index.html   Swimming and Diving in the American Imagination





Craig Bernardini

Hostos Community College, CUNY







Swimming and diving are the complementary halves of an evolving American myth, two sports whose juxtaposition is both mutually illuminating and illustrative of contemporary American culture. A diver transforms the body into a symbol; all diving is an allegory of death and transcendence, as well as an attempt to enact the dream of a natural language. Swimming, by contrast, is anti-allegorical and absurd, a failed attempt at bodily transformation. Diving is a purely conventional construct that masquerades as nature; swimming is a physical activity that fails to adopt a set of conventions that would enable it to speak clearly. In terms of their place in American culture, swimming is the privileged term in the binary, since it is associated with the values of capitalism, while diving is denigrated as theater, as play. Although in this regard diving may appear as a disruptive or potentially revolutionary activity, it more likely inoculates (in Roland Barthes’s sense of the term, whose Mythologies form the counterpoint for this discussion) American society against the possibility of radical transformation. Or, has capitalism evolved beyond the point that such a mythical inoculation is necessary?







            For the years I swam and attended swim-meets, it never occurred to me to pair my sport with that other activity, diving, beyond the need of sharing a facility. Swimmers and divers always competed as a team; beyond that, we were as little integrated as the black and white communities of the city where I attended college.

            In hindsight, what strike me are our defining differences: power and grace, space and time, surface and depth, x and y axes. They were always there, present in the conjunction which at once joined and divided us, diving always the afterthought. They were just never legible.

          How appropriate, then, or just plain irresistible, are the tenets of structuralism—the grammar of opposites, what Roland Barthes called the paradigmatic imagination—in the face of two conjoined sports that wear their differences so much upon their sleeves. Swimming and diving, reticent by themselves, lose all reserve in each other’s company.

             If my desire to write about swimming and diving is nostalgic, my methodology is no less so. A generation after its poststructuralist burial, structuralism, which would pretend to make me a transcendent observer, only deepens and colors my nostalgia.

        For the poststructuralist mind, nostalgia, the womb of desire, is the condition of subjectivity. That the new dinosaurs of the American academy (nimble, birdlike and vicious, like velociraptors) have grown nostalgic for the heyday of deconstruction is case in point. But time, however contaminated by desire, gives dimension to form. And structuralism, however compromisedby its refusal to acknowledge that the distance between the interpreter and the object is another axis, perhaps the axis, along which interpretation unfolds: readability is a function of diachronicityis not fatally compromised.1 It is, rather, a faltering step toward making form-in-history legible.

            In my case, swimming and diving, invariably flat (when I swam) or blurry (for years after), resolve, via the structuralist’s superimposing glasses (you remember the kind: square, cheap plastic, cellophane lenses rose and blue), into a three-dimensional image, each sport projected against the other so as to illuminate both, both projected against the landscape of American culture which is itself illuminated by their juxtaposition.[*]





            If we define diving by the relationship between a body and gravity, then it follows that water, which diminishes the effect of gravity, must be incidental to it. Water is an expedient, not an essential, element. In the oracular (and thoroughly American) jargon of noun phrases: diving is an “air sport,” not a “water sport.”

             A diver dies the moment her body hits the water. The water’s surface means the same thing that the “touch” that finishes a race means to a swimmer. And this is paradoxical, because whereas a diver (as the name suggests) goes “deeper” than a swimmer, nothing is plumbed, or discovered, or retrieved—no sunken treasure, anyway. For a diver, the water has no depth; it exists merely as surface.

          Diving, like the ether it inhabits, must be understood indirectly. It is above all a symbolic activity, the diver’s body is a speaking body (to use Barthes’s phrase), and the dive is as pure a gesture as a cheerleader’s throwing out her arms to make the letter “T.” There is a moment when a diver’s leap and the force of gravity cancel each other, and she hangs suspended, enthralled, and the audience with her. Invisible to the spectator’s eye, but a theoretical necessity, an intellectual certainty. This is a diver’s burden: to transform an eminently physical activity into an idea; to use her body, by way of a highly formalized (and purely conventional) somatic vocabulary, to surpass her body; to prolong that differential suspense until it engulfs the whole time of the dive. Diving “happens” in the air, but its essence is somewhere else. So what does the dive signify?

