Lightsabers Go Legit
What follows is a meditation on recent events. It is not every day that you sit down, open your phone, and find Trevor Noah performing a Daily Show bit about people you know. It is even odder when you first spoke with these individuals as part of an ongoing Martial Arts Studies project. With that, here is Noah’s hot take on the quickly evolving world of Lightsaber Combat as well as his theoretical argument on the socially constructed nature of all sports. Check it out!
The appearance of this skit on my phone closed out what had been a hectic two days. On February 10th Cédric Giroux, the leader of a French organization named the Académie de Sabre Laser, hosted a national lightsaber tournament in Beaumont-sur-Oise, near Paris. In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that Giroux is a knight within the Terra Prime Light Armory (TPLA) system, which is the same group that my ethnographic research with the LSC community has focused on. That fieldwork focuses on the North American branch of the movement. Sadly, I have never been able to visit the French lightsaber scene in person.
At some point I will probably have to make a trip to Paris to correct that. While there is a tendency to think of Star Wars as a quintessentially American story (basically a Western/Samurai mashup set in space), the franchise is very popular in Europe. And Lightsaber Combat is probably even more popular on the other side of the pond than it is here. Ludosport, one of the major lightsaber groups, hails from Italy, and Paris is also home to the Sport Saber League, another large and successful organization. It is my entirely unscientific guess that Lightsaber Combat is probably more popular in France than anywhere in the world. That fact immediately opens up all sorts of fascinating questions for students of both cultural and martial arts studies.
Given this density of practice, it is not surprising that a large tournament would be staged near Paris, nor that it would attract the attention of the global press. Though I must admit that many of us were taken back by the sheer volume of stories that this meet generated. The first international report of the event that I ran across was actually a Chinese language CCTV story which included a short quote from an official with the French Fencing Federation (FFE) that seemed to indicate that lightsabers might even be making some sort of appearance at the Paris Olympic Games. I will be returning to his remarks below. But given the ongoing sensitivities over Wushu’s Olympic fate, it is not entirely surprising that CCTV would have picked up the story.
I was more surprised when my friends started emailing me links to an ESPN story on the tournament a week later. That turned into shock when I started to see coverage in Time, Newsweek and local newspapers here in Central NY. These stories were quickly followed up with a second wave of reports less focused on the tournament itself, and more interested in the FFE’s pronouncement that it was accepting Lightsaber Combat as an “official discipline” within its tournament and training structure. In essence it was placing the LED powered lightsaber in the same category as foil, epee and sabre events. As one headline after another proclaimed, Lightsaber Combat was now a “real sport,” at least if you live in France.
Many people within the general public, and even other sections of the lightsaber community, were surprised by this. But what exactly does it mean to declare an activity that is already being done all over the world to be suddenly “real?” Luckily Trevor Noah was ready to step in and explain how, when you get right down to it, everything is an invented tradition. Who would have guessed that he was a Critical Theorist?
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This is all very exciting if you have spent a big chunk of the last few years publishing papers and assembling hundreds of pages of fieldnotes on your experiences with various lightsaber groups. If you want to get a head start on that material, pick up a copy of the Martial Arts Studies Reader and take a look at my recently published chapter. Still, the events of the last week raise a few questions for students of Martial Arts Studies. Why now? What does this suggest about the global nature of the Lightsaber Combat community? Will the embrace between this branch of lightsaber competition and the FFE be a good thing? Lastly, why did this piece of ostensibly great news cause an almost immediate undercurrent of tension and negative feelings within the lightsaber community itself?
