Surfing vs. the commodification of everything

curren_servais
Tom Curren, logo-free, 1991. Photography by Tom Servais.

Do you ever think about the first time a concept really stuck for you? Not the first time you heard of the concept, but rather the first time it resonated and had meaning. I think about this all the time. We are inundated with a flood of ideas and words all the time, but what makes them stick? What memories or experiences make this possible? Take, for example, the concept of “commodification,” an idea that always gets me thinking about the strange, complex, symbolic, abstracting behaviors of humans.

Commodification. I think I know the moment I was first confronted with that strange idea…but I didn’t really know it at the time. I just knew there was something there, something equally fascinating and revolting, that needed to be examined, picked apart, and dissected. It happened in the early 1990s. I was 16 years old. I remember opening a copy of a new surfing magazine, and laying my eyes on the photograph above, taken by photographer Tom Servais, of the greatest surfer of all time,[1] riding a logo-free surfboard in full defiance of the (then) highly commercialized world of professional surfing.

This photo was a Big Deal when it came out. For the world of professional surfing, the 1980s were booming (relatively). The magazines were jammed with ads, ads, and more ads. Neon-colored surfboards, neon-colored sandals, neon-colored wetsuits. Sunglasses. Sunscreen. Bathing suits. Clothing. In the 1980s, it was neon and commercialization all the way down.

The magazines back then were thick booklets full of ads. Everything was for sale. Surfing was getting media attention and making money.  All of the professional surfers (and pretty much everyone else too) followed suit by putting a ridiculous number of stickers and logos all over their boards. And many of them spent an inordinate amount of time trying to get photographers to take pictures of them with those ad-laden boards. It was all about exposure and getting noticed. Do you see where this is going? More pictures in magazines with more visible ads meant: MONEY.

It was all about money. And then the 1980s were over and suddenly we were in the 90s. Early on in this new arbitrary timeline, this guy named Curren—recognized as one of the best surfers in the world at the time—paddled out on a logo-free board at a famous spot on the North Shore of Hawaii and reminded the world of surfing that it wasn’t, actually, all about money. Curren was a two-time world champion by that time, but he was notoriously reclusive. Here’s what photographer Tom Servais had to say about him:

Tom’s really elusive to get photos of. He almost seemed like he was making it difficult to get photos of him, although I don’t think he was doing that on purpose. He just wasn’t comfortable with people taking his picture all the time. I think he almost avoided cameras.

That photograph is considered one of the most iconic images in American surfing. It should have been a cover image, but, as Servais explains:

Within a week or two I started realizing that it was a really special shot. I thought it should have been a cover shot, and I think most everybody on the staff thought it should have been a cover shot. But I think because Curren didn’t have the logos on his board the magazine didn’t want to put it on the cover. They didn’t want to piss off the advertisers and put out a cover shot of a guy with no logos.

At that point, the world of surfing had not quite come down from the over-commercialized high of the 1980s. This photograph was one of the moments that broke the spell…for a while at least. The boom ended in the 1990s, and Surfer magazine, for example, took on a slimmer, more “soulful” look for much of the decade. This was how I remember people talking about the anti-commercial turn of the 1990s. “Soulful” meant something like “less ads.”

As I mentioned above, I was 16 years old when all this happened. I’d joined the world of surfing at 11 years old, happily, to escape the rigorous, rule-bound, endlessly monetized world of baseball. Surfing, for me, was everything that baseball was not. There was something about surfing that could not be reduced, broken down into bits and pieces and bought and sold. Surfing contests, for example, have always seemed so alien and arbitrary—it never made sense to me to take the whole experience of surfing, of being in the water, and chop it up into little parts that could be assessed according to a 10 point scale. Put in other terms, for me surfing was something that existed largely outside of the world of capital and markets. Or so I thought.[2]

The concept of commodification can be boiled down to something along the lines of “the process of turning something into an exchangeable good.” Or the process of putting monetary values on things that don’t (or some would say shouldn’t) have them. I like Keith Hart’s definition: it is the “progressive abstraction of social labor.” A commodity, for Hart, is the “means through which we work for other people” (2011:10).[3] Think about that.

