A Martial Arts of Submission

‘Sheathing the sword without hurting anyone is the future of Aikido’ – Shoji Nishio.

‘Help your partner live and thrive’ – Seishiro Endo.

‘What use is it to just copy my technique?’ – Morihei Ueshiba, O-Sensei.


Where does martial arts practice start for practitioners of the second decade of the twenty first century? Does it begin in fear – the fear of death, the fear of being out of control, the fear of powerlessness? Does it begin in wonder – wonder at the brilliance of screen legends like Bruce Lee, Jet Li, and Jackie Chan, wonder at the apparently miraculous power of the martial artist who performs seemingly unnatural feats of blended grace and brutality? Does it begin even by chance – the chance which makes the curious bystander pick Jujutsu class instead of aerobics at the gym, the chance which allows the evening jogger to stop in a Karate class while out on a run, the chance which introduces a friend of a friend to a teacher? All of these and many more are ways in which students can be introduced to the martial arts, I only pick such examples because I know of them in my own life and amongst my friends and acquaintances. I do not believe any of these are enough to count as starting points for the practice of martial arts proper, that is: a grasping of what it means to be a martial arts practitioner and what the martial arts themselves represent. Anyone can come into class and doggedly repeat movements and there is certainly skill and value to this (I have even said before that I take great pleasure in watching kata [forms] championships in Karate because of the uncanny precision and dexterity of the performances, and who doesn’t marvel at the obscene feats of control the Shaolin monks can bring to bear on themselves?). Nevertheless, doggedness and dogma do not the martial artist make. It is easy to hop on the mat and rattle off copy-paste techniques, but in doing so, one may never access the essence of martial arts itself. In what follows, I wish to demonstrate that, far from the desire for a perfect self-defence (fear), the allure and grandeur of the miracle-working sage master (wonder), or the joyous happenstance of turning up and having a great time (chance), what makes martial arts practice what it is, what defines the practice as technically, philosophically, and practically coherent and sound, is a martial arts which begins with what I shall call submission.

It should be noted that in previous work, I have discussed and advocated the idea of a forgiving martial arts, one which is based upon the idea of forgiveness as irrevocable power and unlimited mercy. This was an idea espoused by the late Shoji Nishio, who was known to have held dan ranks in not only Aikido, but Iaido, Karate, and Judo as well, and in my formulation, encouraged a forgiving martial arts (yurusu budo) which held the potential for the practitioner to strike down their opponent at any time, yet always refrained from doing so. I no longer find this formulation of martial arts adequate. While I believe that this concept may yet be useful in the martial arts, I wish to move away from it for the inconsistencies it produces between the technical, philosophic, and practical sides of the martial arts, which I will begin to explain my view on in due course. Unlike sport or fitness (which is not to say that sports and other forms of exercise cannot also be practised in a martial way or be just as valuable), martial arts are concerned with ‘do’ – the notoriously difficult-to-translate-effectively suffix which usually denotes ‘the way’. The use of this term (Ju-do, Aiki-do, Karate-do, Ken-do, Bu-do) as opposed to the older jutsu (Ju-jutsu, Aiki-Jutsu, Ken-jutsu, Bu-jutsu) denotes the transformation of martial artistry from pure technique and use of technique in combat (jutsu) to the development and cultivation of lifestyle. Many martial arts were reorganised and renamed into ‘do’ rather than ‘jutsu’ structures in the period after the second-world-war in order to reflect the peace-oriented attitude of the time and to move away from the conservative and militaristic connotations the old martial arts schools had held, and in some cases even openly endorsed. In this way, it is my understanding that to practice the martial arts must be more than the idle, or even the meticulous or fervent learning of movements for fighting and killing; it should just as much be the investigation of the purpose of those movements, the circumstances of their proper use, and the place of those skills in their historical context. As a side note, it is easy to see how these attributes can apply to any physical activity, or any activity at all, which is why I say sports or fitness can be practised in a martial way – it is really only for want of a better term that I use ‘martial’ to denote this style of practice; I do not actually believe that sports or fitness are separate from the realm of the ‘martial’ insomuch as I believe that there is a difference between the quality of practice (of anything) as martially sincere and as only barely engaged.

