Issue #44 September 2021

Fighting Bodies: A Genealogy of the Ring

George Bellows, "A Stag at Sharkey's", 1917, (detail)

The following essay will attempt to trace a genealogy for the institution of professional boxing. Applying Michel Foucault’s method of Archeology and Biopolitical critique, the aim will be to demonstrate several things. First, that boxing has not been constituted as a proper object of connaisance and therefore exhibits the same elusive features as other Foucaultian hybrid-formations like madness and the psychiatric ward. Instead, there is a proliferation of discourses such that each constitutes pugilism in their own way with only a partial convergence of definitions, techniques, maneuvers, strikes, guards, postures, and other discursive and non-discursive formations and social practices. The various techniques of the self will be analyzed at length as a field of possible “moves” within the war-game of boxing; more specifically, a space where various methods of governance crisscross and overlap. A distinction, similar to the one made by Hannah Arendt, between domination (violence in Arendt’s case) and power will show to hold in combat sports as well as in political discourse surrounding it. A testament to the heterogeneous nature of the quasi-object-institution of boxing, will be its own internal ambivalence, as expressed through the writings of the selected 18th and 19th century English fighters. Boxing is at the same time declared to be useful and harmful for the social body, both violent and refined, transgressive and reforming. The training of boxers will play an important role in identifying the disciplinary mechanisms at play, while multiple forms of political propaganda and economic marketing campaigns, both pertaining to the present as well as the 18th century, will prove as evidence for the historical emergence of boxing, including the current state of the sport, as a type of governmentality. Boxing will show to be a sophisticated technique of administering bodies, of making live and letting die. It will be seen that the pugilistic institution, as well as combat sports in general, turn out to be a Neoliberal hub of economic governance. A complete genealogy will not be offered. Instead, the essay will concentrate on 18th century English boxing as a predecessor to combat sports as we witness its rising popularity today. The boxing institution will be used as a case example of the emergence and on-going activity in (neo)liberal governance.


Part I: Genealogy of the Fighting Self

Chapter 1: The Oracle of the Ring

The text discussed below, the full title of which is Fistiana: Or, The Oracle of the Ring, was written by George Vincent Dowling in the year 1841. The Oracle offers us an historical, rhetorical, technical, and scientific account of the art of pugilism, more famously referred to as boxing or the “Sweet Science” today. The following commentary on the aforementioned text will aim to provide a counter-history of boxing focusing on the political economy and various forms of legitimation that had to occur in order for the “Noble Art of Defense” to acquire firm institutional grounding. More precisely, the aim will be to expose 18th and 19th century English boxing as a biopolitical power-structure and an indirect extension of English sovereignty. The current work follows the tradition and methodology of the French theorist, philosopher historian Michel Foucault, and it aims to demonstrate that far less than the upright and exemplary non-discursive practice that boxing was (and still is) presented to be; far less than an effective form of character-building or moral education, it was in fact: a moralizing, normalizing, disciplinary dispositif of internal policing and regulation of the city as well as the population. An institution focused on reaping profit and docility from the bodies of men and fostering the growth of an internal army of soldier-citizens. The classical age of pugilism marks a reactivation of a particular governmentality, one that is very similar, if not identical to, the Neoliberal variety we encounter today.  

The Oracle is divided into 4 parts. The first part is the legitimation of boxing par excellence; a rhetorical exposition of the merits, social benefits and high moral standards of the art. Followed by a history of pugilism, training instructions, and finally a scientific treatise on sparring. The following commentary will address only the first and the second part. Before we begin, a few preliminary and general remarks should be added once again concerning the particular choice of boxing as the proper (quasi)object for a Foucaultian genealogical study.

The institution of boxing is diverse, complex, and conceptually elusive. Not unlike, for instance, the history of science in its pre-modern incubative period, also studied by Foucault in his most famous book The Order of Things, 18 & 19th century discourse on boxing draws on multiple sources of authority in aiming to produce a truthful discourse about itself. In attempting to constitute boxing as an object of knowledge or connaissance, to use the proper Foucaultian terminology, pugilistic writers appeal to Art, Science, Morality, History, Politics, and Economics. Even though they never really accomplish their goal (keeping in mind that boxing today is still first and foremost a sport and only secondarily a possible object for science), they still succeed or at least make progress in trying to provide boxing with a meaningful teleology, moral ideals, a rigorous technique, and a creativity. All in order to justify and secure its place as a pronounced symbol of national pride. Boxing is healthy for both the body and the mind, it prevents the eruption of “real” violence, it is a spectacle for the eyes, an example for the youth and an expression of (English!) masculinity. The discursive practice of boxing, the complexity involved in movements, training, postures, guards, strikes, slips, jabs, hooks and various partial movements allowing for peripheral actions and quick substitution of maneuvers points to a heterogeneity which Foucaultian theory is so effective at bringing to notice. The very elusiveness of the boxing hybrid-form at the level of both practice and theory makes it an excellent discursivity.

General Observations Upon the Pugilistic Prize-Ring. This is the title of the first part of Dowling’s book. A theme that runs quite often across this section and in other pugilistic writings as well, is the appropriation of Greco-Roman values to the English habitus. A clear nationalist agenda used to promote the art of self-defense and even more so, to make the most audacious claims to British superiority over the exploits of the ancients (as well as their contemporary neighbours). Dowling claims, for instance, that where the Greeks engaged in physical training by way of controlled discipline, bareknuckle fights and spontaneous confrontation have always been the most natural pass-time for Englishmen. Although it was true that people in 18th century England often fought in the streets, it was not only the English, but one would suppose that probably all people at different times and ages all over the world fought in the streets just as well. It would therefore and obviously be a gross overstatement to attribute these street-fights to some particular aspect or character of whatever it means for Dowling to be an Englishman. And this of course is only one aspect of the problematic implications. Dowling writes:

The annals of our country from the invasion of the Romans downwards sufficiently demonstrate that the native Briton trusted more to the strength of his arm, the muscular vigor of his frame, and the fearless attribute of his mind in the hour of danger, than to any artificial expedients…”

And also: “… pugilism is not so much the cause as the effect, or rather the sign and measure of English valor; and its professors maybe considered the representatives of the courage of the nation…(Dowling 1841, 9). The essence of this naturalization of pugilism we will soon trace more clearly to the naturalization of violence as such, with pugilism, very ironically, turning out to be both its expression and solution; an instance of both the production and the repression of violence. It will be shown that pugilism in turn aims to be a way of speaking the truth of violence, as well as a technique for controlling it. If psychiatry is the institution that forces madness to speak, or if medicine is the space where disease is made observable and meaningful to the medical gaze, then, in a similar vein, boxing aims to make sense of violence inside the prize ring. A meeting ground for the violent avowal of the ring and the neoliberal avowal of the market-driven “truth”.

Accompanying the nationalistic discourse surrounding violence and pugilism, quite unsurprisingly, the cult of masculinity becomes coupled with moralistic teachings. Dowling even refers to the “effeminate epidemic” (Dowling 1841, 18). What we could in fact term ‘the spirit of the new English machismo’, is only one among many different rhetorical devices used by Dowling to rescue boxing from the accusations of being cruel, brutal, low, and demoralizing (Dowling 1841, 6). Dowling’s discourse on boxing effectively transforms spontaneous violence into calculable violence. It is a sleight of hand indeed; Dowling seems to say (quite selectively) that boxing is violent enough to “cure” those who are “unmanly” or possess “weak nerves,” but not so violent as to be immoral or outright lethal. What happens in reality, is that boxing only serves as a relay between individual and systemic forms of violence while retaining elements of both. As we will see further, consulting Arendt’s On Violence, when fighters forfeit all of their power as “free” citizens and forgo their ability to resist symbolic forms of institutional violence, they become fighting bodies. They exchange one form of agency for another. Or one form of docility for another; to be more precise. The fighter acquires the more direct and intensified capacity for domination at the expense of the very ability to question the purpose and the ethical implications of his actions inside the ring. The similarities between the fighter and the soldier begin to come to light. Through the partial sublimation of a sport activity, instituted combat succeeds all the more in both retaining power and hiding it. It is often assumed that unmediated violence is the natural remedy for institutional violence or at least that the one excludes the other. And they often do, at the level of the individual, in the sense that one is more likely to monopolize on the one or the other. But at the institutional level, the larger scale of things, power and violent domination do not exclude one another. And it is indeed the case that combat sports offer a testament to the opposite: The two can go hand-in-hand, accompanying one another without contradiction.

