All men must surf

Kalle Jonasson
Department of Sport Science, Linnaeus University, Sweden

Belinda Wheaton
The Cultural Politics of Lifestyle Sports
235 pages, paperback.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2013 (Routledge Critical Studes in Sport)
ISBN 978-0-415-47858-8

In Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse now, in the famous scene when Colonel Kilgore expresses his love of the smell of napalm in the morning, a couple of soldiers are seen surfing while the shore is set ablaze by a fighter plane bomb raid. Another one of Kilgore’s classical quotes from this scene demonstrates how conquering the waves on a surfboard is a symbolical mirroring of the carnage on dry land: If I say it’s safe to surf this beach, captain – it’s safe to surf this beach. I’m not afraid to surf this place, I’m not afraid to surf this fucking place.

This scene perfectly symbolizes Belinda Wheaton’s point of departure in her book The Cultural Politics of Lifestyle Sports. Surfing, despite its non-disputable indigenous origin, has been culturally appropriated by white westerners during the last century and up till now. Eventually, this has turned not only the sport itself, but also the whole of the ocean, into a white (male) territory and prerogative. The struggle to keep the ocean a white preserve has been fought symbolically, logistically and socially ever since surfing was popularized among European descendants in the US between the world wars of the last century.

Wheaton now challenges this discourse by exploring several cases which testify to the rich experiences and histories of instances of lifestyle sports practised outside of the global north and by other groups than white middle-class men. This is framed theoretically as an exhibit of how cultural politics are played out in the context of sports.

However, lifestyle sports differ a lot from its competitive, regular counterparts. Such sports, referred to as ‘Californian sports’ by Pierre Bourdieu, have increasingly been scrutinized over the past 20 years by social scientists from an array of disciplines and perspectives. Wheaton is one of the prominent scholars in this field and the present book further establishes that fact. Such sports are often hedonistic practices in liminal outdoor zones oriented towards individual growth and cultivating values and norms of subcultures that oppose both quotidian life and the competitive ethos of regular sports.

If the aim of the book is to look into the how, why, where and who of lifestyle sports outside both the global north and groups of white, male, middle-class men, the theoretical departure is a bricolage of sundry schools, strands and concepts. The cultural studies movement is an important source to Wheaton and she doesn’t shy away from addressing its fetishizing of subcultures. The apparent pitfall of focussing subcultures as countercultural (an established cultural studies’ tradition) is that it all crumbles when the subcultural representatives continue with their practices, while also succumbing to processes such as capitalism and neoliberalism. And this is where the eclectic theoretical profusion comes in handy for Wheaton. Other important sources are Bourdieu, Foucault, Giddens and the Physical Cultural Studies movement.

The solution to this conundrum – i.e. how can countercultures keep their oppositional position intact while also explicitly and willingly accepting capitalist and neoliberal values? – is two-fold, as I see it. There are surely other aspects of it, but these two are of particular interest.

Wheaton is, in other words (which is all too common in contemporary ahabemia, sorry, academia), no Captain Ahab, chasing a great white male, sorry, whale, haunting the waves.

One is that such cultures (whether with counter-, sub- or neither of those prefixes) are always under construction by the different voices that both challenge and reproduce the alleged logic of the practice. This is evident throughout the book, both as a point of departure and by the array of terms referring to the complexity of such sports. A typical quote to demonstrate the tension of contradictions that Wheaton wants to explore is found in the chapter on previous research:

Furthermore, despite these shared characteristics, lifestyle sports take multiple and increasingly fragmented forms, drawing on a vast array of narratives that are saturated with ambiguities and contradictions, reflecting the multiple configurations of identity and boundary-crossing practices characteristic of cultural processes in late modernity. (p.30)

But Wheaton isn’t only writing such terms. She also gets her hands dirty trying to demonstrate such contrasts. Methodologically, this is carried out precisely by letting a plethora of voices within such cultures be heard, whereby she avoids the more philosophical and symbolical interpretations of such sports. This was particularly hard for me to read, since the latter conceptual practice has been common for me as a sport scholar. For example, parkour has been interpreted as a critique of the way capitalism constrains movement through architecture. Following Wheaton, this is one of the possible ways to understand parkour, but to state that we must ask practitioners.

