The genesis for this line of thought is not some respectable philosophy paper or classic novel. It’s 100% YouTube videos.
I became interested in fake martial arts through the beneficence of the YouTube algorithm, which oddly but correctly thought that I might be interested in the work of gentlemen such as Rokas Leonavičius, who diligently practiced aikido for years and now uses the term “fantasy-based martial arts” to describe his own former art and practices like it, and Ramsey Dewey, who enjoys pressure-testing dubious self-defense techniques against resisting sparring partners on his YouTube channel.
Here is the fake martial arts situation as I understand it, as a sort of gestalt impression of many videos that are difficult to cite point-for-point individually:
Teachers of fake martial arts, whether they are unscrupulous or pious frauds, teach techniques that are not useful in actual self-defense situations, but sell them under the guise that they are, in fact, useful in self-defense situations. Because of deference-oriented institutional cultures and a lack of testing against resisting opponents, the uselessness of the techniques is kept hidden from students, and sometimes even from the masters themselves.
I hadn’t thought of it this way before. The only martial art that bananas practice is fencing, and humans don’t normally think of that when they think of “martial arts.” But only a very foolish fencer would ever think that being a master fencer would translate into victory in a bar fight. The most important artificiality of the martial art of modern fencing is the beautiful linear piste, a narrow strip of territory that confines the opponents for the entirety of their contest. They go back and forth, but they do not go sideways or around. Should their bodies cross on the piste, violating the mandatory one-dimensionality, then a halt is immediately called.
But most martial arts are not so neatly differentiated from the dark and mysterious domain of fighting. Martial arts sparring (to the extent that it occurs) takes place in something like a ring or an octagon, rather than a linear piste, and the footwork includes pivots and turns that no fencer would contemplate. If anything, most martial arts present themselves as fighting methods, even if (as in aikido, according to Rokas) they do not actually allow for stress testing of their methods with an actively resisting opponent.
Thinking about it in a general way, there are two main standards against which the fakeness of a martial art might be measured:
- utility in modern mixed martial art competitions
- utility in real-life self-defense situations
Some martial arts (such as judo and western boxing, from what I understand) are non-fake in the sense that many of their techniques (and practitioners) find success in the modern mixed martial arts competitive arena. Others (such as aikido and tai chi, again as I understand it) are “fake” in the sense that few, if any, of their techniques find a place within the martial arts “meta” (in the sense of a game “meta,” the community’s current shared understanding of strategy), and few, if any, of their serious practitioners are champions. There is a lemma to this: those serious practitioners of “fake” martial arts who do find success in the modern mixed martial arts arena use a fighting style that does not actually resemble said “fake” martial art in the octagon. If a practitioner of a fake martial art becomes a champion, it is through abandonment, not use, of his fake techniques.
However, even fighters who enjoy making fun of fake martial arts in the “not useful for MMA” sense are still quick to admit that all martial arts are largely fake in the second sense. Ramsey Dewey in particular enjoys demonstrating the fallacy of trying to fight off multiple opponents, or a single opponent with a knife, as opposed to employing wiser (but not useful for MMA!) strategies like diplomacy, going armed, making better life choices, and running the fuck away.
In fencing, the unreality of the dull-tipped competition weapon prevents you from thinking of it as an instrument of destruction. Its elegant pistol grip reminds the holder that it is not a pistol, but that a pistol is a real thing that exists in the world. In the case of MMA, however, if the octagon is imagined to be very similar to a street fight, one might be tempted to imagine that there are no guns or knives in street fights, or multiple attackers. And in their absence, one might be tempted to imagine that such obstacles could be overcome with cunning technique. After all, most people have more experience of the cinematic imagination of narratively compelling fights than of actual trivial altercations over status and mating opportunities. And for all that, imagining fights might be an even more important cultural activity than fighting.
