Loosely – The Structure of Belief

A friend asked if I would write on the status of belief, or more specifically, the possibility of altering belief through conscious intervention or an otherwise form of reasoned action. I’d like to offer my understanding of belief as a general concept in answer, but am not entirely certain on the structure of the questioneer’s own concept of belief – therefore I’ll be using a loose workaround to characterise my interlocutor’s position to start with.

As far as I can tell then, the position I’ll be speaking against is characterised by a kind of essentialism of belief. Belief in this schema is unalterable. As it appears to me, this stance also holds that belief exists as a base element of character, an essential unit to the substance of the believer. I feel also that these characteristics are based on a basic contention which holds that belief and decision, or rather, faith and reason are diametrically opposed. Since the lead contention of my interlocutor’s stance appears to be that belief is fundamentally impossible to interfere with through any action on the part of the believer, it seems to me that a binarism can be derived from this which divides belief from conscious thought, faith from reason, and essence from action. This is doubtless a simplification of my conversation partner’s position, but in the absence of a full enumeration of it, I am satisfied to use it until such a time as more nuance becomes necessary or corrections offered.

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My position on belief generally stems from the work of the poststructuralists and phenomenologists – philosophers generally active from the early 20th century until around the mid to late nineteen-seventies when that particular heritage began to go out of fashion. Needless to say, I do hold that belief can be altered and intervened in, and argue that belief is constituted in the act of positive decision in the first place. For myself, no true faith is possible without positive conscious intervention – belief, as far as I am concerned is constituted in the decision to believe.

To elaborate: belief must always have an object – there is something that is believed in. Whether that belief amounts to a belief in Santa Claus or a belief that the Earth orbits the Sun, or that God is present in all movements of everyday life, the object of belief cannot be taken alone, but always constitutes a belief system. To believe in Santa Claus is predicated on a belief in a whole mythos around the festival of Christmas, to believe the Earth orbits the sun is to believe in the value system posited by the Copernican revolution in astronomy and Renaissance science, to believe in the omnipresence of God is to participate in a doctrine formally disseminated through a church and its adherents. Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault are the philosophers most famous for discussing the contingency of meaning upon whole contextualising systems. In arguably his most famous single work, Structure, Sign and Play in the Human Sciences, Derrida demonstrates that no term in language, and all forms of meaning more generally, has meaning at all without the system as a whole. One sign does not refer exclusively to its real referent and derive meaning thusly, it instead derives meaning from referring through an infinite movement of substitutions within its system of meaning. A simple way to parse this is through the English word ‘dog’. Culturally speaking, the concept ‘dog’ is opposed to that of ‘cat’. Regardless of any evidence in support of these two animals in any way having opposed features (indeed, both are mammals with similar body shapes and domestic roles amongst humans), the meaning developed between the two concepts is defined, not wholly by reference to the real entity, but by reference to the opposed concepts within the language, the meaning-making system. Thus when asked ‘what is the opposite of dog’, the response which appears at once natural yet without reason or origin on the tongue is ‘cat’.

What Foucault adds to this is in the same vein but speaking from the realm of historical contingency rather than linguistic analysis. Foucault’s idea of ‘discourse’ is, in my estimation, most well elucidated in The Archaeology of Knowledge and Discipline and Punish. For Foucault, any enunciation, any set of statements is always entirely historical, that is, it gains its meaning from the meaning-disseminating institutions present in a given social moment. This is explicitly not limited to language, but to all ‘discursive practice’, including gesture, routine and habit, in everything from legal systems and education to where you sit on a bus. Quite apart from the intentions of the speaker or actor, Foucault’s idea of a discourse is a body of ‘anonymous historical rules’ (Archaeology of Knowledge, p. 131)  which govern the meaning of concepts within any given enunciative (meaning-making) act. Again, to clarify by way of example, it is an obvious matter of course in some cultures for grandparents to aid in the raising of children, while in others, such a proposition would be egregiously offensive and absurd. This is not a mere appeal to cultural difference – it speaks to the function of a series of institutions of value and meaning; a Confucian tradition of ancestry embedded in government and education on the one hand, and a Christian / Hellenic tradition of nurture embedded in government and education on the other, each to form very different concepts of ‘family’. This can be observed on any scale, even within one culture, so the fact that two families in the same neighbourhood can have very different relationships is a function of each individual’s relationship to and interpretation of the discourses through which meaning is generated in their everyday life (who sits at the head of the table, who works in the family, how care is given, what responsibilities are expected, etc.). Foucault performs an excellent explication of this in Discipline and Punish, elaborating how the mechanisms of observation, training and rehabilitation, originating in the prison system, now pervade military, legal, governmental, educational, urban infrastructure, and business apparatus down to the micro-level of everyday human practice – I leave it to the reader to invest in this work at their own leisure.

 It is therefore the case that belief as such always involves an individual’s placement within a belief system. There is no belief without the operation of meaning-making based on concepts developed through language and enunciative practices performed in discourse. However, simple submission within a belief system does not, for me, constitute true belief in any way. The operation of discourse and language as meaning-making and meaning-governing structures is a regular facet of everyday life; humans accept and live accepting the constructs of these systems as a matter of course – there is nothing of the character of belief in that so much as simple everyday adoption through necessity.

Consider the religious man – perhaps born in an Evangelical family and raised with all the trappings of Evangelical Christianity held as inalienable truths, going on with his life in the same manner and never once deviating from this path – a believer for life, so to speak. As far as I am concerned, at no point in this life is true belief or true faith in exhibition. It is as if the man is merely a feature of his environment – it doesn’t matter who he is or what he does, he could be any man, his entire life exists as a continuous and unrelenting operation of the discursive structure in which he has found himself. Consider a different person of religion – this person a convert, raised in the firm belief of a certain set of concepts – perhaps that of no god, or of some other god, or simply just believing whatever their family or significant peers believed, be it ambivalence, ardent atheism or whatever takes your fancy. This person, she becomes a woman of religion, a full-blooded evangelical, no different to our first case in habit or lifestyle. In this case also, no true faith, no true belief exists. The person has simply moved from one environment to another, fully adopting one discourse’s practices and language as truth, then abandoning those practices in order to fully adopt another. Nothing in the person is distinct from the discursive environment in which she is embedded – once again the person herself is meaningless, there is no true belief in the system in which she finds herself, merely a subservience to status quo, a blankness in her which is filled by the ideologies of her current social context.

The Existentialists suggest the way to what I take as true belief or true faith. Kierkegaard, adamant protestant, and Nietzsche, famously for the declaration: ‘God is dead, and we have killed him’, find themselves unlikely bedfellows in this regard. Within a Christian frame, Kierkegaard argues that ‘Innocence is ignorance’, a state like that of Eden where a human is ‘in immediate unity with his natural condition’ (The Concept of Dread, 37). Within this frame, the state of paradise – a prelapsarian garden – is a state in which man is not differentiated from its surroundings. Man only gains freedom through falling, through independence from its surrounding state of being, through becoming self-aware (through Sin and knowledge of Good and Evil in the Christian context). Nietzsche argues similarly that the goal for humanity is the kind of man who is independent of both tradition and convention, swayed by neither the trappings of the past nor the status quo of the present. Though the concept of Ubermensch is most famous for its adoption within National Socialist ideology, the fundamental point has much more to say about the freedom of man as an individual over any and all proximate systems of thought than about the superiority of any national ideology in general.

The point of significance is that a human only gains freedom through separation from their immediate conceptual environment. This, for me, is the starting point of true belief or true faith. Without self-awareness, and the full capacity to doubt and, indeed, deny that a given discourse is true, the possibility of belief does not exist. A person moves in and out of many discourses and many conceptual realms in the course of a lifetime, acting on the ideological systems of each in turn – this does not make that person a believer in any of them, only a conduit through which each of them operates (in order to reproduce an economic reality if you’re a Marxist, to reproduce its memes if you follow that kind of theory, etc.). If I am raised in a family of agnostics and follow their customs, I move out and begin to spend time with atheists and follow their habits, then later convert to Christianity because I am spending time amongst many other Christians who convince me to do so, in no way am I a true believer in any of these systems of thought – I am nothing more than a person who is, as Kierkegaard would put it, is ignorant, who lacks the self-awareness to qualify as a free functioning subject. To adopt the discourses of my immediate surroundings is something that proceeds through the simple ongoing interaction with the people in my proximity. This is little more than a convenience. Indeed, many go through life in this way and this way alone – none are possessed of faith in its richest character. To possess true belief is to make the active decision to adopt a system of meaning in full light of the knowledge that it is fallible and deniable.

