This is the second essay in our short series examining the ways that the current health crisis has impacted those of us who sit at the intersection of martial arts practice, communities of martial artists, and Martial Arts Studies. As with most of our discussions at Kung Fu Tea, this one straddles the line between practitioners whose lives have been upended by these events, and scholar who seek to make sense of this moment in history. To some degree we all fall into both camps. That fact should remind us of the value of community when facing challenges such as this, and it is my hope that some of these essays might reinforce those communal bonds. The following reflections are my own initial contributions to the series. If you would like to share some of your experiences or thoughts about the theoretical implications of all of this, please feel free to send me an email.
Fear and Boredom in New York
First off, I would like to assure everyone that I am healthy and well despite the fact that I live in New York State, where close to half of all COVID-19 cases in the United States have been reported. If the current projections coming from the Governor’s office are accurate, over the next 3-4 weeks we are expecting 16,000 deaths in our state alone. While everything has been officially locked down for the last two weeks, this more deadly phase of the crisis is only just beginning.
In purely geographic terms Ithaca is far from the five boroughs of New York City, where the worst of the crisis is currently unfolding. But in other ways it is disturbingly close. My wife grew up in Manhattan, I attended graduate school at Columbia and one of my younger brothers is currently sheltering in place on the upper west side. Recent estimates that up to 50% of the residents of New York City might contract this disease are far from comforting.
Ithaca, where Cornell University is located, has traditionally enjoyed a close relationship with New York City and it resides within its cultural sphere. The two are linked by frequent direct commuter flights and several bus lines. Students from Cornell and Ithaca College travel to and from the city. My university even maintains a second medical campus there. Wealthy residents from the city also come to the Finger Lakes region to enjoy their vacation homes or visit the area’s many vineyards and natural attractions.
It is no surprise that Cornell closed its campus earlier than some other educational institutions in the state, or that Ithaca’s residents have taken the advice about social distancing very much to heart. The daily news updates about the situation in New York City are like watching a train crash in excruciating slow motion. At this point there is little doubt as to how it is all going to end. Yet there is nothing to do except sit and watch the tragedy unfold.
As someone with a “compromised respiratory system” I personally have been advised to limit my exposure to pretty much everything and have taken appropriate precautions. I get up early in the mornings, before other people hit the streets, and jog alone on country roads. Other than that, I haven’t been out of the house in three weeks. I have managed to create a fair amount of structure for myself. I still have mountains of readings and various writing projects to work on. Sadly, the most important of these has come to complete standstill as it involved on-going archival research at Cornell. It is unlikely that any of that will resume soon.
I think that academics have some advantages when it comes to digesting the “new normal.” Many (though not all) of us have some financial security. And the sort of work that we do often lends itself to the home environment (at least in the humanities and social sciences). Almost all of us learned how to structure our time and to be productive during through periods of relative isolation as a precondition for surviving graduate school.
Still, I find myself struggling to stay focused, or to prioritize which task most needs my time and attention now that my main research project has been put on hold. It is difficult to resist the temptation to spend too much time reading the news, or watching TV, for all of the same reasons that it is difficult to look away from the scene of a car crash. I am fortunate in so many ways, but it is sometimes a struggle hold back feelings of self-doubt. Low grade fear about the future does little to improve one’s workflow as a writer. My discount rates, to use a concept from the field of economics, have just become too high. Should I really spend weeks working on a new book proposal when it will be months before anyone is in the office to read it?
If anxiety has been my primary sparring partner, I think that boredom is currently my greatest asset. No one likes being bored. Modern civilization has created one technology after another to banish it to the far recesses of our collective memory. I am convinced that it was the fear of boredom, more than any real necessity, that drove the creation of smart phones and the boom of social networks. But in even the most gilded of lockdowns, there is no way to actually escape boredom. One can only scan the headlines, or check Instagram, so many times a day. At some point we all find ourselves staring off into the middle distance.
While never pleasant in the moment, this is actually a good thing. In a neo-liberal world obsessed with statistics, check lists and productivity it is all too easy to lose track of your own sources of inspiration and creativity. When the outside world drowns out our sense of self, we may manage to remain “productive,” but often at a terrible cost to the things that we create. The resolve to do something new, to pick up an important but difficult book, or to really rethink our basic assumptions is often born out of boredom. Boredom is the forge that great books have been created in. It provides us with the silent moments necessary for our most original insights to emerge.
