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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

The Poetry of Combat: On Thailand's Muay Thai As One of the Great Art Forms of Our Time

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the illustration above is of Karuhat done by graphic artist Luis Pinto, layered over a Van Gogh

At bottom of this post is a segment from a ways back where Sylvie and I touched on some thinking I've had that placed Muay Thai, the art of Muay Thai, as one of the great Art Forms of our time. After reading this you can see the live thinking between the both of us on this. I for some time have tried to position Thailand's Muay Thai - and the all art forms of combat sports as well - in the context of other traditional fine art forms such a poetry, painting, dance, fiction, etc. The two bookends that we extemporaneously covered in the video below were the idea that Muay Thai (and full contact fighting arts), unlike almost all the others, is done under great duress. I think dance can be considered to be under something of intensity which is akin to duress, and we could talk about that as a special case, but the fighting arts, in so far they are arts, involve duress and bodily fear as the material, the paint and canvas, with which they paint. There is something quite special about this, I believe. The fighting arts are heroically expressing themselves at, in and on what can be thought of as the most base, or perhaps animal, in what is human. This canvas and paint is unique.

The other bookend that is brought up below is that the art form of something like Thailand's Muay Thai, and maybe western boxing of the past when it was more composed of communities, is a Way of Life. Which means that it expresses something more than techniques, or excellence. It comes out of lives, values and culture, in a weave that makes it incredibly rich. Rich in an artistic way. I compare it to something like Fishing, which may be considered a craft, which also traditionally is a body of practices and techniques which are embedded in a Way of Life which might express the lives of an entire village. I'm purposely blurring the lines of craft and art here, largely because "art" usually resides in the hands of the privileged, and as we move along the spectrum towards craft we encounter the knowledge and practices of a people. How much of qualifies as Art is part of the question as to whether Muay Thai is a great Art Form, or even an Art Form at all. Given enough historical perspective individual art is understood to be an expression of a people in a historical time, such as the art of the Incas, the tragedies of the Greeks, the Impressionism of late 19th century Europe.

Core to this perspective is raising an appreciation for what combat sports is, the position they have within a society, and laying some claim to the importance of the aesthetics of the combat sport performance. This dimension of fight aesthetics is what elevates fighting to an Art in the societal sense, I'd suggest, in the same way that painting or poetry can possess inherent expressive value, to the culture itself. This means that western boxing, the world's MMA and other combat sports have a claim to artistic value, even though they also ride hard the lines of commerce, popular culture and arguably the role of sheer spectacle, in the "bread and circuses" sense - see Noam Chomsky for that perspective. Perhaps like cinema, the fighting arts in sport operate between entertainment and art, which isn't to deny film or fighting its real value as an Art itself.

This post just wanted to spin out some of those developing ideas, and in thinking about Thailand's Muay Thai explain why I believe it may be the greatest art form in the world. This isn't to say that it is better than poetry, or dance...or better than western boxing or Karate, but rather in a specific way see all the differing threads that it brings together into a single rope, that make of it something that is extraordinarily rich. That we raise up the importance of fighting arts themselves along with this discussion is also a benefit.

To start with, one thing that arguably separates out Thailand's Muay Thai are the firm aesthetic demands that it places on scoring. For some this might make Muay Thai somewhat unreal as a fighting sport, because it's not all about the damage - though it clearly is one of the more violent combat sports on the planet, its full-rules version not even legal in many countries. Muay Thai has a unique combination of very visible violence, but also strong aesthetic guidelines. Things like fighter posture, displays of balance, self-control figure heavily on the scorecard, as well as the ability to express oneself narratively throughout the 5 rounds - narrative itself is the real of many of the fine arts (for more on narrative time in Thailand's Muay Thai see: The 6 Core Aspects of Muay Thai). Fighting in Thailand is expressly, even in terms of score, storytelling. (I believe fighting is also storytelling in other combat sports, in terms of audience appreciation, but this valuation is not expressly embedded in scoring criteria). Muay Thai advocates might say that these aesthetic principles in scoring are actually encoded guidelines for real fighting prowess, so that if you excel in balance, posture, artful dominance, narrative, you become a very effective fighter in the raw sense, but, it is really that there is a strong aesthetic demand that allows Thailand's Muay Thai to ascend up the pyramid of combat sports, as an Art. It is, or has a strong artistic aspect. And if it has a differential of artistic quality from some combat sports, it also distinguishes itself from more "traditional martial arts" that went through long periods of development apart from large volume full contacting fighting, in the hands of masters or teachers who perhaps somewhat aesthetically carved & preserved fighting skills. Thailand's Muay Thai exists pretty much baby bear between let's say western boxing and 1980 Korea's TKD. The product of 100,000s of full contact fights - determining its grounded efficacy - while maintaining an expression of the culture and the people out of which it has sprung, purposely. It is Buddhistic and artistic, but also it is quite reality tested, made from the lab of full-contact physically clashing, highly trained bodies.

