By changing the way we experience the world, scuba diving makes the familiar strange.
How can scuba diving change the way you experience everyday life? This book explores the professional, pop-cultural and personal experiences of scuba diving and scuba divers.
Dive Log: The Sunken Forest
White Star Quarry. Second dive of the day.
I slip into the cold enveloping water. I drop a dozen feet or so along a stone face. Visibility is limited in the dark and turbid quarry. Vision is truncated. We bring fluorescent mountain climbing ropes to mark our way. It is ridiculously cold. Yet, somehow, everything is perfect.
My first goal is to practice neutral buoyancy. By letting air escape my buoyancy compensator, I balance my body with the water’s density. My body becomes neutrally buoyant. As I breathe in, I rise just a bit. I breathe out, and I sink. Every breath counts–not just to keep me alive, but to maximize my experience. I neither swim nor remain still. I float like Major Tom. Three axes of space, the up-down, the forward-backward, the left-right, and the axis of time are mine with an unaccustomed ease and availability. In fact, their inscription as sets of paired opposites are a product of land experience. The binary oppositions loose their sense when gravity’s pull is decreased. Experiencing space-time this way is, alone, worth the price of admission.
For the moment, I just revel in being here and now. A few fish appear and disappear into ghostly green depths. This is a sensual, material place. Space is thick. Unlike the air, I cannot ignore the water. This may be playtime, but those who play in the water are wise to know its dark side. Poseidon’s rage. Water does not care. It does not allow the folly granted by air.
My exposed face burns with cold. slivers of ice water burn down my spine as fresh liquid finds its way into my wetsuit. The frigid water draws lines of tension and energy down my back–not at all comfortable. Encased in neoprene, most of my body is uncomfortably numb. However, my imagination is inflamed. The two balance each other.
When I see Jon, our dive instructor, and the others fall from the surface above me, appear out of the haze, to join me, I follow their lead. I swim long and lean with my arms trailing my torso; I am every diver on Jaques Cousteau’s TV show. I am a black and yellow-striped marine mammal.
As we begin to swim, the adumbration of something large looms before me. It’s strange, out of place. It looks like an underwater forest; and, in fact, it is. My expectations and presuppositions are jarred out of play: this is not “supposed” to be here. In other words, I have already slipped from the phenomenologists stance of bracketing the already known and presupposed; I’ve brought with me expectations that are shattered by the image before me. I can see the tops of dead trees. The thin upper limbs are rotting. They are softly clouded, like the velvet on a deer’s antlers. This surface in the depths looks dangerous, not like impaling spikes, but as a place one could get stuck. I have safety–buoyancy. I can fly over the trees.
Swimming with sustained air over any object, including the ground, feels like flying. This metaphor, one I’ve heard since first reading Cousteau, is applicable here. We may make definitions, e.g., flying is in the air, swimming is in the water. However, flight brings to mind a sustained movement above the ground, while swimming tends to connote a planar relationship to the surface of water. Here, diving over the sunken forest, flying, and not swimming, is the word that best describes my experience.
I hover above the trees in the turbid water, able to look below my body. Now, in this moment, the feelings of freedom and flying intensify. I am hovering and swimming, not falling, over the treetops. Shouldn’t I be falling? As a diver, I am in no real danger of impalement. I “have” neutral buoyancy; it’s a technological gift. I don’t fall, and yet I traverse a treacherous landscape, looking down at the treetops as I fly over the rotting trees.
In a moment of recollection, I find in memory a similar experience. I grew up on a small farm that raised (among other things) apples. When the trees stopped producing, they were cut down and laid on their sides. As I was walking past the trees lying on the ground on my way to the school bus stop, I saw the chaotic interweaving of slowly rotting treetops. I feel somehow that I’ve been to this place before–once standing on the ground, and now floating above the tangled surface. The experience is strange. I feel out of place, but, at the same time, I’m diving to learn to be out of my place.
Despite how much space we have between the treetops and the surface, my dive buddy manages to get stuck on a branch anyway; I pull him off the swaying, decomposing limbs. Turbid pieces of material fly everywhere.
We spend most of our air hovering over the forest. In this primal experience, the forest is large, never ending. We never see the ground. The trees look mature, I’d guess thirty feet tall, but it’s very dark; everything is more implied than realized (please see the picture to the left of the dive log). My dive log, memory, and the contemporary White Star quarry website all paint different pictures of the strange appearance.
