Thursday, December 31, 2020

Paul Bowman's "The Invention of Martial Arts"

Paul Bowman is Professor of Cultural Studies at Cardiff University. He is the author of many works of film, media and cultural studies, on popular culture, postcolonialism, cultural theory, and martial arts. He is founder and director of the Martial Arts Studies Research Network.

Bowman applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America is the beginning of a new chapter – Chapter 5, ‘From Linear History to Discursive Constellation’. The page reads:
Any attempt to construct a linear history of martial arts in media and poular culture as it exploded after the 1970s cannot but fail. The sheer proliferation of martial arts images, themes, texts and practices precludes easy linear narrativization. Accordingly, this chapter argues for the need to move from thinking in terms of linear history to establishing the contours of a discursive constellation in our approach to martial arts in media and popular culture. This chapter seeks to establish the main discursive contours that appeared and developed through the 1980s—a decade in which ninjas and Shaolin monks explode onto the cultural landscape. This is followed by attention to the 1990s, in which three major events took place in the same year: the first Ultimate Fighting Competition (UFC), the Wu-Tang Clan’s release of their enormously popular album, ‘Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers)’, and the appearance on children’s television screens around the world of ‘The Power Rangers’—all of which took place in 1993. The chapter then attempts to track the major discursive tendencies and contours of martial arts aesthetics through the first decade of the 21st century, up to the mainstreaming of combat sports in recent years.

However, to be clear, the history of martial arts in media culture can only ever be partly written. This is because, from the staccato, sporadic and dispersed starting points that we have already encountered, so many strands dovetail and disperse, and sources multiply: the sheer proliferation of instances and examples of martial arts appearing in media texts of all kinds precludes the writing of a complete, or completely coherent, linear narrative. Nonetheless, this claim still remains to be shown. The proliferation of appearances (of bits and pieces) of martial arts images, imagery and narratives in popular cultural texts must still be sampled, even if opening up this particular can of worms only releases a cacophony. This chapter does this in order to illustrate the ways in which several faces of martial arts became commonplace and ubiquitous across media of all orders from the 1980s onwards. In scratching the surface of this, however, the explosion of texts and images that faces us serves to underpin the claim that establishing a linear narrative history of martial arts in…
I believe this gives readers a surprisingly good flavour of the book, as this chapter does summarise much of the content and argument of what has preceded and what will follow. From it, the reader can see that the book involves detailed discussion of many media texts – some fondly remembered, others all but forgotten – which constructed and traded in what we now know and love as the look and feel of ‘martial arts’. The book also undertakes a sustained theoretical reflection on the significance of these aesthetics. So, readers will encounter the kind of theoretical language suggested by page 99, as well as many rich descriptions and discussions of specific media texts. Text selected range from the early 1900s through to 2018, from Victorian Bartitsu to adverts for Hai Karate aftershave, from children’s cartoons to music videos and news stories, from disco hits to the UFC, from television adverts to the transmission of taijiquan and even the construction of lived identities. Topics covered include media history, cultural memory, orientalism, class, race, ethnicity and gender.

Overall, I think that the Page 99 Test works quite well for The Invention of Martial Arts, although, the chapter of which it is part is quite unique in the book, and written in a different tone of voice, in that it works as a summing up and taking stock. This is somewhat different from many of the other chapters, which take the form of setting out and assessing complex media histories, and so do not have the ‘overview’ feeling possessed by chapter 5 and page 99.
Learn more about The Invention of Martial Arts at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue