Academic journal article Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue

Economies of Loss and Questions of Style in Contemporary Surf Subcultures

Academic journal article Junctures: The Journal for Thematic Dialogue

Economies of Loss and Questions of Style in Contemporary Surf Subcultures

Article excerpt

This article examines the relationships between political economy and style within surfing subcultures as represented within selected surf films/videos and other surf media such as magazines. I will analyse surfing style as a way of moving across a wave that is the expression and correlative of more extensive systems of exchange. Because of the transitive (and transactional) nature of style, it is irreducibly an expression of and through movement--the conversion of energies as gesture.

Within the scope of this article, I will focus primarily on surfing subcultures within Southern California from the 1980s onwards, but I also want to suggest a broader applicability of general economic analysis for other periods and places within the history of surfing. As we will see, the notion of "general economy" assumes a quite specific meaning in the work of the anthropologist Marcel Mauss, who first coined the term. (1) For the purposes of introduction, however, it is sufficient to think of general economy as the analysis of how systems of cultural/ symbolic exchange and systems of capital exchange interrelate.

The only work to systematically address contemporary surf subcultures in general economic terms is John Fiske's article "Surfalism and Sandiotics: The Beach in Oz Culture". (2) Fiske takes Cottesloe Beach in Fremantle, Western Australia as a paradigmatic case study from which he intends to derive a more mobile hermeneutic for reading beach and surf cultures within contemporary society. Fiske interprets beach culture in general, and surf culture in particular, as mediating, in potentially transgressive ways, the relation of ocean and land which configures (within coastal regions such as Australia, California, Hawaii) what Claude Levi-Strauss identified as the master structuring dichotomy of nature and culture. According to Fiske:

   The beach is an anomalous category, overflowing with meaning
   because it is neither land nor sea, neither nature nor culture but
   partakes of both. It is therefore the place for anomalous
   behaviour, behaviour which is highly significant because it pushes
   the cultural as far as it can go to nature: it explores the
   boundary of what it is to be social, to be cultured ... (3)

In other words, the beach, and the practice of surfing in particular, challenges dominant socio-cultural formations by confronting them with their excluded other: nature. Fiske looks particularly at how surfing subcultures translate their facility of movement between culture and nature into "excesses of meaning", which challenge the dominant culture by privileging the sensual pleasures of the body through a vibrant tribal language and outlaw sensibility.

While Fiske's article is formative in its recognition of surf culture as meriting critical analysis, it is also instructive in terms of its shortcomings. Firstly, although Fiske describes the signs, languages, and practices that surround surfing, he never engages with a close analysis of the practice of surfing itself. The terminological errors and false generalisations within Fiske's article testify to the fact that he is not only writing about a (sub)culture to which he is an outsider (even if he is an admirer), but that he does not have a detailed understanding about the practice around which it circulates. In this sense his folly can be compared to Tom Wolfe's The Pumphouse Gang, which provided only an opaque and caricatured glimpse into late-1960s surf cultures around the La Jolla area of San Diego, California. (4) However, the most instructive shortcoming of Fiske's work is precisely his tendency to try and recuperate the oppositional nature of surf culture in Marxist terms. Fiske overplays the communalism of surf culture (something romanticised both by those who don't surf and those who are trying to market the "sport"), and he is quietly disappointed with its chauvinism and territorialism. For Fiske, surfing is still always on its way to meaning something else, towards becoming a lever in the Marxist project of exposing the contradictions of capital. …

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