A Puncher’s Chance: A Response to Nathan Kalman-Lamb’s ‘Hitting Like A Girl’
I’d like to thank Nathan Kalman-Lamb for writing the excellent “Hitting Like a Girl: Why I’m Not Celebrating the Inclusion of Women’s Boxing in the London Olympics” and to thank also all the people who commented on and discussed the piece. There’s a whole pile in there that I’d like to respond to, but rather than engaging in on-line back and forthing, I want to offer a couple of brief comments, then attach below a piece I wrote some time ago for The Tyee (an on-line magazine here in BC) that I think (sort of directly, sort of tangentially) articulates a counter-point of view to that articulated by Kalman-Lamb.
The following piece is also going to be massaged a little into a chapter for a new book that I’m currently writing for AK Press (due out 2013) called One Game at a Time: How to Mix Sports and Politics (And Why That Matters So Much). I’m going to be test-running parts of the book here as I finish it this fall and am very grateful (in advance) to Left Hook and any comments or critiques folks might have.
In general, I’m very interested in the arguments that you are working with, Nathan, and glad you’ve taken the time to articulate many of them so well. I am an unabashed and (mostly) unashamed boxing fan, have fought plenty in the past, am a tentative MMA fan and have started messing around with jiu jitsu training. So I like fighting for lots of reasons, some simple and some complicated/ing. But even more than that, I am very interested in sports as a site for radical possibilities and will eagerly argue for the transformative potentialities of the sporting world.
Reading your article though, it strikes me that you have patch-worked a few arguments together into something that is not coherent enough. Really, it seems that you just don’t like boxing… and that’s fine and justifiable in many ways and something I am happy to talk more about. But the considerable work you do in writing about gender is not especially germane to your fundamental assertion that: “to put it as concisely as possible, boxing is an exploitative and dehumanizing spectacle.”
There’s good thinking about gendering in the article and I think a lot of it is solid and defensible, but that’s another line of conversation, and one which is not all that usefully put in service of the argument you actually want to make: that boxing is not libratory for anyone, and that it is chimerical to view it as laden with any lasting value.
I disagree, for sure, in part because I think fighting can be joyful, powerful, important and sweet. Boxing is a complicated project, but it’s not necessarily an exploitative and dehumanizing spectacle. That’s capitalism you’re talking about – or more accurately it is capitalism that eventually exploits and dehumanizes everything. Boxing is just one more casualty.
There’s damage that boxing inflicts, absolutely – and that is deeply problematic as a participant and spectator – but there are costs to everything. Boxing is not violent: violence by definition has to be coercive. Fighting can be dangerous, scary and physical for sure, but not violent. Capitalism generalizes intrinsic and extrinsic violence throughout all our social and cultural relationships and boxing is one more site for that expression. The act of fighting is thrilling and potentially damaging, absolutely, but the same can be said for ballet, skateboarding, mountain climbing, scuba diving, riding a horse, mountain biking, playing hockey etc. There is danger in varying degrees inhered in every activity, risks to be taken and compromises to be made. Everything has a cost. If you don’t like boxing, if it makes you squeamish, if you think that’s not a risk you’re comfortable with, I totally understand. But that’s an aesthetic choice.
If we’re talking about fighting as a potential income generator, there are plenty of occupational hazards to boxing. But that’s true of most any job, whether it’s working on a construction site, nursing, roofing, serving, driving, teaching, social working, farming, or firefighting. And many (most?) jobs have other kinds of hazards: physical, psychological and/or emotional. Is it worse to get your melon dinged up and to lose a few neurons than sit in a dehumanizing, alienating, dignity-sapping workplace that costs you hope and imagination and vitality? There are costs and compromises to any occupation. Regardless, I think it is very problematic and maybe a little paternalistic for (the editors) to critique boxing as simply a poor career choice:
“Marginalized people sacrifice their bodies and minds chasing the almost 0% possibility that it will pull them out of their marginalized position; and… even when they strike gold and make it to the highest levels of the sport, they will still be treated with disrespect and derision and put in a cage to fight each other (not the cops) for the entertainment of more privileged people.”
I don’t want to reduce creative expression to instrumentality and assess its value based on potential career earnings. Lives are not to be managed like stock portfolios. The problem isn’t that boxing or basketball or football or hip-hop or the trombone are not sure-fire routes out of economic marginalization; it’s that long-shot lottery winning dreams are so necessary because for so many folks and there is so little else to realistically hope for. To blame boxing, per se, for not being able to fix the failures of capitalism is chasing the wrong squirrel up the wrong tree.