My own sense of aimlessness seems to have reached a productive peak a couple of days ago. Nothing was clicking and I found myself just starring at an empty document or (worse yet) a browser. Then, at about 10:30 at night, one new thought led to another and another and another in quick succession. I found myself scribbling down questions, theories and possible titles for close to an hour. Boredom, like everything else, has a tipping point.
It seems likely that our current crisis will last many months. The challenge is to accept this time as a precious resource rather than an invitation for fear. The happier and more productive we are indoors, the less likely we are to head out. And that might be the most important thing that we (not) do.
Transformation and the Death of Secrecy
For the last several weeks a sense of panic has been palpable in the corners of the martial arts community which I frequent. A number of political commentators are misreading recent history when they complain about “the government” shutting down market activity and driving us into what is sure to be a difficult recession. That may have been the case in other areas of the United States, but it is not what I observed in New York.
As cases of the virus began to be diagnosed there was a broad-based movement within both the economic and civil spheres to begin shutting things down well before the actual state mandates came through. No one told Cornell to shutter their campus. That decision was reached before the Governor ordered the closure of the other state schools. Likewise, no one told the martial arts schools that I have trained and conducted ethnographic research at to close their doors. Each of them began to cancel classes and put contingency plans in place several days before the order shutting down gyms and health clubs actually came. New York State’s economy wound itself down, and martial arts schools actually seem to have been at the forefront of this wave of voluntary closures.
This is an important fact to consider. Most martial arts in the United States are taught via public classes organized by small businesses. These corporations are typically very small and most of them are owner-operators. The lack of consolidation in this sector of the economy suggests how little profit there actually is in teaching Taijiquan, Taekwondo, or even BJJ. While fitness may be a 30 billion dollar industry in the US, relatively little of that flows into martial arts training. Real estate is typically the principal expense faced by these businesses and many of them, especially the traditional arts, now have a student body that is middle aged or older.
The unique nature of the novel coronavirus which causes COVID-19 poses an existential threat to all sorts of martial artists working in a brick and mortar setting. The sorts of heavy panting and gasping that good martial arts classes encourage seem custom made to spread viruses which can disperse themselves in aerosol form. Even normal breathing and speech may be enough to effectively transmit this virus. Given these realizations, the intimacy of training makes any sort of partner work particularly problematic. Everyone is constantly wiping sweat from their faces, and one does not even want to think about all of the surfaces within a school that those hands will touch. Even weapons classes, which typically work at a greater distance, are not safe. The reliance on common pool of, difficult to disinfect, safety gear in many clubs (fencing masks, gloves, etc.) might make them even more hazardous. I suspect the days of club supplied loaner gear are now behind us forever.
At one of the schools where I conduct ethnographic research the BJJ group was the first to close down their classes, a full week before everyone else. The traditional martial arts quickly switched to solo drills, and then took the additional step of limiting class attendance. Only two days later they decided that the cost-benefit analysis was not in their favor. The western style fitness and conditioning classes were pretty much the last to go.
All of these classes have switched to a video format in an attempt to preserve their communities and revenue stream. Good commercial real estate is never cheap, and students are being asked to maintain their monthly memberships if possible. While they have had some initial success, it remains to be seen how all of this will continue to play out as unemployment skyrockets and household budgets begin to collapse.
Given the likelihood of a prolonged period of shutdown stretching into the summer, one commentator recently characterized COVID-19 as an “extinction level event” for small businesses in the United States. I would tend to agree with assessment. How many martial arts schools have 3-4 months of operating cash on hand? I am sure that when the dust settles many organizations will look to rebuild, but with few resources and facing a devasted consumer base, one has to wonder how successful they will be. The entire fitness industry is facing many of these same issues right now.
One of the most interesting things to watch has been the scramble of all sorts of martial arts and fitness instructors to move their programs on-line in an attempt to sustain community bonds and preserve some aspect of their previous revenue stream. Perhaps I find this to be particularly fascinating as the very same thing is happening in the educational sector. All of my University colleagues have spent the last few weeks furious re-writing their syllabi and exploring options for on-line instruction. If only I had known to buy stock in Zoom in January!
Not every sort of practice works equally well in this format, and certain core topics within the martial arts just can’t be explored at all. One also wonders whether the move to virtual instruction will select for a new set of winners and losers within the martial arts sector. I have been stunned with the amount of previously “secret” or tightly held material that I have seen going on-line in the last week. At least some of this has been driven by a humanitarian desire to give students the tools they need to face the current crisis. I have also been impressed by the number of martial arts students who are willing to plunk down their hard-earned cash for a virtual workshop.
