surfing 2.0: fetishism and spectacle
One of the most compelling traits of consumerist culture is the constant message of “never enough.” You can never have too much… S/he with the most toys wins… You can never be too successful… You can never have too many trophies… too much money… too many friends on Facebook/Twitter… etc. This is the fall-out of a society in which individuality is defined by accumulation and the basic human desire for meaning and a meaningful existence has been exploited. Consumerist culture is marked by a constant identity crisis that feeds on narcissism and commodity fetishism.
The cultural movement to find and (re)define oneself via accumulation and presentation, has been co-opted by industries that encourage constructing identity through the acquisition of surrogates. Failing to connect a sense of self to an identity that is authentically relational (e.g. nature, community, work, family, self), the self seeks instead to acquire goods that dress it in expressions of identity through purchased images, objects, and experiences. These are items and experiences that are flooding the commercial marketplace; they are commodities that have taken on a mystical power of an objective social force. This is commodity fetishism and, as Marx argued:
“[Fetishism is] the religion of sensuous appetites… the fantasy of the appetites tricks the fetish worshipper into believing that an ‘inanimate object’ will give up its natural character to gratify his desires. The crude appetite of the fetish worshipper therefore smashes the fetish when the latter ceases to be its most devoted servant.”
The rampant narcissism of the culture is a direct result of the manufacturing and constant upkeep of these images of the self, one’s “branding,” we’ll say, that are embraced with a religious fervor and then smashed, only to be replaced by the next, best fetish. As corporations “race to the bottom” to provide ever cheaper goods for a hyper-consumptive consumer base, individuals “race to reinvent” themselves before the emptiness overwhelms. Individuals are becoming more like corporations; corporations shift into chimeras that mock authenticity by offering up “choice” as the definitive personal. The race to produce goods, images, and experiences is coupled with a drive to replace authentic human interaction- with little to no capital potential -with a pandemic of social networking that mimics connectivity, but within an economically reductive environment:
“[In]creasingly, communication itself begins to function according to, or imitates, the rules of financial transactions; giving attention becomes a kind of negotiation (or haggling) conditional on the expectation of a return on the ‘investment’ into it.”
Flux, according to Peggy Orenstein, is the feeling of living in a world not fully transformed – an apt word “for this growing sense of living between…” (Siegel, p.162, 2007)
Surfing in general, is not exempt from this cycle, yet it differs in that the act-of-surfing is already what one might call a “religious” experience. To supplant this experience with a surrogate experience requires an opportunistic industry (Big Surfing) to:
1. create space between the act-of-surfing and the (potential) surfer (this juncture was created precisely when contests were introduced; marked by much discussion surrounding “contest surfing” vs. “free/soul surfing”)
2. insert into the space a well-constructed surrogate image (fetish) that it controls (this included the contest surfer and has been extended to include the sponsored “free surfer”)
3. construct a marketing platform to disseminate the surrogate image
4. reach into new markets that have not been “tainted” by the authentic experience to create demand for the surrogate image
5. sell fetish, collect profits, increase reach/demand for fetish, produce cheaper, collect…
Within this environment, the spirit of competition is fostered and favored in a sports-like spectacle that functions as an idealized form of capitalism. This is the philosophical function of the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP). It is through this branch of the construct that the dream (Big Surfing’s version of the “American Dream”) is held above the structure as pinnacle achievement.
Winning the ASP World Championship title is the crowning achievement of a professional surfing career and the dream of many young surfers. It has been traditionally understood to carry with it prestige, social capital (“street cred”), honor… all the trappings of a hard-fought respect one might expect from any tradition that holds achievement above ascribed status (age, gender, sexuality, race…).
There are a few aspects of this environment that it is necessary to point out.