            A diver performs a series of aestheticized death-throes (read as death-throes because they are aestheticized) which allegorize the soul’s liberation from the body: All diving is an allegory of death and transcendence. But for the dive to function in this way, the body must be turned into a symbol: spirit and meaning must be liberated together. Diving recalls the definition of sublimation—matter is annihilated and raised to the level of spirit—and so what is allegorized in diving is allegory itself. And this is true no matter how many twists and turns a diver executes or the degree of difficulty ascribed to the dive—though it is true that the more spectacular and perfectly executed the dive, the more ideal it seems to us, and the more likely it is to be understood as allegory. This is the sport’s attraction, the reason we watch the same thing over and over. It has little to do with competition or physical prowess. Rather, it is the story that diving tells, about the soul’s salvation, or about reading, about making meaning from signs.

            A diver’s goal is to forge the symbolic imagination in the mind of the audience, to transcend the impurity of the arbitrary sign for the purity of the natural symbol, the necessary connection—between her body and her activity, and between these (spastic motion followed by stasis, and then disappearance) and their allegorical meaning.2 It is this idea of purity, of a nostalgia for lost innocence (moral, linguistic) and for plenitude, which purifies a diver’s body, and which in turn purifies not only us—we who have come to believe we are responsible for her martyrdom—but also the Order to which we belong. All diving takes on this appearance of a purification ritual: body after body casting itself into the abyss, like a crowd of martyrs making spectacles of their faith, shedding their flesh to reveal themselves as symbols.3

            The coup de grace—and here the water proves especially expedient, like a theater curtain—is that sudden disappearance, the diver’s serene injection into the other side, leaving the spectator with only the memory of a body. The almost preternatural quickness of those twists and turns works in the diver’s favor. Like an apparition, the dive is only half-believed, and the spectator turns to his companions for corroboration (“Did you see what I saw?”). This is also the reason why the failed dive, and even more the injured diver, is so traumatic: without warning, a diver becomes corporeal again, and the illusion of transcending the physical world is destroyed.

            In this respect, the television cameras, which replay the dive over and over from a multitude of angles in slow-motion, destroy, or threaten to destroy, diving’s essence. For how can we possibly convince ourselves of a dive’s perfection, of its incarnating an ideal, when we have it dissected before us? The feet are never quite aligned, the pony-tail whips around ridiculously, the body is always a bit skewed from the board. The dive becomes nothing more than an impressive physical activity; all its potential for symbol-making is lost.

            One camera, however, tells another story. Placed in an observation room beneath the level of the water, through this camera we are able to glimpse the nether realm, in the same way that spirits, unseen by the naked eye, are sometimes captured on photographic plates. Although a diver dies at the surface, this marvelous device Virgils us into the underworld, following the spirit’s decelerating descent, and then its accelerating ascent beside the plume of bubbles that marked its sudden entry, rising all in a rush to re-enter the world of the living, sometimes helped along by a hefty push against the bottom—and what a relief, to know that the underworld has a bottom! A new chapter is added to the saga: what was once only about leaving the physical world (or entering the other) is now also about returning to this one; what was once about death and transcendence is now also about physical rebirth; what was once divine comedy becomes, thanks to TV’s evangelical promise, bodily resurrection.

            There is yet another camera, this one placed directly before the ladder where a diver emerges, fresh-faced and hairless, allowing us to rub shoulders with her new innocence, however short-lived. For her body has ceased to speak; she is corporeal again, almost one of us. Perhaps because of the continuity between diving and emerging, the allegory still illuminates a diver’s body: she appears canonized. Or perhaps it is the water that reminds us of her ritual sacrifice and miraculous rebirth. This is not to call the water holy; it is not the agent that purifies. Purity is achieved (or rather performed) in the dive’s acrobatics. Instead, the water, like a halo, signifies what the body no longer can. Halos mark saintliness; they do not make a saint. And like a halo, which floats above the saint’s head, the water surrounds a diver without touching her. Here, a diver momentarily retains the power to turn herself, and everything she (never quite) touches, and everything that (never quite) touches her, into language, and what’s more, to purify that language of its clumsy arbitrariness. To put it differently: a diver never truly gets wet.