If it seems like I am targeting theism unfairly, please forgive another example based in religion – it is an easy lens through which to illustrate the point, though I hold that this character applies to anything that can be believed whatsoever. Imagine again a member of the church, which church doesn’t matter, nor whether they’re lifetime devout or recently enlightened. If this individual does not acknowledge the possibility of the entirety of their doctrine being false and mistaken, and still elect to follow it, they are bereft of faith. Assuming they do not acknowledge the fallibility of their doctrine, imagine entertaining a conversation with this individual. Whether you speak to them from a position of agreement with them or a position of opposition, there is nothing to be spoken about with regard to their so-called belief. Even if you are both followers of the same church, it would be a conversation utterly without merit to, for example, question this person on their interpretation of the nature of the holy trinity, or the implications of the story of Cain and Abel, to pick examples at random. Even if this individual produces sound arguments and well-organised rhetoric, unless they have sought to challenge these arguments and found them lacking in some manner, then belief in its truest form cannot exist. The problem is not a problem of the content of what he might have to say, it is a problem of whether you are truly speaking to him at all. If he produces an internally watertight argument for the nature of the holy trinity being fundamentally based on the holy spirit, it would have no meaning to hear it from him if he had not already acknowledged his argument’s failings and chosen to proceed in his belief in that position anyway. To produce arguments with flawless internal logic is admirable for sure, but without acknowledging that the formation of that logic itself is a function of a given discourse, and therefore possesses the possibility of complete untruth, there is no belief in the argument regardless of its rhetorical execution. One may as well speak to a machine, or (if such a thing were possible) converse with the ideology itself – which is essentially what this kind of person becomes; a pure embodiment of a discourse, but in no way someone capable of belief or faith.

By contrast, consider the religious woman, an advocate of one God or another, who both cares to understand and fully acknowledges the possibility that another religion has merit and its own measure of truth.  Consider that she also cares to pay attention to and investigate the merits of atheistic discourse, scientific discourse, polytheistic and pantheistic discourse, as well as other assortments of spiritualist and paganistic ideology. If she remains firm in her decision to follow the path of her choosing, not only does she epitomise freedom in the sense both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard hold most highly, she also possesses belief in the truest sense. If you ask this woman about her ideas on the mysteries of faith, then she really has something to say – because you can be certain that what she says is hers, absolutely hers, not the mere repetition of discourse, or the recital of a discursive logic speaking through her tongue, but a genuinely considered disposition which she as a free individual has taken the time and effort to unravel and chosen to hold as true based on her own volition.

This holds true just as surely for the claim that ‘the Earth is flat’. To even use this idea, this sentence, presupposes an idea of ‘Earth’ as opposed to something-other-than-Earth, be that space and the planets, the heavenly firmament and hell, or the ancient Apeiron, which in turn presupposes a cosmology – a discourse governing beliefs about the nature of the universe.  It is impossible to speak about this contention without first understanding the world-system, the network of meaning that it entails. To declare my belief that ‘the Earth is flat’ constitutes no true belief at all without acknowledgement that there is a counter-system of meaning which declares that the Earth is round, or in some other state. Truly, to echo again Kierkegaard, a declaration such as this is nothing more than ignorance, a wilful ignorance of the possibility of alternatives – which amounts to nothing other than stupidity; is the very definition of stupidity.

I have made quite a lengthy exposition, but it should be obvious from this why, for me, the very idea of belief is impossible without decision. An idea simply accepted and taken as true is no belief whatsoever, and a human who does so barely registers as a free subject in the Nietzschean sense any case. The refusal to understand and accept the merits of diverse viewpoints amounts to wilful ignorance, which is itself the definition of stupidity, and furthermore rank irresponsibility. True belief, true faith, is the decision taken by a free subject to follow a system of meaning and to uphold its merits, while acknowledging the possibility of the absolute fallibility of that system in the face of alternatives. This is the very essence of belief itself. I refer to one more philosopher in support of my point – the famous phenomenologist and ethical thinker Emmanuel Levinas, who states in Totality and Infinity that ‘the atheist separation is required by the idea of Infinity’ (p. 60). Infinity for Levinas means religion, and is predicated on ‘atheist separation’, by which he means, the absolute independence of a being from its system of being and meaning: belief cannot exist without the believing being being wholly independent from the concepts in which it believes.

At this point the question of whether a belief can change based on a decisive act alone is more or less trivial with the answer affirmative. No true belief exists without decision, hence a belief altered – from the Earth is flat to the Earth is round, say – can of course exist. Especially given that the believer must acknowledge the fallibility of their belief and the truth of alternatives, then I see no difficulty in this, save the commitment on the part of the individual necessary to truly believe anew with sincerity. It should be clear here that this stands against the idea of belief as an opposite to reason, or faith as an opposite to conscious thought, or essence as an opposite to action. True belief and faith are the apotheosis of reason, an apogee of the committed and focused pursuit of thought. The essence of a personality is not necessarily found in the beliefs that go unchallenged and unnoticed in them, apart from their determined action (though this can be the case). The essence of a personality can just as easily be present, and all the more so for the commitment made, in the active and conscious choice made to believe in X, Y or Z in the full light of its flaws and opponents. A free subject is one who is independent of, and self-aware within, the discourses which surround them. This is a goal for any human to aspire to. The opposite is wilful ignorance, the complacency and arrogance to choose not to court or understand or acknowledge the essential viability of competing systems of meaning, which makes a human no more than a discourse machine or an ideological marionette – the prisoner blind to the prison, to speak in more cliche terms. True belief cannot be the idle submission to a dogma, nor can it be the pure logic of an ardent follower. For the former case simply exists within a discourse like a fish not noticing it lives in water, and the latter speaks with an arrogance that posits that water is all that could possibly exist. Only in the considered and measured doubt of self-criticism and the firm and thoughtful listening of commitment is true belief to be found.

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This has been somewhat apart from my usual style, far more philosophical in tone and rhetoric, so I hope it was not too much to bear with for the casual reader. For those well-versed in the literature I have discussed, I also ask that you bear with my interpretations: I am not formally trained in philosophy and approach these works from the direction of literature, so if the nuances of the extremely rich positions of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are lost in my writing, I hope you will forgive me. Lastly, to my interlocutor, I hope you have found this an informative and entertaining read and I’d welcome a response should you feel so inclined.

Thanks for reading!

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Batman Shirtless – MMA Villains in Response to the Guardian

In response to this article:

https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2017/mar/26/ultimate-fighting-championship-fight-of-our-lives-mma-donald-trump-vladimir-putin-conor-mcregor?CMP=fb_gu

As a fundamentally a traditionalist martial artist, an appreciator of the combat sports, and someone who considers himself relatively well-versed in literature and the arts, I enjoyed the above article.

I thought the particular description of MMA as ‘somewhere between the rigour of traditional martial arts and the contrived drama of pro wrestling’ is very well put, as was the comparison between Fight Club and the UFC as narrative forms thematically united in their appeal to the socially disembedded of late modernity.

I’d like to move into what I’d add to this article by defending Dana White – which is something I’m not particularly accustomed to, I’d like to add. I don’t especially like Dana White – I’m not a fan of his marketing strategies and from the evidence of any given interview, I don’t think he’s an especially pleasant figure in public. However, the comment cited in this article in reply to Meryl Streep (‘of course [MMA] is an art’) is one that I would like to stand for. The article contextualises the minor dispute between White and Streep which I, therefore, will not go into here apart from to say that Streep’s comment denigrating football and MMA as non-arts (apparently at random) was unnecessary to her point about defending the rights of non-American citizens in Hollywood, and that White’s comment denigrating Streep (inaccurately characterised as an uppity 80-year-old) was just as unnecessary to his defence of MMA. What is interesting is the apparent importance of the status of art vs non-art to the purported validity of MMA as a form worthy of the public domain. White could just as easily have said: ‘well hey, sure MMA isn’t art, but it is a very successful sport, spectacle, and entertainment industry’ – and he may have had a pretty good riposte to Streep’s suggestion that Hollywood films and MMA aren’t on the same page (whether or not the majority of Hollywood fare qualifies as ‘art’ is a whole other conversation). However, White chose instead, and not without some sincerity, to defend the idea that MMA is indeed art and rightly ought to be considered as such amongst the other aesthetic traditions. Why?

The status of art somehow retains value. Art objects of quality tend to endure despite the movement of time, shifts in culture, or changes societal context. The status of art has the appearance of the infinite, of something at the very least impossible to pin down and easily explain or reduce. As such, the status of art confers upon its object an enduring kind of worth, along with the suggestion that the object might be something truly essential to, at the very least, the human condition if not reality more generally. This is why art is associated with the idea of the inspired, with the idea of the divine or of the muse – the emergence of the over and beyond, of the transcendent. This is why Hamlet is still reinterpreted and Romeo and Juliet is known and understood the world over. This is why there is not a recorded culture without music and dance, and pictures, paintings, and sculptures can be found representing things which cross national and temporal borders from most any society mentionable. Historically, the art forms that have existed as long as recordings of human culture are available are the pictorial, verse, lyric and sound, and dance and the body arts. If MMA were to be acknowledged amongst these (it would fall into the category I call body arts, which includes dance, and indeed many traditional martial arts) it would receive a kind of cultural prestige. The name art is something conferred upon objects which enter a supposedly higher circle of society, entities which are preserved and honoured and celebrated and studied and which society keeps paying attention to. At the very least, this would guarantee White’s source of income for his lifetime and possibly cement a legacy beyond that, transforming MMA into a form which would transcend its current social status and become an ongoing cultural artefact in itself, beyond any given organisation like the UFC or its competitors and affiliates (Bellator, Invicta, British Association MMA) and thereby sustaining their existence just as boxing does for the WBC, WBA, IBF and WBO, amongst others. Clearly, there is much to be gained for White and his organisation in the status of art, yet in spite of this, there remains a counter movement in White’s logic which suggests there might be other than profit to the claim that MMA is art.

