Neil Gong’s article, “How to Fight Without Rules: On Civilized Violence in “De-Civilized” Spaces,” (Social Problems, 2015, 0, pp. 1-18) is the sort of work that is sure to find its way onto a variety of syllabi and reading lists in coming years. This paper is the result of three years of detailed ethnographic study and it attempts to address fundamental issues in the field of sociology. It also makes for fascinating reading. Gong draws his readers in with two provocative questions.
First, is the rise of the “reality fighting” movement (seen most clearly in the rise of mixed martial arts and the UFC, but evident in a number of other places as well), a harbinger of the end of western civilization as we know it? Secondly, how exactly does one go about fighting in a group that claims to have no rules, where the use of blunt weapons and concealed blades is not only permissible but encouraged? How is it that this ultimate “fight club” can go on for years and no one gets killed?
Anyone who has spent enough time around the traditional martial arts will already have heard the first of these questions rephrased as either a complaint or accusation. Many traditional practitioners have a sense that something vital to the spirit of (their) martial arts has been lost with the rise of MMA. Even when it employs familiar techniques it strips them of their previous cultural context and seems to glory in violence and pain.
What is more surprising is that sociologists, generally a very level headed group of researchers, have been wondering the same thing for some years now. As Gong notes, within this academic discipline it is a truism that even most rule-less and “reality oriented” movements are in fact bound by some sort of informal rules or social structure. Thus the emergence of groups credibly claiming to fight without rules is something of a challenge for sociological theorists.
If we were to see the rapid spread of true “no-holds-barred” fighting (with its attendant bloody consequences) there might actually be theoretical reasons to wonder about the state of Western Civilization. Specifically, Norbert Elias (1897-1990) spent much of the 20th century elaborating an idea that he referred to as the “civilizing process.” This theory has since become a core element of many sociological discussions.
His basic argument was that the growth of states and economic specialization, from the medieval period onward, resulted in a trend towards the creation of ever more strict behavioral guidelines which became internalized systems of social control (characterized by some as Freud’s “super-ego”). These shifts are especially evident when dealing with questions of violence. Even the most hardened fans of TV shows like “Game of Thrones” would balk (or in more technical terms, exceed their “threshold of repugnance”) if confronted with the sorts of violence that was in fact common in medieval cities like London or Paris. The end result is that rates of violent crime and murder in these same cities today are only a small fraction of what they were during the medieval period.
Elias termed this ever expanding horizon of social specialization, introspection and self-regulation “civilization.” In that way he provided the modern social sciences with one of their first (and probably still most significant) theories of the rise of western civilization as we know and experience it today. Of course this immediately raises the question of how the martial arts are related to the development of ever more internalized and bounded models of personal behavior.
Students of martial arts studies may find Elias’ work interesting for additional reasons. While I just referenced murder rates in the previous paragraph, he was more interested in identifying the texture of this process in the lived experience of past generations. Elias exhaustively researched topics like the evolution of table manners in an attempt to build a historical ethnography of the civilizing process.
Much of his most influential historical writing focused on the development of today’s highly competitive, but relatively safe, culture of athletics and sports. He wrote extensively on the evolution of the ancient Greek practice known as Pankration (one of the original Olympic events) as it moved from something a bit like ritualized “private war” between Greek warrior/nobles (in which contestants were routinely maimed or killed) to a practice more easily identifiable as a type of rule-bound boxing (in which contestants were less likely to get killed). Of course something very similar is evident when one looks at the evolution of modern sports, such as the move from “bare-knuckles” to Olympic boxing, or the invention of helmets and the “forward pass” in American football.
The sudden emergence of a new wave of “no-rules” fighting starting in the 1990s thus raises serious theoretical questions. When cage fighting becomes one of the quickest growing sports on television, are we witnessing the beginning of a “de-civilizational process,” signaling a reversal of trends that have been slowly moving forward for more than 500 years?
Gong notes that certain scholars have basically made this argument (see Howes 1998 and Sheard 1998; van Bottenburg and Heilbron 2006). Yet more recent scholars remain unconvinced that the problem is really that dire. Some (such as Abramson and Modzelewski, 2011) have asserted that focusing only on the supposed brutality of the event misses the larger point. This is violence used instrumentally in the service of solidly middle class and democratic values such as “meritocracy and voluntary community.”
Sanchez Garcia and Malcom note that for all its emphasis on “brutal reality,” MMA fights do not appear to be any more likely to kill their contestants than highly rule bound boxing matches. This suggests the possibility that a certain type of structure still constrains the behavior of individuals in these matches, even if such rules are now informally learned rather than being explicitly spelled out. Ironically that might point to the further strengthening of the internalized mechanism that underpins Elias’ civilizing project.