            But a swimmer does. For a swimmer, water is water and only water. It gets inside his ears and nose and mouth, it washes around his loins, it soils him, he wallows in it. Swimming’s audience is not illiterate (it is, after all, the same audience as diving’s), nor is the narrative especially taxing. In swimming, there’s just nothing to read. Water doesn’t mean; it acts. Swimming is a “water sport,” nothing more. Any resemblance between a diver and a bird is more associative than real: a diver doesn’t expect to fly, only to symbolize the lightness of spirit; rather than trying to adapt to her medium, she chooses to transcend it. But a swimmer would like nothing more than to be a fish. And so an air of desperation hangs over his whole activity: the desire to metamorphose, and the perennial failure to do so. Ironically, in his bestial desperation to conquer the new element, to plow a furrow in water, a swimmer loses his ability to speak, to make symbols—his only hope. The victim of an incomplete regression, he suffers in bestial stupidity without the pleasure of actually turning into a beast. If there was something purgatorial about the throes of diving—that moment when a diver gives up the ghost, incarnates the idea, all drawn out in the mind’s eye—swimming is all the more purgatorial for being unsuccessful. What we left unsaid for years, swimming is hell, was truer than we knew: we were there, if only in the relatively chaste outermost circle, in the enviable company of the pagan philosophers: those who live “in desire without hope” of salvation.

            To say that a swimmer can’t change is to say he can’t do without air. Existing at the frontier of two elements, and moving horizontally along their border, a swimmer is doomed to muddle them, to be both-and. It is this inability to keep things separate, to maintain order, that makes swimming illegible, anti-allegorical, and absurd. Diving’s verticality, its maintenance of a rigidly hierarchical distinction between air and water, announces the presence of allegory. By passing between the two with hardly a splash, the existence of that border is secured. Borders are what allow diving to forge meaning: that between air and water is extant, yet permeable, and so that between body and spirit, signifier and signified; a diver passes between the latter two with the same grace and assurance she does the former. But by eradicating the physical boundary between two elements, two phases of matter, swimming destroys the possibility of speech. So, while diving remains an essentially symbolic activity, swimming is horribly literal, and physical to the last degree. Unlike diving, everything about swimming reminds us of the body: the noise (diving is funereally silent for the breadth of the activity), the splashing about, apparent pain and breathlessness, etc.

            As a result, a swimmer is never really at home, either in the water or on land. To spend a few hours of every day of one’s life semi-suspended, and then to stand again on dry ground, changes one’s perspective of the things most people take for granted: our time is not the same as their time, and gravity, it pulls harder, or seems to, until we come to resent it. And yet for all its buoyancy, the water is never more than a foster home. Any swimmer who has stood at poolside before sunrise, eyes half-closed, water like a dream, waking to the dread not of the cold, but of the way the water will feel when he takes that first plunge, that daily parody of the birth-trauma when his environment is suddenly thickened, can tell you as much, or as little. (Will we ever find a Kaspar Hauser of the sea?) It’s as if the bark had stopped growing at Daphne’s hips, leaving her stranded, and Apollo there, all out of breath and sporting an erection, wondering what on earth to do next. And yet Ovid knew, as Apulieus knew, that no such metamorphosis is ever really complete: something always remains, an essential part, yearning for its “former form,” as Richard Burton translated it. Identity resides beyond flesh and appearances. True transformation must be spiritual: conversion, to Isis, or whomever. Or a symbol.

            Diving is Petrarch, but swimming, condemned to blunt physical reality, blindly pushing the other way, swimming, lamentably, is Ovid.





            Yet swimming, like any other cultural activity, does mean; it just doesn’t present us with a single, stable meaning, as diving purports to. Instead, meaning hops metonymically from lane to lane, among the contiguous scribbles of six or eight bodies scrolling horizontally across the pool’s surface. Conversely, though diving aspires to the condition of the natural symbol, its meaning is also arbitrary: the narrative of death and transcendence, and the penchant to read allegorically, are bound by culture and history.

