Digifesto

Tag: body agonism

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ) and the sociology of martial knowledge

Maybe 15 months ago, I started training in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (BJJ), a martial art that focuses on grappling and ground-fighting. Matches are won through points based on position (e.g., “mount”, where you are sitting on somebody else) and through submission, when a player taps out due to hyperextension under a joint lock or asphyxiation by choking. I recommend it heartily to anybody as a fascinating, smart workout that also has a vibrant and supportive community around it.

One of the impressive aspects of BJJ, which differentiates it from many other martial arts, is its emphasis on live drilling and sparring (“rolling”), which can offer a third or more of a training session. In the context of sparring, there is opportunity for experimentation and rapid feedback about technique. In addition to being good fun and practice, regular sparring continually reaffirms the hierarchical ranking of skill. As in some other martial arts, rank is awarded as different colored “belts”–white, blue, purple, brown, black. Intermediary progress is given as “stripes” on the belt. White belts can spar with higher belts; more often than not, when they do so they get submitted.

BJJ also has tournaments, which allow players from different dojos to compete against each other. I attended my first tournament in August and thought it was a great experience. There is nothing like meeting a stranger for the first time and then engage them in single combat to kindle a profound respect for the value of sportsmanship. Off the mat, I’ve had some of the most courteous encounters with anybody I have ever met in New York City.

At tournaments, hundreds of contestants are divided into brackets. The brackets are determined by belt (white, blue, etc.), weight (up to 155 lbs, up to 170 lbs, etc.), sex (men and women), and age (kids age groups, adult, 30+ adult). There is an “absolute” bracket for those who would rise above the division of weight classes. There are “gi” and “no gi” variants of BJJ; the former requires wearing special uniform of jacket and pants, which are used in many techniques.

Overall, it is an efficient system for training a skill.


The few readers of this blog will recall that for some time I studied sociology of science and engineering, especially through the lens of Bourdieu’s Science of Science and Reflexivity. This was in turn a reaction to a somewhat startling exposure to sociology of science and education, and intellectual encounter that I never intended to have. I have been interested for a long time in the foundations of science. It was a rude shock, and one that I mostly regret, to have gone to grad school to become a better data scientist and find myself having to engage with the work of Bruno Latour. I did not know how to respond intellectually to the attack on scientific legitimacy on the basis that its self-understanding is insufficiently sociological until encountering Bourdieu, who refuted the Latourian critique and provides a clear-sighted view of how social structure under-girds scientific objectivity, when it works. Better was my encounter with Jean Lave, who introduced me to more phenomenological methods for understanding education through her class and works (Chaiklin and Lave, 1996). This made me more aware of the role of apprenticeship as well as the nuances of culture, framing, context, and purpose in education. Had I not encountered this work, I would likely never have found my way to Contextual Integrity, which draws more abstract themes about privacy from such subtle observations.

Now it’s impossible for me to do something as productive and enjoyable as BJJ without considering it through these kinds of lenses. One day I would like to do more formal work along these lines, but as has been my habit I have a few notes to jot down at the moment.

The first point, which is a minor one, is that there is something objectively known by experienced BJJ players, and that this knowledge is quintessentially grounded in intersubjective experience. The sparring encounter is the site at which technique is tested and knowledge is confirmed. Sparring simulates conditions of a fight for survival; indeed, if a choke is allowed to progress, a combatant can lose consciousness on the mat. This recalls Hegel’s observation that it is in single combat that a human being is forced to see the limits of their own solipsism. When the Other can kill you, that is an Other that you must see as, in some sense, equivalent in metaphysical status to oneself. This is a sadly forgotten truth in almost every formal academic environment I’ve found myself in, and that, I would argue, is why there is so much bullshit in academia. But now I digress.

