The first written reflection that I saw on the ‘Martial Arts Studies: Gender Issues in Theory and Practice’ conference at Brighton University (5th February 2016), was this one, written by Luke White. In his response, Luke gives an account of the main issues broached during the day, before moving into some concluding considerations of wider gender issues – issues that were not explicitly tackled during the day, but that are undoubtedly central for martial arts studies to consider. As he writes:
I did find myself, at the end of the day, also asking a wider question of the event, that I think emerges from this same concern. During the day, we spoke repeatedly about the gender and sexual identities of marginalised groups – women, ethnic minorities, LGBT+ constituents, and lower class / criminal young men – but the missing issue was that of the more ‘mainstream’, ordinary, middle class – and ultimately privileged – forms of masculinity which are invested in the martial arts, too. I think this is not a poor reflection on Channon’s and Matthews’s curation of the event, but rather on the kinds of things that Martial Arts Studies itself currently seems to encompass.
I found myself increasingly wondering about the men in that very room where the seminar took place (including myself), and the kinds of ideas or experiences of masculinity that drew us into the martial arts. How might these ideas, fantasies and so on – perhaps, although seemingly far less ‘problematic’ than the young offenders discussed in [Deborah] Jump’s paper – in fact lie at the core of what’s wrong in terms of gender construction around the martial arts? Travelling home, I found myself thinking about Benedict Anderson’s notion of ‘banal nationalism’, which allowed him to think of nationalism not in terms of its extreme, pathological and spectacular varieties (when countries declare war on neighbours, or skinheads attack immigrants), but rather in the tiny, everyday ways that people are encouraged to take the nation as a reference point for their identities (from, for example, the clock-face on the news that promulgates a shared experience of time to the logo-isation of national maps in the depiction of transport networks or the assertion of a standardised national language over and against local dialects). I wonder if Martial Arts Studies needs to turn to similarly ‘banal’ aspects of gender. And I wonder if, in order to address the core from which forms of exclusion emerge, it needs to study not marginal ‘others’ but those at the symbolic centre of the social order.
I also then found myself wondering about Martial Arts Studies itself as a gendered space. As part of our explorations in the day, we thought in some detail about the ways that women, or those from the LGBT+ community, are often excluded by aspects of the environment and ritualised behaviour of gyms and dojos. But what about our academic Martial Arts Studies events? How welcome do they feel there, and how deeply has that been considered by us? Though the event at Eastbourne – with a fantastic mix of people attending – felt very inclusive, my feelings about the conference in Cardiff last Summer were rather different. I spoke to a number of women attendees afterwards who pretty much all told me that they had found it a rather uncomfortably ‘male’ space. And indeed, it struck me strongly that there was a certain machismo that surrounded a lot of the socialisation that took place around the conference. Often the first question asked was not (unlike most academic conferences!) what your paper is about or some such thing, but about whether you practiced a martial art, and if so what style. The effect of such a question can, perhaps, be a little like the aggressive questioning that Bruce Lee is subjected to by a white martial artist on the boat on the way to a martial arts contest: ‘What’s your style?’ In the film, it wasn’t just a polite inquiry, it was also a challenge. In the conference, the question was clearly less intrusive, but I wondered how non-practitioners may have experienced this kind of question. Did it imply less of a right to be there? Some of the papers, too, seemed to include hints about ‘martial credentials’ that came close at points to masculine ‘posturing’. One speaker (I shan’t name him), after an explicit a denial of homophobia, followed this up, as evidence, with what was meant to be a joke but ultimately amounted to a homophobic comment. Were some of the gendered cultures of the training hall entering into the spaces of academic debate, too? It’s often small, banal, everyday, overlooked performances that inscribe gender on a space – often much more subtle than directly homophobic or sexist comments, often far more everyday than the spectacular examples of subproletarian boxing gyms discussed at Friday’s event, and often far more inscribed into the ‘normal’ behaviour of ‘upright’ citizens – and it seems to me that in order to safeguard not only the spaces in which we do martial arts, but also the academic spaces where we discuss them in this fledgling discipline, we need a vigilance not so much on the ‘other’ but on ourselves. (Kung Fu with Braudel, 7th February 2012)
There are some really important questions being raised here, and I am grateful to Luke for posing them. In the following, I will try to respond to them, although an exhaustive response in the space of a blog post is beyond my ability, for reasons that will hopefully soon become apparent.
