UC Irvine Professor Aaron James Writes About the Classic “Go-with-the-Flow” Surfer Persona in O.C.

Philosopher Aaron James is best known for the book “Assholes: A Theory” and its sequel, “Assholes: A Theory of Donald Trump,” examinations of that noxious and seemingly unavoidable personality type. His new book, “Surfing with Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry into a Life of Meaning,” is a philosophical study of a classic O.C. persona—the laid-back surfer. We asked the UC Irvine professor—a longtime surfer himself—to delve into the go-with-the-flow attitude and other topics.

Photograph by John Cizmas

I’m originally from San Diego, and I grew up surfing there. I even took time after high school just to surf. I went back to college gradually, squeezing in classes so I could surf.
It was always a priority.

In his masterwork “Being and Nothingness,” Sartre really gets into a discussion of skiing as an exemplification of freedom. Then he mentions water skiing as even better than skiing. That’s a natural jump to surfing.

What surfers understand in knowing how to go with the flow, go along with the wave, is what I call adaptive attunement. It’s a way of being attuned to things as they change and then adapting to them in a way that’s spontaneous. We do that in walking through foot traffic on a city street or getting through a conversation. It contrasts with striving to do things at the limit of your abilities instead of accepting your circumstances and being able to adapt to them with grace and less anxiety while still being efficacious.

Capitalism is wonderful in a lot of ways, mainly because it gives us a level of wealth that frees up our time to do meaningful things. Surfing only caught on in a big way because of the success of capitalism over time. (I write about) the idea of a more leisurely capitalism; the main thing is we worry less about economic growth once we’re to a certain level of affluence. That’s the way the most advanced countries are. And then we scale back the workweek to whatever degree is feasible. It could be 35 hours—ideally, if you’re a surfer, 20 hours. (Scaling back) also turns out to be better given climate change because by bringing down the growth rate in the advanced countries, we’re more likely to get on a safer growth path (for the planet). Then there’s also room for developing countries to grow.

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