***This is the second half of our exploration of lightsaber combat as a martial art. Reader who have not yet read Part I are strongly encouraged to do so before going on. In the last essay we considering some of the basic strategies that scholars have adopted in defining the “martial arts.” Following that discussion we briefly reviewed the emergence of the current lightsaber combat community. In this post we attempt to test Wetzler’s theory of the “five dimensions of social meaning” as a strategy for understanding the martial arts by using it to explore various aspects of lightsaber fencing. Enjoy!***
Five Social Dimensions of Lightsaber Combat
While it helps to ground our discussion, the preceding historical exploration does little to resolve the theoretical question of whether we should consider lightsaber combat to be an authentic martial art. At best we are thrown back on the statements of various practitioners. Some look to their own backgrounds and goals to assert that they are in the process of developing and teaching a martial art. In their view the media driven origins of these practices should have no bearing on our classification of the resulting institutions. What is important is the nature of the techniques used and taught.
Other individuals, even those deeply involved in the lightsaber community, are not so sure. Some see “combat sports” and “martial arts” as mutually exclusive categories. And given the degree of cultural discomfort that still follows the traditional martial arts, a few groups may have decided that it is economically more feasible to market lightsaber combat as a sporting, fitness or recreational activity.
Nor would it be difficult to find practitioners of more traditional sword arts who might claim that lightsaber fencing simply cannot be a martial art at all. So many of the small details that are critical in traditional forms training or cutting practice (e.g., edge control) simply disappear when we begin to discuss fictional all cutting plasma blades. For them the potent symbolism of a futuristic sword cannot displace the historically grounded reality of the blade.
This sort of indeterminacy has always dogged both the sociological and universal strategies for defining the martial arts. The current essay seeks to move beyond this impasse by empirically examining the practice of lightsaber combat in light of Wetzler’s theory of the “five dimensions of social meaning.” This will provide us with an appropriate baseline from which to explore whether the fictional origins of lightsaber combat alters the sorts of social roles that it plays in the lives of its students. It should also suggest something about the utility of the existing martial arts studies literature in making sense of these practices. As such we will briefly consider how lightsaber combat ranks on each of these five dimensions.
Preparation for violent conflict: When interviewed, new students of the martial arts often claim that they have been inspired to join a school by a need for self-defense training. Indeed, there has always been a strong linkage between (some) martial arts and the perceived need to prepare oneself for the reality of violent conflict. Yet at the same time students of martial studies have noted that many of the sorts of techniques that are commonly used in these systems lack an element of “realism.”
Students of Japanese military history have noted that high-school kendo training did a poor job of preparing Japanese military officers to actually use their swords in the field during WWII. Practitioners of the Mixed Martial Arts often complain about the lack of “realism” in more traditional styles. Yet weapons are a sadly common element of actual criminal assaults and they are banned from the octagon. Indeed, one cannot escape the conclusion that the ways in which the martial arts attempt to prepare their students for the future cannot simply by reduced to “violence simulators” of greater or lesser degrees of accuracy. Equally important has been the building of physical strength, mental toughness and a tactical tool kit in environments that are quite different from what might be encountered in an actual attack.
Lightsaber combat also has a complex relationship with Wetzler’s first dimension of social meaning. The chance of an individual being called upon to defend themselves from an actual lightsaber attack today is only slightly less than the probability that they will encounter a villain wielding a traditional Chinese three meter long spear in a dark alley. Which is to say, few people take up traditional weapons training (such as swords, spears or bows) because of their great utility “on the street.”
Yet in a kendo class one will be called upon to defend against a mock (but still very spirited) sword attack. Likewise, in a modern lightsaber duel fencers will be called upon to defend themselves against a determined attacker who has been systematically trained in a variety of techniques. A failure to do so (especially if proper safety measures are not observed) might result in injury. In that sense lightsaber students are preparing themselves for combative encounters. All of this also contributes to the creation of a degree of physical and mental resilience.
Many forms of traditional weapons training have become functionally obsolete in the current era. Spears, swords and bows are no longer encountered on the battlefield and they play a limited role in any discussion of self-defense. While lightsabers can be placed further along the continuum of abstraction, these are fundamentally differences of degree rather than kind.
