A BJJ match, 2009. Source: Wikimedia.



D. S. Farrer. 2019. “Brazilian jiu-jitsu is therapy: Shifting subjectivities on Guam.” ETNOGRAFIA E RICERCA QUALITATIVA (ERQ). No. 3. 407-428.



Donn F. Draeger’s made no secret of his love for the real “battlefield” martial arts, both in his various publications and many correspondences with friends. Maybe that shouldn’t be surprising given his background and experiences as a member of the US Marine Corps.  In practice his conceptualization of what constituted reality led to a fascination with medieval Japanese martial arts (those predating the Meiji and later Tokugawa periods) and an almost contemptuous dismissal of everything coming from China. Afterall, the Japanese had proved themselves on the battlefields of WWII, whereas Draeger found China’s performance lacking in many realms.

The great danger faced by students of martial arts studies is that our personal practice will present us with a mirror showing only what we most desperately want to see.  In it we may find reflected our own desires and life experience. The truth of the matter is that Japan’s ancient warriors didn’t need martial arts schools to become fearsome killers on the battlefield.  As Bennet, Hurst and others have shown, formal fencing schools only arose when warriors began to seize control of the polity from the hereditary nobility and needed to demonstrate their cultural refinement through the creation of social institutions mirroring the tea and poetry schools of their social betters. At the most basic level, Japanese martial arts have always been about something other than training battlefield techniques.  There are easier ways to do that.

It’s also important to note that their early fencing schools focused not on “sparring,” “MMA with swords” or any type of modern combat sport, the sorts of training modalities that we currently view as most “realistic.”  This was simply too dangerous in an era with solid wooden training weapons. Instead students worked to perfect two-person katas for hours on end.  This is almost the exact opposite of what we would think of as battlefield martial arts training today.

The way in which these kata were practiced was strongly shaped by cultural convention.  In most of these imaginary exchanges one player would enact the killing or maiming of their training partner.  By tradition the younger or more junior member of the training pair would practice the “winning” technique, whereas the senior student or instructor would play the role of the loser.  Such an arrangement is pregnant with symbolism.  While the up and coming warriors sharpened their skills, seeking to supplant those senior to them within society’s social and military structures, more experienced warriors spent hours every week psychologically preparing for their own violent deaths.

We risk missing the point by noting that no bladed exchange carried out in the chaos of a real battlefield will look exactly as it did in the training hall.  I suspect that many of the battles being fought there were more personal and psychological in nature.  Thinking psychoanalytically, battlefield veterans such as Draeger and his Japanese interlocutors, all survivors of a violent historical period, seemed to seek out martial art training not because anything in it realistically portrays the challenge of crossing a beach under heavy artillery fire.  Rather they found training these systems, and then passing them on to future generations, to be therapeutic. In that respect they were probably very much like their Bushi and Samurai predecessors.


A number of US Servicemen practicing BJJ while stationed overseas. Source: Wikimedia


Shifting Subjectivities on Guam

D. S. Farrer begins his recently published ethnographic treatment of a martial arts school in Guam by noting that “Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is therapy.” Printed on stickers and signs, this thought seems to have become something of a catch phrase in the community which gathered at the Spike 22 gym.  What was meant by the statement was less clear and constantly shifting.  Farrer noted that the phrase could be tossed out as a hypermasculine jab at supposedly weak individuals seeking psychological intervention for dealing with the very real stresses of life on an island dominated by police, military and para-military institutions.  At other times the phrase seems to have been taken up in earnest as instructors sought to help students rethink their relationships with exercise, diet, lifestyle as well as their internal attitudes.

BJJ students do not have a monopoly on the notion that the fighting arts can be therapeutic.  The phrase “Boxing is my Therapy” is so widespread that you can find it on dozens of T-shirts and bumper stickers. The same notion is also seen throughout the Asian martial arts in the West.  I cannot count the number of kung fu students I have known who have discussed their practice in therapeutic terms.  The medicalization of the Chinese martial arts has probably done much to encourage this since at least the 1920s.

As Paul Bowman, in his own treatment of martial arts and madness has observed, the relationship between martial arts training and therapy is now so widespread that even non-practitioners seem to assume that students are driven to take up these practices as a way of battling some unseen inner demon. Celebrity narratives, including those promoted by individuals like Robert Downey Jr. (who practices Wing Chun) and Anthony Bourdain (who studied BJJ) further reinforce this perception. Yet “common sense” has a strange way of eluding deeper study.

