***This is the first half of two part article. However, readers may actually want to begin by reading my recent post What are “martial arts,” and why does knowing matter?***
“It [Ludosport] started in 2006 in Italy. A few friends got some lightsabers as gifts and being into martial arts and re-enactment fanatics they decided to see if there was a way they could make it into a sport, and they did. They spent hundreds of hours consulting many different martial artists and fencing coaches to make sure that they got a really good sport.
It’s not a martial art. We’re not trying to teach people how to cause physical harm, in fact that’s exactly the opposite of what we’re trying to do. We want something that’s fast and fun, that people can enjoy.”
“[Flynn:] People laugh at us and say, “That’s not a real martial art!” I say, why don’t you pick one up and try.
[Damon Honeycutt:] They can say all they want…you know what I mean. But the fact is we are practicing and they are not.”
Introduction: What are Martial Arts?
Is lightsaber combat a martial art? This seemingly odd question may have important implications for how we understand critical concepts within the field of martial arts studies. It also promises to shed light on the fundamental processes by which the traditional martial arts have been revived, reimagined and invented in the modern era.
As both a relatively new and radically interdisciplinary research area, martial arts studies is currently enjoying a period of rapid conceptual development. Nowhere is this more evident than in attempts to define the term ‘martial art.’ While it is in many ways synonymous with the field, only a minority of the foundational texts in our literature have attempted to define this concept or to explore it in ways that would point to new avenues for research. Nor has the existing literature coalesced around a single definition.
In a previous post we saw that researchers have adopted at least three discrete strategies when attempting to craft their understanding of this concept. The first, and most widely used, might be referred to as the “sociological strategy.” It simply accepts the social or cultural consensus on the question as it has arisen within a tightly focused research area.
Given that everyone in 21st century Japan simply “knows” that kendo, karate and aikido are martial arts, there may not be an urgent need to further explore the matter when discussing some aspect of Japanese martial studies. This is especially true as so many works currently being produced adopt an “area studies” approach which calls for a deep examination of the historical, social or even linguistic forces affecting developments in only a single region or state. It may seem beyond the bounds of a given research project to deeply explore what characteristics make both kendo and karate “martial arts” given their many historical differences. The existing consensus is simply accepted as a social fact.
Nevertheless, future theoretical development within martial arts studies requires a greater emphasis on comparative case studies. This research strategy often necessitates comparing practices that have arisen in very different times or places. For instance, what makes both capoeira and kendo martial arts, and how can both be understood in light of the economic, political and social changes that swept the globe in the 19th century? In cases such as this it is no longer possible to avoid definitional discussion. For better or worse, classification and categorization are at the heart of the comparative enterprise.
Towards this end scholars have attempted to define the martial arts in at least two different ways. First, they have advanced short “universal” definitions meant to identify those activities deemed to be “martial arts” within the broader category of all social practices. Further, most of these authors have attempted to advance relatively abstract definitions that can be applied to any society, time or place.
As we saw in our previous post, such efforts can be challenging. And while identifying “martial arts” in the abstract, most of these discussions provide no way of knowing where one style ends and the next begins. Are wing chun, weng chun and white crane three different styles, or simply three interpretations of the same regional fighting tradition? Scholars need a concept that can help us to address questions such as this.
A second group of authors have developed definitions that seek to classify the wide range of observed martial arts along different metrics. Some authors, such as Donn Draeger, sought to separate the truly “martial” from the “civilian” fighting systems. Unfortunately his system seems to be based on a now dated understanding of Japanese military history. And in any case, it is not always possible to draw a clean distinction between the military and civil realms.
Other students have looked at the specific goals motivating individuals to practice the martial arts. Perhaps the most common division in the literature is a three part typology separating the competitive combat sports, traditional arts (focused on self-development and health) and self-defense or combat arts. While this cuts to the heart of the ways in which the martial arts are often discussed in popular culture, this approach has trouble dealing with the huge amount of variation found within any single tradition. In China it is not that hard to find Wushu coaches who approach the Taiji forms as competitive sports, while some of their students will go on to teach similar forms as traditional health practices.