It will not have escaped notice, either, that I have drawn only on Japanese or Japan-related martial arts in my discussion so far. I do not wish this to exist as a commentary only on the Japanese martial arts, and I equally do not wish to express the idea that the Japanese arts hold any kind of supremacy or priority over martial arts of other denominations, only that my personal history and experience is limited to those arts and it would be remiss of me to discuss other arts without proper investigation or authority. I do believe, however, that the principles under discussion apply to all martial arts and perhaps to all disciplines in general, with martial arts, particularly those of Japan, simply being my best lens through which to view them.

I should also take this opportunity to make clear some terminology I have been using. My use is not indicative of any wider use or standard but simply the way I am choosing to express myself given the lack of common nomenclature across the arts. I have spoken of the technical, philosophical, and practical aspects of the martial arts:

The technical refers to the study of the ideal and perfect form of any given movement. The practice of the technical is necessarily somewhat separate from its application in combat; it is the learning of technique, of the ‘how to’, in a safe environment where learning and experimentation are possible with some reduction of the risk of real injury.

The philosophical refers to the underlying ethical principles of the martial art at hand and how they are reflected in the technical and practical elements of the art. The practice of the philosophical is perhaps the most neglected of the practices of the martial arts. Most practitioners indeed never sit down to read about or write about the purpose or significance of what they study, or question the efficacy of the teachings handed down to them. The difficulty with the philosophical is that martial arts classes are not lectures, teaching is rarely in the form of oral discussion or debate, and rightly speaking, the technical aspects of the art are much better communicated through experiencing technique and exploring it rather than reading about or speaking about it. This leaves the philosophical element of martial arts as a more or less individual pursuit, unless the practitioner is blessed with like-minded friends, and thus this aspect ends up developing often in a vacuum and without the guidance of teachers or fora for the sharing of ideas. Nevertheless, it is a vital component to proper martial arts, to my mind, and the martial artist who never discusses or questions their technical and practical elements in conversation with others will be forever impoverished in their development.

The practical refers to the use of the technical in the emergence of an unscripted and unpredicted event calling for martial intervention. Few martial artists in history (if any) are able to translate the elements of their technical practice completely unchanged into the messy environment of unanticipated violence. There is therefore a disjunct between the technical (the ideal form) and the practical (how it manifests in combat). Battles bastardise forms, and make clumsy the smooth and practised machinery of technique. The practice of the practical is the exposure of the artist to a situation of genuine vulnerability where, unlike in technical practice, the risk of harm is pressing and urgent.

In the martial arts, the link between the practical and the technical is usually considered, I believe, to be the overwhelming majority of training. Indeed, most of the martial artist’s career can very well be spent reducing the separation between the two aspects; transforming your ‘O-goshi’ hip throw into nameless instinct, turning the ‘Tekki shodan’ form from awkward sideways shuffling into instantaneous solidity under pressure, realising your complex and laborious attempts at the wrist-lock ‘nikyo’ as a functional and immediate response to danger. This is the business of everyday training. The continuous examination, critique and re-evaluation of the student’s habits and movements in order to unpick and restitch them together, weaving the threads of technique into the tapestry of living.

The next most explored link is typically the one between the technical and the philosophical. Practitioners who attain a certain level of technical prowess, or who find themselves particularly invested in the minutiae of technique itself are those who most commonly investigate the implications of their techniques in a wider social, moral, ethical, or sometimes theological context. This will be familiar in the evolution of the teacher to the sage, a phenomenon common in older masters of almost any style of martial arts. Ueshiba O-sensei, Aikido’s founder, indeed became extremely esoteric and waxed lyrical about the Shinto gods constantly in his later career. Karate masters such as Kenji Ushiro have undergone ‘ki’ turns in later work, re-examining their techniques through the lens of intentional energy. Sensei such as Hirokazu Kanazawa focus their martial arts teaching on their global social impact and doing good for the Karate community around the world. Plenty of practitioners who begin the more philosophical exploration of martial arts also become founders of their own schools, usually because of decisive splits between their own beliefs about the art they practice and the beliefs of their teachers and governing institutions. This exploration of the logic which undergirds the techniques and methods that any given style chooses to teach is what really constitutes the link between the philosophical and technical aspects of martial arts. Whether these lines of questioning add up to cause division or union in the arts is a matter of individual taste and interpretation, but the process remains constant as a thorough investigation and interrogation of both the performed technical minutiae and the rhetorical justifications of the art as a whole.

