One of my few disappointments about the 2017 Martial Arts Studies conference was that a change in travel plans forced me to miss the final afternoon of the event. As such, I was not able to take part in the closing workshop which addressed a number of topics that are important to the emerging field of Martial Arts Studies. Of these the most basic would have to be, “How do we talk about our personal experience with these fighting systems in our academic studies of them?” Luckily this debate was just posted on YouTube, and I plan on watching Parts I and II on my flight to Korea.
Here is what the conference program had to say about the workshop:
At this year’s Martial Arts Studies Conference, we will set aside time for workshops and a round table panel discussion that will explore key problematics pertinent to anyone researching, writing about or teaching martial arts.
This problem has been well posed by Loïc Wacquant, who puts it like this:
How to go from the guts to the intellect, from the comprehension of the flesh to the knowledge of the text? Here is a real problem of concrete epistemology about which we have not sufficiently reflected, and which for a long time seemed to me irresolvable. To restitute the carnal dimension of ordinary existence and the bodily anchoring of the practical knowledge constitutive of pugilism – but also of every practice, even the least ‘bodily’ in appearance – requires indeed a complete overhaul of our way of writing social science. (Loïc Wacquant, ‘The Body, The Ghetto and the Penal State’, Qual Sociol, 2009, p.122)
Not everyone working in martial arts studies will regard themselves as a social scientist, and not everyone need be completely satisfied with Wacquant’s own solution. (Wacquant mixes different styles of writing, different modes of address: sometimes literary/descriptive, sometimes confessional, emotional, ethnographic, sometimes analytical, and so on.) But all of us working in martial arts studies will benefit from thinking about this problematic further.
Some of the questions that spring up here include:
· What concepts, metaphors, images and vocabularies are best able to convey embodied knowledge, skill, technique, experience?
· Does one have to experience a martial art to be able to know it or write about it?
· Is the written word actually capable of communicating any of this?
· Might other, newer media be any better?
· In addition to the question of how to go ‘from the guts to the intellect’, is it possible to ‘go from the intellect to the guts’, and be able to truly experience what others experienced, as in projects that try to reconstruct lost or past physical knowledge, such as HEMA?
· Do we need a complete overhaul of our ways of thinking and our styles of academic writing?
In order to dedicate time and space to these questions, we will first break out into different groups and then regroup for a round-table panel and discussion.
The break out groups will be self-selecting and organised by the familiar ways we already tend to categorise the main kinds of approach to martial arts. So there may be a group focusing on weapons-based arts, another focusing on grappling styles, another on striking, pugilistic martial arts, and another on internal martial arts, one on reconstructed arts, and so on.
After working in our groups, we will all reconvene together and spokespeople will report back to everyone about each group’s main findings, issues, agreements and disagreements, which will lead into an open discussion.
Looking for something to read? Check out: Kung Fu is Dead, Long Live Kung Fu: The Martial Arts as Voluntary Associations in 20th Century Guangzhou.