***The following guest post has been generously provided by Paul Bowman. It is significant in a number of respects, providing us with both a summery and commentary on the ongoing debate over the definition of “martial arts.” Bowman notes that this discussion is in many ways inseparable from a larger conversation regarding what martial arts studies is and how it should move forward as a field. Indeed, this essay might be the most comprehensive statement on these questions to date. Unfortunately it is meant to be translated and published in France, which is great for the French, but less so for the English language literature. As such I am happy that Kung Fu Tea will be able to distribute and house a version of this important work. Enjoy!***
“Deconstructing Martial Arts, Constructing Martial Arts Studies” by Paul Bowman, Cardiff University
(Draft chapter written for Olivier Bernard, Université Laval Press, to be translated and published in French)
In what follows I want to discuss two interrelated matters fundamental to the academic study of martial arts. The first relates to the object of attention itself, the familiar yet contested term, ‘martial arts’. The problems and possibilities opened up by this issue lead into a consideration of the ways that researchers might take martial arts to be not only their focus but also their field of study, as is taking place within the emergent academic discourse known as ‘martial arts studies’.
Deconstructing Martial Arts
First things first. What are martial arts? What do we mean when we say ‘martial arts’? These two questions can be regarded as either very similar to each other or very different from each other. Simplifying in the extreme we might propose that, although there are a spectrum of possible answers, there are two main positions on these matters. On the one hand, there is a kind of strict or rigorously literalist position, which holds that only certain kinds of things can properly be regarded as martial arts, and that to fit the bill they must meet certain criteria, such as having been designed for or used on the battlefield, or being some (implicitly bodily) part of the ‘arts of war’. On the other hand, there is an ostensibly more relaxed, loose or open-ended position, which might either be called cultural, ‘discursive’, or (pejoratively) ‘relativist’. This holds that because all of the terms and concepts that we use are variable conventional constructs, then a category like ‘martial arts’ only ever refers to whatever people think and say are ‘martial arts’. Both the category and the practices are heavily cultural and contextual.
There are strong criticisms of both positions. The literalist position tends to exclude a great many practices that are widely recognised as martial arts. Such positions may not accept that judo, tai chi, aikido or even MMA, for instance, should be regarded as martial arts, for a range of reasons (all boiling down to the idea that they were not developed specifically with the battlefield in mind). So they would be excluded from attention, even though many people would be happy to apply the term ‘martial arts’ to them, in line with conventional usage. In other words, strict or rigorous literalist positions impose rigid criteria that exclude practices deemed to be ‘too far’ away from being martial arts ‘proper’ – such as those which may focus on health cultivation, esoteric matters, or even practices with ‘too much’ of a focus on sport or self-development. In being fixated on war or battle, a literalist position might even exclude from the range of practices that make up the brutal world of full contact mixed martial arts or combat sports, such as MMA. Accordingly, one criticism of literalist positions is that in their quest for rigour and precision they can effectively become self-blinding or myopic positions which, in their putative insistence on ‘reality’, somewhat ironically end up refusing to accept what many (or most) others take to be reality – at least the lived reality of what people think of and do ‘as’ martial arts in a given culture or society at a given time.
Meanwhile, a culturalist or discursive position can be subject to the criticism that it is too ‘relativist’ or too open or flexible to be meaningful. In his important discussion of the problem of establishing a ‘concept’ of martial arts, Ben Judkins examines a range of scholarly approaches to martial arts, and proposes that when it comes to ‘discursive’ understandings of martial arts, ‘self-identification is a poor metric to judge what activities qualify as a martial art, or how we as researchers should structure our comparative case studies’ (Judkins, 2016, p. 9). To his mind, ‘this has always been a potential weakness of the sociological approach’. So, he asks, ‘Lacking a universally agreed upon definition, how should we move forward?’ (9)
Judkins himself moves forward by pointing out that definition is not really the question. The question is really one of why we are studying this possible object or field called ‘martial arts’ in the first place. In his discussion, Judkins deconstructs the ways in which different kinds of attempt to define or even demarcate the category of martial arts tend to fall down or unravel. For instance, he notes that it is not possible to separate off ‘military’ from ‘civilian’ combat training or practices, as the likes of Donn Draeger once attempted to do. No cultural or social category is hermetically sealed. Each is always, effectively or potentially, connected to and even infused with elements of others. Military and civilian realms may seem to be poles apart, and in many respects, they can be. But as the history of the development of martial arts in the US shows us, the growth of their civilian (and police) practice was indebted to and driven by returning servicemen (Krug, 2001). The US is the big example, but other Western countries have similar narratives; and the civilian/military distinction is even more unclear in Asian countries, whose martial arts narratives are replete with tales of civilian pioneers entering military life and vice versa (see for example Gillis, 2008 for a fascinating set of stories).
