GIRL ON THE OCEAN FLOOR
[Academic post by Kevin Williams; some references forthcoming. Several pictures used under academic and journalistic provisions of the American copyright act. A work in progress. Draft 7/31/17]
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“I am a man”
Pioneering scuba diver Lotte Hass begins her autobiography, Girl on the Ocean Floor, with a simple re-nomination of her self, “I am a man.” This self-proclaimed adventurous Vienna girl puts forth this facade and finds that, in the face of discrimination, her solace remains only in her own thoughts–that one place upon which an oppressor may not intrude. She was one of the first, if not the first, women to dive, and yet her name is strikingly absent from the textual material on scuba diving. This absence might be ascribed to her self-negation. Even when she was a star of the silver screen, the first-lady of scuba diving, it takes years of reading and research to discover that she was always potentially present as a diver, photographer, and naturalist. So, what kept me so long in finding her? Why was her presence lacking from scuba’s history?
Removing, or not acknowledging, someone–especially because of a social subjectivity, such as sex or gender–for being the Other to the perceived white, male, heterosexual norm is called ex-nomination (Barthes). Nominalism (from the Latin for “name,” as in “I nominate so-and-so for President”) is the philosophy of recognition by the symbolic act of naming. A name is a communicative entity, what Deleuze and Guattari call a momentary densification of intensities that recognizes, or calls into existence, a phenomenon. To “ex” nominate, well, you get it. Remove the name and you remove the thing, not physically, but far more insidiously–the awareness and consciousness of the thing. You ex-nominate, or take away, the possibility that a phenomenon will be recognized and point beyond itself–and worse, have power.
Nominalism is the subjectivist branch of ontology. Because ontology is concerned with the nature of being, or even reality, considering the word on the grounds of being is not so far-fetched as realists (the objectivist branch) might have us believe. A name is required to call something into being—as an object of awareness or consciousness. The word is the communal expression of perception. Thus, to remove a name (or to simply not include it), ex-nomos, essentially erases not just perception, but the conditions for the possibility of perception.
Mrs. Hass’s story has a parallel thread with those of many women throughout history. She appeared as a diver, and even worked as a camera-person in a major award-winning motion picture; however, she got the job, not because she was an avid diver or a published underwater photographer, but because the producer of the picture wanted a pretty woman for the audience to look at. Hence, she first is chosen as an object of the infamous “male gaze.” But happily, when a crew member backed out at the last minute, she was also able to get the job as a skilled undersea photographer. She thus moves from object to subject, as she starred in the international award-winning documentary film, Under the Red Sea.
She was able to live her life as a scuba diver and naturalist with a television program in Germany. She documented her life in the book Girl on the Ocean Floor, a much under-published memoir, and she and her husband, Hans Hass, were the subjects of a movie. To live a life worthy of a movie is perhaps the new American dream, or so rock star Jim Morrison once suggested.
Book: http://plongeur-radin.com/fr/plongeurs-historiques-francais-culture-plongee/3073-charlotte-lotte-hass.html. Movie: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1700457/
Hass begins her scuba journey in a mostly patriarchal, yet ultimately romantic fashion, by giving up her dreams to study zoology and become Hans Hass’s secretary. Hans was a pioneer of diving and underwater filmmaking. He was doing what Cousteau would later do, but Hass’s story is not told nearly as often (I could suggest that Cousteau had American PR and TV, arguably the best in the world).
SPACE IS TOO BIG
While Cousteau and Prieur were working on the demand flow regulator, the aqualung, Hans Hass was a scientist, naturalist, and photographer who was already making a living producing a BBC television program, Diving to Adventure (1956). His show about the undersea world used a scuba system (i.e, he was not tied to an umbilical cord on the surface). It was an amazing achievement. Cousteau may have claimed primacy in a field in which he was more than simply important, but he was neither the first man to explore the sea with scuba gear nor the first to bring these images to television, as he appears in the popular imagination.
Lotte Hass, who dreamed of breaking the glass ceiling—or perhaps the glassy surface—was told at the outset that a woman could never go on a diving expedition. Hans is not directly faulted for this prohibition. He noted that this was the fault of men—not women, whom he saw as quite fit and able (Ecott 9). However, cultural dictates are hard to overcome.
Determined to become more than a secretary, Lotte Hass secretly “borrowed” Hans’s camera, and then she free-dived, taking pictures of the undersea landscape of the Danube river. She penned an article, “Expedition to Vienna’s Arctic Ocean,” that made the cover of the newspaper, Weiner Illustrierte.