It's important to understand because people in combat sports, and traditional martial arts like to argue about which fighting form is superior, in some kind of abstract, almost technical way, as if you could take a blank fighter in art x, and a blank fighter in art y and come out with which art is better. Aside from that being not very close to how real fighting knowledge works, this is not what this is about. And, this is not about badassness, or technical proficiency. Nope. It's thinking about the Art value of Muay Thai, and other fighting sports and arts in general. And in terms of Thailand's Muay Thai, thinking about all the ways that information, distinction, criteria, belief, aesthetic ambition and experience come to be expressed through it, in real world fighting stages. Like other arts, fighting arts are staged. In a way, it's about all the influences of value that are poured into the expression of Thailand's Muay Thai, let's say over the last 100 years of its modernity. Its how much variation and richness, and portrayed human efficacy can be packed into a fighting art and its real world practice, so that we value it artfully, such that a comparison with the Fine Arts becomes interesting. In my mind, in the modern era, the West's culture of boxing say between the 1930s and 1980s is the closest thing I think of, a performed knowledge and rite, flowing out of specific communities & micro-economies that reached very high levels of skilled excellence, somewhat in parallel to Thailand's Muay Thai. The main difference between the two, in terms of Art Form evaluation, is perhaps the aesthetic dimension of Thailand's scoring criteria, the way that its Muay Thai reaches deeper into performance as art, explicitly, though it would be very interesting to talk about the evolving, often unstated aesthetic demands of boxing throughout its history in the West.

There is a deeper dimension of the argument towards an Art, which I've begun talking about in this running short essay series (just below), which attempts to uncover some of the deeper cultural reasons why combat sports themselves carry so much meaning in a culture. They are not just "bread and circuses", but following the thinking of the sociologist René Girard - wikpedia here - who has studied the logic of Sacrifice and victim, they may serve a powerful purpose in equalizing and stabilizing a society or subculture. Much as older rights of sacrifice may have purged a community of inherent violence, combat arts that necessarily produce losers may very well be fulfilling a much older human sociological need. You can read into that possibility as it applies to Thailand's Muay Thai in my unfinished series here:

This is explicitly not to say that Thailand's Muay Thai alone might fulfill this role, in fact almost any sporting event that produces losers (and winners) might be performing this role. But, it is to add importance to the kinds of things that are being expressed by the fighter/artist in the ring, an importance that the writers of history gift to the Fine Arts of the academies. Art is supposed to be transformative, expressive and illuminating, with roots into human rite and ritual. It may very well be that combat sports indeed are creating some of these same values, but perhaps in an older way. If we add the aesthetic dimensions that Thailand's Muay Thai folds back in, we can see the unique nexus of kinds value that may be braided.

It is the very agonistic nature of the performance, the way that adrenaline, blood, fear, Amygdala, technique, self-possession, Buddhism, pain, recovery and respect mix that make of this art and sport at the very least a spectacular art. It's woven of extremely diverse strains of what makes us human, from the very lowest to the most high. And, as mentioned up top, it is not a rarefied art held by "masters". It exists in a living sense in households, community centers, in family relations, in circles and roots of micro-economies, a thick web of a turf of Life, perhaps how fishing or sailing as an art and craft might inhabit a coastal peoples for a century, expressing them. Filled with practical, hard-won knowledge, and also meaningfully imbued practices, the things that cut off the "artist" in the prototypical sense, are re-grounded in the lives of people, and all their beliefs.

It's true. The Muay Thai of Thailand is changing. It could be said that the fabric of which it is woven is unraveling, however slowly or quickly we may not be able to tell, but it is still there before us right now, a certain kind of inheritance. It's the inheritance of a people, the Thai people, but it also I believe the inheritance of the world, because so much of Muay Thai has involved deep international influences, starting with Western Boxing and to a lesser degree Judo at the birth of its modernity in the 1920s. For a 100 years this art form has been catching the strands of the world's fighting arts and woven them into the tapestry, as well.

