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Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Weapons

Sometimes a Cigar is Just a Lightsaber: Fetishism and Material Culture in Martial Arts Studies

The JQ Pilgrim with black grips. Source: JQsabers.com

The JQ Pilgrim with black grips. Source: jqsabers.com

 

“The lightsaber has become an important touchstone, both within the films and within our culture…They serve as a source of identification and identity.  They are the ultimate commodity: a nonexistent object whose replicas sell for hundreds of dollars.  This is not bad for something that defies the laws of physics and cannot and does not exist.  And, in conclusion, if I am honest. I must admit that I still want one.”

Kevin J. Wetmore, Jr. 2007. “’Your Father’s Lightsaber’ The Fetishization of Objects Between the Trilogies.” in Carl Silvio and Tony M. Vinci (eds.) Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films: Essays on the Two Trilogies. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & co. p. 187.

 

“This is the Weapon of a Jedi Knight”

 

Wetmore concludes one of the first truly scholarly discussions of the lightsaber with a candid admission that, critical theory and the laws of physics aside, he still wants one.  It’s a shame really.  There is one sitting on my desk right now.

I understand his sentiment as it is one of my prized possessions.  And I say that as a practicing martial artist and student of history who is currently surrounded by various sorts of antique swords and knives.  Nor am I alone in this. Darth Nihilus, my lightsaber combat instructor, was just telling me how much he wanted this particular model.

It is, after all, the quintessential fencer’s saber.  Named the “Caliburn Pilgrim” the hilt is just under 10.5 inches, with a diameter of 1.25 inches.  The whole package is surprisingly light.  The good folks at JQ Sabers have produced a weapon that is compact enough to easily wielded with a single hand (for those Makashi users), but with enough length that it can accommodate double handed techniques as well.

Designing (or possibly marketing) a saber like this seems to be more difficult than it sounds.  These are, after all, artifacts that come from a technologically advanced civilization in a galaxy far, far away.  To remind their owners of this fact even sabers that are not prop replicas tend to have all sorts of accoutrements that get in the way of actually using these hilts in training or sparring situations.  Extra buttons, retro-switch boxers, large “emitter windows”, thin nicks and the like can make for a visually impressive weapon, but one that is also uncomfortable in the hand.

Like many of the martial artists in the lightsaber combat community, I prefer simple hilts.  I like to think that they look elegant, but it is how they feel that is critical. The Pilgrim manages to keep its visual appeal with a parkerized grip that offers the look of leather wrapping with none of the maintenance.

This not to suggest that the Pilgrim is lacking in features.  It has a single (lit) activation button which can also be used to manually trigger the “blast deflection” and “lock up” effects that some individuals like.  A recharge port is also standard eliminating the need to mess with batteries.  I also ordered mine with a RGB tri-cree LED which, when paired with the standard Spectra Blade Control board allows the saber to cycle through six really nice blade colors in addition to supporting “flash on clash.”  These include a rich guardian blue, ice blue (more like Luke’s saber in A New Hope), green, a golden yellow, an almost neon red and finally a violet purple (for the Mace Windu fans).

All of these colors have good, uniform, coverage across the length of even a “heavy weight” dueling blade.  No more blades that are brightly lit only at the tip and base.  Plus the Spectra blade controller provides an interesting flickering effect which seems to make the blade come to life.  When paired with a medium weight blade this effect is really awesome.

At times it almost seems like this lightsaber is alive.  How many other training tools must be “fed” on a regular basis or they simply refuse to work?  While my Pilgrim has worked wonderfully from day one, the addition of electronics (that can have a mind of their own) and eccentric hilt designs conspire to give most lightsabers very definite “personalities.” That tends to be a quality that one becomes progressively more aware of as you use them.

Weapons of any kind have a disciplinary effect on the movement of a martial artist. We must accommodate the new possibilities that the materiality of a sword or a spear make possible.  Yet I often wonder whether it all boils down to purely material factors.  How important are the stories, myth and discourses that I have been exposed to in my understanding and actual experience of a weapon?