            If meaning in diving manages to present itself as somehow more “natural” than in swimming, this is not due, or not primarily due, to the more obvious differences between the way the two activities are organized: for example, that swimmers are bound to the law of the gun, whereas a diver leaps when he’s ready; or that swimming, an “individual” sport, is at the same time highly social, the events taking place in a pool full of competitors, while a diver stands alone on the board, in the apparent absence of competition, as if the world existed only in and for him. It is rather a matter of how each sport signifies. When swimming attempts to speak, it is unable to do so unambiguously, and hence foregrounds the conventionality of its language. But diving seduces us with an illusory nature, with the dream of a natural language, even as it uses an arbitrary combination of signs, i.e., somersaults and twists, and an arbitrary number of each, to do so. Diving says, “Since I cannot be nature, I will settle for signifying it; but I will signify it in such a way that my gestures are mistaken for nature, for an ontology, for the Thing-in-itself. By fully embracing convention, I can present the perfect illusion of nature.”4 At the moment that nature and the body have been dispensed with—because they have been—“nature” can appear as a concept. In semiotic terms, knowledge (or rather ideology) replaces experience (Peirce); diving is a myth, an impure (arbitrary) activity that wears a mask of transparency (Barthes).

            In effect, diving becomes natural by declaring itself so; it straddles the nature/culture binary, while swimming, unable to perform the signifying illusion that is essential to diving, is doomed to muddle the two—doomed, that is, to the dual impurity of bodies and signs. To a diver, a swimmer is a beast yoked to the law—to a diver, that is, who also depends on the law, but who makes (us) believe that his activity precedes all law. Diving takes advantage of swimming’s inability to speak clearly; it speaks for swimming; by declaring itself natural, it declares that swimming, its opposite, is compromised, conventional, that it is something less (or something more) than natural. And this is ironic, since our inclination is to label as natural and hence privilege the more physical, the less refined, of the two activities. After all, a swimmer’s motions are practical: she gets somewhere, even if that “somewhere” is the same place she started—A to A*, say, where A* means something different, just as the arbitrary “last wall” (all walls are alike) is the same wall she might have touched two or thirty-two times already. Swimming is too bound to its physical purpose to signify anything stable or coherent beyond the activity itself … yet too pregnant with meaning to be a purely physical activity. In diving, by contrast, the terrain is the body itself; the movements have no goal beyond their own completion: they are completed for their own sake, “for art’s sake,” for the sake of an aesthetic ideal: grace, beauty. It may be this absence of practical purpose—witnessed by such practical, productive people—that evacuates diving of its literal meaning, and invites the audience to fill the space. The diver withdraws from the realm of sport and into that of theater, where he ceases to speak the conventional language of diving (pike and tuck and degrees of difficulty) and begins to speak the “universal” language of allegory.

            On the one hand, by perfectly fulfilling a series of conventional gestures, or by a diver’s unnaturally contorting his body to approximate the perfection of geometric forms, diving becomes an allegory of grace and transparency: a form that surpasses formality, that ossifies the contingent into the determined, that incarnates or “partakes of” a concept without a referent. On the other hand, a diver intimates freedom from convention by making these gestures appear natural, as if they were waiting for a body—his body—to fulfill them: an ideal dive appears natural to the extent that a diver’s body becomes the language. For the body to speak, it has to disappear as a body: the body is just the tool for making meaning. But the tool is also the subject of the allegory—either as exposition, or apocalyptic vision—and so it cannot disappear entirely; it must be present, at least retrospectively. Diving is always at one and the same time this return to the body, to the prelapsarian purity of primary narcissism, and a flight from the body into the abstract, the ether, spirit. Diving is this dialectic between antithetical fantasies of immediacy: body and spirit, origin and end.

            There are a few who view diving without allegory, blind to everything but the law: the judges (who judge, ironically, after the execution: the accused is not judged for a previous crime, but according to how well he dies: diving meets Kafka). Which is not to say that scores and allegories are mutually exclusive, but that the symbolic imagination depends only upon a threshold which, once crossed, transforms the dive from physical activity into allegory. Scoring is alien to diving’s nature, an attempt to integrate it with swimming as a “competitive” sport; in the context of a meet, for example, diving scores are converted into points and added to the points earned from swim races. Swimmers always felt this to be a travesty. Diving points aren’t “real” points; swimming, after all, is timed. But with their flip-books sporting enormous, stenciled whole and half numbers between one and ten, like all “natural” weights and measures, the judges pretend to measure diving as empirically as a watch. By quantifying diving the way time quantifies swimming (and time is like money in this regard, that it destroys signification—yet another reason for swimming’s aphasia), the judges threaten to shear it of its symbolic content, of its essence as a signifying activity. Understood as a product of convention, however, scoring may actually re-enforce the purely conventional nature of diving on which its ability to signify depends; together with the diver, the judges would thus assist in making the conventions of diving appear natural.

