Sunday, September 24, 2006

Martial Arts: A Post-modern Approach


What is it? Well, it’s what comes after Modernism.

Modernism is a philosophy, attitude, way of interpreting the world.

Modernism embraces the idea of a Grand Narrative – that reality and the Way Forward can be explained by a single, seamless, grand doctrine. Modern (big M) philosophers and politicians contend that science and rationalism will necessarily lead to a more moral and Enlightened society, a “higher culture”. Its critics claim that Modernism’s ship ran aground and sank after the Holocaust, and after the failures of Marxism, the Mother of all grand narratives. More recent tragic events like Jonestown and 9/11, however, come not from Modern, but pre-Modern modes of thought.

Orthogonality, where there are a minimum number of tools to perform the totality of required functions, no more and no less, is a cornerstone of Modernism. Minimalism is very much a Modern state of mind. Small, simple, ordered, structured, regular. When I think of Modernism I see polished, featureless monoliths – or really a SINGLE, polished featureless monolith - reaching for the heavens. Originality, too, is important to the modernist. Build it from the ground up, starting from nothing. Continue to polish and refine it. Anyone who takes it away and claims it as their own is a thief or worse. Anyone who takes it part and puts it back together, or takes bit of it and mixes them up with stuff from outside, let alone stuff he or she worked out for themselves, is a heretic.

And, this is SERIOUS. You can’t take something the culmination of something that’s been developed and held inviolate, or been developed and carefully distilled by a clear hierarchy of patriarchs and acolytes over centuries, apart and see how it works. Or mix it up with something else, especially for something as trivial and light-hearted as fun or curiosity. And who gave you permission, anyway, huh? Unless you’ve trained for 50 years under an anointed Grandmaster, you can’t possibly understand. Let alone criticise or suggest that there might be alternatives. Know your place, shut up, drink the Kool-Aid and ascend to Heaven.

So what comes after Modernism? How can there BE something after Modernism?

Well, why shouldn’t there be, and on whose authority?

Postmodernists reject the universal, Grand Narratives, in favour of the local and temporal – well, not quite true, universal doctrines can be embraced, but only as one of a number of possibilities and as part of a more complex whole, and when they are appropriate. They embrace differences and contradictions. “High” and “Low” cultures are equally embraced. Authority figures’ ideas of what constitutes “art” or “culture” or what is “good” are rejected in favour of individual evaluations or the consensus of equals.

You have to make up your own mind about things. Analyse, deconstruct, recreate and recombine, not just regurgitate. Modularity and interchangeable parts are good, as is being able to see where everything is joined together. Much easier to fix that way.

Post-modernism advocates multiple approaches and open-endedness.

Forgive me the next digression.

For computer heads, Java was designed to be orthogonal, Perl non-orthogonal. The huge complexity of the Java object libraries indicates that something went astray. Java’s orthogonality got in my face once when I was trying to access a BSD nonblocking socket using the Java networking libraries, which it does not cater for (despite the documentation talking about it), and I’ve mistrusted it ever since. One person on Usenet told me that I couldn’t use such sockets as they weren’t in Java. Wish someone had told the developers of the component who wouldn’t let me have the source code to their proprietary (and non-Java) interface, to which I had to mesh my Java code. I got done what I needed to get done by going outside Java and writing an interface for it to my socket using Perl, a very post-modern approach (and one that freakin’ well WORKED). For non-techheads, sorry about the jargon, but I’m writing about what I know.

Java is a Modern programming language. Perl, despite being older, is completely Post-modern.

Science itself, the Modernists’ Excalibur, turned out to be a two-edged sword. Relativity showed the non-existence of absolutes. Quantum mechanics showed that reality is probabilistic rather than deterministic. Chaos theory showed that even a small number of variables can produce infinite complexity (plus, that Mandelbrot set ... very nice).

With your martial art (and for a postmodernist, it is YOUR martial art) – why are YOU doing it? On what is it based? Techniques or principles or concepts … or …?

Is it based on the ideas of a person or collective that had their supremacy in 1929 in Japan, 300 years ago on a Chinese battlefield, in an Octagon in 1993, or in America the year Bruce Lee died? Has it evolved since then? Should it have? Why or why not? Is it orthogonal or non-orthogonal, is it modern or post-modern?

Do you watch, read about, or train in martial arts other than your major? Why or why not? Do you compete? Have you looked at modern sporting training principles and tools and how they might apply to your training? Are you in the box or do you go outside it? Have you found the false bottom inside the box and what’s inside that?

