Over recent years, there has been an observable growth in the subculture of individuals engaged in what might be termed ‘fantasy martial arts’, such as Jedi martial arts, or even systems for which we have scant historical evidence (such as Stone Age, Bronze Age or more credibly those relating to a particular culture, such as Viking martial arts – so-called ‘speculative martial arts’).
Popular culture, it seems, now offers its own alternative to traditional martial arts – using the constructed narrative of fantasy literature as the basis for a combat system.
Jedi martial arts, for example, have even gained tabloid attention 1)http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/active/11174605/Lightsaber-academy-learn-how-to-fight-like-a-Jedi.html, because of the establishment of a number of genuine martial arts classes for the topic 2)http://www.ludosport.net/en/, http://www.goldengateknights.com/, http://indylightsaberacademy.tumblr.com/, http://newyorkjedi.com/, http://www.thesaberauthority.com/, http://www.terraprimelightarmory.com/ .
We even see criticism and discussion occurring from within the martial arts, particularly on popular forae, wherein the conversation is usually critical 3)for example, http://www.martialartsplanet.com/forums/showthread.php?t=34607. Unsurprisingly, because of the media frenzy surrounding the recent film release, credible martial arts media have also been shown to comment as well 4)http://fightland.vice.com/blog/a-brief-history-of-treating-lightsaber-combat-as-a-real-martial-art, http://www.blackbeltmag.com/daily/martial-arts-entertainment/martial-art-movies/martial-arts-of-star-wars-the-force-awakens-part-one/, http://www.blackbeltmag.com/daily/martial-arts-entertainment/martial-art-movies/martial-arts-of-star-wars-the-force-awakens-part-two/ . Curricula and books have been created to support the apprentice Jedi 5)https://www.quora.com/Can-lightsaber-combat-be-a-viable-real-life-martial-art-or-exercise, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Stunt-Lightsaber-Combat-Beginners-Unofficial-ebook/dp/B019YLRIUU/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1462907575&sr=8-2&keywords=Jedi+martial+arts, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Star-Wars-Manual-Students-Force/dp/0857685872/ref=sr_1_fkmr1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1462907575&sr=8-1-fkmr1&keywords=Jedi+martial+arts.
In this article, I shall take the invention of new traditions seriously, and suggest that invention of tradition raises important questions about martial arts in general, especially pursuant to their meaning in a modern and commercially-aware world. The invention of these new traditions challenge the more commonly held conventions of what defines a martial art 6)They might even point toward changing views of masculinity, in which the previously somewhat ‘emasculated’ perception of ‘geek culture’ attempts to make its own claim on masculinity by defining if through the lens of fantasy narrative.
The ‘invention’ of martial arts is a topic covered recently by martial arts studies, which, understood from the perspective of ‘systems theory’, and is a topic I have been devoted to over the last 10 years. Questions of particular interest have been:
- What defines a martial art?
- What categories of information (taxonomies) comprise a martial art?
- Who are the intended users of the martial art?
- What is its primary intended context of application?
Each of these questions follows the framework of Information Architecture, ana points toward the need for identification of the inherent structure of the information comprising intangible martial arts, as a holistic topic.
The following article explores some of the systemics behind designing martial arts, and the challenges raised by the concept of ‘fantasy martial arts’.
THE MARTIAL ARTS PRODUCT
In 2006 I coined the term ‘Martial Arts Product‘ 7)The Martial Arts Delusion, https://www.amazon.co.uk/Martial-Arts-Delusion-James-Wallhausen/dp/1470920336?ie=UTF8&*Version*=1&*entries*=0 . This term refers to a packaged and post-acculturalised combat system, operating within a modern and evolving commercial context. At its heart is the ‘Hoplologism’ or the idiosyncratic structure of a combat system.
This combat system is, for all intents and purposes, the sum of all combat information, and is held in common by a social subgroup. It relates to the actual information directly applicable to combat. The term is used intentionally to indicate how interpretation of combat is entirely ideosyncratic, and cannot be separated from the views and experiences of the individual who created the combat system 8)Hence the use of the suffix -ism, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/ism . All martial arts therefore hold ‘Hoplologism’ at their core.