The link which is least explored, to my mind, is the one which exists between the practical and the philosophical. While it is common to examine how technique can be practically used, it is not common to examine how the philosophy of martial arts is practically used. While it is common to look at how technique, the ideal form, embodies the philosophy, it is uncommon to look at how the uglier manifestations of technique and its effects in practicable situations embody the philosophy. Even amongst those with a great deal of martial arts pedigree, I feel there is little detailed scrutiny of how martial arts philosophy holds up or breaks down in the discordant event of hostilities. There is plenty of exploration of philosophy and practicality in what I call ‘ideal conditions’ (one on one, against an enemy who is presumed to be a similarly rational agent) or in ‘fantasised conditions’ (two on twenty, specifically with the odds stacked against the martial artists to demonstrate a particular point) and precious little else. Unfortunately, I run an unfair argument here: it is actually a sheer impossibility to begin with to examine the conjunction between philosophy and practicality without actually going and picking fights, and if the martial artist is picking fights to begin with, she is already influencing the conditions of the event, thus undermining the neutrality of their exploration to begin with. My critique here is not aimed against speculation about how to apply martial arts philosophy in trying situations in the first place, but rather designed to criticise the narrowness and repetitiveness of the speculation and experiments that exists currently. It is vitally important to speculate on how martial arts philosophy stands up outside of neat and tidy outcomes and ideal techniques, and there is nothing wrong with doing so, but it needs to go further than the tired-to-the-point-of-comatose question; ‘what if the guy is bigger than you?’.

Given then, that the idea of martial arts itself, as we have discussed, connotes the commitment to a ‘-do­’, a way, a coherent technique, philosophy, and practical application, my undertaking here will be as follows: I will look at my former interest in the idea of yurusu budo (forgiving martial arts) and demonstrate how it cannot sustain a suitable coherence between technique, practice, and philosophy. I will then look at how I have come to the idea of ‘submission’ as a productive alternative, building on the work of Nishio and Endo amongst others along with my own experience in various schools of martial arts. It will then become necessary to consider how ‘submission’ as the starting point of martial arts can manifest a coherent technique, philosophy, and practice and in addition, to consider how counterarguments may be put or problems arise from within this model itself. Finally, throughout this process I hope to speculate on how this principle can engage a martial arts that is no longer an isolated or separate realm from the concerns of contemporary society. In many ways, the martial arts act as escapism, as a power fantasy for the disenchanted to find themselves through, or as an environment where friends can be made and cares forgotten, in some cases, a field specifically encouraging an esoteric detachment from wordly concerns, or a way for human beings to believe themselves somehow exterior to – or worse – superior to other human beings. If martial arts is concerned with a ‘way’, that is, a ‘way of living’ then it must engage with the entirety of the lives of its practitioners and cannot seclude itself within the hallowed halls of the dojo or end when you bow off the mat. Just as the warriors of the sword and staff once fell to the shame of irrelevance in the face of the musket and Gatling gun, martial arts in contemporary society is itself, becoming irrelevant in the face of the more sensational and more dynamic combat sports like MMA (Mixed-Martial-Arts), yet even MMA is hardly a cultural phenomenon, barely touching the lives of massive proportions of society and dwarfed by the more well-developed sports industries. If the age of the warrior died with the birth of the gun, martial artistry has been slowly withering and receding from worldwide life ever since (aside from sporadic revitalisations in line with phenomenal personalities like Bruce Lee, The Karate Kid, and the more recent Ip Man movies which sparked a brief yet passionate renaissance for Chinese arts like Wing Chun). Martial arts needs to adapt itself too to the contemporary imagination and contemporary life. In order to avoid falling to irrelevance it requires a paradigm shift. I am not suggesting that my efforts here will define that shift, but I hope that they can perhaps offer something which may stimulate, if only through their refutation, the building of something new within this most dignified of traditions.