At the same time, most of these classes are charging less than the going rate in a school, so it will becoming increasingly important, as the crisis deepens, to have a larger number of virtual students each paying $5 or $8 for the class. While this technology makes certain kinds of private classes possible, in general the virtual classroom seems to advantage economies of scale, leading to exactly the sorts of pressures for consolidation that the martial arts sector has previously managed to avoid. The more famous instructors in the better-known styles will have a huge head start as this process gets under way. And anyone who was already producing this material, or running an on-line student portal, now has a critical first mover advantage.
I fully expect that several smaller organizations and struggling styles are about disappear from the landscape. One also wonders what the future landscape of martial arts will look like, at least in the post-industrial West. After a decade of near constant derision, we are seeing an upswing of interest in both forms training and qigong. One would be hard pressed to think of better exercises to do in isolation, along with a certain amount of strength and endurance training. Additionally, numerous people have noted that these sorts of practices might be the next best thing to therapy for individuals facing prolonged periods of isolation, unemployment and anxiety. Everyone has once again become very interested in Taijiquan’s supposed abilities to boost the immune system.
On the other hand, Ithaca has recently seen a number of instances of anti-Asian abuse and discrimination. More serious attacks in other places have been classified by the FBI as hate crimes. The rise of interest in Asian martial arts in the West was driven by the birth of different types of cross-cultural desire. Japan as the first object of Western fasciation, followed later in the post-war era by China and then other locations in South East Asia. The sudden explosion of interest in Kung Fu during the 1970s and 1980s was only one aspect of a broader reappraisal Chinese culture.
The brewing political dispute over where to place the blame for COVID-19 will likely do long lasting damage to China’s reserves of “soft power” in the West. At the same time, the Chinese government is seeking to use American and European disarray in dealing with the epidemic to undermine the cultural appeal of the liberal democratic model of governance throughout much of the developing world. Moments of historic crisis have often served as the backdrop for the rise of new hegemonic powers within the international sphere. Whether China’s hopes to use the current moment in this way will come to fruition is very much an open question. Yet its decreased soft power in the West, combined with a general turn towards culture closure often seen in moments of crisis, might be very damaging to the long-term health of the East Asian arts.
How Do we Think About This?
It might be some time before we are able to definitively address any of the questions outlined above. At this point the United States is still in the beginning phases of its crisis. It remains unclear what our ultimate casualty figures will be, but the “best case” projections look bleak. Nor is it known what sorts of direct losses the martial arts community will face, either in the United States, or across a number of smaller states in the developing worlds which have fewer resources to weather the on-coming storm. The ultimate impact of all of this may only become clear years after the recovery period begins. That isn’t uncommon when looking at periods of major realignment.
What should we, as students of Martial Arts Studies, be doing now? First, I advocate putting down the smartphone, picking up those books you have been meaning to read and embracing a certain level of boredom. When was the last time that any of us had an opportunity to focus deeply on our own thoughts and personal practice? None of us would have wished for the present circumstances. On Instagram moments of personal introspection and intellectual creativity always seem to happen on a beach in Bali, or possibly Thailand. Still, we can embrace the opportunities that we have here and now.
Second, this is the time to reach out and reinforce the communities of scholarship and practice that we have been part of. We need to do this for the most basic human reasons. A little boredom can be great for creativity, but isolation is often corrosive. We should do everything that we can to promote and patronize the martial arts teachers in our own communities. That is an important responsibility that we all have. Given that everyone finds themselves with time on their hands, now is a great time to sign up for an on-line class or seminar which will enrich your personal training.
At the same time, we need to acknowledge that much of what is happening within the martial arts community is beyond our control. Crisis is always a time of realignment and change. Some of the shifts that we will see may be positive, but other will not. It is still too early to propose theories as we are not yet sure which puzzles will be the most interesting. But I would like to encourage anyone reading this essay to document everything you are seeing within the martial arts community. If a school doesn’t come back when the lockdown ends, talk to its teacher and record their oral history. If you spot an on-line class that is succeeding and growing, sign up and take notes on what they are doing. The observations that we make now will become the grist for next year’s paradoxes and papers. As society changes it is inevitable that martial arts will evolve. So will Martial Arts Studies.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Cheung Lai Chuen, Creator of Pak Mei (White Eyebrow)