Farrer begins his article by laying out a number of basic questions.  How is it that therapy arises from the practice of techniques designed to injure or kill?  On the island of Guam, what is the specific malady that BJJ treats, and (on a related note) who most requires treatment? Third, how does Spike 22 function as a “catch-up institution” where individuals seek treatment.  Lastly, if we understand therapy as a change in lifestyles and dispositions, what exactly is being treated? Is it a body, mind, social group, or some other combination of these factors that remains undertheorized in the current anthropology literature?

This last question is perhaps the most important from the perspective of Martial Arts Studies as a field.  While most authors seek to apply existing theories to new cases, or perhaps develop new approaches to understanding the role of martial arts in society, Farrer’s interests have often been more fundamental in nature.  He is one of a handful of authors writing in the literature who has consistently pushed for new methodological, and conceptual, approaches.

The paradigm shift that this article proposes (though perhaps it also undersells) is a serious move away from “embodiment.” No concept has done more to shape the martial arts studies literature in the last five years.  Yet Farrer finds it unconvincing and ultimately a hindrance in understanding how BJJ might function as therapy in Guam.  In its place he turns to a Deleuzian model of mind and body. His extensive reading of Spinoza also seems to have influenced this article.

Nor can readers ignore the substantive impact of the French Ethnographer Jeanne Favret-Saada on this piece.  Her theoretical insights on how anti-witchcraft treatments might function as therapy in the French countryside are explicitly invoked throughout this article.  They provide the basic foundations of Farrer’s understanding of how the enactment of potentially violent, even deadly, acts in BJJ might function as therapy on a psychoanalytic level.

Still, readers may wonder whether Farrer had a deeper purpose in invoking her work.  Favret-Saada is perhaps best remembered in Anthropological circles today not so much for her ethnography (which was wonderful), but for her blistering attacks on the “Anglo-Saxon” model of participant-observation and symbolic anthropology that dominated much of the 1960s-1970s. Like Farrer her great interests, and frustrations, seem to have been methodological.

She found that it was only possible to gain access to world of magic and witchcraft* that existed in the rural villages of Western France during this time by abandoning the role of dispassionate observer and allowing oneself to be caught up in the swirl and strong emotion of local events, even at the risk of one’s academic project.  In her case this meant becoming an actual victim of witchcraft, coming to understand the importance of both emotions and words within this process, then apprenticing with an anti-witch specialist as part of her own treatment.  She freely admitted that much of what was most important in these experiences defied description and could not be written down in conventional fieldnotes. Her larger research methods largely collapsed the distinction between the observer and the subject at a time when this was rare.

While the field of Anthropology has moved on, Favret-Saada has been a critical figure in methodological discussions.  Readers may want to explore her work as it has obvious implications for how performance ethnography is currently conducted within martial arts studies.  We face many of the same issues when it comes to recording and theorizing types of understanding (or ‘subjectivities’) that defy easy verbalization. One area where I would have liked to see Farrer go farther, and be much more explicit, would be in an assessment for Favret-Saada’s methodological legacy and the lessons that current Martial Arts Studies researchers might learn.  Farrer’s perspectives on this would be especially useful given his seemingly positive relationship with Performance Ethnography as a method.  In contrast, Favret-Saada was explicitly critical of Victor Turner and his ethnographic methods.  This area of tension is one that others in the field might fruitfully explore.

Readers will need to bring a fair amount of their own background to get the most out of these methodological discussions as Farrer lays out his approach but does not belabor the point.  This a rather brief article that dedicates more time to ethnographic observation than theoretical debates.  As such, a wide range of readers will find something of interest here. While it makes important methodological points, at no time does it become bogged down in extended theoretical discussions.

While the phenomenon of “fighting as therapy” is widespread (across both geography and time), Farrer’s treatment of its appearance at the Spike 22 gym is deeply rooted in the particular challenges of its students, and how they are conditioned by the geo-political placement of Guam within the current global order.  Farrer begins by noting that the economy and island’s landmass are dominated by American military bases which have been expanding throughout the post-WWII period.  These structures have provided employment, but also physically displaced many of the Guam’s native inhabitants.  They have been further marginalized by the policies of American military officials attempting to recreate California or Hawaii in this distant location.

The problems faced by this community are not vastly different from those imposed on First Peoples or other colonized subjects around the globe.  They include poverty, substance abuse, chronic crime, obesity and other health problems.  Residents of Guam are US citizens and they enlist in the US military (or other security focused organizations) in high numbers.  Yet they cannot vote in national elections and are denied any form of meaningful political representation in Washington DC.  They lack the most basic and effective means of collectively addressing their problems.  Farrer’s paper might well be thought of as a study on the social functions of a shared martial culture within in a colonized space.

