We populate a world preconfigured by our predecessors. Imagery and language create a culture that is surprisingly invisible to and often unexplored by the novice diver
My story begins, not with scuba diving, but watching television. Every Sunday evening my family would sit, illuminated in the electronic blue waves that brought the undersea world to us. The Undersea World of Jaques Cousteau formed a mythological and intertextual call to adventure. Put simply, scuba diving was something I had to do. Writing academic papers was not in the original design.
When I took diving lessons, I was also studying phenomenology with professor Jenny Nelson, Ohio University. She suggested that I use my diving instruction as a perfect way to practice philosophy as an activity. Founder of contemporary phenomenology, Edmund Husserl, always maintained that phenomenology was something one did. Like other post-Marxian philosophies, this was philosophy as political activity.
The first step in phenomenological research is seeking out presuppositions, literally, the politics made flesh, learning to see how the normal and natural are historical and cultural. That way, so-called common sense (which would be better called communal sense) could be bracketed, set aside, so we could see through cultural lines of thought, see the lines of thought-embodiment themselves. This approach to thinking is called the epoche (more about that later).
It’s important to state up front; I cannot play the role of disinterested observer. The methodologies and theories brought to bear on scuba diving begin with an active imagination, then participant-observation. The participation and observation would be replayed in imagination, using phenomenology, hermeneutics, semiotics, feminism, psychoanalysis and what we call critical and cultural studies (I’ll post blogs on these topics, both for the casual reader and for those who can already see problematic proposals in the methodological and theoretical matrix).
Why bother? I could try to say that scuba diving didn’t change my life. Yet, scuba diving makes possible the impossible—living underwater. To do so, I must begin again. The diver relearns the simplest things, like breathing, seeing and moving. These three phenomena happen to be wellsprings of experience, so fundamental that one can live a life without contemplating them. But we can’t live without them. What we take for granted is actually an interpenetration of self, technology, and the world. Because scuba diving forces us to relearn these simple acts of embodiment, scuba diving makes the invisible visible. When I think about it, then, scuba diving changed my life. Scuba diving made aware of who I was, and how I lived my life.
As an American TV viewer, I was already participating in unraveling the mysteries of Cousteau’s deep; were I German, Hans Has has been my inspiration. I was young, impressionable, and my active imagination was easily given to what Lacan’s psychoanalysis called the “imaginary.”
In the arena of televisual mediation, perception and, representation, Freudian psychic phenomena (id, ego, and superego), are rewritten by Lacan as the real, symbolic and imaginary. Here, what is important is that mediation mediates the pre-supposedly oppositional forces of the real and ideal, the physical and psychical, the external and internal.
“They [the symbolic, imaginary & real] serve to situate subjectivity within a system of perception and a dialogue with the external world”
My studies are always interested in presuppositions and assumptions: I want to know, to the extent one can, what is tacitly going on around me. Not the proverbial fish in water, I want to see the water. So, the metaphorical water into which I dive comes with imagery and narratives—acts of communication.
The experience of diving begins long before anybody dons a respirator and tank. It begins in prior time-space, in cultural situations that persist in memory.
- I had watched since I was a small child the adventures of Jacques Cousteau and the voyages of Calypso.
- I had imagined myself an aquanaut as I dove for quarters at Round Top Swim Club.
- I had actively sought books such as Sharks: Attacks on Man and movies like Blue Water: White Death after seeing Jaws;
- I had a box of books and notebooks about the nature of sharks as a teenager.
- I was thrilled by the underwater scenes in Thunderball, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, Beneath the 12-mile reef, and, when I was older, The Abyss.
- I found the Making of the Abyss more interesting than the movie because the Jim Cameron (perhaps the most famous diver since Cousteau) focused on the use of diving to film a major motion picture.
- These experiences, and others, pre-formed, and in-formed, for me a sense of who the diver was, how the diver should look and move
So scuba diving is, seen from the perspective of communicology, an activity that is meaningful in its integration of not just personal experience, but also a professional discourse (you have to learn the physics and praxis of diving to earn certification), and, perhaps more unexpectedly, popular culture. While one could set aside the books, pictures, movies, and so on, my stories of diving are permeated by my imagination. And that imagination is Lacan’s imaginary (a psychoanalytic theory I’ll discuss later). In short, scuba diving is a composite of all these things, an intertextual experience
A ritual is more than entertainment. Jung and others have noted that rituals are the living-out of myth. Watching Cousteau presented the undersea world as a sacred thing. The ocean’s depths were a place of mystery and magic: They held the potential to understand the way the earth was formed; the flora and fauna could nourish the human population many times over; We could, quite literally, “boldly go where no-one had gone before,” allowing me to quote Star Trek. Going to outer space was not likely a reality (and I should note that Cousteau and the Apollo missions shared historical, televisual air-time). However, going to inner space was a potential experience.
