- The Critical Surf Studies Reader ed. by Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee, Alexander Sotelo Eastman
Dexter Zavalza Hough-Snee and Alexander Sotelo Eastman’s Critical Surf Studies Reader is an exciting and important contribution to a field that is still relatively new to academics. Until recently, as the editors note in their introduction, most writing about surfing came either from early European and U.S. colonial forces who observed native wave-riding peoples while colonizing distant shores or from practitioners of the sport with ties to the surf industry and its promotional media. While scholarly interest in the subject has grown since the 1990s, contributions have been largely scattered, and dialogue among researchers has been limited. In bringing together this manuscript, Hough-Snee and Eastman help stake out the contours of surf studies as a field of critical inquiry and as a collaborative project, while pushing its boundaries in new directions. The book’s eighteen essays collectively probe surfing’s relationship to social and political life, showing that, contrary to popular renderings of the sport as an apolitical realm of “good, clean fun,” surfing provides a prism of the challenges, contradictions, and political possibilities that exist within broader patterns of empire, capitalism, and identity and community formation.
On one level, the collection offers a sampling of the kind of work that comprises the field. Its contributors include some of the leading figures in recent surf studies literature as well as scholars newer to the field, activists, public intellectuals, surfers, and nonsurfers. Its chapters span temporal and geographic boundaries, including some sites that readers might expect—like nineteenth-century Hawai‘i and twentieth-century Southern California—alongside others they might not—like early-modern West Africa and contemporary China. Reflecting the analytics engaged by the essays, the book is organized into four sections: [End Page 374] “Coloniality and Decolonization,” “Race, Ethnicity, and Identity,” “Feminist Critical Geography,” and “Capitalism, Economics, and the Commodification of Surf Culture.”
In addition to showcasing the breadth and diversity of surf studies, the collection promises to help advance the field by foregrounding key debates that link various currents of surf scholarship within a broader, interdisciplinary conversation. Self-consciously critical in their approach, the editors and their fellow contributors address the internal contradictions of surf culture and the surf industry head on and destabilize some of the dominant assumptions that animate popular understandings of the sport. For example, against pervasive renderings of the sport as inherently rebellious and countercultural, Scott Laderman looks at the writings that emerged from surfers’ travels to developing countries in the 1960s to 1980s to show that surfers have often been hedonistic, self-seeking, and sometimes strongly conservative in their engagements with the wider world. Against representations of modern surfing as a sport of and for white bourgeois men, essays by Glen Thompson and Belinda Wheaton illustrate how surfers who were neither white nor male—in apartheid South Africa and African American Los Angeles, respectively—have been actively involved, albeit marginalized, by the mainstream of surf culture. Meanwhile, Douglas Booth challenges any tendency to view surf culture as above the fray of consumer capitalism by revealing how fundamentally it has been shaped by capitalist political economy and social relations.
The essays also contribute to a rewriting of some of the most storied chapters of surf history. Most notably, they counter long-established narratives that suggest Hawaiians abandoned the sport under the pressures of colonialism in the nineteenth century and that haole settlers recovered it in the early twentieth. For instance, Patrick Moser makes a strong case for viewing the myth of surfing’s extinction as an outgrowth of a propaganda campaign led by missionaries seeking support for their own work. At the same time, Isaiah Helekunihi Walker shows not only that Hawaiians have continuously worked hard to maintain the surf zone as an autonomous Hawaiian realm, but they have made surfing central to their construction of empowered identities and anticolonial movements.
Importantly, the collection also pushes beyond critique, pursuing...