Against White’s remark that Meryl Streep and her demographic would not be expected to love mixed martial arts, the claim that MMA is an art form makes an open and plaintive appeal: that Meryl Streep and her demographic should at the very least acknowledge and accept MMA as a form of art. There is a kind of longing for acceptance, a need for belonging – Meryl Streep in a certain way represents not only herself and a demographic of older women, but also the film academy, and a more generalised bastion of ‘high’ culture. White’s choice to defend MMA as art suggests an inner-circle / outer-circle opposition at play between himself and his institution and the established arts. The Guardian’s article actually makes fair and quite favourable commentary on White’s direction in the UFC in this regard, noting his introduction of safety regulations and standardisation of the fighting format, along with his successful courtship of various athletic commissions and regulatory bodies, effectively transforming the ‘human cock-fighting’ of the MMA of the past into a sport at least deemed respectable enough to be broadcast by major networks worldwide. White’s contradictory attitude to the established arts, embittered, disparaging and full of chagrin yet somehow still seeking recognition, is a fossil of all the work he has done for MMA already. Through a career which has essentially established the MMA as a mainstream sport and the UFC as its chief promotions organisation, White has had to carry and push against the weight of MMA’s public image as brutal and savage, as a violent sport for the fulfilment of violent, hypermasculine fantasies. Now that MMA is recognised and popular worldwide, it still struggles to shake off these preconceptions, as the Guardian’s article makes clear, and not undeservedly so – many of MMA’s marketing strategies have and do play out the narrative of violence, hypermasculinity, and determinacy to a willing audience. If Connor Mcgregor is currently MMA’s most lucrative piece of capital, he only embodies this sense within the modern sport. Thus White and the UFC are riven: with its feet MMA runs towards the world of the arts, feeling that the work it’s done, the distance it’s come is deserving of recognition, of inauguration into the inner circle, to be ranked at least alongside boxing, ‘the sweet science’, and go beyond the old grisly moniker ‘cage-fighting’ with all its trappings of petty needless injury, hyperaggressive egotism, and blood on chicken-wire and asphalt. Yet with its hands, MMA clings on to these trappings, it grasps them as a spoilt child its long-outgrown favourite toys, it revels in the fact that it is outside established arts, and celebrates itself as a realm of the untamed, the unregulated and un-bureaucratised; MMA likes the idea of itself as an outsider while still knocking on the door.

This is at the heart of White’s confrontation with Streep: MMA doesn’t really want to be part of the in-club White characterises in Streep as ‘uppity 80-year-old women’ – if that’s what it would mean to be considered art; that’s not at all where MMA wants to go. Yet MMA does want to be seen as art, not just art ‘for the masses’ or ‘low’ art (which, in some discussions would be tantamount to being non-art anyway), but full-blooded, thoroughbred, heritage-laden, with all the pomp and circumstance, art.

So is it?

A particular art theory I am currently partial to is the claim by Graham Harman that art is essentially theatre. What he means by this isn’t necessarily that men and women on stage are somehow more art than anything else, or that all other artistic media are derivative of the amphitheatres of Ancient Greece and Rome. The contention runs on the basis that art can neither be purely formal nor purely subjectival, which is to say that it can neither be just the art object, nor just ‘in-the-eye-of-the-beholder’. The existence of art always requires that both terms are present, a meaning-making beholder and a meaning-bearing form. The art is always performed as a constellation between the two elements – which is especially easy to see in performance art, such as theatre where a form, that is, a script, stage space, and narrative are given meaning through their performance by a group of players, which in turn is given meaning through the reception of the audience. This is less intuitive in the case of something like sculpture or painting, but the argument runs that the form of the art object (say Boticelli’s Birth of Venus) performs its meaning through its observer who becomes a player in that meaning. There isn’t especial need to go into more depth here (though symbolic interpretation and representational media are very worthy subjects), but for those interested, Harman’s full arguments are most thorough in the second part of his book Dante’s Broken Hammer.

Does MMA fulfil these criteria? In the Guardian’s comparison of MMA to professional wrestling (which in itself is well-discussed by Roland Barthes in the wonderful book Mythologies), it does appear to manifest them in a somewhat superficial way. However, this makes the artwork – the MMA performance the crowds flock to see – entirely literalisable in terms of symbolic meaning, which denies it the status of art. This is where I contest the Guardian’s article and White both. Where the article suggests that MMA’s chief lure is in portraying a instant-gratification drip-feed of highlight-reel closed binarism, an obvious winner-loser division, through an us-and-them display of ritual violence, I disagree. And where White suggests that ‘of course MMA is art’, it turns out I also disagree.

MMA does indeed use the professional wrestling style of narrative to generate a reason for the fight – a fight that’s all business isn’t especially fun to watch for those not already invested in the technicalities of martial arts, after all. Barthes writes of wrestling that each symbolic gesture and bodily sign is rounded and full, an exaggeration exhaustive and replete with natural meaning, unquestionable in ‘the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice’ (Mythologies, p.8). Even if the promoters don’t fix fights or encourage MMA battles to be seen this way, it is unmistakable that the crowds intuit the fights within these boundaries. This explains the riotous excitement around figures like Connor McGregor, who possesses the skill of grandiloquence Barthes argues is necessary for professional wrestling – all of McGregor’s outward signs and symbols are excessive, exhaustive, full of arrogance and disdain, a truly universal villain; or else a hero amongst rebels, a lord of scoundrels. Especially amongst white anglophone audiences, the UFC was somewhat stagnant in terms of propulsion before McGregor, owing to a series of non-white or non-anglophone champions, and ultimately, to the top ranks of most weight divisions being dominated by fairly straight-talking masters or fairly uninspiring journeymen. When McGregor eventually challenged for the lightweight title, the stage was set for a classic hero-villain duel of epic proportions. The Brazilian Jose Aldo junior plays every inch the hero: from poor and humble beginnings, exceptionally hard-working and athletic, soft-spoken and respectful, there could be no fighter more antithetical in character to McGregor, the rough and ragged trash-talker, disparaging of all foes, racially abusive against Brazilians in particular, arrogant in the extreme, and covered in tattoos of, amongst other things, his own name, a brand declaring his own greatness. As anyone who has seen The Dark Knight knows well, the public love nothing more than seeing a decadent hero fall. So when McGregor dispatches Aldo with a straight left hand, not twenty seconds into the bout, unseating the long-time champion with all the swagger expected of a true villain of the ring, it is no surprise that he draws more fan-following and more money than any other MMA fighter alive. Other fighters have also adopted this rhetorical strategy (Connor McGregor is not the first fighter ever to trash-talk, obviously, but in the UFC, few have done so with such grandeur, excess, and egotism), a similar narrative playing out for the Bantamweight championship in early 2017 between heavily tattooed trash-talking up-comer Cody Garbrandt and measured, consummate technician, and long-time champion, Dominick Cruz.

As a follow-up to the McGregor / Aldo episode, the McGregor / Diaz episode was even more mythologically grand. For in Diaz’s challenge to McGregor, we see the pompous and arrogant villain king called out by a hard-bitten and infamously vulgar trash-talker in Nate Diaz, just as much a villain of the Welterweight division as McGregor is of the Lightweight. The story now plays that a great evil has had to rise up to unseat a decadent reign (McGregor / Aldo), a kind of wild justice – but to unseat the great villain himself, only another villain will do, a fight of evil on evil to restore balance, a justice of mutual destruction. In this fight, there is no room for the qualities embodied in recent champions, with whom the public quickly lose interest. Virtue (Aldo), technical refinery (Cruz), diligence and guts (Daniel Cormier), traditional martial arts values (Lyoto Machida), genuine glittering mastery (Anderson Silva), all of these are thrown out of the narrative, whether they are in evidence in the actual fight or otherwise – it is all about who is the baddest of the bad, like an old western, all standards of law and order are abandoned, justice will fall with the quickest fist in the octagon.

We can see here that the texture of the narrative in MMA is much more rich and complex than the kind of snapshot winner-loser gratification that the Guardian ascribes to it. The article is correct in demonstrating that MMA does very much appeal to a universalised theme of justice in which any man can claim his own reward if only he were man-enough to step into the ring for it – it does not follow that the essential lure of MMA is the closure that comes with a clear division between victor and vanquished. Today, it is the rawness of justice without bureaucracy, without order, without regulation, without red tape or paperwork – thus when Diaz, famous for slapping his opponents to show his disregard for them, is cut and bleeding from McGregor’s punches, but stuns and visibly destabilises McGregor with punches of his own, and finishes the rout by submitting him to a choke, the drama to those watching, educated in martial arts or not, is immeasurable. The fact that two villains are the heroes of the hour does not say something about MMA so much as it says about the world in which MMA and its audience currently resides.