Hans was impressed, but purportedly said, “Not bad, these pictures. If you were a man, I could make use of you. Pity” (Ecott 11; emphasis mine).
Hass needed money to build a research vessel, and while discussing a film (the proceeds of which he hoped to fund his research), he was told his film would need a “pretty woman” (12).
This was the excuse Lotte was looking for. Film, as a visual medium, has, ever since its early days, used the camera to showcase women as touchable objects—even if it is the eye that does the touching (see, e.g., the work of Vivian Sobchack). The cinematic gaze should not be confused with an everyday vision. Cinema is a controlled, purposeful and significant experience. A camera, although it is a means of perception, is not the eye. A theater is not a living room (although home theater blurs the lines a bit); it is an instrument of expression. Together, the camera (as a means of perception) and the theater (as a means of expression) requires an audience (another agent of perception). This audience is also constructed; you have to sell tickets to the movie
—an ecology of communication (Lanigan; Sobchak)
- The camera as a means of perception
- The screen (TV or theater) as a means of expression
- The appearance of the actors/action
- The view of the director
- The view of the audience
- The tradition, culture, in which this takes place
- The change of culture, which makes problematic the interpretation of the past
So, we have a complex set of phenomena, technologies of communication that mediate the perception and expression of body and world.
Even in genres that play to the ideologies of realism and TV liveness (citation), such as documentary, “things” are needed for the eye of the viewer to gaze upon; larger than life images are required, and the human body provides relief and empathy when set next to the amazing forms of underwater life. For my purpose here, we have the most celebrated visual image of all sea creatures, the shark. We have, as well, perhaps the most used object, the female body. There is much debate concerning the ways women are used in film and the ways that persons are treated, drawn, sutured, and engaged with the larger-than-life images of the silver screen. However, the scopophilic, fetishized, sexed eye of a “male gaze” (Laura Mulvey) requires a woman to look at—an object on the ocean floor.
In the following, I do reduce this complexity to a history of scuba diving as a male-dominated field, one out of balance with the real number of women divers. Because this is a text on scuba diving, I want to see what we can learn from Lotte Hass, whom I think is a heroic figure. She was not a man. And when she opens her book saying, “I am a man,” we have to perform a critical hermeneutic of such a statement (e.g., the statement is one of power and position, not a consideration of transgender-ness).
When I was researching this book, I scoured used bookstores for as many dive manuals as I could find. Given the physics of diving and history of safety practices, these books were reasonably similar. Thus, they were also similar in their representations of men and women. Manuals, including the one I used for my written exam, had a common warning for women– avoid diving when menstruating. The reason was the “rational” perception that blood may attract sharks. This theme was often represented graphically –a women diving while a shark loomed, threateningly, in the background. Today we see that this ‘reason” was a projection. Projections have a structure of intentionality, and this case, the projection of “something” was a projection both fear and power. No matter how well-intentioned, the rhetoric couched a mythological image of women, in a rhetoric of “science” and rationality that exerted a patriarchal power that limits women’s potential experiences, and sets them below men in terms of their abilities. The image of women as less able, weakened by their own embodiment, is a classic example of “clawback.” The edict creates a metaphysical empowerment of men over women.
I am Woman
The “first woman of diving” may have been hired for her looks. However, she had already set up the conditions for her much more important success by publishing underwater photography. Lotte could, and would, be that object the filmmakers wanted, but she had much more to offer as a subject, that is, as an active agent. When a cameraman backed out of the expedition, she joined the film crew. Her experience was exemplary for understanding the rise of the feminist, active woman, while simultaneously showing a clawback of the social subjectivity of women in the Western world, in the 1950’s, and today.
Lotte Hass lived as a “man,” filming the Oscar-winning movie Under the Red Sea. She appears in that film, and later on television, as a “woman,” and she was intentionally positioned, sexualized, objectified, used for her physical attributes. While admittedly liked the attention, the cost is questionable.
It’s important to acknowledge that we may desire what empowers us (she can enjoy her sex and gender), even if we can take issue with the source of that power, or its ultimate aim (she can reject her sex and gender). Empowerment has many faces. There are times, especially when sex, sexiness, and the adulation of the gaze, give women a type of power–professionally, culturally and personally. That power may be lived, but we know that where women’s looks are concerned, empowerment is predominantly short-lived. Politically, we see far more systematic sexism that disempowers women. Even a simple look at Ms. Hass and we see that her looks, her objective appearance on camera, defines the stereotypical female, feminine beauty. Her talents—photography and literacy—have given her an honorary place as a scuba diver rivaled by few.
