Earlier this week I returned from a brief trip to Canada and the United Kingdom. During this time I had the opportunity to deliver a keynote address at the 2nd annual Martial Arts Studies conference held at Cardiff University. This event, organized and hosted by the indefatigable Prof. Paul Bowman, was a great success and an important reminder of how far Martial Arts Studies has come in the last few years.
This post offers both a preliminary report on the conference as well as some of my own thoughts on specific talks and areas where progress has been the most evident. Unfortunately I will not be able to offer a complete review of everything that happened at this gathering. As a lone observer there was no way that I could make it to all of the 47 papers, 17 panels, 7 keynotes, 2 special sessions and many “after hours” get-togethers that were held over two and a half days.
As with any feast this rich, one must pick and choose (often with great regret) where to spend your precious hours. My experience of this conference is not likely to be the same as anyone else. What I did share in common with all of the conference attendees that I was able to talk to was a real enthusiasm for the event and the strong conviction that two and half days were just not enough time to take it all in.
In more practical terms these impressions suggests two things. First, the fact that so many attendees wanted to see multiple panels happening at the same time strongly suggests that, as a field, we are starting to generate research questions that that appeal to readers from a wide variety of backgrounds. While highly interdisciplinary in nature, certain clear lines of discussion are starting to come into focus.
Secondly, a conference organizer always wants to leave the attendees wishing for more. It’s the only way that you can guarantee that everyone will want to be back next year. As such two and a half days, while a bit frustrating, is probably the perfect length of time.
Lastly, all of the keynote presentations were recorded and I expect that they will be posted to the Martial Arts Studies Research Network’s youtube channel. Unfortunately that has not yet happened, but when it does I will post the links.
The conference officially opened on Tuesday July 19th with a welcome from Paul Bowman, followed by our first keynote address delivered by Prof. Philip Zarrilli. Readers may recall that his volume When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art (Oxford UP, 1998) broke a lot of new ground. It provided Western readers with the first in-depth study of kalarippayattu and can be considered one of the first entries in the current Martial Arts Studies literature. Flipping through the bibliographies of an assortment of more recent publications is enough to demonstrate just how influential his work has been.
In this talk Zarrilli returned to topics raised in one of his first articles to further explore the intersection of martial arts, theatrical performance, meditation and somatic experience. Much of his discussion was focused around a distinction between the realms of “outer” communication (with an audience) and inner cultivation of the senses, consciousness and experience. Zarrilli was particularly interested in the question of how the practice of the martial arts forces us to engage with the fundamental forces and questions that govern life and death. That in turn opens new possibilities for how one “learns to be sentient.” But his talk also offered an important overview of the research and thoughts of a figure that has had a shaping effect on our growing field.
Following this opening address, the conference attendees gathered in another room for a social activity that can best be described as equal parts professional networking and speed dating. By the end of the hour most of us had introduced ourselves to a fair number of our fellow attendees. I am always struck by the diversity of individuals who are attracted to martial arts studies. While most individuals at the conference seem to fit the “fighting scholars” mold, there were also a fair number of martial artists without formal academic backgrounds, scholars who do not practice the martial arts as well as visual artists, performers, publishers, and law enforcement officers.
The final event of the evening was a social gathering and dinner held at a local restaurant. It was a great opportunity to reconnect with old friends as well as to view the entrants and winners of this year’s short film festival. Congratulations to both Iveta Karpathyova and Philip Loy for their winning entries which you can see here!
The first full day of the conference began with some morning push-hands (and also a little chi sao) led by Adam D. Frank in the park outside of Bute Hall. This was also a great way for conference participants (who were interested) to get to know each other on a slightly more “martial” level. It was definitely an activity that I hope gets carried on in future years.
As the Wednesday morning Keynote I presented a paper titled “Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts.” This talk explored some of my more recent ethnographic research with the lightsaber combat community. Specifically, I asked what sorts of social work is done by the traditional martial arts in the West today, and how practitioners of hyper-real arts seek to build alternate frameworks to create meaning in their lives. To better conceptualize this process I drew on Victor Turner’s ideas of the “liminal” and “liminod” in rites of passage, and concluded with a few suggestions as to how martial arts studies might make a contribution in improving our understanding of these concepts.