In his next move, following Peter Lorge’s influential discussion of martial arts in China, Judkins points out that even prominent Chinese military generals have (in)famously dismissed the direct combative utility of unarmed combat training (Judkins, 2016, pp. 7–8; Lorge, 2012, pp. 3–4). The real irony is that many of these ‘dismissive’ generals nonetheless continued to advocate the importance of unarmed combat training for their soldiers – however, the importance of such training was often located in the idea that combat training builds character, resilience and spirit. All of this complicates things further. Indeed, it could be said to make the whole literalist position fall to pieces. This is because that what arises here is the possibility that things as ‘non-martial’ as intense aerobic exercise, on the one hand, or meditation, on the other, might be of more ‘combat value’ than literal combat training itself.
Many modern martial artists will recognise this idea. In technical (and polite) Chinese terms, this is the distinction between ‘gong’ and ‘fa’, or the deep skill, energy, force and sensitivity required (gong) to make what are otherwise merely the external semblance (fa) of techniques ‘work’ (Nulty, 2017). In more general terms, how many times have martial arts practitioners looked at the demonstration of a technique and said or thought something like ‘that would never work if you do it like that’. The sense is that what is more important in combat is an intensity and single-minded determination of purpose (spirit). How many of us have ever, like me, suspected that in a dangerous situation it would be preferable to have an ultra-competitive ice-hockey, rugby or American football player on one’s side than a serene old tenth dan who can do amazing technical things but has never had a real fight? This is not simply a prejudice based on doubting someone’s ability. It is an intuition that someone used to intense physical competition will be more able to deal with non-compliant opponents and more able to handle what Miller calls the ‘chemical dump’ that explodes in our bodies in situations of extreme stress (Miller, 2008; Miller and Eisler, 2011).
Certain forms of (‘non-martial’) intense exercise popular today involve dealing with equivalent if not identical physical and psychological stresses, training with as much ‘spirit’ as possible, and taking the body to the limits of exhaustion in different ways. Because of their similarity to what happens in conflict, these intense exercise programmes are sometimes wholeheartedly embraced, advocated by, or included in military and/or ‘reality-based’ martial arts such as krav maga for precisely this ‘combat-like’ reason. On the flipside, as is more well-known (or more widely believed), ultra-slow movement or static meditation practices emphasize and ‘train’ qualities like relaxed precision and calm detachment, and they have long been associated with the generation of both budō ‘fighting spirit’ and – ‘paradoxically’ – the cultivation of a peaceful outlook (Benesch, 2016; Reid and Croucher, 1984).
As a long-time reader of the work of the deconstructive philosopher Jacques Derrida, what shines out from all of this is the extent to which practices (if not ideas) of ‘the martial’ or ‘martial art’ seem constantly to be supplemented by non-martial – or not literally martial – elements (Bowman, 2008; Derrida, 1976). In Derrida’s work, the notion of the supplement is deployed to demonstrate the ways that things we tend to want to consign to the category of the secondary, the add-on, the non-essential, the extra, and so on, are actually in a very real sense ‘primary’ (Bennington and Derrida, 2008). Or, put differently, there is no ‘primary’, no ‘essence’, no ‘pure’, despite our desire for this to be so. Rather there are only ever supplementary ingredients, practices or procedures. The idea of the ‘essence’ is itself an effect – a kind of illusion, or even delusion (Derrida, 1998).