Before delving into that I should say a few words about the social structure of all of this. Many traditional Asian martial artists approach their craft as generalists. There may be a traditional “self-defense” core to an art that is married to both a competitive skillset (making appearances in the local Taekwondo tournament possible) and performance-based activities (exhibitions at the rec center, or Lion Dancing during the Lunar New Year). Lightsaber groups, in contrast, tend to be more specialized up front, though individual students still engage in a wide range of activities. The first wave of groups (such as NY Jedi) tended to focus on choregraphed performance. Others, including the Sport Saber League, Saber Legion and Ludosport, have attempted to position themselves primarily as competitive leagues who seek to promote a specific vision of competitive lightsaber fencing. Finally, there are organizations like the TPLA that approach the Lightsaber as a culturally non-specific tool for exploring, teaching and experimenting with various sword arts, and doing so with some sci-fi fun. These groups tend to be organized as “schools” and most closely approximate the structures of traditional martial arts. They have also been the main focus of my research.
Yet this structural division wasn’t always as evident. The rapid expansion of the lightsaber community has opened a space for the growth of increasingly specialized groups. As I have argued elsewhere, not every student is looking for the same experience (indeed, open-ended play is an important characteristic of this movement setting it apart from the more traditional martial arts), and not every group is equally interested in fulfilling each social role. The following discussion focuses on the part of community that is primarily interested in approaching all of this as a competitive combat sport. Indeed, this process of specialization will probably sound familiar to students of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA), which also seems to be pulled in a number of directions at the current moment.
The First Puzzle
Let’s begin with the question of timing. In point of fact, this was not the first such tournament staged in Paris. Indeed, it wasn’t even Académie de Sabre Laser’s first national tournament. That had occurred the year before. Nor, with 30+ fighters in attendance, was it the largest such gathering to date. I believe that the standard starting bracket for Ludosport’s annual international tournament in Italy is 64 fighters. So why did this specific event “go viral” while other large tournaments get a spot in the local news and are quickly forgotten?
Two (related) variables set it apart. The first was the seemingly lucky break of generating an AP newswire story that which was quickly picked up by a couple of major media outlets. Indeed, a close reading of the recent press coverage will reveal that almost all of the articles are variants of a single English language report which was circulated about a week after the tournament. Apparently, the AP press package also included video footage of the fighters, a few interviews and some dramatic photos. It was everything one needs for an engaging community interest story.
Paul Bowman has discussed, at length, the various reasons why we cannot treat mediatized discussions of the martial arts as secondary adjuncts to their “real” practice. Most of us formed our initial impressions of the martial arts almost entirely through their media representations long before we ever set foot in a training hall. The notion of wandering into a temple on some mountain top in Asia only to discover, for the first time, the fighting arts is a myth. More specifically, it’s a myth that we learned from mediatized fantasies about the “search for authenticity” in the Asian martial arts.
There seems to be a tendency to shy away from facts such as these when dealing with the traditional Asian martial arts. After all, these are practices that many individuals would like to see as an alternative to the modern “information ecosystem” that structures our lives. The last thing that we want to admit is that they are simply a continuation of it, or that our notions of what makes something “authentic” may require further introspection. Yet you simply cannot avoid talking about all sorts of media (everything from film to videogames and now even the news) when it comes to the Lightsaber.
It was the “hyper-reality” (as the term was used by Umberto Eco) of both the weapon and practice that first attracted me to this research area. All of the actual techniques used in most lightsaber combat training systems come from the historic martial arts. There just aren’t that many effective ways to swing a blade or stick. And yet they have been consciously reordered and organized around an entirely fictional narrative history. All of this is then applied to a fictional weapon that probably could never exist in real world (physicists seemed to be mixed on that as a theoretical question, but engineers are clear that no one is building one any time soon). To say that lightsaber combat is a “hyper-real martial art” is to acknowledge, without equivocation, that it owes its existence to the spread of mediatized images. It is also a testament to the power that these images have to order social behavior.
Unfortunately, we still don’t know much about how such images effect the development of either a technical practice or the community that supports it. At the most basic level, are these effects felt as a slow continual pressure, shaping the evolution of a martial art in the same way geological forces shape a landscape? Or is mediatized pressure felt as a sharp, almost stochastic, process which functions by facilitating moments of abrupt disruption?
