is a dilapidated narrow concrete path clinging, at height, to the side of steep hillsides via rusty brackets. The pathway was opened in 1905 as a route for workman passing between hydroelectric plants in the area. It was upgraded soon after it was commissioned, in order that King Alfonso could inaugurate the new dams in 1921. El Camino del Rey means ‘the King’s little path’. The path fell into disrepair over the decades that followed, but in that state became a destination of choice for those eager to test their nerve there. Some of those who have ventured there have fallen to their deaths and in 2000 the path was ‘closed’ to the public. It was announced a few years ago that the path is to be comprehensively rebuilt by the local council at a cost of Euro 9million. The plan, therefore being to create a tourist attraction by 2015 – and improve safety there.
The notion of the explorer communing with perilous nature is a relatively recent cultural development. It was the Romantics at the turn of the Nineteenth century who popularised the purity, authenticity and enriching power to be found in ‘the wild’. But the poetry of William Wordsworth and his ilk was popularising a notion developed by thinkers during the previous century, a century in which a nostalgia for nature (and a reduced fear of it as ‘other’ and imperfect) came into ascendancy (in the face of the shock waves of rapid industrialisation and urbanisation).
The renaissance had helped to popularise the notion of the beauty of nature – but this was a beauty to be found in calm, ordered and gentle gardens. But in the early 1700s Immanuel Kant deduced that for a notion of beauty to make sense, it needed a counter-part. That a name was needed for uncalm, disordered and perilous natural places. And the name he gave to this was ‘the sublime’ (reviving and adapting long lapsed Ancient Greek concept). For Kant (1764: 46), both the beautiful and the sublime could raise pleasure in the beholder, but in different ways, for “the sight of a mountain whose snow-covered peak rises above the clouds, the description of a raging storm…arouse enjoyment but with horror.” Thus a new aesthetic was formed, for “Romantics wanted their entire beings to be thrilled with a delicious terror” (Coates, 1998: 133) in the face of ‘the Wild’.
This theme was reflected in Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s  influential declaration of Romantic sentiment: “I must have torrents, fir trees, black woods, mountains to climb or descend, and rugged roads with precipices on either side to alarm me”.
But, the Romantics didn’t want to be taken over the edge (either literally or figuratively). The confrontation with the sublime forces of nature needed to be tantalising, but also safe and (as Coates notes) Rousseau caveated his adventurous declaration with precise prescription about how that rugged road should be presented:
“The road has been hedged by a parapet to prevent accidents, and I was thus enabled to contemplate the whole descent, and gain vertigoes at pleasure; for a great part of my amusement in these steep rocks is [that] they cause a giddiness and swimming in my head which I am particularly fond of, provided I am in safety.”
And Edmund Burke [1757: 42], theorising the sublime in similar vein, had declared that “terror is a passion which always produces delight when it does not press too close.”
Contemporary writers on cultures of extreme adventure like Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007) and Laviolette (2011) point out that ‘the extreme’ faced in situations such as a walk along the ledge at El Camino del Rey takes matters to the outer limits of the sublime, because it entails a step beyond Rousseau’s carefully installed parapet, but there is still a safety-urge within such activities. Those who walk the pathway and survive are likely to have prepared hard for the task, with intimate awareness of their skills, balance and physical limitations. As Ilundáin-Augurruza (2007: 157) puts it: “The extreme demands that we get as close to danger as possible while staying right on the edge of safety, barely holding the temptation to take one more step”, a fine balance that Lyng (2005) has conceptualised as ‘edgework’.
Ilundáin-Augurruza also reminds us that the sublime was not meant to denote a restful state of contemplation. That the pathos of the sublime lies in the conflict between imagination and reason when confronted with the ‘terror’ of nature. Rousseau may have prescribed a protective parapet, but this device is there to provide eventual safety (as in something to stop you should the gusting winds at the cliff edge suddenly prove too fierce). To experience the sublime does require some feeling of peril (but wrapped within an ultimate safety net).
This leads me to the virtual dimension. I’m interested in how the El Camino del Rey path walkers plan, perform and report their walk, but I’m also interested in how ‘armchair’ viewers (and others) have used Ahnern’s video to perform their own, safer, performance of the sublime.
