Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Surfing
ob but really look on…
Los padres de la hacienda had fought the mud from the periphery of the building for years, mud that was laced in the building’s own genetic-code, mud that dressed the building in droplet skirts when La Virgen wept from heaven (so they said), mud that speckled the interior of the building’s cement floors with petite, caramel hued, abandoned footsteps.
We rolled up in one of those huge vans that had three bench-seats in the back and air conditioning vents arranged to reach each of these seats. Half-naked children tepidly leaked from the Tijuana orphanage, curiosity pushing them past their shyness, as we slid out of the van. The adults in our church party lugged trash bags full of children’s toys that had been donated for the visit to the side-yard of the orphanage. The distribution began.
I followed some of the children who had grabbed a human-sized doll head with ratty locks of synthetic blonde hair. They had set it on a low table just inside one of the doorless openings to the building and were gazing at its rouged cheeks, petite rose mock-smile, and sightless blue eyes with some interest. I was excited by the prospect of describing to them how to “play” with the doll head, so I ran back and forth between my father, who carefully translated the phrases I wanted to repeat in Spanish, and the small group of children studying the decapitated head. They dutifully listened when I slowly repeated the words my father gave me, then returned their attention to the head, talking amongst themselves and delicately touching the object in turns. They had no brush with which to comb the doll’s hair, no make-up with which to gussy her up, and I quickly realized what a strange “gift” this must seem. I was about 7 years old and am still haunted by the dawning of this realization. What good are such gifts from El Norte?
I source this moment as the perhaps impetus of what may be termed my personal cynicism toward certain well-intentioned charitable actions. A fair amount of travel to Mexico when I was very young, and a memorable 3 week visit through Tahiti (where we stayed with local families in mosquito infested squalor) and Indonesia when I was 16, helped to open my eyes to the privileged existence I lived. If I had to guess, I’d say my family was squarely centered in the middle-class region of US society, give or take a dip here and there depending on the local economy as it related to construction in the 1980s and 1990s. My father worked hard to allow my mother to stay at home and keep my sister and I in Christian schools through Jr. High (with a few notable exceptions in the ’80s when the economy slowed and the construction industry stalled in San Diego), a Herculean task that is impossible to imagine these days, especially for blue-collar workers in San Diego.
The “New Spirit” of Surfing
“At the level of consumption, this new spirit is that of so-called ‘cultural capitalism’: we primarily buy commodities neither on account of their utility nor as status symbols; we buy them to get the experience provided by them, we consume them in order to render our lives pleasurable and meaningful.” (Zizek, Slavoj: First As Tragedy, Then As Farce p.52)
In the 1990s, surfing as a business took a turn and became a tidy case study in late-capitalism’s spirit of globalization (neoliberalism). As surf businesses grew, the demand to keep manufacturing costs low along with rising standards of environmental protection pushed many businesses to factories in the East. Surfing as an industry was riding a tidal wave of growth and gained much mainstream attention. This growth and attention was due largely to emerging women’s surf brands and the simultaneous explosion of a burgeoning focus on women’s athletic lines in the broader clothing industry. “Femininity” was being recoded in US society as “strong, able, athletic”; “more masculine” as some would call it today (as “feminine” is being once again recoded alongside “masculine” to reorient cold-war era gender roles for our constantly at-war times). These new corporeal signifiers drove the female athletic clothing sectors to economic heights while creating new international playgrounds for the awakening outward-focused surf tourist market, some of which marketed themselves as empowerment camps for women and girls only.
The surf industry continued to reap the benefits of its chimerical glamor, filling out the vision it was projecting through the lens of “The Beach Lifestyle” well into the early 2000s with the professional competitive surfer as its cultural icon.
Professional competitive surfers have carried a double burden of projecting corporeal fitness and competitive competence along with an easygoing, happy-go-lucky façade for the consumer, polished through the lens of Big Surfing. That an “easy-going” attitude seems to harmoniously balance with a competitive will to be number one should cause one pause and a litany of subsequent ponderings: is it that this is how our professional competitive surfers are type-cast? Or is there truly some weird on/off switch that allows pro surfers to dampen their competitive spirit once out of the ring? Does this vary by gender and the expectations of gender (do we say of top male pro surfers as a group “they are easy-going” and mean it as a compliment, or simply as an excuse as to why they did not make a heat?)? What happens once professional competitive surfers no longer compete for the top prize? and c. Through the early 2000s, this continued to generate revenue for Big Surfing through the ASP’s Dream Tour, Blue Crush hit box offices, sponsorships grew to millions, sales, sales, sales. But the environment and the culture, within and without Big Surfing has since changed. People have begun to ask “at what cost?”
Manufacturing Stoke presents a cohesive and honest look at surfing’s manufacturing practices and how the culture is shifting, and ought to shift, in a concerted way toward more environmentally friendly and sustainable practices. A logical shift for an industry wholly reliant on a natural resource that is in a precarious way due specifically to practices of manufacturing goods for industrial societies with large amounts of “disposable” time and income. This film focuses primarily on the manufacturing and environmental aspects of surf manufacturing (both hard and soft goods), the title of this surfumentary is a play on Edward Herman and Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, a book that discusses “effective and powerful ideological institutions that carry out a system-supportive propaganda function by reliance on market forces, internalized assumptions, and self-censorship, and without overt coercion.”