            Through the judging, diving participates in one of the constitutive features of myth according to Barthes: the reduction of quality to quantity. But because the judges are themselves spectators, they can never be entirely blind to the drama. It is this ineradicable subjectivism, this excess of seeing, which comprehends a diver as a performer, as an aesthetic object, and which (to diving’s credit) resists its integration into athletic competition. But this raises an important question: Does the scoring of diving (like the scoring of gymnastics) therefore threaten to undermine competitive sports, and hence the competitive culture and society of which swimming is a microcosm? Or does it represent, rather, the successful co-opting of diving by competitive sports, and as such a sort of safety-valve for the Order which it affects to threaten? And a corollary which is really the heart of the matter: Is diving, and the signifying illusion on which it depends, myth—or does it represent the possibility (were it able to wrest itself free of a bourgeois culture that has hijacked it) of real transgression, of an authentic rupture, of the irruption of the ideas of the sacred and of irreducible, unquantifiable quality into a bourgeois world?





            Though compromised as a semiotic activity, swimming has a monopoly on all the magic words dear to athletics, athletics being understood as an adequate, perhaps even an ideal, reflection of the essentials of American society: competition (the “free market” of the rat-race, of labour-power); fairness in the field of play (swimming’s horizontality and its muddling of hierarchies, that is, its egalitarianism); speed—not mere usefulness or efficiency, not as a means to an end, but as a purely self-referential value, like justice or mercy; and work, hard work and plenty of it, as a means to self-fulfillment. (How many rags-to-riches stories are there in the annals of athletics? Certainly more than in business, for which they are taken to be the prototype, or the surrogate.) In swimming’s terms, what makes a sport worthwhile is that it builds character, instills a good work-ethic, at once our secular religion and an indicator of our spiritual bankruptcy. Sociologically, sports, which fall under the dubious heading of “recreation,” are as much a vehicle for becoming a productive member of the work world as Barthes’s bourgeois toys; and for the culture at large, through the occasional fortunate professional athlete (and the yet more occasional fortunate amateur), the significance of American sports has been literalized: sport is no longer just a metaphor for how you make it, it is how you make it. But diving? Diving is useless. As noted, diving shares less with athletics than with theater, with the arts—those cultural effluvia stinking of Europe and decadence, and from which that fabled red-state snoot retreats after hardly a whiff. Diving is true recreation, pleasurable, playful, theatrical, juvenile—is precisely what competitive sports won’t be. Of course, along with work/play, the sports/art hierarchy drags with it the familiar decayed binaries: male/female, heterosexual/homosexual, objective/subjective, adult/child. Diving, swimming affirms, is gay: the upsidedown pinup of Greg Louganis’s taut, crescent body (on the cover of Breaking the Surface) loafing in the void, unborn, yet fully, perfectly formed. Swimming is all flags and grit, Mark Spitz’s skinny arms akimbo, smirking Tom Selleck mustache and the mythical potency of seven dangling medals (for only then, in his unassailable masculinity, could Rolling Stone parody him on its cover). Diving is infantile: the reassuring story that it tells over and over; the apparent freedom of being borne up into the air, of momentarily defying gravity, like a tossed baby; the happy egoism of a diver’s solitude, the cry of, “Hey, look at me!” At the pool, the diving boards were always the space of play (and playful competition), of the body turned upsidedown, flips and gainers and the cannonball splashes of those who had not yet learned to speak. Laps were something adults did during “adult swim.”5