Of course, this is not to say that the ‘essence effect’ is somehow fake. Imagine your ideal martial arts class. Practitioners may think of a martial arts training session they might have which starts or ends with some kind of meditation, then breath training, then physical exercises for strength or flexibility, then maybe forms training, then applications, then ever freer sparring, maybe also weapons, until they may have felt that they were ‘really’ doing ‘real fighting’. We might come away from such sessions feeling that we really have experienced the essence of martial arts training. And maybe we did experience something profound. But the point is, that experience of what we think of as one thing is always a subjective experience of multiple supplementary elements coming together in a certain way.
This is so even if we think that it is only ‘one thing’ that we are doing. Whether we are doing standing qigong training or some kind of real-world combat scenario training, we are never simply doing ‘one thing’. Each of these supposedly unitary activities is made up of myriad supplementary components, each of which could be ever further dissected and divided up into ever more differentiated elements. But, because we have a sense of ourselves as unitary and because we have to use shared languages, we are always inclined (or required) to simplify things, so that heterogeneity and multiplicity is given one name and imagined to have one essence.
This might help explain why practitioners of certain martial arts styles feel strongly (often negatively, or critically) about practitioners of ‘the same’ style – what they regard as ‘their style’ – who practice differently and ‘therefore’, they believe, wrongly. Different approaches to training in different schools and clubs of the ‘same style’ can easily regard each other’s approaches as ‘wrong’ because each teacher will feel that the essence of the style cannot be conveyed other than via the correct practices – their practices.
At issue is the inevitable emergence of difference within putative or nominal sameness (Derrida, 1988). Styles and systems cannot but change, from teacher to teacher, and even over time under the same teacher, because styles and systems are not fixed essences but rather constructs. They are constructed through constantly changing practices and combinations of elements. They are constructs, not essences. Linguistic terms and imaginations work in many ways to try to persuade us that this or that martial art is always one thing. But, to put it bluntly, it is never one thing.
Hence, it is heartening that more and more scholars today are prepared to move away from making direct ontological or essentialist (what I earlier called ‘literalist’) statements about what this or that martial art ‘is’ or indeed what martial arts ‘are’. The very category ‘martial art’ or ‘martial arts’ is first and foremost a contemporary construct. It has a history. It is only within the last few decades that the notion of ‘martial art’ has become an intelligible term that is widely understood as the kind of thing we all tend to think it means (Farrer and Whalen-Bridge, 2011; Judkins, 2014). What non-specialists tend to think the term ‘martial arts’ means frequently involves some vague evocation of punching and kicking, coming from Asia, and – surprisingly frequently, still, half a century after their emergence – being exemplified by figures like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan, whose very names have become shorthand for ‘martial arts’ (or ‘kung fu’).
Contemporary martial arts studies scholars have attempted to negotiate the variably and changeably constructed character of both the practices and the terms and categories we have available for conceptualising them in various ways (Bennett, 2015; Judkins and Nielson, 2015; Moenig, 2015; Tan, 2004). In an opposite but effectively identical approach (that some have regarded as controversial because of its barefaced straightforwardness), the historian Peter Lorge elected to study the place of unarmed and armed combat training practices via the historical texts about them throughout Chinese history without problematizing the term ‘martial arts’ at all. Rather than problematizing the terms, Lorge preferred to proceed in terms of a sense of the obviousness of the object to be analysed (Lorge, 2012).
Following what is ‘obviously’ part of the thing under analysis is a valid route – although the question immediately comes: where do you draw the line? In studying this or that martial art, must we also study strength training, dietary practices, micro- and macro-ideologies, religious beliefs, and so on? What about the kinds of literature or television programmes that practitioners watch, or experienced in their formative years? As Derrida argued, context may be everything, and will always be incredibly important to understanding specific things, but when it comes to a context, how do you draw a line between what is inside and what is outside of a context? (Derrida, 1988)
Indeed, a sense of the ‘obviousness’ of the object is the very thing that opens the door to all of the problems already discussed, and that Judkins dissects (Judkins, 2016). For once you scratch the surface of what’s ‘obviously in’ and ‘obviously out’ of our purview, everything becomes grey – and what Jacques Derrida would call ‘undecidable’. It is undecidable what is more important in krav maga training – how to handle a knife or how to keep going in the face of all terrors and adversities in a combat situation. The famously experienced author and self-defence instructor Rory Miller, for instance, even writes that, were you to be slapped in the face by a stranger, if you are the kind of person who would instantly feel outrage, anger and rage, then he has little to nothing to teach you. You have already ‘got it’ – the key to self-defence – a kind of righteous rage (Miller, 2008). However, if you are someone who would freeze or feel fear, shock, confusion, even embarrassment, then perhaps he may never be able to teach you anything worthwhile. You may never ‘get it’. You may always be incapacitated by fear, and you may always freeze. If this is true, then the question becomes one of whether therefore any pedagogy and hence any category akin to ‘martial arts’ is worthwhile on any ‘literal’ level.