The astute reader will have noticed parallels between the question of MMA as art, and the political questions currently pervasive in Europe and America – the popular dissatisfaction with inefficient bureaucratic institutions, the sense that justice is simply not carried out by those in power, the sense of insincerity hung on the neck of every institution and personage of government and media, and an angry anti-establishment sentiment which needs no more introduction from me to be acknowledged. The Guardian’s article drew many parallels between the appeal of MMA and the appeal of what is currently characterised right-wing populism: a derision of political correctness, a longing for idealised ‘traditional’ social roles and values, an impatience with complexity, and an ambiguous and antagonistic relationship with what has been called ‘the establishment’. Like Dana White and MMA’s relationship to the established arts, the political, and more widely social sentiment in evidence is one of rejection and longing, a contradiction where there stands a bastion which refuses to allow entry to those who feel they have earnt it, and who, scorned and belittled by an environment which routinely disparages and disempowers them, instead turn to a valorisation of the outside, the rebel, the villain, the McGregors and the Diazes. What is forgotten is that, like MMA, this sentiment still knocks at the door – just as MMA, for all its protestations that it already is art, and has something real about it which makes it definitively not pro wrestling, still craves acknowledgement, access to a cultural world which it is denied, the politically and socially disempowered of the world (the 99%, the ‘global south’, however you want to parse it) despite their current refuge in right-wing populism still, in the end, seek entry to the inner-circle – which is why MMA as drama is so appealing: it offers a fantasy of entry into that circle, that of justice.

For everyone who feels they’ve earnt or deserved recognition or acknowledgement for their efforts, justice is the name of that acknowledgement, of that small measure of social kudos. The theatre in which McGregor and Diaz first clashed is a fantasy of the achievement of that justice by the righteous villains, villains in that they are on the outside, denied by society, yet they are admired for fighting for themselves and themselves alone, and claiming what is theirs by right through their own dignity and will.

It is interesting to note that the rematch between McGregor and Diaz was a lot less dramatic and a lot less well looked-upon. It would be easy to put that down to it not resulting in a knockout or submission and instead having to be decided based on judges scores, yet I think that is only a peripheral issue. Barthes notes again of pro wrestling: ‘[the public] condemns artifice: as in the theatre, one fails to put the part across as much by an excess of sincerity as an excess of formalism’ (p.9). The second fight was wholly less satisfying because it stank of artifice, it shows its bare mechanisms and felt insincere, in the same way that political speeches feel insincere. McGregor coasted the fourth round of the fight, losing it, in order to conserve his energy and tactically win the fifth round and the fight overall. This is a far cry from what McGregor symbolises – he does not embody tactics or strategy or thought, he does not embodied considered or measured reasoning, and he absolutely doesn’t embody going through the due process of a panel of judges. That McGregor abandoned the pursuit of pure victory in a knockout is a mockery of everything his stage character represents. Diaz’s fight had plenty of aspersions cast over it as well – many commentators, both well-informed and ill, suggested that Diaz’s will to win was hampered by the possibility of a third McGregor fight; going 1-1 would lead to a decider, a superfight to put him in MMA history and earn him enough to live well for the rest of his life. Whether or not Diaz actually thought this or acted on it is irrelevant – the theatrical event of the fight was clouded with the air of artifice by dint of it being a rematch alone, and could only go downhill from there. The disgust with seeing a closely won contest recast because some were dissatisfied with the result should be no unusual phenomenon to those following Brexit.

So to finally address White once again. When he says ‘of course MMA is art’ – I must disagree. I must add the rejoinder: some MMA is art. As the Guardian notes, plenty of undercard fights show little in the way of either form or meaning – there isn’t the drama between the characters to get any meaning across, and there isn’t the technical skill there to be compelling or express beauty anyway. A spectacle like the first McGregor / Diaz fight is, on the contrary, more compelling and moving than an enormous glut of the films Hollywood yearly churns out. There is symbolic and representational and mimetic meaning to the characters, to these two characters in particular, fighting, and there is a formal beauty (make no mistake, both are skilled and well-trained fighters) to how that narrative plays out. Between McGregor’s precisely executed pull-counter left and Diaz’s organic and incisive Jujutsu transitions, there is a meaning which is entirely sincere and which holds no hint of artifice – like all true art, something real is communicated from within beautiful formal execution, a meaning transmitted to its audience and which has reality and significance for them, even if, and especially because it cannot be put entirely into words or explained away in easy terms.

As Barthes and Harman both note, the art cannot be played entirely to the audience, nor be entirely formally contained in the artwork. It must be sincere, but not pandering, formally beautiful, but not distant, it must, in short, be real. The McGregor / Diaz fight qualifies in these terms firstly because the dialogue between the two strikes as sincere – even though it’s obviously public and conducted vicariously through interviews and twitter, there is the overbearing impression in the build up to the fight that the two have a genuine reason to be fighting, that they are thoroughly in earnest. It qualifies secondly because though it amounts to two men beating each other up, the level of skill demonstrable, even to the lay-observer, in Diaz’s Jujutsu and boxing and McGregor’s kicks and counterpunching is undeniable. It qualifies finally, because this form – that of combat under the unified rules of Mixed-Martial-Arts – communicates the conflicts, personal, symbolic, political, and more widely contextual, at stake to the audience without artifice or embellishment – as a mimetic representation of reality.

Other examples of art in MMA include watching Anderson Silva fight Chael Sonnen (both times) – again two full-throated characters (though in very different styles to McGregor and Diaz) communicating meaning, meaning which is sincere and in earnest, through an exceptionally well-executed form (watching Anderson Silva fight anyone is essentially formalist art, since his form is renowned as some of the best ever in MMA). Jon Jones and Daniel Cormier’s first fight is another example of this kind of artistic representation, though this time falling more on the narrative side than the formalist side – both characters developing a lot of earnest, genuine distaste for one another beforehand and expressing that simple reality through an incredibly scrappy and dirty fight (despite their very respectable technical skills).

The Guardian article concludes with a comment: ‘For a while all the posturing seems absurd, until you realise it is meant wholly in earnest’ – a statement reflective of the writer’s feelings on the experience of watching MMA, his sense of place within the audience, and a wider sentiment about the political landscape. I would like to say that this is the author’s major misunderstanding of not just MMA, but how to appreciate a medium or even a moment as art, that is, as representing reality generally. His comment suggests the the idea that what he sees as posturing could be taken in earnest, could be taken seriously, is something that mildly horrifies him, that is intensely discomfiting. In the context of Brexit and Trump, perhaps that is so. However, what we have seen demonstrated above is that, in a representation of reality such as an artwork, there is always something which tends towards the pretension of artificial posturing and something which demands the dignity of earnest sincerity. It’s just as easy to scoff at a painting as pretentious (my five-year old could do that!) or a concept sculpture as non-art (I don’t get it…) as it is to think classical music has no value (so boring) or that MMA is entirely deficit of worth (It’s human cock-fighting). All art risks pretension, and for every successful Van Gogh there are thousands of nothings and nobodies, yet the detection of sincerity, or true earnest meaning within what appears as inept posturing is not a cause for dismay or ironic dismissal. It is my opinion that, if all the posturing, pretension, and plain loud shouting done by the political bodies and the public in the lead up to both Brexit and Trump had been taken seriously and as earnest rather than dismissed, there might have been some very different outcomes.

Just as the established arts refuse to take MMA seriously, which leads it to hold on to and revel in its identity as an outsider, there is a strong argument to suggest that if those knocking at the door of justice are not turned away, there is a much greater chance of achieving the political interest, support, and enthusiasm needed for examine the issues of the global commons. Of course some MMA qualifies as art – and it need not be an art celebrating the outsider or anti-establishment sentiments mixed with hypermasculine violence either. Today’s MMA resembles such because, like all art, it represents reality, and our reality looks like this. Today, MMA’s heroes are ego-centric, hypermasculine, trash-talking, non-conformist assholes, because it turns out that’s the hero society sees bringing it justice. Rather than dismiss, shame, pot-shot, or claim MMA’s complicity in the state of our times, commentators, analysts, observers, and critics would do well to take what MMA as art presents in earnest.

The Only Thing Wrong With The Junior Doctors’ Strike

Was that noone else stood with them
because, make no mistake, it is not
wages that are being stolen,
it’s livers.

Our sacred instruments,
That sticky-stringed brass band,
Its filament bagpipes all a-bluster, maddening,
With phlegmy spit in the oboe’s reed and
Suction, gasping, gulping down the trombone’s naked mouthpiece.
And iron rusting through the violins –
Gut-red snowflakes.