Lastly, Sixt Wetzler has proposed that we move away from efforts to definitively place certain practices in one conceptual box or another. He argues that we should instead acknowledge that the martial arts owe much of their popularity to their fungiblity. The fact that a single set of practices can play many social roles in a student’s life gives them great practical utility. The social functions of a children’s afterschool Tae Kwon Do class might be very different from those pursued in the adult Saturday afternoon session of the very same school. It is precisely this multi- vocality that allows these hand combat systems to function as central organizing symbols in the lives of their practitioners.
Wetzler suggest that the best way to understand what a martial art is, and to compare various schools or approaches, is to examine their impact on five dimensions of social meaning. Briefly these are:
1. Preparation for violent conflict
2. Play and Competitive Sports
4. Transcendent Goals
5. Health Care
Unfortunately this is more of a framework for analysis than a traditional definition. And Wetzler freely admits that future researchers may find it necessary to add additional categories to his list.
Nor does his approach solve the problem of sociological relativism. The flexible nature of Wetzler’s concept opens the field up to a wide range of activities that not all researchers might be willing to accept as martial arts. For instance, would realistic combative movements learned from a video-game count as a “martial art” if their practitioner claimed them as such? What about the many apps currently on the market to help students learn taiji or wing chun? Is this simply a novel way of teaching an old art, or is it something very different? Do we simply accept as a martial art anything that claims to be one?
The problem of relativism can also be seen on the other end of the spectrum. Because the martial arts are often seen as somewhat “odd,” “eccentric” or “socially marginal” some individuals may try to evade the label all together. Students taking a “boxing essentials” or even kickboxing class at the local YMCA might claim not to be studying a martial art, even though any martial arts studies conference will include multiple papers on participation in amateur boxing and kickboxing activities.
It would seem that self-identification might be a poor metric to judge what activities qualify as a martial art, or how we as researchers should structure our case studies. Indeed, this has always been a potential weakness of the “sociological approach.” Lacking a universally agreed upon definition, how should we move forward?
This puzzle is a useful one in that it helps us to clarify our goals. When we ask “Is lightsaber combat a martial art?” we must be clear that this question does not intend to establish a value hierarchy in which the researcher draws on their expertise to offer a binding opinion on what does or does not qualify as an authentic combat system. Nor are we even asking whether a given activity is worthy of consideration in martial arts studies as a research area. After all, our interdisciplinary literature routinely tackles a variety of topics and sources (including novels, films, community festivals and public rituals) that are not the product of any specific training hall.
What this question really points to is the relationship between our object of study (in this case Lightsaber combat) and the theoretical toolkit that we have developed to explore these sorts of systems within martial arts studies. Put slightly differently, do we expect that our core concepts and theories will help us to make sense of lightsaber combat in the same way that they might be useful when thinking about the rise of judo or wing chun? And if they fail in this specific case (as theories often do), will the lessons learned improve our understanding of the traditional martial arts as well?
Within the social sciences progress rarely comes from theoretical development or empirical observation in isolation. It is the triangulation of approaches that is the most likely to lead to the development of a successful research program. Do all martial arts arise from authentic combat activities? Must they be historically grounded? Can an activity be a martial art even if its students and teacher do not claim it as such?
Ultimately these are all important questions as they help us to expand the borders of martial arts studies, and demonstrate the broader utility of our field. They are also the sorts of issues that deserve to be empirically examined rather than simply accepted or dismissed by definitional fiat.
Getting a Grip on the Lightsaber
Towards that ends, the current post investigates the case of lightsaber combat. Any attempt to define these practices as an authentic martial art will face a number of obvious objections. The typical lightsaber class usually introduces students to some combination of forms training, practical drills, competitive fencing and stage combat/choreography. The emphasis on each activity varies from school to school and depends in large part on the goals of the instructors.
Yet the lightsaber is not a historical, or even a real, weapon. The idea that one might be able to systematically study “lightsaber combat” is a relatively recent notion inspired by a successful film franchise. In that sense we are dealing with a “hyper-real” martial art. By this we mean that it is an “invented tradition” that everyone acknowledges is based on a fictional text rather than a more or less accurate transmission of some historical practice.
