What follows is the first in a series of guest posts wrestling with the ongoing COVID-19 crisis and its impact on martial arts, martial artists and Martial Arts Studies. Given the dislocation and losses that have been suffered by so many, such a pairing might seem trivial. Obviously the loss of a martial arts class pales in comparison to the loss of life or employment. Nevertheless, this is a space that many of us inhabit. Increasingly we are forced to accept that the social impact of these events will be severe and long lasting. It is unavoidable that martial arts will be implicated in this. Some shifts may be positive in the long run, others will not.
As the fog of crisis clears we will be better able to wrestle with the implications of our “new normal.” But here and now it is perhaps most important to share our experiences, offer a sense of community and support to individuals who are isolated, and begin to articulate questions that will drive discussions within Martial Arts Studies for many years.
Paul Bowman has graciously agreed to open this series with one of his own essays. I hope to pull together some initial thoughts on the topic later this week. Other essays in the series will occur periodically as we seek to digest events that are paradoxically moving both too quickly, and too slow, for comfort. If you would like to contribute something to this series straddling the practitioner/scholarly divide, please feel free to reach out to me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Given the momentous upheavals that the martial arts community is facing, it is also important that each one of us thinks about the best strategies for documenting a period of disruption. Finally, I would like to thank both Adam Frank and Paul Bowman for inspiring a conversation which reminds us of the value and strength of our shared community.
Covid-19 Confessions and Martial Arts Studies
By Paul Bowman
My family have been in lockdown for just over two weeks. Now that everyone in the UK and many more people around the world are on lockdown, I find that there are lots more people asking me how we’re doing. I have been saying ‘we’re doing fine’, because in many ways we are. In many ways we are lucky. We live in a relatively quiet area, where population density is not a problem, so you can go out to the supermarket without rubbing shoulders with crowds of people. In our house, we have enough rooms for everyone to be able to find their own space. The children’s school is sending work each day, and keeping them to a timetable, so they are occupied until about 3pm. Unlike some other families, we have enough computers to go around, and decent Wi-Fi; so everyone can be working online at the same time. We have a big enough garden for me to do tai chi, something that has always kept me sane, or make the children kick and punch boxing mitts, to burn off some of their energy; and I have collected enough miscellaneous exercise equipment and diverse solo routines through my life – from stretching to strength to cardio to solo forms and weapons practice – to keep myself amused and exercised every day. And yet…
Am I doing fine? I’m finding it hard to concentrate, hard to stay motivated, hard to push forward on anything, hard to take seriously the idea that I am still supposed to be teaching university students, supervising BA and MA dissertations and PhDs, still on committees, still reviewing grant applications and book and journal manuscripts, still involved in the making of strategic decisions, still the editor of academic journals, still the organiser of conferences – conferences that I don’t want to admit may not happen. I can’t seem to get motivated to start work on anything that would take more than one session to complete; and things that I would normally finish in an hour are taking me all day, or longer. I’m putting things off, staring blankly at word documents, not able to engage with anything properly.
Even exercise, even martial arts. When I took the decision to pause BJJ shortly before the lockdown became official, I decided to work on some BJJ-specific kinds of stretching, movement and strength drills and routines, in order to come back stronger. Three weeks later, I start them now, if at all, and have to fight against the relentless question, ‘why bother?’
And yet, I am exercising more now than I possibly could before. I’m probably over-training. I’m aching most of the time. And it gets harder to get anywhere with my exercise sessions. I find myself frustrated and disappointed that my aging body needs rest days to recover when I have all this time on my hands – or, not so much ‘time on my hands’ as ‘time that I can’t fill with anything else because I can’t concentrate’. I walk down the garden, set up the punchbag, sweep leaves off the decking, put on the gloves, throw a few lacklustre jab-cross combinations and then just give up. I wander around, look in the fridge at my dwindling stocks of beer (the only thing I panic-bought in the run up to this) and wonder whether it’s too early to start drinking instead.
A colleague from the US emails me, asking me how the Martial Arts Studies Research Network might respond to some of the consequences of this pandemic. He reminds me of the number of martial arts instructors who have or who are about to lose their livelihoods as a result of the economic disruption; and asks whether we should try to set up some sort of fund. God, I’d love to be able to help more people financially. But if we somehow worked out how to set up a fund and organise it (numbers are not my strong suit) how the hell could we work out who to help? A karate instructor in Arkansas or a kendo club in Kent, or Ghent, or Canada?
He also notes the explosion of activity on the internet, in which people with various kinds of skills are offering to share their knowledge to help people physically, intellectually and emotionally. He himself now offers daily live-streamed qigong lessons. Even I – who regard myself as more of an eternal beginner than any kind of expert in anything particular – have found myself making short films to offer absolute beginners something simply to try, in the form of very short and very basic tai chi and qigong routines. Initially these were for a very specific set of people – a group I had agreed to teach tai chi to, a couple of months ago. But then I thought, why the hell not just share the films with friends and family – people who may feel at a loss for something physical to do to pass the time and feel a bit fitter and happier.