Play and Competitive Sports: There can be no doubt that for most students the fundamental appeal of lightsaber combat is to be found in its recreational value. Indeed, the central mythos and symbolism of the exercise derives from the realm of film and commercial entertainment. Of course in the current era what most of us know about past military battles and personal duels is also heavily mediated by media representations rather than firsthand experience.
Even in Hong Kong in the 1950s-1970s, a supposed golden age of traditional martial arts practice, wuxia novels and martial arts films were the medium by which most individuals were introduced to, and developed an interest in, the martial arts. While not as frequently discussed, the traditional martial arts have always been closely tied to the worlds of physical recreation and story-telling.
The very nature of lightsaber fencing has also contributed to the development of a strong sporting impulse. Whether in the form of Olympic fencing or Japanese kendo, in the current era the sword arts have come to be seen largely as combat sports. Students of lightsaber fencing will approach their new practice with an already well established set of ideas about what a “proper” match will look like. Inevitably this includes safety equipment (eye protection, fencing masks, armored gloves, other protective gear), one or more judges to call points, a transparent scoring system and a limited number of timed rounds. All of these practices come from previous innovations in other arts, but they are immediately available to lightsaber fencers. The end result is that for many students lightsaber combat is primarily thought of as a faced paced, highly enjoyable, combat sport.
As I have interviewed various instructors in the field, some have pointed to these sorts of matches as sites for “technical research.” A few have asserted that the traditional martial arts might benefit from a “neutral” platform where students of western, Chinese, Japanese or South East Asian systems can come together to compare techniques with those whose training is different from their own. The physical simplicity of a stunt saber (which is essentially a smooth polycarbonate tube), and the ease with which it can be used by a variety of styles, has even led to some discussion of whether lightsaber combat might develop as a type of “mixed martial art” for swords (albeit one with a very different world view). While this possibility is not what attracts most new students to their local lightsaber combat group, it is certainly a possibility that is being considered by key teachers and promoters of the practice.
Performance: The anthropologist D. S. Farrer has argued at length that every martial system contains both a practical and performative aspect. Further, these two elements cannot easily be separated. While all sorts of practitioners may find that they have an economic or a social motive to promote their practice as a “pure fighting art” (or alternatively, and probably more lucratively, as “pure combat choreography”) this is usually far from the truth. Developments in the practical realm tend to drive new innovations in the “realistic” portray of the martial arts on stage, and the public discussion of these recreational images has inspired new thoughts about the more practical aspects of violence.
For example, throughout Asian history, archery did double duty as a cornerstone of public ritual as well as a critical military skill. Even the periodic military exams held by the Chinese government in the late imperial period tended to draw a large crowd and functioned as public spectacles as much as a rational mechanism for choosing the best military recruits (well into the age of the gun). Nor can we forget about the important social place of practices like “wedding silat,” dance like capoeira matches or the public performance of traditional martial arts styles on the stage of southern China’s Cantonese opera. All of this has a long and established history within the cultural realm of the martial arts.
Still, the relationship between the practical and the performative aspects of the martial arts is one of the most vexing aspects of these systems for current scholars. The development of lightsaber combat has the potential to contribute much to this aspect of the martial studies literature.
When looking at the variety of lightsaber combat groups, some individuals may be tempted to separate them into two categories. On the one hand we have those doing “real” martial arts, such as Ludosport, Saber Legion or the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy. They focus almost exclusively on the practice of historically derived techniques and competition. On the other hand we have a number of schools, such as NY Jedi, whose main activities seem to be the staging of elaborate public spectacles through choreographed duels and storytelling.
Yet none of these groups function in pristine isolation. As a result innovations in one area tend to impact the others. While NY Jedi is known for its stage combat and public choreography, a number of its members are also martial artists. One such individual is Damon Honeycutt. A practitioner of the Chinese martial arts, he developed a basic lightsaber training form (or kata) called “Shii-cho” (based on Japanese and Chinese saber techniques) which has gone on to become perhaps the most widely distributed training tool within the lightsaber community. It is widely practiced by both theatrical and martially oriented groups and both seem to find it quite useful.
