Making Sense of Meaningless Violence and Aggression: An analysis of the US Navy's Crossing the Line Ceremony

    Activity: Talks and presentationsTalks and presentations in private or public companies


    On 7 November 1986, north of Australia, I crossed the equator at latitude 000-00 and longitude 152-50 on the US Navy guided missile destroyer USS Towers (DDG-9) and participated in the Crossing the Line ceremony. From 6 in the morning to about 4 in the afternoon, I went through a ritual that many critics find humiliating, undignified and irrational, because of the brute use of violence and aggression against individuals by other individuals. Yet I would propose that the critics simply do not understand that violence and aggression is meaningful, and while destructive, they can also be constructive of a social reality. In the case of the Crossing the Line ceremony, it teaches the value of honor by having its participants, wogs, act out the worst possible activities of the warrior class. In Erving Goffman’s terms, the initiate rite into the Realm of the Deep is a “black mass”, in which the social norms of the culture of the military are metaphorically and literally turned “upside down and inside out” by King Neptune, Davy Jones, and other personas played out by shellbacks, that is sailors who have successfully gone through the ceremony on a previous occasion. Making sense of the violence and aggression requires us conceptually to cross the line from civil society’s primarily value of individual dignity to the cultural code of honor. The ambiguity of the semiotics of violence and aggression, I will argue, depends on a person’s cultural frame and context.

    In order to structure my analysis of the meaning of the ceremony I use analytical tools from Cognitive Semiotics, yet there are a number of methodological and epistemological questions that could be raised given that when I participated in the ceremony I had no conception of Cognitive Semiotics and the military’s conception of “honor, commitment and loyalty”, especially honor, which sounded good on paper, was often far from social life on a ship in the South Asian Pacific, forward deployed from Yokosuka, Japan.

    Time and historical events, basically the flow of life, have also changed the meaning of the violence and aggression. With the introduction of new media technologies, the ceremony itself was changed in the late 1980s, because the ceremony could be viewed by a public unfamiliar with the tradition and the military values of honor. For me, the use of force seems less ambiguous today as I see myself having acted out a ritual that can trace its origins back to the formation of the Dutch and French national navies, which marked the crossing of the equator as a venture into the underworld by holding a carnival and Catholic Mass, respectively. And on an even more personal level, it has become a bed story I have, on occasion, told my son. As a fan of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, he seems quite impressed when I tell him that I have met Davy Jones in real life.
    Period14. May 2014
    Event titleFaglig dag: Day for Reflective Professionalism, ISK
    Event typeSeminar
    LocationOdense, DenmarkShow on map