An Essential Book
This is a time of year to sit back and reflect on our achievements and struggles. I suspect that within the broader historical record 2018 will be remembered for its calamities. Yet it has been a remarkable year for Martial Arts Studies. And that is where my trouble begins. It is one thing to make lists of important events or news stories. It is quite another to name the most significant achievements within a quickly growing academic field.
In the past Kung Fu Tea’s New Year’s post has honored either the best blog or scholarly book on the martial arts. Given the avalanche of new publications, one suspects that this would be a good year to once again focus our attention on the best books. And I have read quite a few excellent works. I am even tempted to simply give the honor to Lauren Miller Griffith and Jonathan Marion’s Apprentice Pilgrimages: Developing Expertise Through Travel and Training (Lexington, 2018) as it provided a great ethnographic examination of the role of travel in martial arts practice. On a more personal note, it was also a fascinating explanation of why I seem to spend so much time in airports even though I am not particularly fond of flying.
Unfortunately, there are still several books that I have not read, and some that I am really looking forward to. I will try do better on that front in 2019 but, as it stands now, naming a “best book” seems a bit presumptuous. Still, there was one publication that deserves special consideration. I can, without hesitation, name The Martial Arts Studies Reader (Cardiff UP) 2018’s most “essential” book. If you only read a single new book within the field, it should be this one.
Even that more limited pronouncement may raise suspicion. Edited collections have never commanded the same prestige as single-authored monographs. They tend to tell the reader a great deal about where a field is at, but they typically do not to advance the high-stakes theoretical arguments that can actually shape a research area going forward. Some might accuse me of choosing an edited volume, which includes excellent chapters by many of my friends and colleagues, so that I would not have to go out on a limb and favor just one. And they would be absolutely correct! At least partially.
Fields are advanced when top scholars put out the sorts of books that tenure committees love. But they also progress when a community of readers takes a long and reflective look at where we stand now. What type of work are we producing in our field? How did we even become a research field? What set of needs or desires is Martial Arts Studies fulfilling within both the academy and the larger social discussion of these fighting systems? And, most importantly, how do we ensure that a desire for this sort of work continues to grow in the future?
The Martial Arts Studies Reader can claim two great accomplishments. The first is that it provides a comprehensive collection of brief articles ideal for class room use. As Bowman and Morris observe in their concluding dialog, the desire for some activity (even the scholarly study of the martial arts) does not necessarily exist in some platonic state prior to anyone actually doing it. Rather, we typically only develop a desire for something once we have been exposed to it, seen other people do it, and been asked to take part in it ourselves. In fact, the story of Martial Arts Studies, as a field, is very much the story of how an ever-wider circle of readers and scholars have been drawn into a dialog with each other, catalyzed by a mutual attraction to these fighting systems.
Discussions of the state of our field often focus on theoretical discourses, conferences or important publications. Yet the desire for any sort of academic discussion is typically born and nurtured in the classroom. It was in the lecture hall that most of us chose our disciplines and research fields. And it will likely be in the class room that a new generation of undergraduates will be exposed to Martial Arts Studies and decide to pursue their own research on these topics in graduate school. The creation of resources that can spark a desire for more scholarly investigations of the martial arts is in no way secondary, or “supplemental,” to the development of the field. It is something that we should all strive to do.
Yet for readers who have already found a home within Martial Arts Studies, Paul Bowman’s edited volume does something else. Through a broad survey that touches on many critical trends in the field, he asks us to consider what sort of field MAS has become? What sort of academic and social work is it doing? Do we like the current direction? Indeed, his collection holds a remarkably clear and incisive mirror to the field’s face.
Each of these questions is important enough that it deserves an in-depth response of its own. Yet rather than writing several separate posts, I think that a turn to the comparative method may begin to address these issues. As important as this reader is, it is not the first edited volume on the academic study of the martial arts. There have been quite a few important collections on this subject over the decades, probably due to the lack of journal outlets for research of the martial arts between the 1980s and 2000s. One might even say that the desire for a larger, more independent, field of martial arts studies was born out of edited volumes which, by choice or necessity, brought together scholars from many disciplines, as well as independent researchers that who often approached these questions without any disciplinary commitments at all.
If we really wish to understand the significance of the Martial Arts Studies Reader, and what it suggests about the current state of the field, we need to place it side by side with these other collections and subject them all to a focused comparison. In the interests of time I will restrict my own investigation to three other volumes. While hardly comprehensive, I have selected these works as I suspect that anyone who will buy the Martial Arts Studies Readerlikely owns them as well, suggesting that a meaningful exercise in comparative reading really is possible.
The Comparative Context
There is one critical, yet paradoxically unaddressed, question which haunts the modern field of Martial Arts Studies. At what point, and in what ways, has this exercise diverged from the older approaches to Hoplology, pioneered by William Burton, Donn F. Draeger and others? Why has this effort (so far) succeeded when so many others failed to launch?
I am aware of a few researchers who refuse to admit that such a split has taken place and simply use the terms ‘Hoplology’ and ‘Martial Arts Studies’ interchangeably. Yet if I had to note one specific instance that signaled the rise of something fresh and new it would be Green and Svinth’s 2003 edited collection, Martial Arts in the Modern World (Praeger). Released a few years after Wile’s pioneering work on Taijiquan (SUNY, 1996) and Hurst’s efforts on the Armed Martial Arts of Japan (Yale UP, 1998), this collection signaled to readers both the vitality of these early efforts and the ability of scholarly discussions of the martial arts to move beyond traditional disciplinary and geographic boundaries. Anthropological discussions were most meaningful when they were placed next to historical studies of events on a different continent, or sociological investigations of community formation.
It is somewhat telling that this volume was dedicated to “John F. Gilbey, who inadvertently showed us the way.” Of course, Gilbey was the literary creation of Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith, the early pioneers of Hoplology. Frustrated by the seemingly endless gullibility (or perhaps orientalist longing) of North American readers who could not distinguish reliable truths from fantasy, these early researchers decided to get in on the act by publishing pseudo-biographical accounts of a fictional martial arts adventurer that read like an early draft for “the most interesting man in the world” advertisements mashed up with the spy-cartoon Archer. Exactly what “direction” Gilbey showed anyone is left open to speculation, but he certainly fanned the same flames of cultural desire which had given him birth.
Yet what interests me the most about this collection is what does not appear within it. A single pseudonymous dedication is the closest that Smith and Draeger come to substantive inclusion in this volume. Smith’s unfortunate publication on the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing gets a mention by Stanley Henning, who otherwise enjoyed his work with the caveats that one had to consider the “limitations” that the author was working under at the time. Neither Smith nor Draeger are even listed in the index. Nor does their highly empirical vision of hoplology, one based on the recovery, recording and comparison of technique, appear at all in the historically and socially focused volume curated by Green and Svinth. The authors included in this collection came from both academic backgrounds and the more practical worlds of martial arts practice. Yet while acknowledging a debt of gratitude to Hoplology (or more precisely, it’s fantastic doppelganger), already by 2003 the desires of these authors was moving in a substantially different direction.
“Desire” may be the critical term when thinking about this volume’s place in evolution of our current field. It spoke to, and fanned the flames of, a certain type of desire for community and communication. And yet with the possible exception of a few articles this was not the desire for a new “interdisciplinary disciplinary academic field.” Not exactly. This was a book that appears to have been produced more for “the love of the game” than any sort of professional obligation. Only a couple of these authors had even came out of traditional university departments. In no way do I seek to impugn the quality of the work that was produced by pointing that out. Scholarly investigations of the martial arts was clearly something that people desired, but it still remained secondary to disciplinary concerns, or the more serious business of actual practice. Much like the afore mentioned Gilby, current readers might view this volume as a promise that pointed the way.
The situation seems to have been quite different in 2011 when Farrer and Whalen-Bridge published Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge: Asian Traditions in a Transnational World (SUNY Press). It is striking to consider how differently scholarly studies of the martial arts are socially positioned within their volume. The introduction begins with the editors laying out the case for the existence of a new approach to Martial Arts Studies. They explicitly address the contributions of Burton and Draeger (as well as modern students of Hoplology) before arguing that if progress is to be made in this new field we must de-centralize “how-to” studies in favor of “a more theoretically informed strategy grounded in serious contemporary scholarship that questions the practice of martial arts in their social, cultural, aesthetic, ideological, and transnational embodiment.” (p. 8) If one were to look for a simple constitution outlining the intellectual mandate and responsibilities of Martial Arts Studies, this paragraph would be an critical place to start.
Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledge remains among the better organized collections within the field of martial arts studies. The move towards a sustained engagement with academic theory meant that there was much less room for those without extensive scholarly training and a continual engagement with these discourses. As one reads through the list of contributors to this volume (all of whom were professional academics) one can only note that the professionalism that Draeger had hoped to achieve had finally arrived but, ironically, shut the door on Hoplology’s hopes of ever being the primary vehicle for the academic study of the martial arts.
Professionalization also brings with it the possibility of increasingly fruitful specialization. This was reflected in the scope of Farrer and Whallen-Bridges collection. Arranged in three sections the article sought to address “Embodied [and media] Fantasy,” ways in which the “Social Body Trains” and finally “Transnational Self-Construction.” Each topic was approached from a variety of perspectives yielding one of the first truly interdisciplinary conversations within Martial Arts Studies. And all of these categories of investigating have remained central to martial arts studies today.
Garcia and Spencer’s 2013 Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports (Anthem Press),demonstrated progress in different ways. Rather than broadly surveying the sorts of work that could be done within an interdisciplinary field, it chose a single conceptual framework, the notions of habitus and carnal sociology as developed by Wacquant in his groundbreaking Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer. By design this was a narrower collection, but it was one that demonstrated that Martial Arts Studies was capable of engaging with (and in turn being engaged by) some of the most seminal thinkers of the day.
Where as Farrer and Whalen-Bridge had emphasized the professionalization of the field, Garcia and Spencer’s promoted the work of many younger and up and coming scholars. This choice illustrated the explosion of interest that had taken place in the decade since Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume, and foreshadowed the publishing boom that we see now.
Within our survey this volume is unique in its focus on a single conceptual framework and debate. In that way it helped to establish the discourse on habitus and embodiment that has come to dominate much of the Martial Arts Studies literature. Yet I have always felt that it also (often inadvertently) demonstrated the limits of this approach. That was a point that Bowman would explicitly return to in the concluding discussion of the Martial Arts Studies Reader. Fields are constructed just as much by debates over key concepts as agreements. Even the ability to identify weaknesses in certain contributions marks an important point of progress.
All of which returns us to Bowman’s own effort. The Martial Arts Studies Readeris, in many ways, a natural culmination of what has come before. It is the fully realized fruit of the desire for community signaled by Martial Arts in the Modern World. Like Martial Arts as Embodied Knowledgeit is a fully professionalized volume, and one that explicitly seeks a broad engagement with critical trends in recent scholarship. Yet it also shows increasing sophistication in that its contributors seek not just to borrow from the disciplines, but to either contribute to their critical debates, or to move beyond them all together. All of this is organized and curated in a collection ideally suited for survey courses on the growing field of Martial Arts Studies.
Comparing this work against the collections which have come before also allows us to ask some critical questions about the direction that martial arts studies is headed. To address one of Bowman’s earlier questions, this collection suggests that a research field emerges when a group of authors decide that it is more desirable to ask question of, and address their work to, scholars who write on the same subject from different disciplinary perspectives, as opposed to their colleagues in their own departments. This is always a difficult move as it requires energy and creativity. Nor do our interdisciplinary interlocuters sit on our tenure, promotion or hiring committees. Still, at some point either theoretical necessity or the search for intellectual community may inspire such a move. Thus, a research field exists first and foremost as a social fact. It is created when a certain density of communication is achieved, and it exists for as long as that is seen as desirable.
If we were to view the health of the field through this sort of lens, what does the Martial Arts Studies Readersuggest? As I reviewed the various chapters and read footnotes it became apparent to me that we are united not just through the magnetism of the martial arts, but by a general agreement upon (or at least a mutual interest in) certain approaches to them. The essays in this volume are marked with an interest in identity, desire, media, community, communication and interpretation. What is shared between any set of chapters is often a reliance on a shared set of theorists who have addressed one or more of these topics, and thus provided a common conceptual or methodological lens.