Before practicing my forms, drills, or sparring, I must choose a blade color when I activate my lightsaber.  It seems that there are certain colors I never use.  If I am working with someone on a choreographed piece and they need me to be “the bad guy” I will turn my saber red.

Yet I would never practice forms with a red blade at home.  They just don’t feel “right.”  I just don’t feel right.  The cognitive dissonance between what I see in my hands and my goals are as a martial artist is a bit much. In the Star Wars universe red is a very loaded color and I experience those associations on an almost subconscious level.

Guardian blue seems like a good color for someone setting out to master a new discipline.  That is the one that I use the most.  If I am having troubling with an exercise and need to slow down or relax I find that I am often holding a green saber.  This probably reflects the fact that Jedi Consulars (diplomats, scholars and students of the Force), as well as teaching figures such as Yoda and Qui-Gon Jinn, favored Green blades.  Yellow and purple both feel like they have promise, yet they remain undiscovered countries.

Critics might look at my Pilgrim and note that it is, in fact, “not a real lightsaber.”  As Whitmore correctly notes, science has not yet figured out how to trap that much plasma in a magnetic field of such great magnitude, all powered by a battery that cannot weigh more than a few ounces.  One certainly hopes that by the time we have developed the technical expertise to make such a weapon possible we will have also gained the wisdom and common sense not to do so.

Yet in some ways this misses the point.  Every person I meet in the park where I practice takes one look at what I am doing and immediately asks (in breathless fashion) “Where did you get a real lightsaber!”  No one confuses this object with the much cheaper toys that you can buy at your local Walmart.  Even to the uninitiated it appears as something that is qualitatively different than the “fake” lightsaber that children play with.

As a martial artist I have to agree with them.  A one inch heavy polycarbonate blade is the sort of thing that can hurt you if used without the proper safety gear.  When you have been hit in the head with something so many times that you find yourself pricing out heavier grade HEMA fencing masks, it is hard to think of the object in question as anything other than “real” in the most concrete terms.  Yet how does this ever evolving combination of lightsaber as object and myth effect my development as a martial artist?  What other ideas or identities might be coming along for the ride?

 

Moro weapons. Vintage Postcard.

Moro weapons. Vintage Postcard.

 

Material Culture in Martial Arts Studies

 

The “salvage Anthropologist” of the early 20th century loved material culture.  They did not just set out to collect the languages, folklore and life-ways of “primitive people.” They often returned from their expeditions with enough stuff to fill whole museum collections.  The basic idea was to preserve all of this cultural material for posterity before the indigenous peoples of the world inevitably succumbed to ravages of modernity and disappeared forever. (Needless to say that did not come to pass). And then there were the weapons.

Early explorers, missionaries, merchants and anthropologists all seem to have taken a special interest in the collecting and study of ethnographic weapons.  While wealthy gentlemen might pursue this as a hobby, the more academically inclined saw in these artifacts a key to understanding critical elements of other cultures.

This same impulse seems to have been present in earlier incarnations of martial arts studies as a field.  From the obsessive categorization of ancient Japanese swords to the classification of the seemingly limitless varieties of knives (and other bladed weapons) coming out of South East Asia, a fair amount of attention was paid to the material culture of the martial arts.  We were sagely informed by the authors of the time that “the sword was the soul of the Samurai,” and every Nepalese kukri “invoked Shiva.”  If we could get our heads wrapped around these statements then we would be a little bit closer to understanding the societies that called forth these weapons from the vast depths of the human imagination.

In contrast the current martial arts studies literature has had relatively little to say on weapons, or any other aspect of the material culture (uniforms, training gear, architecture, etc…), found in the practice of the modern martial arts.  Students of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) have generally been more attentive to these matters.  Who could forget Daniel Jaquet delivering his keynote in a suit of armor at our last conference?   Yet when looking at current practices there seems to be less interest in these questions.

