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A Surfer’s Hidden Transcript – Hawaiian Surf Culture, Localism, and Representation

A Surfer’s Hidden Transcript – Hawaiian Surf Culture, Localism, and Representation

James C. Scott’s formulation, from his book Domination and the Arts of Resistance, of the “infrapolitics of subordinate groups,” is especially interesting in thinking about one of Hawaii’s greatest cultural and social exports, the art of surfing. If you surf, you are undoubtedly aware of the various unspoken codes and rules that govern the tribe. These codes and rules exist, in part, as both a kind of self-policing in the lineups as well as warning to outsiders, or “non-locals.” (“Local,” especially in Hawaii, is quite a loaded term, however we can limit it in our discussion to stand in for surfers who aren’t from the area/surf spot.) If you don’t surf, then what you think you know about these codes or rules is greatly filtered through the public transcript. However, the fact that there are, to varying degrees, different representations of the “surfer’s code” in both the public and hidden transcript, offers us an interesting window into how the hidden and the public collide.

As Scott explains, infrapolitics “is a politics of disguise and anonymity that takes place in public view but is designed to have a double meaning or to shield the identity of the actors.” Surfers are notorious for rubbing wax on windshields, slashing tires, removing distributor caps and spark plug lines, siphoning gas, and various others acts surf terrorism to cars that they don’t recognize as “from” where they surf all of the time. For instance a friend and I got out of the water at Lahilahi, a sharky, deep water break just down the road from Makaha one afternoon and found that all of the cars parked along the side of the road (except ours) had “haole go home” written on them. My buddy grew up on the Westside of Oahu so we were spared trying to wash off permanent marker (or whatever it was). Likewise, “warning” signs abound on the way to some surf breaks. Crudely spray-painted or drawn on walls, signs, sidewalks, or rubbish cans, markers signify who is allowed to surf, and who is not. Again, if you ever happen to surf China Walls, a surf break off of Portlock on the East side of Oahu, hop the fence (which was put there for public safety, thank you Linda Lingle) and make your way down the path to the stairs that lead down to the “Finger” (a specific section of the wave at China’s) and you’ll see warnings such as “if you don’t live here, don’t surf here,” (which is ironic because who can afford to live in Portlock?) “go home,” and “beat it haole.”

Before the mainstream appropriated and disseminated it to the masses, surfer discourse is also a good example of the hidden transcript. Words such as “rad,” tubular,” “gnarly,” and “bitchin” were used within the public transcript to both mark the identity of the subordinate group (if you knew how and why these words were used you were privy to the club), and alienate the elite (I’m thinking here of Sean Penn’s character “Jeff Spicoli” matching wits with “Mr. Hand” in Fast Times at Ridgemont High.) These days, what isn’t said seems to carry more weight. For instance, all surfers know that if the waves are great at your local beach, you don’t tell anyone about it. There’s nothing worse than a carload of surfers piling out into the lineup because one of the “bro’s” spilled the beans about a new swell. The “secret spot” is another excellent example of this discourse of silence, as surfers go to great lengths to ensure that hidden spots remain hidden. For example, I hitched a ride on a friend’s boat across the channel to Molokai to surf a “secret spot,” only to find a half a dozen other boats there as we arrived. My friend was visibly irritated. He recognized a couple of friends in some of the other boats and proceeded to curse at them for bringing people to the break (when he was guilty of the same crime).

Inevitably, these codes and rules lead to confrontations with the public transcript. However, these incarnations of the hidden transcript within the public sphere are, as Scott posits, no longer meant to “shield the identity of the actors,” instead, the actors are very much in the public eye. So while the events that led up to the formation of surfer groups like The Hui, Wolfpack, and the Bra Boys find their origins in the hidden transcript, their establishment, and resulting reign, are very much a part of the public transcript (as evident in films like North Shore, Blue Crush, Bra Boys, television shows like The 808, and all of the Da Hui and Wolfpack merchandise available at your local Costco.) I find it ironic that these groups complain about how they are perceived in public given their pre-revolutionary rough and tumble antics. Watch any of the aforementioned shows or films and these groups (literally, the guys, Kala Alexander, Fast Eddie, Makuakai Rothman, etc) act in the same stereotypical “gangster” fashion. Sure, these are popular representations, mediated by corporate dollars and sales predictions, but try to catch a wave anywhere between Off the Wall and Ehukai anytime between November and February and you’ll get the same attitude from these kinds of jokers, regardless of how well versed you are in the hidden transcript. It makes me wonder if, at the very moment of its introduction to the public narrative, the hidden transcript cannot help but be subverted in some way. At what point does the hidden transcript become “the self-portrait of dominant elites as they would have themselves seen?” It appears as if these inherent codes and rules, once codified into a representative identity, read very much like the narrative of the elite. It is, in many ways, “designed to be impressive, to affirm and naturalize the power of dominant elites, and to conceal or euphemize the dirty linen of their rule.” What then do we make of Scott’s formulation? Is his object of analysis liberating, or is it akin to Althusser’s “steel trap,” in which we just simply trade master ideologies for other master ideologies?

Works Cited:

Scott, James C. Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts. Yale Univ. Press, 1990. Print.