When you call a child names what reaction does this usually elicit? An impassioned ‘don’t call me that!’, a furious ‘I’m not [x]!’, a tantrum of sorts. Certainly hostility and anger, especially if you’re in a role of authority over the child in question (a parent, a guardian, simply someone older). It is the child’s powerlessness in the face of what is essentially bullying which leads to this intense response. In a tantrum, the child asserts dominance over the only things it can (its toys, its clothes, other inanimate objects, even its own body) hurling things and itself on the ground, tearing down nearby structures like curtains and tablecloths. In a teenager, or even a young adult, such instances of failed self-actualisation take more internal forms – sulking, brooding, long periods of seclusion, angry diary writing, secret drinking, substance abuse, self-harm, sometimes even the abuse of others and those close to them. In the adult whose sense of authenticity and identity is eroded and constrained by circumstances outside her control, it is easy enough to find solace in drink, perhaps to fall into depression, or lose yourself in work and the rhythm of the everyday – keeping on keeping on. And of course, the adult, too, much like the child and teenager, exerts his anger in an attempt to escape his out-of-control-ness, on whatever he has power over, including children and teenagers.

For the thinker of ethics and politics Simon Critchley, one of the foundations of politics is the nominalisation of a political subjectivity (2012). Without a political subject, a unified identity around which to articulate political and social struggles, a body politic dissolves into inefficacy and impotence. The act of naming is the act of defining political autonomy, the act of claiming agency. In denying Daesh the name of its own choosing, what is denied is the right to exist on its own terms, it is the right to self-define, self-actualise, and remain autonomous. The threats issued by Daesh to those who use the term only serve to affirm the fragility of the group’s political subjectivity. Yet, even still, Daesh is a name, a name which unifies and designates a group and, even though it is not one of their choosing, it does reinscribe their solidity as an entity.

And it would be grievous to forget that Daesh also has a name for its enemies too, one of them being ‘The West’. This name is itself riven from within with innumerable cracks and inconsistencies making it as shattered and ineffectual a political entity as if it had not been named at all. ‘The West’ does not and never has referred to a concrete political body – its political subjectivity is segmented across Europe and the USA with wildly varying degrees of influence, not to mention each individual nation is composed of enormous swathes of heterogeneous people, many of whom would not necessarily identify with many of the others. In this light, Daesh is a much more concrete and locally well defined political entity than the lumbering, massive, and nebulous ‘The West’.

Within this nebulous ‘West’, what Daesh has succeeded unsettling well in doing, is encouraging xenophobia, racism, and discrimination, leading to an upsurge in a small yet vocal extreme rightism. Whether or not this group is representative of the vast majority of society, it speaks loudly enough that it deepens the cracks already evident within the societies of ‘The West’. Those already disenfranchised and isolated are further frightened and segregated. Those already denied a name, denied self-definition, are further imposed upon; ‘immigrant’, ‘alien’, ‘foreigner’, names which themselves may not be derogatory become burdens when imposed on the subject, a shackle rather than the freedom that naming and self-determination should confer.

When David Cameron claims that the ‘real problem’ is the ‘extremist ideology’ of Daesh and that there is a moral obligation to destroy it with airstrikes, he makes a number of distressing errors. The first is that Daesh’s ‘extremist ideology’ is not the ‘real problem’ and the second is that ideology has never been vulnerable to airstrikes (much like terror has never been harmed by wars waged against it). Radicalisation does not happen because a belief system worms its way into a subject’s brain like a parasite or a slug and transforms them into an helpless, brainwashed radical. Those who are targets of radicalisation are not unthinking, hapless victims, they are thinking and feeling human subjects. How does such a subject then, decide that murder and martyrdom is a sensible course of action?

Like the child called names but denied its own, or the youth split between belonging and not belonging, or the fully grown member of the workforce disenchantedly persisting, automatic but not autonomous, the subject which is isolated, disempowered and afraid seeks validation, seeks an environment where it can exert its selfhood, where it can claim a sense of sovereignty. The vulnerable of society are nameless, ‘the subaltern’ as Gayatri Spivak [famous postcolonial and deconstructionist writer] would call them. They have no name through which to politically articulate, and no dignity or autonomy as a sovereign subject in and of themselves. Spivak would speak of India’s caste system and the ‘untouchables’ – who really become ‘unspeakables’ – those who fall outside of a caste, outside of a group who will identify with them, and who therefore belong nowhere in society, detritus. The ‘developed’ ‘West’ has vulnerable people too, all the moreso because it fails to acknowledge their existence. When an individual looks at their life and feels as if they do not belong in their society, a society which appears to reject them at every turn, and Daesh offers an alternative which seems somehow better, which seems to give them purpose and justice and a raison d’etre at all, it is the duty of government to question how conditions have been allowed to develop which make that possible.