Lightsaber combat has lot to suggest on this point. Without a doubt the lightsaber has been the globe’s single most fetishized weapon since Luke Skywalker first ignited his father’s blade back in the halcyon days of the 1970s. The demand for these weapons was immediately evident as young adults across the country took up broomsticks and immediately started to make whooshing sounds. But, for reasons that I have already explored in another article, an actual supply of lightsabers and instructional material did not rise to meet this demand until the first decade of the 2000s. Thus the effects of the media on social behavior need to be understood as part of a more complex social process.
Media coverage itself is stochastic (and somewhat unpredictable) in nature. Some films and tournaments generate more news coverage than others. Predicting how any set of stories will be received in advance is difficult. And even when some phenomenon gets sustained press coverage most, stories never manage to “break through” the barrage of information that we all face daily.
This is why it is critical to consider the other variables that media coverage of the martial arts might interact with. The recent batch of lightsaber articles suggests one factor that is often ignored by North American scholars. Given the laissez faire nature of our economic markets, we tend to assume that the martial arts (and indeed, all sports) are as unregulated throughout the rest of the world as they are here. This is not the case. In many other countries amateur and national sport federations have a much closer relationship with the state. In fact, martial arts have often been adopted and regulated by states to advance very specific social and political goals. It is often impossible to understand the type of social work that a martial art does, or why its effects (or even its popularity) vary from one state to the next, without taking a close look at how its regulated in the local marketplace.
France presents us with a case study of the different ways in which states might intervene and regulate the athletic sector. This is a topic that I am still seeking to learn more about, so please excuse any errors in my description. But in essence, the French government uses a licensing mechanism to determine who can receive payment for athletic coaching or instructional services. All sports are required to be organized through national federation which then oversee the training and oversight of sanctioned instructors. Additionally, it seems that even local amateur clubs may receive funding for certain purposes from their respective federations and the government. Rather than a free market system, the state actually supports (certain) athletic actives and attempts to guarantee a minimal level of competence among paid instructors or coaches. Individuals who are not so licensed may still run a club, but I don’t think that they can receive money for doing so.
It is thus significant to note that while there are multiple large lightsaber combat organizations operating in France today, only the Académie de Sabre Laser is an officially sanctioned part of the FFE. A few years ago it went through a public process of reviewing a number of programs before settling on Cédric Giroux’s. When it did, to the best of my understanding, these other groups were effectively locked out of the economic market for providing instruction in lightsaber combat in exchange for payment. While lots of other groups still exist, the nature of the French system essentially made a single organization a monopoly player, and then placed that monopoly within the pre-existing structure of a national oversight body (the French Fencing Federation).
All of this regulation is enough to give a neo-classically trained American economist (such as myself) hives. Still, when we seek to understand how a martial arts group (or any sports organization) functions in France, it is not enough to simply study its students or the way it teaches. Nor even the way that it is represented within the media. All of these factors need to be considered in reference to the existence of an interventionist regulatory state. And as we have already seen in this previous discussion of the literature on “established churches,” that is likely to impact the ways that martial arts organizations develop and behave.
This explains our confluence of factors. It wasn’t just that there was a TV news crew at a lightsaber tournament. Rather, there was both a tournament and a statement from an official confirming a change in the social status of Lightsaber Combat in France, and hence its relationship with both society and the state. Lightsaber Combat may be something that people in France have been doing (in surprising numbers) for a while. But it only becomes a sanctioned sport when the powers that be declare it so.
Why So Serious?
All of which brings us to our next observation. This announcement only applies to events in France and, in any case, I think that the Académie de Sabre Laser has had their relationship with the FFE locked down for more than a year. If you follow this community closely it wasn’t really a surprise. Yet most of the press coverage seems to have been in English (with a few pieces in Chinese), and those reports did attach a type of discursive significance to the pronouncement that had little to do with France. It is quite a cultural accomplishment to pry someone like Trevor Noah away from his never-ending task of satirizing the current US government so that he can talk about a new martial art.