It's okay if it's not acknowledge as the greatest Art Form in the World, but I do want the very idea of Art Form to be expanded to include the fighting arts, and for aesthetic concerns in a fighting sport to gain some weight when we think of the value of what is being done. It may mean something to us to understand that the fighting arts are performing something primally important to us, and that they are doing it both artfully and brutally.

The Muay Thai Bones segment:

 

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Good read. Muay Thai is in a lot of ways for me poetry in motion; as opposed to prose, verse is metered. Every foot in a poem is measured and deliberate. There are no wasted 'movements' so to speak. Like the great nak muay each bar is written, 'thrown', with intent, and draws from the influence of those who came before, from whom they learned. Without knowledge of form and structure, there are intricacies that one will not be able to appreciate. In the same way that an iambic foot can be used to mimic a heartbeat and elicit a reaction from the reader, a feint can be used to elicit a reaction from not just an opponent but the viewers as well. Playing the crowd can often be as important as playing your opponent. And one could say the same for most combat sports, but Muay Thai is more than just a sport as you mentioned. It's a tradition, it's a culture. Just like with poetry, one cannot separate the art from the tradition without misreading (not that most don't try to do just that regardless). Most combat sports (if any?) are not so closely entwined with the history that created it and the culture that surrounds it. Not just for observers, but for participants as well: the anxiety of influence is ever-present, moreso in Muay Thai than other fightsports strictly because of its tradition. Social hierarchy is tightly interwoven with MT, much like the history of poetry even if it is largely neglected in many cases.

Besides the sheer technical ability and 'practical' efficiency, it's the heritage and the community that separates Thai boxing from other sports for me. It, like poetry, is very much involved with the 'human experience' to an inseparable degree and to me art is all about relating the human condition. I love your comparison to fishing, it's very apt.

Edited by Tyler from Florida
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On 10/23/2021 at 6:43 AM, Tyler from Florida said:

Muay Thai is in a lot of ways for me poetry in motion; as opposed to prose, verse is metered. Every foot in a poem is measured and deliberate. There are no wasted 'movements' so to speak. Like the great nak muay each bar is written, 'thrown', with intent, and draws from the influence of those who came before, from whom they learned. Without knowledge of form and structure, there are intricacies that one will not be able to appreciate. In the same way that an iambic foot can be used to mimic a heartbeat and elicit a reaction from the reader, a feint can be used to elicit a reaction from not just an opponent but the viewers as well. Playing the crowd can often be as important as playing your opponent. And one could say the same for most combat sports, but Muay Thai is more than just a sport as you mentioned. It's a tradition, it's a culture. Just like with poetry, one cannot separate the art from the tradition without misreading (not that most don't try to do just that regardless). Most combat sports (if any?) are not so closely entwined with the history that created it and the culture that surrounds it. Not just for observers, but for participants as well: the anxiety of influence is ever-present, more so in Muay Thai than other fight sports strictly because of its tradition. Social hierarchy is tightly interwoven with MT, much like the history of poetry even if it is largely neglected in many cases.

I kind of marvel at this paragraph, so much is in there. I love the references to the iambic beats, and the heartbeats. There is inner rhythm - its not just rocking back and forth, the rock sets the metronome so that every variation can ribbon off from that. Like thinking music is just a baseline. But, if you don't learn these rhythms, or even learn to look for the feet of a poem, its true, it just looks like stuff. Maybe cool stuff, oddly beautiful or styled, but its intricate, sophisticated manipulation of an opponent, a stage. You are right, so much as to be known to even be able to read what is going on. Not just technical facts, but cultural facts. The why of retreat. The why of taking an extra measure. Arts of course can always risk becoming too courtly, riding towards inefficacy, playing toward pure aesthetic, those who understand codes. But somehow - though BKK point fighting can be a thing - Muay Thai over the decades has avoided it, enriching itself from constant influx from the minor literatures of rural parlance, dialects of fighting styles far from any palace, and the fact fights are engaged in such full-contact brutality, that works to correct with consequence anything too stylized, too abstract. Muay Thai has always had this highly tensioned dialectic between BKK cosmopolitan sophistication and up-country / down-country labor and creation, which makes it unique as a historical document, and incredibly rich as a fighting knowledge.

I think you are very right though about the anxiety of influence, because when you are touching Muay Thai proper, you are actually reaching across and touching a whole culture, or an array of subcultures. And when you change Muay Thai, you are changing the fabric of something more than a sport.