Lightsaber combat presents students of martial arts studies with a set of theoretical fighting systems coalescing around the image of a (wildly popular) fictional weapon. Nevertheless, many of the individuals working to develop lightsaber combat programs are traditional martial artists with extensive training in both Eastern and Western fighting arts. Their historically grounded skills are being married to the mythos and world view of the Star Wars franchise and then marketed to the public. Finally, the resulting synthesis is presented to new students in classroom environments that practitioners of the traditional martial arts would find very recognizable.
Nor is the practice of lightsaber combat limited to a few isolated individuals. The renewed popularity of the Star Wars franchise following first the release of the prequel films in the early 2000s (Episodes I-III), and the Force Awakens (Episode VII) in 2015, has given rise to a dramatic increase in demand for “practical” lightsaber training. With a number of additional films already in the works, we may be well positioned to watch the birth of a substantial new hyper-real martial movement. But are these systems true martial arts?
What does the answer to that question suggest about the various ways in which the older and more established systems can also be understood as “invented traditions?” Should this change anything about the way we view the relationship between media portrayals of violence and the creation (or practice) of actual combat systems? How will our understanding of the relationship between the martial arts and the historical forces of ethno-nationalism and culture need to be adjusted when we see individuals turning to hyper-real martial arts to pursue their need for self-development or transcendence?
Using Wetzler’s five dimensions of social meaning I explore the various ways in which lightsaber combat functions as an authentic martial art for its practitioners. Some of these may be obvious, others will be less so. Ultimately this discussion suggests that a set of activities functions as a martial art not because of their historical authenticity or connection to “real-world” combat. Rather, the martial arts have always been defined primarily through their modes of social organization and the individual, group and systemic roles that they play. At heart they are social institutions rather than collections of isolated techniques. More specifically the modern martial arts are a social project by which individuals hope to secure multiple aspects of their personal and social destiny, and not simply their physical safety.
This should not be understood as a new development. We see this same pattern at the very moment of the genesis of the Asian martial arts. Japanese warriors did not need formal sword schools organized as ryu-ha to ply their trade or survive on the battlefield. They had succeeded in these tasks quite nicely for hundreds of years without them.
Rather, as Alexander C. Bennett has cogently argued, these social institutions were created as a means of demonstrating social sophistication and self-discipline when Bushi warriors found themselves transitioning to political roles in urban areas which brought them into direct contact with Japan’s highly cultured aristocracy. The original Japanese swords arts functioned just as much as a source of social legitimization as martial capital. These schools again saw massive growth under the later Tokugawa government, a period of protracted peace in which they once again served mostly social, cultural and economic functions.
While history is not unimportant (indeed, we will see that it is deeply implicated in the creation of even hyper-real martial arts) researchers may ultimately wish to pay more attention to how ideas and beliefs about the martial arts, as a social project, are created and transmitted from one generation to the next. Nor is this set of conclusions unique to the world of lightsaber combat. Instead the existence and rapid growth of hyper-real martial arts requires us to reevaluate what we think we know about the invention of the traditional martial arts more generally.
Creating the Seven Classic Forms of Lightsaber Combat: A Very Brief History
While various 20th century science fiction stories had mentioned weapons like the lightsaber, the image of this now iconic weapon seared its way into the popular consciousness in 1977 with George Lucas release of his first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope). Luke Skywalker igniting his father’s arctic blue lightsaber (“an elegant weapon for a more civilized age”) in the presence of the mysterious Obi-Wan Kenobi became a symbol that defined the hopes and aspiration of an entire generation of film goes.
They too wished for an adventure that would allow them to take their first steps onto a broader stage. What better weapon for the knight-errants of the quickly dawning technological age than the lightsaber. It captured the romance and esoteric promises of our half-remembered, half-imagined, collective past, while pointedly reminding us that it was an “artifact” from the distant future. The symbolism of the lightsaber seamlessly combines a weapon of truly fearsome destructive potential with the promise of spiritual renewal. Once seen it is an image that is not easily forgotten.