While preparing this manuscript I visited White Star Quarry’s website and called them on the phone. White Star Quarry: The web page has lots of good images, video and information, but some of the things I dove simply no longer exist, or have been closed to diver’s for safety’s sake. Looks like Heraclitus was right again.
When I learned how to scuba dive, I found much more than I anticipated. Diving wasn’t just a childhood dream. It wasn’t just a sport. It wasn’t just another form of recreation, like skiing or mountain biking. It certainly was no mere diversion.
Instead, scuba diving was a way of understanding the relationships between embodiment/consciousness, environment and world.
Every diving experience was a source of mystery and meaning. Every basic awareness I had taken for granted as a land animal–things as simple as breathing, looking and moving–was challenged, rearranged, thrown into disarray. As an introverted, intuitive, deeply emotional person, I had always sought new and deep ways of experiencing life, but this was something special, cosmic. In order to partake of the experience, I had to learn again how to see, move and breathe.
Because divers must equip the body with technological organs, and diving makes strange many experiences that are generally taken for granted, scuba diving provides us with a case for studying the complex relationships between perception, expression and technology–in a word, communication.
Just as real and mythical divers dived for gold and shipwrecked treasures, I dive for knowledge and understanding. This writing is an opportunity to expand and reflect upon this not necessarily rare, but quite specialized, experience.
The Russian Formalists used a critical device of “making strange.” Making strange has been considered the essence of art (Shklovsky), and hence an essence, or potentiality, of expression with which to grasp perception (Hawkes). By changing the way we breathe, move and sense the world, scuba diving “makes strange” the familiar. The water world brings the strange to us. This strangeness, difference, or “difference (differance)” (Derrida), of scuba diving opens an opportunity for critical thinking about the body, society, culture and world.
Three quotes from my studies caught my imagination and became my guiding stars:
- “In order to see the world and grasp it as paradoxical, we must break with our familiar acceptance of it.”4
- “The essential function of [the poetic dimension of communication] is to counteract the process of habituation encouraged by routine everyday modes of perception.”5
- bell hooks invites us to learn from “out of one’s place.”6
To follow these stars and to see the phenomena their light reveals, a poetic methodology is required, one capable of accepting and rejecting the “Real” when our “reality” is displaced. Critical and interpretive methods, combined with creative inscription and description that is verbal, literal, musical, video-logical and hyper-textual steps and leaps, are necessary for creating, “a language that authentically speaks the world rather than speaking of it is a language that reverberates the world” (Van Manen, 1990). “Echos” replaces logos (Merleau-Ponty, Eye and Mind; citation in Kevin Williams, Why I [Still] Want My MTV). Here I seek incantation, evocation, a primal telling, and “original singing of the world” (Merleau-Ponty, 1973).
I need to unlearn and learn at the same time–this includes both scuba diving and the philosophy of communication, that is, communicology.
Communicology is not the same as communication, in general, in the way that scuba diving is not the same as, say, water-recreation, in general. Both scuba diving and communicology require formal study, a rejection of presuppositions, a desire to embrace the normal as strange, methodologies for seeing in a new light, the discipline to learn new languages, and an ability to pass the tests (both written and in field) required to earn a license to practice–usually a PADI , PDIC, or other certification for the diver, and a BA, MA and/or PhD for the communicologist.
An Example of Making Strange
The photo, “Winter Scuba,” shows us the value of making strange. The photograph (or should we begin calling everything a digital file for the sake of clarity), breaks our expectations and allows us to see the familiar as normal, then beautiful, then strange–although that order is rhetorical not experiential. Grammar, here, fights me because my perception of the photos are not this, then that, then the other, but are a non-linear, multi-linear, process of perceiving an expressed perception that breaks expectation.
“In the routines of everyday speech, our perceptions of and responses to reality become stale, blunted, and as the Formalists would say, ‘automatized.’ By forcing us into a dramatic awareness of language, literature [perhaps all art] refreshes these habitual responses and renders objects more perceptible” (Eagleton, “What Is Literature”).