The second point, which is perhaps more significant, is that BJJ has figured out how to be an inclusive field of knowledge despite the pervasive and ongoing politics of what I have called in another post body agonism. We are at a point where political conflict in the United States and elsewhere seems to be at root about the fact that people have different kinds of bodies, and these differences are upsetting for liberalism. How can we have functioning liberal society when, for example, some people have male bodies and other people have female bodies? It’s an absurd question, perhaps, but nevertheless it seems to be the question of the day. It is certainly a question that plagues academic politics.

BJJ provides a wealth of interesting case studies in how to deal productively with body agonism. BJJ is an unarmed martial art. The fact that there are different body types is an instrinsic aspect of the sport. Interestingly, in the dojo practices I’ve seen, trainings are co-ed and all body types (e.g., weight classes) train together. This leads to a dynamic and irregular practice environment that perhaps is better for teaching BJJ as a practical form of self-defense. Anecdotally, self-defense is an important motivation for why especially women are interested in BJJ, and in the context of a gym, sparring with men is a way to safely gain practical skill in defending against male assailants. On the other hand, as far as ranking progress is concerned, different bodies are considered in relation to other similar bodies through the tournament bracket system. While I know a badass 40-year old who submitted two college kids in the last tournament, that was extra. For the purposes of measuring my improvement in the discipline, I will be in the 30+ men’s bracket, compared with other guys approximately my weight. The general sense within the community is that progress in BJJ is a function of time spent practicing (something like the mantra that it takes 10,000 hours to master something), not any other intrinsic talent. Some people who are more dedicated to their training advance faster, and others advance slower.

Training in BJJ has been a positive experience for me, and I often wonder whether other social systems could be more like BJJ. There are important lessons to be learned from it, as it is a mental discipline, full of subtlety and intellectual play, in its own right.

References

Bourdieu, Pierre. Science of science and reflexivity. Polity, 2004.

Chaiklin, Seth, and Jean Lave, eds. Understanding practice: Perspectives on activity and context. Cambridge University Press, 1996.

some moral dilemmas

Here are some moral dilemmas:

  • A firm basis for morality is the Kantian categorical imperative: treat others as ends and not means, with the corollary that one should be able to take the principles of ones actions and extend them as laws binding all rational beings. Closely associated and important ideas are those concerned with human dignity and rights. However, the great moral issues of today are about social forms (issues around race, gender, etc.), sociotechnical organizations (issues around the role of technology), or a totalizing systemic issues (issues around climate change). Morality based on individualism and individual equivalence seem out of place when the main moral difficulties are about body agonism. What is the basis for morality for these kinds of social moral problems?
  • Theodicy has its answer: it’s bounded rationality. Ultimately what makes us different from other people, that which creates our multiplicity, is our distance from each other, in terms of available information. Our disconnection, based on the different loci and foci within complex reality, is precisely that which gives reality its complexity. Dealing with each other’s ignorance is the problem of being a social being. Ignorance is therefore the condition of society. Society is the condition of moral behavior; if there were only one person, there would be no such thing as right or wrong. Therefore, ignorance is a condition of morality. How, then, can morality be known?

bodies and liberal publics in the 20th century and today

I finally figured something out, philosophically, that has escaped me for a long time. I feel a little ashamed that it’s taken me so long to get there, since it’s something I’ve been told in one way or another many times before.

Here is the set up: liberalism is justified by universal equivalence between people. This is based in the Enlightenment idea that all people have something in common that makes them part of the same moral order. Recognizing this commonality is an accomplishment of reason and education. Whether this shows up in Habermasian discourse ethics, according to which people may not reason about politics from their personal individual situation, or in the Rawlsian ‘veil of ignorance’, in which moral precepts are intuitively defended under the presumption that one does not know who or where one will be, liberal ideals always require that people leave something out, something that is particular to them. What gets left out is people’s bodies–meaning both their physical characteristics and more broadly their place in lived history. Liberalism was in many ways a challenge to a moral order explicitly based on the body, one that took ancestry and heredity very seriously. So much a part of aristocratic regime was about birthright and, literally, “good breeding”. The bourgeois class, relatively self-made, used liberalism to level the moral playing field with the aristocrats.