Do you do your forms the same way each time, or do you do them with different footwork, right side instead of left, backwards as well as forwards? Have you done the various sections on different orders? Are your forms stone tablets carved by the Finger of God, or are they technical vocabularies you can vary and play with, explore?

Is your art perfect, inviolate, and with no weaknesses? Really? Did someone tell you that, is it in a book somewhere, or did you test it out - as advocated by Yip Man? You’re in a non- Yip Man lineage? So there’s no wisdom outside your lineage or style worth listening to, at least to check out before you throw it away? If you found weaknesses (you DID look, right?) what did you do? Even if it’s all strong, could some parts of it be even stronger?

Do you do what you are told or do you think for yourself? What could you teach your Sifu? What could your students teach you?

IMO, and post-modernism entitles you to a different one, Jeet Kune Do and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu are post-modern martial arts. JKD regards each TMA as a Modern Grand Narrative, deconstructs it and allows the practitioner to make his own by recombining from the deconstructions. It is for each to decide whether this will lead to an uncoordinated hodgepodge of disconnected tools, or a custom-built set of sleek weaponry.

Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an altered art (from Judo and Fusen Ryu Japanese Ju Jitsu via Mitsuo Maeda and the Gracies) of extreme effectiveness. It demonstrates that an art *can* be removed from its cultural and traditional environment, and renovated and greatly improved via that removal. The package deal with which it came, traditional and cultural underpinnings and all, was arguably an obstacle rather than an asset, excess baggage stopping it from flying.

This may not be true of other arts - maybe not true for YOU at least - but it demonstrates that deep cultural roots are not always necessary, and certainly not always desirable. You COULD try dropping them, just for a little while ... you CAN always pick them up again. A learning experience whatever your final opinion, I would imagine.

High level BJJ exponents, in true post-modern fashion, and unlike some Modern MA practitioners, recognised they did not have the solution to every combat problem, and so embraced other arts like boxing, Muay Thai, wrestling, sambo, firearms (don't take butterfly knives to a gunfight!) in order to round out their skill sets.

Your humble scribe and, more to the point, his instructor, are post-modern Wing Chun practitioners embracing BJJ similarly. Though you could just as easily say we’re BJJ guys adding some Wing Chun to the mix. If you’re a postmodernist, you can look at it either or both ways, or some other. If it works for you.

Did I say the Post-modern way was better? Not for me to say. Not for your Master to say, either. It’s up to YOU. When they gave you that brain, you were supposed to use it, right? How long did they say you had to study before you could start thinking for yourself?

A Karate black belt I met at a post-modern KF instructor’s multi-style camps told me about the Japanese teaching philosophy of Shu Ha Ri – very roughly translated as “hold, break, leave”. For about the first ten years of Karate – shu - you follow the theoretical and formal requirements of your system until the basics are mastered. After that, Ha, you are EXPECTED to question the fundamentals of what you learned in the earlier stage, look elsewhere, learn to think for yourself and become self sufficient. In the last (Ri) stage, the concept of rules and being inside or outside them becomes irrelevant, as you transcend the rules and your practice becomes an expression of self, and of the Tao/God/Eternal/… But reality is cyclical, and so you end up back at Shu again.

Bruce Lee came up with something similar with the Jun Fan System:

1. Sticking to the nucleus
2. Liberation from the nucleus
3. Returning to the original freedom

Sounds a lot like Shu, Ha, Ri, does it not? Maybe Bruce stole it. But then he would and he could, he was a post-modernist. He never tried to hide his borrowings from other scholars and arts.

If you’ve trained for more than a decade, have you considered something like this? Have you gone past Shu? Ha?

A series of quotes I quite like:

“There are two kinds of joiners in the world. Think of it in terms of anthropology. There are the kinds of people who join a tribe, and kind of get sucked in, like a black hole. That's the last you hear from them, unless you happen to be in the black hole with them. And we need people like this in our tribes, if only to be cheerleaders.

“… is energized by the other sort of joiner. This sort of person joins many tribes. These are the people who inhabit the intersections of the Venn diagrams. They believe in ANDs rather than ORs. They're a member of more than one subset, more than one tribe. The reason these people are important is, just like merchants who go between real tribes, they carry ideas from one intellectual tribe to another. I call these people ``glue people'', because they not only join themselves to a tribe, they join tribes together. Twenty years ago, you couldn't easily be a glue person, because our culture was not yet sufficiently accepting of diversity. It was also not accepting of information sharing...”