Daesh is like the tantruming child or moody teenager of its region. It hurls its weight around, harming everything in its way in a bitter plea for both attention and validation. Like the rebellious youth, it claims it would have its dad in a fight (an appropriate analogy, given that, father like, Euro-American intervention did provide the conditions to birth and nurture Daesh in the first place), but shrinks from open conflict, instead choosing to pick on the vulnerable and weak. The group is made of such individuals, a gang of the disempowered and disillusioned who see no place for themselves in contemporary society and instead choose to attempt to destroy it in a final bid for self-actualisation. Critchley says that a politics of fear assures the order of the political unit through appeal to the threat of an enemy. In order to end such a politics of fear which pervades both Daesh (who names ‘The West’ its enemy) and our own societies (who name Daesh) and end the conditions which make radicalisation possible, the political undertaking is to offer people dignity, self-determination, a sense of belonging, and a sense of justice in their political and social life. It is to offer the silent, deprived, and isolated a community, a commonality, a name for themselves, an identity. Like when speaking to a child, government, and society as a whole, will have to get down on its hands and knees to look the lost and found in the eyes and treat them as equals. If, as was suggested earlier, the act of naming is the act of claiming agency, the perhaps ironic truth is that what will serve as lethal anathema to Daesh is the act of giving those vulnerable whom it preys on, the chance to find a name.

On Creativity

This post was originally published on the Exeter Creatives blog (https://exetercreatives.wordpress.com/). If you’re interested in creativity, writing, music, and finding ways to be a bit more than humdrum then give them a read, they’re interesting!

Due to all of us being rather busy with our own affairs in the lead up to Christmas, we haven’t actually be able to have a meet up and agree on a blog topic for a couple of weeks, but since I felt I’d like to continue writing, I’d like to write a little on creativity itself – fitting for a group calling ourselves ‘creatives’ don’t you think?

To begin then, how to define creativity? We’ll skip the rather grand way of interpreting: ‘the power to create’, since it is not my intention to discuss whether it is the part of Gods or humankind to ‘create’ or ‘bring things into being’. Instead we’ll take ‘originality, expressiveness, imaginativity’ as a starting point.

The problem of producing something original is well known to anyone who has ever tried to carry it out – in most any field (unless you’re fortunate enough for your field itself to be relatively new) it’s impossible to produce something which is entirely original. At least in literature (which I would say is the closest thing I have to a ‘field’) the themes that are written about haven’t changed since more or less forever. They’re so concrete in literature that there have been pretty solid genres in Euro-American writing since as long ago at least as the Greeks and Romans (let’s forget that there’s a fuzzy area between oral traditions and literature for now). The Tragedy and Comedy were populated by tropes and themes which commonly identified them just as today anyone can easily identify a novel’s (or film’s, or song’s, or painting’s) genre without much more than a glance at its legion of features which identify it. In today’s cynical language they’re generally called ‘clichés’;  the clumsy-yet-well-meaning-and-deep-inside-complex protagonist who leads the rom-com, the coming-of-age-but-desperately-struggling-with-the-melodramatic-weight-of-responsibility teenager who heads the young adult novel, the gruff-and-nasty-and-cold-and-gritty-yet-surprisingly-morally-firm-and-tenacious-and-occasionally-very-funny-ex-military-cop who sits in the main character chair of the crime noire. Tobacco (or galactic equivalent) chewing (space) cowboys, naive and straightforwardly bold (princes, princesses, hobbits, jedi) knights, mysteriously appearing sagely (wizards, fairy godmothers, goddesses, masters) elders, that one moody (love interest, exile, former spy, ninja, guitarist) girl/guy – these images are so set in stone that they could have conjured a hundred different stock settings and narratives in the reader’s imagination at this point and we’re barely scratching the surface (incidentally, cover art is so formulaic you almost really can judge a book by its cover), and this is for literature alone not to mention music or film. How to be creative in such a saturated environment?