Perhaps you have not heard the sad story of Xu Xiaodong, a Chinese mixed martial arts fighter who gained prominence for soundly beating traditional martial arts masters in China. Unfortunately, people are not always happy to hear that the emperor isn’t wearing clothes, and Xu began to take heat from the government for disparaging Chinese culture through his epistemic crimes. Police stopped his fights, and his social credit score is said to have fallen so low that he couldn’t fly on commercial airplanes. It is interesting here to see fake martiality protected from challenge from a martiality a level more real than it (Xu’s), in service of a martiality yet another level up. Fakeness often appears in absurd structures like this. (See also Ramsey Dewey’s theory that the phenomenon is due in part to the fact that China didn’t experience the epistemic revolution of UFC I. Common knowledge matters.)
There is something I encountered recently, which is that there’s a popular misconception that parasitic fungi take over ants’ brains and mind-control them to do their bidding. Apparently, according to very serious science, what actually happens is that the fungus leaves the brain intact and doesn’t even bother with it, opting instead to attach itself to the ants’ muscle fibers and establish control over the muscles directly. I mention this because I think it productively expands the reference class of what we might mean by self-defense, and conflict, and bodies, and it might now occur to us that taking control of the opponent’s cellular processes is not allowed in MMA fights any more than guns or knives or nuclear weapons are. The rules and the fakeness are what differentiate it from the background chaos of reality, rendering it recognizable as a skilled craft.
There’s something interesting about safety and protection in martial arts. Bare-knuckle fighting sounds scary and dangerous, but human hands are rather delicate structures. As I understand it, when no gloves are worn, the dominant fighting style is one of mainly grappling and perhaps kicking, with less emphasis on striking with the hands. Wearing gloves, however, whether boxing gloves or the more minimal MMA gloves, protects the hands and allows them to deliver forceful strikes. It seems likely that traumatic brain injuries are more common with gloves than without gloves, all things considered.
Traumatic brain injury is another interesting thing. For a martial art to be living, it must have practitioners and training and contests. There is not much chance to develop virtuosity and excellence, for example, if you’re likely to die in your first fight. The highly experienced gunfighter of the old west is a telling myth. Lethality is not so much of a constraint when animal bodies are substituted for human bodies in fights, as in the cock fighting of the Balinese and the dog fighting of the North American underground. The paradox for a serious game that simulates combat is on the one hand, to allow for true testing of fighters and techniques, and on the other, to protect the fighters from serious injury so that skills can develop over time. Injury risk must be minimized enough to allow for training and experience, but maximized in the sense of demonstrating real fighting prowess through overcoming strong resistance. Ultimately, the regime of gloves and more powerful strikes (and, presumably, more TBIs) won out in modern MMA, and in some sense we must grant that this is the better game. What is the point of these skilled and (at least technically) refined warriors training for battle, if no minds are engaged in witnessing their fights?
I have been wondering if there are intellectual equivalents of fake martial arts. The highly ritualized and hierarchical culture of the legal courtroom is one example of how epistemic battles are rendered civilized, and in some ways less real. Yet one can’t deny that legal systems are having a genuine and ongoing encounter with reality, from top to bottom. They are embedded in reality. Their fakenesses serve realities on other levels.
The main thing is that everyone practices a fake martial art. That routine you have, that day you live over and over with variations, is training you all the time to have that day, but more efficiently. And you are becoming better at it, to the admittedly ever-lessening degree that you can fight off the ongoing insults of aging.
There is a kind of truth in active resistance. In this sense, a cooperating sparring partner acts out a kind of lie, a lie whose denied truth is total war. Total war is a kind of truth, as illustrated in the fungus-controlled muscles of the ant. Some have even said that war amounts to the world performing a calculation. Peter Turchin has argued that war has historically been such an epistemic boon that the skill trees of the mega-empires could only be unlocked along contested steppe boundaries between fighting settled farmers and mounted raiders.
There is also truth in cooperation, and even more truth in the vast majority of human behavior that is hard to classify as either cooperation or resistance. Our cultural traditions of elaborate fakeness and order are as real and important as the chaotic mess that they comprise.