People engage in creative pursuits, whether boxing, painting, basketball, singing, judo, dancing or writing, not to get rich but because we love being creative: the act of individual and collaborative creativity is good in and of itself. A small subset of us get highly skilled at those pursuits, and then a much smaller subset still actively pursues a pro career, in hoops, movies, the music business, fighting or whatever. For most of my teenage years I played basketball some seventeen hours a day and dreamed that I was Downtown Freddie Brown or Dominique Wilkins, but was I prepping for the NBA? Well, perhaps abstractly, but not really. Ball wasn’t a career move: it was pleasure.
There’s plenty more – and that (obviously) wasn’t as short as I meant it to be (!) – but I would very briefly submit that sports (and boxing) can be more than joyful, powerful, and sweet: there is something very particular about the potentiality of sports that opens up a range of radical possibilities. There is something specific about the materiality, the physicality, the bodies on bodies immediacy and pleasure of sports: it’s an unmediated capacity to apprehend ethical decisions, the expression of difference and the visceral encounters with solidarity that interest me here.
And in these specific aspects (among others) fighting strikes me as enigmatically rich territory. So, sure, I want to defend and support boxing, but that’s not what I’m after: it’s the idea that sports matters. The Olympics aren’t going to liberate anyone (very freaking far from it) but sports – and fighting – can play a vital, particular and irreplaceable role in a better world, including undermining destructive gendering and patriarchal logics.
Thanks again, Nathan, for opening up this dialogue. What follows is a draft of a chapter from the above-mentioned book; in the book it is both preceded and followed by chapters setting up and developing my argument in favour of sports as a site of radical possibilities. All comments happily welcomed.
A Puncher’s Chance
Friday night. I’m standing ringside, plastic cup of Michelob in hand. It’s a low-end casino and I’m watching live Mixed Martial Arts. Two sweat-slicked fighters are grappling ten feet away. Remnants of smoke-machine-distributed atmosphere drifts through the air. There’s a posse of G-string-and-silicon ring-girls with model postures and tolerant expressions to my left. The front rows are full of lethal-looking Russian dudes with bored platinum dates, thuggy steroid-users, playas, playa wannabes and a ton of young men who look like they’re auditioning for Jersey Shore. It’s been a good evening of fights but there haven’t been any really devastating knockouts yet. A couple of guys have gotten dropped hard but nothing huge. I’m a little disappointed.
But honestly, who do I think I am? I’m bald, go to the gym and have tattoos, so I fit in here, at least at first glance. But I don’t own any Affliction gear, I only make gangsta hand symbols when I’m goofing around for photos and I haven’t thrown a real punch at anyone in twenty years. I have my tough-guy affectations, but I’m a middle-aged father, I subscribe to the New Yorker, I drink tea, I garden. I’m out of my league here and kind of thrilled about it.
It’s not just testosterone that’s gotten me down here though. I’m definitely intrigued by the explosion of interest in Mixed Martial Arts fighting: it is the fastest growing sport in the world so I want to understand it better. MMA carries a lugnut kind of visage, and that’s part of it for sure, but really it is just an amalgam of other disciplines and is infused with the admirable qualities of judo, jiu jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, samba, capoeira and lots else. I can’t see any reason to think of MMA as significantly different than any other fighting styles, aside from its current commercialization. That’s part of why I am here tonight, but maybe more than anything I want a taste of something real, and I don’t mean that in the phenomenological sense, I’m talking about the right-here-right-now-in-my-face sensuality sense.
That’s an aesthetic desire for sure, but more than that it’s political. I am convinced that sports offer a particular and irreplaceable arena for radical social transformation, and that fighting maybe more (or maybe just more immediately) than most sports opens up possibilities for engaging with two essential pillars of libratory politics: difference and solidarity.
I’m not all that interested in defending fighting per se here, although I think that’s a worthy conversation to have. I really like to fight and admire fighters of all kinds but my defence of fighting in this context is intended a route to the larger argument about the value, power and potentiality of sports in general. Starting off by talking about fighting is kind of a way to put the argument to the test right off the hop.
Grappling with a neo-liberal era necessarily means confronting what matters. Late capitalism relentlessly reduces everything to commodity. Everyone is market fodder and everywhere is a potential profit centre: nothing really matters so much that it cannot be bought and sold. Resisting neo-liberalism requires us to imagine, carve out and create non-market spaces where social and cultural relationships are animated by incommensurability.