Critics like Terry Eagleton, John Berger and Gregory Ulmer encourage us to seek expressions which defy the codifications and discourses of language. Words and letters, sights and sounds, that can take us beyond the ideological and hegemonic–it’s not an easy project. If, for example, the photo on the last page had no diver appearing in the pond, the picture would meet expectations, and we would most likely not give it a second thought.
My quarry diving experience was a gift: I learned how to see familiar things as strange. This strangeness of the world came to me, not I to it. This simple experience, however, opened a world of expressive and perceptive possibilities. In effect, ideology and hegemony were broken by the sheer strangeness and abnormality of the scene. If ideology is the proverbial water in which human consciousness swims, then entering the real water washes the mind clean of cultural baggage; at least, it opens possibilities for new experiences not premeditated or presupposed.
Years later, I found pictures of the quarry before it flooded. I saw what looks like a small crop of trees on a rocky hill left to die, forgotten by the quarry workers when the rip they tore into the earth flooded. In the photo, the outcropping of trees looks small, insignificant (White Star Quarry). Was this small bunch of trees the “forest” I saw?
There is also a movie on the quarry website in which a diver moves through the remains of thin trunks that could be the trees I recall. Could this be my forest now, as it appears, almost fully rotted to nothing? Or, was the diver somewhere else?
The contrast is significant. My experience, a form of evidence, and the photographic evidence do not support one another. Yet, both remain valid. Time must be accounted for. There’s much more than a decade between the photos, videos and my dive log.
What appears to be a small outcropping of trees on a rocky hill in the middle of a quarry floor, when captured by photographic camera technology with frame, focus and focal length, also appears as a vast expanse when the ground and vanishing point of the horizon are gone. Perspective, that eye that is an “I,” an ego, vanishes with the horizon. The “I” that swims over the forest without the signs of ground and horizon, exists in the same space, but differently. We learned from John Berger’s Ways of Seeing that the photograph is not a neutral capturing reality, but a technological vision, an inscription of truncated time and space, already an ideology, in which time, space and movement are constructed by the camera’s settings when the shot is taken.
The lived moment, with its anticipation, anxiety and awkwardness, is very different from a photograph. On this dive, I had expected to find cars, trucks, all manner of things that people sink into quarries (there was a Ruffles Potato Chips truck sunk there at one time). I had seen photos. I knew there was a rock crusher waiting to be dived; I did not know then what rock crusher looked like (no internet to search). I did not expect to find a forest at the bottom of a quarry–no signs announced its presence until the Real appeared before me.
I didn’t waste a lot of thought on “how” or “why.” For the most part, I did what philosophy suggests we do: I bathed in the sheer wonder of the world; I simply enjoyed the experience of swimming over an underwater forest. And I meditated on the experience in mind, words, music and video.
Dive log: The Prince
At the surface near the wreck we donned our gear. We dropped off the side of the small fishing boat, and began our search for the remains of The Prince.
I spiraled down into the shallow water head first. I equalized the pressure in my body cavities with the fresh lake water, equalizing my body with the pressures greater than those at the surface.
Pressure is here a physical and phenomenal experience. The pressures of the social world seem to be inversely related to those of the physical world. As water pressure on my body increases, the pressures of my social life melt away.
There’s freedom down here. Many divers find this to be true.
Words may tell the story. But words have limits. The experience of diving transcends narrative–even when wrapped in the garb of story.
When I dive, the universe comes alive. I don’t think about work, or family or even the next dive. Diving makes it easy to be here and now. Alan Watts called Tao the watercourse way. Water always takes the path of least resistance. I choose the watercourse way (although it doesn’t feel like a choice until I reflect on the experience), the path of least resistance, the path to find freedom in a hectic world. However, the freedom I find is not without a rational face -limits. Clocks, computers and gauges come with me, and they deserve my attention.
There is, for me, a clear recognition that consciousness grasps the world at different levels at once (a recognition commensurate with my studies in communicology). There is the level of consciousness that checks the gauges, and measures the time -rationality. Mind is a good metaphor. It’s vital that I think, that I follow the measures of safe diving.