The lightsaber’s strangely hypnotic blade has now gone on to colonize the imagination of multiple generations, spawning countless novels, comic books, video games, collectibles, sequels and most recently, entire combat systems. It goes without saying that in the absence of the Star Wars film franchise, and the immense marketing empire that surrounds and supports it, there would be no lightsaber combat training today. Our first conclusion must be that media generated images of lightsaber combat led directly to the creation of later combat systems, albeit with a somewhat puzzling delay.
I strongly suspect that the first fan-based “lightsaber duel” was probably performed with broom sticks the day after Lucas’ original vision was revealed to the public in 1977. Yet I have found very little evidence of organized attempts to institutionalize and spread specific ideas about what lightsaber combat might look like until the early 2000s. Systematized lightsaber fencing, as it currently exists, dates only to the middle of that decade.
This presents us with our first challenge. Given the immense popularity and huge cultural impact of the initial three movies, why did lightsaber combat organizations emerge only in the 2000s? More specifically, what was their relationship to the less popular, and critically reviled, prequel trilogy chronicling the Clone Wars and the rise of Darth Vader?
The answer to both of these questions can be found in the complex mix of materiality and mythos that lies as the heart of the Star Wars enterprise, as well as the efforts to market its merchandise to the public. After all, what is more powerful than a myth whose relics can be held in one’s own hands…for a price.
It is a proven fact that if you put replica lightsabers in the hands of any two normal adults, they will immediately try to beat each other about the head with them. The impulse to attempt to use a replica lightsaber seems to be an inescapable part of human nature. This actually makes replica and “stunt lightsabers” (simple sabers without elaborate sound effects created by third party vendors for the express purpose of dueling) somewhat dangerous. On the one hand their metal hilts and heavy, glowing, polycarbonate blades provide the same sort of psychological gratification that comes from handling any other sort of weapon.
At the same time, the fact that we all know that these replicas are “not real” can lead to problems. While not actually filled with jets of hot plasma, the purely kinetic energy that a rigid 1 inch polycarbonate blade can deliver is roughly equivalent to any wooden stick of similar length. It is certainly enough to cause pain or injury if full contact dueling is attempted without some basic safety equipment. In short, corporate liability issues may have initially limited the creation of licensed replicas of these iconic weapons. The fact that large costuming groups, such as the 501st Legion and Jedi Council, have a no combat/choreography policy would also have diminished the demand for more durable prop replicas.
There would have been technical issues to consider as well. Most sabers today utilize LED technology to “ignite” their blades. These can withstand more forceful blows than delicate incandescent bulbs and they do not burn out. Integrated circuit boards with motion detectors can also be added to provide sound effects or special lighting effects. By the early 2000s the technology to mass produce convincing replica lightsabers became cheap enough to make the project economically viable while at the same time a new generation of (now adult) fans was in place to spend hundreds of dollars on each new model.
I hypothesize that it was the appearance of relatively high quality replica (and later stunt) sabers which sparked the sudden boom of interest in practical lightsaber combat. These marketing efforts were also supported by the expansion of other aspects of the Star Wars universe. In October of 2002 Dr. David West Reynolds (the holder of a PhD in Archaeology from the University of Michigan who went on to write multiple Star Wars reference books) published an article in Star Wars Insider (#62) titled “Fightsaber: Jedi Lightsaber Combat.”
While the movies themselves say almost nothing about the details of lightsaber training, Reynolds, drawing on his academic background, wrote an essay outlining the “Seven Forms” of lightsaber combat as taught within the Jedi Order. He provided each numbered form with a short description outlining its philosophy as well as its strengths and weaknesses. Later resources augmented these with exotic sounding names (such as “Shii-cho” or Form I), associated them with mythic creatures from the Star Wars universe in ways that seem to intentionally mimic the use of animal imagery in the Asian martial arts (Shii-cho is “The Way of the Sarlacc”). They also concocted increasingly complex backstories. While Reynolds is an archaeologist rather than a martial artist, he set in motion a story-development arch which created a rich body of invented lore around the seven forms, giving them an alluring feel of verisimilitude.
