Keyboard warriors: Martial arts in the age of participatory culture

For thousands of years, martial arts have functioned in very similar and classical modes of transmission: students trained, became teachers and taught the new generation, and so on. Even the advent of various revolutions never quite changed this state of affairs, at most changing the involvement of the State in questions of certifications. The appearance of writing and printing allowed students to train on their own, but the results were nearly always considered inferior to face to face interaction with a qualified instructor. The invention of the idea of sport in the 17th, and even more so in the 19th century, changed the nature of many martial arts but also promoted more “traditional” approaches to certain crowds. Even the recent revolution of MMA can be seen as simply another turn of the cycle where combat sports with more permissive rules eventually regain popularity.

All these changes did little to upset the traditional teaching structure. A real change or alternative in this mechanism appeared in the 1990s with the rise of internet. Communities began to grow along specific interests and created parallel teaching structures much different to the traditional ones, in a phenomenon common to other communities and which came to be called “participatory culture”.

Participatory culture has been examined mostly through online fandom communities, but has received very little attention in the historical or academic sphere, often being misunderstood as historical re-enactment. Although its impact has been limited in most traditional martial arts, others like the field of Historical Martial Arts grew exponentially following the creation of such communities.


Taking parts: What is participatory culture?

Participatory culture stands in opposition to consumer culture, in which actors do not simply acquire goods and knowledge but also contribute and produce content. The increasingly large and easy access to online media, starting in the late 1990s, made possible the sharing of creative work among affinity groups. Henry Jenkins described this culture as one:

  1. With relatively low barriers to artistic expression and civic engagement

  2. With strong support for creating and sharing one’s creations with others

  3. With some type of informal mentorship whereby what is known by the most experienced is passed along to novices

  4. Where members believe that their contributions matter

  5. Where members feel some degree of social connection with one another (at the least they care what other people think about what they have created).

Those who are familiar with the Historical Martial Arts (HMA) community will recognize many commonalities, but the study of martial arts of the past did not appear with the Internet. Since the rise of romanticism, fencers and martial artists were always interested by the practice of their ancestors. Hutton, Dubois, Burton, Legault and many others wrote, even experimented or taught recreated techniques from the past. Their motives were varied, ranging from historical or technical curiosity to simply promoting modern fencing in a new light.

The reconstruction of martial arts was even part of some nationalist movements, namely in Korea in the decades following the Second World War. The Bon Kuk Geom Beop or National Sword methods were recreated from 17th and 18th century manuals by different groups during the 1970s and 1980s, and decades before that German longsword techniques from Medieval and Renaissance treatises were infamously taught to Hitler Youth.

Such movements have also recently started to emerge around similar Chinese or Persian manuals. Although the source of their knowledge is similar in nature, the way that some of these groups organized themselves is still very close to traditional martial arts. In many cases only a handful of senior teachers interpret the sources, which are often not released publicly, and then transmits them in a very classical and hierarchical manner. Many groups identifying with HMA go in a different direction, closer to the spirit of participatory culture.

In HMA, the various sources are quickly digitized, made available publicly, translated and interpreted, again with the results usually communicated online. Interpretations are then criticized by the community, with senior practitioners acting as informal mentors and different specialists bringing their own knowledge such as historians, engineers, physiotherapists or entrepreneurs; as Pierre Lévy puts it: “No one knows everything, but everyone knows something.” Status in the community is not simply reached by physical prowess, or those of one’s students, but also by the involvement of the individual in finding sources, translating them, producing videos or organizing events.

While certain groups arrange their practice in a classical way, with one or many instructors giving lessons to students, others use a much more informal, even anarchist organization. These groups usually decides on a set of sources they wish to explore primarily, but often members are free to explore the sources of their choice, as long as they can generate the interest of others. It is a method that is completely alien to traditional or conventional martial arts, but which is in line with the nature of online culture and is ironically closer to Pre-State instruction in many ways.


Are we heading towards a “clash of cultures”?

This approach is often criticized by exponents of traditional martial arts as futile and unproductive, but one cannot argue with the fact that it has produced some skilled martial artists and brought a new degree of diligence in approaching the history of martial arts, challenging long held myths and demanding genuine research. It has also demonstrated the strength of a community in building proper martial arts.

Growing also means changing, and it is possible that certain practices like longsword – arguably the most popular type in HMA- will in time grow to become more and more like traditional martial arts, as instructors become more numerous and their understanding of the source material becomes more solid, making the community less relevant as a tool for growth. Already, such signs can be noticed as the energy and preconceptions of beginners start to clash with the experience and knowledge of more established members. In more traditional styles, such debates would simply be silenced by the established hierarchy, for better or worse.

So how can traditional martial arts adapt to this new phenomenon? In certain cases it wouldn’t be relevant to apply the same model to living traditions. In Japanese Koryu for example, the structure and nature of transmission is just as important as the techniques themselves. As the style is passed down to an individual headmaster and not necessarily to a group, participatory culture is not compatible. But there are aspects which can be applied.

HMA use the community as a tool for research and growth. In some ways it is possible to harness the knowledge of the community to explore the history of a style and to challenge long held beliefs and myths. As a proof of this usefulness, the immense array of sources available at the present and the ease of navigating through them has shown how it can quickly overturn decades of research in a couple of hours or days. The online tools used by these communities can also be harnessed with much more efficiency. But in considering this approach, one has to remain aware and respectful of the huge difference in context between practicing techniques from an art long extinguished from one still living and breathing.

The phenomenon of HMA is not completely unique, but the extent to which the community is involved has few parallels in the martial arts world. HMA is an example of strong participatory culture, but it is hard for the moment to know if in time this culture will be gradually replaced by a more traditional structure. Certain organizations, not unlike what happens in other fields of participatory culture, already try to reappropriate the movement or insert it into a more classical structure. This trend has long been an object of vigorous debate in the HEMA community, the use of the title of “master” being very contentious – this subject deserving an article of its own- and attempts at association with established organizations such as Olympic style fencing were also decried.

It is also an approach which can be applied to different arts, and its success is a good sign that not all is lost in our martial past, but we must not lose sight that HMA is the product of a specific culture and context, and that its base model is not directly applicable everywhere. Technique is not the only thing that is important in a martial art, and in many cases the structures that surround its transmission are equally precious and very hard to reconstruct. Certain arts are also the actual property of individuals or groups, and one must be careful when exploring their art not to wrongfully appropriate their heritage.

Whatever role participatory culture has to play in the world of martial arts, it has already demonstrated its efficiency in many domains, and is clearly there to stay. The phenomenon is already spreading to other spheres of martial arts history such as the burgeoning Historical African Martial Arts community which is exploring the arts of the African continent as well as its diaspora. The question is if the model can sustain itself indefinitely, or if it will in time align itself to more conventional hierarchies. Will traditional martial arts also be tempted to borrow certain practices from participatory culture, or will they on the contrary remain rooted in their own ways?



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