As an anecdote: I had seen her work, especially the footage of her diving and snorkeling. I had done a critical analysis of the editing of Under the Red Sea that attempted to expose a male sexual assault on her body built into the editing of the film—far more pervasive than just watching a woman diving. Only years later did I visit her obituary (the result of a well-worded Google search) and found that she was a member of the Woman Diver’s Hall of Fame. I’d been writing about scuba diving for twenty-five years. I didn’t know there was a Woman Divers’ Hall of Fame. That’s how sexism works, and how ex-nomination has a very long arm.
However, even while having some degree of social privilege, she had to endure being stared at, uncomfortably, by crewmen. She bore “original sin” which made problematic her very presence on a ship. Such “sin” is not limited to Christianity. As she was told by crewmen, if a man walked in front of a praying Islamic crew member, his prayers would be “rendered useless. And if a woman walked past, the prayer would have no effect for forty days” (109).
She may have said that she lived as a “man,” but that was because she could not be “woman.” It was not just the person, but the image of diving itself that was being formed. Hass’s television program and dives were given a purposeful sex appeal featuring Lotte Baierl, using her maiden name to make her appear “available” for scopophilic, heterosexual young men (Ecott 152). Even in the early 1950’s, Lotte’s sex appeal, her body photographed in a swimsuit, was a crucial component of marketing the program (155). She had to endure the sexist attitude of men who felt that seeing a woman diving with sharks would ruin diving’s masculine, macho image (155); an image has the power to express something perceived irrespective of rationality (see Gebser). This did not deter Lotte from becoming not only an avid diver and television personality but the author of a book, Girl on the Ocean Floor; to my knowledge, this was the first book about diving written by a woman. She has said that she was “doing things no other woman had the chance to do” (interview with Ecott 156). She may have taken this for granted in her youth, but today I need to point out that she remains virtually unknown.
One can embody the role of “man,” a kind of subjective positioning, but still be a “woman” as a lived relationship with self, society, and world. Thus, “she’s a man,” but at the same time, glad to be a woman. She both accepted and rejected roles. We also live cultural codes and our internalized mythical images: diver, woman, wife. We can offer a critique of the construction of Woman without putting down those who live these codes. Criticism is not condemnation. And when we write new maps, we cannot impose old designs in the past. The discipline of the Historian, its own style of hermeneutics, is necessary to communicative intelligence.
Feminism is Oceanic philosophy. It appears in waves with crests and troughs, depths and surfaces, undercurrents and rip tides. As the ocean is the great “Other” to Earth, the woman is the great “Other” to man. If the scuba diver is becoming reborn, renewed, different…Other, it is no surprise that the catharsis and philosophical enlightenment encountered on my way back to the surface is feminist, because all becomings are becoming woman, as Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomatics suggest.
The woman on the Ocean Floor
Lotte Hass’s experience as a “man”/”woman” appears doubly in her experience of her own objectivity when filmed:
“I think I will watch films of expeditions with quite different eyes in the future, and in the case of our film, I will ask myself: Is that really me? All the dialogues we speak into the microphone are perfectly tailored–just the way we would like our conversations to be in real life. It seems to me as though there are two of me: there’s that nice blonde girl who goes swimming round flower-like corals with graceful fin movements–I partly identify myself with her, partly am her, and then again this stink on board, living together at close quarters, the unkind remarks. The tensions–and me in the midst of it all. If I am honest, this is rather a different girl…. I wonder whether I will ever really see the expedition played out in front of me from the comfort of a cinema seat?” (115).
This duality in which Hass is aware of herself as subject and object is an existential condition of the living present, amplified by being a woman, and augmented when converted into a mass mediated vision. When we enter the culture of mass mediation, John Berger and others have noted that Western men are encouraged (in presentation and representation) to be more aware of their subjectivity than objectivity; who a man “is,” is what he does, and vice-versa: what a man “does” is what that man “is.”
Women, on the other hand, are taught to “see” themselves -subjectivity. Also, they see themselves being seen -intersubjectivity and objectivity (Berger). Subjectivity is thus shot-through with objectivity. In such a tradition, you can argue that women have a wider understanding of being than men. Western culture (through such avenues as the nude, the stripper, and so on) positions women as objects. Hass takes advantage of the knowledge.