            Swimming holds the higher position in American culture, a position which (as is the case with many an elite body) makes its vaunted egalitarianism possible, and not the other way around, and from which, ironically, it would castigate diving precisely for its love for hierarchies and symbol-making. Swimming needs diving to demonstrate its own denigrating of hierarchies. Diving is admonished: would it survive in the world of athletics, it must abandon such theatrics. But this is tantamount to asking diving to abandon its identity. Diving’s symbol-making at once ensures its denigration and expresses its unhappiness with the status quo.6 Like the allegory it speaks, diving seeks strength in its humility, in its martyrdom on the altar of competitive sports, competitive society. The limits of our activity notwithstanding, we swimmers were no less literate than our audience. And though we may not have understood it, we could feel the primacy of diving, both physically and symbolically: air above water, heaven above hell, spirit over body; a diver’s daily salvation, daily transformation, daily rebirth, against a swimmer’s inability to transform or transcend; a diver’s apparent ease, his quickness and lightness, his presence as spirit, against the enduring body, the body-in-pain, every swimmer’s purgatory; diver, eternal child, existing outside of convention, outside of the law, in the pleasure and play of his own body, while the swimmer, beast, Titan, is bound sure as Prometheus to the rock of law. It can only be with envy that the swimmer feels this difference day in and day out, though we may not understand it until years later, as I did not, until distance and hindsight had resolved experience into signs: envying that the diver can mean, inhabits a plane the swimmer cannot. As always, it is this envy and this fear—the sense that he confronts a superior power—which compel the swimmer to subjugate, the traditional complicity of sanctification and denigration, worship as a means of exerting control.

            Diving refuses to relinquish its identity, though swimming rules by force of simple majority. When I swam, we outnumbered the divers twenty to one, and I suspect that ratio is representative of teams everywhere. So we banished the divers to the three-meter board, and once we had them there, in the “tank,” across the bulkhead, at the other end from the blocks, we learned to tolerate them. We were always very polite to one another, swimmers and divers, in that middle-class, suburban way which finished us, like the gold paint on our medals, now stowed away inside innumerable shoeboxes, in innumerable attics around the country. The diving events, always happening about halfway through a typical swim-meet, seemed to have the same function as halftime does in professional sports: a diversion, an entertainment, an intermission, meant to be eclipsed by the heroic battles that we swimmers fought on either end, as if all our sound and fury could drown them out. In truth, ours was an empty show of power, meaningless as the activity itself. Like at a medieval feast, the true show of power lay in the performance of the denigrated, the divers: they opened a hole in the middle of the meet—in the middle of competition, in the middle of sainted athletics—; a hole in which whole bodies could get lost. Only for moments, true. But a hole we couldn’t cover, no matter how much we fought. Diving opened a hole that transcended athletics, in which diver and spectators alike were freed for a moment from the earthly, from the scrabble of competition, from the thirst for blood, the rat-race that we all knew our parents were involved in, teaching us to smell blood, paying for our time here, making them proud. It was what everyone wanted to escape from, though no one could admit it. Divided from them by gravity, we watched the divers fall, and imagined that their fall was akin to ours. But theirs was symbolically a rise. They had inverted the natural world, the very world in which swimming exists. How could we hope to compete with that?





            But perhaps I’m letting my revolutionary fervor run away from me. Whatever its status—potentially disruptive (revolutionary) or nostalgic-seductive (mythical)—diving represents an alternative which is presented only to be withheld—an alternative achievable only through language. And in presenting what must be a false alternative, I suspect that diving’s real function was to all the better bury us in the order of our soon-to-be-daily lives: diving as inoculation, the illusion of critical distance from ideology in order to more firmly position us inside it.7 Like Barthes’s Blue Guide, which reduced travel to the consumption of monuments for previous generations of bourgeoisie, diving appears to “abide by a partly superseded bourgeois mythology” (p. 76): the continuance, in degraded form, of myths of religious faith and natural hierarchy. This nostalgic vision becomes necessary to sanitize, or at least to blunt the teeth of, an evolving predatory capitalism whose primary metaphor is, as it was for Sade, ingestion: organs, identities, the water and air, all ground up together in the profit-mill. In such a culture, diving’s command of language hardly ensures its superiority; instead, it ensures that it will be used as a mouthpiece, to purify and sanctify the present Order. This is the ultimate meaning of the purification ritual described earlier. Far from distancing itself from diving, swimming uses diving to throw all its own values into relief. Diving is swimming’s New Labour England; it is the cultured voice whose occasional, principled opposition to Order (rather than its rupture with it) presupposes an acceptance of the terms of that Order, and a universe in which both the reigning ideology and its opponents can co-exist as simple “differences of opinion”—that is, as pieces of a larger, totalizing structure in which both are embedded. There is no other option; or rather, the only other option is annihilation. All diving can do is speak; but the moment it speaks, its voice is taken over, used against it. So swimming colonizes diving, ventriloquizes diving to justify its own mute Order.