This background is necessary as it explains both the unique nature of Spike 22 and the Janus-faced therapy that BJJ provides its members.  Students at the school (where up to 36 individuals may roll in a busy class) seem to break down into two basic categories.  First there are individuals from various military services (and other aligned support staff) who make up much of the membership.  Given the popularity of BJJ in the armed services, and the number of service men and women on Guam, this is not surprising.  These individuals are overwhelmingly visitors from the mainland.

The population of local students seems to be more varied.  It is comprised of law enforcement officers, local employees of various prison and security services, returned veterans, and a large number of local thugs and petty criminals.  Ignoring the large military component, one of Farrer’s sources characterized Spike 22 as “basically…a place where the police come to roll with criminals.”  Indeed, both elements of local society appear to frequent the same club seeking to hone their craft.

The attraction to local law enforcement officers is more obvious.  Some have to train at least twice a week in a martial art as a condition of their employment.  Others are struggling to maintain a body mass index mandated by their employer.  One of the therapeutic aspects of BJJ that multiple sources noted was its ability to aid in weight loss and inspire individuals to develop a healthy attitude towards food and exercise.

Yet that is only one aspect of this training.  Farrer notes that the global spread of BJJ throughout law enforcement mirrors the increased militarization of these organizations in recent decades.  Guam is no exception to this trend. Rolling with criminals on the mats, subduing them in mock encounters, shifts the subjectivities of law enforcement officers, convincing them of their skill and the probability of their survival of similar encounters on the street.

One imagines that the lessons learned by the less militarized local residents are slightly different.  In the best-case analysis, they too may gain healthy habits and develop improved social networks.  And there is always the promise that BJJ can help a skilled but smaller opponent overcome a larger, less trained, adversary.  Yet when examined through the lens of colonization, one suspects that what many of these marginal local students will bodily experience is an almost unending stream of highly skilled and enthusiastic BJJ students who represent the very forces of militarized imperialism that are disrupting the local economy and society.  While rolling in a BJJ class they likely experience symbolic manifestations of the very real violence inherent in life on the edge of an American military outpost.

Or perhaps not.  Turning to the pioneering work of Jeanne Favret-Saada, we might note that an amorphous feeling of powerlessness (often the result of an inexplicable run of bad luck on the farm) is one of the major defining characteristics of a victim of witchcraft in Western France in the late 1960s.  Anti-witch specialists did not confine their work to ritual and magic.  Instead they sought to both diagnose a specific cause of misfortune and to lay out a path for the farmer in question whereby they could recover their position in society.  Very often this blame shifting involved putting this individual in touch with “dark side” forces and encouraging them to ruthlessly dispossess other family members or neighbors so that they could regain their economic footing and stature as a successful “producer.”  Farrer notes that an encounter with the dark forces of witchcraft was often instrumental in “rehabilitant” individuals such that they could succeed in a ruthless competitive capitalist environment.

Farrer has previously explored the capitalist and ideological underpinnings of the global spread of MMA, so it is not surprising to see him apply this same basic framework to BJJ training in Guam.  Rather than seeing the virtual murder/suicides of BJJ training as a paradox that the analyst must explain, they are now viewed as generating the emotional force that serves to put the student in touch with the “dark side” (Farrer’s term) and allows them to fundamentally reconfigure their personality for success in a badly disrupted and hyper-competitive environment.  More specifically, it allows indigenous islanders to adopt a new definition of the warrior ethos that is globally valid, while at the same time finding the tools to resist a local culture that is deeply cooperative in nature and not well suited to succeeding within a late capitalist global order.


Judo practice among the rifles at an agricultural college in a pervious, more militant, age. Source: Wikimedia.


The Two Faces of Therapy

Farrer goes on to discuss the detail of BJJ practice and how they relate to more specific psychological theories of therapy.  That was perhaps the least successful aspect of the paper for me. While I don’t doubt that his reading is correct, I cannot help but notice that everyone from British boxers to Japanese Samurai have found their training to be therapeutic.  These arts are characterized by very different types of physical culture and training methodologies.  Perhaps it is sufficient to say that therapy will exist where martial artists look for it.

The more important aspect of this paper was a turn to the work of Favret-Saada to better understand why individuals so often find it in hand combat training.  What was at first paradoxical is revealed to be essential.  While Farrer never makes this connection explicitly, readers are left to wonder whether recent attempts to distance martial arts training from the concept of violence within some aspects of the academic literature run the risk of blinding us not just to how these systems are popularly perceived, but to understanding why police officers, thugs and soldiers might find the ritual enactment of their own murders therapeutic.