I submit that sports (and in this case fighting) can be joyful, powerful, and sweet but a lot more than that too: there is something very particular about the potentiality of sports that opens up a range of radical possibilities.
It’s something like the difference between walking and driving through a neighbourhood. Driving you really don’t see shit. You can’t smell or hear anything, you move too fast, you miss all the subtleties, spectating at a comfortable distance. If you walk (and especially if you walk it regularly) you feel the whole place so differently. There is something specific about the materiality, the physicality, the bodies on bodies immediacy and pleasure of sports: it’s an unmediated capacity to apprehend ethical decisions, the expression of difference and the visceral encounters with solidarity that interest me here.
I’ve always been a fight fan. I remember watching a little black-and-white T.V. with my dad and loving Ali sparring with Howard Cosell during prime time. I can mentally replay Hearns-Hagler in omnicolour detail. The Hit Man almost decapitating Roberto Duran. The Hawk. Alexis Arguello. Lights Out Toney. In college I was legitimately (and probably justifiably) embarrassed by my adoration of Mike Tyson and my sparring sessions in the basement of the university athletic complex. Fist-in-the-air feminist friends and nice college kids took it as proof of my Neanderthal tendencies, so I snuck off to the North End of town on fight nights to watch PPV in biker bars, trained quietly, and kept that shit right to myself. I only ever fought a little and haven’t for two decades now, but my love of boxing has only intensified.
And I’m not embarrassed about it anymore. I’m more confident in articulating why boxing is a good thing and why I love to watch. And I don’t mind so much if good people think I’m a bit of a pig. To me boxing is an increasingly precious route to cut through the artifice, alienation and banality of contemporary life.
In a 21st Century where what’s real, what’s fake and what the difference is seems tenuous at best, fighting is a simple, pure pleasure. In the face of the Balloon Boy, a plague of reality TV, Heidi Montag, her breasts and her ‘Indian name’, genetically modified food, ‘I did not have sexual relations with that woman’, WMD’s, Jon and Kate, Facebook ‘friends’, ‘conversations’ on Twitter, Second Life, sugardaddy.com and the average kid spending almost eight hours a day staring at screens, looking for ‘reality’ and ‘truthiness’ is a disorienting mess. Pining for the real mostly just sounds nostalgically trite and/or painfully quaint.
But there’s nothing ‘fake’ about a sharp right cross in the mouth. There’s no irony, no subtext, no spin, no fabrication, no “reality” in quotes, no disclaimers, no reset function, no replaceable avatar to start over with. It just hurts. And if you’re watching, there’s no way to pretend it’s not happening. That kid’s nose really is pouring blood, his neurons really are scrambling.
But wait. That’s exactly the Fight Club story. Didn’t Pitt and Norton and Palahniuk do all this already? Isn’t the idea that fighting is particularly ‘authentic’ just another lame Maileresque, patriarchal cliché. Really, what’s real about scrapping? And what’s so great about ‘real’ or ‘authentic’ anyways?
At first glance, I’d say its pain, the threat of pain, the inescapable physicality that sharpens a poignancy in fighting. It has always been the ostensible realness of boxing that attracted me. I don’t think boxing has anything to do with violence. Violence is coercive by definition; it’s done to someone against their will. You step into the ring voluntarily. It’s painful, risky, dangerous, scary, often damaging, and probably not a great idea on balance, but not violence. Capitalism generalizes intrinsic and extrinsic violence throughout all our social and cultural relationships and boxing is one more site for that expression. The act of fighting is scary, thrilling and potentially damaging absolutely, but the same can be said for ballet, skateboarding, mountain climbing, scuba diving, riding a horse, mountain biking, playing hockey etc. There is danger in varying degrees inhered in every activity, risks to be taken and compromises to be made. Everything has a cost. If you don’t like boxing, if it makes you squeamish, if you think that’s not a risk you’re comfortable with, I totally understand. But that’s an aesthetic choice.
What boxing has is physical consequences, and perhaps that’s why it matters. Well-earned physical pain and suffering, whether it’s from grappling, walking all day or digging dirt is sweet relief in a time when most of us sit on our asses most of the day and all our best friends are on Facebook. That materiality inheres an encounter with trust and solidarity.