The other solution follows from the first, and it is more implicit in the text (which is to say that it is my interpretation). The mere fact that we ascribe symbolical meaning to such practices (such as: surfing is a critique of the tedious life of the conform western society), is due to the conformity of those having had the strongest voices in defining what the culture is, namely white western middle-class men. To interpret a sport as simply this or that, especially by academics that really ought to be critical, amounts to confirming the symbolical role that hegemonic groups ascribe to it.

Wheaton is, in other words (which is all too common in contemporary ahabemia, sorry, academia), no Captain Ahab, chasing a great white male, sorry, whale, haunting the waves. She simply sidesteps this and looks for the other varieties in lifestyle sport practices. What say the black voices of surfing? How can skateboarding foster wholesome and virtuous values that contribute to society? How can parkour be said to contribute to municipalities by creating a civic sense of solidarity? By posing such questions, Wheaton effectuates her theoretical departure and becomes a part of the cultural politics of lifestyle sport herself. Wary of the risks of performing such a balance act, since research ought to keep a distance in order not to be biased and carried out too normatively, Wheaton states that she wants her studies to inform practices to become more conscious about existing power asymmetries within them so that they might open up and become more inclusive.

However, there is one influent normative current pervading the chapters and cases of the book: the right to water. Not as in the right to drinking water, but as in access to the ocean, the beaches and the waves. Naturally, the three cases of surfing (The California beach; Surfing, Identity and Race; Black surfing association) acknowledge this, but it also surfaces in the case of street kids skateboarding in South Africa. Surely, the case of parkour in Brighton, UK, doesn’t address this, other than it being based on an inquiry carried out in a coastal city.

Other than – what might be – Wheaton’s own experiences of surfing, which cautiously suggest that in surfing we are not only one with the waves, but with each other, numerous accounts in the cases testify to that equality, solidarity, meaningfulness and joy is a, however temporary, influential state that could be reached in the realm of the sea. Only for the purpose of demonstrating how non-ambiguously this is communicated in the book, one could perhaps call this normative position as one promoting ‘aquality’, to coin a term: equality, deliberation and erasure of power structures by being in the water in together.[1]

By posing such questions, Wheaton effectuates her theoretical departure and becomes a part of the cultural politics of lifestyle sport herself.

One of the most striking features of all cases in Wheaton’s treatise is how systematically minorities have been excluded from the beach over the last century and how access to the waves has been a white privilege, regardless of whether we talk about San Diego or Durban. Wheaton succinctly demonstrates how this is effectuated on so many levels at the same time: Mid 20th century Hollywood movies on surfing displayed no blacks in waves; Apartheid reserved the most accessible and safest beaches to whites; bus and trolley lines that led to the beach put restrictions on bringing your surfing board, hindering black people without cars to reach the brine (some stations were also placed far from the richest and whitest sea venues and thereby actualizing what Wheaton refers to as the ‘racializing of space’ and ‘spatializing of race’). All these instances might, then, with the suggested term above, be seen as obstacles for aquality to be reached and performed.

The emphasis on surfing in three of the five cases enables a rich and deep understanding of this particular lifestyle sport, but is it enough to be able to talk about lifestyle sports in general with such an unbalanced material? Surely, the cases of parkour and skateboarding display interesting samples of how lifestyle sports could support the marginalized in order for them to become stronger voices in civic society, but they weigh lightly in comparison to the depth of Wheaton’s knowledge of the surfing community and history. Wheaton indeed discusses whether or not being an insider/outsider is a superficial problem in ethnographic research. Unfortunately, this doesn’t get properly resolved and the three (out of five) cases on surfing could be seen as serving to acknowledge that she really is more familiar to surfing and not to the others. One of the strengths of the anthology Understanding Lifestyle Sports, which Wheaton edited a decade ago, was just that, the plethora of practices.

The objections and critical points I have brought up in this review, however, does not deflect from the merits of Wheaton’s study, which is clearly organized, well-informed, well written, theoretically fine-tuned and methodologically precise. I would recommend it, not only to scholars and students with an interest in the particular sports, but also to those focussing the interplay of race, space, bodies and the ocean.

Copyright © Kalle Jonasson 2017

[1] The heading of this review, “All men must surf”, is a wordplay with the dictum that is repeated constantly in the fantasy series Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin: All men must serve, all men must die. My light-hearted variation of the ominous phrase is an acknowledgement of what I perceive as an implicit message and a normative undercurrent in Wheaton’s book, and which I for the purpose of making that point clear has termed ’aquality’.


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