The Enlightenment was followed by a period of severe theological and scientific racism that was obsessed with establishing differences between people based on their bodies. Institutions that were internally based on liberalism could then subjugate others, by creating an Other that was outside the moral order. Equivalently, sexism too.
Social Darwinism was a threat to liberalism because it threatened to bring back a much older notion of aristocracy. In WWII, the Nazis rallied behind such an ideology and were defeated in the West by a liberal alliance, which then established the liberal international order.

I’ve got to leave out the Cold War and Communism here for a minute, sorry.

Late modern challenges to the liberal ethos gained prominence in activist circles and the American academy during and following the Civil Rights Movement. These were and continue to be challenges because they were trying to bring bodies back into the conversation. The problem is that a rules-based order that is premised on the erasure of differences in bodies is going to be unable to deal with the political tensions that precisely do come from those bodily differences. Because the moral order of the rules was blind to those differences, the rules did not govern them. For many people, that’s an inadequate circumstance.

So here’s where things get murky for me. In recent years, you have had a tension between the liberal center and the progressive left. The progressive left reasserts the political importance of the body (“Black Lives Matter”), and assertions of liberal commonality (“All Lives Matter”) are first “pushed” to the right, but then bump into white supremacy, which is also a reassertion of the political importance of the body, on the far right. It’s worth mention Piketty, here, I think, because to some extent that also exposed how under liberal regimes the body has secretly been the organizing principle of wealth through the inheritance of private property.

So what has been undone is the sense, necessary for liberalism, that there is something that everybody has in common which is the basis for moral order. Now everybody is talking about their bodily differences.

That is on the one hand good because people do have bodily differences and those differences are definitely important. But it is bad because if everybody is questioning the moral order it’s hard to say that there really is one. We have today, I submit, a political nihilism crisis due to our inability to philosophically imagine a moral order that accounts for bodily difference.

This is about the Internet too!

Under liberalism, you had an idea that a public was a place people could come to agree on the rules. Some people thought that the Internet would become a gigantic public where everybody could get together and discuss the rules. Instead what happened was that the Internet became a place where everybody could discuss each other’s bodies. People with similar bodies could form counterpublics and realize their shared interests as body-classes. (This piece by David Weinberger critiquing the idea of an ‘echo chamber’ is inspiring.) Within these body-based counterpublics each form their own internal moral order whose purpose is to mobilize their body-interests against other kinds of bodies. I’m talking about both black lives matter and white supremacists here, radical feminists and MRA’s. They are all buffeting liberalism with their body interests.

I can’t say whether this is “good” or “bad” because the moral order is in flux. There is apparently no such thing as neutrality in a world of pervasive body agonism. That may be its finest criticism: body agonism is politically unstable. Body agonism leads to body anarchy.

I’ll conclude with two points. The first is that the Enlightenment view of people having something in common (their personhood, their rationality, etc.) which put them in the same moral order was an intellectual and institutional accomplishment. People do not naturally get outside themselves and put themselves in other people’s shoes; they have to be educated to do it. Perhaps there is a kernal of truth here about what moral education is that transcends liberal education. We have to ask whether today’s body agonism is an enlightened state relative to moral liberalism because it acknowledges a previously hidden descriptive reality of body difference and is no longer so naive, or if body agonism is a kind of ethical regress because it undoes moral education, reducing us to a more selfish state of nature, of body conflict, albeit in a world full of institutions based on something else entirely.

The second point is that there is an alternative to liberal order which appears to be alive and well in many places. This is an order that is not based on individual attitudes for legitimacy, but rather is more about the endurance of institutions for their own sake. I’m referring of course to authoritarianism. Without the pretense of individual equality, authoritarian regimes can focus on maintaining power on their own terms. Authoritarian regimes do not need to govern through moral order. U.S. foreign policy used to be based on the idea that such amoral governance would be shunned. But if body agonism has replaced the U.S. international moral order, we no longer have an ideology to export or enforce abroad.