Beware, Surfers

Normal Distribution Curve

Figure 1. The normal distribution curve, foundation of the mathematical science of statistics.

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)

Cresting Signal and Noise

"Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports," says Gilles Deleuze, perhaps the philosopher most concerned with the question of bodies and flow. The surfing, flowing body finds its rhythm in a whole continuum of matter-states, from the gaseous waves of the hang-glider or skydiver to the concrete waves carved by the street skater, to the frozen in-between waves of aqua and terra shredded on the slopes by the snowboarder.

But we must remember that surfing has its origins in the smooth space of the ocean, with only the logic of the tide and the deep swell accompanying a hybrid of body and board on its path of creative potential towards the beach. From the very beginning then, despite its forays into other matter-states, the surfing body has always been a liquid body.

Today we are all becoming surfers — surfers of waves, surfers of electromagnetic transmissions, surfers of relational databases and other networked information-constructs. One need not have a board to be a surfing body. But one does need a body. The question today has become one of embodiment. Does the body sense? Does the body move or create?

Is the body liquid?

The surfer is equally comfortable navigating between signal and noise. Slight murmurs and adjustments made by the finely attuned body maintains an optimal position while riding the liminal edge between the two. For the waves that surfers call home are nothing if not the pure signal of the cresting swell in its becoming-noise, before crashing to shore at the feet of the masses lying recumbent on the sand: aqua meets terra where the noisy wave hits the beach.

The relationship between the two becomes more distant when moved to the urban context, though there is still a connection in noise. Today, aqua and terra are the noise to the constantly throbbing signal of dwelling and commerce. The tree, the pond, the park, the rain: all are noise to the decaying spaces and shiny interfaces of the contemporary city, connected in signal through the boulevards and underground conduits of the city, as well as the fluxes of people navigating the urban everyday. Though they, too, will eventually become part of the total communications infrastructure, for now they remain the playground of the surfer.

This urban playground, however, remains largely unused. For too long our sport has resembled the factory production model and for too long our surfing has been that of the data-net sort. Sport can be the anti-work, but only insofar as one is embodied and creative, or as one is a playmaker.

Interestingly, Deleuze describes the runner as the sporting figure obsolesced by the emergence of the contemporary surfer. We should not be surprised by his diagnosis, since the sprinter and marathoner seem increasingly to be products of the industrial laboratory, while the surfing body remains largely unchanged, except for the growing variety of energetic systems in which it realizes its potential. But obsolescence is not an entirely accurate diagnosis, however, for the dynamism of the surfer has folded back upon the runner, as we see embodied in the parkour athlete who contours and traces the asphault, concrete, bricks and mortar of the urban cityscape. In other words, a body can change.

Traditionally, the playmaker has been the figure in sports who makes plays, that is, who manufactures positive outcomes in the clutch, who embodies drill, discipline, execution and repetition. But everywhere surfing has replaced the older sports. Instead of making plays, one must now embrace the challenge of making play, rescuing it from the seriousness of industrial manufacture and the factory production model. To make plays, one blocks out the noise of the crowd and visualizes the task at hand. To make play, by contrast, one embraces and engages the noise of the crowd, sensing one's self in space as an affective body, athletic and full of creative potential.

Make play. Surf. This constitutes the tactile burden of all playmakers, regardless of their material habitat: to feel the heaviness of the body at the same moment one feels the lightness of its liquidity. To move, perform, create, liberate.

Snowboarding and Strategies of Refusal

Jacobellis - Switch

Snowboarding and Strategies of Refusal: Goddess, Cyborg, Switch

(submitted by barbara fornssler and sean smith to the 2009 sport, sexuality and culture conference at ithaca college)

Framed as a necessary departure from Donna Haraway's theoretical cyborg, the figure of the "switch" is introduced to understand the complex relationality experienced by the athlete-subject in a moment of Olympic competition. Appropriated from the complex sexual politics of BDSM culture, the figure of the switch allows for a renegotiation of Haraway's cyborg by creating a space in which the submissive/dominant dichotomy between the emancipatory feminist cyborg and the patriarchical military-industrial cyborg may be explored as a contextual and meshed embodiment of contingency and historical decision-making in strategic situations.