The image of the scuba diver is decidedly male and masculine. The basic assumptions (white, heterosexual, brave, men) are in play despite the fact that scuba diving is a common recreational activity available to only those with disposable income; diving is more a recreational tourist activity than some kind of hunting or exploring activity (though undersea exploration is vital to human knowledge and understanding, and is not being pushed aside here). The macho image (and an image is a mythological communication) was created in the early days of diving when underwater movies—documentaries—needed selling points. Even the most austere filmmaker needed money for cameras, crews, vessels; this is an expensive venture. To entice an audience (create the undersea genre), to fund the expeditions, three things made the work possible. First, you need conflict, and the sea provides a natural ‘man against nature’ struggle. The pinnacle of this conflict is the shark. The hero was the man, armed with spears and electric prods, Man was envisioned as not the top of the food chain (although, in fact, man rules the sea with vicious cruelty as well as farming). But a hero, even with a foe as great as the Great White, man needs Woman to save, to impress, to rescue.
The cover for Hans Hass’ award winning movie is billed as “the all-true underwater wonder show!”. The top half of the cover is red with two men spearing a Great White, with another tucked under the shark’s belly looking at us, with his camera looking at us; the table is turned from the start and we are interpolated as the seen who is also the seer.
Beneath the title text, “Under The Red Sea,” the background is blue, signifying the depths, and featured is a woman, with a low cut bathing suit, her long blonde hair floating in the waves. She is, however, holding a spear that is cocked and ready to stab the great shark directly in its gaping jaws. Who is this woman?
Who is the woman, decidedly sexed (the men’s bodies are more neutral), but also an active agent, capable of holding her own, even if he men above might be considered as coming to her rescue.
So, in the preceding paragraphs, I’ve drawn for you an image of the mythological diver, and completely contradicted myself at every turn unless we forget that I’m dealing with communication at several levels of experience simultaneously (i.e., the mental-rational discourse of diving and filmmaking), the mythological – imagistic world of imagination that we bring with us to give life and heightened significance to the rational life-world.
But, the woman, sexed or not, objectified or not, is an active agent even in the early imagery of oceanic filmography.
Who is this woman? She is Lotte Hass. The quintessential scuba diver (female, feminine or otherwise). She is the early image, and just as phenomena such as heterosexual assumptions, and masculine stereotypes, her presence, as a woman, is visible only through a sexist lens, often called the male gaze.
Lotte Hass used the cultural lens of scuba diving by becoming the beautiful women, the object of the male gaze, required even in the 1950’, the feminine sign that supports and gives credence to the male-masculine image.
Hass reiterates a story about encountering a shark. However, the shark doesn’t play the leading role in this anecdote. Her intuition does. Some Native American tribes recognize seven senses–not five: Touch, taste, smell, hearing and seeing are joined by memory (a sense of the past) and intuition (a sense of the future). All of the latter remains within the vital dimension until they are coded. Lotte Hass discusses how intuition colors perception:
“I was alone…. A sinister darkness surrounded me…. Looked across to my friend the sea bass. He, too, had disappeared. An oppressive silence, a stifling solitude was all around me. This miraculous colorful garden of coral had all at once become an ominous setting…. I shivered, and the thought shot through my mind: What if a shark were to come now? The thought had hardly registered when my heart really did stop beating. Behind the strange coral reef, about fifteen yards from me, a large animal was stirring. Holding my breath, I stared in its direction…. For all its bulk it was lithe, gliding out from behind the coral reefs, sliding across a gully and disappearing again behind an outcropping of coral. It was a shark!”
Intuition, on the hither side of language, inscribes the world just as da Vinci, Van Gogh, and Duchamp painted space, time and movement respectively. Of course, the diver’s living present has, potentially, multiple styles. The physical world may be measured, but one’s sight is tied inexorably to one’s the synesthetic intentionality. The story about the shark depicts mood–an image, a palpable sense of presence, and an absence–shared by women and men alike. It is this experience of constant deformations, perspectives, and depths that Merleau-Ponty calls the living present.
The sense that something is amiss is often brought about by not “by the thing itself,” but by the “things.” I mean simply that we live in a world of pluralites—Lotte’s experience is not initially about the shark, but the sudden absence of the fish. This is akin to walking in the woods at night. You notice that the crickets and peeper frogs have silenced. You sense something is amiss. You sense a presence. Hair stands up on the back of your neck, but nothing, rather than something, appears (unless we want to go “zen,” and note that nothing is a kind of something). I’ve had this experience in cities as well; I sense when it’s time to move on, or what street I shouldn’t walk down. But sounds of the crickets and frogs, voices, and bodies, within the totality of the living present, appear as signs; we can “read” the world.