Another line of defense offered by Dowling for the “Noble Science” (which by the end will turn out be neither noble nor a science) lays emphasis on the voluntaristic element of boxing. This argument comes very close to Neoliberal strategies of legitimation, and we will return to it again. After all, the argument rests on the notion of freedom and autonomy, that is to say: One may not intervene, let alone reprimand any decision made and acted upon by two consenting adults (and their transaction). The requirement of non-intervention and deregulation is of course, also a chimera. As we know quite well, both boxing and neoliberalism are highly artificial systems that require very particular forms of intervention and control in order for them to “evolve spontaneously”.

To quote: “No man in England can be forced to fight, and we are not in favour of even persuading an unwilling man to enter the ring” (Dowling 1841, 6). Some additional remarks are in place here. Let us compare the obedience and discipline involved in governing a fighting body to the obedience and discipline involved in the recruitment of soldiers. In contrast to a military draft, boxing is portrayed as a free pass-time and a result of individual decision-making. There are no duties involved (formally speaking), only desires and the famous mantra of competition. The boxer is an independent, enterprising producer and consumer of her own violence. Unlike the soldier, who is driven not by desires or “natural inclinations,” but instead, he is moved according to moral imperatives. This marks the boundary between repressive coercion and productive incitement. Where the first is strictly legal and political, the latter is economic and Bio-political. Pugilism is not only a matter of administrative governance and the deployment of a particular set of skills and commands, it is also an apparatus of economic governmentality that can operate only under the condition of freedom given to the subject. The boxer cannot be a boxer without a love for the combat, but the soldier must withstand and bear the atrocities of combat for a completely different set of obligations. Precisely as obligations rather than choices. This change of attitude marks a change in the style of governance. For instance, even classical liberalism still retains the contrast between work and play manifesting in a similar distinction between obligation and desire. One goes to work, it is not pleasant, it is simply a given that one must work to provide for himself. In the case of liberalism the transition from repression to production is not yet complete. With neoliberalism there is instead a convergence of work and play where one must “love one’s job”. And the imperative, that one must love one’s job is now hidden under the banner of “freedom” and “autonomy”. It is the latter that shows to be decisive in bridging the gap between the soldier and the athlete. In this sense, the technique of governmentality for 19th century English boxing is the same as the neoliberal mode of governance that we encounter today. The seed of neoliberalism was already taking root during classical liberalism. Numerous passages in Dowling’s book continue to emphasize the similarities between a boxer and a soldier, transforming the virtues of the latter into the merits of the first etc.

An entire ensemble of discursive formations tends to manifest in the literature as a set of artificial oppositions within the extensive boxer-soldier analogy. An opposition and a paradox solved only superficially. Just as the case was with violence and level-mindedness, barbarism and civility, i.e. warfare and boxing – quite conveniently, if virtues are involved, then the ring becomes suddenly most akin to the battlefront and then the reverse again: The moment one begins to think of the nefarious nature of murder, differences are immediately brought to life and exaggerated to the utmost between the boxer and the soldier. We may notice at this point that 18th and 19th century England had succeeded, through the institutional game of boxing, at producing a new type of Subjectivity: One no longer waging war on the frontline in the name of false patriotic ideals, but now responsible for a generalized internal governance of the state, the population and the self, in the name of an invented freedom. A non-murderous soldier, a domesticated warrior. In short: A police-officer.

Chapter 2: An Inclusive Exteriority of the Juridical

A third similar duplicity of ostensibly divergent discursivities will later show to manifest in the concurrent separation and joining up of pugilism with the jurisdictional apparatus. A particular constitution of the homo-legalis; anticipating also the contemporary neoliberalization of the legal apparatus. “…men whose judicious heads were accompanied by stout hearts and hands; and who, able and willing to defend themselves upon occasion without setting to work the machinery of the law…” (Dowling 1841, 14). The passage resonates with Foucault’s 1981 lectures at the University of Louvain: Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling The Function of Avowal in Justice, where Foucault traces the emergence of avowal as a form of truth-telling and as a precursor to legality as such. Foucault shows, with the example brought from Homeric Greece, that combat was the genealogical ancestor to the legal process. The juridical, the political, and the economic; both repressive and productive elements of power, as well as The Will to Know as a strategy of control are condensed within the sport of boxing. But let us not forget that boxing is not real combat and this is precisely where it bears the marks of neoliberal interventions. It is a false naturalization of violence and therefore a false suspension of the juridical.

The words of Barber Beaumont, who, quite ironically, uses his position inside legal discourse to separate the discourse of jurisprudence from the discourse and practice of pugilism, are here used to denounce the following legal penalty: “Two men are sentenced to the severest punishment of law, short of death, for being seconds to another man who had the misfortune to burst a blood-vessel by his own exertions in a boxing-match!” (Dowling 1841, 72). What follows this phrase, is another speech concerning the independence of the Ring from all legal interventions. A legal justification of boxing as a non-legal entity. Once again, power is hidden in plain sight, but this time within the discourse of sovereignty itself. We are witnessing a direct legal intervention into pugilistic practices, the very purpose of which is to legitimate boxing as a (pseudo) extra-legal entity. Now this is neoliberal through and through: One must intervene into a state-of-affairs in order to “let it be,” to allow it to “develop naturally” and then hide all traces of having intervened. Or, to state it differently, one must intervene in order to point out just the fact that no one should intervene.

Another “virtue” is further drawn up. Not merely a soldier-citizen anymore, ready to fight both inside and outside of state territory, but additionally a resourceful industrious member of the population. How should a man, however personally brave, be able to do his duty as a soldier, a sailor, or a surgeon, if the mere sight of another’s blood appalls him” (Dowling 1841, 7). Now the analogy has acquired some serious scope. The soldier is no longer just an internal fighter, but also a man of many other professions. The training regimen of a fighter is now associated with a generalized militant attitude that can be mapped universally onto all forms of utility and industriousness. The moral character of the boxer is now dispersed throughout the social body.

Let us return to the internal and external heterogeneity of boxing, both as techne and an institution. Both as fighting art and a technique of governance used to produce fighting bodies. Aside from its entanglement in political, economic, moral, scientific, and historic discursivities, and also, next to the multiplicity of the skill-set involved at the very heart of the sport, there is a further distinction, a moral separation between the “good” boxers and the “bad” ones. The ones who present the true face of pugilism, and those who pervert the art. There seems to be an internal transgression within the sport of boxing which cannot be ascribed to the more familiar transgressions against boxing, and in a way simultaneously, against the State. In other words, the corrupt boxer is to be separated from the duellist, the knife-fighter and even the bareknuckle fighter. We may term this the “internal division of the ring” to emphasize that this boundary is neither at the very heart of the sport as sport proper, nor the boxing skill-set, nor something that surrounds the production of violence and bears its name, that is, the political economy of boxing. This distinction is drawn by most, if not every pugilistic writer from Captain John Godfrey, to Bailey, to Henry Downes Miles, and Peirce Egan. It is by far the most common rhetoric put to use in the discursive legitimation of boxing. The line that separates the authentic from the counterfeit, the honest from the corrupt and the true professional from the self-titled charlatan. The internal division of the ring is what separates the real “professors” (as they used to refer to boxing coaches at the time), from those that we may satirically term those other fighters.” These were simply dilettante boxers who took advantage of the sport to further their own short-sighted ends. Far from engaging in counter-conduct or offering resistance towards the institution, in fact, they played a constitutive role, both as scapegoats and as a “necessary evil” in strengthening the boxing dispositif.

Another powerful discursive deployment was the fighter outside of the ring. The “violent” fighter was now transformed, and without a doubt exoticized during the process, into an English gentleman. Calm, cultured, clean, refined in his demeanor and gentle in his mannerisms. This tendency is quite prevalent in the boxing world today. The marketable personality of the fighter. It marks one of several fascinating transitions from heroic virtues into influencer marketing techniques.