This move has not proved to be universally popular. Gong states that certain critics of Garcia and Malcom have noted that a retreat to “invisible rules” seems like an improbably convenient way to save a flawed theory. After all, Elias could simply be wrong.
Enter the Reality Fighters
This is the point at which Gong’s own research enters the debate. He begins by noting that Elias was not simply interested in aggregate data such as gross injury rates. After all, violence can happen for many reasons, and it can even be used instrumentally to advance other “civilizing” goals (the American Civil War). What was more important to him was the texture of these norms in the lived experience of historical subjects. How have people experienced the push and pull of civilization?
Critics of Garcia and Malcom note that their research focuses mostly on the more recent era of televised MMA fights. Of course all sides agree that these are relatively rule bound compared to their earlier (not always broadcast) predecessors. Thus our ability to bring cumulative data to bear on the most interesting period is actually rather limited.
Gong proposed that the ethnographic method could break this impasse. Specifically, he identified a group (the Reality Fighters) that seemed to be a critical case for Elias’ civilizing thesis. This particular organization had no formal rules governing their matches other than that at the end of the day everyone must leave as friends. Their style of fighting combined unarmed combat with a variety of sticks and blunt weapons, knives (often concealed and with their tips rounded), and sometimes even training guns. There were no weight classes in the group. Timed rounds and referees were also missing. Multiple attacker and ambush scenarios were also trained.
Gong’s group was apparently not without a certain level of charisma. The Reality Fighters frequently posted videos of their events on the internet and earned an international following. They had once been approached about a TV deal. But when producers took a closer look at their matches it was quickly decided that these encounters were not suitable for broadcasting to the general public.
The membership of the Reality Fighters was eclectic. While soldiers and police officers appear to have been common, Gong also reports encountering other academics as well as individuals who had been incarcerated. While it appears that most of the fighters were men there was a female minority within the community.
Lastly, the common interests of the community seem to have transcended the training hall. It is not hard to detect a decidedly ideological slant in many of the conversations that Gong reports. Most members of the group seem to have been interested in libertarian politics and removing restrictions on the concealed carry of guns and knives. Some engaged in extended ideological discussions on the internet. Interestingly these more politically salient elements of the groups identity played little role in Gong’s subsequent ethnography.
He instead turned his attention to the second question outlined in the introduction. How is it that one can fight in fluid weapons based matches with no formal rules of any kind, and yet enjoy an injury rate that is apparently no different from what one might find in any boxing gym around the country? If the rise of rule free “fight clubs” did in fact suggest the advent of a de-civilizing process, Gong reasoned that this should be most evident in a relatively extreme group, such as the Reality Fighters. Thus he framed his study as a “critical case” for Elias’ theory.
Gong argued that ethnography was the best research method for grasping the “habitus” of group members. Such an understanding was simply not possible without acquiring a “feel for the game” of one’s own. He hypothesized that it was this unique habitus, developed through repeated matches, that allowed them to fight with such apparent ferocity, yet to do so in ways that were actually highly constrained and safe. In fact, as Gong’s research proceeded the more interesting question became how these same individuals maintained the illusion of “freedom” in what was actually a highly governed space.
Order without Rules: Three Mechanisms of Social Regulation
If the creation of a dynamic, fast paced, sparring match can be thought of as a certain type of “achievement,” how exactly did Gong’s fellow practitioners learn to fight without rules? Gong identifies three informal mechanisms that facilitated the emergence of a specific sort of fight.
First, he notes that (with the exception of blade-work where other, more theatrical, norms apply) there was a strong normative commitment within the group for showing self-restraint when sparring. In practice this means aiming blows in such a way that they caused pain but not injury (hitting the shin, but not the knee, of an opponent with a stick). Nor did members of the Reality Fighters “finish” opponents once they went down. The sort of “ground and pound” commonly seen in MMA matches was definitely frowned upon. Rhetorically this self-restraint was framed as the ability to “take responsibility for one’s actions,” in opposition to younger and uncontrolled MMA fighters and kickboxers who had delegated that responsibility to a referee and fight doctor.
Of course learning and internalizing these norms is problematic as they are, by definition, unspoken. Gong wrote about one incident where his fight was stopped (and he was reprimanded) for attempting to stab an opponent in the face with a blunt knife, even though other sorts of facial attacks were encouraged. He had never been informed that this was in violation of the group’s unwritten code. And the fact that his initial attack was cheered on by a large section of the audience suggested that this confusion may have spread beyond a single novice fighter.
Gong describes a process of slowly acquiring a “feeling for the game” which, in the case of inexperienced fighters, often led to halting, tentative, frequently stopped, matches as both sides attempted to work out what was about to happen next and how the community would react to it. While Gong never explicitly addresses the role of spectatorship in his article, it hangs heavily on his ethnographic account. Thus the ability to engage in a fast paced and exciting match (which will look good on youtube) depends upon both parties first internalizing a large body of normative practice. And it is the reaction of the community that ultimately sanctions and upholds these norms. Thus “good fights” can be thought of as elaborate cooperative “achievements” not just in the theoretical, about also the technical, sense of the word.