I watched Cousteau as often as possible; these were the days before satellites and cable. Television was an active, not passive, experience: television presents discourses, ways of seeing things. What I saw, in Cousteau, were men traveling around the world and bringing back an understanding of the undersea world. I wanted to be one of those men. This was my dream, and it was something I could aspire to.
Scuba diving: I dreamed, I can do that. My imagination was embodied first with mask and fins in the pool, and later, with full dive gear.
So my experience of scuba diving begins, not with scuba diving itself, but with a child watching television.
I am born into a culture, as Jung and Lacan suggest, that always and already has a stylized language and imagery into which we grow.
Invoking the mythical here, at the beginning, is necessary because phenomena, like scuba diving, don’t appear in a vacuum. Things, like scuba diving, are there, before me, already in-formed by preconditions and presuppositions. Living in a postindustrial, postmodern world, it’s the television that brings me the stories that shape the image of the world for me.
This reminds me of what Fiske and Hartley called “the bardic function of television.” Television is neither mirror nor reflection–these would be backward. Television does not represent—it presents. Our Bard speaks in multimedia images, and as for a fledgling scuba diver, the one image to rule them all was Jaques Cousteau.
Scuba diving has become increasingly popular as a means of scientific observation, sport and recreation since 1943 when Jacques-Yves Cousteau tested the aqualung.19 Cousteau described his first dive like this:
“I slowly emptied my lungs and held my breath. The diminished volume of my body sank dreamily down…. My human lungs had a new role to play, that of a sensitive ballasting system…. I reached the bottom in a state of transport. A school of silvery Sars (goat bream), round and flat as saucers, swam in rocky chaos. I looked up and saw the surface shining like a defective mirror…. I became fascinated with my exhalations. The bubbles swelled on the way up through lighter pressure layers, but were peculiarly flattened like mushroom caps by their eager push against the medium…. I swam across the rocks and compared myself favorably with the Sars. To swim fishlike, horizontally, was the logical method in a medium eight hundred times denser than air. To halt and hang attached to nothing, no lines or air pipe to the surface, was a dream…. From this day forward we would swim across miles of country no man had known, free and level, with our flesh feeling what the fish scales know” (The Silent World, 1953, pp. 2-4, emphasis mine).
More than sixty years later, millions of divers have been certified in the United States alone (Blout, 1993). An industry, complete with designer equipment, exotic vacations, magazines, television documentaries and certifying agencies has grown to foster and facilitate scuba diving’s growing popularity.
The name, scuba, coined in 1943 by Emile Gagnan and Jaques Cousteau (1953), is an acronym for Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus. Such a name already suggests, by technical terminology alone, a scientific, if science-fictive category–such devices were the dream of oracles such as DaVinci and Jules Verne. However, the name something is given is a double-edged sword. The word, the name, both calls a thing into existence (nominates) and defines, makes de-finite, perception. On the one hand, the act of naming literally brings a thing into conscious existence. The name marks our perception of the previously unperceived and renders it opaque by conventionalizing expression. Take, for example, the acronym “scuba,” or the more playful, aqualung (not the brand, Aqua Lung). They call into consciousness a new relationship between human and the world as the aqualung promises the technological ability to breathe and move freely underwater–without any hoses attached to the surface. At the same time, however, the name fixes, c, and, even though it appears paradoxical, it thus limits our perception the thing by delimiting its sense, creating the foundation for the formation of a discourse. When we name something, we risk fixing its identity into a pre-existing categorical grid. Scuba diving, for example, has been conceived, studied, defined, named; it has been assigned a social region of being that constitutes the ways we think about it, describe it and understand it.ategorizes
Cousteau was a master designer of my understanding. He was truly in-spiration—breath. I no longer had to hold when underwater thanks to the aqualung.
While there are an increasing number of web pages and video podcasts that feature experiences of diving, there are relatively few studies of the sensual and/or intellectual aspects of scuba diving.