As Sherlock Holmes once said:
The benefit of being a consultant is that I may chose my cases.
Remember to lie in the bed you made,
Or on the floor.
You sold the bed
For the low, low price of £7.20 an hour.

Make no mistake,
The money is not on your hands,
It’s in your throat – trickle, trickle –
all moist and humid
Like yeast.
Speckled with the thumbprints and the
undernail grease of a hundred sweaty shaken fingers.

When it dribbles down your chin
and pools in your toenails,
and hardens in the neck of your bassoon
and you blow so hard it rolls back out of your nose, foaming
– like shit in the U bend of a toilet –
Please remember sir:
Do unto a man as you would have unto yourself;
For us, your suffering is little more than an Imposition.

@EpicNameBro and the Question of Female Role Models

People get all fuckin’ flippy when you start talking about gender or sex –Marcus, otherwise known as EpicNameBro.

In September 2015, the Youtube user known as EpicNameBro was asked this question through a comment:

‘Are there any female Japanese role models for your daughter?’

EpicNameBro responded by spending half an hour of video time explaining his view on the role of gender itself in society. For the record, EpicNameBro tends to play videogames and discuss in-world videogame lore – his channel is not a regular stop for questions of this magnitude, and his comments on this matter were by no means a fully formed, well structured, or incisively detailed answer.

In reply, another user answered:

‘You took a simple question and made it too complex. Lol.’

It is this final response that I wish to look at, because it is a wonderful example of a strategy employed by many a rhetorician, one which I believe holds little value but is overwhelmingly difficult to avoid. I do not know if this has a formal name, but regardless, I think of this technique as an inverted mereism:- where mereism calls an argument too lowbrow (your argument is a mere statement, it is too simple to be right), this technique calls an argument too highbrow (your argument overcomplicates an actually much simpler answer unnecessarily).

The reason this style of rhetoric is so proliferate in the online sphere (and in my experience, amongst secondary school students as well), is because it is a fantastic armour against arguments which are intellectual in style. Where the intellectual who attacks a lowbrow argument using mereism appears a scornful, and pretentious-to-the-point-of-vulgar elitist, the humble unintellectual commentator appears the noble debunker of the argument which pretends to false sophistication, the underdog tearing down the bastion of snobbery from which the supposedly intellectual argument speaks. With a crowd behind him, it is very hard for the user of the unintellectual argument to lose, employing this strategy – after all, the more an underdog is kicked, the closer it is to victory. Harnessing the force of the blogosphere echo chamber (or the high school clique) to assault a position deemed intellectual and hence condescending, this strategy is excellent for circumventing the need to actively dismantle the rhetoric of an interlocutor, allowing it instead, to be dismissed out of hand as the bluster of a high and mighty snob without any actual content to her thought.

This idea appeals to a kind of false democratism; ‘the truth belongs to the many, it is not the complex and convoluted machinations of the few’. It is, in fact, closer to a kind of Marxism; ‘tear down the walls of the ruling elite, we the proletariat, rule the world now’. The substitution being that it is not the Czars being assaulted by the workers, but the intellectual overthrown by the anti-intellectual.

Of course, thus far I have been using a false binary. There is no true division between the intellectual and the anti-intellectual, the high and the low, here. I would not describe EpicNameBro as an intellectual, and I would not think it a demerit to him if I didn’t. His argument became the intellectual half of this opposition because it was more complicated in character than those which opposed it. If EpicNameBro had decided to answer in such a fashion, the opposing arguments would have fallen on the side of anti-intellectual by dint of appearing the more ‘merely simple statement’ of the two. Some lines of thought are, of course, more complex than others, while some really are mere statements – the reason that I approve of neither mereism nor its opposite, is that pointing out the complexity or simplicity of a position does nothing to actually discuss, examine, engage with, or truly argue against that position.

Aside from purely formal questions of rhetorical strategy, what undergirds the user’s choice to employ inverse mereism against EpicNameBro here, appears as a deeper reluctance for or even hostility towards engaging with questions of gender, sex, and education in a meaningful way. Where EpicNameBro, to his credit, dedicates time, and not inconsiderable effort into elaborating exactly why he believes gender is a dispensable category, even if sex is physiologically definite, the user who critiques him chooses not to discuss at length the place of gender, preferring instead to dismiss the possibility of conversation entirely. This is a much more discomfiting notion than the use of weak rhetorical strategies, since it suggests that amongst communities across the nebulous zones of social media, there exists an overwhelming hostility towards speaking about sex and gender in fora which may not agree with you. EpicNameBro himself, as quoted above, feared speaking about this topic, concerned about generating hate and speaking controversially at all (though I don’t think his sentiments were actually controversial, and it is again much to his credit that he did choose to speak on this subject despite his misgivings). EpicNameBro’s delivery was riddled with hesitation and overwhelmingly apologetic currents which are the only thing I take away from him in this instance – what both his, and his critic’s unwillingness to talk about gender speak to here, is the almost taboo nature that speaking on gender and sex in public is beginning to accrue. This is something that, to my mind, should absolutely not be allowed to persist. Once upon a time, the idea of questioning gender roles as separate from biological sex was largely unheard of – it did not exist. Yet now that the cards are on the table, it seems that those on all sides of the argument are being pushed from all angles to fold their hands and keep their chips in their pockets rather than showing down in the honest, open, and unafraid conversation which will really begin to institutionalise change on a larger scale. It is imperative not to fear speaking to your interlocutor, to challenging him or her in deliberate and open confrontation, especially if you disagree on a subject such as this. It is certainly no place for mereism, upright or inverted, though a suggestion of the proper way of engaging such a topic will have to wait for another time.

.3.2 Yurusu Budo – Life

Life

If Nishio’s technical curriculum is centred fundamentally on the engagement with death, then his philosophical considerations with regard to the martial arts are firmly situated on the other side of the blade, with life. His philosophic and technical treatises stand as opposite edges of the Japanese sword, an object which he believes is emblematic of the Japanese martial traditions itself. Once again, interpreting this adage in an unusually literal sense, Nishio transposes the form of the katana onto his training method, with there being one sharp edge, which is fragile, and one blunt edge, which is thick and pliable. For clarity, the Japanese sword is usually made of three types of steel: hard and brittle crystalline steel on the cutting edge, flexible and high-tensile strength ‘skin steel’ on the outside of the blade and blunt edge, and slightly softer, shock absorbing ‘core steel’ in the centre of the weapon. The hardened crystalline steel cannot be used in a sword without the other two softer components – it would shatter on any hard contact with another blade. This is a criticism Nishio lays at the door of martial arts such as Karate or Judo and other arts which grow out of the more ancient traditions of war. Nishio’s project is to escape this particular rigidity in the old martial arts (kobudo) whose purpose ‘was to take – suppress, destroy, and ultimately take the life of the opponent’. In a comment uncharacteristically progressive of those in the traditional East Asian martial arts, Nishio states with refreshing lucidity that such an attitude or purpose to martial arts ‘cannot be allowed in modern society’. This is reflective of a deeper anti-conservatism present in Nishio’s thought which is vehemently opposed to dogmatism and the incurious repetition of form and mechanical reproduction of technique, a stance which I follow Nishio in. To be clear, Nishio’s philosophy serves as the soft and pliable steel which supports the cutting edge of technique. It is the depth of Nishio’s beliefs which allows his unorthodox training methods to stand in contemporary society, and saves them from irrelevance. Though Nishio believes that ‘in real martial arts a fight […] is to stand face-to-face with death’, his stance on how a practitioner should approach this encounter with death is clear: ‘people who know the foolishness of destruction and the preciousness of life should not destroy an opponent’.

The question here is how does Nishio marry the two concepts together – that of martiality as a direct encounter with the possibility of death and that of the practitioner who is resolved never to destroy an opponent? It is here that we find the most direct application of the name ‘forgiving’. In Euro-American languages and cultures, the term ‘to forgive’ is inextricably tied to the history of Abrahamic religion, and indeed, I would argue that all cultures which contain a monotheistic entity carry the same load with the term ‘to forgive’. In Japanese yurusu can also mean to permit or allow, which sheds more light on the issue at hand. Put simply: forgiveness implies an absolute law. As already demonstrated in the technique of yurusu budo, the practitioner is absolute, it is their choice and their choice alone which allows them to give or take life, to deal out or protect from death. Philosophically and technically, yurusu budo is completely coherent on this point. The martial artist, the trained and skilled subject, is completely sovereign and autonomous; she has the authority, moral right, justification, and capacity to determine her attacker’s fate in a single stroke without recourse to any other system of judgement. To forgive is to have the right and power to punish, yet choose not to exact punishment. To forgive is to allow or permit life when death is a matter of whim. This is the essence of the unity between Nishio’s technique and philosophy. In a purely technical sense, the practitioner focuses on killing techniques so that she may control them and restrain them. In a purely philosophical sense, the practitioner focuses on the moral imperative to preserve life, to control absolutely the lethality of both her attacker and herself. It is the fact that this is a choice which makes yurusu budo what it is. Just as Kantian ethics is predicated upon a consistent universal moral law which the subject electively acquiesces to under his own will, yurusu budo posits an imperative not to kill or cause harm which must always be upheld under the martial artist’s individual volition. Without offering the choice to also commit murder and grievous bodily harm, yurusu budo loses its ethical character; the fact that the artist chooses not to cause harm in the first place. Just as with a monotheistic God, or an autocratic ruler, death and life are reconciled only through choice. Martial encounters always include death because the practitioner has the ability to wield it at will, as if he carries it around in his back pocket. This encounter is only resolved as forgiving because the artist must always choose life and keep his Reaper’s scythe holstered.