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Another very interesting fine art parallel, beyond poetry, is that of dance. In this hour conversation I talked with Thais about the ways in which Thailand's Muay Thai sheds light on dance, and even more the case, how dance helps us see into western pursuits of Muay Thai, the development of styles, the role of techniques, pedagogy, and projects of expression.

 

 

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Just some associative writing on the subject of poetry, brought on by @Tyler from Florida's thoughts on poetry and meter.

Last week we were filming with Chatchainoi, a fighter called The Man of Stone in his day - you can see my photo essay on him here - and there were several moments when he would interrupt training and make corrections which really seemed musical. This in the sense, he objected to the rhythms and beats that Sylvie was making, and in fact at one point started making the fight music sounds, on a pretty quick tempo, to indicate what he was teaching. Get on this rhythm. Now, there are a lot of rhythms in Muay Thai, and many ways of fighting within them, off of them, but Chatchainoi has what I suspect is a very old rhythm. He was a very small fighter who pressed his opponents, had heavy hands and knees, and was always in the fight space. He had been with the Dejrat Gym since the 1990s, you can see him pointing to his photo here:

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His trainer was Arjan Surat who still is the owner of the gym, now at the age of 70, and they teach a very old Muay that they trace back to Arjan Surat's Arjan, a Muay Chaiya fighter. They don't "teach" Muay Chaiya (a Southern Style of Muay Boran), but somehow the dark root of their Muay, the Muay of the gym, goes down into that earth, still training very good stadium fighters. It's a hard, defensive, pressing style. All this is to say, Chatchainoi had a rhythm for fighting in his mind, unlike many other Thai trainers. You'll see this in the Muay Thai Library session if you watch it, but there is a point where Sylvie and he do a kind of leg kick battler in sparring, and he was very demonstrative in objecting to how Sylvie was "getting him back". She was getting the point back, but in completely the wrong way. I've been in all these MTL sessions, and around lots of high level Muay Thai, and even though I was there I couldn't quite feel what he was talking about. Sylvie felt it.

What this brings back to my mind was back when I had a great passion for Greek Tragedy, and taught myself Ancient Greek, and begun translating the great tragetists. This is all metered poetry. And there are ostensibly 3 great authors. Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. When you read Sophocles in the Greek you are just almost awestruck by the complexity of the writing. He makes full use of the twists and delays that are possible in Greek, and has an incredible dexterity in his language. It's really something. But, for me, when I read Aeschylus, thought to be less sophisticated, less evolved than Sophocles by many critics, his language was just earth-shaking. It has a stoniness, and oldness, a rigid power that Sophocles's flowing ribbons and wordplay just does not. It's closer to the earth. It feels like its of a time when a tragic play was also a rite, a power.

This is what I felt when watching Chatchainoi's rhythm, the one in his heart that he insisted on. It was older. It did not have the dexterity or sophistication of perhaps another fighter, and I'm pretty sure he was criticized as "low IQ" for how many strikes he purposively took back in the day (a common thing to say about tough, derning fighters), but what I learned in filming that session was that his rhythm, his feeling for what is right and proper poetry as a fighter had structure, a structure of heart and sinew that you learned and conditioned. And, it was not the same as that Arjan Surat had, who trained him. It was his own. But the family of the techniques of that gym were Aeschylean. 

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TANGENT

This from Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment edited by Marchand, the first chapter discussing the embodied knowledge of Capoeira in Brazil, a fighting art that comes closer to dance than most. The emphasis is on the largely instruction-less, mimetic transmission and creation of the knowledge and art. Without the concretizing ballast of thousands of full contact fights as laboratory, Capoeira may bring forward the social creation of a fighting art, having parallels to aspects of Thailand's Muay Thai training (socially created, often mimetic in transmission). Aesthetics and efficacy in tension.

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If there is one theme when we interviewed legends of the Golden Age and before, it was that nobody actually taught them their style, they created it through social integration in the kaimuay, play (endless sparring, clinch) and by watching. Sirimongkol (FOTY 1972) told us that when he arrived in Bangkok from the provinces he didn't even really know how to fight (a common refrain, but likely a purposeful exaggeration). He learned by his account almost exclusively by watching and imitation, or as Bourdieu would say, mimetic transmission. Continuing on in the essay, making the distinction:

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In my article The Slow Cook vs The Hack Thailand Development, I discuss the metronome effect in the training in a Thai kaimuay, the way that practices and habits of Muay Thai transmit themselves across the social space, almost unconsciously. The nature of this kind of development is a focus of this cited article, an excerpt a little further along. The tension in the theory, as the author examines the teaching and training of Capoeira (which appears in some ways quite different than that of traditional Muay Thai, which is not master-centric, despite sharing non-verbal components), is between just how much skill development is is conscious or unconscious.