* * *

The race begins and four bodies careen out of the starting gates to dart headlong downhill. Immediately, one of the challengers is shot off the track and into the safety net lining the course. Then another one drops, and another, until it is just Lindsey Jacobellis out in front, substantially ahead of her nearest pursuer. Four sources of energy on the video screen have been quickly whittled down to one, Jacobellis absorbing the electromagnetic flows from the other three as millions of viewers crane towards their screens to watch her race to the finish line. She knows she's out in front by a large margin and as she nears her final goal the adrenaline rushes, though she is hardly aware of her pounding heart.

This is the logic of theatre.

Almost at the finish line, about to achieve the orgasm of modern sport, the athletic body speaks of its own accord. In the moment of climax, Jacobellis chooses a different model of gratification. She hit a short rise in the snow and pulled a method grab. Ecstasy!

But snowboarding itself is not immune from its own spectacularization. Indeed, the sport came of age in the era of digital cameras and handheld personal videocameras, and thus from the very beginning, snowboarding was spectacle. Given enough attempts, one will almost always get the optimum photo or video clip, detached from the aura of its icy production environment.

This is the logic of film.

In this case, however, given the primacy of the sporting theatre, Jacobellis was only afforded one take for the camera … and she wiped out. Face plant.

Chance? Aleatory perturbations in laminar flow as she soared through the air?

Or does the athletic body dip the edge of the board ever-so-slightly, the boundary between human and machine ever negotiable? Does the lumbar vertebrae straighten imperceptibly skyward and tilt the axis of rotation backward just a few degrees? In other words, does the athletic body effect not a rational agency, but an affective agency comparable to a doubling of Csikszentmihalyi's flow theory model?

The agency of the snowboarding body to ignore the linear pursuit of the record and attempt a method grab at the moment of ecstasy should be considered authentic to the expressive genealogy from which it emerges. But if Jacobellis had completed the trick it would have been simply folded into the spectacle of Olympism in the process, as an avalanche may sweep away adventurous boarders who have ventured out of bounds in search of fresh powder. The completed trick would have had greater sign value than that of her face plant.

In the end, as the body lays sprawled helplessly on the snow while a pursuer pulls up from far behind to claim the gold medal, it is the ecstasy that is left open, a libidinal investment that refuses its return to the wish-desire and its sign of negation. In crashing, Jacobellis is loyal neither to the cyborgian body-machine-image complex of the Olympic athlete nor to that of the recreational snowboarder, though she is of both domains. She is Switch.

This is the logic of the network.

[Chorus: "Thanks be to God(dess)."]

* * *

This paper interrogates the figure of the switch through a case study of American snowboarder Lindsey Jacobellis, who crashed in the 2006 Olympic boardercross final while pulling a trick only a short distance from the finish line and a certain gold medal, ultimately having to settle for silver. In this case, the switch engages in sport as dominant or submissive — as Olympic versus freestyle snowboarder — dependent on the context of encounter, allowing for a new agency of the subject that is affective through its movement and sensation. The emergence of Jacobellis' fall just prior to the climactic point of victory stands as a double strategy of refusal — a negation of the spectacle that makes explicit the identity of the switch and its implications for a new feminist politics.

The Standing-Reserve

Baudrillard: "Snow is no longer a gift from on high. It falls precisely at those places designated as winter resorts."

Or perhaps downtown San Francisco? As our technologies increasingly divorce us from nature, tons of man-made snow are trucked onto Fillmore Street for the Icer Big Air snowboarding competition.


Xbox's snowboarding title, Amped, includes a corporate sponsor feature, where players can impress the sponsors with various tricks. In case you're not sure exactly what the feature is all about, they spell it out for you on the Xbox web site.

That's edutainment, dudes…