Many try to set out and make something new by using new forms or new configurations of old forms. A rarer few attempt to write about new themes entirely or reimagine tried and tested themes in new variations. The use of new forms or variations on forms is constantly hampered by the prejudices, whether intended or otherwise, of audiences – the most overwhelming examples being in modern and digital art. The resounding cry ‘that’s not real art’, ‘my five year old could have done that’, ‘it’s all digital, where’s the engagement with the real world?’, ‘those things are trivial and facile and childish’, rises as if from the graves of generations of dogmatic conservatives to choke the use of new form. Contemporary forms from films, paintings and sculptures to hypertext art and videogames all face these criticisms which, in turn, lead those who do appreciate the new forms for their attempts at innovation to be branded as snooty elitists or worse, outright frauds who ‘just make it up’ – as if the interpretation of something ‘traditional’ like an impressionist landscape was any simpler than that of unpicking the textual nature of hundreds of lines of code of hypertext, or a novel any more intrinsically insightful than vast and painstaking installations. New attempts at themes run the even greater risk of being labelled as vulgar or elite or simply being boring on account of readers (listeners, watchers, perusers) simply not understanding how to engage with them. Can you imagine a book written not about love between two humans, but the relationship between an headphone jack and the auxiliary port on a laptop? Can you imagine a story about a noble slice of bread on a quest to become toast by any means necessary? A film about what it’s like to be a tongue? Maybe the bread’s toast quest is almost recognisable since it plays on such a strong theme (epic quest), but can you even imagine writing a hundred pages on the headphone jack? What would a feature-length about being a tongue even contain, and would you stay to watch all two hours and fifteen minutes plus commercials of it?

The new is reviled in its irruption, a problem the modernists confronted by embracing the ‘elitist’ label and creating works built for only the highest of high culture moguls (generally speaking of course). Novels too were hated when they first appeared (the ‘one true literature’ was poetry back then) and only overcame the prejudices of time by, well, time. Now, novels are celebrated (at least commercially) for the vulgarity that they were originally hated for (can you honestly tell me you’ve never read an airplane paperback or can doubt their widespread popularity?). Film, when it first appeared wasn’t considered art or artistic, and now it’s a massive global industry. Videogames still mostly aren’t considered artistic and that industry rakes in more than film per annum (not that money is an indicator of art, just that the medium’s growth and widespread popularity is undeniable)! And let’s not even talk about hip-hop, rap, EDM, or Metal as artistic. Whenever the new appears, historically it has been denied the status of art, and thus the potential for being creative, for being ‘original’ and making the ‘genuinely new’ is stifled by the very audience the creator tries to reach. True, if something truly drives itself into the imagination, it’ll survive the test of time and become the norm in 100, maybe 200 years. If you’re willing to wait for your creativity to be acknowledged until long after your death then I guess you’d best start bucking trends and hope for the best. It’s true that life expectancies are increasing I suppose so maybe one day that’ll be fine, but even then, by the time you’re acknowledged for your work, your style will have become dogma, will have become the boring cliché that everyone else is copying – and you’re denied the right to ‘originality’ again. The techniques that were once experimental and radical and hated by everyone turn into commonplace markers of the form (free-indirect-discourse was new when Joyce did it and now it’s everywhere – heck, the first novels didn’t have chapters or paragraphs, imagine how chuffed the person to invent those must have been, and how uncreative (s)he’d seem now!).

Is it possible to be creative in one’s own lifetime? Is it possible to be groundbreaking in your own age and also hailed as ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ in ages to come? I know some would simply recoil at the idea of using this example, but due to its universality, if for no other reason, let’s talk about Shakespeare. Even those who turn their nose up at the archaic language, hated it in school, or simply don’t like theatre, there isn’t anyone who’s taken an English Literature class who doesn’t know who William Shakespeare is to some degree and who hasn’t at least heard of Romeo and Juliet (sweeping statements alert [as if I haven’t made enough already]). Imagine that, almost 400 years after your death being considered ‘the greatest poet in the English language’, theatre groups and students still squeezing relevant, dramatic, and ‘original’, ‘expressive’, and ‘imaginative’ richness from your work. Imagine being considered so ‘creative’ that 400 years later many still consider you foundational in (read: the creator of) massive swathes of a whole culture’s literary tradition. Not to mention you tended to pack out the theatres in your own lifetime, the biggest show in town, appealing to everyone from royalty to the lowliest street urchins who could afford to chuck your theatre a coin. Now, true, not everyone can be The Bard, but if we, who consider ourselves creative could ask him how in the world he did what he did (Elizabethan English notwithstanding), would any of us pass up the chance?