I reply. For the first time ever, I let myself say that although there are reasons to be thankful and to feel lucky, I am not doing fine. It feels good to say it. I tell him that I think his idea about organising some kind of collection on the relations between marital arts, crisis and change is a great one. I tell him that I think that, more than this being something we should act on ‘down the line’, it is something we should act on now. I say that I think we should start to blog about this stuff – about our feelings, our situations, our interpretations, our ideas about what might be done and the place of martial arts and hence martial arts studies in it all.
If nothing else, I say, I think it might help us all feel less alone, still part of a community. The material could also constitute a record, a kind of archive, that could also become raw material for later academic reflections and work.
I discuss it with another colleague. He notes that there is a lot of uncertainty and even panic in the air within the parts of martial arts community that he has contact with. Almost every teacher he knows has lost their main source of income, and that what’s worse is that many such people also rely on ‘gig economy’ jobs as a side-line, which have also been closed down. And it’s not just martial arts: everything from retail to education to the tech sector is being hit. What is more, crisis events typically work as the drivers of new types of innovation. Therefore, there is a good chance that many of the office jobs that have been lost may not come back in the long run, as all sorts of companies will suddenly being seeing the benefits of investing in A.I.s that can’t catch this sort of virus. Similarly, lots of university deans who have been trying to replace tenured faculty lines with adjuncts running on-line sessions are now going to have a powerful new arrow in their quiver when they start to negotiate with department chairs in the fall. One could multiply such possibilities endlessly. He confesses that he doesn’t think that we actually know what the ‘new normal’ is going to be, but that it will probably be notably different from its predecessor.
I think that the martial arts are going to be hit especially hard by all of this. Obviously, many of the small businesses that sustain this sector are going to fail, and that could very well have an impact on the transmission of smaller or struggling styles. And I wonder how enthusiastic new students are going to be about rolling around on the mats with someone in a BJJ class after living through this? The sorts of activities that are the most desirable may change (probably in a way that will be good for HEMA). And one wonders what impact the outbursts of anti-Asian racisms will have on the desirability of these sorts of cross-cultural adventures?
It would be an understatement to say that everyone is scrambling. I have seen so many people putting previously ‘secret’ or at least closely held, training material up on YouTube in the last few weeks. So, we are certainly going to see institutional innovation. After a decade of relentless abuse, even solo-forms and qigong suddenly seem to be cool again. All it took was for us to find something we were even more afraid of than being laughed at by MMA bros on Facebook.
There is so much to think and to work out and to say about all of this. One meme personifies Covid-19 as an attractive young woman who catches the eye of ‘social science’, a young man who has been walking along hand in hand with his girlfriend (‘existing research agenda’). Without worrying about the gender politics of this joke, it certainly speaks to my situation. How can I concentrate on anything else? Writing this short piece has been the first thing to fully and unproblematically engross me for the last two weeks.
To me as an academic whose primary research area is martial arts, it feels like the right time to put other things on the backburner as much as possible and start to engage directly with what the social, political and cultural consequences of the corona virus lockdown mean for and in terms of martial arts, and reciprocally what martial arts mean in relation to everything that is going on.
I am lucky to work in a large university. My income feels secure for the time being. But even so, the global pandemic is already having significant consequences on my intellectual, emotional and physical life in all kinds of ways. And I am very much one of the lucky ones, so far. But to my mind, now is the time to document what is happening, what we are thinking, feeling and doing, how we make sense of it, what we are trying to do, what we might do.
As a blogger, I would be happy to record items and articles relevant to our field, and I would also be interested to receive links to other works that engage with martial arts and the corona virus pandemic. I’ll post as many of them as possible here.
As an editor of the Martial Arts Studies journal, I can assure you that we are very interested in academic works that engage with this situation. We may come to publish a special themed issue on the changes precipitated by all of this in the near (not near enough?) future.
As an organiser of annual martial arts studies conferences, it looks like this year’s conference is increasingly unlikely – although things are so fluid and unpredictable at the moment that we have decided to make a final decision on it all in mid-May (exactly two months before the planned date of mid-July). But we will work out ways to work with, within and around whatever situations we are faced with.
That’s all for now. But please email scholarly, critical and intellectual engagements with the issues raised by the pandemic and martial arts at my Cardiff University email address.
Stay home and stay safe.
About the Author:
Paul Bowman is professor of cultural studies at Cardiff University. He writes on a range of concerns in cultural studies, most recently Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries (2015) and Mythologies of Martial Arts (2017). He is editor of the journal Martial Arts Studies and Director of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network