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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Nak Muay and Living Your Life Like a Work of Art: Deleuze and the Divide Between Ethics and Aesthetics

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This reflection is based on my reading of "Existing Not as a Subject But as a Work of Art" which outlines the way in which Deleuze (and Foucalt) cut through the boundary Kant tried to establish between Ethics and Aesthetics, allowing definitive domains for how one should be, providing registers where differing regimes of discourse can vie. As is outlined in the essay Ethics is the Realm of Good and Bad, judgements governed by prudence, whereas Aesthetics is a very different space, one in which feelings, affectual attractors, trajectories of composition, govern. Is it Beautiful?

Existing_Not_as_a_Subject_But_as_a_Work.pdf <<< download the essay PDF here

This is an unspooling of the medieval (and Greek) trinity of True, Good & Beautiful, and it suffices to say that Deleuze and Foucault find a necessary schism in the blurring of these (likely contrived) boundaries, between the Good and the Beautiful. What the essay investigates is something along the lines of "Is it possible (or advisable) to live your life as a work of art?" The best parts of the essay are found in these caps here below, where it is outlined just what an Aesthetic (non-Subjectivized) life might be like:


Above is set out the differing "individuations", Subject (Good vs Bad) vs Event (Beautiful vs not-Beautiful). Deleuze wants to trace out these different kinds of becomings, the way in which some people - or at least some experiences in phases - are like "events", sweeping across us, and much less like being a certain kind of person. The molarity of a person, a "subject" falls back into the judgements of Ethics. The examples of event-individuations then appeals to literature and the separation between Love (ethics) and Passion (Aesthetics), quoting at length:






This is the very interesting part - just as the example seems to veer the furthest from the realities of a Nak Muay in the figure of Heathcliff. I'm going to take this on from the Western Nak Muay perspective to begin with, because there the door is open the widest. The project and ambition of a typical - but very committed - westerner who moves to Thailand, dives into the World of Muay Thai here (a pre-existing, extremely rich and varied sub-culture of fighting, which produces great meaning for the country) is rightly much better called a "passion" rather than a "love". Yes, some from the west come to Thailand to create a "subjectification", which is to say the Image or the Picture of being a "Fighter", a "Nak Muay", which is to say, something they can idealize and present to others as noble or virtuous. An "I'm such-and-such kind of person" project of creation. In this case this might be called a Love of Muay Thai. But most fighters - predominantly western men, but also western women (each having differing projects) come to Thailand out of a passion. How are we to define this? Taking Deleuze's lead, this would mean that they are seeking to create "event-type individuations", which are much more ephemeral (Time Fragile), and I would suggest, programmatic. In these projects there is in no real sense a Self, at least for the duration for the event individuation. The passion is lived through these repeated endeavors.

To not lose the thread here - and I'm going a little slow on this, because there is a risk for being unclear - what happens when a person from the West comes to Thailand and takes the deep dive into Thailand's Muay Thai, is that they submit themselves to existing regimes that I would argue are already traditionally focused on Event Individuations. This is another way of saying that the Thai Kaimuay (gyms) which are houses which create Thai (stadium circuit) Nak Muay are creating Works of Art, or...people who live as Works of Art more than they do as Subjects.

Another way into this - a slight detour - is that the preoccupation that the West has with the beauty of Thai technique (and beyond that, at a much deeper level, the Beauty of Individual fighting styles) is that that beauty is signaling to all of us that fighting is an Aesthetic endeavor, and that the Aesthetics that rule over scoring and "proper" technique (jangwah/timing/rhythm, emotional self-control, ruup/posture) are keys to the very nature of what Muay Thai is, not only to Thailand but to the rest of the world. As westerners engage with that beauty - and often try to mistakenly "hack" it mechanically - what they really are trying to do is reach an Aesthetic realm. To live one's life, at least in part, as a Work of Art.

Backing up again, returning to the Kaimuay. The Kaimuay is the artisan's house where training regimes have been established to produce these works of art. These regimes are no different than the traditional regimes of metallurgy and sword making, for instance, involving the annealing processes of forging and sharpening a sword. They involve time-tested periods of heating and cooling, of shaping, folding and pounding. A good Kaimuay knows how to make good (Thai) swords, and sometimes a master sword. Why am I turning to the analogy of metallurgy? It's to bring forward the subjectless aspect of what is being done in a Thai Kaimuay. Yes, it is very true that Subjectification (Ethics) is a very important part of Kaimuay reality. The young Nak Muay has to slot his (her) person in a hierarchy which is quite rigid, and there does run an ethical parallel to the aesthetic work of a Kaimuay, but I would argue that it is not central to what is happening. Instead, largely, the subject is fixed, so that the metal can be worked on, so the metal can be transformed.

Look again at the Deleuzian examples of what an event-type individuation is. These are transversing energies/intensifications. For a painter it can be the swath of blue paint that you just pulled across a canvas in oil. They are time bound and require regimes of practice. They require styles to embody them and guide them. Because they are trajectories, these styles and regimes are guardrails, directions, but they never are determinate. What I suggest is that largely what westerners are doing when they come to Thailand - either consciously or unconsciously - is submitting to Training regimes and Fighting regimes that are governed by the learned wisdom of the Kaimuay or kru/s. The 100 kicks at speed on the pads, burning to collapse, is an event-individuation. The 45th minute in clinch in the suffocating heat is an event-individuation, the Ram Muay before hundreds of onlookers is an event individuation. What makes these ephemera events not just indulgences or self-flagilations is that they hold within a regime, an aesethic which produce a "thing"...a Nak Muay. A style. A Work of Art. 

