Surfing has become a real social phenomenon. While some of its prominent media figures ensure increasing buy-in from wider and wider audiences by radically changing the practice, millions of anonymous participants enjoy gliding in summer or braving the cold in winter days just to search for a few seconds of thrills. But, beyond this media coverage, surfing and surfers say a great deal about contemporary societies and the way people live in them.
In mid-XXth century, surfing began to structure and established its status through the organization of international competitions. It was then recognized as a modern sport and started being used as an element of the socio-spatial structuration and marketing communication of sea resorts. The sports movement helped developing it. Public stakeholders turned it into a political and territorial resource.
On the fringes of the sports model, surfing opened up as a space for experimenting alternative social and cultural dynamics. In the United States more particularly, surfers weredisparaged for their detachment from the summons of the modern world advocating for progress and rationality. The” surfing culture” they designed was emblematic of protest, although one may question both its originality and spontaneity. This culture, magnified by the images it conveyed, landed in Europe where various marketing brands quite cynically made the most of it.
The analysis of these emerging dynamics has quite rapidly adopted a twofold approach. The first focuses on surfing as an expression of modernity: searching for a sports performance standardized by institutions and which can only be achieved through gaining physical skills and training. Surfing is then understood as expressing a desire for social prestige, characterized by exclusive forms of sticking with your own kind, favoring narcissistic attitudes, the cult of performance and the glorification of manliness.
The second approach analyzes the post modernity of surfing: an ordeal-like pursuit to reach the ecstatic thrill aroused by the glide. Surfing means making the most of the present moment, while taking pride in some hedonistic morale and protest spirit, primarily based on the thrill of ilinx, that is of vertigo. Current surfing practices and cultures, increasingly diversified and heterogeneous, when not competing with one another, lead to question this unequivocal dialectics between modern and postmodern surfing. Surfing remains a sports activity whose performance, taste for adventure and desire to push one’s limits help achieve that feeling of intense singularity experienced by all surfers.
But this practice also sustains some kind of self care which goes beyond sports achievement and involves some sensory engagement, some kind of transcendence reached through one’s feeling of oneness with nature. The ways surfing is experienced are far more diverse and complex than the unequivocal representation of a standardized sports that will be part of the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, or than the image of the tanned and norm-defying free soul-surfer. Contemporary surfing is above all a sensory experience difficult to describe and, consequently, at the crossroads of a multiplicity of sporty, cultural, economic, political and aesthetic trends.
Going against the tide
The surfed wave could be viewed as a form of resistance to contemporary violence and absurd lifestyles, which enables surfers to rediscover their human feel, excitement, sensitiveness, fragility and their own corporeality. The wave celebrates the self, reassures and comforts. Gliding magnifies the wave which is turned into a world-space. The surfer reaches out to the sacred, the divine, the sublime, thus being at the same time within the world and within one’s own self. But there is more to surfing than this magical glide whose enlightening epiphany would be the « tube », figure during which the surfer is wrapped around and sheltered by the wave, both a safe haven and a memory of the childhood nest. It also refers to a lived in, inhabited place, which uncovers practices, feelings and beliefs. In that sense, surfing may be considered as an indicator of changing social dynamics.
In order to grasp what these surfing worlds say of the societies surfers live in or endure, one needs to explore the range of their emotions. The challenge, thus, is to grant « intuition »a central role: the ways surfing is experienced in its physical, sports, social, cultural, political and aesthetic aspects make it necessary to grasp people’s deeply rooted intimate part, beyond the pre-determined moulds resulting from social structures they quietly reject, ignore or do without.
The question is to look at the combination of irrationality, self-awareness and understanding of one’s environment through their physical, sensitive relationship to the surfing board. This sensual relationship of « flesh and blood » which necessitates some know-how and is bound to solidify overtime is part of the structuring of knowledge. This unconventional epistemology is not an attempt to dispute the contributions of modern and postmodern analyses. It simply means to acknowledge the transformations both of the surfing world and of the world itself, of this vast globalized space dramatically disrupted by the technological boom and the widespread summon to consume. In this context, how do surfers settle the wave? What are they looking for?
Because the natural wave encompasses such great geographical diversity, it cannot be standardized while, at the same time, it is reclaimed at a territorial level. It is the expression of new uses of free time as opposed to rationalized and divided up every day time, introduces a new quest for togetherness and redeems the body, freed by sensory experience, as opposed to the body as a work tool. In this context, how is surfers’ « ontological framework » formed, how do they construct their subjectivity in relation to the cultural, political, fun and sports space?
Surfing: a creative utopia
Surfing is a sum of paradoxes: it altogether conveys performance, contemplating, being ecstatic, surrendering, being washed away, being present; it means surfing is experienced not only when experimenting the glide but also through everything that comes before (getting there, waiting, failing, falling, beginning again) and everything that comes next (frustration, giving up, elation, fatigue, accidents).
Surfing, understood as a sensory, emotional, physical experience, deeply rooted in one’s inner self, is also a creative utopia. It first allows distancing from one’s body. « Utopia is a place outside all places, but it is a place where I will have a body without a body, a body that will be beautiful, limpid, transparent, luminous, speedy, colossal in its power, infinite in its duration, untethered, invisible, protected, always transfigured; it may very well be that the first utopia, the one most deeply rooted in the hearts of men, is precisely the utopia of an incorporeal body » (Foucault, 2009).
But surfing also sets the body at the heart of the world, this small utopian kernel from which I dream, I speak, I proceed, I imagine, I perceive things in their place and I negate them also by the indefinite power of the utopias I imagine « (ibid.). This twofold relation engaged with the wave attests of the surfers’ diverse modalities of being-in-the-world. Obviously, during the time of a ride, both social and body contingencies are forgotten into some primal immersion with Nature. This oneness, close to transcendence, provides this intense feeling of being fully alive at the heart of a lived-in place, appropriated as the geographical space where this existential exultation is being experienced. But, beyond the ride, surfing may also be an opportunity to challenge, to quit or, conversely, to welcome the world.
Gliding is a way of being-in-the-world with both sensory and social effects. Thus, surfing could become a firsthand research object to envisage the reconfigurations of our current world, of the transition our contemporary society is undergoing. Here is an opportunity to reconsider the common approach to surfing in human and social sciences and make it a fertile object enabling research to simultaneously include the layers of perception, affection and action.The analysis of its sports, cultural, ecological, political, corporeal variations without establishing a hierarchy between the paradigmatic stands for the sake of dialogue, should help overcome antagonistic approaches. This unconventional epistemology takes into account the fact that« before questioning the social and historical place of sociological investigation, there is the issue of the existential situation in which sociological analyses are hence historically justified. » (Arendt, 2015) so that, beyond studying this object from the perspective of sports and identity, it may gain a legitimacy in human and social sciences.
Crédits images en CC : Publicdomainvectors.org, Pixabay Clker-Free-Vector-Images, eommina, SDsign, Giphy James Curran, Pixabay mskathrynne, Patrick Mignard pour Mondes Sociaux