In harkening to this concept of forgiving and forgiveness (the ‘life-giving sword’ [katsujinken] as opposed to the ‘death-dealing sword’ [satsujinken]), Nishio makes the presumption that another’s life is ours to rule and distribute to begin with. For Nishio, the trained martial artist is, by dint of being a trained martial artist, in a position of moral superiority to her attacker. This is expressed not only through the logic of forgiving, but more explicitly when Nishio states that ‘Aikido was founded to lead Japanese martial arts in a better direction’, ‘[Aikido is] a budo that shows the opponent how he/she should live and prosper’, and further, ‘the Aikido way of leading is alive in real society’. Nishio firmly believes his art, his interpretation of Aikido, is apart from other martial arts (‘Aikido was born with a completely different purpose than that of the old martial arts’) and also apart from, or even in a position to lead in, a wider social context. As with many students of the Founder, and plenty of other devotees of the more esoteric martial arts, Nishio entwines his –do with a universal moralism which strikes with a force almost akin to religion. This is not to say that I don’t agree that Aikido and other martial arts have a role to play in society, I believe very much that the martial arts can be extremely powerful forces in the development and enrichment of the young, the old, students, professionals, teachers, parents, children, men, and women. What I do not believe is that any particular martial art, or the martial arts as a whole, should declare itself as a figure of leadership in society. To do so is to re-enact the egotism which I have already criticised in Pranin’s work in the previous chapter; it is to suggest that, on some level, the art and its practitioners are beings above and beyond the average human, somehow transcendent, and closer to a universal moral ‘good’ than everyone else. Though Nishio never says this in such extrovert terms as Pranin does, his logic tends towards the same end point, that his particular art, Yurusu Budo is the one true ‘-do’ in the world which, if only everyone knew it, would grant us all wondrous enlightenment and freedom from the human vices of violence and retribution.

To summarise so far; Nishio’s technical syllabus is a deeply interdisciplinary yet ultimately single-minded pursuit of perfect control over killing techniques. Nishio’s philosophical methodology demands that this technical mastery must be predicated upon the order to never kill an attacker. Together, these two elements unify to produce the concept of ‘forgiving’ martial arts for which Nishio’s style is named. Able to wield killing techniques at will, the practitioner is held by a moral responsibility to never use them for violence, to never take life. The practitioner therefore is placed in a position of effective omnipotence in a martial encounter with any given opponent, able to destroy that opponent at will, but always electing to preserve his life. It is this choice which is vital to the unity of Nishio’s system; the artist is always one who chooses, who is a responsible and compassionate agent in himself. The freedom to choose to forgive rather than kill is an essential characteristic of Yurusu Budo. The problem here is that, while this element of choice does produce practitioners who are able to demonstrate themselves as morally upright martial artists, in the same stroke, it undermines the practitioner’s ethical standing. The practitioner can never engage with their partner or attacker as an equal in this situation, he is always in a position of superiority, one only reinforced by the technique of Yurusu Budo. The martial artist spares her attacker, but in doing so demonstrates her attacker’s insignificance and immorality when compared with the infinite forgiveness of the artist herself (the artist could theoretically receive infinite attacks and spare the attacker each time, according to the logic espoused here). The only way the practitioner, and the art, engages with her opponents is to lead by example, to presume superiority and to mete out endless gestures of magnanimity, equivalent to wagging your finger at a rough child (‘I could have killed you, I am that far superior to you, but I didn’t, aren’t I showing you good morals and haven’t you learnt your lesson?’). Nishio’s moral imperative never to kill is admirable, but the ethical logic which arises from his techniques is untenable, since it does nothing more than situate the practitioner in the seat of God, a kind of accidental egotism which honestly seeks to treat other people, especially opponents and attackers, with respect and dignity (you attack, I forgive), but ultimately reduces them to ignorant and unenlightened creatures there to have their eyes opened by the vast presence of the learned artist (‘now I have spared you, come and learn the way of forgiveness with me’).

These problems are further compounded by a problem of inheritance from O-sensei’s famously cloudy terminology. Nishio cites the Founder as saying ‘one step implies discontinuity. You should take a half-step, there should be contact’. Nishio includes this teaching in the technical sense by dictating that the practitioner should always be a half-step ahead of their partner, such that he is always in a position to lead the attacker’s intent (or, as one of my own teachers, Mr Brown, would say: ‘we let uke think that it’s his own idea to attack’). The essence of this typically opaque saying is that the ‘half-step’ should be understood in the sense of ‘meeting half-way’. If ‘one step implies discontinuity’, or rather, the Founder uses ‘one step’ as a metaphor for conflict, for direct opposition, then the ‘half-step’ is used as a metaphor for non-conflict. I believe this formulation is meant to represent a kind of ‘conversation’ between martial artist and attacker; ‘I offer a half step, which in turn allows you to offer your own, which allows us to reach a conclusion’. In other words, the ‘one step’ is a move which cancels, which opposes and overrides the attacker’s intention, the ‘half-step’ is a move which takes that attack’s intention seriously and is prepared to deal with it in its own terms. ‘One step’ is like a argument, each party has their views but spend little time listening to the opposing ones. ‘Half-step’ is like a conversation, only through listening to, engaging with, and taking seriously your opponent as equal, is a satisfactory conclusion reached. This is epitomised especially when Nishio says ‘I think practice means communication’, and ‘the heart of aiki […] is to reach mutual understanding’ – for Nishio, technique is like language.

This is all well and good, and perhaps one of the most admirable and excellent principles espoused by Nishio’s martial arts, yet it appears to be in direct conflict with the logic of ‘forgiving’ as proposed so far. The logic of the ‘half-step’ is all about equality between uke and tori, between attacker and defender. The martial artist of the ‘half-step’ always takes her opponent seriously, as her equal, and, as her equal, does him the respect of a committed and sincere defence. Yet, as we have already seen, the ‘forgiving’ martial artist is in no way ever the equal of his attacker, he is infinitely superior to her. There is an unbridgeable gulf between the ‘forgiving’ martial artist and his opponent. The artist always holds part of his technique in reserve – the lethal part – such that his attacker is spared, but always exists in a position of impoverished power, the relationship between the two is entirely one-sided, as I have already explained at length. This is even more evident in Nishio’s term irimi isshoku, the one-step entrance (the technical predicate of yurusu budo), which is completely at odds with the ‘half-step’. Whether this is an issue of mistranslation failing to carry across Nishio’s meaning into English, or whether this is a matter of Nishio simply changing his views over time without it being properly documented is unknown. It is clear, however, that Nishio’s martial arts cannot both espouse the idea of being ‘forgiving’ and also endorse ‘technique as dialogue’ at the same time – the two approaches are in direct opposition. ‘Forgiving martial arts’ is absolutely based upon the idea of a transcendent martial arts user who withholds the killing aspects of his techniques. True, there may still be a communicative aspect to this style of martial arts, but it has been demonstrated many times over that only one member of the pair here really gets to speak; the practitioner forgives, that is, places the attacker at her mercy – the attacker is never in a position to express himself here.

Nishio’s schema is caught between two disparate imperatives: the absolute martial artist, and the ethical human being. The artist of yurusu budo must be absolute, be able to kill at will, as Nishio’s concern with the effectiveness and relevance of traditional martial arts amply demonstrates; indeed, the method of forgiving can be argued to be based purely upon this singular ideal. Opposite this, Nishio is very much concerned with respecting the lives of other human beings, with never acting on an impulse to destroy or diminish individual sovereignty. Particularly in his use of the ‘half-step’, his discussion of the ‘life-giving sword’, and his belief in technique as communication or ‘contact’ this is evident. These two principles are irreconcilable as I see it: the forgiving martial artist cannot approach her enemy as an equal, the principle of forgiving forbids it. The ‘half-step’ is incompatible with irimi isshoku, since the latter is a single step which renders an attacker helpless, and the former is an offer which opens dialogue. The forgiving martial artist is never sincere, since she is always holding back some part of her technique; she never takes her opponent seriously, since to do so would be to kill him. If he cannot respond to his opponent seriously or sincerely then no conversation is possible; the forgiving martial artist cannot ever take his attacker’s intentions on their own terms, nor receive them in a sincere exchange. It is for this inconsistency more than any other that I believe the model of yurusu budo cannot be sustained. While I think that, as a technical thesis it has a great deal of merit, and equally, Nishio’s teaching of the ‘half-step’ is something that does have great depth and value for martial arts, I believe the ‘forgiving’ aspect of Nishio’s martial arts must ultimately be dispensed with. For the reasons of its internal inconsistencies and its ethical stance, I do not believe that this particular iteration of martial arts can continue to act as a stable martial method and philosophy.

The Myth of Being Hurt and Deserving It

‘If someone tells you you’ve hurt them, or done them wrong, you don’t get to decide that you didn’t.’

The essence of this tiny proverb is that, no matter the grievance, and no matter the provenance of that grievance, there is always a reason for its existence. Even if, to an observer it is the most unreasonable or trivial, piddly little thing to be upset about, there is always a reason. Especially spoken in the defence of the aggrieved, this statement calls for the taking of responsibility; a person cannot simply step away from the suffering he has caused, even if, to him, it is no suffering worth bothering about. This statement demands, on behalf of those who feel unjustly treated, that their concerns be taken seriously.

This does not mean, however, that all grievances are acknowledged as fully ‘the fault’ of the sufferer’s accused interlocutor. Just because there is a reason for a grievance, it does not therefore follow that causality is established. It is too easy, to my mind, to take this statement as an unchallengeable defence of the wronged, which leaves those who feel they’re been unjustly accused with plenty of ill content of their own. When certain quarters suggest that it is increasingly the case that younger generations believe that their feelings are more important than anything else, it plays into the hands of such parties to misinterpret a statement like this as a catch-all irrevocable justification of indignation and outcry. Yes, this statement speaks against such parties: ‘you cannot claim that the hurt of another does not exist and that you have no part in that hurt if you stand accused’. It does not, however implicate the accused necessarily in the wrongdoing: ‘you are guilty!’. As already highlighted above, there is always a reason for grievance, the grievance cannot be invalidated. At no point does this establish what that reason is, who should take responsibility for its causation, and what qualifies as a justification for that chain of causality.

The easy, naïve, and perhaps even intended use of the above proverb is to claim that every human has the inalienable right to feel unhappy when wronged and noone can diminish that right, or claim that there was no wrong done. This amounts to little more than ‘I am hurt and you must pay attention!’. This is not incorrect, but to stop at this point is to take the proverb literally to the point of reducing it to trite, which in turn divorces it from both its usefulness, and its emotional elegance. At the very least in terms of writing style, five of eight (don’t, get, decide, that, didn’t) of the words of the proverb’s punch line are ferociously spiky and barbed, a delivery which carries the weight of the demand the statement calls for. That demand, as mentioned above, is for responsibility, but this is no one-sided demand, this is no aimless petulant rage. Yes, the proverb has a tinge of anger to it, but that anger is not, to my mind, aimed only at those who claim to have done no wrong: It is aimed just as much at those who claim to be wronged. The call to responsibility here is for the wronged and the wrong-doer, for the hurt and the hurtful. Those who have a part in causing grievance are summoned to be accountable for their acts, to take unhappiness seriously, no matter the occasion. Those who claim to be hurt are equally called to take unhappiness seriously; you can’t claim someone has hurt you and not be willing to defend that claim and justify the consequences it may have on another person. Nor can you claim to be hurt and not be prepared to be responsible about that claim. If you’re going to declare yourself unhappy and demand to be taken seriously, it is your duty to take yourself seriously to begin with, to be prepared to explain, support, and substantiate, why exactly you feel this is a wrong which should be justified by the offending parties.

This proverbial witticism demands that grievances of any order be taken seriously by all concerned parties, which, for me, suggests that not only is the accused obliged to stand and justify her hand in the acts of wrongdoing, but the accuser also has the obligation to detail, in sincere and confident terms, the nature of the grievance itself. If someone claims to be hurt by me, it is not my place to decide that that is not the case, it is true. However, if I claim to be hurt by someone, it is an imperative that I, myself, am able to ratify that claim to some extent if I am to be taken seriously at all. In this way, my choice of title is aimed at both the one who says ‘you deserve what you got’, and also at the one who says ‘I am suffering and I deserve the right to suffer’ – the call to take responsibility for grievance belongs to them both.

* * *

This little statement appeared in the realm of my social media-sphere a few weeks ago from one or another of the innumerable ‘inspirational messages’ pages that exist in the wide web. Many like them appear continuously,  in fact, from all kinds of sources. This form, this kind of ‘soundbite’ informational nugget, has become more or less ubiquitous, what with the full acknowledgement of the force of ‘virulent’ media from all quarters (marketing departments can spend all four seasons of every year trying to make their product ads ‘go viral’ if that’s anything to go by). A small chunk of text which strikes the reader with the a sense of truth, or even if it doesn’t strike him with truth, it’ll strike him with defiance in its own certainty, sometimes accompanied by an image or gif – twitter, tumblr, imgur, these platforms epitomise this style of delivery. The power of this mode lies in its proverbial nature; it makes its statement in absolute terms, as if it has been true and will be true for all time and for all people, in short, it appeals to universalism. This type of proverbialised statement offers no explanation for itself, it declares its truth as self-evident, and it appeals to an unalterable (yet unknown) body of knowledge as its only necessary support; common sense (and there are plenty of scathing things to say about the idea of ‘common sense’).

However, I’m not writing now to explain how this type of language works in the most gritty details (if you want to read that, please try the wonderful book Mythologies published by Vintage, the most recent edition being in 2009. The original articles were written by Roland Barthes in French and he is a marvellous writer even in translation. The sections at the end of the book, Myth TodayMyth as Stolen Language, and Myth on the Right, detail what I discuss above). I am writing about this (apart from my own enjoyment of the process) rather, because I feel that statements of this type always contain an exposed sliver of truth amongst the assorted truisms. I think for these truths to stand, or at least to be properly engaged with, proverbial sayings of this type should be given some due scrutiny, attention, and be given some of the contextuality they lack in order to gain something more fruitful than an idle reblog or share. It is my experience that it is all too easy for a person to disseminate these proverbs, more often than not, because he feels the proverb has a resonance with something in himself. However, when challenged it becomes increasingly difficult to defend the statement itself because of its own rhetorical method, leading to the torrid comment-section arguments which spread despair far and wide across the online sphere. In order to go beyond this depressingly familiar routine, I’d like to take a more rigorous look at this type of speech.

Some readers may note that I have used the tag Deconstruction in this piece. While I do not pretend to be carrying out any true deconstruction here in the lineage of the post-structural thinkers and deconstructionists of 1970s Europe, I do consider my writing to be heavily influenced by such thought and thus, see fit to use the tag here.

.3.1 Yurusu Budo – Death

‘Certain people in the world of Japanese martial arts began to doubt that Aikido was a martial art. This was only natural because people at that time blindly followed the same training practice as their younger days.’

‘In martial arts, the key to defeating the opponent is to advance a half-step rather than a full step.’

‘Martial arts is to be able to, at any time, defeat and destroy the opponent that confronts you and not doing it. It is to make sure not to destroy the opponent but to greatly spare the opponents life.’ – Shoji Nishio.

Shoji Nishio’s training at the Aikido headquarters school in Tokyo began in the 50s. He approached Aikido from a background of Karate and Judo and later would incorporate all three approaches and also dedicated training in the sword and the jo into a single system he called Yurusu Budo, or, ‘forgiving martial arts’. While Nishio never considered himself outside Aikido, it is arguable, and clear to see from his demonstrations and technical catalogue, that the technical syllabus, its practical applications, and the philosophy that Nishio taught are all a far cry from the standard Aikido practised today and in his own time. In what follows, I will consider Nishio’s ‘forgiving martial arts’ from a technical, practical, and philosophical standpoint in order to explicate what, I believe, are key elements of his particular style, and elaborate on why I believe this conception of martial arts contains inconsistencies which I find untenable. I will also suggest which regions of Nishio’s method I build upon and believe can be carried forward in advancing a further discussion on martial arts in the future.

Death

            Nishio’s work arises from death – the death of Aikido as a martial art, the death of the Founder, the death of the martial traditions in Japan, the death of militarism and violence, and the encounter with death itself. This may appear unclear to the reader as it stands, but will be elaborated upon most clearly through the birth of Nishio’s technical forms, which I am examining in this section. In his own lifetime, Nishio experienced a generalised doubt over the efficacy of Aikido as a martial art. He certainly states that from other quarters in the public eye and in other arts themselves, many were sceptical as to the martial practicality of Aikido techniques. He never says this outright, but I believe that he also experienced this doubt in his own mind. Certainly, as a martial artist who was never constrained by one style or form, I believe he would have had to continuously doubt each style on its own from one aspect or another, else why would he have continued to push for new configurations and combinations of martial arts? Why would he have continued to question and explore if not for doubting even his own understanding of his arts (he does express that numerous times in his life he found himself unable to comprehend the Founder and Aikido’s teachings)? Indeed, Nishio did speak on his fear that one day the accusations laid at Aikido’s door would one day become a reality; that Aikido would fade into the same realm that much exported Tai Chi exists as now – a health practice or general wellness/fitness form of exercise: ‘We are finished if we only do “Aiki Dance”’. It is from this starting point that Nishio begins to develop his technical syllabus.