What remains much less common is direct engagement, debate, or even creative borrowing between martial arts studies scholars. Bowman wonders in his concluding remarks if perhaps people give lip service to the importance of media-discourses and the like in their analysis before reverting back to their entrenched disciplinary habits. It is an interesting point, but it may well be worth extending that question to include the entire social construct that is “Martial Arts Studies.” To what degree are we reallygetting the most out of the contributions of our fellow scholars? Have we reached a point where we can build off of debates (or discoveries) that have already happened in the field? Or is a core of shared concepts and methods being used to power a wide range of forever idiosyncratic research questions?
Put another way, if Martial Arts Studies is an independent research area, can we agree on what sorts of questions are important, or even how we might discover important questions in the field? How do we see this reflected in the sorts of communications that authors have with each other?
These are difficult questions to answer. I chose this collection as 2018’s essential volume as it represents perhaps the best image of the current state of the field that we are likely to get. Yet an image can never be mistaken for the original thing. Simple editorial choices can skew the way that conversations appear. Broad field surveys (such as this) are less likely to encourage meaningful dialogue between pieces than much more focused volumes (such as the one produced by Garcia and Spencer) precisely because we have asked scholars to show us the breadth of what might be done.
Then there is the issue of the medium. Most scholarly monographs have a “theory chapter” which encourages both the author and the reader to explicitly consider the ways that a new work builds upon, is indebted to, and challenges its predecessors. Journal articles might get a few paragraphs to do the same thing.
The even tighter word-limits found in edited volumes require authors to get to their point even more quickly. That can certainly obscure much of the background that goes into any research project. In my own contribution to this volume I had to drop an extended engagement with the work of Meaghan Morris who had also addressed Victor Turner’s notion of liminoid symbols and transformation in the modern world. Yet regardless of their limitations, field surveys always present us with an opportunity to assess where we personally have failed to engage with the literature, and what we might stand to gain by doing so.
So long as we are contemplating absences (always a tricky task as an infinite number of things could be said to be missing from any work), I would like to close this post with a final thought on Hoplology. If Green and Svinth’s 2003 volume marked a definitive turning away from the “how-to” salvage expeditions of an earlier era, and a move towards a vision of Martial Arts Studies that put their social and cultural functions first, where do we stand today? Reading through this latest volume I think it is safe to say that the mandate that Farrer and Whalen-Bridge outlined in 2011 has now been fully realized. Indeed, the older works of Draeger and Smith seem to have left no trace on this volume. While Bowman acknowledges that things like Martial Arts Studies have existed in different forms in the past, he provides no hint of what they might have been, or why they might have failed.
Still, my personal feeling is that many of the strongest chapters in this volume are those that are the most steeped in the empirical record. I am drawn to instances where authors went out into the world and actually wrestled with the technical “how-to” questions because that was often where new puzzles, unimagined by prior theoretical debates, emerged. The modern incarnation of Martial Arts Studies never seems to have time to discuss the details of what was actually done, and how it was actually learned. Yet that is precisely the soil that many of the most interesting discussions emerge from.
So I am left to close this essay where I started it. What is the relationship between Martial Arts Studies and Hoplology? As a truly academic field, the later no longer exists. Yet on a deeper level, what is our personal debt to the “how-to” question? Is there theoretical value in the seemingly simple act of documenting a system of practice? If the best minds of the modern Martial Arts Studies era were to recreate Hoplology, what would it be?
Martial Arts Studies can only grow as fast it replicates a desire for communication between its students. A greater degree of engagement with the existing literature is always desirable. But its growth is also linked to our ability to identify powerful and paradoxical questions that reflect the reality of our lived experience. A fully realized “New Hoplology” might not be necessary to generate these questions, as fascinating as that project might be. Yet placing as much emphasis on the quality and documentation of our empirical research as we do on our theoretical analysis probably is.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Striking Distance: Charles Russo Recounts the Rise of the Chinese Martial Arts in America