Given the recent development of the current literature this may be understandable.  In all honesty there are many interesting topics floating around that no one has had an opportunity to discuss.  Yet given the capitalist character of the current global order, this seems like an oversight that needs to be corrected.  Simply put, most of us encounter the martial arts as a series of goods to be consumed provided by either the entertainment, fitness or the self-improvement industries.  If we wish to better understand how the martial arts function in modern society, or what they mean to those who practice them, looking at the material goods that these pursuits inspire would be an obvious place to start.

Archeologists and historians have noted that to a skilled interpreter a medieval European sword is like a book.  It reveals very specific information about the vast network of craftsmen who were necessary to mine, forge, dress and market a single blade.  Both trade and administrative networks are revealed in life histories of individual weapons.  Their embellishments, and in some cases even their basic geometry, can reveal much about the societies that produced and used these weapons.    Material objects do not stand apart from the realm of social values and identity.  They are cultural debates made manifest in steel, wood and leather.

The same is true of the material culture of the martial arts today.  The synthetic training swords of HEMA practitioners, foam foot and hand protectors of TKD students, and the rapid spread of the Wing Chun style wooden training dummy, all have specific stories to tell.  Some of these are technical in nature, others are historical.  For instance, in a previous paper I discussed how the sudden appearance of high quality replica lightsabers as part of an advertising campaign for the prequel movies (episodes I-III) seems to explain the timing of the development of this practice.

Yet there is a rich interplay between the imagined, discursive and physical objects that any society creates.  Martial arts studies is well situated to explore this terrain.  Further, the development of Lightsaber combat suggests that even the most hyper-real of weapons can speak to important puzzles in both the interpretation of texts and the development of new types of physical practice.  All that is necessary is to find the right lens.

 

Luke receiving his fathers lightsaber in Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).

Luke receiving his fathers lightsaber in Episode IV: A New Hope (1977).

 

“Your Fathers Lightsaber”

 

While few academic studies have taken the lightsaber on as their sole object of interest, the same is not true of the Star Wars film series.  Its momentous following has ensured that students of cultural and film studies have discussed the subject from the late 1970s to the present day.  The movies have been critiqued and interpreted from a number of perspectives, and George Lucas himself has been the subject of a good deal of biographical interest.

A number of scholars have followed the lead of early observers and offered interpretive studies of these films drawing on various mythological and psychological frameworks.  These have been used to explore issues such as “coming of age” narratives, or the many historical resonances (both real and imagined) that can be found within the films.

Other scholars (including Wetmore) have cautioned against of these approaches.  They rightly point out that when we seek “universal” meanings in a film such as this, we often become blind to the sometimes unpleasant forces that emerge as the narrative advances racial, political and sexual values that are very much grounded in a specific time and place (e.g., post-War America).

Zeroing in on the rhetoric of “empire” and “resistance” found throughout the franchise Wetmore applied a post-colonial reading to the saga in his volume The Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion and Rebellion in the Star Wars Film (McFarland & Co, 2005).  As the title implies, this study tackled the appearance of imperialism, sexism, racism and cultural appropriation in these films.

One a certain level none of this new.  A variety of fans and commentators had already noticed that Darth Vader appeared to be the only “black” character in the original film. Worse yet, he seemed to become a Caucasian at the very moment of his redemption/death.  Alternatively, lots of Asian American teenagers have noted that while many Jedi have Asian sounding names, there were no actual Asian Jedi in the films.  In his volume Wetmore systematically explored these issues in an attempt to demonstrate that various approaches to critical theory could offer productive readings of the Star Wars films.

In many respects he accomplished what he set out to do.  Yet his volume probably contributed less to the development of these theoretical approaches than one might like due to the fact that Wetmore was clearly writing for a dual audience of both fans and other scholars.  In some ways I find his shorter paper on the lightsaber to be a more significant and original contribution to both the popular and academic discussions of these films.

Wetmore begins by noting that material objects seems to play an important role in uniting what might otherwise be a sprawling collection of movies.  Indeed, some of them (such as the Millennium Falcon) are more popular than even well-known characters in the series.  Other “objects,” such as R2D2, have even been elevated to the status of principal characters.