As I see it, there are two fundamental concepts which undergird Nishio’s technical curriculum: techniques are identical with or without a weapon in hand, and they all emerge in a single entering step known as irimi. These are both tenets that he credits the Founder with discovering, and thinks of himself only as a vessel for transmitting. Yet, when compared with the vast numbers of students who also studied under the Founder in the same time period and with the same teachings, Nishio’s approach is still unique amongst them. The obvious point of comparison would be the Iwama school of Aikido, disseminated by the Saito family, which also believes in rigorous weapons training and the application of striking techniques within Aikido, or the various schools growing out amongst the students of Seigo Yamaguchi, who was vastly influential in his time at the Tokyo headquarters school, and is cited by Nishio himself as an inspiration. The Iwama system has its own completely formalised set of fundamental and paired practice kata (forms) for both the sword and the staff, which are derived directly from how the Founder taught Morihiro Saito during his lifetime. The Iwama school’s use of striking is also more or less entirely confined to the use of striking within Aikido technique as disseminated by the Founder in the 50s and 60s. Yamaguchi’s techniques had a heavy resonance with the sword techniques, though I do not believe he taught a formalised sword or staff system amongst his Aikido students, instead focusing on how the sword form and empty-handed form were intimately linked. He was also famed for having an uncannily light touch, when throwing, pinning, or striking a partner, but was altogether rather orthodox (if exemplary) in terms of the technical syllabus he followed.

Where Nishio’s art differs is in its breadth and rigour when confronting problems universal to all martial arts, and in exploring other arts in conjunction with Aikido. Nishio openly taught and encouraged the practice of other martial arts in his dojo, particularly sword-drawing techniques (iaido), jo techniques (jodo), and striking and grappling methods from Karate and Judo. As opposed to Saito’s system which was completely ‘in-house’ so to speak, Nishio’s was sourced from masters in other styles who had little or no experience of Aikido to begin with. Nishio’s Aikido, therefore, contains a technical breadth which outdistances plenty of other schools across all styles of martial arts. Within Aikido, it is arguably also the style which contains the most direct correspondence between sword movements and empty-handed movements, some would even argue it is the only style of Aikido where the body movements between empty-handed and armed are truly identical. However, this does lead to some angles of entry which appear as bizarre and unnatural to the average Aikidoka. Nishio’s ikkyo from shomen uchi requires entering to the outside before cutting back to the inside in order to rotate back to the outside again to apply the technique. The angle of entry on katatedori kaitennage is unusual too in its obliquely diagonal engagement, and plenty of Nishio’s applied techniques simply don’t exist in other schools of Aikido (choking techniques or shimewaza, for example). Where most Aikido is taught with the essence of a single entry point which takes balance and allows the immobilisation of your partner, Nishio’s sometimes appears unnecessarily convoluted, leaving the practitioner open to counterattack, particularly in some iterations of his shihonage and kotegaeshi.

Nishio explains these movements through his experience in Karate, Judo, Iaido, and Jodo. Interpreting the Founder literally, every movement in empty-handed technique can be identically replicated with sword or staff in hand. This makes impossible certain movements in conventional Aikido, where the length or unwieldiness of weapons in close quarters makes it impossible for the technique to be carried out without some variation on its direction or fluidity. Thus, as a practitioner experienced with the sword and jo, not only does Nishio map his empty-handed techniques onto weapon-taking techniques and armed-vs-unarmed techniques, but also teaches sword-vs-sword, sword-vs-jo techniques, and even solo iai (sword drawing) forms corresponding to his entire curriculum. Further, he takes special care to make sure his Aikido movements are compatible with the principles he takes from Karate and Judo such that the spacing and distancing particular to his style allow for Karate-style strikes and Judo-style throws at any point in the technique. As if this wasn’t enough, Nishio also ensures that counter-techniques or continued attacks from Karate or Judo types of martial arts are unable to interfere with his techniques. In the aforementioned version of ikkyo, he demonstrates the outside-to-inside movement is necessary to allow the possibility of two or three throat and rib strikes and negate the chance for the attacker to reach tori (the thrower) with a follow-up punch or kick. In his katatedori kaitennage, his obliquely-angled entry puts him at a distance which allows him to deliver his own strikes, but puts him outside of uke’s (receiver’s) reach. It is the same with turns and rotations which seem odd or unnecessary – they negate the possibility of a counter move from a practitioner experienced in striking, throwing, or grappling styles outside of Aikido, or even the possibility of a counter from within Aikido itself.

Such an unusual variation on standard technique, no matter how rigorous, drew plenty of criticism from those in the mainstream, with such highly ranked masters as Koichi Tohei even suggesting that Nishio’s martial art no longer resembled Aikido at all. Additionally, plenty of martial artists in the competitive scene, or combat sportspeople still have no issue deriding Nishio’s particular training method for its own lack of a competitive element, suggesting that without competition or oppositional combat, there is no way to directly test the reliability of the art. This, in some ways, is precisely the point of such technical rigour. Since throughout Nishio’s career he drew together multiple disciplines, finding fault with one to repair that fault with another, to evolve his art to no longer resemble any traditional style, and equally to continue to court criticism from other bodies from which the style may enrich itself, would not have been against the technical goals of Nishio’s Aikido at all. Was Nishio a ‘mixed martial artist’? In the sense that he did indeed blend arts together, yes, certainly, this was the case. Would it be fair to call his work ‘mixed martial arts avant-la-lettre’ in the vein of Bruce Lee, who is credited with the same? I do not believe Nishio would not have identified himself with MMA for reasons I shall cover later, and I do not believe his technical repertoire resembles that of the conventional MMA ring, particularly given how many of his techniques are designed to be executed with the bladed sword, or strike to the eyes and groin (which are all, of course, not permitted in MMA competitions). I actually think the same of Bruce Lee’s art, which I hold is actually more similar to Nishio’s style than either, I think, would acknowledge. In a way, despite identifying himself staunchly as a follower of the Aikido of the Founder, Nishio’s Aikido is technically much more akin to something whose ultimate goal is to transcend the boundaries of any single school of martial arts and act as a unified martial art encompassing the whole world of martial techniques.

This is embodied especially in the technical principle of irimi which is the singular entrance from which Nishio used to say the entire technical possibilities of his system sprung. For Nishio: ‘one step […] irimi lets innumerable techniques emerge’, ‘it is to lead the partner’, ‘it is possible with the principle of irimi issoku [entrance in a single step] to instantly destroy the opponent’. It is evident here that from this single step, this irimi, Nishio’s whole technical syllabus is simply a way of expressing and achieving that entrance, that possibility of destruction where ‘at the very moment of contact [… you] can control the opponent’. Though for Nishio, this is an aspect native only to Aikido, even from his own inclusion of innumerable other arts, it is evident that this is a concept which crosses multiple practices and traditions. This is also clear in Nishio’s use of no distinct stances in his training, which is also inherited from the Founder: ‘if you stand naturally, you can enter immediately when your opponent is about to move’. Yet when looking at Karate or Chinese forms like Xingyi Chuan or Baji Chuan, even in spite of the extensive training in low stances, one finds the more experienced practitioners reducing and reducing their use of stance in both practice and form. In competitive environments too, Karate practitioners, Kung Fu practitioners, even those in Muay Thai or Silat and Kali tend to adopt ‘free stance’ when fighting – a far cry from the technical and fundamental practices they go through using horse stance, cat stance, back stance, front stance, etc. Nishio’s method forgoes the idea of the use of singular stances to begin with in order to be able to better execute his ‘one-step entrance’ – irimi, which is, in my contention, a concept applicable to, or even at the heart of, all martial arts. Nishio’s martial arts could, in its technical essence, be boiled down to nothing more than these concepts: The irimi issoku in which the opponent is instantly destroyed, the absence of stance, which allows the multivalent execution of irimi, and the mutability which unifies armed techniques with unarmed ones. Why I have called this section ‘death’ is for the reason that Nishio’s technical syllabus, as I believe I have demonstrated above, is utterly preoccupied with existing on this boundary between living and dying, sparing and killing. The fully realised ideal form of Nishio’s technique is a painstakingly constructed effort to gift the practitioner complete immunity from harm while allowing them to deal mortal blows to their enemy (a horizon which not just Nishio’s art, but innumerable others also gesture towards). The martial artist is placed in the position of a God, or, if you prefer, of the Reaper (there is no difference between the two here for my purposes), one who delivers and withholds death at will. This is the spectre at the heart of Yurusu Budo – its forgiveness relies upon omnipotence.

This is my understanding, roughly put, of Nishio’s technical method – the ideal form. The astute reader will have already begun to pick up on inconsistencies within my outline of Nishio’s method and indeed, though I very much admire this way of training, I have my own reservations about the implications of the model of Yurusu Budo outlined above. I will explore these in further detail in the discussion of its underlying philosophy, which I turn to next.