“Still and all, things have improved greatly, and the bridges across the gaps have gotten sturdier. Now people can send their memes across wider chasms without getting crucified on one end of the bridge or the other… To be sure, it's a fuzzy, post-modern sort of movement, with lots of diversity, and a certain amount of turmoil, but it's about as good as any movement gets these days. We all suck at slightly different things, but we're in basic agreement that the old way of business sucked a lot worse that whatever it is we're doing now. We've agreed to agree. Except when we don't. “

- Larry Wall, “Perl, the first Post-modern computer language”

Want to meet some Glue People?

David developed and practised an eclectic blend of Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut (itself an eclectic style), and Northern Sil Lum and began teaching it towards the end of the 1960’s. His dad was a boxer and judoka, and David had taken up Goju Karate in 1963 after a multi-opponent street confrontation which indicated that, for him at least, boxing didn’t work too well against more than one attacker. His instructor at the time required him to obtain a first Dan in Japanese Ju Jitsu before he could be graded to Nidan in Karate. There was basically no TCMA available to gwailos in the early 60’s, but when David discovered them, and the advantages of their softer approach, he switched. However, he was too experienced and pragmatic to let go everything he had learned previously, and, already being a comparatively senior instructor in another style, he elected to learn as much as he could from whomever he could, perhaps similarly to Robert W. Smith and his approach to learning Kung Fu during his stays in Taiwan.

David also has a fair number of firearms, and runs an extensive workshop to pack his own ammunition for many of them.

David encourages his students to train with other stylists and frequently hosts multi-style camps and seminars. He advocates building bridges with other stylists and see what they have to offer, and they all have something to offer, rather than to go insular in case your training gets “polluted”. He’s hosted people like Dan Inosanto and Erle Montaigue for seminars in his area, and knows the Hung family in Taiwan very well – any of his students seeking an Oriental experience are sent there. His wife arranged for his students to work as self defence instructors on cruise liners. He even knows a guy in Greece who runs an annual training camp in the Greek Islands and will happily pay expenses for any Australian instructor David recommends. Nice deal, huh?

David was mixing and matching styles thirty years before 90’s style MMA. With great success – David is one of the most respected, if not the highest profile, Kung Fu teachers in Australia today, and holds senior office in several Australian and International MA organisations. While not a tournament stylist, he has had students who have placed well in the top three in various Australian Kung-fu championships, and in Police and Fire Olympics. In my opinion, he is one of very few Kung-fu guys who can teach credible and effective standup grappling and ground combat.

Rick teaches TWC, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and other arts. Even 15 years ago, while Rick was still under his very traditional and Modern instructor’s organisational umbrella, Rick’s TWC had already added a few non-canonical wrinkles. For one thing, the kicking. Eager to push and test himself as far as possible, Rick became a highly successful kickboxing competitor. Most of “pure” Wing Chun’s kicks seldom aim above the waist, but kickboxing rules at the time allowed no kicking below the waist.

What to do? ADAPT, sucker! If it ain’t there in front of you grab it from somewhere else. Good musicians borrow, great musicians just steal. Not quite what happened here, but you get the drift.

Rick developed a highly effective kicking system based on that developed and advocated by Bill Wallace. (Not to say that his teacher or other TWC practitioners can’t kick, they certainly can, but Rick took his own particular path). He won many amateur and pro matches by kick knockout. He’s one of the best kickers and kicking instructors in Australia, if not the world.

Fast forward to about 1998. Rick befriended a Brazilian Jiu Jitsu Black Belt, John, himself almost an archetype for the postmodern multistylist, and … well, why not? He had to wear that white belt again after 25 years, but not for too long. He added some boxing, CQC knife and baton work to his curriculum, stuff he’d picked up from other martial artists over the decades. He was invited to grade as an instructor in some of those systems. The focus gets a bit wider, but suddenly everything is new again and everyone is learning and having much more fun, especially Rick. And next year …

David and Rick are my teachers. If martial arts were about purity, adherence to the past or a particular style or teacher, I was ruined from the start. And I have the audacity to feel that I’m better off as a result, even if it means questioning several hundred years of tradition.

How about it?

Be a Glue Person. Celebrate diversity. Explore. Make new friends. Have fun!

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