Material signifiers as objective, transcendent, things, signify in their absence (the fish leave) as well as presence (a shark appears); signification is ambiguous, changeable and perspectival appearance. We don’t know for certain what is lurking, but communication is an aspect of embodiment, intelligent even without the symbolic world of literacy. Some consider this experience as a product of “mind,” the fight or flight response. For others, it’s the reptilian brain. For communication, this is precisely why we’re not talking about senders and receivers, or messages, or information anymore. All of these ideas have their merit. But most simply explained, vital communication is an experience of embodiment: from and structures (i.e., things like fish or ‘no fish’) of immanence and transcendence adumbrate a transcendental awareness. Embodied communication rises through archaic, genetic depths, through cultural, mythos, and rationality (or, perhaps, irrationality).
Lotte Hass senses the presence of a shark before it appears; prior to empirical experience. Her world colored by the presence of an absent shark. Whether that presence is fleshed out in experience (you finally see the shark) or not (you see only the stuff of spirits and ghosts) the entire air changes, the world itself is transformed. Perception here, as Merleau-Ponty pointed out repeatedly, is not reducible to empirical experience, but whether the shark appeared or not, this experience (this intentionality) is lived time and time again; so while we are quite capable of projection, this is less a psychological practice, and more an aspect of embodied consciousness–a sense of the world, an ecological moment. Vital communication is a good example of post-structuralist signification. The signifiers signify a presence that may never be signified, but, do structure a mood, an attitude, a recognizable experience. Like the awareness of the physical senses, intuition is less a stimulus/response experience (otherwise the shark would have to appear first), but a total taking in–breathing in–of the lived world.
The mood of the sea is something Ms. Hass was quite interested in. In her book, she noted an experiment in which the sounds of fish struggling were played back under the sea on a loudspeaker. The hypothesis, that these sounds would attract sharks, was not immediately corroborated. For a change of pace, music, the Light Cavalry, was played in place of the sounds of fish struggling. Lotte dove into the sea:
“Had anyone before us experienced anything like this? The sea was thoroughly transformed. The music rang out clear and undistorted from its loudspeaker; you could hear each individual instrument, even in its finest nuances” (116)…. Even the fish were moved by the music resulting in outstanding film footage (117).
Hass, the woman who had to be a man in order to function with the ship’s crew. Who also had to be a woman to be photographed as a beautiful body for the camera. Her underwater presence (a little of which can be found on the web) brings to mind another form of embodiment that is human and fish, a binary and polar being. Like the wolf-man, bat-man, zombie, and so on, is another boundary creature—the mermaid.
Lotte Hass Remembered
Latte Hass’s obituary established her as the first lady of diving. Her career, as a diver, an underwater camera person, a writer, television and movie star, and (sigh) as a beautiful woman, was stellar. She was essentially the model (in the sense of building her own agency and power (Kaplan) for yet-to-be pop star Madonna, another woman who exploited exploitation and established women as creative people who control their own destiny. When reading Hass’s work, watching her swim, the ease and grace in which she moves are infectious and unyielding uplifting.
Her first movie won an academy award in 1959.
Her personal and professional history will always be ‘the girl, but this was a role she created and enjoyed, knowing all the while that the “smell” of sexist culture would ever-permeate her memory.
Hass’s depictions of scuba diving demonstrate elements of what I’ve been calling “vital” communication: breathing, moving and seeing have been exemplary to describe and interpret the experience of scuba diving. Vital communication appears as embodiment that integrates expression and perception at non-symbolic levels.
“Only when I am diving do I still sometimes have the feeling that I am wide awake and that my experiences are real…” (148)
For us, she is a reality. Her life merits the accolades that poet and singer Jim Morrison suggest mark the modern-merit of significance: her life was made into a movie.
Dive Log: Women Can’t Find the Boat
So, I’m in the Bahamas, cleaning up my dive log.
I’ve been watching a young couple. They look like they were certified for today’s trip. The dive master stays with them at all times. Writing an ethnography of scuba diving, I can’t help but notice that, Not only is the macho-image of the diver constructed in acts of expression.
Men, his story suggests, are rational and directional (phallic creatures); they are able to find the boat, the mother ship. However, women are better at adapting to the water-world; they are better at giving up the upright posture and certainty of breath; they are flexible, adaptable, changeable.
The woman who asked was about twenty-five years old, brunette, lithe. Her partner, a man also about twenty-five years old, was tall, dark and handsome, strong and athletic.
When I saw them underwater, she–a first-time diver–was swimming with ease, while he was holding onto the anchor line for dear life–his exaggerated breath rushing from his lips. He was stiff and would be able to find the boat (if only because he never left hold of it).
She learned to inhabit the sea.
I overheard a female diver ask a male dive master if women made good scuba divers. He replied, “women do everything better than men, but at the end of the dive they can’t find the boat!”
I didn’t think to ask if men who surfaced far from the boat asked for directions.