One of the most interesting elements of this is that the westerner is entering a house of craft - the Kaimuay - which in its long custom has learned to produce swords out of a particular type of metal. The young Thai boy (and there is much to write about the variances of this) is shaped and modeled into the Nak Muay art in this custom. The folds and bends, the reheatings and coolings, the sharpenings are founded on that metal. Those properties. An adult western man (or woman) has very different properties. It's of different "stuff". This isn't to say that the programs and regimes that work on in the common metallurgy of a Thai Kaimuay would not work on this metal, these metals, it is only to say that the traditions (ethnically, sociologically segmented) of swordmaking comes out of generations of practice on a certain material. And, it is unknown fully what the result is on other metals, other materials. Ultimately, it is an experiment. "Heat and fold me, like you heat and fold these other metals". 

Whether this comes out of the malaise of Western Subjectivation - the particular ills we suffer from in the West, a certain kind of mal-nurishment, deprived of the Aesthetic...perhaps, it is not known. And, if we take this perspective we cannot avoid the truth that the Westerner is taking on a Aesthetic project more or less consciously, that the Thai takes on much more systematically, as aspects that arise not so much from the person but the culture. This is another way of saying that Thailand and its Kaimuay traditions operate on a much more fundamental Aesthetic level. Not only Muay Thai, but many other aspects of Thai culture operate on a Aesthetic (event-individuation) plane. The Kaimuay tradition comes out of a much wider comprehension that also subsumes, or is subsumed by, Buddhism. And Buddhism perhaps provides a glimpse into the solution to a unsolveable puzzle that is posed at the end of the essay. Which is: How can one live one's life as a Work of Art (aesthetically, governed by the production of event-type individuations) and still live an Ethical life? Does not the pursuit of trajectories necessarily transgress the ethical Self? This is complex, layered question, full of historical examples of the antagonism between the Ethical and the Aesthetic. But, the Nak Muay, as meager a personage as she/he is, does offer a compelling compass heading, in the shadow of Buddhism. Buddhistic practice - at least much of its meditation and daily expression - is quite event-individuation producing. It is in many ways a regime of aesthetics in which - even logically - the Subject is barred, but it is also fundamentally an ethical practice. The aesthetics are ethically driven, or...the perceived ethics of the event-experiences is much of what drives the practice. It is true that much that is in Thailand Muay Thai, and the Nak Muay in it, is far from the ethical, but at bottom, in the art itself, the kind of flourishing fighter who beautifully conducts her/himself under intense duress, the balance - both psychological and physical, the grace and timing, the customs and traditions, are evoking an acme of Beauty that possesses its own ethics, embedded in its forms. The Nak Muay, forged as she/he is, is a sword, aimfully a beautiful sword. And a sword holds its own ethics, I would suggest.

I also believe that the dichotomy that the essay sets up, between the event and the subject is a somewhat false one. Nobody - not even the greatest yogi - lives in an Event-Individuation world. Forever there is a dialogue (we can call it) between the Subject and Event worlds. One is always passing between the Good/Bad vs Beautiful/Ugly registers. They form the warp and weft of the weave of us. Knowledgeably though, if we can grasp that the intentions of a westerner coming to Thailand to "become a fighter" are aesthetic ones we might be able to train our eyes on the right things. Focus yourself on the productions of events. Let the Subject go. Submit to traditional regimes that will and can transform you. Find the beauty of your Muay Thai not in your plans or intentions, but in the development of senses, of sensibilities, of ventures, of flights.

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Of course, there is a very obvious parallel here: the fighter as Martial Artist. That entire trope, with its complicated history - for instance how the Japanese concept of Budo was forwarded by western influences and conceptualizations. This still leaves the very compelling question: What does it mean for a person to make of their life a Work of Art? What does it mean ethically? What does it mean Aesthetically? What does it mean in terms of efficacy in the fighting arts (sports) themselves? What is potent about Thailand's Muay Thai is that nobody is producing "Martial Artists" qua artists. We are much more in the realm of craft. Crafting fighters. The Western (or more properly globalized/captialist/modernist) image of the Martial Artist projects out like a fantasy sometimes, perhaps as an afterimage of its own soul: lost traditions, lost practices, lost "men". There is no doubt that the image of the Martial Artist has been calling out to us at least since Bruce Lee and Hong Kong cinema burst on the scene and changed the way that Asian men and traditions of the East are perceived. We have to grapple with how much of these fantasies are of our own projection, and how much they are real self-diagnoses of our real illnesses and disbalances, self proscribing, self creating, artistically reaching for a new and possible Us. Maybe the acme of this entire register of creation is in the extremes of the figure of the Samurai, imagined as the summit of both Artistic and Ethical being. Even if a fantasy of our creation, for the West, it is an creation with meaning, purpose and use.

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I do not intend this to become a dialogue between Thailand's Nak Muay realities and the social construction of the Japanese Samurai, but this photograph I took comes to mind. It is of arguably the greatest Muay Thai Fighter in Thai history, Chamuakphet (at least in the top 5) seated with dignity in the corner of a Kaimuay ring. I titled it Le Samourai, after Melville's assassin film. You can see a better quality of the print here: Le Samourai


The photograph composes its own argument perhaps. But Chamuakphet is a profound example. Having one of the most extraordinary Thai stadium careers ever, one in which he was dominant even when older, stacking up a record 9 stadium championships, he moved to Japan and has been training fighters over there for more than a decade I believe. Here is is visiting Thailand. But I saw in him, imagined in him, that Japanese - Samurai - posture. An actual legendary Thai fighter who then has positioned his body within the social regimes of Japanese society. Maybe the closest we come to a "real" (contemporary) samurai, at least in a certain fighting sports sense.

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