This was followed by the first round of panels in which attendees were forces to choose between 1) Capoeira Performance 2) Culture and Tradition 3) Problems and Definitions and 4) Performance. My choice was made easier by the fact that I was assigned to chair the panel on “Culture and Tradition.”
Martin Ehlen presented a paper examining the re-importation of traditional Chinese teaching metaphors (five elements, rhymed couplets, etc…) into Ip Man lineage Wing Chun classes, a generation or two after the Grandmaster himself jettisoned these things in favor a more streamlined and modern presentation of his art. Martin Minarik then discussed some of his own doctoral research looking at the wide variety of ways that Taekwondo is presented to the public in South Korea and the impact that it has on the development of norms and culture.
Following this panel Neil R. Hall offered a “Special Session” looking at what it takes to successfully (and ethically) promote a martial arts school in the UK today. One suspects that most of his observations are actually universally valid. While this talk seems to have been aimed primarily at the professional Sifus and Senseis in the room, I suspect that it was actually quite important for historians, social scientists and critical theorists to hear as well. Discussions like this help to demonstrate the extent to which tomorrow’s “cultural discourses” and “historical facts” are shaped by the rather unforgiving market forces of today.
Following lunch the conference attendees gathered in the Birt Acres Lecture Theater where Prof. Daniel Mroz (U. of Ottawa) spoke on “Taolu: Credibility and decipherability in the practice of Chinese martial movement.” This talk began with a brief review of the many ways in which practitioners have sought to understand and explain forms practice. Unfortunately Mroz concludes that after reviewing practical, narrative, theatrical and even geometric theories, the practice of Taolu remains a mystery. Nor is it one with any simple explanation. Instead he focused on the components that lend meaning to forms practice, “credibility” and “decipherability.” This move opens new avenues for understanding how and when forms are likely to be “effective.” Given the widespread practice of kata or taolu throughout the Asian martial arts, this paper seemed to speak to both the personal and research interest of many listeners in the room.
Following a short break the conference resumed with another set of panels. This time the papers were grouped as follows: 1) Mindfulness 2) Gender 3) Grappling with History 4) Violence. All of these panels looked great, but as you have probably already guessed, I ended up in “History.” The papers in this panel focused on various attempts to reconstruct the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) as well as the more social scientific quest to understand the motivations of individuals engaged with such practices.
Eric Burkart led off with a paper that carefully outlined the limits and pitfalls of current HEMA research and practice. He argued that it is necessary to decisively reject any claim to historical authenticity which is often explicitly (or implicitly) tied to attempts to revive the practice of now lost techniques from existing fight books. Particularly interesting was his use of similar controversies in the field of musicology having to do with the attempts to revive the practice of medieval music during the 1980s and 1990s.
Qays Stetkevych then turned our attention to another set of ancient texts, this time detailing the life and legends of medieval Iceland. Qays demonstrated that it may still be possible to reconstruct references to specific wrestling techniques described in these books with a high degree of accuracy. Given the importance of wrestling to local culture, and its use as a mechanism for character development in period literature, these reconstructions can serve as an important source for socio-historical data. Both of these papers were excellent and I look forward to following Eric and Qays’ future projects.
The day’s final keynote address, “Making Play Work: Competition, Spectacle and Intersubjectivity in Sparring and Sport Fighting,” was delivered by Prof. Janet O’Shea of UCLA. I was particularly interested in this paper as it touched on some of the same themes that came up in my own research.
Briefly, O’Shea turned to her current ethnographic research to explore the differences in competitive pleasure and combative spectacle that are evident in sparring and competition in the world of modern combat sports. Much of her talk ended up focusing on how an emphasis on the pleasurable aspects of sparring could compensate for the stark overemphasis on winning and losing that seems to consume spectator sports at this moment in history. But luckily you don’t have to rely on my summary of her ideas, as you can hear her explain them herself at her recent Ted-X talk. Check it out!