First, in this particular sports context, it is the prowess of the individual that stands out; individual pitted against individual in a ritualistic fight to the finish. We recognize this environment in the world around us. We might call it “dog-eat-dog” sans the “fairness” promised by a rule-bound sports environment. In the moments when we are viewers of these competitive spectacles, we allow ourselves to believe that here, the world of capitalism makes sense, it works; it is good for us, it is good for our economy, it is good for our country. It is no coincidence that nationalism plays a mighty role in sports spectacles in general and that the controversy over whether to permit the winners of spectacles to carry their country’s flag on their shoulders has grown salient in competitive surfing.
Second, this is an endemic achievement, an honor bestowed upon those who struggle within preset, established conditions. From the point-of-view of opportunistic Big Surfing (BS), this is the most desirable form of struggle and it has diverted the once deviant vein of surfing into an innocuous, soporific force that legitimizes its every move… as long as it bears some benefit for those chasing the dream. Any objection unleashes a reactionary obscurantism buoyed by a following personally invested in upholding the illusion as a religious fanatic might uphold his/her fetish. The dream is, after all, entwined with the very identity of such a fetishist.
Third, the illusion that the ASP spectacle promotes or allows an authentically “achieved status” is belied by the lack of racial and sexual diversity and entrenched gender inequality. The reality is that surfing itself is a bourgeois activity, conventionally over-run by white males who have been typified as misogynistic and homophobic, if not in action, at least in speech. There are exceptions (more now than ever), yet there is a pervasive tendency toward the puerile that makes one wonder what it is about surfing culture that promulgates emotional retardation on such a scale. The fact that surfers are pack-driven and tend to congregate consistently in the same location for years, and that this tendency is replicated on the ASP world tour where only a limited amount of spots are occupied by many of the same surfers for long periods of time (as well as those occupying leadership positions within the ASP and BS), highlights the necessity that the 8 symptoms of groupthink ought to be recalled when questioning any trends in (BS)surf-thought or (BS)surf-action:
Type I: Overestimations of the group—its power and morality
1. Illusions of invulnerability creating excessive optimism and encouraging risk taking.
2. Unquestioned belief in the morality of the group, causing members to ignore the consequences of their actions.
Type II: Closed-mindedness
1. Rationalizing warnings that might challenge the group’s assumptions.
2. Stereotyping those who are opposed to the group as weak, evil, biased, spiteful, impotent, or stupid.
Type III: Pressures toward uniformity
1. Self-censorship of ideas that deviate from the apparent group consensus.
2. Illusions of unanimity among group members, silence is viewed as agreement.
3. Direct pressure to conform placed on any member who questions the group, couched in terms of “disloyalty”
4. Mind guards — self-appointed members who shield the group from dissenting information.
The act-of-surfing needs no elaborations, not frills, no neon jerseys, no tour, no Olympics, no BS to legitimate or validate it. When those who are opportunists seek to “put surfing on the map” or “bring surfing to the masses” or “create a better world tour”… what one ought to recognize is that these are the narratives of fetishmongers.
The unsettling discontent, the thinly veiled anger many surfers feel toward opportunistic BS is a result of the act of fetishizing an authentic experience. What has been known as “selling out” or the loss of surfing’s soul, are descriptions of this feeling but these descriptions don’t go far enough in pinpointing the root cause.
What BS doesn’t want, most of all, is for the reality to be exposed, circulated, and accepted: that the fetish is not the authentic experience, the dream has no value, nor is anything that BS produces valuable in the least because it has been separated from the Real, it is fabricated, and completely inauthentic. It is the blow-up doll that never speaks, that never blinks, whose open mouth is an eternal invitation to the emptiness it contains and represents; a surrogate for the authentic in every way. Simply, BS is just that- excrement.
Surfing is authentic connection. There is no language, no imagery, no substitute, no surrogate for the act-of-surfing. No amount of money can buy the experience that years spent in relationship to the ocean gifts the dedicated. People look at us surfers strangely. They wonder how we can do something for so long, think of it so often, schedule our lives, our work, our loves around it… but what they have forgotten is that this is how human lives have been organized for centuries; around nature, around the movement of the sun, the seasons… We live honestly, authentically connected to the source of life. Is this really such a wonder?