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)

resonance, relationality, friendship


Erin Manning, Politics of Touch: Sense, Movement, Sovereignty, p.22):

Friendship that might be worthy of the name, that is, a politics of friendship, would be a movement of desire that cannot be symbolized through a coding in a fraternal nationalism. It would be a friendship of and toward sensation, a friendship toward the multiple movements of an other. Not a friendship toward establishing identities of coupling, identities of nationhood and belonging, but a friendship that is always starting over, with all the complexities of a process that can never quite begin nor end. This is not a straightforward friendship, not an easy friendship, not a friendship of ease. It is a friendship that carries as its impossible memento the lit image of unreachable waterfalls of touristy romance, the impossibility of definitively locating one's-self, either here or there.

the basketball player wonders about friendship, about regulated and improvised sporting cultures, about distancing and presencing, about the resonances that may be transmitted through language and those that may only be embodied, about asymmetry and fragmentation (self, other, relation), about touching/caressing/grasping the becoming-past and about touching/grasping/caressing the possible-not-yet …

Status Updates

1. Sporting Empire
2. Body
3. Bodies
4. Athletic Spaces, Places and Traces
5. Towards a Sporting Multitude

* * *

1. nuclear bomb :: radioactivity :: local
2. information bomb :: interactivity :: global
3. genetic bomb :: proactivity :: diasporal

* * *

1. everyday life practice
2. shared acoustic space
3. performative event

* * *

1. Snuffed Flames and War-Pr0n
2. The Last Olympics
3. Stereoscopic Sportscapes
4. Micropolitics at the Overexposed Stadium
5. The Problem of Synchronicity
6. Volumetric Striation and the Tactile Burden of Severality
7. Chai: Flames Orange and Blue

* * *

1. Body
2. Stadium
3. State (Empire)

* * *

1. Moneyball
2. ProZone
3. Synergy Sports Technology

* * *

1. television
2. videogame
3. free viewpoint television

* * *

1. urine
2. blood
3. DNA

* * *

1. berlin, 1936: olympic public viewing screens
2. xiaojingchang hutong, beijing, 2008: olympic public viewing screen
3. xiaojingchang hutong, beijing, 2008: wii would like to play // we don't have tickets

biological rhythms, vectoralism, meshworks

The factory was, and is, a space of production in which biological rhythms are continually contested at the interface between labourer and machine apparatus. In this we are not simply describing a disciplining of the body biomechanically-speaking, but also a constraining of the body's internal rhythms in a more holistic sense, which manifests itself in a number of physiological outcomes.

Courtesy of the NBA

As mentioned earlier, professional sport occupies a unique position at the nexus of material industrial production and immaterial postindustrial production. Though in the postindustrial economy of service, information and entertainment there is no longer the fixed capital apparatus of the factory and its assembly line production, do not presume that the sporting factory of the stadium does not itself reconfigure the biological rhythms of the athletic body in similar fashion.

Take the case of professional basketball in North America. There are 30 teams in the National Basketball Association (NBA), 15 each in Eastern and Western conferences. Each team plays 82 games, an equal number of which are played at home and on the road. Generally speaking, teams play other teams within their conference 4 times and those from the other conference twice, which of course necessitates a significant amount of travel across the continent. Teams can play on back-to-back nights, but not three nights in a row. Other sundry rules about scheduling are also determined by the league.

Instead of the postindustrial attack on the collective biological rhythms of athletic flesh having an easily identifiable locus, however, the causality in the case of professional basketball is far more diffused, though no less pronounced. Zoom in on the NBA assemblage to the Toronto Raptors, who played the Utah Jazz yesterday (Sunday) afternoon at 12:30pm EST. For the professional athlete used to playing at night this is a significant disruption of normal biological rhythms.

Why not just play Sunday evening? This is not seen as desirable by the Raptors' owners, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment (MLSE), who would prefer opportunities for families to attend the event. Due to the historical construction of the traditional school and work week, Sunday night is not favoured.

Why not play Saturday evening? The Raptors are not the only professional sports franchise owned by MLSE, which also counts the Toronto Maple Leafs of the National Hockey League (NHL), Toronto FC of Major League Soccer (MLS), Toronto Marlies of the American Hockey League (AHL) and Toronto Rock of the National Lacrosse League (NLL) in its portfolio. Of these, the Maple Leafs are the crown jewel of the corporate empire, and the Saturday night slot is reserved for them. Professional hockey has a unique place in Canadian culture which has historically developed through Foster Hewitt's radio and television program, Hockey Night in Canada, broadcast coast-to-coast for more than seventy years.