Then consider how this relates to something like surfing, which lies somewhere between a recreational activity and a way of life for many people. What the process of commodification does, in effect, is abstract all of the billions of moments and experiences that go into surfing and turn them into things through which we work for others. Or, that’s what can and often does happen. This process of abstraction begins with all of the professional surfers and their logo-laden boards, and the photographers who shoot endless photographs of them, all of which feeds into all those ads in magazines. So a tension develops between surfing for fun/pleasure and doing it to generate revenue in one form or another. But I’d argue that this process of commodification extends beyond the professionals and shapes what surfing means for many, many others.

In my own case, I remember that I used to copy my favorite pro surfers by putting a bunch of stickers on my boards. That’s pretty odd if you think about it. I even went to the point of actually cutting out logos from magazines and sticking them to my surfboards by waxing over them…all to emulate my idols. And I was, at some level, actually working for other people by becoming a willing human billboard. At some point, I began to realize that there was something incredibly strange about what I was doing. I give Tom Curren credit for that realization, and, in hindsight, for clueing me in to the strange process of commodification, in which (some) humans try to put dollar signs on the entirety of human experience. Looking back, it seems sort of amazing that it was such a revolutionary act for one guy to have the gall to paddle out on a logo-free surfboard and catch a few waves. But then, in these days of the endless commodification of everything, that moment was just a small harbinger of so much else to come.

References

Hart, Keith. 2011. Building a Human Economy: A Question of Value? Suomen Antropologi: Journal of the Finnish Anthropological Society 36(2):5–17.

Footnotes

[1] This is pure unadulterated opinion.

[2] Looking back, this is a pretty naïve perspective, since the world of surfing was, and had been, fully enmeshed in the market economy. But this marketization was never complete and, like many things, people live out their lives in those gaps.

[3] Hart uses the term “commoditization,” but he uses it in the same sense as commodification, not in the American business sense, which apparently has a different meaning. I generally treat the two terms as synonyms. Where do you stand on this?

 

 

Ryan

Ryan Anderson is a cultural and environmental anthropologist. His current research focuses on coastal conservation, sustainability, and development in the Californias. He also writes about politics, economics, and media. You can reach him at ryan AT savageminds dot org or @anthropologia on twitter.

13 thoughts on “Surfing vs. the commodification of everything

  1. Intersting post Ryan! Thanks for it. For people that want to read more about the anthropology of surfing and commodification they could see:

    West, Paige. 2016. Dispossession and the Environment: Rhetoric and Inequality in Papua New Guinea. New York, NY: Columbia University Press. (chapter three) * Winner, Columbia University Press Distinguished Book Award, 2017.

    OR

    West, Paige. 2014. “Such A Site for Play, This Edge”: Surfing, Tourism and Modernist Fantasy in Papua New Guinea. The Contemporary Pacific 26 (2).

    OR

    Work by Prof. Jess Ponting: http://sustainablesurf.org/about-us/advisory-board/jessponting2/

  2. Hey Ryan,

    Thanks for writing this piece–I appreciated your reflection. It got me thinking, Greaber, somewhere or other, makes the argument that this sort of commodity theory might be taken as a theory of the creation of symbolic value in the context of some stage or another of capitalist industrial processes. So in a way, commodification becomes a specific instance of a more general process, that of the social creation of signs. I was curious if you buy that sort of argument?

    I think I do, and then, for me at least, it becomes interesting where we draw the moral line as to when alienation and exploitation become a problem we worry about in the creation of signs and symbolic value. To take a trivial example, we don’t usually worry about the alienated, unacknowledged labor that went (and still goes) into the creation of most of the words I’m using in this post. But in the context of processes of capitalist accumulation or some instances of cultural appropriation it’s easier to see when alienation becomes exploitative to laborers or groups of people and soul destroying and empty for humans participating in a commodity culture.

    It’s almost as though the moral economy goes something like this: the creation and appropriation of symbolic value is somewhat defensible provided you’re not transparently making money off of it. I suppose, too, this explains the ire that people universally have for the “sell-out.” And in an odd sort of way, this gets us back to the protestant ethic–productivity is great, but you’re not supposed to be doing it for the money.

    It’s probably worth mentioning, too, that I’m writing all of this while wearing a t-shirt with a university logo. Dang.

  3. Brilliant. The world’s oceans still offer at least the sense of escape from a social reality dominated by rules, products, and, now more than ever, “jobs, jobs, jobs” — which, of course, carry with them the corollary, Bosses, Bosses, Bosses. Along with surfing, consider open-water swimming, breath-hold diving (also revealingly called “free diving”), and blue water sailing (far from harbors where fluid, boundless water is carved up by all manner of buoys, channel markers, moorings).