This often comes packaged in outward appearances and cultural information. Outward ‘branding’ includes the kinds of visual triggers which are associated with the combat system. The white ‘gi’ is symbolic of Karate, for example, as now are coloured belts. These are representative anchors, allowing for observers to recognise a particular skillset and to demarcate it from others at a glance. This is the purpose of ‘branding’ in its commercial sense. They are also outward appearences representative of inward significances.
We should realise that cultural, social, ethnic and institutional information is entirely different from combative information. Whether one should bow upon entering a room has little impact on the efficacy of the combative behaviours contained. There are therefore two spheres, or types, of information comprising a modern martial art – as summarised by the concepts of ‘Hoplologism’ and ‘The Martial Arts Product’. This demarcation should be explicit and its division is crucial to the framing of my view on martial arts.
A MARTIAL ART
Karate is perhaps the staple epitome of martial art. Yet even within the edifice of ‘Karate’ we find challenges to its real definition. On the face of it, it is accepted that wherever we might learn Karate, the information we are taught will be the same. Delving a little deeper, often, we may learn that this is simply not the case.
All instructors participate in their own re-framing of the topics within the martial art. Building and rebuilding a mental model of a martial art in each and every student will inevitably lead to differences between the instructor and the pupil, as information will not be framed in precisely the same way. Professor Stephen Chan addressed this in his 2015 keynote speech for the Martial Arts Conference 2015 9)https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRguTpdMuBY. Anecdotal though it is, I know from my own studies that I can learn from online media, as well as offline instructors – the details of such instruction across these different channels often varies quite substantially.
Furthermore, unlike other exercises, hobbies and past-times, some traditional martial arts can be a high commitment, high barrier-to-entry field. Complete reliance on the instructor is often expected, and seeking instruction from other sources (such as web-based instruction) can be rejected as improper.
Content and data from the system is offered from one person to others, meaning that the others are required to return to the teacher for appropriate instruction. Precautions against going elsewhere tend to range from: the potential to misunderstand, create unbreakable bad habits, right up to punitive measures and social rejection etc.
In the past, students would have had no or little insight into the manner of instruction of the founder of the system. The student was entirely reliant upon his personal teachers as the doorway or gatekeeper to the founder’s information.
Today, we may experience the opposite: we may simply go on Youtube or other modern media to see the founder’s performance for ourselves. Needless to say, discrepancies do occur. Whilst undergoing instruction in the past, when I have identified these discrepancies, I was left with more questions derived from the reply. Sometimes the response pointed to the inevitability of discrepancy and some form of logical change. Sometimes there was the obligatory ad hominem.
But the existence of discrepancy points toward a level of fragility in martial arts: essentially, the system is repeatable in structure – 5 kinds of steps, 5 basic holds etc – but the actual performance may not be precisely the same.
Because of the high-commitment required to a particular method, we also experience the phenomenon where martial arts schools might be closed for ‘cross-training’. If a martial artist should have transferable skills being at a high level in one martial art, he must sometimes forego this experience to enter another club. This isn’t always the case, but some anecdotal evidence suggests that this can be the case. One must therefore have internalised a large proportion of the system, and have practiced in accordance with that system, before potentially more meaningful aspects are allowed to be explored.
‘Fantasy martial arts’ might well therefore allow for greater auto-didacticism, wherein the aspiring Jedi is expected to cross-train, expected to study without guidance, but with high expectation to improve his skills. Self-improvement and awareness is naturally part of that course, as is self-reflection and self-criticism, allowing for a robust method of self-discovery. Regardless of the Star Wars motif, and the Jedi motive, the potential outcome is theoretically self-improvement.
At the very least, we expect a martial art to be functional. It is implied in the definition of ‘martial art’ that there is valid and verified combative information. Efficiency and functionality are therefore central to the very definition of ‘martial art’.
Critics to the concept of ‘designing’ martial arts might therefore suggest that a person ignorant of what defines martial arts effectiveness will be incapable of designing a martial art. We anticipate therefore that the combat system at the core of a designed system must be effective.
Typically, we might have cause to laugh at the proposition of a Star Wars inspired martial art, but let’s use it here to demonstrate the difference between a Hoplologism and a Martial Art Product.