Nor is there always a clear division between the sorts of individuals who will be attracted to more “traditional” martial training and those who might find themselves making and posting fan-films on the internet. Rather than having two distinct sets of individuals, often what we see are related practices used to fulfill multiple sets of social goals by the same individuals. While on the surface this might appear paradoxical, it has always been part of the appeal of the traditional Asian martial arts. Current developments within the lightsaber combat community are useful precisely because they serve to illustrate the arguments of scholars such as Farrer and Wetzler.
Transcendent Goals: Even if lightsaber combat succeeds as a fast paced combat sport, or as a channel for martial performance, what psychological or spiritual value could it have? In the current era many individuals turn to the traditional (usually Asian) martial arts precisely because they see in them a font of ancient wisdom. For the less esoterically inclined, the physical and mental discipline of the martial arts has also been seen as a way to “develop character.”
While many actual martial arts instructors go out of their way to avoid discuss their practice in these terms, the idea that the martial arts should be a pathway to some sort of “transcendent attainment” seems firmly fixed in the popular imagination. It is one of the promises that draws students, in both the East and the West, to these practices. Much of the commercial success of the traditional martial arts appears to be rooted in a near mystical faith in their ability to promote balanced development in both children and adolescents. One wonders how much of this belief we can attribute to Luke Skywalker’s very public journey to adulthood aided by the dual disciplines of the Force and the lightsaber training during the 1970s and 1980s.
Can lightsaber students find transcendent values in a practice grounded in what they know to be a set of fictional texts? The fact that we now have a literature on the existence of hyper-real religions (systems of religious belief based on fictional texts such as Star War or the Matrix) strongly suggests that the answer is, “yes.” The underlying values that students can detect in a story or practice are more important for many people than its connection to an authentic ancient history.
My own, very preliminary, ethnographic research with a lightsaber combat group in a mid-sized city in New York State has revealed a surprising degree of dedication on the part of many of the students. The often repeated mantra that it is all “just for fun” notwithstanding, it is clear that many students are approaching lightsaber combat as a key organizing symbol in their lives. The weapons may be fictional, but the feelings that are invoked through practice are clearly authentic and deeply felt. Nor are the sorts of mentoring relationships that students seek from their instructor any different from what one might find in a traditional martial arts institution.
Given the resources being dedicated to lightsaber combat, it should come as no surprise that students so often see their norms and beliefs (or perhaps those that they aspire to hold) reflected in these practices. The Jedi and Sith themselves are readymade symbols ripe for spiritual or psychological appropriation.
When addressing a related point in an interview Damon Honeycutt of NY Jedi said:
“You can bring about things in a subculture; you can create change through that. You can elevate consciousness through it. That is what I would like to see it do, really bring people to a heightened potential of what they really are. To be a lens for that, outside of comicons or conventions or competitions or forms or fighting or sparring or whatever people think that they are doing with it. That really would be the greatest thing.
With NY Jedi we are making ourselves better people to serve humanity, you know, the same thing that I do with the Kung Fu school. In a lot of ways they are the same. Its just that the myth behind it is different. The lineage behind it is different. The world view is different. But the overall goal is the same.” Damon Honeycutt. Reclaiming the Blade, DVD2. Bonus Feature: New York Jedi. 2009. Min. 11:01-11:46.
This description matches my own preliminary observations. Future research might fruitfully focus on the underlying social changes that have opened a space for hyper-real martial arts to play these roles at this particular moment in social history.
Healthcare: As we have already seen, a number of factors separate the martial arts from simple collections of combat techniques. One of them is the multiplicity of social roles that these systems are expected to play in the lives of their practitioners. In the current era individuals often turn to the martial arts to defend not just their physical safety but their personal health.
Many martial arts studios offer basic fitness and conditioning classes. Weight loss is a frequently advertised benefit of all kinds of martial arts training. And every month a new set of articles is published about the medical benefits of taijiquan for senior citizens in both the Western and Chinese press.
