Secret Whispers

The hipster is rarely an artist.

So suggested Norman Mailer in The White Negro. Embedded in his critique of the racial politics of white backlash, one imagines he is referring at least in part to the question of poiesis: the hipster is born of representation while the artist exists at the threshold of creation and representation. The artist is the one who creates, the one who fashions the beginnings of order from an otherwise roiling sea of chaos (to borrow from Deleuze and Guattari) while the hipster, on the other hand, represents the creative process of the artist in his presentation of self.


If Mailer was literally writing of and from that roiling sea, he might likewise have suggested:

The poseur is rarely a surfer.

A Doubling

Is the surfer not an artist of the body? (Interestingly, the Polynesian cultures from which surfing originated considered it an art form and not a sport.) Two articles offer the briefest glimmerings of an answer. In the first, "How to Surf," Clifton Evers sets out to teach the academy just that very thing. Right away, his exercise proves futile since what he trying to describe to us is the corporeal act of surfing — not its representation, but an actual being-in-the-world. In short, he is trying to describe to us the surfer in the throes of affect, the embodied sense of self and the navigation of intensity while riding through the waves. It is impossible to fully capture the sensation in words, for it is pre-language: it requires a moving body for a similar affect to be generated. (Get on a board and ride!)

In "Beyond 'Decorative Sociology': Contextualizing Female Surf, Skate, and Snow Boarding," Holly Thorpe describes the processes by which surfing cultures are signified, commodified and re-sold to non-surfing markets as well as back to the original surfers themselves. As surfing becomes a sporting "subculture," authenticity becomes always already compromised by the gaze, the spectacle, commodification and discourse. It then cannot be separated from the demands of late capitalism. (Get on a board and ride! But are you wearing Billabong?)

The surfer, the skater, the traceur: at once existing at the threshold of a body culture distinguishable from the linearity of rational modern sport — as well as a non-conformity or critique of elements of consumer culture — and its own spectacularization and contribution to the conformity of consumerism. Part of this has to do with documentation, or the archive: if the surfer is an artist of the body, then how does one represent the practice without crossing the threshold?

Post-Literacy and the Wave

According to Marshall McLuhan, the mode of communication of a society was one of the determining factors towards how the surrounding environment was perceived by individuals, and thus the aesthetics and politics that may emerge as a result.


[O]ne of McLuhan's primary frameworks was the distinction between pre-literate, literate, and post-literate societies, which are classified based on the dominant mode(s) of communication of the day. Pre-literate societies communicate primarily by the spoken word; literate societies emerged from the introduction of the phonetic alphabet and the Gutenberg press and communicate predominantly through book form; and post-literate societies are those that are characterized by the electric communications technologies of telegraph, telephone, radio, television, personal computer, satellite, etc. McLuhan's hypothesis was that post-literate societies — that is, those who live in the electric age of communications, such as ourselves — would very much resemble pre-literate (ie. "tribal") societies in the way that they acted, both as individuals and as a collective.

For McLuhan, the reliance on auditory and tactile forms of perception for the pre-literate society had consequences in the way that space and time were perceived: the former as a resonating sphere and the latter as a circular process. With the introduction of linearity in alphabetic writing, accelerated by the distribution potential of the printing press, the perception of space and time similarly began to shift: the former became a geometric container in which perspectival vision extends and vanishes at a point on the horizon, and the latter became an unfolding of a linear process that begat the cause and effect thought of the Enlightenment.

So what of the perception of space and time in the post-literate or electric age?

The problem I have with McLuhan's framework is that I don't think it adequately considers the vector of change. Those entering the Electric Age are emerging from the visually-oriented, linear mindset of the literate age and all that it represents, and no matter how closely we may indeed resemble pre-literate tribal peoples in their behaviours and sensory ratios, it must be noted that this will be a categorically different group of people given that we are vectoring away from the Print Age.

In other words, there is no clear-cut end point to the literate age and corresponding start point to the post-literate age: we are at the cusp of a slow inexorable transition in communication practice and the perception of space and time produced as a result.

Sinewave Evolution

To advance a perhaps-radical thesis, is it possible that while in this cusp the becoming-electric society exhibits a dynamism or interference between visual and acoustic-tactile sensations, which manifests itself in a perception of space and time that exhibits circular and linear properties at once? In other words, an eternal recurrence crossed with time's arrow to give us the wave as the emerging means of perceiving space and time today?

Surfing and Documentation

Of course not everyone in post-literate societies perceives these waves equally, for we are all to varying degrees still bound in the linearity of the literate age and the social structures of commerce and dwelling it has produced. While it is relatively easy for most to perceive those waves which the surfer calls home, it took a particular assemblage of social, economic and technological constraints for the Zephyr skateboard team to perceive similar waves in the asphault tundra and concrete swimming pools of 1970s Los Angeles.

Similarly, hang gliders found waves in air currents, snowboarders found waves on the sides of icy mountains, parkour traceurs found waves in urban architectures, and wakesurfers found waves in the powerboat jetwash of otherwise flat lakes. Urban gait surfers hope to find waves in the flows of public/private pedestrian traffic. Waves are everywhere to be found, even in something as simple and readymade as a chain strung between two posts (the relation, see right).

As Deleuze reminds us, surfing has replaced the older sports.

Let us advance then a perhaps-radical politics to complement the perhaps-radical thesis: those who can find the waves need to make them perceptible to those who cannot. If the ways in which we communicate, the ways in which we sense and perceive the space and time of our environments, are bound up in an aesthetics of politics and a politics of aesthetics, then an embodied and performative engagement of electric society and the waveform is our best bet towards challenging the linearity of capitalism (which, because it is absolutely based upon the principle of exchange, precedes its non-linear outcomes) and finding a hinge point of global sustainability. Virno's communism of capital?