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Bourdieu's concept of an unconscious habitus which acts as the generative grammar of a space point to hidden aspects of kaimuay training, such a socially correct hierarchies or gendered expectations, which underwrite the more fulsome aspects of technique and skill acquisition in Thailand's Muay Thai.1697996193_PracticeWithoutTheory6.thumb.png.b3ae3f8e46c9a4279051a2cf1173f603.png

The generative habitus, likened to the painters style, a person's handwriting, a way of being of a class of people, helps explain the transmission of aspects of an art not contained in physical technical imitation:

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Capoeira's malicia is compared to Bourdieu's habitus, an all pervading vision of the subject and the world, positioning and conditioning the art. This is not too different than the acquisition of embodied principles of Muay Thai in the kaimuay, aspects such as auton, ning, ruup, haut, various rhythms and dispositions that communicate the ethos of the art, and even more particularly the ethos of a gym:

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Very interesting article, particularly the delineation between conscious body-learning and unconscious, the clarification between imitation and mimesis specifically. I think it's part of what makes a "natural-born fighter", the ability to not just imitate your teacher but the efficiency of the subconscious to "imitate without question", to perform an action properly without ever consciously having to think about the mechanics behind it. Sometimes thinking about how to perform a move makes you worse at it, I'm sure everyone can relate to being a victim of overthinking. It's often best, as mentioned, to just shut up and do it until it's right. I think the simple roundhouse kick is a great example of this. There are a number of moving parts in a roundhouse: the turning of the shoulder and turning over of the hip, the sweeping of the arms, the pivoting of the feet, etc. There are too many little individual parts to consciously manage in the second or fraction of a second that it takes to throw a proper kick; you just have to do it until it feels right, and when it feels right you'll just know it. And then watching back the video of you throwing it, the difference between the kicks you feel and the ones you don't will be blatantly obvious, at least in my experience. There's also the fact that what feels right for some people doesn't feel right for others. Superbon for example comes up very high on his standing leg when he throws a roundhouse to a degree at which he's basically jumping, yet some people will never throw a roundhouse like that in their entire career and still find great success with it. And still others will watch Superbon and undoubtedly start coming up higher on their standing leg from then on, especially if they're inspired by his recent KO: I personally think things like inspiration and belief of efficacy are subconscious motivators of mimesis, it seems kind of obvious to me.

Outside of physical education, I wholly believe that's a factor in general intelligence too; the most intelligent fellows I know just have an unspoken "understanding" of anything they're being educated on, almost like a knack for learning. I believe you can teach pretty much anything to anybody personally, but it's a particular individual's predisposition to mimesis that determines how quickly they'll catch on in my opinion.

And child development surely highlights the power of mimesis. Young children cannot particularly "think" at a very high level, as their brains are still developing. It's the subconscious ability of the brain to mime what the child is seeing that allows them to recreate actions that we show them.

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I mean, do you really think somebody taught this 3 year old how to throw a cartwheel kick by explaining to them the mechanics behind it? I sincerely doubt it. And they definitely didn't teach him how to celebrate his big strike, it's likely he's seen his papa or fighters he watches smash their fists together in victory before. He didn't 'think' about celebrating, he simply did it. Again interesting article, not just from a Muay Thai perspective but in general. Definitely food for thought.

I love that many of the nak muay you interview mention learning through watching. It's largely what makes me love muay Thai so much, their style is their personality. It's always interesting to me when one fighter teaches something one way, and another teaches it completely differently but neither of them are wrong. Pipa and Silapathai like to do the monkey teep while Ponsaknoi, from the same gym, says that's stupid just throw it like a normal person haha! Like I mentioned earlier I believe inspiration is a great motivator of mimesis, so to see the tactics each fighter subconsciously chooses to employ is in a way looking at what inspired them to fight in the first place. I think "history made flesh" is an excellent way to describe muay Thai, not in the sense of underwriting individual autonomy but moreso in the enculturation of a fighter. I don't think enculturation and the underwriting of individual autonomy are necessarily exclusive in this case as I believe factors that drive mimesis can definitely come from a place of individuality. The things that inspire us are all different. That's not to say the underwriting of individual autonomy is not also at play in muay Thai; the act of miming someone else is by nature not individually autonomous. Just that it's not exclusive, in my opinion.

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