Instituting reality in martial arts practice

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Bowman, Paul (2014)

This article explores the relations between the desire for reality in martial arts training and the inevitable emergence of institutional styles. It argues that since at least the time of Bruce Lee’s influential 1971 article ‘Liberate Yourself From Classical Karate’, there has been a growing effort in Western martial arts circles to escape from the constraints and strictures of ‘artificial styles’ and to achieve a kind of emancipation that would reflect a direct engagement with the ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ of combat. As problematic as such notions are, they nevertheless feature prominently in martial arts discourses. Accordingly, this article identifies and engages with some of the key structuring terms and enduring problematics of contemporary martial arts discourses in the West. It does so chiefly via a consideration of Keysi Fighting Method (KFM) – a (post)modern ‘reality martial art’ that is in many respects a modern iteration the anti-institutional impulse of Bruce Lee, and also an exemplary case of a wider contemporary ‘reality martial arts’ movement. This ‘movement’ stretches from mixed martial arts (MMA) at the sporting end of the spectrum to military martial arts like krav maga. The article considers, first, KFM’s spectacular emergence around 2005, thanks to the DVD-extras of the film Batman Begins, second, its mediatized proliferation, and, third, issues connected to its demise and reconfiguration in 2012. It asks what we might learn from the spectacular example of KFM about the relations between mediascape, embodiment, reality martial arts and ‘institution’. The paper argues that there is an inextricable and inevitable entanglement of, first, the eternally returning desire for ‘reality’ in martial arts and, second, an attendant invention of institution and style. It connects the formation of institutions to the necessity of pedagogy and discipline, and in doing so proposes a way to approach martial arts that recasts the relations between modern ‘realist’ martial arts and ‘traditional’ or supposedly ‘unrealistic’ martial arts like taijiquan. The purpose of this endeavour is to propose a set of terms and concepts that might prove useful in developing the discourse of martial arts studies beyond existing disciplinary vocabularies, concepts and problematics and into a reconfigured ontological and epistemological terrain.
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