This line of thinking opens out onto the possibility that there may be a ‘myth of pedagogy’ (Rancière, 1991) that runs far deeper and wider than the familiar stories many martial artists know about instructors teaching absolute rubbish to hapless students who believe they are learning effective techniques or profound truths. If Miller’s observation has any value, then perhaps the matters of teaching and learning in martial arts need to be rethought (Bowman, 2016). For, the implication would seem to be that many people could never effectively ‘learn’ the most important aspect of any self-defence – the aspect that might be called the ability to become a kind of berserker.
This is to evoke one of the most popular myths that circulates among competitive fighters: that ‘fighters are not made, they are born’. That is, the idea that good fighters have an innate fighting spirit, and unless you have that you cannot succeed as a fighter. Of course, contrary to this, a wide range of different kinds od evidence contradicts this enduring myth. The effects of training strongly suggest that fighters are made, not born (Wacquant, 2004, 2005, 2009).
Nonetheless, it is easy to get caught in an oscillation between accepting Miller’s statement (and maybe also the myth of the natural born fighter), on the one hand, and believing in the more observable development of novices into experts. It is not uncommon to see uncoordinated, timid, non-aggressive and incompetent people entering the club on day one and their undergoing a complete physical and psychological transformation over time. (It may have happened to you. I think it may have happened to me, possibly, and more than once, at least partially.) Those who adhere to a ‘natural born fighter’ myth could argue that the person who entered on day one nonetheless had a ‘spark’ or ‘hidden essence’ that was cultivated. Others may retort that one does not need a spark or an essence: all that is required is the desire, an effective teacher, and ‘the means of correct training’ (Foucault, 1977).
But is this really the be-all and end-all of martial arts? Some readers will have noticed that this discussion has so far been presupposing one specific kind of outcome (effective self-defence skill) and conflating that with another (‘being a fighter’, either in the sense of fighting ‘on the street’ or doing competitive combat sports well). There is often a lot of conceptual drift and conflation in these waters. Despite its obviousness and familiarity, the range of meanings of ‘martial arts’ is not set in stone, and connotations frequently leach and bleed into each other. Certainly, not everyone enters a training hall or club for reasons of ‘self-defence’, ‘competition’ or ‘fighting’. People may not even know their reasons. They may have more or less than one ‘reason’. There may be multiple vague attractions. It may just be ‘something to do’, perhaps to avoid something else. If there are reasons, these may oscillate between different possible outcomes, or merge and mutate. Reasons may change over time, emerging, receding, moving into and out of existence.
Scott Park Phillips offers an excellent overview of many of the most common reasons why people send their children to martial arts classes:
The most common reason people give for putting their children in martial arts classes is so that they will learn how to act with moral self-discipline. The list of qualities that the average parent wants their kid to learn in martial arts classes includes leadership, protecting the weak, legal and moral self-defense, overcoming challenges, persistence in the face of adversity, seeing the big picture, self-discipline, self-improvement, self-motivation, cooperation, teamwork, body confidence and awareness, love of exercise, learning from failures, and the ability to concentrate and focus. This is a lot of expectations to have! Why, if the main purpose of martial arts was fighting, would this ever have come about? The answer is simple: martial arts were always about more than fighting. (Phillips, 2016, p. 29)
As he notes at the end of this list of common assumptions, this is a hell of a lot of reasons to train – or, more specifically, a hell of a lot of hopes and expectations (to project) about the outcomes of sending kids to martial arts classes. And, as his final claim makes clear, this is because the term ‘martial arts’ is in many contemporary ways a misnomer: martial arts are not about learning how to win a literal war – they are always about other things.
