Thursday, December 26, 2013

Boxing: The Brutal Agon

“Boxing is only possible if there is an endless supply of young men hungry to leave their ghetto neighborhoods, more than willing to substitute the putative dangers of the ring for the more evident dangers of the street; yet it is rarely advanced as a means of eradicating boxing, that poverty itself be abolished; that it is the social conditions feeding boxing that are obscene.”—Joyce Carol Oates

“In the name of that ethic of strength and domination –and in order to escape that common fate of the oppressed, in whom he discovers and detests his own wretchedness as a victim—he sells his strength, his agility and his courage. He sells even that rage which makes him so combative. At once, it is no longer his, it is taken from him. The assertion of his sovereignty becomes his livelihood. Obedience replaces anarchistic pride, lordly will shrivels before harsh discipline. The exercise of violence—directed, channeled, orientated in the direction of maximum profit for the promoters—is no longer the easy demonstration of a brutal superiority. It is instead a dangerous labour that is face in anguish and often pits the boxer against a better-armed opponent: he learns the limits of his power through the sufferings inflicted on him. [….] As long as he remained in the working class, it was a lonely individual’s blind, explosive reaction to exploitation. Once he is a servant of the bourgeois class, his fight in the ring incarnates his fight for life in the bourgeois system of competition. [….] His violence being, in and of itself, an ever fruitless spasm to struggle free from poverty and his milieu, he accepts that it should precisely be the instrument for his promotion into the other class. In fact, the promotion does not really take place (except for a tiny minority). He sells his violence, remains one of the exploited, and on the boxing market finds the same competitive antagonisms that pit workers against one another on the labour market. But with workers, years of trade-union experience and social conflict have at least ended by reducing these antagonisms and developing a class solidarity.”—Jean-Paul Sartre

“’Each time we moved, the conditions got worse—from being poor to being serious poor to being fucked-up poor.’ Tyson’s mother’s friends were now mainly prostitutes and her lovers inclined to violence—though Tyson recounts how his mother once poured boiling water over one of her male friends: ‘That is the kind of life I grew up in. People in love cracking their heads and bleeding like dogs. They love each other but they’re stabbing each other. Holy shit, I was scared to death of my family….’” Mike Tyson, quoted in Joyce Carol Oates’ review of Tyson’s book, Undisputed Truth (New York: Blue Rider Press/Penguin, 2013)

Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1958 draft of the second volume of his posthumously published Critique of Dialectical Reason put forth the intriguing proposition that “Every boxing match incarnates the whole of boxing as an incarnation of all fundamental violence.”  More interestingly, perhaps, he also argued that the “so-called witness” to the match is in fact a “participant: he intervenes to stop a brawl or else lets it run its course—out of cowardice, sadism, or respect for tradition. [....] The brawl is a common event.” Sartre then proceeds to demonstrate how “bourgeois capitalism itself is expressed through boxing.” The “boxing” section of the Critique was likely in part (as Ronald Aronson has noted) inspired by, although rather different from, Roland Barthes’ well-known 1957 essay on wrestling.

In any case, I think Sartre’s piece might be systematically and fruitfully compared to Joyce Carol Oates’ writings on boxing, which are phenomenologically perceptive if not brilliant, albeit at times contradictory in execution. For example, she states unequivocally that “Life is like boxing in many unsettling respects. But boxing is only like boxing.” This claim is reiterated in her assertion that “boxing is not a metaphor for life but a unique, closed, self-referential world….” This approach to the “sport” (Oates does not in fact believe boxing is a sport, especially insofar as a sport is understood within the conceptual parameters of a ‘game’) is salutary in that it encourages acute perception to detail, a focused attention on the subject at hand, unaltered or disturbed by some underlying agenda or ideological goal that tends to constrict what one will perceive, allowing only that which one expects, wants, or hopes to see. Oates is explicit if not emphatic about not viewing boxing as a metaphor for something else, that “something else” which might serve to diminish or distort our understanding of what takes place both inside and outside the ring. There is at once a singularity to each boxing match and a sense in which “each fight is all of boxing” (in Sartrean terms, its ‘totalization would remain schematic and formal…if it were not incarnated in the singularity of an “uncertain contest’”).

