- Surfing Life: Surface, Substructure and the Commodification of the Sublime by Mark Stranger
In November of 1956 teams of American and Hawaiian lifeguards arrived in Sydney, New South Wales, en route to an international surf lifesaving carnival to be held at Torquay beach in Victoria. Several team members brought short malibu boards and also much longer racing boards. Those who rode their malibus caused a sensation wherever they surfed, at Avalon, Cronulla, Collaroy and other Sydney beaches as well as in Victoria. Why? Beforehand Australian surfers on their long, narrow toothpick boards mostly rode straight from break to shore, while the visitors displayed remarkable skills as they scythed [End Page 510] across the wave's face, the antithesis of the Australian way. Ultimately these lifeguards not only revolutionized Australian surfing, they and their followers changed forever the once surf lifesaver dominated beach culture. Today in Australia surfing's popularity has never been greater. How and why it has arrived at this point, how a nature-loving recreation has become a commodified sport, and how it may help to understand the postmodern world, are among Mark Stranger's concerns.
In some ways Surfing Life is the lineal descendant of Bede Maxwell's Surf: Australians against the Sea (1949), Kent Pearson's thesis and later publications on surf lifesaving and surfing sub-cultures, and more recently Douglas Booth's tour de force, Australian Beach Cultures (2001). With its surfer's perspective on the sub-cultures and the paradoxes within them, Booth has done much to advance the analytical study of surfing, and Stranger's unorthodox ethnography is indebted to his pioneering work. Originating in the 1990s and culminating in a 2001 Ph.D. as a surfing case study of risk-taking and postmodernity, Stranger's research is based on extensive travel within Australia and overseas, as well as interviews with surfers and questionnaires. The result is the expansion of his original work, allowing him to critique contemporary social change.
The outcome is that Surfing Life may be read in two ways. For interested surfers such as those interviewed and the thousands who share their passion this is an expose of contemporary surfing by one of their own, someone who is immersed in the sub-culture and who understands "stoke." Surfing's history from its revival at the beginning of the twentieth century, risk taking, fear and desire to achieve, the surfing industry, the bureaucratization of surfing married to the drive for Olympic status are predictable topics discussed. So here is a ethnography for those in the "line up" interested in the often paradoxical dimensions of surfing.
On the other hand Stranger uses his material to shape a more complex argument relevant to social theorists and analysts of social change. Building on the conclusions of several Scottish enlightenment thinkers Karl Marx argued that society consists of base and superstructure, an order inverted by Stranger. In today's postmodern world the collapsing superstructure has led to a flat surface of postmodernity underpinned by a sub-structure "based upon ecstatic experience that constitutes a collective consciousness" (p. 1). This inversion of the Marxist model begins from surfers interacting (risk taking) with the sublime in nature, what Stranger refers to as the foundational experience. He has much to say on aesthetization, sportization, and commodification, all referring to contemporary phenomena and leading to the assertion that surfing "has been an early agent of postmodernization; perhaps even a relatively important one in places like Australia" (p. 254).
However, Stranger also reminds us that surfing is much more than a search for the sublime. It is essentially hedonistic, sexist, and selfish. It emulates those it disparages; for example, surf lifesavers whose appropriation of the beach for surf carnivals is now paralleled by surfers' aggressive dominance of the waves. Enjoyment of the surf always comes at a cost to someone, somewhere, a reality many surfers ignore when they escape from their crowded metropolitan waves to a remote break. Some of them may rail at the corporate greed that intrudes...