This second mechanism yields some paradoxical findings. Gong notes that what appears to be the fastest paced, most unrestrained, matches are in fact the safest and most “rule bound” events. The slow and halting fights of amateurs are in some ways more unpredictable (and one suspects dangerous) as neither party is really sure what will happen next or how they will respond.
More experienced Reality Fighters tend to judge these affairs harshly. They simply don’t look “real.” Yet they are actually more similar to actual street encounters than the highly polished fights of the group’s most experienced warriors. Thus the farther one goes in the attempt to master the “reality” of violence, the further one moves from some of its defining characteristics. One suspects that this paradox pervades martial arts training more generally.
The use of concealed weapons (both guns and knives), while seemingly a wild-card, also facilitates the informal regulation of these fights. One suspects that if a real criminal pulls a weapon on you in a street fight they are unlikely to care what local laws say about the maximum length of knife blade that may be carried, or when a weapon can be legally deployed in a self-defense encounter. Does your state have a “stand your ground” law, or are you instead obligated to attempt to flee? The Reality Fighters spend a great deal of time thinking about these issues and they adjust their training protocols accordingly.
Perhaps this should not be a surprise. Gong mentioned that a plurality of group members had some experience in either law enforcement or the military. A mastery of certain “rules of engagement” is part of the professional conditioning of both groups.
It is also important to consider the Reality Fighters’ self-image. They actively cultivate the discourse that they are law abiding citizens and “protectors” who have developed the self-mastery necessary to employ the appropriate level of force in a violent encounter. In this sense they see themselves as being morally superior to younger MMA fighters who they feel are more likely to react emotionally and lose control in a crisis situation. Whatever one may think of this rationale, Gong notes that the end result is that legal codes governing violence and self-defense have been imported into the habitus of the Reality Fighters.
Gong concludes by noting that these findings support the foundational assumptions of sociological thought. Nor does the popularity of MMA or (to a lesser extent groups like the Reality Fighters) seriously challenge Elias’ central thesis.
“In the specific case of combat sports, and even the parasport of Reality Fighting, rules are entirely central to sustained play and generating the experience of freedom. As I have shown in the instances where rules are unclear, the appearance of free action is predicated in shared understandings and expectations to coordinate behavior. The most violent, exciting, and aesthetically “no-holds-barred” fighting is not rule-less, but sportive and rule bound. The key sociological insight is that engaging in sustainable “rule-less” activity requires rules, whether formal or informal, to be comprehensible and meaningful to modern actors.” (Gong, p. 16).
It would seem that Western Civilization is safe.
Civilization and Modernity: Competing Visions
In some respects Gong’s central findings are not entirely surprising. A variety of historians and anthropologists have noted a very similar set of mechanisms at work in their examination of “traditional” Chinese martial culture. The main difference seems to be that they did not feel the need to frame their explorations in terms of the “civilizing” debate.
Perhaps the closest parallel of interest to students of Chinese martial studies might be found in the ethnographic research of Avron Boretz. In his 2011 volume, Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society, he followed a group of petty hustlers and criminals who would likely find the libertarian ethos of Gong’s Reality Fighter very familiar. They too turned to the martial arts as a tool for identity construction. And like the Reality Fighters they also attempted to create alternate value hierarchies to demonstrate (even if only to themselves) the moral superiority of their vision of masculinity.
Finally, as in the previous case, Boretz found that the task of living life without rules is harder than it appears. While both Boretz’s temple troops and Gong’s “Reality Fighters” may seek alternate definitions of masculinity, neither group is willing to take the much more radical step of throwing such categories out and starting over. In countless ways, large and small, both groups actually reinforce the very same value hierarchies that they seem to question. As Boretz concludes, radical rhetoric and flashy public displays notwithstanding, society tolerates groups like this because they are ultimately fairly conservative (if somewhat eccentric).
Is it a problem that scholars looking at very different sorts of martial groups (in this case Chinese temple troops) on the other side of the world, and with a totally different theoretical framework, could come to many of the same conclusions about the social meaning of such voluntary associations? One suspects that this is actually the theoretical challenge that Elias must face.
The decline of western civilization always seemed like a bit of a straw-man. Carlo Rotella has noted that when watching the “ring-walk” of the average MMA fighter one might assume that you are looking at an out of control rage-machine. He finds it interesting to compare the sorts of music that MMA fighters walk to with traditional boxers. This musical selection is one of the few semiotic devices that modern fighters have at their disposal to frame how the audience understands, and attributes meaning to, their participation in the fight. And everyone desperately wants these displays of violence to have social meaning (Prof. Carlo Rotella, “”My Punches Have Meaning: Making Sense of Boxing,” October 24 2016, Cornell University).