While rational in its contours, this awareness is likely grounded on a much more primal consciousness. Bring the body back to the surface. Live to dive another day. This is a magical and even archaic awareness (Gebser). These levels of consciousness -the magical and the archaic- are the depths that realize all is one (though not necessarily the “one” invoked by the new agers). We are the eyes of the world (The Grateful Dead). We are the eyes of god (Watts). The self is completely interconnected with and at one with the world. Any separation is the product of mythic story telling or rational measurement.
But what of the pleasures of the body in this alien environment. Before signification, before intentionality, before subjectivity my body knows pleasure. The pleasure is before ideology, before one’s self of identity or ego; it is the being in the world, the being of the world. It is primal, what Barthes calls jouissance (1975b); bliss, ecstasy, orgasm; it caresses, it grates, it comes (Fiske, 1990, 228-9).
Jouissance occurs at the moment of the breakdown of culture. “Neither culture nor its destruction is erotic -in a positive sense. The diving experience is not an erotics of desire –an “I want.” It is an erotics of pure positivity -no lack or desire is needed when you realize you are not in the world, but you are of the world; you populate the world the way coral populates a reef. It is the seam between the things, the fault line, the plate tectonics, the flow, which becomes full (Barthes 1975b, 7). Sexual orgasm is the moment when the body escapes culture, or, at least, makes that escape appear possible. The body and its sensualities oppose subjectivity. They provide a pleasure that is not to be found in the subject and its construction ion culture by ideology (Fiske, 1990, 229). I am in a privileged place. A place where nothing is lacking -at least until the gauges turn from green to red and a plan for surfacing is required.
My ears popped as I snapped my jaws. As my ears clear, sound shifts. I hadn’t noticed that that sound was appearing inside my head, that space was tight, or that my thoughts were dwelling on my experience; I was, after all, doing my college homework (this log an attempt at a faithful report of my experience. Those who know me will testify that digressions are almost a way of life for me).
With the slight pop in my ears, a flexion of the escutcheon tubes, both the sound and my thoughts radiate outward. I check my gauges. I check on my buddy. My experience of space shifts from introspection to the practical activity of finding the shipwreck. Rationality again takes hold, and my experience resides firmly in time and place. It resides in the world of history, of things with names–like The Prince.
The water is green and calm, dark and light. In front of me loomed the Prince. She was one hundred eight feet of shattered hull, only the boiler remained in tack. Beams of ancient wood pierced the water like the vertebrae and ribs of a giant sea creature -which is what she was, after all.
My ears were now full of the sounds of breathing which had not yet mapped to a rhythm. Breathing too deeply isn’t bad; it just wastes precious air -air is time.
I hover, buoyant, my limbs radiating out from my torso. I try to find a groove for my restless lungs while my eyes scan the wreck.
Perhaps I can’t find the groove because I’m trapped between two, maybe three, maybe more, ways of understanding the world -the rational, the mythical, the magical; the professional, the popular, the personal…
The wreck is populated by fish -Sheepshead. Like most fish, they do not fear divers, but since they feel the water, their atmosphere, they are difficult to touch. gave up trying many dives ago. Rather, I’m content to watch. I’m taken aback by one fish who hovers near me. I slip from my rational, directional thoughts into a waking reverie (Bachelard).
One fish is very near. Our eyes touch. The contact is cold, alien. There is no meaning, no indication of intentionality in the Sheephshead’s gaze. Our eyes touch for an unmeasurable moment. We might inhabit the same world, but we could not be more different.
We are strangers to each other. Clearly separated by more than species.
While there may be no intersubjectivity, I have empathy for the creature. I have respect. Later tonight I will dine on fresh fish speared by a fellow diver (indeed, he is hunting at the same time that I am mesmerized by this fish). I am aware that because of our difference, humans will claim dominion over these “Other” animals, not to care for, but to kill as needed, in any number, without respect for ecology. Such is modern techno-science, and its application of technology against the word. Human’s were at one time predators. The predator is part of the system; it kills off the weak and ill, some of the younger and older animals. However, predation naturally balances the tables and species adapt in accordance with Darwin’s observations.
Modern technology changes the balances. Indeed, the waters I’m currently diving had been very polluted. In the days of my youth, the 1960’s, the lake was declared “dead” (http://www.great-lakes.net/teach/pollution/water/water5.html).
As the existentialists say, freedom is responsibility. If I am to have this feeling of freedom found by scuba diving, I have to keep these (and all) waters clean. I cannot advocate building a world in which our children cannot dive these waters, or taste the food it yields.