Here lies the crux of the discussion. What we cannot do, is find out from the man himself what his ‘creative process’ was. What we do know is that he was considered not only pathbreaking and revolutionary but also masterful and enormously skilful within the ‘traditional’ disciplines of the time. The sonnet form of poetry pre-existed Shakespeare by many centuries. Tragedy, Comedy, and indeed, even Tragicomedy had been around since Aristotle in 300 BC. Shakespeare didn’t just come out with new things by endlessly mixing and remixing these media which had been around for hundreds of years – in some ways he wasn’t very creative at all, he just produced, in a very traditional way, some of the best material there had ever been in a certain form while adhering to its conventions.

Beyond here lies speculation.

I believe that, broadly speaking there are two main ‘types’ of creativity. One is inspiration, the other is mastery. Inspiration is the blissful visitation of the muse, the descent of the gods from Olympus to bless the mortal pen with divine and eternal beauty – it’s the flash, the ‘Eureka’, that one evening where you sit down and for no reason you can think of, just keep writing until the sun comes up and have something remarkable. Mastery is slow and bottomless process of study, it is searching each hay stack in the barn for a needle, it is slapping the camel’s back with straw hoping it will break (not that we wish harm on camels), it is playing those scales and arpeggios one more time, it’s doing that last push up and going out for that drizzly Sunday morning run again. It’s that training montage that doesn’t happen for only as long as Eye Of The Tiger lasts but carries on until you’re heavyweight champion of the world, and far beyond.

Of course, it’s absurd to think of these two as separate, I don’t think anyone does either in isolation, but I do think these can be heavily polarised. Some writers will be familiar with the notorious fickleness of inspiration, of how standoffish the muses can be. One day, the divine is before you, blinding, and you’ve never written better in your life – the next three months your pen might be drier than a Triassic creek, your picking fingers fat and clumsier than horse trotters, your cinematic eye and panoramic imagination more stale than a month-old baguette. That’s not to say that those devoted to mastery do any better though. Another day slogging through another exercise, another day forcing myself to study and learn and scrutinise and practice in ways which don’t let me express, which don’t let me be free, which might even be (dare I say it?) lethally boring (seriously though, scales and arpeggios…). I do believe that there is a difference though. One who reaches mastery, who does break the camel’s back with straw, who finds a needle in every haystack and keeps on searching, their mastery will never leave them, it will never forsake them like the erstwhile muse. One the other hand, the inspired artist may create in a day, a month, a year, what the student dedicated to mastery never accomplishes in fifty years.

I can’t say for certain whether Shakespeare leant towards one or the other – maybe he was blessed with both? I do favour the idea that he was of the type who leant towards mastery, however. He was beloved in his own generation for being a brilliant poet of all the most traditional styles (Shakespeare did not, contrary to the naming sense, invent the Shakespearean Sonnet). He did not, as far as I believe, begin his career with outlandish or experimental work, or by attempting to break with the theatrical traditions of the era. He was, to all intents and purposes, what one might analogously call, a ‘pop playwright’. True enough, the academic elite playwrights  of the time are believed to have criticised and decried his early work – sound familiar? I believe that Shakespeare’s (and most all creative) genius is ultimately not just the product of miraculous awakenings and flashes of brilliance, but rather, a rigorous and developed, studied, and learnt quality which is enriched and refined through investment in forms and traditions, through deliberate limitation of creativity.

Anyone who is vaguely familiar with my beliefs on martial arts practice will know that one of my favourite martial arts sayings comes from one of the great Aikido masters of this generation; Master Seishiro Endo. It goes like this:

There is no such thing as freedom just like that. It is an aim to become free. Freedom is often referred to as being free of something, but that kind of freedom, to be free, for example, of a duty, or a person, is not real freedom. So what is? – That is an important question. It certainly is nothing you get just like that. There is no easy-going freedom.  I think, in order to become free, you have to restrict yourself at first to a very unfree form. By practising within that form, you will learn to be free – step by step. You practice within a restriction, but in the course of the repetitions within that restriction – it may happen that the restriction rids you of itself. And then the whole practice suddenly, becomes egoless, light – and free. Practising a form thoroughly will, at some point rid you of the form. To reach that stage in a practice means to have acquired freedom. –But within a form.