Does this mean that the term ‘martial arts’ today often functions as a kind of marketing tool to ‘sell’ exercise and self-development to children? There could certainly be some truth in this. After all, it can sometimes be easier to persuade children to see a value in something by making cool-sounding associations: big tough gorillas eat fruit; sharks eat fish and/or eating fish will make you clever; meat will give you big muscles; water is lion’s drink; karate will make you tough; and so on. There is certainly some value in exploring this kind of intentional or accidental ‘misrecognition’ of one’s own activities and investments. Lacan theorised ‘misrecognition’ as inevitable and fundamental to the formation of identity and the workings of the symbolic order; later thinkers incorporated this idea into various theories of ideology (Althusser and Brewster, 1971; Jacques Lacan, 2001; Silverman, 1983). Indeed, in a provocative study, Phillips argues that martial arts – Chinese martial arts in particular – have for an extremely long time been misrecognised as principally or primarily martial when they are in fact, he argues, at root the modern descendants or residues of ancient Chinese theatrical traditions (Phillips, 2016).
Phillips’s overall argument about ‘possible origins’ may be controversial, but his reflections on martial arts always being about more and other than fighting are helpful. Sixt Wetzler has proposed that the most common range of reasons for attending martial arts classes include ‘preparation for violent conflict’, ‘play’, ‘competition’, ‘performance’, ‘transcendent goals’, and ‘health care’ (Wetzler, 2015: 26). To this we might add the parental or vicariously projected categories set out by Phillips; and then the categories applicable to children made to take martial arts classes. These would include ‘having been sent to classes as a child by parents’ or ‘having been made to do it at school and it just becoming “something that I do”’ to the whole range of ex post facto rationalisations that could be invented and sincerely believed at any moment.
The point is that, as well as the good reasons and good categories proposed by Wetzler, one should also remember the often less than good reasons and often less than good categories that also organise the ‘decision’ (or obligation, or automatism) to ‘do’ martial arts. Reasons given for martial art training can either be ex post facto rationalisations with no bearing on whatever true story there might be, or they may arise long into a period of training. In other words, one problem with Wetzler’s proposed categories is that they are individualistic, rationalistic and ‘Cartesian’ – as if we are all Descartes and we wake up one day and say ‘I think [I am interested in transcendent goals and healthcare] therefore I am [going to go to practice kung fu, not krav maga]’. But the world does not work like that. Often, reasons are imposed, or generated, or simulated.
A friend once told me about something that would often happen in the kung fu class she attended. The instructor (or sifu) would at points sit the whole class down and proceed to give them a lecture on the philosophy that underpinned the art. At the time she told me, I was horrified to hear about such a practice in a martial arts lesson. She said she found it very frustrating and boring. We both agreed that one does not take martial arts classes for lectures, and that martial arts philosophy lectures did not really strike us as being an appropriate or valid part of martial arts classes as such.
Of course, the idea that at least some martial arts ‘are philosophical’ is widespread. Certainly, I am not saying that ‘philosophy’ is not present in martial arts, or in martial arts classes. Nor is it to say that martial arts – or indeed martial art classes – cannot or should not be philosophized. But all of these are very different things. To say that something ‘is’ philosophical begs the question of what the hell we even think we mean by that. Are we saying we can philosophize it – or about it? Or are we saying that it is itself an example of a philosophical thing? These are very different propositions. We might philosophize (about) anything, maybe everything. But is that the same as saying that everything is philosophical?
What does philosophy even mean? Jacques Derrida spent a lot of time pondering matters such as this. He even held that the question of what is inside and what is outside philosophy is the core problem of philosophy itself. Inevitably, lots of philosophers (and non-philosophers) disagreed with him. Indeed, despite any evidence to the contrary, many philosophers still refuse to recognise Derrida as a philosopher.