Still, as students of Martial Arts Studies we must broaden our view beyond just the individual level of analysis.  Farrer explicitly seeks to tackle questions regarding the role of the martial arts in a social system defined by economic marginalization and social/political colonization.  Within such a framework one cannot help but notice that the CHamoru martial artists in his account have lost touch with their own warrior traditions and are finding solace in the training methodologies imported by the same soldier who have physically displaced their communities in the post-WWII period.

Training these communities in BJJ can be seen as yet another aspect of their transformation into well behaved colonial subjects who can now be more easily integrated into the security services (or criminal underground) that dominates economic life on the edges of a vast military apparatus.  Further, the embrace of the “dark side” noted by Farrer comes at a real cost.  While it may psychologically empower individuals to succeed economically, what is being described might also be understood as the weakening of cultural bonds holding local communities together.  This in turn will hamper efforts to organize to resist the expansion of military bases, or to promote programs preserving local languages and cultures.

Bruce Lee’s films spoke of a world in which the individual’s martial excellence inevitably led to victory over colonial forces.  He is one of the reasons why the traditional martial arts have come to be so closely associated with various resistance movements.  Yet Farrer suggests a far more problematic narrative where the shifting subjectivities that empower individual transformation may also weaken local society and become part of the process of colonization.

In broad strokes this should not be surprising. Economists have long spoken of the “collective action dilemma,” which in this case might suggests that actions which maximizes individual utility (the prime imperative in a cutthroat economic market) lead sub-optimal results for society as a whole.  Larger parts of the social sciences are explicitly dedicated to understanding how these sometime unexpected outcomes arise and ways to create policies that guard against them.  Yet the “negative externalities” in question is not always unexpected.  The Japanese promoted their martial arts in both Taiwan and Korea during the early 20th century precisely because they understood that these institutions (some of which could create pathways for employment in the security apparatus for local students) would degrade the ability of local communities to resist colonial rule.

I have noted in a number of posts over the last few months that the field of martial arts studies has been slow to theorize the potential negative consequences of our practices. Indeed, we have not done a sufficient job of theorizing the many different responses that individuals might have to the same basic training regime.  While certain similarities might apply, it would actually be rather strange to expect that the average upper middle class BJJ student in North America or Europe would suffer the same maladies, and thus have the same experience of “therapy,” as a petty criminal training at Spike 22 in Guam.

I doubt that everyone will agree with Farrer’s findings. We are, if nothing else, a very diverse field. Yet this article deserves to be widely read on at least two counts.  First, he attempts to outline a methodological alternative to the concept of embodiment which, while prominent, has shown its limitations in recent years.

Second, by drawing on the insights of Favret-Saada he makes a convincing argument that at least some martial arts organization might function as “catch-up institutions” capable of providing therapeutic value through their close contact with imagined violence and the darker aspects of human emotion.  This doesn’t just expand our understanding of the therapeutic value of physical training.  It also suggests a framework for understanding why, and under what structural conditions, practices which seem to have positive individual level outcomes might be socially disruptive.  This is critical as we search for theories that accommodate both the reality of Judo training in California in 2020 with the very different historical institutions that emerged in places like Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1920s.

Farrer ends his article by noting that the residents of Guam are currently bracing themselves for the arrival of 7,000 US Marines who are being transferred there from Okinawa.  He wonders what sort of island these service men and women are likely to find after noting their well-documented propensity for alcohol abuse, violence, rape and murder.  After all, many of the local residents have now been trained in very effective means of violence by some of the most hardened martial artists on the planet.  In a world of individual competition, it may be that some of these Marines will be surprised by what they discover when they venture off base.

Yet meditating on Farrer’s theory leads one to note that the tightly organized communities of Okinawa were ultimately successful in demanding the removal of these soldiers after years of lobbying. The culturally weakened and economically dependent communities in Guam were unable to resist their transfer even though they had the advantage of being formally US citizens and enjoying many ties within the American military establishment.  Perhaps the political and social implications of the transformation of Guam into “BJJ Island” are more complex than any of us suspected.


*It should be noted that the type of “anti-witch” traditions that Favret-Saada is discussing her ethnography of French family farms in the late 1960s and early 1970s is distinct from, and unrelated to, popular new religious movements such as Wicca or other types of Neo-Paganism.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Spirit Possession in the Southern Chinese Martial Arts