The effects of boxing on the body: “…it is calculated to invigorate the frame by the expansion of the chest, the development of the muscular powers, and the promotion of those quick and active evolutions, of which the human limbs, when energetically exercised, are capable, and the encouragement of which is so conducive to bodily health” (Dowling 1841, 19). A more direct connection is visible here: a concern with the health of the population through an anatomo-politics of the body of the fighter. The same type of concern is shown to be present with the mind or the soul of the fighting citizen. This process is quite similar to what we see today as the Biopolitical medicalization of the population as a single whole. The type of continuous transformation of individuals into statistical data-points and averages with particular (biometric) health indicators that we see today.

The effects of boxing on the mind: “It instils into the mind confidence and self-possession, gives a bold and fearless bearing to the practitioner, and sustains that natural courage, which if it does not altogether avert, at least affords the best protection in danger or difficulty” (Dowling 1841, 19). The spirit of liberal autonomy seems to reverberate in this passage. Or, at least, its close predecessor. It is almost as if in both spirit and body, the internal soldier of the state, the police-man athlete, the courageous, invigorated, strong, industrious man is now begging to turn into an entrepreneur, by becoming even more productive and much less coerced. The command to obey becomes increasingly concealed and implicit. To engage in effective self-governance and continue to ensure the prosperity of the state (engaging in free exchange through the mediation of contracts etc.) like a self-perpetuating algorithm. This marks the moment where power becomes fully productive. Where discipline turns into self-discipline and the order of the day is no longer perpetuated through pain and repression, but instead through enjoyment and a “liberated” desire. That is, of course, “if you win”.

Dowling continues to describe the normalizing and disciplinary potential of boxing, referring to the sport as a “Science” and an institution of “Moral” upbringing (Dowling 1841, 20), its usefulness in preventing “treachery”, “foul-play” and other forms of violence occurring in the streets. The purpose of the Ring, then, is to no longer repress and prohibit these transgressions, but to incorporate, channel, and re-direct them towards more useful purposes. Towards profit, a spectacle, and a national agenda. To promote an “honourable bearing in combat, generous forbearance towards a sinking antagonist, and manly submission in defeat” (Dowling 1841, 20). Behind the moral discourse surrounding the implementation of fighting rules, used to curb the effects of violence, what one can easily see at play is a securing of life. Another important notion for the Biopolitical paradigm which we will return to again. Through the installment of scientific (or pseudo-scientific) principles alongside certain moral teachings, boxing became an expression of the Will to Know and a deployment of the very same, through a set of disciplinary-discursive practices of training. Producing the type of Subjectivity we aim to describe.

It seems that somewhere between the 18th and 19th centuries England had found a new space of governance. A way of engaging in politics without quite abandoning warfare all that much; an administration of internal battles, a management of internal revolts. An effective mechanism of domesticating civil disobedience and utilizing it in extending sovereign power by injecting it directly into the social body. We may as well simply refer to this “technique of governance” as Political Economy and be done with it. But Foucault has much to say about this. First of all, political economy is not just a single discipline, it does not possess the type of unity that we would expect from a science. Second, it lays a particular emphasis on the fact that politics and economics are only apparently divergent fields, whereas in reality, politics is an economy of symbols, meta-actions and commands, whereas economics is the government and administration of material goods. The third and final point is that Foucault shows how questions of political economy and therefore questions concerning power, authority, legitimacy, right, and essentially questions pertaining to life and death are deeply ingrained in our everyday lives, in what seem to be rudimentary practices. Biopolitics operates on a level that remains invisible to both expert knowledge and the average citizen. This is precisely why another term for an archaeology of science, is the historical a priori, or the historical unconscious of a science. In other words, what are the unintended effects and the unacknowledged presuppositions of a science? These are the types of questions we are posing and the kinds of analyses we are attempting to engage in while interrogating the sport of boxing.

Beyond doubt, pugilism had played its own unique role as a model of liberal or proto-liberal governance by preventing insurrections, a subtle deterrent against the threat of a civil war. By actively producing violence of one kind, the real violence of a revolutionary kind is successfully being averted. To repeat, as this point is central to the question at hand: Note the dual effects of the simultaneous naturalization and praise of violence on the one hand with the reprimanding and domestication of violence on the other. Dowling, at first praising the natural violent inclination of the Englishmen, at the second moment says: “it is remarkable that in those countries in which pugilism or prize-fights have been least encouraged, these horrors have been most frequent” (Dowling 1841, 30). And by “horrors” Dowling refers to the types of violent encounters that were present in the world without the sport of boxing. The hypocrisy of the rhetoric is becoming more evident, since violence, at first abhorrent and immoral, suddenly turns out to be noble, natural and even rational. What seems to be happening here is typical of most political, organized state-violence: Violence is terrible and unacceptable, unless it serves the interests of those in power, in which case it is either “self-defense,” “rational,” “preventive,” ” just,” or, as the modern Biopolitical parlance would have it: It serves the well-being of the population; the social body taken as a whole.

The first man to engage in the liberal governance of violence was therefore Mr. James Figgs. Figgs had established an amphitheater, the purpose of which (among many other things, as we will see) was to arrange boxing matches. “Fig, who not only displayed his own powers, but like a skillful manager [!], engaged other stars to gratify the taste of the frequenters of his theatre” (Dowling 1841, 24). Figgs was a swordsman by calling and it seems that overall, boxing had in fact descended from sword-fighting. “Fig’s Ampitheatre” was the first semi-official boxing establishment. An environment which (allegedly) transcended all class difference and attracted people from every rank of society.

If Figgs was the first to establish boxing as an event, a spectacle, and an enterprise, it was Jack Broughton, his immediate successor, who perfected the art itself. Broughton “tended to strip the practice of boxing of many of those attributes of barbarism with which it had previously been characterized” (Dowling 1841, 27). Introducing the true technical elements of a rigorous technique through normative rules, rules that were conducive of the exclusive inclusion of violence, and one of the key elements of the historico-material conditions of possibility for pugilism. Or in other words: The discursive practice of boxing. After Figgs and Broughton, there is essentially only a change of degree and quantity of power that surrounds the boxing establishment. As the rules and regulations become tighter, the combat becomes “safer,” structural violence begins to enlarge itself and prevail over direct forms of violence.

Thomas Rowlandson, "Six Stages of Marring a Face", 1792

Chapter 3: Egan Peirce, The Disciplinary Power-Matrix and the Neoliberal Avowal

Pugilism, and especially its history, is the space where violence sprouts like an exotic plant. All forms of violence converge upon this single institutional body. The violence of capitalist exploitation, the structural violence of discipline, the administration of bodies, a violence of a shameful spectacle, vainglory, organizational violence that serves to disguise itself through the domestication of unmediated violence, a violence both productive and repressive, the violence of lies and unrealistic expectations, unbridled competition and finally: the direct violence of the most brutal sort. From the most abstract fabrications of ideal heroic valor and of playing against the odds, to the lowliest forms of violence as mechanical slaughter, a harvesting of victories for one’s spotless boxing portfolio. From existential catharsis to risk-management; all crumpled up inside the historical a priori of combat sports. Pugilism, as I found it, has come to embody the most effective metaphor as well as a direct instantiation of state-violence in its entire diversity.

Egan Peirce, writing in 1813, begins his journey into the origins of pugilism by noting how much of its beginnings are engulfed in darkness. It seems that we are entirely uncertain as to whom we owe the title of “the first professors”. Figgs was the first recorded professor of boxing, but he was himself part of a larger movement. Through an anthropomorphic rhetorical maneuver, Peirce falls well in line with Dowling’s naturalization of violence and ascribes the first beginnings of the noble art to “nature” herself. The tripartite system of the legitimating discourse continues throughout the literature: Boxing as nature, boxing as a deterrent for nature as unmediated violence, boxing as science/art/technique, and finally boxing as (national) identity. Pugilism as a form of government serves to secure life by replacing the sword, duels, assassinations, and other forms of violence that produce death as a direct outcome, thereby ensuring the prolongation of human life, a reduction of violence, and a rise in the number of citizens. “The life of an individual is a loss to the state, from the peer to the peasant; and it becomes the duty of every good citizen to prevent them from being sported with wantonly” (Peirce 1813, 13).  