At the end of what had been an exhausting day most of the conference participants seemed to end up at a local restaurant named “The Slug and Lettuce.” The food was good, the company was great, but I had to leave too soon in an attempt to recover from my jetlag. Luckily I got some great martial arts history tips from Phillip Zarrilli first.
The next morning things started bright and early with another round of morning push-hands. Prof. Adam Frank (whose work I have discussed many times on this blog) then delivered a keynote titled “Understanding Identity Through Martial Arts – Or Not.” In his address he thought back on his initial ethnographic research with the Wu style Taijiquan community in Shanghai and discussed how he hoped to use the martial arts as a lens for providing a multi-level examination of the ways in which identities are created, overlay and move. He then raised a number of questions about each of these efforts. While it is clear that the martial arts do reveal some aspects of identity, this is always a complex and multi-faceted issue.
Perhaps his most interesting comment actually came on Tuesday evening as he and I walked across the campus. Thinking back to his own dissertation research he mentioned that at the time discussions of identity were omnipresent in the anthropology literature. Today things are a little different. Frank wondered aloud what his book would look like if it were re-written today, without the emphasis on identity. What other questions could be addressed through his long-running engagement with this martial arts community?
These are interesting questions. I didn’t have a lot to say on the subject, but I am going to take it as a hopeful sign that Frank is thinking about a big new project. It was great to meet him and he is one of the authors in the Martial Arts Studies literature that I most look forward to seeing another book from in the future.
The Thursday morning panels were 1) Myths and Assumptions 2) Motivations I 2) Film Aesthetics 3) Pedagogy. I had initially looked forward to going to Myths and Assumptions, but because a change in room assignments I ended up in Pedagogy instead. That was a wonderful accident as it also featured some very interesting papers.
The first was by Anna Seabourne and it looked at the question of oral transmission in the Japanese koryu bujutsu community. The second, by Anu Vaittinen and George Jennings was titled “Sensuous Transformation: The Interconnections between Embodied Training and Multi-Media Resources in Wing Chun.” They looked at the various ways that practitioners of the art have been turning to on-line resources to develop both their practice and core identities as Wing Chun students. I hope to be able to coax both authors to make guest appearances on this blog later this year to explore some of their research as readers will find it very interesting.
This panel was followed by a Special Session presented by Tamiaho Herangi-Searancke titled “Maori Warrior Epistemology (Triangulation of Meaning; Body, Mind & Spirit).” His talk focused on the various ways in which traditional forms of knowledge and identity are transmitted, and made to do social work, in the modern era. Much of his presentation was experiential in nature, and needed to be seen and felt rather than described. Hopefully it will be posted to the Martial Arts Studies Research Network youtube channel soon.
Following lunch it was my honor to introduce Dr. Daniel Jacquet who presented “Lost Embodied Knowledge: Experimenting with Historical European Martial Arts out of Books.” Perhaps the very first thing to note about this paper was the Daniel delivered it while wearing a full suite of armor on what was probably the hottest day in the year in a building that does not appear to believe in air conditioning. (A few of my British colleagues explained that being too hot is generally not their biggest weather related concern). It was an impressive display of physical endurance on a day that many conference attendees had decided to forego the normal academic attire and show up in t-shirts and shorts instead. If you are interested in some of the other things that Daniel can do in armor be sure to check out his short film on the subject (also played at the conference film festival).
Like other papers at this conference, this one also took issue with the assertion that the sorts of recreations that one typically sees of medieval martial practices can qualify as either “authentic” practices or valid forms of scientific research. Jacquet then discussed the various ways in which his research program at the Max Planck Institute has attempted to create a genuinely scientific experimental protocol for determining more and less likely reconstruction of techniques and abilities described in period fight books.
After that we broke for the final set of panel discussions. These were 1) Invention 2) Motivations II 3) Historical Excavations 4) Teaching and 5) Cinema. Once again, what would have been a difficult decision was made simpler by the fact that I had been asked to chair Historical Excavations.