Yet when reading various social media discussions within the lightsaber community, I got the sense that this story was generating as much anxiety as elation. As I noted before, this was not the first large-scale national tournament. It wasn’t even the first time that ESPN had reported (largely favorably) on lightsaber combat. Readers may recall that they ran some nice pieces in August 2018 when reporting on the Saber Legion tournament in Las Vegas. Rather than coming together as a community everyone seemed to pull back into their trenches and attempt to remind the world (or at least anyone reading their social media comments) that in fact this was “old news,” they had been there first, and one could find something just as good closer to home.
There was an almost studied disinterest in the actual content of what had happened in Paris. Rather than examining the performances of the winners or commenting on the tournament’s ruleset [after writing this the Lightspeed Saber League put out a very nice video doing just that], most conversations turned inward or to recruitment. What might have been a major moment of celebration for the community instead highlighted its increasingly fractured nature.
One might be tempted to dismiss this all as the sorts of “politics” that you see within any martial arts movement. And I am sure that this is precisely the way that these discussions are experienced at the local level. Still, I wonder if this reaction also suggests the existence of some larger subterranean fears. This is a relatively new movement and even the largest and most successful groups are still tiny in comparison to most sports, or even martial arts. A huge media blast is certainly capable of rocking all boats in such a small pond.
We must also consider the way that official (state backed) actions in one market can create externalities that ripple throughout the global system. Within the section of the Lightsaber Combat community attempting to establish competitive leagues, many of the big debates of the moment revolve around rulesets and “standard setting.” There seems to be a feeling that “we” would all be better off with a single universally accepted competitive framework. But obviously whoever controls that ruleset (and organization) will reap most of the economic and social benefits from the expansion of Lightsaber Combat. Again, this is a very familiar story and its why all actors, from technology firms to state governments, fight pitch battles over creation of seemingly boring technical systems. When an actor like the FFE makes a declaration like such as this, they are effectively putting their thumb on the scales. And when the international governing body of fencing responds by noting that they are carefully studying the success of the French model, the stakes of the game rise considerably.
Externalities are defined as unintended consequences of decisions to produce or consume goods which are not priced into an initial market transaction. I doubt that the FFE thinks, or cares, very much about what Lightsaber Combat students are doing in Singapore or the United States. Its concerns are purely national. And yet those groups are feeling both positive and negative ripples from their recent actions.
As students of Martial Arts history, we know that not all of side-effects of government regulatory policies are actually unintended. South Korea made a conscious decision to back the international growth of Taekwondo in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s (something that had a huge impact on the global martial arts marketplace) precisely because it was looking to develop a global soft power resource. China is interested in promoting Wushu as an Olympic sport for several reasons, some of which are purely domestic. But a success in this realm might also reshape aspects of the global marketplace in hand combat instruction, providing them with a potent tool for public diplomacy. It is not a fluke that we so often see government involvement in these areas. In a globally connected, highly mediatized, world, regulatory efforts in one country have a habit of spilling across national borders. As such, we can never ignore the role of the state and government regulation when attempting to understand the evolution or function of martial practice.
Conclusion: Losing by Winning?
Still, it is exciting see a relatively new practice receive this degree of attention and validation. On balance I think the recent press coverage has been good for the Lightsaber Combat community. While it may dredge up some “political” anxieties in certain corners, the larger problem facing any martial arts movement is just getting the message out that you exist and boosting the flow of new members necessary to make any organization or school functional. I suspect that this burst of coverage will actually prove to be a tide that will lift all ships.
Still, I wonder how all of this will play out in France in the long run. While its specific regulatory environment is quite different from the United States’, some of the trends we are seeing throughout the world of “action sports” are almost universal. The older sport federations that have traditionally overseen the sorts of events that end up in the Olympics (gymnastics, track and field, cycling, fencing, etc…) are feeling the heat as media consumption patterns change and fewer consumers follow these sports. The mechanism differs from one country to the next, but that almost always translates to less revenue for training, competition and institutional maintenance. At the same time, and for similar reasons, many of these organizations are seeing fewer young athletes come through the doors of their training centers.