Maybe that’s why I’m standing ringside after a long, immobile day writing emails, finishing an article and applying for a grant. I’m vertical, and there are real people, real sounds, and real action around me. There is a physical encounter instead of the immateriality of my day. There is immediacy vs. atemporality. It’s right there and I flinch as a young man gets his elbow dislocated.
I’m not interested in fighting as authenticity, but in its consequences. A more just and equitable world is one where we are willing to encounter the consequences of our actions and make ethical individual and collective choices. Settler capitalism insists that it is reasonable for an old-growth watershed to be sacrificed or workers to be downsized or land to be colonized in the name of growth and efficiency. A better world requires us being able to resist that logic and claim that some things are incommensurable: they will not conform to market logic.
If we abandon or condescend to fighting we lose a valuable and fertile route to apprehending a world where people are more than industrial inputs. Sports are hardly the only way we can bodily encounter trust, but they are a specific and irreplaceable, in part because of the physicality. Fighting, like all sports, requires trust, without which larger notions of solidarity and community are impossible. Why is it that after almost every bout combatants gratefully and effusively hug each other, check to make sure each other is alright and give thanks that no one was hurt?
The immediacy of the physicality of sports forces us to face the consequences of our actions and puts into living colour our ethical choices. Every time you agree to fight someone, you are placing a huge amount of trust and faith in them. There is the very real possibility that they can damage you, maybe badly. In any fight you have to take care of the other, and pull up before anything ugly happens: you have to believe that when you tap out they’re going to stop, you have to believe that they are going to take care of you. Sometimes it doesn’t work, sometimes that trust is misplaced, but overwhelmingly the act of fighting is an act of trust. In team sports, there is another layer of mutual aid involved when not only do you enter a series of agreements with your opponents but there is another layer of commonality required with your team-mates. But more on that later.
My submission here is that this lived experience produces a powerful arena for solidarity. There are lots of other places to encounter this kind of mutuality: doing work with others for example. The decline of unionism in North America has a lot to do with the decline in shared labour – bodily closeness creates possibilities for mutuality that are not easily replicated otherwise.
I’m kind of stoked about the phenomenon of fake memoirs. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces is the flag-bearer for this movement – but there is a boatload of these clowns. Frey is a rich-kid frat boy who claimed a life of unbelievable drug and alcohol abuse, violence, Mafia relationships and general chaos so extreme that it turned his ‘memoir’ into a critically-lauded bestseller. Pretty much none of it was true and he got famously flogged on Oprah for it.
But he is hardly alone. After multiple celebrated Oprah appearances, in a book intended for publication in 2009 (but cancelled) Herman Rosenblat claimed to have met his wife through the fence at Buchenwald. He actually is a concentration camp survivor, but his love story and many details of his book were fantasy. In 2008 Margaret Seltzer, a rich, white suburban girl pawned off Love and Consequences, a memoir of growing up as a half-white and half-Native foster child, living a bad-ass life of drugs and violence as a Blood gang member. She even faked a thug accent in radio interviews, until she was exposed and the book pulled.
Then there’s the weirdness of JT LeRoy who has written a bunch of books, articles and screenplays as a once-homeless, transgendered, sex-working, oft-abused drug addict. But LeRoy is a middle-aged straight woman named Laura Albert who was eventually outed (and now sued) after a long investigation. Michael Gambino published The Honored Society in 2001 pretending to be a full-on Mafiosa who spent significant time in jail for murder, pimping, money laundering and all the rest. None of it was true. In 1997 Misha Defonseca wrote a massive European bestseller about being a Holocaust survivor, killing a German soldier and living with a pack of wolves (!). It was B.S. In 1995 Binjamin Wilkomirski wrote a similar Holocaust survival story that was hugely popular and won plenty of literary awards. Total B.S.
There are tons of other examples of memoir-deception, both recent and historical, many of them prominent hoaxes. The thread that runs through these stories is the presumption of authenticity in describing a life of trauma and pain. These fake memoirs are all characterized by their ‘gritty realism’ and their witness to ‘horrifying reality.’ A huge proportion of fake memoirs are written by people pretending to be natives or Holocaust survivors.
Nasdijj for example, wrote three acclaimed and awarded books, starting with 2000’s The Blood Runs Like A River Through My Dreams, about growing up Navajo, his brutal childhood and abusive parents, eventually adopting an FAS kid then an HIV+ child. Esquire reviewed it as an “authentic, important book…unfailingly honest and very nearly perfect.” Except it was a total lie. He’s a white guy from Michigan named Tim Barrus.