The studies and discussions that do exist are predominately conducted from the approaches of the empirical sciences. It is not surprising, then, given the importances of the physical sciences in general, and the importance of physics to divers, that scuba diving is most often discussed in the terms of physics and physiology—the work is done in history, sociology and psychology follow that tradition.
Popular materials on scuba diving (e.g., magazines and video) tend to focus on travel destinations, new gear and safety tips (the attempts I’ve seen at entertainment aren’t). Periodicals focus on the industry and the consumer-economics of diving. These items are useful to the enthusiast, but rarely shed light on the experience of diving and what might be learned from it.
For web videos, scuba diving appears to be one-click away from accidents and disasters. Shark attacks rule the hyperlinks. Shark Week is a socio-televisual phenomenon in itself. Given Blue Water White Death, scuba diving appears to be a dangerous thing. I don’t write much about sharks in this book because they have been mythologized, demonized and then recognized (for the beauty they are) enough.
Aside from the prevalence of sharks, the viewer is often treated to beautiful vacation footage, and if I have seen a change over time, it is the inclusion of videos concerning diving and environmental conservation. In almost all of these cases, however, the object of narrative or exposition is on some aspect of diving–travel, species of fish, shark encounters, all the the things one expects to find, and indeed finds. But the experiences eclipse the scuba diving itself for the things observed while diving.
Far less research on scuba diving has been undertaken from the approaches of the humanities and philosophy -schools of thought that bring different criteria to scholarship (Burrell and Morgan). With the notable exceptions of the vividly descriptive, naturalistic and scientific accounts of Cousteau and several others, there is little material available to help the student of scuba diving learn from this experience what might not be learned on the land.
The purpose of this project is to foster an understanding of scuba diving that expands on and complements the explanations that dive manuals, travel guides, naturalistic accounts, movies and CD-ROMs have contributed to our knowledge of diving by providing a phenomenological study of scuba diving as a bodily, cultural and communicative practice.
My interest lies in describing the experiences of scuba diving, and discussing the discourses that bear their rhetorical weight on this experience. A discourse is an official or institutional way of talking about something like scuba diving. As Foucault shows, discourses have rules of inclusion and exclusion–what you have to say and what you can’t say. These rules may change over time, but they imply that communication is less a matter of pure expression than a matter of pre-defined regions of speech that we use for effect (hence, the “rhetorical” weight of discourse on communication).
A large step into the pre-known unknown
PS: I much later learned of the undersea adventures of Hass and Lotte Hass. While they preceded Cousteau, they are much less known. They made award winning movies and German TV, but the didn’t have the power of American Media. This is too bad. “We” “Americans” simply don’t know what we are missing. Media dominance has its drawbacks.
The sea has been a source of mystery and meaning since ancient times. Ocean imagery has been evoked in countless mythologies to express the primordial, the mysterious, and the dawning of self-awareness:
- For Thales of Miletus, the metaphysical insight—All is Water, All is One—appears in the imagery of the water-womb (Nietzsche, The Greeks).
- In the book of Genesis, the primordial, pre-human earth was covered by ocean.
- Freud (1961) called the feeling of being limitless and unbounded “oceanic” (p. 12).
- All life, according to Darwin, evolves from the sea.
In these ways and others, depth imagery has been used to signify unity, pregnant chaos, nature without culture, the unconscious and the underlying unified universe (Long, 1994). Being below the surface raises questions of being in Heidegger’s sense–as presupposed, preconscious, prescientific, and pre-reflective.
As the depths have been used to express the unconscious, primordiality, and unity, so the surface has been used to express emergence, consciousness, evolution, and differentiation.
- The lungfish climbs onto the rocky shore, breathes the air and initiates a major change in the course of evolution.
- Narcissus sees himself reflected in a pool and becomes conscious of his own existence; we witness the genesis of self-reflection in the water’s surface (Gebser, 1991).
- Odysseus awakes rescued on the shore, looks back to the sea, and then utters, “I am Odysseus” (Gebser, 1991, p. 69).
- Christ walks on water.
- Vishnu is “Naravayana,” literally “he who walks on water.”
The divinely inspired rise above the surface and are separated from the depths of chaos (see Gebser, 1991, p. 90).
In these ways and others, surface imagery indicates the emergence of human, reflective consciousness. Being above the surface is consciousness, science, reflection. It is within this context of these findings, considerations, and theories, that humans appear as ultimately beings of creativity.
Education, like any true mythology, is an honest attempt to map the creative attempts that our species has made to make sense of the sensible and senseless.
sought to the break surface and explore the depths (Habermas)1. The image of the post-enlightenment thinker was deep in an ineffable dimension of thought. Rodin’s sculpture famously uses the male body to signify the depth of disembodied thought. The power of the body is turned inward, physically expressing the invisibility of the metaphysical.
found that those depths are themselves surfaces2. Just as the signifier never finds solace in a signified; just as the disembodied cannot be thought without a body; so too, an experience is already deep at the surface. As we dive we are always in bodily contact with the surface of the depths themselves. The diver’s body experiences such interpenetration all the way down.
Education & Mediation
As we are seeing, diver’s begin their education long before they begin their training, let alone diving. This education, which includes all manner of communication (interpersonal, mass mediated, and so on), establishes not just dreams and desires to go scuba diving, but presuppositions and expectations of what diving is and what a diver is–a horizon of expectations (Habermas).
It is significant that the sport divers of my generation have grown up with Jacques Cousteau, Sea Quest, and National Geographic. I’m sure there are programs, channels, and websites that have inspired a new generation of divers. I scan Google, Wikimedia, the Apple Store, Netflix, Amazon and other resources daily while writing, and for the most part, the presentation of diving thematics include:
- Oceanographic documentaries such as Blue Planet which minimize the appearance of the diver
- Personal dive stories, which form an important source of reference for textual and ethnographic analysis
- Stories of megalithic beasts and mad sharks, which I am minimizing due to the insanely violent representation of sharks
As we consider vision, as a phenomenon of communication, it’s important to consider that fiction, e.g., Jaws, The Cave, and of course the classic, Sharknado, and any other textual, mass mediated material steers divers’ desires and constitutes images, visions of what diving is, and what the experience will be like. Such vision is fleshed-out for its fidelity when expectation or projection meet the embodied experience.
Fictional texts and even the most scientific documentary inscribe ways of understanding as they explore their subject matter. Television, books, and movies have provided both divers and non-divers alike with lessons in deep sea diving that form for them a pre-understanding of what diving is. Just as television “means” vision (i.e., the root vision), over distance (i.e., the prefix, “tele”), the diver’s “vision” or imago is bridged by a variety of cultural experiences. These texts establish a language, and hence, and unconscious of diving upon which we inscribe our experiences.
When I began my graduate studies, it did not matter if I was at UCLA, studying ethnomusicology, William Patterson University, studying interpersonal communication, or Ohio University, studying the philosophy of communication, there was one essential difference between my undergraduate and graduate experience. My undergraduate studies focused on accumulating knowledge, my graduate studies focused on taking knowledge apart.
What is real? How would you know? What counts as knowledge? How would you know what you claimed to know? Can research (thinking) be value-free? Values. Goals. Everything that counted as “thinking,” “knowing,” “understanding,” and everything considered True has pulled apart, deconstructed. I had left my career as a drummer to go to graduate school, and because I was interested in African drumming, the reason for raising these questions had a very real origin. White, European, Anglo-Saxon researchers had gone to Africa, the so-considered Dark Continent, and completely butchered our understanding of African music and art in general. I’m referring back to when African art was considered primitive, a misguided projection if ever there were one.
The diver’s image and mythos are generally inscribed in a fairly narrow variation of themes (some contradictory and even mutually exclusive).Communicology notes that both signification, and the role of the psyche, are both enmeshed in the creation and perpetuation of a communicated world. The Arts, some History and Cultural Anthropology also map this territorialization of ideas giving us other fields of study to which we can compare notes.
For those about my age, the diver is the WWII Frog-Man–part man, part fish. He is an explorer and discoverer, a man who lives on the open seas or travels from exotic destination to destination, unencumbered by desk or tie. Killer of sharks, he is scientist, treasure-hunter, ecologist, photographer, naturalist, spy. He is tall and thin. He wears black bikini swim trunks and red caps. He drinks red wine. He is resourceful and commands a formidable array of technological devices. When he dives he is long and lean in black and yellow rubber armor. He is fearless and fondles cuttlefish and moray eels as if they were kittens. His adventures are narrated in a thick foreign accent.
To flesh out the complexity of the experience of diving, there is a need to understand the force and import of these images.
