Surfing’s Glow Up! Night Surfers: Surfing’s New Demo in the Tech Age.
Much like the Humans of Savannah student ethnographies and the ordinary vignettes of Ordinary Affects, the New York Times article “It’s A Nice Night for Surfing. Beware of Sharks.” exposes anthropological workings in the everyday. This April 2017 emic recount of night surfer, Igel shows that one individual has the agency to change a culture, to create a subculture of night surfing by paddling a new pattern out under a silver sun, alone and moonstruck. In a globalizing world where ideas diffuse, and time and space compress with LED technology to extend surfing space past daylight hours and crowded lineups, Igel shows us culture happens in the everyday. In culture we search for symbols, and in this case the activity is a symbol itself. Why surf at night? Why mark yourself as a night surfer, and not just a “surfer?” What does the language of night surfer impose? This after-sunset subculture explains a reorganized intersection of culture, gender, and class. All of which, stitch and flex together like neoprene, under a Capitalist political economy.
To better understand patterns of local human life, and the meaning by which people shape their existence, we look to the political economy. Such ethnographic observation of the ordinary vignette, of a surfer paddling out, of the mundane, can inform us of daily life. The construction of night surfing culture rides off of the counter culture to Capitalism. Capitalist economies, most prominently the American economy, structures itself to a productive 9–5 indoor work day, 40 hours a week. Surfing roots itself in leisure, the antithesis to such productivity, and traditionally takes place within the same scheduled work hours, sunrise to sunset. The development of night surfing culture allows surfers to participate in American norms without cutting out leisure or compromising one for the other. In this way, both can exist separately and harmoniously: work all day, surf all night, all year long, a truly endless summer without the sun. Experiencing capitalist culture, the structure focuses on the future; always working harder toward something with prolonged, postponed gratification and or achievement. Igel expresses an appeal to surfing as a “feel [of] what’s happening, and [to] be in the moment, the most amazing experience”, a direct counter to capitalism’s rejection of the now. As Miner studies daily rituals in the Nacirema, the article also observes the ritual of surfing, and reveals tacit values we hold as Capitalist participants, and how we might react against such values. Surfing allows us to value and enjoy the now.
One defining quality of this subculture is its aversion to crowds. Surfing generally speaks to an escapism, and as an established counter culture, an aversion to the mainstream. The protective secrecy and hoarding of sacred spots speaks to a value of conservatism and gentrification. There is an unwillingness to fight for, or share a resource. “So Igel agreed to an interview, on one condition: no naming the precise spot he frequents.” Although a slight stretch, as seen in Marx’s social theory, the struggle over the resource of labor leads to hierarchy and elitism, we too see a conflict over access to a resource. In this case, the competition for waves has led to a hierarchy in one’s rights to catch a wave. Some are marginalized to seek access outside of cultural times, after hours. Surfers unanimously value less crowded lineups, keeping their spots to themselves and limited to small groups, privatizing their resource. To capitalize on the wealth of crowded line ups, surfers will leverage status and skill to create a hierarchy of eligibility and legitimacy to that wave. From capitalist culture, we are both accustomed and enculturated to competing for abundance. Similarly seen in the to the champagne glass for income inequality, waves, although infinitely available, go to the top few first. The majority of surfers then scramble for leftovers. This elitism again marginalizes low-status surfers to practice after hours, outside of mainstream culture, and subsequently create culture elsewhere in the hopes of entering the scene one day; and, if they are lucky, into the tube as well. Most simply, the night attraction is “not only about trying to get away from the crowds,” [but] “it’s the ambience, which is hard for me to put into words.” A curiosity and isolation feels enchanting in comparison to a knowledge based, bustling, mainstream culture.
Archaeological anthropology shows that we can learn much about humanity through their garbage, or learn even more in the absence of information. In this vain, the absence of women in this account and type of surfing infers a male-gendered culture. The only reference to women in this vignette exists as “Igel snapped a selfie and texted the picture to his wife to try to put her mind at ease.” Although women surfers participate in increasing numbers, and even as big-wave Jaw riders, this account forgets those fearless women. Instead, women again assume the role of the worry-wort housewife, up all night sick to her stomach, awaiting reassurance of her brave, edgy man’s safety. Men venture and conquer the dark and taunting unknown. As if jaws of waves weren’t unnerving enough in daylight, let’s also include the risks of sharks, no lifeguard lifelines, documented drownings, death defying dives, and no visibility to the challenge. Night surfing is linked to tragedy. Men are constructed to challenge and assert, and in a subculture stacked with challenges in order to dominate, it’s a pretty prime opportunity to exploit masculinity. This introduction and exposure to night surfing deals directly with the issue of representation, as well as how to discuss a lifestyle we do not directly experience. To encapsulate the extreme danger and risk involved here, it comes as no shock that women would not be the first image to generate the idea of bravery in night wave hunting. A representation of women surfers may represent a story of manic, nonconforming individuals trying to assume male gendered qualities, whereas a male surfers may speak more naturally to a competitive, confrontational and fearless culture charting the outer known. The photographs in this NY TIMES photo essay are captioned and expository in nature to further explain, and represent practices in the culture. Through a discourse of imagery, we texturally feel as though we know the experience of surfing at night, and thus, the reality of this lifestyle. Repeatedly, sharks appear in context to masculinity. “Sharks are a big part of night surfing, even if they are not actually there the thought is always with me…an amazing epitaph: ‘Eaten by Great White Whilst Night Surfing.” Shark attacks remain the most frequented and discussed image of surfing’s greatest threat, and the odds of this image only increase after dark. The fear factor driving the masculinity that night surfers rely on, only intensifies when an increase in the frequency of drownings and washed up bodies occurs primaily within this culture. For anyone who wants to flash the man card, this culture suits the bill.
Representation further flows in aesthetics and material culture. Class status and consumer values shine through established modes of aesthetics defined by technology. Anyone can surf at night, but aesthetics in how one surfs at night intertwines with new meaning when technology advances. The article pinpoints how professional surfers and media circulation illuminate night time waves with flashy LED lit boards. Although surfers like Igel fair fine with old school glow sticks, media markets again find a way to appeal to consumers of growing subcultures, advertising ways you can surf it better, or almost only surf it with pricy lights. In media-centric, consumer cultures there will always be sponsored technology that does it better for a higher price tag, especially when the professionals we idolize survive on such sponsored incomes. There will continually be a new representation of the surfer to buy into. Almost as important as skill, aesthetics carries heavy weight in how a surfer is conceptualized by peers. When we relate to our idols by shared material culture, we are rewarded, and it is important to have those flashy boards. We can easily conceptualize where someone stands economically based on how they light up their board out there. We can then visually assume who is more dedicated and involved in the scene based on their investment in aesthetic.
The feelings provoked by the images in this photo essay, feelings that Igel and other surfers use to describe their own experiences, describe Lingus’s idea that the world we know originates from bodily knowledge. The body senses and feels, and although self-contained, mutually exists on external levels. When asked “why surf?”, many that identify as such will instinctually discuss the way they feel it and its grip. We encounter these feelings and attach an identity to it, and others who do so mutually. Thus a pattern of shared experience and value constructs itself, and a new culture is born. This vignette and snapshot of night time surfers shows the sociability in world building, the production of space, and exemplifies the merging of acts and Anthropology.