Interestingly, as with ‘martial arts’, the question of what philosophy is and what it is to do philosophy does not seem to have a necessary or ineluctable answer either. People do different things and call it philosophy, and disagree with what other people do under the title philosophy. This is the same as what happens in and around martial arts. At best, ‘philosophy’ (or ‘martial arts’) is one term for many possible activities. But the form and content, start and end, and inside and outside of activities that may or may not be called martial arts is interminably and incessantly up for disagreement and dispute. Some see judo as a martial art; others insist that it is really ‘only’ a sport. Some see tai chi as a martial art; others argue that it is at best a kind of calisthenics, maybe even closer to a religion than combat.
In and around the academic world, there are long running battles to define ‘martial arts’. As mentioned, some have built up lists of criteria to be met before they will accept that this or that activity could be dignified with the term martial art. Others have argued quite persuasively (and often using the criteria that the self-appointed gatekeepers of propriety have themselves proposed) that activities as unexpected as Star Wars inspired Light Sabre Combat, and indeed even certain forms of computer gaming, are clearly, by any metrics, martial arts (Goto-Jones, 2016; Judkins, 2016).
But, with no unequivocal definition or delimitation of martial arts, not to mention no agreement on pedagogy, motivations, outcomes or philosophy, where do we go? The obvious place to go in such a situation is the university. Universities are normally regarded as the places where disagreements and the attempt to find answers are welcomed and housed. However, one question has long recurred: Can martial arts ever be taken seriously and studied in the university as a legitimate subject, field or object of attention?
Constructing Martial Arts Studies
Whether martial arts can become a serious object of academic attention has long been a familiar question, especially to people whose interests straddle the worlds of martial arts and academia. Undoubtedly, for many who asked, it was widely assumed that the answer would always be no: no, martial arts cannot, could not, will not and would not be taken seriously within the university. And yet, research into this question actually returns a different answer. Digging deeper reveals that studies of martial arts have long appeared in all kinds of academic contexts and publications. Indeed, studies of martial arts can and do take place in all kinds of academic fields. Studies of martial arts have long appeared in fields as diverse as anthropology, cultural studies, film studies, law, management, philosophy, psychology, sociology, sports science, history, medicine, and more.
Nonetheless, the question of whether martial arts can become a serious field of academic study in its own right is a very different matter to this (Bowman, 2015). The question of establishing a field is a very different thing to choosing a case study within a pre-existing field. It is eminently easy to imagine academic studies of just about anything: farting, fidgeting, nose picking, nail biting – you name it – could all be objects of study in any number of disciplines. Such studies could appear in almost any field, from anthropology to psychology to film to philosophy to history and beyond. However, it is quite another matter to propose that such a topic could or should mutate from being a specific object of study within a discipline, and morph into a disciplinary field in its own right.
Is there a call for fart studies, fidgetology, rhinopraxicology, or suchlike? There need to be pressing reasons for the development of a discrete new field – reasons based on answering some kind of demand, filling a lack, redressing some kind of inadequacy or limitation. The answering of a demand or responding to a lack has led the emergence of many ‘suffix-studies’ subjects in recent decades: cultural studies, media studies, gender studies, Afro-American and other ethnic identity studies, film studies, sports studies, management studies, postcolonial studies, and so on. The rationale for the development of a new subject always involves answering a need or a demand, by redressing a perceived lack or limitation in the present configuration of the disciplines. Researchers may find that a specific topic that they find important has inadequate space to develop within current disciplinary spaces, or that current approaches to it are inadequate or even stifling. Or a topic may simply be entirely absent, unrepresented, overlooked; and the development of ways to study it may well not fit into any established disciplinary space.
All of the above-mentioned ‘suffix-studies’ subjects emerged in recent decades to fill a perceived gap. The driving forces for their development came from both the inside and the outside of the university. Such fields endure, and research proliferates under their umbrellas, for as long as and to the extent that they adequately accommodate the direction of research questions. Taught courses in universities and colleges continue for as long as students turn up to take them and as long as they are deemed legitimate by the powers that be.
So, to what extent is there a demand or a need for an enduring field of martial arts studies? Can it really be something tangible and enduring? Is work that is currently being done under this title actually doing something unique, new or different, or are we really only ever dealing with discrete studies of martial arts organised by established disciplinary concerns? On the one hand, it is certain that there will always be studies of martial arts that can be straightforwardly positioned as fitting comfortably into established academic fields. There will be straightforward ‘case studies’ of martial arts that are written in film studies, literary studies, anthropology, psychology, area studies, history, sports studies, and so on. But, on the other hand, there are questions whose exploration entails breaking out of and moving beyond conventional disciplinary parameters.