            But I also suspect that we are entering a new age of myth, or perhaps better put, a post-mythic age. Call it “the age of bourgeois illiteracy,” a kind of parody of Barthes’s call for a more immediate language of action. Not the action of the oppressed, not the revolutionary violence of the class-conscious proletariat. No: the immediate, totalizing violence of the State. A reality that can be exhaustively described in quantitative terms; a reality of brute and blind force, of the complete absence of reflection, indeed of consciousness. It is not so hard to imagine such a time, when predatory capitalism no longer needs any justification beyond itself, when it has become another name for virtue, is enthroned politically and socially, and the myth of diving has been entirely superseded.

            When we were swimmers, we couldn’t link our cultural inferiority to our social superiority. We never could have understood that swimming and diving were two halves of a single, evolving myth, the former depending on the latter for its power, American society depending on their association to at once lay bare and smooth out (bare and smooth, like our bodies) the contradictions and inequities on which our society was built. Probably we weren’t meant to understand. Probably it wouldn’t have much mattered if we had. It was easier just to watch, enthralled, jealous, imagining, maybe, that what we were watching was a way out.




1. Not because, as Levi-Strauss contended, history yields a set of invariants; here, time is invoked only to be discounted. And not because there is always an element of dynamism in any synchronic abstraction (Jakobson); every tool of analysis yields, at bottom, a synchronic granule; it is only the size of the granule that varies. And certainly not because history has some Lamarckian purpose or systemic order (Jakobson again). Rather, our historical moment forms the other, ineradicable pole of a binary which subsumes semiologist and object alike. Roland Barthes was already fully aware of this in the original preface and conclusion (“Necessity and limits of mythology”) to the Mythologies; it is also the ostensible subject of “Neither-Nor Criticism.” Hence the appeal to sarcasm, the conscious anti-mythologies of Flaubert, etc., as a means of escaping this positional double-bind (“Since myth robs language of something, why not rob myth?”). See Barthes, ps. 11-12, 81-84, 135-6.


2. I am using allegory, symbol, and natural sign interchangeably to refer to what Angus Fletcher (1964) calls the “participation mystique of the Symbol with the idea symbolized …. With Symbol the mind perceives the rational order of a thing directly, by an ‘unmediated vision’” (ps. 17-18); and to distinguish these, as Saussure and others do, from an arbitrary linguistic system. In this regard, any Romantic formulation about the relationship between the temporal and the eternal (e.g., “the translucence of the eternal through and in the temporal” (Coleridge, as cited in Fletcher, 1964, p. 16)) suffices. The operative question about allegory seems to be not whether the literal level can be read in the absence of its secondary meaning, but rather, once the secondary meaning has been grasped, whether the literal level ceases to “matter”—that is, whether it becomes, as in Barthes’s marvellous metaphor of the window-pane through which we view the landscape, “at once present and empty to me …. Its [myth’s] form is present but empty, its meaning is absent but full” (ps. 123-124).


3. Between Christian allegory and signification, the latter is probably primary: the body is understood as a natural sign, which in turn naturalizes Christianity: the true purity here belongs not to religious conviction, but signification. Cf. Barthes (1957):  “[Wrestling] offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature …. What is portrayed in wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a universal Nature, in which signs at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction” (p. 25). Alternatively, it is the reading of the sign as Christian allegory which naturalizes it—the supposed ahistoricity of religion purifies the sign. For a discussion of the historical imbrication of religion and allegory, see Fletcher, p. 21.