Papers in this session were presented by Prof. Philip Davies (who was applying lessons from Intelligence Studies to the investigation of lineage accounts within the Dutch-Indonesian Diaspora), Alexander Hays (who chronicled popular press accounts of dueling and the decline of swordsmanship in the Early Modern England) and Gehao Zhang (all the way from Macau University of Science and technology) who conducted a media archeological examination of the Red Spears in Republic era China and the subsequent development of modern bayonet drill within the PLA. All three papers were fascinating and Prof. Zhang presented some really wonderful photographs that I had not seen before.
The final Keynote of the program was then delivered by Ben Spatz whose recent publication, What a Body Can Do: Technique as Knowledge, Practice as Research (Routledge, 2015) was already being cited widely by presenters at the conference. That is a stunning accomplishment given that his book has only been out for only a year. If you have not yet read it I suggest getting a hold of a copy.
His talk, titled “Embodied Research: An Epistemic Context for Martial Arts Practice” attempted to contextualize the development of martial arts studies within the stream of broader trends in the academy. He also argued that the martial arts themselves should be understood as the product of a dialectical relationship between training and practice. He then challenged the field to follow the lead of Performance Studies and other related pursuits in conceiving of ways to create an ecologically aware and non-colonial model of both research and practice. The details of what this would look like in practice remain to be worked out.
The final conference dinner was then held in Aberdare Hall. Mike Molasky, who in addition to everything else is a talented piano performer, improvised a little pre-dinner entertainment. It was a great venue to catch up with old and new friends, begin to process the events of the last few days and think about what comes next.
At five thirty the next morning I was out the door and headed to the train station to start the next leg of my journey.
It is interesting to consider the similarities and differences between this year’s conference and our first effort hosted in 2015. Overall 2016 appears to have attracted more papers and had a stronger registration. Paul said that about 100 people registered for the conference, and we had roughly 50 presenters. Individuals came from as far away as Southern China, New Zealand and North America. Last year’s conference was marked by a sense of excitement, but that energy appeared even greater this year.
In general the quality of the papers struck me as being a little bit better and having a higher degree of professionalism. I am not sure whether it was simply an artifact of the panels I ended up going to, but it seemed to me that there was less work on martial arts in film this year, and a larger number of historical and social scientific studies. A number of presenters and keynotes also focused our attention on how the martial arts can be presented on stage, rather than simply on the screen.
There were also a much greater number of ethnographically focused papers. By my count five of the seven keynotes were structured in large part around the presenter’s fieldwork.
This is not to imply that media studies vanished from the program. As I flip through the schedule there are a good number of papers tackling these subjects (such as Wane Wong’s fascinating presentation “From the Martial to Art: Slow Aesthetics in Transnational Martial Art-house Cinema”). But other methodological approaches and disciplines seemed to have greater representation this year. There was also a larger contingent of scholars from Western Europe than last time.
Some things remained much the same as before. The conference continued to benefit from the diverse practical and academic experience of its attendees.
Cardiff once again proved to be a wonderful host city. I found that I was much more comfortable with the city during my second visit and could explore a little more freely than on my first visit. This was facilitated by the more favorable post-Brexit exchange rate.
Unfortunately I had to return to North America at the end of the conference, but sometime soon I hope to be able to explore Wales more properly. Given my interest in military history it is almost criminal that I have now visited that nation twice but have yet to explore its vast collection of medieval military architecture.
Perhaps the real irony is that one must travel so far to meet so many colleagues in the flesh. I have been corresponding and working with individuals like Daniel Mroz and Adam Frank for years. Both of these scholars are based in North America. But this conference was my first opportunity to meet either of them.
As one would expect, the majority of scholars at this conference are from the UK and Western Europe. But there were enough North Americans in attendance that one must wonder at what point it will be possible to host a similar event on this side of the pond. I hope that the answer is soon. Events like this are complex undertakings, but there seems to be no better way to build a sense of community and enthusiasm for a relatively new research area. Those two things will be vital for promoting martial arts studies on this side of the pond as well. In the mean time I am already starting to look forward to our next set of meetings in Cardiff in 2017.
Be sure to check out these other conference Report:
Angry Baby Gods and Lightsaber Duels: A Visit to the Martial Arts Studies Conference 2016 at the Tai Chi Notebook
Have you written (or found) another report from this conference? If so shoot me a link or drop one in the comments.