This may seem like yet another example of the commercial appropriation of the martial art. Fitness is a multi-billion dollar industry and the average individual is constantly subjected to powerful media discourses extolling the benefits of athleticism. Is it any wonder that all sorts of martial arts teachers attempt to link their practices to the culturally dominant athletic paradigm?
In light of this it may be necessary to remind ourselves that the links between the practice of the martial arts and health promotion are actually quite old. Meir Shahar has demonstrated that by the end of the Ming dynasty unarmed boxing training was gaining popularity around China partially because of the unique synthesis of self-defense and health promoting practices which it offered.
While less pronounced than some of the other dimension of social meaning, it is clear that lightsaber combat is viewed as an avenue for promoting physical health by some of its students. In this case the emphasis is less on esoteric practices and Daoist medical ideas than western notions of physical fitness and exercise. Many of the students that I have spoken with mentioned the need to “get in shape” and “stay active” as primary motivations for taking up lightsaber combat.
A quick review of news stories in the popular press indicates that a number of lightsaber groups have been created throughout the English speaking world in recent years. While most of these are run by individuals coming out of the traditional martial arts, others are being started by Yoga teachers. Their emphasis is usually focused on the health and fitness benefits of lightsaber training rather than it’s more competitive or combative aspects.
Yet fitness also plays a role in the ways that lightsaber combat is discussed by more traditional martial arts instructors. More than one has noted that these classes attract individuals who might otherwise have no interest in setting foot in a martial arts school or gym. Lightsaber combat gives such students a means to stay active and an incentive to get in shape.
For some students lightsaber combat also sparks an interest in other martial arts. Indeed, one suspects that this is exactly why so many traditional martial artists are currently opening classes dedicated to the subject. They have the potential to expand the appeal of the martial arts to groups of consumers who might not otherwise have ever been attracted to them.
The health benefits of any martial art depend in large part on how it is introduced to students and subsequently practiced. The same is certainly true for lightsaber combat. Once again, when comparing this practice to historically grounded martial arts what we find are differences in degree rather than kind.
Conclusion: Lightsaber Combat as a Martial Art
Is lightsaber combat a martial art? The answer is almost certainly yes. At its core are a group of combative and performance techniques, almost all of which have been gathered from previously existing martial traditions. These have been developed into pedagogical systems capable of transmitting not only physical practices but also elaborate pseudo-histories, invented identities and a mythic world view that seem to be a no less potent for their fictional origin. All of this provides students with a variety of tools to craft social and personal meaning in their lives.
An examination of Wetzler’s “five dimensions of social meaning” suggests that in its current incarnation students of lightsaber combat understand their practice in much the same way that traditional martial artists approach their training in the West today. More importantly, both set of activities play broadly similar roles in the lives of students, and respond to the same social forces in basically similar ways. As such we have no a priori reason to believe that the theories developed within martial arts studies cannot also be applied to the investigation of hyper-real combat systems.
More importantly, our brief investigation of lightsaber combat may suggest a few ways to improve our understanding of the social meaning of these systems. Martial artists are often reluctant to discuss the economic consequences of their practice. On the one hand many individuals make a living teaching these systems, and students sacrifice notable resources (in capital, time and opportunity cost) to practice them.
In the current era the distribution of martial knowledge is closely tied to economic markets. Yet openly discussing this fact seems like a violation of an unspoken norm. Among practitioners there is a strong presumption that the martial arts “cannot be bought or sold;” that the attainment of excellence transcends such “base” considerations. Given that many academic students of martial arts studies are also practitioners of these same systems, such attitudes can easily shape our own research as well.
The rapid growth of lightsaber combat over the last decade is interesting for a number of reasons. One of the most important is what it suggests about the power of economic markets to shape the development of martial arts systems and the ways that consumers encounter and experience them. At the most basic level there would be no lightsaber combat without the production of successive generations of Star Wars films and massively expensive campaigns to market them to the public. More specifically, the exact timing of the boom of interest in lightsaber combat owes much to the creation (and marketing) of high quality replica and stunt lightsabers in the early 2000s.