The Heart of the Matter
- As I learned to dive, I had to relearn taken-for-granted things like moving, breathing and seeing.
- In turn, I learned to see the familiar in a new light.
- I had to abandon my received view of the world
- This learning to see the familiar in a new light meant I had to abandon taken-for-granted ways of understanding communication as well.
- In turn, I learned to see communication less as a matter of sending and receiving.
- Communication is more as a matter of perception and expression (these are the phenomena that are taken for granted by the traditional communication model).
A viable model of communication
Learning scuba diving opened a way for me to understand communication in a new way. Since we live in the age of communication, the age of imagery, what some have called the age of post-literacy, and certainly post-modern, little could be more important than understanding the phenomenon, communication.
At the very least, in a so-considered ‘visual society,’ we need to begin to understand a media literacy that can account for communication beyond the word, the logos. After all, the immanent, transcendent, and hence, transcendental, experience of scuba diving includes, but is not limited to, words.
- Scuba diving is a whole body experience: The books, pictures, movies, web sites, and other more or less important study guides are already multimedia. Textual phenomena are “read” by the body, not some Cartesian mind.
- Training doesn’t exist in a vacuum, but in a place: Music might be playing. You might be having that perfect summer song playing in your personal soundtrack. You might drive long distances to dive in a truck with one cassette tape and little radio reception (that happened to me, and the Beatles Blue Album is forever written into my diving experience).
- When in the water, it’s all body: Exercises like ditching and donning (taking off your gear and putting it, or a buddy’s, back on while staying underwater), are most clearly embodiment.
- Imagination, too, is not disembodied. Imagination may lead us to dream, to the poetic imagination of reverie (Bachelard). It may also amplify our fears, building like castles, stone on top of stone. Such fears may be a serious impediment to diving.
The point here is simple enough. In this segmented, fragmented, cyber-world, there is still a body at a computer terminal reading and or writing with the body. Thus, even logos is embodied.
Natural and Normal
If we are to find an original “singing of the world” (Merleau-Ponty), and an authentic interpretation of experience, we have to set aside our presuppositions about the things and the ways we communicate things, and learn new ways of considering reality, knowledge, values and methodology.
When we hear words like “natural” and “normal,” a red flag should appear. For human awareness, nature is culture (Jung). The natural and the normative are socially constructed by those with the power to establish a discourse; that discourse may hold prejudice we don’t want to maintain (these prejudices may be historical, or even invisible to those theorizing. Thus, we’re not here to condemn, but also not condone; we are here to critique, and to offer new ways of becoming human).
To break our normative ties with uncritical discourse (see Chapter 1.1), I borrowed a from Russian Formalism -the process of making strange. From this perspective, the role of art of was to make the familiar strange and thus teach us something about experience that was always there, but which was not necessarily perceptible. I used three ideas largely inspired by Terrance Hawkes’ Structuralism and Semiotics and bell hooks writings in general.Seeing the strange in an underwater forest is not so hard: seeing the strange in the everyday, the natural, and the normal is another matter. To begin, we have to recognize that the world is a mystery. History and science remind us that we know less than we don’t know. What we “know” may not be valid tomorrow. We literally spend our lives making sense of sensation, the sensible and the seemingly senseless. We are, as Merleau-Ponty and the existentialists suggest, condemned to meaning. We may not always be rational animals, but it appears that we are interpreting animals. We tend to take for granted our beliefs and values, applying them to make sense of our lives and the lives of others. But as communicologists, we are asked to render visible our invisible lines of thinking and meaning.
EMBRACING THE STRANGE: Triangulation
To create the data for this study of scuba diving, I turn to three three types of material for observation. Using three modes of theory/methodology is a good way to avoid the pitfalls of a singular method since all methods and theories illuminate some things while obscuring others.
- Phenomenology: the study of the structuring of consciousness-embodiment using direct experience. Most clearly manifest in my dive logs.
- Textual: The study of printed works. This methodology begins with a literature review (a study of as much available literature as resources allow), and continues to seek new publications as they become available. In the critical-cultural studies tradition, which uses the constellation of theoretical approaches discussed above, the study of literature is not limited to professional sources but seeks as many voices as possible.
