Abstract/Concrete

I've been doing a bit of revision of my (incomplete) notes from Vin D'Cruz and William Steele's book, 'Australia's Ambivalence Towards Asia' (2006, Monash Asia Institute).

Part of the book discusses the difference in cultures creating a continuum with abstract (individual) at one end and concrete (community) at the other. The idea is that cultures fit on various places on this continuum, with western cultures tending toward the abstract, while asian cultures are located closer to the concrete end. Neither is completely one or the other. Obviously, this is an arbitrary analysis.

I am discussing the ways that surf culture helps to create inter-cultural connections by providing a starting point of sameness from which to explore differences. As part of this, I want to be able to discuss surfing as a culture in its own right - as a culture that ( to some degree) crosses national cultural boundaries and to explore the possibilities that this provides. I am arguing that surfing takes place in an offshore location (the ocean) that allows the creation of new power relations and relationships that are based on norms that are different to those on land, where the prevailing culture reigns.

In regard to the concept of the abstract/concrete differential, surfing is a strange culture, because it is totally abstract and yet totally concrete.

Surfing is an individual performance that takes place in cooperation with nature. It is a personal connection with a wave and it is an individual interpretation of what that wave offers. You cannot guess ahead what the wave will do, so surfing is a completely individual experience in that a) every wave is different and new, b) surfing a wave is one person on one surfboard, with their own style and method of interpretation of that wave based on their own personal history, goals and experience with surfing, and c) the way the person chooses to ride and interpret that wave is dependent on their skill level, experience, their mood and their hopes for what they can achieve. The major limitation on surfing is the presence (or otherwise) of waves, which does control to a large degree, what can be done in the water - what board is most appropriate, how long the rides go for, and the types of interpretations that can be performed on the wave (barrels, airs, turns). Other people can interfere or input in small ways such as being in the way, dropping in, hollering support etc, but these impacts are small in relation to the effect that the individual has on their own performance and experience. In the words of D'Cruz and Steele, it is complete individual freedom to "celebrate forms of independence and autonomy" (p180) - it is abstract.


On the other hand, every performance requires an audience. As surfing's popularity grows and more people are in the water, it is rare for a surfer to find themselves on their own at any break. It is a wonderful feeling to have the choice of waves to yourself, but a lot of surfing literature (and my own conversations with friends) reveal how much more common it is for people to go surfing with friends or in groups. These groups may be small, but the feeling of having your performance on a wave appreciated and recognised by your peers is, of course, enjoyable. Surfing is a culture, with its own history, language, understandings and etiquettes. In part, these are practical, ensuring conformity to rules of behaviour in the water for safety. Alternatively, they are ways of creating new power relations in the cultural location of the water. There also exists a saturated market of magazines, clothing, films, art, surf hardware and a highly competitive international competition, which involves vast amounts of money and prestige both within the surfing community and beyond. Surfing is haunted by stereotypes which help create a unity between people who both surf and reject the stoner/hippie/dropout image. People who surf regularly at the same places begin to recognise each other and respect is formed on the basis of a commitment to the activity, often regardless of skill level. A recognition is created of who is a regular - who belongs - at certain breaks as opposed to who is a newcomer or a tourist. It is a community of place that exists only in the water where the relationships formed do not necessarily cross over onto land.

So yes, surfing is both abstract and concrete; one not being able to exist without the other.

Further to this, there is the actual engagement with the ocean itself. As mentioned, surfing relies on the prevailing conditions to determine what is possible, which can be a source of frustration and anger for many surfers if they have been unable to get a wave very easily. Abstract cultures, such as general western culture, tends to focus on individual control over life, so perhaps there is some struggle to accept the realities that are experienced through the changing daily conditions. Often, surfers feel an entitlement to a wave - if they have been waiting for a long time in the line-up or if they have been surfing a particular break regularly for a long time ('That wave is mine'). Outside influences such as other people and the environmental conditions themselves then become antagonistic elements in the water. Perhaps more concrete cultures, who may more easily acknowledge that many elements of life are out of their control, are more accepting of nature's realities and provisions (waves, or not, both generally and personally).

Perhaps, with such a strong presence of both abstract AND concrete elements of life in surf culture, it is easier to achieve intercultural communication by understanding the abstract/concrete parts of themselves and their national identities.

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