All these books claimed authenticity on the basis of suffering. ‘Misery lit’ is a boom sector of the flailing publishing world, and from Frank McCourt to Dave Pelzer to Augusten Burroughs, offering up (genuine) personal grief has made for good business, so it’s hardly any wonder that a few folks with less-than-traumatic lives have given it their best shot, ‘truthiness’ notwithstanding.
It’s not just books either. Memoir is a fluid genre, and much of the hiphop I listen to is predicated on ‘streetness.’ I love 50 Cent, but how would I feel if all his bravado and macho bullshit was a total lie? “He got shot like I got shot but he ain’t fuckin’ breathing.” Thug rappers are presumably habitually full of shit about their heroics, but at least I know it’s coming and love them for it. I don’t mind too much when my hiphop bleeds fiction and non-fiction a little: talking trash is part of the package. But I made no such deals with Frey before I read A Million Little Pieces and everybody hates being lied to. So does Sherman Alexie, who isn’t real fond of Nasdijj either: “His lies matter because he has cynically co-opted as a literary style the very real suffering endured by generations of very real Indians because of very real injustices caused by very real American aggression that destroyed very real tribes.”
But why is pain so identified with authenticity? And vice versa? Why is ‘street cred’ about the suffering you’ve endured? In a world buried in half-truths and untruths, in lust with artifice and superficiality, watching life on screen, what’s with the hand-wringing about realness? Is fighting really more authentic than sitting at my computer all day? Why is pain more real than pleasure? Is it that pain is a documentable affirmation of consequence?
That’s more or less what is going through my mind as I consider how to extract myself from a kimura submission hold that Roy Duquette has put me in. A kimura is a jiu-jitsu hold, more or less the same as a hammerlock, chicken-wing or ude-garami. It also fucking hurts. Roy is in side control and is hyperrotating my shoulder by pinning my chest and leveraging my upper and lower arms in opposite directions.
Roy’s a good guy. He is a trainer, coach and therapist who works with all kinds of fighters at all kinds of levels including stars like Dennis Kang from the UFC and Emily Kwok who, in 2007, became the first female Canadian to win a world championship in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Roy has trained in a bouquet of disciplines himself including jiu-jitsu, boxing, grappling, karate and Russian sambo, and still spars regularly. He knows what he’s doing.
We’ve sat and talked at length about his philosophies of fighting and I’ve watched him train and spar several times. He employs a melange of styles, but not haphazardly. Roy is a classic new-school MMA practitioner: it’s not meathead bar-brawl stuff he employs, it’s more like chess with submissions. Roy is convinced that there is something elemental about fighting, especially martial arts, mixed or otherwise: “There’s no hiding when you’re fighting. That’s the realness of it – it’s an expression of you.”
Sure, but I think that’s really true about basketball or dancing too. You can learn so much about someone just by playing a little pick-up ball with them. It’s very hard to hide who you are on the court. But I also think that about doing hard work with someone. Roy puts it nicely:
“That’s exactly what I teach my students: to be connected to your opponent. If you can’t get into a relationship with your opponent you’re already in trouble. You have to focus completely. No matter what happened to you that day you have to leave it behind. In that way we could say that what happens outside the ring is less real than what happens in it.”
Today I’ve convinced Roy to work with me a little, just for fun. I think I’m strong enough and I like to fight, but I have no idea what I am doing. I have no wrestling or grappling skills, but I’m game and excited to learn some jiu-jitsu.
Roy also brings along a student of his: Emma Lynds, who is a 36-year old mother of two who is the only woman owner of a martial arts gym in Vancouver. She also has a black-belt in hapkido and trains extensively in muay thai, boxing, judo and jiu-jitsu. The three of us take turns fighting over the next couple of hours. Roy and Emma are beautiful to watch: spinning, rolling, leaping over each other, countering, counter-countering, and countering again. Roy has a lot more jiu-jitsu experience and is far bigger than Emma so he wears her down every time, but there’s no charity going on, he has to fight hard.
I love fighting with Emma. She’s 135 pounds and I can muscle her around, but she is so smart and skilled that I am constantly getting caught in holds that are very difficult for me to negotiate out of. Because I am fifty pounds heavier, Emma works from her back keeping me in full-guard most of the time. In our first bout, she just fends me off patiently for a few minutes, then locks in a triangle choke that finishes things. In our next few rounds I figure out a couple of moves so I have some offence. Emma is really helpful, waiting as Roy pauses us and explains what I should be doing, and letting me try stuff out. It feels like I am in a fight, even though I know Emma could submit me pretty easily. Her conditioning is awesome while I wear down which clouds my thinking. It’s really Emma’s quick reactions and strategic manoeuvring that impresses me most.