What Endo says of freedom is, to my mind, true of creativity. If creativity is originality, expressiveness, and imaginativity, then I believe it should follow the same structure as the freedom outlined above. Plenty of people are wildly imaginative – they can picture a scene or a story, an object or a sentence or a concept which others would be awestruck by and which would be uniquely their own. But to realise that imagination, to transform it into expression, will not happen without mastery, or rather, submission to form. By submission to form, I mean learning. I mean becoming so immersed in learning poetry that you end up breathing verse, being to invested in music that you dream in lyric and melody, being so captivated by and dedicated to painting that you see the sky like your own version of van Gogh’s Starry Night, and yes, being so extensively drilled in martial techniques that even the cadence of your step is as intimately martial as your most flamboyant throw. Then your work becomes ‘original’. There is no creativity ‘just like that’: I can’t just turn my idea for a wonderful novel into a book. My imagination is constrained by my technical limitations. In mastering, or rather, being mastered by a form, in ridding myself of ego, I gain expressiveness – my native mode of expression becomes form, I can transform my inner imagination directly into expression. This is ‘originality’, this is creativity. Whether I’m remixing and sampling a sick beat for a brand new experimental mixtape or asking my violin to show my audience how I feel about the Dvořák violin Sonatina – this is true creativity. It’s what happens when you can say someone who might be doing something ages old ‘makes it their own’ – not in the way Simon Cowell idly applauds his stagelings on X-Factor, but in the way everything from Benedict Cumberbatch playing Hamlet to Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker gives you chills. In the way that both Eminem’s Lose Yourself and Nicola Benedetti shredding a Shostakovich solo take your breath away, and in the way both T.S. Eliot’s Lovesong of J. Alfred Prufrock and the 1982 cartoon The Snowman accompanied by We’re Walking In The Air are both profoundly moving experiences. Even the way water droplets play across the floor of Teshima Art Museum or Amazon’s drop-down menus elegantly and smoothly opening and closing when moused over have this character.

In this way, creativity has little to do with ‘the new’ in the sense of breaking away from things that are dogmatic or ‘traditional’, but rather has to do with sincerity. The sincerity of expressing an aspect or character of something (of yourself, of your medium, of a specific form, of a moment, of an object) which is thoroughly native to that thing is creative – it makes something new happen, even if that’s not in the sense of being genre defining or groundbreaking in the sense that might be more commonly accepted. Creativity is self-expression of the most appropriate order. That which is creative expresses its inner ‘selfness’, its ‘vision’, its ‘imagination’, if you like, through the form of something else. Indeed, it isn’t non-newness which is really the s(c)eptic that rots pop culture – it’s insincerity, the deepset feeling that the ‘artists’ in the big industries aren’t really committing anything sincere to their work at all. It’s not a matter of there being ‘nothing new’, but a matter of there being ‘nothing true’. To begin with creativity relies on there being something non-new there to be expressed through. To reiterate: creativity is expression through form. The violinist expresses themselves through their instrument, the conductor expresses herself through the orchestra, the composer expresses herself through the orchestra, and the conductor, and the paper she wrote the notes on, and the contemporary musician expresses herself too, through all of the above, by sampling and recombining their work. Just because any one of these artists use methods and media that they did not invent (how to play the violin, a conventional orchestra, the conventions of a sonata, someone else’s sonata) does not make them less creative. It is the imagining of one thing through the profile of another thing which is creative and which, in the end, is what makes the whole of aesthetics churn like a geyser from the muses’ fountain into fiery life.

If you have managed to read this far and still not be convinced – I dare you to not at the very least marvel at the technical skill, the artistry if you will, and the inspiration, vision, and expressiveness of this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lTx3G6h2xyA

Thankyou very much for reading. I hope this has proven an interesting and compelling read! Some of you may have noticed two rather odd tags on this post: OOO and Object-Oriented-Ontology. I haven’t actually written on OOO (the acronym of choice for Object-Oriented-Ontology) here, or anywhere else on the blog properly, but I would be lying if I said that these ideas were not heavily influenced by the thought of particularly Timothy Morton and Graham Harman on causality. If you care for philosophy, I certainly recommend them, especially Morton’s Realist Magic and Harman’s The Quadruple Object. They’re fascinating. They also have their own blogs at: https://doctorzamalek2.wordpress.com/ and http://ecologywithoutnature.blogspot.co.uk/. They’re actually very regular updaters and very entertaining bloggers. Given that they’re dedicated to bringing philosophy out of the dry and prohibitively elite/complex dogma it’s been stuck in (amongst other projects), it’s not really that surprising, I suppose! Once again, thanks for reading!