There is no doubt that music at MMA events tends to be more “energetic.” And this is done to convey a certain image. Yet when the bell sounds both of the rage filled anti-heroes who walk to the octagon quickly settle down into disciplined and controlled fighters. In that respect their contests are not entirely unlike those of boxers. (Ibid)
Should we focus on the similarities between these groups or their differences? Likewise, the discovery that the behavior of the “Reality Fighters” was actually dictated by a set of informal rules is not exactly a counterfactual finding. It would only have been shocking if the opposite case had been discovered.
The unique and exciting aspect of this article was Gong’s focus on the question of “how” fast paced but exciting fights were achieved. And the details of this process were not always obvious. For instance, one suspects that similar groups with fewer law enforcement or military personal might have been much less likely to simply import whole sections of criminal law into their habitus. That was a genuinely thought provoking discussion.
Thus Gong may have been correct in asserting the need to transition from discussion of “why” groups of martial artist train to a much more detailed examination of “how” they actually achieve fights. And I have to admit that his answers are parsimonious and impressive.
Yet I am concerned that we might abandon the questions of “why” too quickly. Indeed, Gong’s findings seem to bring us back to the start of the debate, but with additional insight. If this major shift in discourse surrounding the martial arts does not signal a “de-civilizing process,” what does it mean?
Those within the martial arts community certainly take these sorts of signals very seriously, and some claim that fundamental values are at stake. So “why” are the Reality Fighters (and groups like them) doing this? Why are they espousing libertarian views and weighing in on the gun control debate? Why do they seem intent of bucking the general trend towards cross-gender training by refusing to allow mixed sparring (something that has become pretty common throughout the modern combat sports). Why specifically do they focus on being “protectors” (one notes mostly of their wives).
Gong’s paper adroitly addressed an ongoing debate in the literature. For that he should be thanked. Graduate students looking to structure their own projects should pay attention to his research design. But was the civilizing process the only, or most valuable, lens through which to view the Reality Fighters?
Perhaps my disciplinary bias is starting to show. The concept of “civilizations” as a unit of analysis does not make many appearances in political science and international relations. The one exception might be Huntington’s “Clash of Civilizations” thesis. But it is clear that this (controversial and widely discredited) model has more in common with realism’s balance of power that Elias’ individually experienced, psychologically driven, civilizing process.
What was Elias really describing? His research is highly localized and focuses only on the West. As such I am very sympathetic to the critics who point out that equally powerful mechanisms of introspection and self-control can be seen in any number of societies around the globe. In fact, it would not be at all difficult to argue that China reached a high degree of “civilization” (if that is what this really is) long before the European Middle Ages. Elias’ supporters have gone on to note that he never intended to suggest that such things could only arise in the West. But rather that the West tended to be more sophisticated and disciplined in its civilizational process.
Needless to say, the ethnocentrism of both the original argument and its later defenses is simply breathtaking. One suspects that when attempting to understand the evolution of social meaning within fighting systems of largely Asian origin, other approaches might be more valuable and in need of less frequent apology.
I do not claim to be an expert in any of this. Again, this entire literature falls outside of my primary field. Yet when reading Gong’s commentary on Elias I wonder if what is really at stake is not so much the “civilizing process” as the unfolding of one specific vision of modernity. Indeed, it was the slow dawning of modernity that set in motion the pattern of state consolidation and market differentiation that Elias sees as central drivers in his civilizing process.
Yet as scholars are increasingly aware, modernity itself is not a singular event. There is no one pathway towards modernity, nor is there any exclusive way that it must be experienced. As I have argued elsewhere, the martial arts themselves are a byproduct of the ways that both China and Japan experienced the twin pressures of modernity and nationalism in the late 19th and early 20th century.
The very existence of practices like Judo, Wing Chun, Taijiquan or Kali is proof that multiple visions of modernity are possible. And the eventual export and modification of these systems in the West strongly suggests that certain groups are more than capable of adopting such practices to argue for the superiority of a given set of values and identities. The martial arts are a means by which groups have been brought into contact with modernity, but also (as Denis Gainty and others have argued) a means by which they contest its content and meaning. One suspects that some of the more ideologically inclined “Reality Fighters” would have a lot to say on this topic.
Gong’s discussion of “how” his community fights has been both informative and fascinating. Yet I expect that the coming discussions of “why” they fight will be of even greater importance. Luckily the ethnographic method is well suited to both questions.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Dr. Daniel Amos Discusses Marginality, Martial Arts Studies and the Modern Development of Southern Chinese Kung Fu