Economic variables can be seen to play important roles in other places as well. The major manufacturers of stunt sabers host message boards and social media groups that play an important part in creating a sense of community. Individual teachers have turned to lightsaber fencing as a means of spreading the message of the martial arts beyond the horizons of the normal reachable market. And it is sometimes surprising to see how much money individual students are willing to pay for a personally meaningful replica lightsaber or for the opportunity to attend a seminar with a specific instructor or group. It is even interesting to think about why different lightsaber organizations adopt the various economic models that they have.
None of this is all that different from what we see in the world of the more traditional martial arts. The ability to offer instruction can become an important source of personal income. The sudden appearance of a popular new action film can lift a little known fighting system out of obscurity. And economic markets strongly condition how the martial arts can be taught, and who they can potentially reach, at any given point in history.
While these sorts of considerations receive little attention in many of our studies, they simply cannot be avoided when thinking about the nature and recent origin of lightsaber combat. As such we should consider adding a sixth category to Wetzler’s discussion of social meaning within the martial arts. Economic markets are a means by which scarce resources are distributed within society. The martial arts have often served similar functions through their attempts to control community violence, support new status hierarchies and even create social capital. We should not be surprised to see powerful synergies emerging through the interactions of these systems. In fact, no student or teacher can approach the martial arts in the current era without taking their economic aspect into careful consideration. This suggests that students of martial arts studies should also be more mindful of this dimension of social meaning.
Critics of the time and energy being devoted to the development of lightsaber combat may voice a number of complaints. Stunt lightsabers, despite their seeming versatility, are essentially cylindrical sticks rather than copies of true blades. And given the unique mythology of this weapon, there is no incentive to imagine it as a metal sword for the purposes of practice and training. As such lightsaber combat is bound to depart from historically derived techniques in important ways. Ultimately an hour invested in the investigation of German longsword fencing, or even kendo, would probably grant a better understanding of real military history than an equal amount of practice with a lightsaber.
Though it may be possible to find key norms within the practice of lightsaber fencing, or while the rich symbolism of the Force and the Jedi may point some students towards transcendent themes, the development of these ideas within the Star Wars universe is still shallow compared to the depth of lived religious experience that can be found within real Buddhist, Daoist or Christian monastic communities. Again, why invest scarce resources in a second order reflection of reality when the real thing is almost immediately available?
These are valid concerns. And ultimately most martial artists will not be interested in lightsaber combat. Then again, most martial artists also have little interest in kendo, wing chun or any other specific style. Many of these objections also revolve around questions of taste rather than objective conceptual categories. Why practice that style when “everyone knows” that mine is superior?
The very fact that lightsaber combat can so easily be drawn into this all too familiar mode of debate is yet another indication that it is seen as residing within the set of practices which we call “martial arts.” Yet as Wetzler reminded us in his discussion, when it comes to definitions, scholars must rely on more objective measures. Ultimately the student of martial arts studies cannot become merely a critic of good taste in martial arts practice (Wetzler, 23-25).
Instead we should ask why, when so much information about many historical styles is readily available, these specific individuals are choosing to study a hyper-real martial art? Why are seekers suddenly more open to finding transcendent meaning in a fictional story than in actual organized religions which espouse many of the same values and views? Lastly, how have consumers appropriated the products of a vast commercial entertainment empire to create independent social groups that better allow them to exercise their agency in creating more empowered identities?
None of these puzzles are unique to lightsaber combat. In realty we could ask a very similar set of questions of most of the traditional martial arts that are practiced in the world today. Nothing simply arises from the past tabula rasa. We seek to understand the invention of the martial arts because every hand combat system must find a place for itself in the social system of its day if it wishes to survive. Their many solutions to this dilemma reveal critical data about the nature of social struggles.
All arts, even the most historically grounded, are caught in a continual cycle of renewal and reinvention. The study of practices such as lightsaber combat is valuable precisely because it forces us to focus on the details of how that process unfolds within specific communities. Yet to be fully realized, we must first understand that hyper-real combat practices can be authentic martial arts.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Can Donnie Yen Bring Kung Fu (Back) to the Star Wars Universe?