This kind of work can be difficult, particularly for scholars working in isolation. In the academic world, it is always safer and easier to stick to the established questions, methods, points of reference and protocols of discussion within a pre-established disciplinary field than to explore things differently, to explore different things, or to explore different things differently. Fortunately, many academics and scholars from many disciplines are now being drawn together under the umbrella or banner of ‘martial arts studies’, attending specific conferences and publishing in newly emergent journals and book series. The immediate effect of this is that people researching questions in and around martial arts are coming to feel less isolated and more able to locate or express their interests in terms of an emerging discourse.
The importance of developing a collectivity cannot be overstated. It is absolutely vital for researchers. On the one hand, it produces not just affiliations and supportive conversations, but also informed disagreement and focused criticisms, even rifts, all of which stimulate both circumspect and precise questions, argumentation, analysis and methods. On the other hand, it must be remembered that, in the university, if you cannot demonstrate what your research contributes to, then you cannot easily justify your activities. And if you cannot justify your activities, then you will sooner or later encounter innumerable pressures to change them. There are certainly no funding opportunities available for projects that cannot relate their point, purpose and value to existing discourses.
So, the establishment of a discourse is essential to the production of meaningful work. As the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan put it, the first signifier (the ‘unary signifier’) is always essentially meaningless or unintelligible. It is only when there is more than one – when there are binaries, iterations, reiterations, responses, differences, positions, and ultimately constellations – that meanings and values can start to be formed. Without a discourse, individual utterances will be taken to be nothing other than odd, eccentric, isolated, unintelligible, and therefore meaningless or irrelevant follies. A context of reception needs to be established.
Fortunately, in recent years, researchers have been attracted to martial arts studies conferences and to publish in and read self-consciously martial arts studies publications. This cross-disciplinary attraction to martial arts studies events and publications has enabled many kinds of discussions and interactions to take place across disciplinary divides, where before they would have been unlikely. Inevitably, this cross-fertilization has begun to produce thought and work that exceeds the confines of any one discipline. The net result is that different work is happening, completely new discussions are underway, organised by new questions, in new debates, generating all kinds of new knowledge.
In this sense, martial arts studies is the term for an interdisciplinary research nexus. A shared interest in the organising terms – all that is conjured up by the term ‘martial arts’ – is what holds the field together. I was about to say that a shared interest in martial arts is the ‘glue’ that binds it together, but I don’t think that this is correct. We may not even agree on what the term designates or evokes. We may not agree on an approach to the object or field. Yet ‘martial arts’ provide the magnetism that draws researchers together. People are attracted to the field, because of a shared interest in what is perceived to be a shared object. Whether people stay within the field or not depends on whether they are stimulated by what they find in it (Bowman and Judkins, 2017).
This is why martial arts studies has to be a circumspect, open, interested and interesting field of serious research, one that responds and speaks to a range of academic and cultural concerns, rather than being organised by too much certainty (Bowman and Judkins, 2017). As Stuart Hall once argued, ‘certainty stimulates orthodoxy’ (Hall et al., 1996, p. 44), which is anathema to genuine thinking. I have argued elsewhere that too much certainty is surely one of the key reasons why so many earlier attempts to generate an academic field for the study of martial arts failed (Bowman and Judkins, 2017).