  4. An old but possibly still useful book to those wishing to follow Daniel Souleles’ suggestions is Harlan Cleveland (1985) The Knowledge Executive. Cleveland (who was, by the way a fascinating character involved in projects including distributing US aid to both Communists and KMT during WWII, administering the Marshall Plan, and, Alex can check this, being president of the University of Hawaii) observes in this book that the legal framework on which modern business and government depend is, in essence, a law of things, where a thing is something such that if I transfer my thing to you, I no longer possess it. But knowledge, an increasingly vital component in economic life is not a thing. If I transfer knowledge to you, I don’t lose it. How value that resides in knowledge instead of things should be regulated remains a huge issue and a major source of income for lawyers who specialize in intellectual property. One of the ironical consequences of this situation is that major corporations and indigenous peoples may find themselves on the same side of legal battles, since both assert an inalienable right to certain intellectual and/or intangible properties. Disney claiming that Mickey Mouse belongs to Disney and only to Disney forever occupies the same legal ground as an indigenous people making the same claim about a costume, performance, or traditional pharmaceutical.

  5. Hi Paige, thanks for the references. I had no idea you wrote about surfing in your work, and I look forward to reading it. Jess Ponting does some great work too—I was teaching at SDSU for a couple of years but never had the chance to meet him. I’ll have to try again. Have you seen the Critical Surf Studies reader? It’s coming out in September I think:

    https://www.dukeupress.edu/the-critical-surf-studies-reader

    Dan, ya I think I do buy into the argument that this kind of commodification is a specific instance in a more general process of commodification. It’s not just the literal signs (ie logos) that do this in the case of surfing, but also the idea of breaking it up into small, alienable moments/images that can be shared, sent around, and eventually monetized. It is indeed interesting where we draw the moral line with all this, and you’re right that we pick and choose what we worry about or think of as “selling out.” But then, it may be a matter of how the labor process plays out, who owns it and benefits from it, and to what extent we’re willing to peel that back. I think these forms of appropriation/alienation are more apparent when we’re dealing with human activities like surfing—or art—that are somehow supposed to be motivated by something other than the profit motive. In that sense surfing has a long-running internal moral battle between those who do it for “love” and those who do it for money/competition or whatever. Of course in reality everything is much messier. In general I agree with you that we tend to think that the creation and appropriation of symbolic value is OK as long as nobody is making money off it. But then what about something like a fundraiser, where the goal is explicitly to raise money? There are surf contests put on for a “good cause” that manage to escape some of this critique, which is interesting. So maybe it’s not just about making money, but about what purpose that money (and labor) goes toward?

    PS: I’m also writing this while wearing a t-shirt with a university logo. So I’m either a hypocrite or there’s something more to this whole moral argument.

    Lee, I like the way you put it, that the oceans still offer that sense of escape from the world of rules, products, and jobs. Perhaps the only boss out there is the proverbial ‘man in the gray suit’! And, by the way, there’s been quite a number of sightings of great white sharks in the Southern California area lately. Not sure what that means though. Open water swimming and free-diving are good examples of endeavors that are similar to surfing in that people can do them with a minimum of engagement with the market economy (but all of this is still commercialized). Sailing too, but I’d think it’s a little harder unless you’re actually building your own boats or something.

  6. Hi Ryan, interesting thread, and I am excited to lear both about Page’s work and about the critical surf studies reader. The whole countercultures vs commodification/selling out question is of course a huge theme in anth and cultural studies work on the contemporary US. For me it has always been interesting to see the ways in which consumption and an anti-modernist critique of it are linked at their origins – the work of Jackson Lears and Colin Campbell has always seemed really useful in that respect, and Jill Dubisch’s delightful discussion of health food draws on some of those ideas (insightful and fun to teach even if its theoretical language is very old fashioned at this point).

    Campbell, C. (2005). The romantic ethic and the spirit of modern consumerism. WritersPrintShop.

    Lears, T. J. (2000). From salvation to self-realization: Advertising and the therapeutic roots of the consumer culture, 1880-1930. Advertising & Society Review, 1(1).

    Dubisch, J. (2004). You are what you eat: Religious aspects of the health food movement. Investigating culture: An experiential introduction to anthropology, 311.

    There are also a couple of great recent monographs on surfing: Kristin Lawler on surfing and bohemian resistance in California and American popular culture and Isaiah Helekunihi Walker on surfing and indigenous resistance in Hawaii. William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is a brilliant, absolutely engrossing surfing memoir that to me (a non-surfer) really captures the compelling nature of the activity.