That being said, it is not the case that boxing is a one-sided Biopolitical deployment that only serves to save and reproduce life, that is, boxing is not purely a bio-politics, but it is also a thanato-politics. It pays particular heed to the safety and well-being of the champions, while substituting subjective violence with structural violence and guaranteeing, in the same “secure” manner the production of second-rate fighters who die miserable deaths in abject poverty with bodies broken and disheveled. The winners are forced to live and the losers are allowed to die. However, instead of acknowledging the power-matrix, Peirce chooses to romanticize it:

“No men are subject more to the caprice or changes of fortune than the pugilists; victory brings them fame, riches, and patrons; their bruises are not heeded in the smiles of success; and, basking in the sunshine of prosperity, their lives pass on pleasantly, till defeat comes and reverses the scene: covered with aches and pains, distressed in mind and body, assailed by poverty, wretchedness, and misery, – friends forsake them – – their towering fame expired – their characters suspected by losing – and no longer the ‘plaything of fashion !’, they fly to inebriation for relief, and a premature end puts a period to their misfortunes.” (Peirce 1813, 5)

Truly the managerial approach. A domestication of insurrection and the abolition of heroism, even worse, its replacement with a false heroism. One may no longer die for one’s pride, one can only lose one’s job. A counterfeit humanism surrounds this enterprise. We can see here another direct parallel between the soldier and the boxer manifested in the attitude of those who justify their deaths and proclaim them as fearless heroes.

The artistic leitmotif of boxing as a theatrical performance continues with Peirce as with Dowling. While hypocritically denouncing the gladiatorial wars and ancient heroic tales of conquest, both remain committed to the shameless marketing of what remains in essence a more organized and fine-grained institutional-disciplinary grid of structural violence. As though boxing itself was a given, whilst the death and humiliation of boxers a tragic effect of those “corrupt professors,” covetous managers and fighters who fight without honor. The very same legitimating strategy underlies the modern military-industrial complex: War is a given, and the death of soldiers – an irreparable tragedy. Taking into account the manipulative discourse of modern journalism, who is to say that war itself has not become a spectacle today? Even here, far from breaking down, the analogy persists.

Let us take a look at Foucault’s Discipline and Punish, the third part of the book entitled “Part Three: Discipline” to try to see specifically the type of disciplinary grid that fighters are subjected to and how far exactly the boxer-soldier analogy can be extended. From the first chapter on, Foucault presents the soldier as the idealized figure of disciplinary training. Both the soldier and the fighter are recognizable bodies, in the sense that they bear the marks of power. Their facial expressions, gestures, their body-frame, attitude and demeanor all speak to the forms of discipline that their bodies were subjected to. One can recognize a fighter immediately, based only on the musculature of the face. Both the soldier and the fighter are things that could be made “out of formless clay” (Foucault 1975, 135).


Chapter 4: A Disciplined Entrepreneur of the Self

According to Foucault, Cartesian mechanism played a very important role in the micro-physics of power that was deployed in the process of molding peasants into soldiers. The body was conceived of as a machine, perfectly pliable and subject to various transformations. The body as an automaton is effectively the docile body that forms the center-stage of Foucaultian analysis. But the most distinguishing feature that brings the soldier and the fighter closer together, is the training regimen. Physical exercise, according to Foucault, is the defining feature of discipline as the microcosm of power. Neoliberalism is similarly concerned with fabricating a new type of individual; the homo economicus. A pseudo-natural entity bent on self-interest and profit.  

What is quite interesting is that the time period, (between 17th & 18th centuries), that Foucault refers to as when “the disciplines became the general formulas of domination” (Foucault 1975, 137), finds significant overlap with the historical interval that was constitutive of boxing as an institution. Not to mention again the fact that pugilism was a direct descendant of sword-fighting, so it may come to us as no surprise that the very same forms of governmentality as extensions of the modern episteme were being deployed at a much more nuanced level of internal governance. We may even venture as far as to say that the origins of neoliberal governmentality are not only very similar, but in fact directly and historically linked to the emergence of boxing. So perhaps the boxer-soldier analogy does not break down at all, but instead converges indefinitely into the singularity of the docile body.

Foucault draws a distinction between disciplined docile bodies and slaves, the former being less costly, more efficient and useful. We may draw a further distinction between the athlete and the soldier as the moment where power becomes even more productive, the culmination of which would be the boxer-soldier-entrepreneur with the faculty of scientific reasoning. It is no longer, strictly speaking, the State which must provide for and sustain the life of the athlete-entrepreneur, as it does for the soldier. The athlete, unlike the soldier, is a self-commodified product; a businessman. The body of the athlete “provides for itself”. It signifies the moment where sovereignty metamorphoses into bio-power; the point at which questions of governance transform into questions of economic management. And, most importantly, into a matter of desire. Dowling had also touched upon this point, the voluntarism of the sport. The athlete enters the ring out of his own “rational free-will,” his ambitions, and the “need for self-actualization”. There is no moral or legal dimension that obliges the athlete to become a champion, but there is still, to this day, a powerful element of national pride. And not to mention, of course, the promises of glamour and fame that we already discussed. That being said, let us return to one of our previous points: how the art of combat is far from devoid of the juridical.

In 1981, three years before his death, Foucault gave a series of lectures at the Catholic University of Louvain entitled: Wrong-Doing, Truth Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice. In these lectures Foucault traces the history of avowal from “pre-law Greece”, to Christianity and finally to questions pertaining to criminal law in contemporary times. Foucault says: “From the athletic combat to the judicial scene you have a kind of extension, you have a continuum, which does not at all prevent it from being a judicial scene, but which means that it is entirely set up as a confrontation, an athletic confrontation, a confrontation between two heroes – but a confrontation nonetheless” (Foucault 1981, 36). Foucault continues to argue that despite the scene (a scene that he takes from the Iliad, the particular context of which is not relevant) being an instantiation of justice as truth-telling, it is not justice par excellence in the juridical sense. It is a social act which has emerged out of a direct clash of forces. It seems here we have an interesting inversion of what we described previously as the paradox of biopower as it pertains to pugilism specifically; the simultaneous absence and presence of the juridical within the social as normative. That is, with the open possibility of intervention. A localized, cultural practice becomes a covert extension of the legal apparatus through the mutual nonchalant agreement between two people. This was precisely how transgressive behavior i.e. fighting in the streets, became assimilated into a quasi-legal administrative body that is the sport of boxing to this day.

This brings us to another excellent reason for why boxing is an exemplary instance of modern bio-power. At least according to Foucault, the realm of the judicial bears the same characteristics as the realm of pure confrontation. But boxing is far from being a pure confrontation; as we have already explained, it is a highly artificial kind of confrontation. This is precisely what renders it so akin to neoliberalism. Boxing as a counterfeit reproduction of spontaneity is a system which aspires to be chaotic, natural, and unmediated, whereas in reality it requires very specific rules and regulations in order to be carried out. Neoliberal governance operates according to a similar logic. It naturalizes an artificially deployed market mechanism.

In Discipline and Punish, a subsection of the chapter on docile bodies entitled The control of activity introduces the notion of time-tables which first came from Christian monastic practices. Their goal was to “establish rhythms, impose particular occupations, regulate the cycles of repetition” (Foucault 1975, 149). Soon these very methods of surveillance were used to divide and organize the working day of the laborer in the factory. It is obvious how these disciplinary mechanisms operate in sports. Aside from the exact duration of the training routine and the division of the days of the week into, among others, rest days, high intensity workouts, cardio, strength and conditioning, high altitude training, and even cheat days, there is a proliferation of various regimes in diet, recreation, low altitude rest, meditation and the cultivation of a particular character (mostly a marketable personality).