- Ethnographic: Open-ended interviews and participant-observation methods of understanding a culture, subcultural or cultural practice from within, as it is lived by participants.
Scuba divers occupy a rather interesting vantage, as they encounter directly at least three modes or partial-articulations of knowledge about the world. These are:
- the mental-rational understanding of scientific thinking that is taught to the diver through dive manuals and training programs,
- the mythological-imagistic awareness that is inscribed intertextually in film, television, books and multimedia, and
- the performative-embodied awareness that is lived, but rarely discussed without engaging in radical reflection.
These three layers of experience (personal, popular cultural, professional) are tied to three modalities of understanding. However, one is not tied to another. Each layer, e.g., personal experience, can be perceived as mythical or rational.
Triangulation: discourse, knowledge and language
Methodological and theoretical triangulation can be correlated with another set of 3’s, drawn from postmodern pragmatics and the creative scholarship of Gregory Ulmer. Related to the theoretical and methodological triangulation are three realms of discourse that we always already live:
- Personal: The lived experience that while being situated in the communities of culture and language is individual and to whatever degree ego-centric.
- Pop-cultural: Our individual experience is, as noted, always appearing within contexts of culture and language.
- Professional: The specialized language and practices of a specific group, for example scuba divers (I am not referring to any necessary trade or economic status).
A Constellation of Theories and Methodologies
This journey draws from several areas of communication research, including phenomenology (the study of embodiment and consciousness), semiotics (the study of signification and structures of communication), hermeneutics (the study of interpretation), psychoanalysis (the study of the psyche and the way we learn to become “human”), feminism (the study of many things including the status awarded to persons based on social subjectivities) and discourse analysis (the study of the structures of communication established by rules of inclusion and exclusion that define “official” regions of communication).
Please don’t be put off by the names. This book is written for anyone interested in scuba diving and philosophy. The proper names and so-called “big words” are merely words for theories, or ways of understanding. After all, if we live in the age of communication, perhaps we should understand the ways communication works for and on us. These uncommon, yet important, ways of seeing allow us to re-conceive communication -not as line between a sender, message and receiver (a linear, message-based model), but as an interactive and circular exchange between perception and expression. Diving allows us new opportunities of perception; it’s our job to bring this perception to expression.
Is the World Real or Ideal?
Some people believe that the world is a physical thing that exists independently of humans and human consciousness; these are the realists. Others believe that the world comes into being as it is perceived by persons, and in the process of identifying a perception, and expressing it with a name; these are the nominalists. Communicology recognizes that both are partially correct and partially incorrect, and if they both have lessons to offer and limits to suffer, then something else, a third thing, must be going on that bridges the real and the ideal, the physical and the spiritual.
- The irreal -the connective tissue of the real and the ideal- indicates that human communication is set into motion by recognizing things in the material world, and then ascribing them meaning.
- The intersubjective -composed of communal experience, the intersubjective actually precedes both objective and subjective experience, though this is rarely acknowledged. The popular tendency is to consider something objective (real) first and foremost. The object’s interpretation or experience being “merely” subjective (too idiosyncratic). However, we are born into a world already constituted by others, language, discourse and culture -the wellsprings of intersubjectivity. Humans grow up in a world already colored by communicative action -seeing this activity as creative expressions of perceptions is the trick.
- The transcendental -the connective tissue or in-between consciousness of the world. The word “transcendental” means several things, and may be rendered useless by its own history. In other words, it means too many different things to many different people. Here, the transcendental indicates the in-between dimensionality of real or transcendent, and ideal or immanent, the communicative itself.
As divers integrate these modes of awareness in the concrete acts of diving, they reveal co-relational threads of the experiences of embodiment and discourse. Bridging these aspects of experience brings us into a realm of third options -the irreal, the intersubjective and the transcendental.
To illustrate these last several sets of principles I turned to video and literature. I composed a movie, “Diving with Words and Music,” to take popular expressions from literary work and set in against and through video of scuba divers and the creatures of the sea.
See the map on the next page for an outline of ideas that motivate this text. As indicated in the preface, the practice of rhizomatics implies an active mapping of a territory, and reterritorialize it (make it strange) I decided early in the publication process to make these maps visible to the reader even when largely unexplicated.