So why not play late Sunday afternoon? This would have been possible earlier in the season, when the National Football League (NFL) was still playing. As professional hockey holds a special place and time in Canadian culture (Saturday evening), so American culture similarly considers Sunday afternoon its special place and time for professional football. As such, the rival NBA would not schedule its national telecasts in this time slot — there is too much overlap between the target markets of the two leagues and the NBA would be crushed in the ratings. Each individual NBA franchise has its own regional telecasts, however, and these would be allowed to run against the NFL programming.

Once the NFL season was completed and media competition diminished, the NBA began to telecast its feature Sunday afternoon doubleheader on ABC. In these games the league showcases its best teams and most popular stars, those with the highest Q scores and thus those of greatest sign value to corporate sponsors. The NBA does not want to dilute this audience and since revenues for national telecasts are shared among all franchises, the league established a blackout window for regional telecasts on Sunday afternoons.

And so the game takes place at 12:30pm EST on Sunday. But for the Western Conference Utah Jazz this is one of the road trips across the continent to the east. In terms of biological rhythms, this 12:30pm tip-off is the equivalent of a 10:30am start time. Add to that the daylight savings forward time shift and it is actually a 9:30am start to production, a major bodily difference from the average evening game. In the peculiar joint production model that is professional sport — the cooperative production structure of the game's uncertain outcome and associated data flows — this additional disruption of biological rhythm was seen to offer a competitive advantage for the hometown Raptors.

The more important lesson, however, is that the factory assembly line as the locus of biorhythmical disruption has been replaced in this particular case by a complex meshwork constituting team, league, corporate entity, television network, corporate sponsor, competitive rival, national identity and cultural history. As such, the focal point for a collective struggle of flesh becomes more difficult to pinpoint and more difficult to resist.

Visual Silence?

In 1952 the avant-garde composer John Cage created his experimental composition 4'33". In this work, Cage created a set of instructions for the musicians not to play their instruments for the entire duration of the piece. The premiere of the work was performed by the pianist David Tudor: he sat down, addressed the piano as if about to play, closed the keyboard lid, remained silent for four minutes and thirty-three seconds, and then stood up and stepped away from the instrument.

Thus the performer and audience members experienced a period of "silence" or non-intentional sound. In other words, Cage wished to engineer a particular sensory environment by diminishing (not eliminating) the influence of one sense and allowing indeterminate elements to make an important contribution to the formation of music: the sounds of people shuffling in seats (no doubt wondering what the hell was going on), the muted cacophony of dissonant breathing rhythms, the echoes of the enclosed architectural space of the auditorium — all became the chance sonic environment for Cage's composition.

But as McLuhan points out, any change in the ratio of our sensory perception — for example, by dramatically reducing the reliance on the auditory — forces a change in our other senses as well, and thus a change in how we understand our external environments. In the absence of sound (or at least its reduction) during 4'33" the ratio of senses would shift, likely toward what would have otherwise been the dominant sense modality of vision. The audience members were probably intent on perceiving the piano player visually, to see why there was no music being played, what he was doing instead of playing, and from where the other indeterminate sounds were emanating. In other words, there was simultaneously a shift toward the linearity of determining observable causes and effects.

We witness a similar change in sense ratio during the practice of gait surfing, though instead of reducing sound we attempt to reduce (but not eliminate) the reliance on vision. The goal of the exercise is to recalibrate the sense ratio such that the auditory and tactile elements are emphasized in the movements through urban space. This is amplified, on the one hand, by the shared acoustic space of the synchronized playlist, itself a particular dérive through the archives of music that initiates a communicative experience or vibrating string of co-poiesis between the surfers. On the other hand, it suggests an opportunity to understand one's flow through the wave of pedestrian traffic in a tactile, relational sense.

Perhaps Cage provides a reminder for us: just as there is no complete silence in 4'33", so too is there no complete blindness or visual silence in the practice of gait surfing. Maybe we should remain attuned to those indeterminate visual elements that might otherwise be considered optical noise, drawing from peripheral rather than linear focus.