Ritner on Denning, 'Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History'

Andrew Denning
Jesse Ritner

Andrew Denning. Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014. 256 pp. $29.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-520-28428-9.

Reviewed by Jesse Ritner (University of Texas at Austin) Published on H-Environment (June, 2020) Commissioned by Daniella McCahey (University of Idaho)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54943

The Alps and Alpine skiing, as their names suggest, are intimately linked. Culturally, this relationship is so strong that ski resorts around the world have spent well over half a century attempting to mimic and appropriate the cultural meaning of the Alps. Andrew Denning, in Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History, elucidates what that meaning is, and how it came about. Quaint yet busy, local while cosmopolitan, and both natural and controlled, these desirable contradictions are the result of what he calls “Alpine modernism” (p. 11). Nineteenth-century skiers, he argues, embraced modernist appeals to technology through the adoption of an ancient form of transportation. The self-reflexive middle-class practitioners of skiing were not blind to the tension. It is the writings of this elite class of people and skier whose ideas make up the central thread of Skiing into Modernity. Denning’s history of skiing, and the subsequent cultural, economic, and environmental ramifications, offers a compelling case for how a hybrid ideology comprising romantic conceptions of nature and modernist celebrations of technology gave skiing a unique appeal and brought modernity to the Alps.

Alpine skiing was not just a modern pastime; it was an attempt to make sense of “modern ideas and practices (i.e. culture) and the Alps (i.e. nature)” (p. 15). Denning argues that Alpine modernism departed from formalist urban modernist sensibilities. Unlike modernism more broadly, it was linked necessarily to the Alps. The specific ideology reflected “the dynamics and velocity of modern times” while simultaneously “counteracting the stresses of these very same modern conditions” (p. 11). It synthesized a love for unmodified nature with a celebration of technological mastery. By combining modern sport with Alpine aesthetics, skiing offered an experience that stimulated both mind and body. Denning argues that by the beginning of the twentieth century, Alpine modernism had become the dominant ideology within Alpine winter landscapes.  There, it acted as a propulsive force which drove economic and social modernization through the creation of a winter tourism industry. As the spiritual implications of Alpine modernism combined with post-World War II consumer culture, it spurred a massive increase in winter tourism. The resulting democratization of skiing demanded larger resorts, easier transportation, and dramatic landscape modifications through chair lifts, avalanche control, groomed slopes, and snowmaking. By the 1970s technology had radically transformed skiing, the rugged landscapes of the Alps, and the meaning of Alpine modernism.

Denning splits his book into three parts. Part 1, ranging from the mid-1900s to World War I, explores skiing’s roots in Scandinavia and its transferal to central Europe. Norwegian university students, steeped in an emerging nationalism that centered skiing in Norway’s national history, brought skis with them when they went to study in Germany and Austria. Early skiers formed international organizations, but their skiing communities and clubs were largely local. The result was that different localities embraced divergent styles of skiing, predicated on local landscapes. While Nordic (i.e., traditional) skiers sought out milder, forested hills, Alpine skiers braved increasingly steep and treacherous open slopes. Alpine skiers, in contrast to Nordic skiers, proved willing to sacrifice the tranquil nature of traditional skiing. In its place, they embraced individualistic and artistic sensibilities, which highlighted how Alpine skiing connected them to nature. Alpine skiers argued that their relationship to the Alps was “unique and transformative” (p. 70). While Nordic styles may have been truer to Scandinavia, they lacked a connection with the rugged landscape of the Alps. The hybridity of Alpine modernism as an ideology came to rest on the ambiguous relationship between Alpine skiing as potentially transcendental and the increasing interest people took in speed.

Part 2 brings the reader exclusively into the twentieth century. Denning argues that skiing was unique in its ability to “combine the nature appreciation of Alpinism with the ecstasy of speed” (p. 78). Alpine skiers celebrated their harmony with the mountains. But they also celebrated their mastery over both nature and self. As a result, skiers began to view skiing as art as well as sport. Alpine modernism drove the creation of a distinct Alpine kinesthetic. Unlike figure skating or ski jumping, at the beginning of the twentieth century Alpine skiing lacked standards of precise movement. Instead, it “stressed functional efficiency” (p. 85). Skiing led people to imagine the Alps as a heroic landscape that, through its danger, inspired fluid and seemingly natural movements. Aesthetically, Alpine skiing seemed to overcome tensions between mind and body, and body and landscape. Denning argues that skiers separated themselves from other pleasure-seekers who were uninterested in a combined athletic and spiritual experience. Increasingly, skiing came to represent this ideal connection, even to those who had never skied. Nevertheless, in the years leading up to World War II the appeal of speed was changing the kinesthetics of skiing. No longer concerned with “rehabilitating modern individuals by altering physical movements,” a competitive mind-set came to dominate even leisure skiing, and skiing increasingly became a mechanical problem to be solved (p. 125). 

Part 3 picks up following World War II. With the rise of a new type of consumer culture, skiing grew into a large-scale industry. Resorts sold skiing as conspicuous consumption, and they advertised with images of scantily clad women holding skis or posing in front of mountains. Increasingly, feeding this democratization of skiing involved dramatically altering Alpine landscapes. Resorts installed chair lifts, developed avalanche control, groomed slopes, and by the 1980s sprayed artificial snow on slopes in order to maintain safe and consistent conditions. Critics argued that whereas early skiers had been “active agents” attempting to shape modernity, these skiers were largely “unthinking consumers of an inauthentic sport and an artificial landscape” (p. 173).

In Skiing into Modernity Denning connects modernist anxieties and desires with debates over environment, leisure, and culture. He convincingly demonstrates that Alpine modernism worked as a hybrid ideology, tying together a love of nature and modernist appeals to technology. However, this hybridity also made the Alps vulnerable following 1945, as the appeal of speed and nature became highly consumable, leading to the embrace of landscape-modifying technologies. Parts 1 and 2 of Denning’s book are superb. In the third part, he rapidly covers a large swath of time and largely pulls away from the voices of particular skiers, which he includes in the previous parts, instead opting for an imaginary family to guide the story. Nevertheless, the third part in the end serves its purpose. While his story is a declension, with part 3 serving in part as skiing’s fall from grace, it is also clear that the tension between people’s connection to nature and its domination through technology is not dead. Rather, Alpine modernism proved fluid enough to continuously adapt to changing environmental, cultural, and economic norms. As he notes in the epilogue, “technology has altered the sport’s relationship to nature, not eliminated it” (p. 183). In the end, Denning offers a thoughtful and innovative study that should prove useful to scholars of environment, leisure, Europe, and skiing.

Citation: Jesse Ritner. Review of Denning, Andrew, Skiing into Modernity: A Cultural and Environmental History. H-Environment, H-Net Reviews. June, 2020. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54943

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