Take a hypothetical example:
What if the founder of ‘Jedi’ martial arts has been trained and highly qualified in reality-based systems. For the purposes of this example, we accept that his grasp of what defines functional martial arts is undisputable 10)Of course, it is difficult to judge whether this is the case in the real ‘Jedi academies’, but stay with me on this.. But he chooses to wrap, package and brand those instructions inside the mythos of the Star Wars universe to gain mass appeal. His bootstrapping is to gain greater market appeal, and introduce legitimate reality-based training to a wider mainstream audience. Moreover, such a fantasy world holds as much relevance to the current world as the sociological and historical vestiges which traditional martial arts propose.
The school uses Jedi uniforms, relates the tales of fictional yet moral histories, and praises the examples of perfect Jedi-ism et al 11)Some examples are highly comprehensive, and rival those of legitimate martial arts, http://lightsaberacademy.com/wp-content/uploads/2013/08/7-Forms-of-Lightsaber-Combat.pdf, http://www.modernjediknight.com/MJK_body.html, http://www.thesaberauthority.com/pages/rankings . In some way, ‘fantasy martial arts’ might be observed to exhibit a kind of counter-culture to the martial arts, wherein ‘popular-culture’ attempts to construct its own martial art based upon the expectations, or perhaps the deficit to expectations, which it experiences with martial arts. The Jedi Code, for example, might be an attempt to mirror historical codes, but compensate perhaps for the fact that an explicit, and authoritative code in both East and West is difficult to define.
Moreover, the physical aspect is often highly athletic (and sometimes, unfortunately, somewhat farcical), attempting to mirror the cinematic executions demonstrated in the films. This, in essence, is very similar to the historical ‘marketing’ of martial arts promoted by genuine masters in the past, such as those of the Vaudeville shows, or travelling vagabonds.
Unlike a traditional martial art, what defines our hypothetical Jedi martial art is a proven set of behaviours backed-up by the most modern techniques of analysis, scientific experiment and sociological studies in interpersonal conflict resolution. Many traditional martial arts may been shown to have not been informed by this process.
Moreover, recent historical criticism suggests that many of the mythologies of traditional martial arts are similarly from the realms of fantasy. Tales of Tae Kwon Do’s practice by the Hwarang, ancient cultural narratives used to substantiate the legitimacy of the Hoplologism 12)https://www.academia.edu/12257421/Everything_you_know_about_Taekwondo . Their motive is, like the motive of our Jedi martial arts founder, to introduce a defining narrative to offer market appeal. Hence the enduring associations claimed by practitioners to ‘real ninja’, ‘real samurai’ etc.
WHY IS THE ‘PRODUCT’ IMPORTANT?
The science of understanding consumer choice is well known among marketers. Consumers buy into ‘why’ a business does what it does, not always ‘what’. Which is why the world’s largest brands lead with a ‘Brand Promise’ wider than their actual products and services 13)Apple: ‘Think differently’, Nike: ‘Impossible is nothing’, et al. Brands always start with why and benefits.. Consumers select the one which best reflects their own internal self-image (psychographic).
With this in mind, selection might well be based upon important factors such as self-image. Enhancing and extending the Hoplologism to have rituals derived from fantasy literature such as Star Wars instantly becomes more tangible. The Hoplologism is then wrapped in protocols, languages and rituals from fantasy literature whilst the stability of the functional martial art could be maintained at its core.
It has not been my intention to either criticise Jedi martial arts, nor promote it. My discussion, I hope, should be seen as being entirely objective, and without intentional bias. It has been made in order to open discussion, as well as raise further questions for the benefit of martial arts studies.
So with this discussion in mind, we might have reason to ponder the following questions:
- If the grounds for the myths in the martial arts can be shown to have little substantiation, what does that say about ‘fantasy martial arts’?
- If the actual techniques taught in traditional martial arts are not based upon modern scientific principles, how can we (as critics) state with any certainty that a ‘fantasy martial art’ is any less effective?
- If the customs and rituals of the martial arts school amount to historical convention not practiced today, then to what extent can we judge that ‘fantasy martial arts’ have less meaning?
- If the purpose of the martial arts are actually about life-affirmation, about finding meaning for one’s life and the context which one experiences it, then who has the right to criticise those motives when manifested in a ‘fantasy martial art’?
Furthermore, these questions seem to find equal prominence when considering the context for ‘speculative martial arts’ based upon experimental archaeology.
Important questions indeed, and ones which demonstrate that potentially the problems with ‘fantasy martial arts’ are those of ‘martial arts’ in general.
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