No other object is more significant to the series than the lightsaber.  These iconic weapons appear in each of the seven films that have so far been produced.  More importantly, they are consciously used to bridge historical and narrative gaps.  In Episode IV: A New Hope, Luke receives his father’s lightsaber.  Of course it is the very same weapon that we see Obi-Wan picking up off the ground after literally dismembering Anakin Skywalker at the end of Revenge of the Sith.  Wetmore suggests that these moments of recognition, triggered by the repeated appearance of the same material objects both help to define the materiality of the Star Wars universe and are an important mechanism by which viewers make sense of the action, uniting threads of meaning across both the films and the decades.

Wetmore also suggests that we should pay close attention to how and when lightsabers appear on screen.  In fact, the relative abundance (Phantom Menace) or scarcity (A New Hope) of lightsabers gives us an interesting perspective from which to view these films in both a narrative and critical way.  Doing so effectively requires some sort of theoretical framework.

At this point Wetmore turns to the idea of “fetishism” in an attempt to make sense of the importance of reoccurring physical objects both within (and now outside) the Star Wars universe.  This strategy is not without its drawbacks.  As he notes at the start of the exercise, the very concept of the fetish seems to be hopelessly overdetermined and has been used in many different (sometimes contradictory) ways.

Yet rather than imposing another definition upon this concept he takes the preexisting debates and uses it to develop a typology of different approaches, each of which might be useful in resolving some different element of what lightsabers mean on screen.  While there are a great many theories and approaches that might be used to explore material culture within Martial Arts Studies, it might be worth briefly considering what contributions the idea of fetishism can make.  Specifically, how might it help to better illuminate the micro-foundations connecting both the weapon as physical object (subject to history and technique) and the weapon as a mythic symbol (subject to shifting norms and discourses)?

While the origins of the term remain somewhat obscure Wetmore suggests that “fetish” originally emerged as a pidgin term in West Africa used to describe powerful or sacred objects that could not be traded.  From the Portuguese perspective these may have included items that were desirable, but were resistant to normal commerce. A fetish, simply put, was something that could not be “bought.”

Early Anthropologists later generalized this basic notion by extracting it from its imperialist and commercial framework. For them a fetish was seen as a material object (often very ordinary in appearance) that was endowed with supernatural powers or associations.  As such these objects might become an object of worship or group identification (Durkheim).  In other situations a fetish might take on the characteristics of a magical tool that granted great power to the proper user.

Elements of this sort of system can be found in a number of places in both the films and the real world.  Like other sorts of athletes martial artists can be fairly superstitious when it comes to their training tools.  On a deeper level the idea that a Jedi must make her own lightsaber before their training can be considered complete seems to play into both aspects of the anthropological conception.  On the one hand the completion of this task is often discussed in mystical terms.  In the real world the building of a functioning stunt saber is also the last step necessary before being recognized as a “Jedi Knight” (and thus a fully-fledged member of the community) within some groups like the Terra Prime Lightsaber Academy.  As one would expect, it is difficult to disentangle the mythic and ritual meanings of this object.

Sigmund Freud later adopted the idea and elaborated upon it in a 1927 article where he (characteristically) defined the fetish as a substitute for the female penis.  More specifically Wetmore notes that in Freud’s writing:

 

“It is a substitute for the penis, a protection against castration, and a source of pleasure.  One might also see the fetish as a weapon against the father, who seeks to castrate the son in response to the son’s own murderous oedipal drive.” (177)

 

Indeed, it is not hard to see the first of these sentences reflected in the sorts of stunt sabers used by martial artists.  After all, in the current era the pursuit of traditional weapons training is mostly seen as a pleasurable leisure activity.  Alternatively one could do worse than the Freudian reading of the lightsaber as a fetish for a one sentence summary of the Luke/Darth Vader story arc.

Returning the concept to its economic roots, Marxism has also developed a concept of the fetish.  In this case it reflects the surplus value of any trade above and beyond its purely utilitarian value.  An object functions as a fetish both due to the prestige it brings the owner and because it creates a group of individuals that have similar possessions.

