This post started life as a book review, but as I thought about what I actually wanted to say it quickly became a different sort of essay.  It was inspired by Janet O’Shea’s 2019 Oxford UP Press, Risk, Failure, Play: What Dance Reveals about Martial Arts Training. I picked this volume up for a variety of reasons.  Her interest in dangerous (or otherwise costly) forms of play is of great interest to me given my current ethnographic work with the Lightsaber Combat Community.  Play is by no means confined to the hyper-real martial arts.  There are also many types of play that happen in the Wing Chun classes I take, observe and teach.  But while traditional martial artists are often loath to admit that their beloved hobbies are (for the vast majority of us) a form of recreation, the very fact that one is holding a lightsaber forces everyone to acknowledge that they are putting a lot of hard work into an activity that will always be “just for fun.” Play becomes a key theoretical concept in such a study.

All of this was what inspired me to review O’Shea. But I think it was some of the other ideas in her work that derailed that effort.  At least in the short term.  Her discussions of risk, injury and “flow states” in martial arts training are all worth reading.  And it is always interesting to hear about another academic’s experiences with the martial arts.

Perhaps the most interesting notion to be developed in the first half of her book is oppositional civility.  This seems to be conceptualized as a learned element of social capital.  It is developed within the martial arts when we are forced to engage in a meaningful competitive exchange with a partner who is trying to beat us.  In some senses O’Shea’s discussion works better for combat sports than traditional martial arts, though I think with some imagination most readers could see how something like what she describes could develop in a variety of training modalities.

The very structure of a sparring match places two fighters in a position of fundamental confrontation.  They have a disagreement about who is going to win the match.  Yet neither of them can achieve their aims without the “cooperation” (or enthusiastic participation) of the other.  And even though most sparring and competition is “just for fun” (how many of us are really professional athletes?), the personal stakes in such a confrontation can be very high.

A punch is never just a punch, and a kick is never just a kick.  As we train we construct meaning around each of these techniques.  In some cases, it might derive from the satisfaction of landing a jab, or driving a side kick home (see Bowman for more on the somatic joys of kicking).  Or it might be more complex if I can successfully draw my opponent into a trap while fencing. If I think the technique is going to work I begin to tell myself how clever I am.  When that same draw leads my opponent to successfully parry and riposte, what I now feel is suddenly very different.  As O’Shea notes, play can be deadly serious.  Learning to manage feelings of failure and frustration are a critical aspect of any type of sparring (one that never really goes away so far as I can tell.) Martial artists differ from brawlers in that we don’t just care about the final outcome.  We define ourselves as a community in large part through the agreement that our punches have meaning.  This is precisely what allows a simple exchange to be so fundamentally meaningful and contested.

This nexus of personal investment, confrontation, danger and trust is what also allows the martial arts to emerge as a laboratory for the development of civil society.  This idea is not unique to O’Shea.  Pretty much every reformer or government official putting their weight behind the martial arts (or boxing, wrestling, and a huge variety of team sports) have believed that there is something about these games that produce better, more engaged, citizens.  That has been one of the main justifications for the social support of a wide variety of hand combat systems in so many different places.

And it all makes a certain amount of sense. Regardless of the style that you practice, your most valuable asset is always a set of really solid training partners. One must trust that these individuals will respect (indeed defend) your basic human integrity while at the same time vigorously contesting a dispute on the training floor.

None of this is automatic.  Relationships of trust must be built.  Students of social capital also remind us that the ability to trust is very much a learned skill.  Certain sorts of cooperative and reciprocal environments foster this, others can erode it.

This is where so many discussions of the martial arts (including O’Shea’s) become very interesting and inherently political. The contested and complex nature of martial games make them important analogs for other types of political and social confrontations.  Politics itself is an inherently confrontational exercise, yet it also a cooperative one that requires the participation of entire communities (and even states) to succeed. O’Shea believes that the ability to generate “oppositional civility” in the martial realm will give people vital skills necessary to improve the quality of our shared associational life in the other.

And so do I, up to a point.  It was my interest in the ability of voluntary communities to create social capital (helpful in softening the blows of globalization) that attracted my interest in martial arts communities in the first place.  Nevertheless, we can all think back through our decades of experience with flow drills and sparring and recall certain times in which this pedagogical pathway didn’t succeed.  I have seen students in many of schools fail to master the self-control necessary to progress in sparring.  Some of them actually got worse over time and were invited to discontinue training.

These extreme cases are rare, but they do cause one to wonder whether everyone is really learning the same lesson as they engage in confrontational play.  Written texts are fairly simple things.  They are physical artifacts inscribed in black and white.  And yet the meaning of even the most basic stories can be endlessly contested.  One suspects that the discursive value of being punched in the face, a much more subjective and fleeting experience, is even more radically open to interpretation.


Triva Pino (Left). The 2006 US Armed Forced Female Boxing Champion. Source: Wikimedia.


Not every martial artist who enters the octagon will walk away with the liberal and progressive values that O’Shea’s volume celebrates.  While training some individuals will engage with other ideas about gender identity (typically celebrating a specific type of invincible masculinity), and different social and cultural norms.  It is all well and good for theorists to write articles about how a specific sort of training should resist the formation of certain negative ideas or stereotypes, yet they often exist in these communities anyway.  It is not all that difficult to find White Nationalists, open sexism and a number of other harmful ideologies within some of the most popular martial arts sub-cultures.