The training regimen of the boxer is one of several expressions of the hybrid-form we mentioned earlier. The body of the boxer is scattered across a multiplicity of exercises. There are routines that focus on speed: The speed bag, shadow-boxing, regular running and cardio, sprints, working on pads with a concentration on speed etc. Then we have all the exercises that serve to increase strength and muscle mass: Heavy-bag work, weight-lifting, resistance training, core exercises, calisthenics, working on mitts with a concentration on power etc. And finally, we have all the exercises that focus on improving technique: Slow combination drills with a partner, pad-work at a slower pace, shadow-boxing at a slower pace, mindful sparring, etc. Not to mention a whole set of exercises dedicated to improving foot-work and movement: Pivoting, dashing forward, hopping, skipping, turning, punching while moving forward, backward or sideways, switching stances etc. or, again, a completely different set of exercises focused on defense and then within defense, head mobility in particular. These would include: Slipping, bobbing, weaving, and other forms of evasive maneuvering. The list continues on indefinitely.  

Different fighters are able to monopolize on different facets of what makes one into a boxer. The impossibility of mastering all the techniques at once creates particular niches and unique skill sets that pertain to different fighters. This is often what constitutes a fighting style, leading to a whole new set of divisions of fighter archetypes: The defensive fighter, the in-and-out boxer, the knockout artist, the pressure fighter, the scientific boxer, and so on. In this manner, depending on the particular skill set concentration and certain natural predispositions (both in body constitution and personal character), another level of complexity is introduced, precisely at the level of a fighter’s particular boxing style. This illustrates the level of nuance and scalability that is offered by the disciplinary grid of this sport. There is a physiognomy and a habitus pertaining to the way in which one fights. A boxer is an identity.

Postcards, digitized by Heritage Auctions

Chapter 5: By Way of Preliminary Summary

Before moving forward to the modern Biopolitical paradigm of elite boxing, let us summarize the ground covered so far using Dave Day’s article “‘Science’, ‘Wind’ and ‘Bottom’: Eighteenth-Century Boxing Manuals”. The three terms “Wind,” “Science,” and “Bottom” are recurrent in the 18th and 19th century boxing manuals. They refer to “endurance,” “technique,” and “courage” according to Day. Though I do not quite agree with these definitions (and Day seems to be quite flexible with the terminology as well), we can use them as working definitions for the time being.

The increasing industrialization and population growth in 18th century England had sparked up the entrepreneurial spirit of sports management. Day confirms our presupposition that the first commercialization of boxing (as recorded, at least) was achieved by James Figg(s). “By 1800, boxing had superseded prizefighting with weapons as a public spectacle and the language, techniques, and contests associated with the sport had become significant features of the cultural landscape for all classes” (Day 2012, 1448). Aside from the ruthless violence of early prize-fights, Day bears witness to boxing matches where grappling and “kneeing” opponents was still acceptable, not to mention certain forms of offense that would be considered illegal under modern rules. This would include tearing off ears, gouging eyes, pulling the opponent by the nose etc. In some ways, the first pugilistic fights were more akin to what today we would consider Mixed Martial Arts. During these times, specifically before Broughton would introduce his famous list of rules, boxing was still within the domain of “socially tolerated physical violence” (Day 2012, 1449), very much prevalent in 18th century England. This allows for a microscopic focus on the historical moment of that intense transformation of direct individual violence, into a structural economy of violence.

Day provides many interesting accounts of the fighter’s daily routine:

“In 1788, ‘An Amateur’ suggested that a man should adopt as much training as he judged necessary during which time he should adhere to a disciplined programme, starting his preparation with an evening’s warm bath for the feet, legs, and thighs. Afterwards, as soon as he was cool, he washed the loins, face, hands, and arms with cold spring or pump water without using soap at any stage. Following a supper of runnet milk, or milk-pottage, and a little bread, butter, or salt, the man should retire early. Breakfast should consist of runnet whey and hard white biscuit, without seeds, while dinner alternated between stewed veal with rice and well-fed fowls, with a melt or two, boiled to a jelly. No tea should be taken in the afternoon but a rusk and chocolate taken early in the evening followed by supper. As for drinking, throughout training this should be only a glass or two of red wine, mixed with water, after dinner, with no porter, table-beer, ales, or spirits, allowed” (Day 2012, 1454).

The description continues on for another page or two. There were as many suggestions for the correct regimen as there were fighters. The history of combat sports contains a whole separate field of investigation for what Foucault termed The Technologies of the Self. Unfortunately, we cannot delve any deeper into the genealogical exposition of the history of boxing. We must move toward the present; an institutional analysis of what makes a fighting self (or a self that fights) today, how they produce their own subjectivity through controlled violence and the types of power-relations that constitute a pugilist of the 21st century.


Part II: The Biopolitics of Violence

Chapter 6: A Motley of Violent Techniques

Combat sports testify to the irreducibility of violence within the human lifeworld. Whether the testament is justified or not still remains to be seen. Is violence ontologically anchored to our being? This is not a question that is tackled explicitly in this text, but it does enter into the overall space of the discussion. In the previous sections, it was shown that violence is at least an object of production. Fighters are not simply human beings that are given radical freedom in the ways of conducting themselves, boxing is not a result of a pure “unleashing” of otherwise dormant biological energy. There is a whole set of incitements, instigations, promptings, and “pep talks,” the purpose of which is to intensify the violent capacities of the body. This implies several interesting things. First, a question concerning how much of the violence that we witness during combat sport events or “friendly” sparring sessions, is an expression of “human nature” given that the “rest of it,” is an institutional artefact. We cannot rule out the possibility that violence has always been produced and that the “human animal” either does not possess violent instincts or does not have any access to an instinctual register outside the techniques of violent behavior that are nothing but the results of human inventiveness. This is not to say that violence has never been conducive to our survival, but no less than physical confrontation and warfare, other techniques, like science and mathematics – incredibly artificial constructs – have proven just as effective in helping us take control of our environment. Very much like the Hobbesian “state of nature,” the human “savage” may turn out to be neither noble nor vicious, but a mere projection of our own neurotic fears. What remains beyond doubt is the fact that there exists a motley of violent techniques that may have more to contribute to the production of fighting bodies, than any domain of nature or instincts ever could. To be clear, these are not fighting techniques; they do not belong to the conventional skill-set of a fighter. We are not speaking of strikes, hooks or uppercuts. This particular set of techniques cover the political, institutional domain of violent meta-actions that serve to motivate, inspire, recruit, train or otherwise subjectivize and produce fighting bodies.

In her famous essay On Violence Hannah Arendt provides an account of violence which works in support of the interpretation that violence is, more often than not, an artificial apparatus. A technology or a technique which bears little resemblance to how humans may interact under natural conditions, if such conditions have in fact, ever existed. According to Arendt, violence always requires “implements” and technology is more than just one of several expressions for violence, it is instead constitutive of and a necessary condition for violence. We have already shown how boxing had been naturalized by liberalism, how far from an authentic expression of human “animality” or some radical form of freedom it is, and rather precisely a technology for producing violence.

Just like violence as warfare in the political arena, boxing exhibits both the arbitrary and the structural character of domination. On the one hand, the outcome of the fight is unknown, and the inherent ideal of aggressive competition goes unquestioned. It goes without saying that athletes want to compete and prove their excellence. Victory and domination are portrayed as a desirable good in and of themselves. This way, in terms of the underlying reasons for participating in the sport as well as the outcome of the match, boxing proves to be an absolute arbiter. What is guaranteed by the pugilistic bio-political apparatus is not the distribution of victories and losses (at least not under the “proper” conditions of “fair-play” etc.), but just the very presence of violence at a given time and place. The fight event is deployed as a consumer product, the regularity of its production bears the structural component of economic governance. Similar to the act of war, the violence of the ring operates at both levels: The level of the arbitrary and the level of the law. The difference being precisely the same as the difference between the political and the bio-political. Where the first is a classical expression of sovereignty, that is, the direct repressive force of violence, the latter is an indirect management or the productive force of violence. Where the arbitrary nature of political violence is legitimized by a false appeal to the inherent brutishness of human nature, a similar assumption is made at the level of the bio-political, but this time transformed into the idea of competition. Further, where through the initial act of violence, the sovereign implements a legal regime, pugilism deploys a similar mechanism of veridiction through the market. It is therefore the market which functions as the law at the bio-political level.