As the organiser of the conference whose gender politics (or ethos) Luke’s report puts in question, I feel quite ‘close’ to this matter. I obviously do not want anyone to have come away from the conference with a negative feeling about it. However, I’ll admit, the question of the possible gender ethos of the conference had played on my mind in the run up to the 2015 conference. I myself had had some apparently ‘gender-based’ worries about the possible atmosphere: the 2015 Martial Arts Studies Conference was, for most of us who attended, the first conference of its kind in the English language, and it was drawing together a very diverse collection of people, from many different countries, many different disciplines, plus indeed a fair few from outside of academia too. So I had worried somewhat about what kind of a crowd I was assembling. Would it be masculinist? Would it be nerdy? Would people from different disciplines tolerate each other? Would people like each other? And so on. What would they have in common?
To my mind, the ‘what’s your style’ question (that Luke suggests was one of the primary questions people asked each other at the conference – ‘do you practice martial arts? What style?’) is key here. This is because, I think the question reflects an effort to make a connection. After all, at a multi-disciplinary conference on martial arts, what is the one thing that might be assumed to be held in common by all of those in attendance? An interest in martial arts. And, in my experience, an interest in martial arts is strongly correlated with an assumption that the interested party will also practice martial arts.
This is not, however, an academic assumption. It is, rather, a general assumption, at least in my experience. By the same token, academics themselves have tended towards astonishment or excitement when they learn that – like some sort of peculiar curio – I also ‘do’ martial arts. I have a particularly vivid image in my head of a colleague, a good few years ago, exclaiming with joy and laughter that he loved the fact that I actually practiced what I preached. I remember going along with the conversation, but fundamentally being confused. How could I study and write about martial arts without practising them, I wondered? It didn’t make any sense to me that I could possibly write about them without practising them.
This, then, is (or was) my initial bias. And it may be idiosyncratic, or it may reflect the bias of the field, which itself may reflect the bias of wider discursive structures or formations. For, of course, once you start to think about it, there are many ways that one might do martial arts studies without studying or practicing martial arts. Historians, for example, research and write about things that they cannot hope to practice. Film studies scholars, when they are dealing with martial arts films, are of course dealing with complex constructs that bear no necessary relation to bodily or embodied martial arts practice as many would understand it at all. As Ben Judkins recently said to me on the matter of whether martial arts scholars have to practice a martial art or not: ‘I suppose it would have to come to down to the actual details of what you are trying to accomplish, the research methods used and some fundamental tensions in what it means for martial arts studies to be an interdisciplinary project. Can Shahar write on the history of Shaolin martial arts without being a practitioner? Absolutely. [….] Could Ben Spatz have written about the somatic experience of yoga without doing it, and then understanding the many ways that practice becomes research? How about Wacquant and boxing? I suspect not’.
In our email discussion of Luke’s blog post, Ben asks ‘was that simply a bit of disciplinary discomfort manifesting itself as a cautionary warning, or do you think Luke was hitting on a more fundamental dynamic that needs to be guarded against?’ With reference to our first conference, Ben asks: ‘Was the last MAS studies a hostile place for women, or was it a hostile place for non-martial artists, or both? And is talking about one’s participation and engagement in the martial arts really a detriment to scholarship on the subject?’
There is a lot going on here, and I want us to continue to talk about it. Luke is absolutely right to pose these questions, and I agree that martial arts studies could benefit from interrogating its ‘banal machismo’, if this is one of its current norms. And it may well be. Accordingly, then, if we identify this, then we need also to ask where the field’s banal machismo might come from and what (if any) functions it might be serving. Recall that Luke reports that he ‘spoke to a number of women attendees afterwards who pretty much all told [him] that they had found it a rather uncomfortably "male" space’. Moreover, he continues, it also ‘struck [him] strongly that there was a certain machismo that surrounded a lot of the socialisation that took place around the conference’.