And yet I sense that Oates perforce is compelled to draw upon a number of analogies and metaphors that belie the notion of boxing as “a unique, closed, self-referential world,” hence her statement in the preface (1994) to the latest edition of On Boxing (2006) that “to write about boxing is to be forced to contemplate not only boxing, but the perimeters of civilization—what it is, or should be, to be ‘human.’” Indeed, for Oates the boxing match speaks to an undeniable feature of human nature, for it “is the very image, the more terrifying for being so stylized, of mankind’s collective aggression; its ongoing historical madness.” These comments are closer in spirit to the philosophical explorations initiated in Sartre’s Critique and account for her treatment of the boxing match as an event which, to slightly paraphrase and quote, risks and sometimes realizes “the agony of which agon (Greek, ‘contest’) is the root.” Oates once again begins to break out of this “closed, self-referential world” when she refers to boxing as “the most pitiless of sports, as it can be the most dazzling, theatrical and emblematic” (e.g.: ‘a mimicry of a fight to the death, a theatrical sort of mortal combat’), or when boxing is described both as “a wordless spectacle” accorded “narrative unity” by the ringside announcer, and as a “performance…clearly akin to dance or music [rather] than narrative.” This dovetails nicely with her invocation of Nietzsche’s reflections on the Hellenistic “contest—athletic and otherwise [e.g., chariot racing]—by which Greek youths were educated into Greek citizenry.” 

 Still, while the gymnasium  loomed large in the lives of both upper class young Athenians as well as young Spartans, it seems the athletic contest proper (with training in training in wrestling, boxing, running, throwing the discus and javelin, for example) was perhaps more important to some Greek city-states (e.g., Sparta) and less so for others (e.g., Athens): Plato’s Athenian pedagogical ideal, for example, revolves around dance and music (or ‘ritual play’) as fundamental to paideia (moral socialization or education) generally, although Dorian Sparta, at least according to Plato, remained an exemplar of choral excellence. Whatever the significance of the athletic contest, music or dance among ancient Greek city-states, the contemporary boxing match is a uniquely literal and analogical incarnation of “agony” (with substitutionary atonement as one function of this brutal, stylized spectacle?). And while homoeroticism (in general, intimate, and masochistic forms) may suffuse the world of boxing, as it did the world of ancient Greece, Oates assures us that the violence of its “ritual combat” (or ‘the Sweet Science of Bruising’) is not to be confused with love (‘Love, if there is to be love, comes second.’). Nor is the “play” of ritual as expressed through music and dance, fundamentally or typically agonistic (that is, even if it is, it should not be), let alone violent (to be sure, music and dance, as Plato himself appreciated, can assume inhumane or improper if not ‘violent’ forms contrary to human reason and virtues, hence our need for humane normative psychological, moral, and aesthetic evaluative criteria for these arts). Ritual combat may partake of music or dance, but it is the violent substance of the match itself which defines essence of this cruel spectacle, in other words, it “is an event that necessarily subsumes both boxers, as any ceremony subsumes its participants” (Oates), for its violence is no longer the individual property or under the sovereign control—as Sartre informs us—of the boxers themselves. Finally, and rightly, Oates cannot but fail to appreciate that the individual life history of exceptional boxers is conspicuously “emblematic of much more than their individual lives,” she remains fascinated by “their relationship with the politics and culture of their eras, their role in the ongoing ‘racial drama’ of America,’” a reminder, with Sartre, that boxing is much more than “a unique, closed, self-referential world.”

Images (from top to bottom): Jack Johnson, Rocky Marciano, and Muhammad Ali.

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