George Bellows, "Dempsey and Firpo", 1924

Chapter 7: More “On Violence”

The comparison between the political and the bio-political, between war and combat, between governance and governmentality aims to juxtapose both the original and the reversed Foucaultian transformation of the famous Clausewitz’s formula. Not only does it show that “war is a mere continuation of politics by other means” as Clausewitz claims in his famous work On War, but also that “politics is the continuation of war by other means” as famously stated by Foucault. And the new strategy of combat, that of internal governance is nothing but the bio-political management and discipline of individuals; it is power as production. This goes to show that times of peace, prosperity and most of all economic growth are in fact nothing but an alternative strategy of war, domination and violence, that have now taken on a systemic character. Pugilism is only one of many bio-political deployments; the same analysis could be applied to any social field or institution. Violence does not have to occur inside an apparatus in the form of literal combat. But the fact that it does occur in combat sports, is what lead to its current privileged position as the most elaborate example of Neoliberal logic. The same analysis would apply to the corporation, the Big Tech industries, universities or any other space where the matrix of production and consumption might operate.

To return to the question: “Why Boxing?”, combat sports as instituted violence contain elements of both power and domination. That is to say, they testify to the distinction between the two. Power is held in the hands of the trainers, promoters, managers and the paying public, whereas domination belongs to the fighters. It is the most interesting form of a sinister compromise. The fighter abandons himself completely to the governmentality of his employers, rendering him, as paradoxical as this may sound, effectively and entirely powerless. Would one not agree that the average citizen possesses more power than the soldier, despite the fact that the latter wields a weapon? The citizen has the right to refuse, to say no, to hold a range of varying positions and opinions concerning the politics of war or domestic policy. None of these rights can be practiced by the soldier or the policeman in their line of duty, yet both unmistakably possess the capacity to inflict pain, to create violent situations and to dominate. In this way, domination is not only separate from power, but often excludes the latter entirely. This is easy to observe in boxing, where the fighting body is nothing but a commodity; a passive and docile entity that can be shaped and molded through a plethora of disciplining and subjectivizing techniques. Insofar as the fighter has any decision-making power, he is already conditioned to employ that power as an entrepreneur of the self. This usually happens at the later stages of the fighters’ careers where they learn to steal fights, market sports products and generally begin to transition into the roles of managers, coaches or promoters. There seems to be a “pay-off,” so to speak, between violence as domination and violence as power. “[T]yranny, as Montesquieu discovered, is therefore the most violent and least powerful of forms of government” (Arendt 1970, 140). Without arguing strictly for their mutual exclusion, one would still be justified in saying that the tendency for domination to become institutionalized and thereby transformed into power, results in the diffusion of unmediated violence into a mediated form, which though less concentrated, tends to become more hidden and pervasive. The bio-politics of fighting bodies accounts for both as two opposing, yet complementary limiting cases of the deployment of violence.


Chapter 8: The Fighter in a State of Exception

The figure of the homo sacer occupies the center piece in Agamben’s writings on biopolitics. A paradoxical figure which takes its origin in Roman criminal legislature. The sacred man was declared to be sacrosanct and holy, while at the same time his execution was completely unpunishable by law. Anyone could kill the holy man. Agamben’s oeuvre may be said to be entirely dedicated to uncovering the enigma of the homo sacer and demonstrating its relevance for the 21st century. Homo sacer presents a limiting case of the juridical, an inclusive-exclusion, similar to the one we discussed earlier.

“The ambiguity of the ban,” – writes Agamben – “which excludes in including, implies the ambiguity of the sacred” (Agamben 2020, 65). The sacred men, manifesting as different archetypes throughout history, and the notion of the sacred in general, have always carried a contradictory mixture of opposing elements. The man and the sacrament were declared holy and impure at the same time. Something of the divine and the horrific, of godly and of the uncanny were inscribed in the body of the sacer all at the same time.

Aside from presenting an extreme case of (non)punishment, the homo sacer, according to Agamben is also a direct reflection of the original constitution of sovereignty. Political power, Agamben argues, is in fact parasitic on the existence of the exceptional case of the sacred man, the one who effectively stands outside of the norm. “The life caught in the sovereign ban is the life that is originarily sacred— that is, that may be killed but not sacrificed—and, in this sense, the production of bare life is the originary activity of sovereignty” (Agamben 2020, 71). Agamben juxtaposes the sovereign with the sacred man in a relation of mutual opposition and dependency. One cannot exist without the other.

Agamben uses the notion of the homo sacer to offer an original analysis of sovereignty. One could argue that this essay attempts to do the very same thing albeit in a more deconstructive vein (in a more orthodox Foucaultian fashion perhaps) against any totalizing theory of sovereignty and “in favour” of an increasingly scaled form of governance like that of bio-economic governmentality (in combat sports). We hope then to find a space where the homo sacer and the fighting body would be able to coincide, at least in part.

Could we say that the combative inhabits a space of suspended lawlessness in relation to the sovereign and the rest of society? Admittedly, death has become a rare occurrence in combat sports, but does this not carry us further into the realization that the fight-event is becoming ever more akin to the more efficient, biopolitical (as opposed to the thanatopolitical), production of bare life? The fighter occupies an interesting biopolitical niche. His life is dangerous, but luxurious, he is capable of violence, but he wields no power. Is this not what bare life refers to? The annexation of one’s bios and its reduction to the zoe, an abandoning of oneself to one’s biological capacities (with or without technological intervention and enhancement) an overproduction of animality, of political bare life, at the expense of one’s constitutional freedoms.

“This RELEASE of Liability is a Legal Contract binding upon You, The ISCF (International Sport Combat Federation) The Promoter named above and any and all of these companies, federations or organizations associates, officials, employees and staff related to the event named above. You hereby consent and agree to completely accept alone any and all risks of injury or death, and You verify and confirm all of the below statements by placing your initials at each numbered item as well as signing your full name below”[1].

The excerpt above is taken from a fighter’s contract. Every fighter needs to sign a similar liability waiver to absolve all parties involved from the responsibility of vouching for their life. This clearly shows that at least legally, the fighter is as good as dead. By no means is death excluded from the event-horizon of the fight. The sacred warrior is thereby within a space of illegality (that is, of violence and murder) which is nonetheless legally institutionalized, and, more so, becomes an object of entertainment, trade and theatrical ceremony, i.e. of the sacred.

In this sense, the body of the fighter is simultaneously sacred as well as vulnerable. We could think of sanctity as the market value of commodified violence, together with its limit of course, the moment when the body begins to produce “diminishing marginal returns” and becomes worthless. At this moment the fighter is either “fed” to another (younger) champion or simply taken out of the circulation of fighting bodies. Throughout the fighter’s career, his life is a life exposed to death. And reading into Agamben’s Homo Sacer, we will in fact discover that the holy man, despite being so exposed, nonetheless has every right to defend himself! Shockingly, the similarity is now overwhelming: “defend yourselves at all times” says the referee, and indeed Agamben echoes in response:

“Corresponding to this particular status of the “right of punishing,” which takes the form of a survival of the state of nature at the very heart of the state, is the subjects’ capacity not to disobey but to resist violence exercised on their own person “for . . . no man is supposed bound by Covenant, not to resist violence; and consequently it cannot be intended, that he gave any right to another to lay violent hands upon his person” (ibid.)[2]”” (Agamben 2020, 90).

What is a fight-event, if not precisely the Hobbesian state-of-nature located at the very heart of the social body? A controlled, concentrated and managed system of transgressive illegality open to all in full display. Combat sports presents us with a clear instance of the exclusive-inclusion of bare life within the biopolitical state.

The losing fighter is neither sacrificed nor punished by law, he simply realizes the potential of death and hospitalization inherent to his “free” decision to become a fighting body. But the most striking thing (pardon the pun), is how combat sports manifests as a peripheral case between the politics of life (bios) and the economics of death (thanatos).

“If there is a line in every modern state marking the point at which the decision on life becomes a decision on death, and biopolitics can turn into thanatopolitics, this line no longer appears today as a stable border dividing two clearly distinct zones. This line is now in motion and gradually moving into areas other than that of political life, areas in which the sovereign is entering into an ever more intimate symbiosis not only with the jurist but also with the doctor, the scientist, the expert, and the priest” (Agamben 2020, 101-102).