Nor is this a new development.  The links that O’Shea draws between physical culture and the creation of better citizens should trouble us as it has appeared so many times before.  American, German, Chinese and Japanese government reformers all believed that promoting certain sorts of combat games and martial arts training (boxing, jujutsu, wushu, kendo) was the key to producing the ideal civil society during the 1930s. But they had vastly different ideas as to what a model citizen should look like, or the sorts of values that the martial arts could (or should) promote.  And despite the fact that, if we are being honest, English wrestling and Japanese jujutsu have more in common with each other than many individuals would like to admit, both governments turned out to be correct in the utilitarian reasoning.   Physically similar training programs, if framed differently, can promote very different national cultures.

This brings me to the heart of my complaint about this book, and so many other works in Martial Arts Studies.  Maybe its a frustration as it is also tendency that I can sometimes identify in my own writing.  O’Shea knows that the martial arts are not a panacea.  She is fully aware that many of the practices that she celebrates throughout her work have a “dark underbelly.”  It is a topic that is returned to at regular intervals throughout her book.

What is disturbing is that once they are revealed, none of these dark potentialities are really unpacked and examined with the same care that is given to the positive aspects of martial training that O’Shea wishes to explore.  For instance, she acknowledges the many instances of domestic abuse that have arisen within the combat sports world, but rather than attempting to quantify that, or investigate how common such violence is at the amateur or club level, she instead turns to extended discussions of how mixed sex sparring can make such instances less common and lead to greater respect between the genders.

This same pattern is repeated at least half a dozen times throughout the first half of the book.  A serious issue related to violence and the martial arts is brought up and acknowledged to exist.  All of this usually takes just a couple of sentences.  Then the dark underbelly is once again packed away and hidden behind pages of discussion of how, if viewed the right way, the martial arts might also be seen as a solution for the same problem that was just introduced.  Every time this pattern reemerged, I became a little more uncomfortable with what I was reading.

Understanding why probably requires some self-examination. These sorts of arguments set off alarm bells to me as a social scientist as they suggest that O’Shea’s theories are not coming from neutral positions.  An objective accounting for the situation would require a detailed investigation of both the negative and positive aspects of a situation.  It is not uncommon in life to find a practice that yields both positive and negative externalities.  Knowing which effect is larger requires careful empirical observation and study of a type that O’Shea does not undertake in this book.

In truth she has no reason to.  She is not a social scientist and doesn’t seem to be very interested in these sorts of questions.  Rather, she writes from the perspective of cultural studies which does not privilege objectivism and often engages in advocacy based scholarship.  Ergo my problem with sitting down to write a simple review of this book.  Good reviews evaluate the arguments which an author has put forward and say something about who in the community might be interested in a work.  Terrible reviews take an author to task for not having written some other sort of book instead.  Given the infinite number of books that any of us could write on any given topic, that seems like all too easy a charge to make, and something to be avoided.

Instead I would like to use this as an opportunity to identify a more general weakness that runs throughout much of the martial arts studies literature.  Overwhelmingly the individuals who write about the martial arts also practice them. We even write about the very styles and schools that we study.  This certainly gives authors a wealth of first-hand knowledge to draw from, and that context can be vitally important in sociological, historical or ethnographic papers.  I have even noted a certain degree of skepticism of individuals who write in this literature but do not practice.  Still, when you look at the fine ethnographic writing of someone like Sara Delamont, or the careful theorizing of Luke White, its clear that this suspicion is often unjustified.

Rather, we should be much more concerned about the bias or myopia that creeps into our own work when we insist on writing only what we know.  O’Shea’s work is marked throughout with the blush of first love.  She came to serious martial arts training later in her career and every chapter of her book is saturated with a feeling of obsession for her new found source of identity.  This is actually pretty common in the literature.  It is an artifact of individuals writing what they know.  Yet a laser like focus on our experience can also blind us to important social facts.  Most martial arts practitioners are not middle-aged university professors with tenure track jobs and that is probably an important point to bear in mind. Serious students of martial arts studies are a rather unique bunch and it is worth giving serious thought to how that effects our individuals perception of violence, risk, safety and the social value of these practices.

It is also worth considering how our social position effects the audience that we write to.  It is very difficult to know whether the spread of modern combat sports is ultimately a social good or ill if our authors have never attempted to measure the differential effects of their positive and negative externalities, or even attempted a full accounting of all of the ways that these practices have been implicated in real acts of interpersonal, communal and social violence.  Rather than doing that O’Shea’s fundamental goals seem to have focused more on the act of justification.  First, given the seemingly violent nature of combat sports, how can we as scholars justify studying these practices?  Isn’t the academy supposed to stand up to stuff like this, calling out the toxic masculinity and ring girls for what they are?  Second, how can I as a middle aged dance professor justify my personal participation in forms of recreation that many of my colleagues (both inside and outside the University) will find questionable.

Seen in this light, the rhetorical strategy adopted by this book begins to make a lot more sense.  The author is not attempting to know the totality of the martial experience so much as she is engaging in a sort of apologetics.  The volume is an attempt to open a space where a rational reader (probably another university professor or graduate student with no background in the martial arts) might come to believe that these things can constitute a proper subject of study or practice.  In short, I sometimes feel that the main service that this book offers to the field is an apology for the existence of martial arts studies itself.

We should all be grateful for that. Rarely are apologetic works so engaging or informative.  And as a relatively new field it seems likely that this book will land in the hands of several readers who have never heard about martial arts studies before.  Still, one wonders what sort of work would best serve to promote the acceptance our field. One that focuses mostly on the positive aspects of martial arts practice that we (as middle-aged university researchers) have personally experienced? Or should we instead provide a much more balanced reading of the good, the bad and the ugly which has emerged from these communities? I suspect that only the later will reveal why the lessons of “oppositional civility” are learned in some times and places but not others.  That is a question that I suspect all readers will find deeply engaging.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Theory and the Growth of Knowledge – Or Why You Probably Can’t Learn Kung Fu From Youtube