    Lawler, K. (2010). The American surfer: Radical culture and capitalism. Routledge.

    Walker, I. H. (2011). Waves of resistance: Surfing and history in twentieth-century Hawaii. University of Hawai’i Press.

    Finnegan, W. (2016). Barbarian days: a surfing life. Penguin.

    Giovanni da Col and I have organized a AAA session next year on vertiginous sports more generally that deals with some of these issues, and has two papers on surfing. The panel is called NONPLAY MATTERS: anthropological engagements with vertiginous sociality. More details here:

    https://www.academia.edu/34052834/NONPLAY_MATTERS_Complete_Panel.pdf

  7. Hi Daniel, thanks for the comment and all the good refs. Looks like we’re building the start of a anthro-surf reading list here. And ya, the whole ‘selling out’ theme is a big one, and surfing definitely has a long-running battle with that whole beast. I’ll be interested to check out some of these books you list. The Lawler book in particular for its focus on ‘radical culture.’ One interesting thing about the whole world of surfing is that even though it sort of has this counter-culture reputation, the politics of many surf communities can be a pretty mixed bag and not always ‘radical’ by any means. There’s also a certain apolitical stance in much of the surf industry, which is something the Critical Surf Studies reader purports to tackle. I’m glad to see them taking this angle, and interested to see what the authors have to say.

  8. Here’s another item for that “anthro-surf reading list”” an oldie but goodie, by, probably the only dedicated surfer to win a Nobel Prize: “Dancing Naked in the Mind Field”:by Kary Mullis: Mullis claimed, as best I can make out, that the mind-set of surfing liberated the “mind field” in which he conceived the PCR phenomenon. Oh, that, and a little help from home brew LSD and neon green raccoons appearing tn the forest .But here’s the real anthropological question: There you are on the surfboard, some only partially understood wave is coming at you, as an accomplished surfer you make all kinds of muscular adjustments to the oncoming wave– and hey, presto, there you are in your “mind field.” .You ride the wave. Afterwards, the media vultures descend on you: What were you thinking, How did you do it? The only answer, of course, for those language-shackled vultures, is, “I haven’t a clue. So much was going on in my head.” Might not this be a good exemplar of productive anthropological thought: I was there, riding the wave, far, far from the distraction of anthropologists (who may as well as become second- and third-rate lawyers, given their obsession with what is said, what is written, and never mind what is done. Ride the wave.

  9. Lee, the actual act of surfing happens pretty fast. It’s hard to put into words but that doesn’t mean it’s completely free of thought, intent, decisions. It’s one of those weird things like hitting a baseball that combines a certain amount of rapid decision-making with experience and practice. But each new instance is unique. Like many things, it takes a lot of practice to get it, and continued practice to keep it in tune. But there’s a lot of thought and decisions that go into the whole thing, since the experience itself is about more than the moment when you’re on waves. It’s about the weather and water conditions, the paddle out, sitting and waiting for waves to come, picking the right waves, and then making the quick decisions about how to deal with each one. It all happens fast, but then there’s a lot of down time to think things through as well (depending on the conditions–some days in the water are more contemplative than others).

  10. Serendipitously. A parable I use teaching marketing and business anthropology:

    _Imagine a beach. At one end is my academic friend who is building a sandcastle. Constructed one grain of sand at a time, it is truly a thing of beauty —until the tide comes in.

    At the other end is a fellow who wants to get rich quick. He drives up, takes off his clothes, and jumps straight into the water, oblivious to the riptides, jellyfish, and sharks, and the storm looming on the horizon. He will be lucky to get out alive.

    Now direct your attention to the middle of the beach where Surfer Dude is hanging out. He carefully checks the weather and the waves. When he spots a promising wave and starts to swim out toward it, we can see that he is in great shape. He has practiced and learned a lot.

    The moral of the story is not that Surfer Dude catches every good wave. No one ever does. But when he does catch a good wave, he gets one incredible ride. _

  11. Hi Ryan,

    By all means, get in touch with Duke to try to get a desk or exam copy of the Critical Surf Studies Reader. Should be in print come September. I think that many of the essays therein–including those by Lawler, Walker, Comer, Laderman, etc.–dialogue nicely with the point you’re trying to make above.

    Best,
    Dexter Zavalza

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