The mentioning of the “doctor” here should strike a nerve, and it is indeed tempting to extrapolate on this passage, in concord with Ivan Illich and address the recent events concerning the on-going pandemic, but we must steer clear of distractions and focus on the task at hand.

Combat sports presents us with an excellent instance of how the differentiating line between bios and thanatos has been blurred. We mentioned earlier that the discursive normalization of pugilism in 18th century England had created an absolute caricature of the fighter, smearing the entire social body with its image. Everyone is “somewhat of a fighter” it’s just a matter of perspective. Agamben’s analysis of our contemporary situation describes a similar diffusion of the homo sacer; we are all to a certain degree governed as homines sacres, and we share more or less in becoming the sacred man, insofar as we are controlled and subjugated to a larger or smaller extent – the fighting body being an instance that stands out in an interesting way.

In Foucault’s work, there are concentrated nodes of power, where discipline and training, both the repressive and the productive elements of various governmentalities become intensified. The prison, the psychiatric ward, the army barracks etc. To use Agamben’s terminology, these would be the very spaces where the subject as homo sacer bears a closer resemblance to herself. A space where it becomes more obvious that the persons in question are indeed being constrained, acted upon and constituted as subjects. Boxing had proven to be a similar microcosm where a certain variety of institutional games produce a certain variety of docile bodies, i.e. homines sacres. The aim, once again, was to construct a particular model, an elaborate metaphor, based on a real institutional structure that could be used to expose the workings of power at a nuanced level of social interaction, everyday discourse and the so-called “norm”. Agamben’s notion of the sacred man allows us to take our model further and re-define it through a slightly modified biopolitical paradigm.

To demonstrate the connection between sovereignty and the state of exception, Agamben draws on the writings of Carl Schmidt. The state of exception, similar to the notion of the sacred man, presents a limit case of the juridical. A suspension of the norm and an intensification of governmentality. “It is this no-man’s-land between public law and political fact, and between the juridical order and life” (Agamben 2020, 167). The state of exception seems to be a place of organized transgression, which Agamben compares to civil war, resistance and revolt, which has, nonetheless, become the normal model of governance. What makes Agamben’s contribution to classical Foucaultian theory stand out is the totalizing effect of his approach. For better or worse, what Foucault would define as a multiplicity of heterogeneous technologies of control, Agamben labels under the unified term of a state of exception, permanent crisis or the controlled production of homines sacres. The issue today is more prevalent than ever, as we are all trying to discern whether we are in a real, an artificial or a quasi-genuine state of crisis.

The state of exception presents us with a kind of regression to a primordial state of government when the divisions between different branches of power had not yet been instantiated. This transformation occurs in a controlled fashion and for a limited amount of time. An explosive “burst” of sovereign power in a short (or in the worst case extended) interval of time. For a certain period one witnesses state power becoming absolute. Through the mediation of expert knowledge and the pretext of an urgent emergency situation, we witness the mobilization of the biopolitical state. It is important to note that the mobilization takes place within a democratic state and despite presenting a limit case, does not necessarily violate or contradict democratic values. The state of exception does not infringe upon our constitutional freedoms the way an Orwellian dictatorship would; instead, the biopolitical state bypasses our civil rights, the way websites tend to bypass our consent and force to agree to their terms and conditions, the placement of cookies on our web-browsers, and various other techniques used to collect our data and personal information. In short: soft power.

We are left, then, with a question. If fighting bodies are in fact sancti pugnae homines, then how exactly is the fight-event a manifestation of an (at least potential) excess of governance? We need to only backtrack and take a closer look at what has been said so far. Earlier, we decided to baptize Agamben as the author of the ‘unified theory of Foucaultian governmentality’. That is to say that various technologies of the self used to limit, discipline, incite or otherwise produce and/or reprocess subjects, tend to work together as an ensemble of forces which move toward an imposition of a state of exception and the production of homines sacres. Given the fighters’ overwhelming schedule, their training regimes, the discipline and the legal apparatus that exposes them to the prospect of severe trauma and death, together with all the economic apparatuses geared towards the production of their livelihoods, that is, the positive side of power – one could hardly deny that the fighter is indeed located at the heart of a biopolitical state of exception.

Part III: The Deployment of the Bio-Combative

Chapter 9: Martial Art vs Combat Sport

Boxing is a combat sport. The term combat sport is often used in contraposition to the word martial art. In this section, the relationship between the two will be of primary importance. As we have seen, combat sports are notorious for their ruthlessness, violence and a generalized attitude of hostility. The nature of which is not that of direct unmediated violence, but the coupling of the latter with institutional violence. Combat sport occupies the middle ground between “pure” violence and what we will later consider to be a martial art. Barreira (2019) offers an illuminating comparison between a violent encounter between fighters and a relation of ethical openness to the opponent as other encountered in martial arts. Unlike the current work, Barreira classes Combat Sports and Martial Art into the same category, at least in terms of ethical reciprocity between combatants. In this sense, it is argued that Barreira has fallen into the trap of regarding all institutionally mediated forms of confrontation as bearing a similar ethical attitude of mutual respect. Most practitioners of martial combat fail to address the elements of soft power that permeate combat sports as an enterprise, thereby resorting to the conventional view that all danger comes “from below” so to speak. Given the amount of energy and attentiveness, not to mention work and training that is required to transform a violent individual into a docile one (who is ready to re-produce violence at command), it is less than surprising that most coaches, trainers, doctors or other personnel are preoccupied with the very real danger of violence exceeding its “proper” limits. This is precisely the center of the current investigation; to reverse the “dazzling” effect of violence and penetrate into the institutional fabric which normalizes its production. Barreira either fails or consciously refuses to make a distinction between martial art and combat sport. This is not surprising as both technologies of the self aim to bracket the natural attitude of hostile behavior. Borrowing Barreira’s schema and slightly modifying it, I would argue that combat sports, perhaps not limited to the sport of boxing, could either offer a peripheral case between a parresiastic practice of an open confrontation and those of absolute antagonism or pure exclusion. It will further be demonstrated, that martial art as a particular technique of the self could offer resistance to both mediated and unmediated forms of violence. Given the possibility of separating off the various forms of violence from pugilism, reconstructing boxing as a form of ethical self-care and drawing on various literature in the theories of martial art and Foucault’s later work on Stoic practices of self-constitution, one could hope for the manifestation of parresia in hand to hand combat. Perhaps one could even venture as far as inventing a new variety of martial arts. In this paper we will only speak of these as possibilities for future investigation.

Cynarski (2016) offers a general theory of fighting arts. In the book Martian Arts & Combat Sports: Towards a General Theory of Fighting Arts, Cynarski discusses the various forms of training and self-care together with an exposition of the sociological dimension of martial arts. Unlike Barreira, Cynarski does take care to make the distinction between martial art and combat sport by bringing up the dangers involved in transforming a particular philosophy of fighting into a competitive sport. In addition, Cynarski discusses both weaponized and hand to hand variations of combat techniques. The goal is to offer a unifying, interdisciplinary approach and a scientific methodology for a comprehensive theory of martial combat. Cynarski distinguishes martial art as Budo, which includes the metaphysical and the highly spiritual attitude of the “Pathways of Warriors”, from Kakugi – combat sports proper.

The general theory is named Humanistic Theory of Martial Arts (HTMA). The HTMA is an expression of Physical Culture. Physical culture could in fact be completely identified with what Foucault refers to as the practices of the self. It is comprised of a relatively integrated system of aesthetic ideals, physical training, health and self-expression, aiming at discipline and self-mastery. The types of truth-games, both the symbolic and the somatic dimensions that the HTMA emphasizes in analyzing martial arts, seem to reverberate with ancient Stoic forms of subjectivation. Both techniques aim to bring the body and the mind closer together into a holistic understanding of ethics and the self. “Ways of martial arts include certain forms of physical (psychophysical) culture, which, based on tradition of warrior cultures lead, through training of fighting techniques, to psychophysical improvement and self-realization. At the same time, they are the processes of education and positive ascetics” (Cynarski 2016, 24). Combat sports, on the other hand, lack the sophisticated apparatus of personal self-formation at the ethical and moral levels. Here Cynarski makes the same distinction as the one made before in the current work; emphasizing even the commercial element that often drives the motivations behind the institution of combat sport.