Fighting with Roy is another deal. He just toys with me as I flail around. He repeatedly takes about thirty seconds to get me in some horrific situation that I have to bail out of immediately, and often it’s a lot faster than that.
I tap out of the kimura and try again. I shoot at Roy’s legs with some conviction, but he splays backwards effortlessly with his elbows on the back of my neck driving my face into the mat. I roll over quickly, but he’s on me again. I spin and get to all fours, thinking something good might happen but before I can think what that might be I’m in an anaconda choke that I have completely failed to defend against. I drop down and pull at his forearms but Roy just bears down on me. This is only going to end poorly, so I tap again. I think Roy’s just going through a catalogue of classic MMA submission moves just as a kind of lesson. He’s working his way down the list. It doesn’t seem to matter what I try – he just keeps schooling me.
It’s all good though. It helps a lot that we’re doing this without the threat of punches, elbows and/or knees raining down on my face. It’s really fun hanging out in someone else’s world, especially when they are as skilled and generous as Roy or Emma. I commit to coming back more consistently.
Aside from the occasional burst of shooting pain and the promise of a stiff neck tomorrow I feel like I am in the moment, like I am really present. I have to be, the experience is literally in my face. Later, in the shower I wonder was that real? I’m no Buddhist, but that idea of presence, of actually being there makes sense to me.
By many accounts mixed martial arts is now the fastest growing sport in the world. Once vilified as ‘barbaric’ and ‘human cockfighting’ by no less than John McCain (a lifetime boxing fan who has fought vigorously to have it banned) MMA has grown so spectacularly that it can no longer be ignored. Canada is often referred to as the ‘Mecca of MMA’, Vancouver consistently rates in the top-ten North American cities for sales of UFC pay-per-view broadcasts, and Montreal has hosted three enormous events. But major UFC live events have also been hugely successful in Dubai, England, Australia, Japan, Ireland, Brazil, Germany and Puerto Rico. Walk up and down any urban commercial street on a fight night and every bar and café, even the upscale ones, will have it on and the places will be packed. Then go to small towns and the UFC is just off the hook. In city and towns alike MMA training gyms are popping up everywhere and everyday folks are happy to tell you that they are training for a cage fight.
It’s not just the force that this fighting wave is coming ashore with, it’s the speed. People have always fought, every culture has fighting traditions, and MMA can trace its roots to the Greek pankration (which became an Olympic sport in 648 BCE) or Roman gladiatorial combat, but the modern thread begins with the Gracie family of Brazil and their vale-tudo challenges. Starting in the 1920s, the Gracies developed a jiu-jitsu that they became convinced was the world’s pre-eminent fighting discipline. They produced a series of videos of their team defeating all comers from all styles. In time they spread their gospel of interdisciplinary fighting to Japan and America, and the first UFC show was held in Denver and shown on pay-per-view television in 1993. The event pitted eight fighters from different disciplines in a cage tournament and the unassuming, 175-pound Royce Gracie (who looks like an accountant) won the whole thing, dispatching beasts like Ken Shamrock and Gerard Gordeau with relative ease. That PPV did huge numbers and after a few regulatory fits and starts has found its footing as a fully legal, prime-time broadcast cultural behemoth.
I’m frankly not that much of an MMA fan (yet anyways). I’m intrigued by it, follow it loosely, and will even walk down to the bar for a good fight, but really I’m a boxing guy. More than anything it’s the phenomenon that I’m interested in because I think and cage fighting might offer answers to some of the questions that plague a neo-liberal era.
A few days after grappling with Roy and Emma, with my shoulders still shooting with pain whenever I lifted my arms too high above my head, I decided to try another tack and called up Gabe Forsythe looking to play some video games.
Gabe’s another great guy. He’s a smart kid: he is the media education coordinator at an artsy rep cinema downtown and runs a whole variety of video production and media literacy programs in schools. He also owns an X-Box 360, so I figured he could help me out.
Gabe and I eat dinner and talk vids for a while, then we start with NHL ‘10. I am shocked at the veracity of the game. The players look startlingly like actual NHLers, the movements are subtle and complex, even the built-in play-by-play commentary is amazingly accurate. The complexity of the game is even more stunning. There are a dizzying array of options and game choices, including the X-Box Live function which allows Gabe to plug into the net, play with and against up to twelve players from all over the world, including talk real-time trash on their headsets.
I am totally intimidated – fuck, this is no Pacman – so I let Gabe play while I barrage him with questions. He plays and I watch for a half-hour, then we switch over to Call Of Duty – Modern Warfare. If NHL ‘10 was overwhelming, I don’t know what the hell to say about COD. It is so realistic, so sophisticated, so incredibly fast, so totally disorienting that I kind of panic and pee myself a little when I try to play. The controllers have like 700 functions: two little joysticks, a four-clover little assemblage of colour-coded buttons, two right and two left trigger-things that can be single or double-pumped to various effect.
The action is sonic-fast, unrelenting, and multidimensional. Gabe sets an avatar and chooses an assemblage of weapons, levels and scenarios from about a billion options. He plays for a while on Live, with dozens of players occupying what looks to be a destroyed Serbian village battlefield, all of them careening around firing, knifing, sub-machining, stun-bombing, grenading and calling in air strikes on each other. It is total mayhem. Gabe dies repeatedly, constantly, often using the replay function to see who the hell offed him and from where. When he hands me the reins I am laughably incompetent. Just getting my guy to run through the starting house, shoot a few targets and slide down a rope is brutal and takes me fifteen minutes to figure out. And that’s playing by myself. The actual game is a gong show on my part. Let’s not get into it here.
The experience of playing fighting video games could hardly be more different than fighting. After a few hours of vids I feel disembodied, buzzed, spaced out and totally irritable. I feel the opposite of ‘present.’ It was fun hanging out with Gabe, but I feel like I just killed off four hours of my life that I’m never going to get back. Maybe that’s just cliché too. Maybe video games are just something I’m a total rookie at and thus spooked. Maybe I could get used to playing COD and find some kind of rhythm to settle into.
There is tons of skill involved, I can see how it might be fun and it doesn’t seem particularly anti-social. In fact, Gabe talks at length and convincingly about the social aspects of gaming – both playing with his local buddies and especially the friends he has made playing Live. He regularly gathers on-line with a group of guys who live in Vegas to play hockey. Gabe can find them easily, knows them by name, and the group has an easy familiarity and respect for each other.
Without question, there is something clearly, viscerally different about the two experiences. It feels like the distance between sunshine and a light box. But why is physical fighting ‘real’ and fighting on-line not? Is one set of feelings; one visceral, immediate and physical, the other abstract, removed and imaginary more authentic than the other?
I suspect that those are precisely the wrong set of questions to ask: that searching for the real is a ruse. We need to be asking what matters, what is worth preserving and what is worth protecting.
A fixation with authenticity is not a recent phenomenon, but in a post-modern world it has taken on new contours and nuances. To consider this I have equipped myself accordingly. As I exited the library, I pulled over for a coffee at a new JJ Bean outlet. It’s right downtown, tucked artfully between steel and glass towers, backgrounded by a wall of satellite dishes from the CBC compound.
I am attracted to the coffee shop because it is a little wood building, designed beautifully to look like a shack in the woods, styled by an urban eco-architect. It screams authenticity in the midst of artifice. The low slanting roof is covered with tufty little plants and grasses and there a lovely, burnished wood patio area. It’s not really a café, more of a take-out joint, but the interior is equally heavily stylized like each of the JJ Bean Vancouver stores: the design references are all urban loft: cracked concrete floors with a shiny bronzed sheen, steel counters, a sort of restrained, industrial décor, big windows. Even the take-out paper cups are designed within an inch of their lives, decorated with East Van artwork lending a gritty but tasteful edge to the caffeinating experience. Everything JJ Bean does is carefully constructed to confirm their urban authenticity.
As I walk out with my coffee, blinking in the sun, I almost bump into an enormous Samoan dude on the sidewalk. I watch him roll past, long dreads hanging down his back. The dreads are perfect: all of equal length, equal roundness, equal tidiness. In fact, they look fake – I’m pretty sure they are extensions – and I (very!) privately scoff. What a dork. Extensions? C’mon.
But really, what’s with my derisiveness? So what if they’re extensions? Does it make him less real? I guess he bought the hair instead of committing to the years it would take to grow them, but I don’t hold any particular regard for folks who take deep pleasure and interest in their own hair. How are dude’s extensions any different than my ‘distressed’ jeans? I bought these at H&M, specially designed to look worn-in, creased, faded in the right spots. I bought them for that authentic jeans look.