One of the universal responses to this trend, seen at both the international and national level, has been to “recruit” newer action sports which generate enthusiasm among the sorts of youthful consumers that television advertisers are seeking to reach. Long story short, this is how previously fringe sports like rock climbing or skateboarding end up in Olympic venues. Yet to really understand the long-term implications of this, it is essential to think about the sorts of bureaucratic bodies that regulate all of this. Gratefully, a number of sport sociologists and historians already research these topics, so the process is fairly well understood.
By in large, action sports have not really had an opportunity to develop strong regulatory bodies, at either the national or Olympic levels. There are multiple reasons for this. In some cases, individual athletes may not be all that interested in the idea of Olympic competition. Young people might invest themselves in a sport like skateboarding precisely because they are not interested in a formal, rule bound, athletic culture. But in other cases, where action sport specific federations do exist, older regulatory bodies have repeatedly staged “hostile takeovers” of new sports in an attempt to promote them as competitive events at the international level.
Perhaps the most famous (and acrimonious) example of pattern was the folding of snowboarding into preexisting Olympic skiing structure. But scholars such as David Goldblatt (and more recently Damien Puddle) have argued that such moves almost always serve the financial interest of the older sport federations while exploiting the newer pursuits. As Goldblatt put it in a recent article “the argument is always that the elite layer somehow nurtures, encourages, and develops broader grassroots [for the action sports]. And it’s not true. it’s just not true.”
Puddle’s work, which documents the tensions between the Parkour community and the gymnastics bodies that are currently seeking to absorb it, would seem to provide a particularly sharp cautionary tale. Essentially it all gets down to the “principal agent dilemma.” The legacy sports are suffering in popularity precisely because their media images, goals and norms are not aligned with the those espoused by the younger, more creative, action sport enthusiasts. After gaining administrative control of these activities, there is no reason to believe that these federations will nobly act against their own financial interests, hastening the demise of their core constituents.
I do not know the specific details of the arrangements that have been reached between the French lightsaber community and the FFE. Hopefully we will learn more about them in the coming weeks. But the two most obvious risks would be that the FFE would seek to reduce the Lightsaber Combat community to a means of recruiting children into otherwise flagging fencing programs. The other danger is that they would not invest sufficiently in promoting a new series of national tournaments (or including LED sabers in existing tournaments), thus restricting the future growth of the sport.
Still, I think that there are a few reasons to be hopeful in this case. One of the persistent issues highlighted in Goldbatt and Puddle work on the hostile takeover of action sports is the question of culture clashes. When a new sport has a very different history or culture from an old-line federation, there are bound to be problems. Again, it is not clear that most skateboarders or parkour athletes took up the pursuit because they wanted to be part of an “Olympic sport,” with everything that goes along with that.
Yet Lightsaber Combat does have some important commonalities with the fencing world. A fair number of its competitive athletes have actually practiced or coached Olympic style fencing at some point and are already comfortable in that world. Additionally, there are only so many things to do with a blade. Fencing is an almost inherently adversarial, and hence competitive, activity.
It is also interesting to note that many of the big players in this arena have been quite vocal about their Olympic aspirations from almost the start of their organizations. As a more traditional martial artist that is something that I have always found puzzling. Ludosport, in particular, makes a habit of referring to the spirit of Olympic competition in its promotional material. As such, something like the FFE might end up being a much better fit for the lightsaber community than various gymnastic bodies have been for Parkour.
As always, the devil will be in the details. As a hyper-real martial art, Lightsaber Combat was born out of mediatized representation of bladed combat. Its future growth rests in large part on the continued popularity and accessibility of these images. But we cannot neglect the role of the regulatory state or sport bureaucracies in making these communications meaningful and accessible at the local level. While those sorts of actors rarely make an appearance of discussions of the martial arts in North America, their influence in places like France is much greater. Nor, in an era of global externalities, can their actions be ignored by those seeking to create a new, universal, combat sport.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Explaining “Openness” and “Closure” in Kung Fu, Lightsaber Combat and Modern Martial Arts