The HTMA as whole is a complex system that aims to cover a lot of ground. A full exposition of the HTMA will not be a part of the current paper. Instead, the work will focus specifically on those elements of the HTMA that could prove useful to drawing a finer distinction between martial arts and combat sports and those aspects of the HTMA that could contribute to a Foucaultian, Bio-Political deconstruction of boxing.

In order to achieve a parresiastic version of pugilistic combat, one must steer clear of various chimerical expressions of martial art. Martial art as a performance art based on religious ritual, entertainment or political identity-formation must be excluded from the outset. The same applies to those forms of combat sports that are entirely practical and especially those that are most akin to boxing where the main aim is either to “score” or damage the opponent at all cost. Martial arts “devoid of an attitude” therefore, will fail to fulfill the purpose. Let us recall, that the parresiast in contrast to other masters of truth-telling, like the prophet or the sage, speaks neither in the name of a higher authority, nor from the comfort of his own privilege and safety. The parresiast must speak truth to power and thereby risk her own status and security. There is no “fair play” in parresia. The parresiastic subject is always at a disadvantage. It is obvious here, how most forms of institutionalized combat sports are immediately excluded since the ideas of fairness that manifest in a regulated fight, as discussed in the context of 18th century English pugilism, exclude the asymmetrical relationship between the parresiast and the tyrant. The same reasoning would apply to martial art as pure technique devoid of all antagonism, since they fail to problematize an ethical attitude. Parresia implies a break, a dissent from an agreement; from that relation of power that was enforced prior to the act.


Chapter 10: Resistance Through Martial Arts

Let us introduce new terminology to designate the object of our inquiry. The variation of a bio-combative that this paper will try to introduce, would be a deterritorialized version of martial art that aims to transform boxing into something other than a governmentality, a technique of micro-management or an institution that produces violence under a specific political economy and administration of fighting bodies. But it is neither a technique of transcendence guided by either the enlightenment ideals of truth, justice and liberty nor a practical philosophy of Buddhism. And unlike the HTMA, it will not aim to lay down a scientific theory of combat. The Bio-Combative will instead aim to deploy itself in the form of resistance to the Bio-Politics of boxing.

Cynarski takes good care to underline the influence of market-driven interests in misrepresenting martial arts through the old and the new production and re-production of stereotypical archetypes and various forms of mystification. Shedding some light on the modern Biopolitical regime surrounding the art, the sport, the tradition or what have you, Cynarski, unfortunately still remains within the more powerful and traditional institution of scientific objectivity. Nonetheless, the critique includes an effective deconstruction of modern gyms as market-driven receptacles of the latest trends handed down through consumer culture and different “organisations that teach various martial arts and fighting arts [and how they] adapt to the demands of the market” (Cynarski 2016, 44).      

Cynarski distinguishes a particular sub-category of “fighting skills”, one of which could prove useful to our construction of the bio-combative. One of these, is referred to as “The Small Theater”. “A small theatre refers to the battle between groups or a fight of one against a group (various self-defense situations) as well as one-to-one fights” (Cynarski 2016, 45). Given the possibility of an uneven distribution of powers under the constraints of the small theater, it could prove invaluable as a parresiastic bio-combative bundle of techniques.

Cynarski defines martial arts, as opposed to combat sports like boxing or MMA, in the following manner: “Genuine martial arts (Jap. bujutsu ryūha, koryū, kobudō, sōbudō) teach more skills than fighting. These are schools of character, whole educational systems. They involve teaching a particular knowledge, including practical medicine” (Cynarski 2016, 48). The idea of assimilating a practical skillset would be indispensable for the formation of a bio-combative, however, we must be wary of any claims to knowledge and remain highly critical of the educative aspect of martial training. The bio-combative must resist the temptation of becoming a Will to Knowledge

Cynarski further emphasizes the drawbacks of sports regulations in combat sports. The boundary between a combat sports and the skills associated with the “fighting art” of self-defense is much more opaque than the one drawn between combat sports and martial art. Certain techniques can be encountered on both sides, but overall, a combat sport may prove treacherous outside of the fighting ring. The difference lies in the types of tactics that each employs to ensure victory or survival. On the other hand, Cynarski continues draw on a list of tactics that are common to both: 1. The rational and purpose-driven way of conducting the fight, 2. Evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and 3. Evaluating one’s advantages and disadvantages. Unfortunately, none of these would prove useful to the bio-combative. The first overemphasizes the role of calculative reason and thereby annuls the idea of risk that is inherent to parresia. The second, in a similar vein, exaggerates the importance of one’s disadvantage preventing any real ethical engagement with the opponent. The third is again, overly concerned with one’s own standing in relation to the other in power.

A distinguishing feature which may be used to bring closer together the Stoic Warrior to the ideal street-fighter described by Cynarski is watchfulness. The idea of constantly thinking ahead and being prepared for almost anything. Cynarski explains that the ideal fighter is one who possesses the most diversified skillset of various defensive and offensive strategies. In this way she is able to tell a boxer apart from a Muay Thai fighter immediately before the commencement of the fight, based solely on their stance and posture. The wrestler is always crouched, the kickboxer has a wide guard and tends to stand upright to utilize the legs etc. The more techniques one masters, the more one can master oneself and others through a state of constant (measured) alertness. Though such a conception of alertness is not identical to that of the Stoic sage who is “watchful” of the universal nature of the world attending only to the things she can master and change, leaving all else completely outside of her sphere for concern, since they lie outside of human control. But nonetheless some significant parallels may be drawn, as the fighter must also take care to distinguish the relevant from the irrelevant, the usable from the unusable in his immediate environment. Foucault never advocated for a direct appropriation of the Stoic system, but only a selective assortment of those techniques that would prove useful for an alternative lifestyle.

There are distinct controllables and uncontrollables in boxing. The controllables include: Diet, training, tapering, mental rehearsal, strategy, meditation etc. The uncontrollables include: The opponent, referee, coach decisions, warm up area before the competition, the competition itself and media coverage. One must take care to focus one’s mind and energy on the controllables and ignore the uncontrollables. Anxiety must be reduced to the minimum as it may disturb one’s sleep-cycle, metabolic rates during rest and relaxation, as well as inhibit performance during the competition. These practices strongly resonate with the Stoic practices of discipline and self-mastery.

To reiterate, it is neither the martial artist, nor the street-fighter; not the boxer nor any other classical type of combatant or a stoic warrior that we would need to appropriate directly. We must focus instead on selecting a wide variety of martial techniques and rather than laying down an all-inclusive, rational and generalized scientific theory of martial art, we must find a way to direct these forces, techniques and systems of knowledge toward parresiastic ends, specific struggles on the local level as well as toward an alternative style of fighting, self-care and mutual reciprocity. The art of boxing offers a world of such techniques in its own right…

Giorgi Vachnadze is a Master of Foucaultian Studies at the University of Louvain, researching various techniques of the self. A critical history of Subjectivity offers ways of self-transformation as critical forms of counter-conduct to modern liberal techniques of governance. In short: How can we change ourselves in order to free ourselves?

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Those who “professed” concerning the art of pugilism. The modern equivalent of coaches.


Personally, I would say that “Wind” refers to stamina, “Bottom” refers to the ability to get hit and withstand pain, and “Science” retains its original meaning, as abstract theory. To my mind, technique is what brings all three elements together.


The notion refers to the ability of seasoned fighters to take advantage of and “hack into” the imperfections within the rules and fight-regulations. It can also refer to the staging of fights for the purpose of making more money. “Prestige Matches” so to speak.


Agamben quotes Hobbes’ Leviathan.


See pp. 65-66.


Parresia is a Foucaultian concept. It refers to those techniques of the self that can offer resistance to the institutional power-matrix.


The Will To Knowledge forms one of the central concepts in Foucaultian theory. It refers to the inseparability of knowledge and power.


Avoiding sudden changes in diet, weight, training or any part of the daily regimen.


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