            In terms of the spectacle of martyrdom, Barthes (1957) offers this: “Wrestling holds the power of transmutation which is common to the Spectacle and to Religious Worship” (p. 25); “Defeat … takes up the ancient myths of public Suffering and Humiliation: the cross and the pillory. It is as if the wrestler is crucified in broad daylight and in the sight of all. I have heard it said of a wrestler stretched on the ground: ‘He is dead, little Jesus, there, on the cross,’ and these ironic words revealed the hidden roots of a spectacle which enacts the exact gestures of the most ancient purifications” (p. 21). Unlike wrestling, however, diving does not present the spectator with a narrative of just desserts. Neither does diving preoccupy itself with creating individual characters: each smooth body is the same as the last, and the activity—the narrative—exhausts itself with each dive. Similarly, because a diver’s body takes the form of a single, cumulative gesture, that gesture cannot be the equivalent of diacritical writing, as Barthes describes the gestures in wrestling. The body-as-sign is taken as a totality; there is no remainder in the reading process.


4. Cf. Barthes (1957): “The rules in classical poetry constituted an accepted myth, the conspicuous arbitrariness of which amounted to perfection of a kind, since the equilibrium of a semiological system comes from the arbitrariness of its signs” (p. 134).


5. Never mind that “hard work, and plenty of it” stands behind any successful performance. And never mind that the divers I knew always seemed so much more mature, so much more serious, than the swimmers. I can't remember them smiling or talking very much. They hardly ever went out drinking.


6. Symbols are what the denigrated use to express a power they cannot actualize: their transgressions are only semiotic. At the same time, symbols provide the power to imagine inverting the existing hierarchy, whose foundation is always (swimming’s) brute force. Symbols may be used by the elite to mask or otherwise hide their actual power, though this is not essential. In general, until a symbol’s imaginary power threatens to become actual, elites are free to ignore symbol-making, and to marginalize the symbol-makers. Put another way: swimming doesn’t need to speak; it is always spoken for.


7. “One cures doubts about the Church or the Army by the very ills of the Church and the Army. One inoculates the public with a contingent evil to prevent or cure an essential one. To rebel against the inhumanity of the Established Order and its values … is an illness which is common, natural, forgivable; one must not collide with it head-on, but rather exorcise it like a possession” (Barthes, 1957, p. 42).






Barthes, R. (1972). Mythologies. (A. Lavers, Trans.). New York: Noonday. (Original work

published in 1957)

Fletcher, A. (1964). Allegory. Ithaca: Cornell.

Jakobson, R. (1990). On Language. (L. R. Waugh & M. Monville-Burston, Eds.). Cambridge:


Silverman, K. (1983). The Subject of Semiotics. New York: Oxford.


[*]      Dear Roland: I hope you like my glasses. They are my plastic toy. A trifle bourgeois, perhaps—a bourgeois trifle, certainly—but mine nonetheless. Plastic, after all, makes wood legible, makes it “wood,” gives it a voice. Without plastic, wood would be silent—as you would seem to prefer. That is, from the perspective of the bourgeois order from which you were so consciously alienated: it is the evolution of plastic from wood, and the distance between them, that permits you to read—to assemble the “symbols of bourgeois appropriation,” your pipe and your hearth. (May I read my copy of the Mythologies by the hearth? Because it also matters where you sit.) In fact, in an emerging poststructuralist world, structuralism’s appeal was nostalgic already when you began writing the Mythologies, was it not? “Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time” (Barthes, 1957, p. 55): a perfect description of the structuralist project: intellectual objects made of wood. Swimming and diving are my wood, my nostalgic objects … except that they are myths, too, the plastic products of my bourgeois culture. Didn’t you love the quaintness of those Blue Guides? Didn’t you thrill to the jet-men? You see how much more complicated this gets, 50 years later, when the mass-produced elements of bourgeois culture themselves become objects of nostalgia, tugging us back, warping our semiological grids like gravity did to special relativity. And then there is the pleasure of reading—what you came to terms with later, confronting and undermining the “mythology of the mythologist” (p. 12). We were never pious, and hardly selfless. Little action, much pleasure; the “surprising compactness” of your mythologies, “which I [too!] savoured with delight” (p. 158). You might put yourself above nostalgia, refuse to “revisit” the mythologies. But they are my old friends. I hope you don’t mind if I do. [Editor's note: The author's express wishes included differentiating between this footnote and the other annotations, which we have included as endnotes.]



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