***The following is a guest post by Paul Bowman who recently had the good fortune to attend a fascinating set of meetings at Trier University organized by Dr. Eric Burkart and Dr. Eva Bishoff.  From the sounds of thing some important papers were given previewing debates (particularly with regard to the concept of “embodied knowledge”) that we can expect to hear much more of in the coming year.  Once again, I am always impressed by what happens when we bring talented scholars together from a number of different fields to discuss the martial arts.  I can’t wait to see the conference volume for this one.***



Fighting – Knowledge – Bodies. Historical Perspectives on Fighting Practices was an international conference hosted by Trier University from 11th to 13th September 2019. It was organised by PD Dr. Eva Bischoff and Dr. Eric Burkart, and it was a truly exceptional event. From the theoretical formulation of its theme and its organising problematic to its invited speakers to the choice of local cuisine served at mealtimes, the conference could not have been better conceived, planned and executed.

I was lucky enough to be invited, not because I am a historian or because I have done a huge amount of research into historical fighting practices, but because one of the aims of the conference was to bring different disciplinary approaches into dialogue on matters of embodiment, embodied skill and cross-cultural knowledge (not merely across space and time, but also across disciplines) about fighting practices and fighting bodies.

In attempting a cross-disciplinary dialogue by inviting historians, literature scholars, anthropologists and cultural and media studies academics, the net result of the conference was the production of a huge quantity of excitement and a collaborative and collegial interest in continuing the discussions and debates that started during the days of the conference.

I have been moved to write this piece not in order to provide a comprehensive, balanced or impartial conference report, but to record some of the things that came to light during the conference that have not stopped buzzing around in my mind ever since. Nonetheless, I will endeavour to give a quick overview of the papers presented. But I will focus on the issues that most excited me.


Paul Bowman discussing the literature on self-defense in the UK.


In my own talk – which I was delighted to deliver in a castle (actually, technically a watchtower, but very castle-like in look and feel) – I gave a whistle-stop tour of self-defence books that have been published in the UK, and reflected on the main kinds of themes, patterns, continuities and changes that become apparent when these books are surveyed from a historical perspective. (I will not spend any time on my own arguments here, but the abstract can be found here and the Prezi that accompanied by presentation can be found here.)

The morning of the first full day of the conference was kicked off with Ben Spatz discussing ‘Making a Laboratory: Embodied Research and the Audiovisual Body’. Spatz works across the fields of theatre, drama and performance and is founder of the Journal of Embodied Research. His 2015 book, What a Body Can Do, has had a significant influence in the development and directions of research into and theorisations of embodied knowledge in and around martial arts studies. As conference co-organiser Eric Burkart said when introducing Spatz: until he read What a Body Can Do, he was still using ideas about embodiment drawn directly from Marcel Mauss (1872-1950) and using them as the main ways to structure and organise his own studies. But Spatz’s work offered a paradigm revolution that changed all of that.

This is not the place to try to unpack the complexity and nuances of Spatz’s own current thinking on matters of embodiment, embodied knowledge, skill transmission, performance and documentation – as he told me at the conference, we will have to wait for his two soon-forthcoming books to see how his work has evolved since 2015. Suffice it to say that his presentation was steeped in the problems of how to create a lab and/or organise, capture and document embodied practices.

I cannot do justice to his project in the space of a brief overview of an entire conference, so I will limit myself to mentioning one experimental exercise that Spatz had everyone in the room participate in. We were put into groups of three. On a rotating basis, one person was the performer, another the director, and the third was tasked with filming the performance. The performer was instructed to enact fighting ‘as it lives in you’. The director was not allowed to give future-oriented directions, but was instructed merely to observe and comment on the present. The film-maker/documenter was instructed to film whatever they found most interesting. Afterwards, the performer was asked to look at the three-minute video of their own performance, select ten seconds of it, edit it down to those ten seconds, give it a title, and reflect on why they had selected this section.

There was not time to fully complete this exercise – normally Spatz spends days at a time working with groups on such projects. But it immediately became clear that the approach would enable – indeed obligate – a very complex reflection on the process of performing, capturing, constructing, selecting, documenting and reading such an artefact. All of which has implications in terms of our relationships to and interpretations of all manner of historical documents and ways of attempting to capture bodily performances.

After the break, Mario Staller, who is professor of psychology at FHöV North Rhine-Westphalia, presented on ‘The Emergence and Transmission of Fighting Knowledge’ from ‘An Ecological Dynamics Perspective’. As someone who works in the training of police officers for conflict situations, it is always fascinating to hear about Staller’s ongoing studies, which are front-line and cutting edge in many respects.

In this presentation, Staller presented analysis of different modes of police training. The classic pedagogical approach of ‘demonstration, repetition, correction’ was shown to be limited in many ways – not least because, as Staller’s analysis demonstrated, in police training, sometimes up to 80% of the training time was taken up by demonstration – with instructors mainly showing and discussing techniques.