Diving is not without imagery, and the discourse of science plays a significant role in this myth, even when it claims to be the very antithesis of myth. Indeed, before diving, images constituted my real knowledge of diving, and after diving, it is tempting to consider the actual dive as real as the image: The diver is eighty feet below the surface of a lake in dark, near-freezing water; she has only a few minutes of air left in the aqualung. Hypothermia and drowning are real possibilities.
However, to put the real against imaginary would be a mistake. In experience one feeds the other; the relationship is more circular than exclusionary. The imagination is not turned-off when diving. Even when I recall my lessons in physics and physiology, I am not without desire and passion, memory and fantasy. Indeed, because of the strangeness and intensity of the situation, imagination may be heightened or intensified.
I am capable of seeing what is not objectively or empirically there. This is a capacity of the communicative body to embrace and remain critical. I can see Atlantis in all of its lost glory. I can see through H.G. Well’s eyes in my mind’s eye. Captain Nemo seems less mad; he’s a true visionary. Such a seeing is not necessarily false even if it is imaginary and not empirical; indeed, the metaphoric imagination is part of our embodied experience.
Empirical experience is only one dimension of possible experience; it’s only one way of seeing. Image and reality are not separate things. They are not even opposites. They are if we can say they have any “being” at all, both phenomena, which by definition have no fixed being. In other words, they are not things but an awareness of things. It’s the “awareness” that is the tricky thing to figure out.
As phenomena, reality and imagery appear as meaningful in a situation; they are lived dimensions of embodied experience. After all, imagination is itself an articulation of embodied experience, and so must be considered an important aspect of the scuba diving experience.
The situation or context is vital for understanding. Cultural Anthropologist Michael Taussig points out that a context is itself a text in which sits yet another text. Here the context is scuba diving–already a constellation of phenomena, as we see here, constituted by a variety of sources. The statement under scrutiny can be heuristically filed under three categories as established earlier in this text (Ulmer):
• Personal experience (the underwater vision of the rock crusher)
• Professional experience (the studies of respiration)
• Pop-cultural experience
The definition and discussion of Vision, for example, will vary with the category brought into play. This is vital because if one expects a factual definition of undersea vision one would turn to dive manuals and perhaps memoirs that document scientific endeavor, such as Dr. Joe MacInnis’s Breathing Underwater, to light While seeking fact-based media is generally accepted uncritically (too critically if we study accounts of error and misrepresentation in the news), the postmodern deferral/difference raises its head again, and because we keep running into these structural breakdown’s, postmodernism cannot be considered an intellectual ruse, nihilistic way of thought, or philosophical invention in the pejorative sense; like quantum physics, no matter how difficult to comprehend, or complex it is, we simply cannot stop running into the configurations of a postmodern world.
Thus, a search for a “factual” text concerning underwater vision, within a context (itself a kind of text), another level meditation that brings with it another level of expectation. These expectations are largely based on the principles of literacy, in McLuhan and Ong’s sense, and, if traced deeper, on the scientific Enlightenment, and the principles of rationality that made the Enlightenment possible. One would spit binaries such as right and wrong, true and false, fact and fiction and seek empirical validation.
We took for granted, as a context at the surface, that there is a factual discourse of underwater vision. However, a student of meditation, I find that the texts that will meet the requirements for factual presentation must adhere to rules thus making the context another level mediation, another story, perhaps even another fiction. The factual discourse is mediated by the principles and methods of Enlightenment, writing and printing, and history of Western thought. Thus, both science and philosophy are implicated in pointing in the same direction–the purview of mind made possible by the development of rationality. Rationality is a faculty, and it even demonstrates a history that goes back to about the same genesis as history.
Jean Gebser’s monumental work on the history of consciousness finds several domains of consciousness have developed based on the ways that experience can be expressed and perceived. These are the archaic, magical, mythical, mental-rational, and integral understandings of consciousness.
These structures do not indicate a historical progression of consciousness. Rather, they are integral parts of the whole. While the mental-rational awareness dominates Western civilization since its adumbrations in ancient Greek philosophy, the echoes of the mythic-imagistic and magic-vital remain with us at all times.
While the diver will experience diving at all structures of consciousness, the intermingling of ideas that constitute the dominant image of the diver as largely imagistic, and hence mythical, with strong mental-rational overtones as dictated by the discourse of one’s certification. Mythical consciousness, notes Jean Gebser (1991), bears the stamp of the imagination, the imago, in Latin “image” (p. 67).
Some citations forthcoming
Scuba diving comes with imagery, language, and narratives that pre-form a diver’s experience.