Once we admit that surfing is indeed a culture (composed of shared behaviors, symbols, and patterns that are not biologically determined), albeit a subculture composed largely of a certain privileged class of humans, we are able to examine it from various different learned perspectives. We are able to use the same tools used to examine social institutions of larger influence (e.g. religion, government, education, work, military) and begin to collate patterns and tendencies, ostensibly for the betterment of our culture. This is all being done, not in the traditional deconstruct-destruct-to-nihilism fashion of Derridean PoMo stylings, but in the deconstruct-so-as-to-rebuild-a-better-culture fashion. This is an optimistic task, though it may feel at first as if it is simply gaming’s DO DAMAGE! scenario. These are beginnings, after all, and there is much to be worked out, and this particular journey requires of each of us to in-look at our own behaviors as individual consumers/experientialists/travelers to find the inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and whatnot. We each of us have them and each of us has a localism (a group of individuals we interact with daily) that might be a solid beginning for altering something we dislike… trash collecting is a very simple, but incredibly powerful example of our solidarity as localisms with intent). One of the telling hallmarks of surf culture is a transnational, border-crossing tendency that is ostensibly one of the reasons “surfing” as a term was espoused as the term to explain the activity of what we do when we flit on the internet. Have any of us really thought into why surfing is the verb of endearment for such a global phenomenon? What is it about surfing, as it is known by cultures-at-large, that makes it the perfect metaphor for the lightning quick global browsing communicating we do on the internet today?
Unfortunately, one of the misconceptions of the use of the verb, our verb, is that it is a dispassionate crossing of global boundaries, that it is without impact and also impact-less. That is, to be a surfer is synonymous with a feather touch, an apolitical quality, and a simple exploratory ethos that is innocent. This simply is not true, as Manufacturing Stoke and many others have shown.
And so, what?
Big Surfing is not immune to how the surfing polis sways. But more importantly than the industry of surfing (in its strange hypocrisy of “save the whales” and “make products that destroy the environment the whales–and we!–swim in”) are the localisms that gauge each other and ourselves in micro- movements and moments. Each movement Big Surfing takes is at most, a click off where Surfing is as a localism. That is, Big Surfing is feeding off of Surf Localism once more, a thing that has not happened since Gidget in the late 1950s.
There are certain localisms that are actually, though quietly, defining where Big Surfing is right now: North County, San Diego, California; Byron Bay, Australia; and certain surf blogs and social networks online. Not one of these localisms gives a hoot whether or not Big Surfing is following their lead or not, really (though if it means a cleaner industry, there is surely support when it is seen). But in the fragmenting of this, our culture, there is the possibility of growth. Not the growth of the apoplectic, over-riggéd, culture defining corporations, but the growth of the local, the diverse panoply of those surviving the discomfited surfing that was hijacked for profit. As we are shifting as a culture, certain surf corps are attempting to mask themselves in charity in order to cement themselves in the actual compassion surfers feel toward their surrounding world. The problems these charities seek to resolve are problems created by the very strategies they use to make a profit. Charity Navigator is a great tool to help figure out what is and is not a valid help. Surfers do tend to want to help more. We have developed lives that are centralized on plenty of time to play but feel a tendency toward doing something to better the world around us. Please be wise with your help and your money.
Living the Dream or Freedom and Choice.
I live in salt water. My understanding of the world revolves around a saltwater vista, a strange manifest destiny that the Pacific seems to grant with a seemingly unending horizon and no discernible oceanic boundaries. There are promises of something endless (e.g. summers), but… I wonder, because… Salt itself is one of those things that has a double meaning in the most annoying of ways. That is, it used to be more precious than gold when there was no refrigeration, since it was one of the only means to preserve food, but it was also a painful poultice when rubbed into a wound. Sustenance and pain. Knowledge is just such a preserving and alternately painful offering.
Big Surfing is aware of the power of this idea of freedom and the pursuit of freedom (defined as “freedom from” the stifling urban and suburban sprawls) and has been since The Endless Summer set the stage for a new manifest destiny that took the Western Frontier cowboy ethos of discovery and flung it over an ocean vista. Anything with “freedom” and “free” in it is the selling products and goods that represent this ideal. The surf market is returning to this Endless Summer zeitgeist, this rush away from even its own pernicious chains (the grind of the contest scene and its parallel in society at large: work), electing to capitalize on and promote “freesurfers” (though how free is a sponsored surfer?) and being “Free to Roam”. But we must always ask “free from what?” and “freedom for whom?” How are we allowing the market to define freedom? And who does this freedom exclude?
The pursuit of happiness (only available to those who have first attained liberty in the blessed triune Americans are so used to waving about as rights for all humans) comes with a price, most often a price that cannot be seen but means something more like slavery for others. “Surfing the web” has allowed the opportunity to view the price of this pursuit. We are able to see, actually view, what the pursuit of our happiness (the most material stylings of happiness) cause: computers, clothing, gems, oil… you are free to choose… here in the comfort of your privileged home. But at what cost? Are you willing to pay the cost if it means the blood of an other? Another human being? How many humans is it appropriate to exploit for your freedom to choose? How far are you willing to dig to find out the true cost of your lifestyle? Do you really want to know?