I am not sure what specific aspects of ‘the socialisation that took place around the conference’ that this refers to – whether it boils down to the nature of the planned events, or whether it arose within them. I also wonder about the character of the conversations in which such determinations would arise, especially when comparing and contrasting them with the conversations I had with both men and women after the conference. But rather than disputing the point, it makes sense simply to concede it, and accept it on face value, and then to stage a reflection from that point, asking questions about the emergence of machismo in the context of academic(s) discussions of martial arts – especially perhaps when those involved have a glass or two of wine working its way through their bodies.
I myself can certainly testify that my blood and energy and perhaps something that might come across as machismo rises when I am discussing anything to do with martial arts. I certainly get considerably more animated than when I am discussing, say, Levinas’ or Derrida’s ruminations on the ethics of alterity, or the Hegelian or Marxian dialectic. I certainly experience a high degree of excitement around the topics of martial arts, much more than I do when discussing other aspects of my work, from cultural theory to popular culture and politics. However, it is interesting for me to reflect, on this note, that I have myself in the past characterised the realms of political and cultural theory as ‘nerdy’ and ‘boyish’ or ‘laddish’, in perhaps precisely the way that the sociality of the first martial arts conference may have been characterised – as too macho. Maybe this is just what happens when too many men with the same passions get together…. I have encountered it not just in political theory circles (which I used to frequent but which I have substantially walked away from) but also in film studies conferences – which I am often invited to, but at which I feel significantly alienated (I don’t watch many films). At film studies conferences – and especially the socialisation that goes on around them – perhaps precisely because I cannot participate in them, I have often observed the ‘pissing competitions’ that are typically played out by men around demonstrating knowledge of evermore obscure aspects of films. Perhaps this is the same. Perhaps it is different. Perhaps homosociality is always the problem – at least if you feel you are on the outside of it.
However, if we go along with the proposition that the first Martial Arts Studies Conference suffered from ‘too much machismo’ – which I am not at all sure about – for several reasons – I also wonder whether part of the problem might boil down to the fact that the conference saw a mixture both of academics and non-academics. For many of the non-academics, this was a first foray into academia. And even for many of the academics, this was just about the first time they had ever been able to present their work on martial arts studies unashamedly. So, in this sense, the conference staged a key point of mediation or translation into the academy of a discourse that chiefly exists outside of the academy. And martial arts discourse outside of academia is not a field that undergoes the regular audits of equal opportunity or sex discrimination and diversity interrogation. In short, perhaps much martial arts language and practice is homosocial. Not all of it, certainly. But perhaps a great deal of it.
What will happen to this on its march through the institution? Undoubtedly, there will be transformation. I have written a lot about this necessary and inevitable transformation of discourses, most recently in my 2015 book Martial Arts Studies. But does this mean that martial arts studies will encounter the critical forces of self-reflexivity and feminism and transform itself into a totally ‘right on’, ‘politically correct’ or somehow essentially ‘inclusive’ discourse? I think that this is naïve. As Christopher Matthews pointed out in his presentation at the Brighton University event last week, perhaps it is inevitable that even when we try our hardest to ‘practice inclusivity’, there will always be forces and antagonisms that lead to the generation of ‘exclusions’. In this light, it may be that questions of ‘gender’ are not the root issue here, and that gender may amount to only one possible kind of a whole host of possible nodes or sites of antagonisms of exclusion.
This is not to say that I disagree with Luke’s suggestion that martial arts studies postulate and interrogate its own ‘banal machismo’. I am all for that. It is rather to say that such an interrogation need not take place by way of simple ‘off the peg’ categories like gender, and could perhaps be better explored according to less freighted paradigms, such as, for instance, the question of whether the aim of inclusivity can ever be possible without exclusion.