One might be able to buy six bamboo Shinai (and then paint them any color that you desire) for the price of my lightsaber.  From a purely utilitarian standpoint the Shinai would work just as well for the sort of training that I am doing.  Nor would one ever have to worry about the batteries dying or the electronics coming lose.  And yet I felt like I got a great deal when I bought the more elaborate, delicate and expensive training tool?  The Marxist theory gives us a way to discuss and theorize this paradox.  It also brings economic markets (through which most of us encounter our lightsabers) back into the discussion.

Finally, Amanda Fernbach has suggested that fetishism might also suggest a direct reversal of Freud’s theory.  She sees it as a fundamentally modern phenomenon in which the transformation of the self or the body has become a prominent social goal.  A fetish thus acts as an item that is both transformative and transgressing.  By taking up this object you both transform the self and, by transgressing social standards, create a new identity.

Again, it is not hard to see how this might apply to the world of lightsabers.  These are physical objects that are endowed not just with social meaning, but with strategic purpose.  As I have conducted various interviews over the course of my fieldwork a number of people have noted that they started coming to class because they “wanted to get in shape.”  In short, they had a desire to physically transform the self.  Yet rather than accepting the dominant social image of athleticism, they chose to do so in an environment that self-consciously celebrated geek culture.

Indeed, it is the sort of looks that one occasionally gets from passersby in the mall that reminds you just how transgressive such an activity can be.  Yet sociologists of religions have theorized that it is precisely the “high costs to entry” within a community that may account for the strong bonding that can take place there. The creation of such identities can be very empowering.  As one of my classmates noted, “The CLA is where bad ass nerds are made!”

 

A participant at a recent Saber Legion tournament. I love what this guy did with his fencing mask. Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/euBjd

A participant at a recent Saber Legion tournament. I love what this guy did with his fencing mask. Source: http://imgur.com/gallery/euBjd

 

“This weapon is your life!”

 

Fetishism is interesting as it allows us to explore both those areas of the use and appreciation of material objects that are amenable to commerce and markets as well as those that are resistant to it.  Ironically the West African conception of the term remains, in some ways, the most interesting and fruitful.

While there are a staggering number of stunt and replica sabers that can be purchased over the internet, the process by which the physical object becomes a “real” lightsaber is less easily captured.  The reality of the weapon emerges as a nexus between the martial artists, the object, technique, mediated images and the desire to craft a new type of identity (or community).  Indeed, the evolution of the material culture of the lightsaber combat movement suggests that it would probably be a mistake to simply reduce this process to the unintended consequences of a massive advertising campaign.

There are many sources selling replicas of the iconic prop sabers used in the films.  Yet the model that I reviewed at the beginning of this essay does not resemble any of those in size, shape or layout.  It is a good deal smaller and simpler than the lightsabers in the film because it was designed to be used as efficiently as possible as a martial arts training tool.  That goal has nothing to do with the sabers that dominated the silver screen.  Nor did George Lucas intend to spawn a new martial arts movement.  Nevertheless, these sorts of robust “battle ready” designs appear to be a quickly growing segment of the market with both large and specialty producers trying to fill the niche.

The lightsaber that most feels like an extension of myself is “real” not because it corresponds to anything in George Lucas’ universe, but because it best fulfills a practical function in my own training.  The existence of stunt sabers such as this suggests that lightsaber combat exists primarily as a mechanism for creative self-expression through the appropriation and reordering of a commercial mythos.  I doubt that it can be reduced simply to an extension of the consumption of the Star Wars franchise.  While the weapons in questions are hyper-real, the emotions, identities and relationships that they generate are both real and transformative.  Nor can they simply be purchased.

Of course this reimagination of the lightsaber happens within certain limits.  It is the structure and limitations of the story that makes it seem real.  That is probably why I refuse to train with a red blade.
oOo

 

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see:  Is Star Wars a Martial Arts Film Franchise?

 

oOo

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