By the early 2000s Star Wars fans had been given access to both a steady supply of replica lightsabers, a new trilogy of films which featured many iconic lightsaber battles, and an increasingly complex system of invented traditions explicitly designed to create a history for lightsaber usage that would feel “realistic.” While the Star Wars franchise has always emphasized the role of merchandise, the situation for would be Jedi and Sith acolytes was more favorable in the 2000s than it was in the 1980s.
The next major step forward took place in 2005. Inspired by some short fan-films in which lightsabers had been digitally recreated, “Flynn” a founding member of the group NY Jedi, bought two Master Replicas lightsabers, took them to the roof of his New City apartment building at night, and began to duel with a friend.
The resulting enthusiasm on the part of his neighbors was great enough that he then decided to bring a larger group of sabers to the 2005 Greenwich Village Halloween parade where their demonstration was again met with great enthusiasm and numerous inquiries as to where one could go to learn to fight with a “real” lightsaber. The group NY Jedi was formed shortly thereafter, and has offered weekly lessons taught be a variety of martial artists, choreographers and stage combat coaches.
The simultaneous worldwide dissemination of the newly created mythos and marketing of replica sabers makes it difficult to reconstruct a single linear history of lightsaber combat. NY Jedi raised the profile of the practice and inspired the creation of a number of other similar groups all along the East Coast of the United States. Some of them emphasized costuming and performance, others attempted to focus on the creation of a “pure” martial art.
Only a few months later three friends in Italy (all trained martial artists) brought a bunch of replica lightsabers to a birthday party. They were impressed with the technical flexibility that this new training weapon allowed. Almost immediately they started to develop their own martial system (Ludosport) based on the physical characteristics of replica lightsabers as well as elements of the Star Wars mythos.
Most lightsaber groups seem to combine multiple elements in their training. While NY Jedi mixes traditional martial arts training with a heavy emphasis on stage combat and performance, Ludosport instead emphasizes the development of lightsaber fencing as a type of competitive combat sport. They have since opened branch schools across Europe and organized a system of international tournaments and rankings.
One of the most interesting things about the recent spread of lightsaber combat has been its diverse and global nature. Clubs and schools dedicated to promoting the practice have been opened in the Americas, Europe, Asia and Australia. Indeed, much of the early development of the art was taking place nearly simultaneously in the United States, Italy and South East Asia (where such groups have proved to be popular in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia.)
These organizations approach lightsaber training with a variety of goals and methods. They also have a variety of opinions on whether or not what they do can be considered a martial art.
As the introductory quote suggests, Ludosport appears to have distanced themselves from the claim that lightsaber fencing might be considered a “martial art.” In their vernacular terminology, an activity only qualifies as a martial art if it is aggressive in nature and focused on causing harm. Thus for their own marketing purposes they seem to have decided to emphasize the athletic and competitive aspects of their practice.
Other groups, such as the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy, have instead emphasized the degree to which lightsaber fencing is, and should be thought of, as a martial art. After all, the fight choreography that influenced the development of the Star Wars films was highly influenced by a variety of traditional martial arts including kendo, kali and historic European practices such as longsword fencing.
Many of the instructors teaching lightsaber combat today also bring their own background in the martial arts to the table. For them the challenge is to find a ways to recreate the “Seven Forms” of lightsaber combat outlined in the Star Wars mythology using historic techniques, concepts and strategies. Drawing on their individual training, and the unique physical properties of commercially available stunt lightsabers, they have attempted to “recreate” effective and historically grounded systems of lightsaber combat which are still true to the texture of the movies and the Star Wars mythology. All of this has then been packaged in a way that it can be taught to succeeding generations of students in something that very much resembles a standard classroom environment. Some instructors even see in lightsaber combat a possible tool for promoting, preserving and disseminating traditional types of martial knowledge.
If you enjoyed this discussion be sure to read the second half: Five Social Dimensions of Lightsaber Combat as a Martial Art (Episode II)
Are you interested in taking a more detailed look at the world of Lightsaber Combat? If so start here!