I submit that it’s not the artifice of my jeans or the guy’s extensions, it’s the fact that my pants were made by vastly underpaid women in Bangladesh that’s the problem. It’s where the hair came from to make those extensions. It’s who picked these coffee beans and how much they got paid.
While writing I’ve been listening to Lil Wayne mix tapes, cut and diced, on a free download site, and just now switched over to a Johnny Cash remix album. Just like Cash borrowed profligately from Hank Williams, the Texas Playboys and Jimmy Rodgers, hip-hop sampling and remixing extends the notion that all culture rests on plagiarism. It’s what all culture does and has always done: borrowed, cut, pasted, moved, shifted and gotten funky. Calling something ‘authentic’ presupposes an original source, reifies it, calcifies it, and then evaluates all other renditions by how close they replicate that imaginary Adam and Eve.
Consider Brian Jungen. He’s a brilliant young Vancouver artist who makes beautiful masks out of Nike Air Jordans. They’re fabulous pieces: totally traditional and entirely unorthodox. As he puts it: “by simply manipulating the Air Jordan shoes you could evoke specific cultural traditions whilst simultaneously amplifying the process of cultural corruption and assimilation. The Nike mask sculptures seemed to articulate a paradoxical relationship between a consumerist artefact and an ‘authentic’ native artefact.”
How about Jungen? Are his masks ‘inauthentic’? Does it matter that he is of Swiss and Dunne-za First Nations heritage? It sure as hell does. If white-boy me was making and selling native masks made out of sneakers we would be having a different conversation. All culture is collage, nostalgia is always lazy and none of are us are authentic: we’re all synthetic hybrids and all that. But who is borrowing what from whom is always important, and lying, appropriation and stealing always matters. Culture, like gender, is performance, and it is high time we ditch the idea of authenticity, stop looking for the ‘real’ and start talking about the ‘good’.
Similarly I don’t have much opinion about Heidi Montag’s ginormous fake breasts per se – but I do care is that she is aggressively proselytizing for a rendition of womanhood that is facile, incapable, grasping and repressive. As much as her silicon breasts support that effort, then they are worthy of ridicule. But fake boobs on RuPaul are something else again. It’s not the realness that matters, it the consequence.
I am arguing for the opposite of a relativist interpretation of culture here. I don’t want a flight from politics, but an embrace of it. We live in a distracted, evasive, artificial, facile world with our lives increasingly reduced to digital communication and we cannot keep trying to default to an imaginary, pre-fixed authenticity, or deferring to an inevitable determinism. Judgment doesn’t exist somewhere outside of us: ethics and politics are our responsibility.
But this is exactly the problem we’re faced with: in a neo-liberal landscape divorced from living and breathing consequences the possibility of those conversations – the possibilities of debate and contention about what matters – are inherently undermined. In this slippery, painless world arguments flourish (obviously) but when profoundly abstracted from the world of bodies and stuff, who really gives a fuck? Just keep moving. Politicized conversations about ideas like friendship, generosity, solidarity, hospitality or have little value in a world that disdains pain and trust. We need to find ways talk about good and bad, right and wrong, useful and destructive, ennobling or reducing.
And that gets us back to fighting. I’m glad to be standing ringside not because it’s real, or an authentic experience, but because it has lived consequence, because it’s like a cool drink of water on a hot day. A better world has to be able to antagonize the neo-liberal logic of a one-world 24/7 marketplace where everything and everyone is subsumed into a consumptive commodified landscape.
I am interested in a world where profits cannot be extracted from land, housing, food and labour. Exploitation (in both senses) is written into the DNA of capitalism, but neo-liberalism requires that the consequences of our actions be obscured from us. We do not care particularly that our cell phones and computers are powered by coltan and brutal child labour in the Congo. Our relentless flying is contributing profoundly to an unfolding food crisis via climate change but that changes very few of our vacation plans. Each of our consumer products hides a whole range of social relations, many of them reprehensible.
Sports offers an arena to cut through that haze. The trick is to take that (direct or vicarious) bodily experience and tie it explicitly to larger social and political ideals so that trust, solidarity, mutual aid and generosity are not simply isolated personal connections but a force for common good. That’s a powerful project the left has disdained for far too long: now is high time to take it up.
Matt lives in East Vancouver (unceded Coast Salish Territories) with his partner, kids, cats and chickens.