A problem arises. As we mentioned earlier, refusal and consent become bound together when the style of surfing, skating, snowboarding practice — the style of waves — is raised to the level of documentation. In the refusal of a particular aesthetics and politics, on the one hand, wavestyle also plants the seeds of its own reterritorialization and contribution to consent through the networked spectacle. The new bodies of consent produced by this reterritorialization also surf waves: those of immateriality and electromagnetism, those of radio, television and data. We should be discussing two waves instead of one. Since mathematicians will point out that sine lags behind cosine in the becoming of waveform functions, maybe a sine wave of representation to follow a cosine wave of performance?

Sinewave Evolution 2

We are left with a conundrum: How to communicate the existence of embodied surfing potential in its myriad forms and work towards realizing such a new perhaps-radical politics without documenting the performance and contributing to a regressive politics of representation, fear and desire? This conundrum has lurked in the shadows for centuries, embedded in what Deleuze and Guattari refer to as the hydraulics of nomad science. One cannot document the act of surfing, the poiesis of being-in-body and becoming. Like secret whispers passed throughout history from breath to ear, then, one can only document the wave.

(thanks to a. staley groves for his thoughts, both presenced and networked)


11 responses to Secret Whispers

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  1. clifton says:

    Hi Sean

    You are spot on, describing affect through representation in the academic medium is flawed, but it is a step. Notemy penchance for variable writing styles to accomodate affect, however flawed. Nigel Thrift has a similar problem with his non-representational theory. I will keep following your work and this blog. It is difficult to theorise sport in many other spaces, it is not "acceptable" amongst surfers generally although a few of us are working on projects similar to yours. I have written more on affect and surfing, also see cultural studies review: men who surf. There's upcoming stuff too in Social and Cultural Geography. I prefer to just go surfing though and let the waves, reef, wind etc determine the explanation/exchange.

    I also do sport and community development/politics research so i am watching this space with interest. keep it coming mate.

    ps. kurungabaa is limited in what we can do theoretically. I also love reading Deleuze, but also try my old friends Henri Lefebvre and Alphonso Lingis and Michel Serres. Serres especially!

  2. sportsbabel says:

    Not only a step, Clifton, but I would argue a very important step you are taking. Striving for non-representation, at least in sport and physical culture, is like removing layers from an onion, no? Maybe Apicius can cook them up as they are removed, one by one…..

    Danced with Lefebvre a bit, found him a touch stiff in his lead. Lingis and Serres I look forward to; Massumi riffs on Serres' soccer ball quite beautifully, so that might be the way in during my dissertation.

    The normal wave bears down….

  3. Dr.Robert says:

    This is really interesting..particularly so because it raises more questions than answers.

    When I read the reference to how"surfing cultures are signified,commodified and resold to non-surfing markets as well as back to the original surfers themselves.."
    I thought well,yes..
    surfers always seem willing to be the focal point and beneficiaries of commercial enterprises that dilute the actual experience..
    but there is an element of time, and memory at work here.

    Anyone who has surfed for a while can tell you that it is almost impossible, while surfing, to remember your last wave..or the one 3 rides ago.
    In some ways it is an example of a true non dualistic state of being..right here and now..that includes it's own particular form of amnesia.

    The archive, or representation,defeats that state..and creates norms and standards of surfing style approach and values that inherently conflict with the act itself.
    (thats the "signifying" part I guess..with "commodification" , etc not far behind).

    I wonder though if the natural effect of amnesia in surfing passed on to the surfing culture at large as part of it's normal influence..sort of a state of "Collective Unconciousness".

    This might explain the retro phenomena, the alaia fascination,and some of the Simmons replays that are currently so..fashionable.
    We forget..then remember..then forget..and so on.

    Which brings up your last paragraph.. when I was about age 19-21 I refrained from watching surf films,reading surf magazines, or looking at surfing pictures.
    I did not want to be conditioned by the "image".
    In some way perhaps I was intuiting what you suggest as a "conundrum"..and finding a potential answer in.."no method, no teacher,no guru.."

    "We can only document the wave"..
    true enough.

    Thanks for the great article

  4. sportsbabel says:

    Dr. Robert: thanks for coming by to visit! When I read what you wrote about not being able to remember your last wave, much less 3 waves ago, I think of driving a car on the highway: how many times do you sort of glaze over (at 120km/h!!) as you navigate, "snapping to" 15 minutes later and wondering exactly how you just got there? I imagine it is similar with surfing, and I know it is with basketball: as speed increases and one enters a state of flow, we navigate not so much with the optic gaze of perspective, but rather a more fully embodied, haptic and affective state of awareness, which I am certain has dramatic consequences for a particular understanding of memory, or the "amnesia" to which you refer.

    Can we revel in this amnesia?

  5. Dr.Robert says:

    actually I used the term amnesia in a general way..non dualistic is more to the point.
    not the same as forgetting the last 20 minutes of the daily commute..who wouldn't?..
    more so a timeless experience.. transcendental..yeah, it certainly has consequence regarding memory..and also images that define what that experience appeared to be.

    it has its' own truth and is fundamentally "a pathless land'.it has its' own language, peculiar to the one experiencing it, and is its own student and teacher.

    revel in it?
    oh yes..I think in actual fact it sustains us as nothing else can.

    thanks for your great blog and thoughts.

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