In addition, Staller contrasted programmatic and prescriptive modes of teaching (‘if this happens, therefore to that’) with more dynamic approaches (‘if you perceive a threat, solve the problem in any way that occurs to you’). Needless to say, analysis suggests that the former approach proves less successful than the latter, especially when it comes to retention and replication after time-lags away from training. The implications of this are significant, suggesting for instance that techniques-based approaches to combat training (‘if x happens, do y’) are inferior to macro-perspectival or principle-based approaches (which principally involve learning how to read and react to situations of general, imminent or actual threat).

Of course, rejecting the ‘demonstration, repetition, correction’ approach to training tout court would amount to ‘throwing the baby out with the bathwater’. What seems required on a pragmatic basis are more effective ways of combining these two different kinds of pedagogical approach. But one implication seems to be that the role of psychological dynamics is intimately connected with the notion of ‘embodied knowledge’ or ‘skill’.


Two of my favorite people enjoying a drink after the session.


Next, Eric Burkart proposed that one potentially fruitful materialist paradigm for understanding ‘Bodies, Artefacts [and] Embodied Knowledge’ throughout history, might be found in assemblage theory.

Assemblage theory ultimately derives from the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze but has been undergoing a renaissance recently in the work of scholars who are attempting to apply the theory to actual historical epochs, conjunctures and contexts.

Personally, I was quite hospitable to the idea that assemblage theory could be used in the analysis of historical contexts. However, Greg Downey took issue with the suggestion, and did so on two counts. First, he suggested, assemblage theory can lead people to think that everything is fluid and that anything can become part of an assemblage with anything else. Second, he took issue with the idea of embodied knowledge and/or embodied skill as a way of formulating what happens when we train for combat or indeed for anything else.

The basis of this latter criticism would become clear during his own presentation the next day. But as for his first objection – the objection to Deleuzean philosophical approaches to material history – I would say that I both agree and disagree. For firstly, yes, I have witnessed the flattening, simplification and squelching out of historical or sociological complexity in the act of slapping a supposedly complex philosophical lens onto scholarly vision. It is all too easy to speak of rhizomes, assemblages, de- and reterritorializations, and so on, whilst at the same time ignoring or remaining actively blind to the often stubbornly gnarly, gritty and muddy complexity of real situations. Often a complex philosophy can work as a comfort blanket.

But at the same time, I seriously doubt that Burkart himself, as a medieval historian, is likely to fall into such a trap. Rather, for Burkart, the challenge is to find a vocabulary and an analytical framework which can capture and express what happens when, for example, a new technological innovation comes along and modifies a state of affairs.

In relation to my own preoccupations, I had noted in passing the day before that when one looks at self-defence books that were published before the mid-1980s, there is next to no mention of psychological issues such as fear, for example. However, through the following decade, psychological considerations begin to make their presence felt in such publications. So, the question is, where was ‘fear’ and indeed psychology as a whole in self-defence discourse prior to this time? Was it simply not mentioned? Was it not actually present? Did the discourse have blind spots? Or did psychology itself change? These are complex questions, the solving of which will require detailed research and analysis. And to enable this to happen, I would propose that regarding ‘fear’, say, or ‘psychology’ as a once-absent part of the self-defence (publication) assemblage is as good a potential way as any to grasp a historical and conceptual problem with tweezers and move it under the analytical microscope.

Eva Bischoff switched registers in her presentation, with ‘Of Grasshoppers and Other Men: Masculinity, Race, and Mimicry in 1970s Representations of Martial Arts’. Being a scholar who cut my martial arts studies teeth on analyses of the 1970s films of Bruce Lee, this presentation was a delight to sit through. But, by the same token, it proved very difficult to contain myself when it came to the post-presentation discussion. Suffice it to say that, despite the enormous distance between our media-culture world today and that of the nascent martial arts boom of the early 1970s, and perhaps because everyone thinks they already know everything about the film and TV texts of this era, I still think we have not finished with David Carradine’s character Caine or the full implications and consequences of the TV series Kung Fu. I proposed there and then that we should definitely have another conference that focused solely on that text.

After such amicable and hugely stimulating exchanges, the afternoon was given over to the single best guided tour of a city I have ever had. This was given by Simon Karstens, an expert in Early Modern History at Trier University. The Roman and medieval history of this city is breath-taking. Everyone should visit this city and Simon should sell an audio guide to the city. He could easily make a small fortune out of his intimate and fascinating knowledge of Trier.

The tour took us over a 1,700 year old Roman bridge over the Mosel and led us directly to the venue of the conference dinner – after which the wiser members of the group retired to the hotel, while the rest of us went to a fascinating heavy metal bar with the grammatically intriguing name of “Lucky’s Luke” and alternated between Charlie Marx beer and Das Bier Aus Trier. This continued until quite late, whereupon several of us got rather lost on the very simple and direct route back to the hotel. I tend to think that we would not have got lost had it not been for the whisky-based interventions of an otherwise respectable Swiss academic.