Reading through some of the many thousand comments appended to the You Tube page for Ahnern’s video I was struck in particular by the following:
“JESUS CHRIST STOP HOLDING US OVER THE EDGE ASSHOLE YOU’RE GOING TO DROP US”
My first reaction was that that seems a rather impolite way to respond to Ahnern’s video (particularly as Ahnern died in the Himalayas in 2011 and – as other comment posters note – his video lives on as a memorial). But then when I acclimatised more to the abrupt register of many of the comments in this forum, it seemed to point to a more profound insight: that to this audience their familiarity with living life through a display screen and the athletic, perilous tropes of ‘computer’ games presented this POV video as unnervingly ‘real’ to the viewer. This was backed up by many posters remarking that Ahnern’s performance reminded them of a particular video game (and many different ones were mentioned). It didn’t matter that the viewers were sitting comfortably at home – in viewing Ahnern’s video they had felt genuinely exposed to the safe-terror of the sublime. And the safety was ‘backgrounded’, even though perfectly safe as viewers, they hadn’t felt safe. They had tasted the sublime.
The wandering semantic
These viewers were reacting in the way that Ahnern intended – in accordance with the ‘rules’ of the sublime. The other thing that struck me as I flitted between web sites trying to find out a little about El Camino del Rey, was how a variety of websites co-opted his video, and/or the pathway each for their own purpose.
I found holiday companies listing the site alongside more sedate ‘things to do’, climbing forums exchanging access information, meditations on the industrial history of this structure and a teaching resource pack designed by the Red Cross. There was also an article from the Daily Mail – marvelling at the checky otherness of people who might feel up to the challenge of this place.
In each of these sites a handful of ‘factoids’ about this place and the video were circulating. Often phrases recurred, suggesting ‘cut and paste’ across sources. Many sites told me that accessing the walkway was “technically unlawful but enforcement is minimal”. Some sites (particularly those written by climbers) pointed out that actually it is accessing the walkway via railway and other tunnels that is unlawful, and that climbing up the cliff face onto the walkway is not prohibited. Whether this is any more true that the more common interpretations of this place’s ‘banned’ status I do not know.
The one voice that was missing was that of the Spanish authorities themselves. Whether this is a language issue (as I only searched and read sites in English I cannot tell). But it emphasised to me that if you wish to prevent use of a dangerous structure that is cherished by an international audience then somehow the reasons for and terms of that prohibition need to be injected into the online community by which this place is ‘known’. There seemed something strange about reading about the perceived weekend only patrol roster of the ‘hi-viz’ guard at the railway tunnel entrance in another country. But the circulation of this practical information is precisely what the internet is both good and bad at.
Reading through the peer produced chatter about this place, I was reminded of Michel de Certeau’s conceptualisation of the ‘wandering semantic’. In his essay, Walking in the city, Michel de Certeau (1984:102) celebrates the “wandering of the semantic produced by masses that make some parts of the city disappear and exaggerate others, distorting it, fragmenting it, and diverting it from its immobile order.” At El Camino del Rey we see the wandering first, as a mundane dam workers’ pathway is ‘re-discovered’ and valorised by climbers and explorers (with the help of sublime sensibilities), then as the idea of this place proliferates with the aid of the internet and its forums accounts of visits, rumours of fatalities, hints of redevelopment and tips on security arrangements circulate freely and internationally, all with little sight of an ‘official’ (or as de Certeau would style it ‘strategic’) version of this place.
Burke, E.  (1958) A Philosophical Inquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful, Routledge & Kegan Paul: London, ed. Boulton, J.T.
Coates, P. (1998) Nature: Western attitudes since ancient times, Polity Press: Cambridge.
De Certeau M, 1984 The Practice of Everyday Life translated by S Rendall (University of California: London)
Ilundáin-Augurruza, J. (2007) “Kant goes skydiving; understanding the extreme by way of the sublime” in McNamee, M. (ed) Philosophy, Risk and Adventure Sports, Routledge: London.
Kant, I.  (1960) Observations on the Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime, University of California Press: Berkeley, trans. Goldthwait, J.T.
Laviolette, P. (2010) Extreme Landscapes of Leisure – not a hap-hazardous sport, Ashgate: Farnham.
Lyng, S. (2005) Edgework – the sociology of risk taking, Routledge: London
Rousseau, J.J. (1953) Confessions (Book 4) William Glaisher: London, trans. Cohen, J.M.
Photos used by kind permission of http://www.edgecity.co.uk, there are many more from this spectacular set at: http://www.28dayslater.co.uk/forums/showthread.php?t=70265&highlight=camino+del+rey
And with thanks to Uncle Jim.