In the end, the specific kind of certainty that scuppered earlier attempts to establish what we are today calling martial arts studies boiled down to certainty about what ‘martial arts’ is (or are). This is why I have always insisted on remaining open to what people think and feel and say ‘martial arts’ may mean. Hence, the academic study of martial arts should be open to the possibility of examining whatever people refer to as martial arts. However, at the same time as being entirely open to this, I am considerably less hospitable to most efforts to produce ‘academic’ definitions of martial arts. I do not mind the use of short-hand characterisations of the things we might be referring to when we say ‘martial arts’; and I do not mind the production of frameworks for grouping or distinguishing between practices. But I am resistant to any supposedly academic work that proposes a definition of martial arts and then only looks at things that fall into that definition. At best, this produces self-inflicted myopia, where one only sees what one wants to see. At worst, it produces the invention of theoretical worlds that bear no relation to reality. I often encounter a feeling of suspicion in the face of many kinds of academic categories for precisely this reason: I tend to suspect that certain categories and frameworks neither reflect the world nor help us to gain insight into it, but rather invent a theoretical world. Certainly, the best academic categories, schemas, frameworks, and so on, can produce extremely useful ways of conceptualising and grasping reality. But bad categories can actually stop us from seeing reality.
This is why I have so often argued against definition (Bowman, 2017a, 2017b, 2017c). For, first, definition itself often seems more disabling than enabling, at least when it comes to my concerns about the places and functions of martial arts in culture. (Moreover, I often suspect that the drive to define reveals a drive to control, by policing things into categories and hierarchies, which the definer often seems to want to control.) Second, definition often seems ‘logically’ self-defeating. After all, if you already claim to know in advance what ‘martial arts’ are, then why would you need to study them academically? If you have already decided what they are, then you have already implicitly decided how to study them. So, the production of knowledge about them will always be the production of the ‘same-old, same-old’. This is why Donn Draeger’s ‘hoplology’ project failed. It already claimed to know, in advance, what it was studying. This is why sociobiological and social Darwinist approaches strike me as fairly feeble too. If everything must be as it is for evolutionary advantage, then that can only mean that we can all pack up early and go home – as if everything’s been solved and resolved!
No. Quite other than this, martial arts studies does not need a definition of martial arts, nor indeed a strong attachment to a specific orientation of study. In fact, fixation on either of these points will curtail it. Martial arts studies needs to be responsive to the actual practices, discourses, institutions, agents and agencies that operate under the term or using the category ‘martial arts’. What we will find under the term will take variable forms, depending on time, place and context. The social, cultural and even political status of each instance or (re)iteration of ‘martial arts’ will have multiple dimensions, and be fruitful for multiple types of enquiry.
The kinds of enquiry carried out by a sociologist will differ from that of a psychologist, semiotician or historian. Each form of inquiry produces specific genres and orientations of insight. Indeed, because of this, once again we might say that the kind of object constructed by various different genres of disciplinary attention produces yet another construct, also called ‘martial arts’. Different academic discourses produce a different ‘disciplinary object’ (Bowman, 2007, 2015; Mowitt, 1992), even if they each have the same name. Even ‘the same’ martial art becomes something quite different when it is put under the lens of the psychologist to when it is put under the lens of the philosopher or that of the historian or that of the ethnologist, and so on. Each different discourse, each different manifestation, is a result of different combinations of elements, different emphases, different inclusions and exclusions. Am I talking about ‘martial arts’ now, or the academic study of martial arts? Well, precisely! Does this make me a ‘relativist’? Absolutely not: context is always everything – universally. Everything is relative, always. But one thing stays the same: for the martial arts practitioner and for the martial arts researcher, martial arts are an ‘object of knowledge’, not an ‘object of consumption’ (Spatz, 2015). They are not used up in one moment of consumption, the way a matchstick is finished and worthless a few seconds after it has been struck. Rather, they are infinitely and infinitesimally expansive; ever unfolding; ever familiar yet ever mysterious and enigmatic (Mroz, 2017). There is always more to work out, always more to be gained, whether in the form of moving into new fields and unexplored terrain, or whether in the form of unearthing the ‘internal foreign territories’ of the supposedly familiar, by deconstructing what is supposedly ‘well known’. As Hegel put it, and as I have felt compelled to repeat on multiple occasions: ‘What is “familiarly known” is not properly known, just for the reason that it is “familiar”…. [Familiarity itself] is the commonest form of self-deception’ (Bowman, 2010, pp. 45, 58; Hegel, 2005, p. 35).
About the Author
Paul Bowman is Professor of Cultural Studies at Cardiff University, UK. He is author of many books on issues in cultural studies and martial arts studies, most recently Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (2015) and Mythologies of Martial Arts (2017). BowmanP@cardiff.ac.uk
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