Doubtless, the extra-long walk did us good. In any case, it was easy to snap to full attention the next morning’s presentations, which began with Greg Downey’s ‘The Evolutionary Implications of How We Fight’. In this engrossing presentation, Downey, an anthropologist from Macquarie University in Sydney who is perhaps best known in martial arts studies circles for Learning Capoeira, explored a number of statistical curiosities related to the UFC and other MMA competitions in order to reflect on evolution and fighting.

His overarching discussion derived from statistics around the outcome of mixed martial arts competitions. Over time, he noted, these competitions have become harder to win decisively. As he showed in his analysis of the different results – from knockout, to technical knockout, submission and on to decision – the more that athletes have trained in and for full-contact MMA, the less likely it is that these extensively, intensively and professionally-trained athletes will be able to knock each other out. Submissions, he noted, are commonplace, but the most common submissions (as exemplified by the rear naked choke) are essentially indicators of exhaustion – of one competitor giving up.

For Downey, the implications of all of this should change the way that we talk about the field of embodiment. For him, training and practice in any activity, habit or discipline is not essentially a matter of knowledge. It is a matter of physically changing the body. Put simply, UFC fighters are not harder to knockout today than they ever were because they now ‘know’ how to avoid a knockout. Rather, knockouts are statistically less likely because UFC fighters have changed their bodies in very specific ways, ways that make them harder to knockout even in the face of attacks that are objectively more efficient than ever before.

Downey’s was a wide-ranging presentation that took issue with a number of different evolutionary anthropological theories, and which on my reading was quite reasonable and plausible. The take-home point for me was that research into embodiment, embodied skill, etc., should not be led by the nose by the formulation ‘embodied knowledge’. My being able to take or dispense more or less of a beating, just like my ability to lift more or less weight or run longer or shorter distances must not be reduced to ‘knowledge’ – nor even to ‘skill’ or ‘technique’. It rather relates to (trained, entrained, practiced, or indeed ‘learned’) physical changes within my own body – short-term evolutions within periods of my own life.

Of course, again, as with Mario Staller’s paper, I think that care must be taken not to let the pendulum swing too far the other way. Embodied knowledge must not be jettisoned as a concept or organising problematic. After all, as Musashi said, one can only fight the way one has trained – which means the way one has learned through practice – even if the moment of full bodily absorption really involves a shift from the realm of knowledge to materially organic bodily change.

After this, Romana Kaske, from the field of German Language and Literature Studies at LMU Munich, switched registers and approaches to tackle ‘Fighting Bodies and Fighting Objects in Premodern Literature’. In another intriguing talk, Kaske tackled the tendency in the field of language and literary studies to exclude consideration of the actual physical objects dealt with in linguistic and literary study. Against this impulse, Kaske sought to return such scholars’ attention to the material, technical realm of the referents themselves, rather than just their signifiers and signifieds.



Going one step further, Sixt Wetzler, from the German Blade Museum in Solingen, passed around one of his own most prized possessions – his favourite sword. He did so to let us all feel what it is like to hold a sword, during his presentation ‘Reconsidering the Riddle of Steel: What Does a Sword Do?’

In a way that amplified and developed one argument that Kaske had touched upon, Wetzler drew attention to the moment of first seeing and wielding a sword. He discussed his experiences in the museum when school children first get to handle ancient swords, and his own feelings when working with different weapons – from those he knows to be purely ceremonial, for instance, to swords he knows to have been executioners’ weapons.

From this, Wetzler sought to make an argument about something universal to the sword across cultures – what he claims is the weapon’s universal recognisability and humans’ shared responses to swords.

Unsurprisingly, some of these claims were challenged by others present – not all cultures have metal, not all reactions are the same across time and across space, etc. Nonetheless, I was struck by the sense that Wetzler was very much onto something with his phenomenological hunch, hypothesis and argument. Certainly, I was reminded of Gaston Bachelard’s book, The Psychoanalysis of Fire, and I felt a strong urge to go back and reread such works, making sure to think about swords while reading about fire, ice, earth and air.

Unfortunately, shortly after Wetzler’s presentation, I had to head off to the airport. This meant that I missed the final presentation and concluding discussions. What I missed was Daniel Jaquet’s presentation, ‘Body of Steel: Fighting in Armour According to the Fight Books (15th-16th c.)’.

However, I suppose the disappointment of missing such an inevitably engaging presentation gave me a slight taste of the other side – the bitter taste of missing out on something special that many people who missed this conference may have felt. But hopefully we will not have to wait too long for the conference proceedings to be published – something we can all experience and benefit from in due course.