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Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu

Trans-Freedoms Through Authentic Muay Thai Training in Thailand Understood Through Bourdieu's Habitus, Doxa and Hexis

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I'm laying this down as an extensive footnote to an understanding that I've felt for sometime, in watching Sylvie toil under the authenticities of Thailand's kaimuay regimens. There is a certain base sense in which we can feel and appreciate that western men and women want to come to Thailand to expose themselves to certain bootcamp-like experiences. While many flock to Thailand to party, relax, drift, fewer come to Thailand from the West to commit, endure and suffer. There is a built in class disassociation in this - although Muay Thai in Thailand is far more diverse than the poverty-stricken images and motivations that become attached to it in stereotypes, under various motivations, Muay Thai is trained not only in rural small towns, but urbanly, in not only in the lower classes, but among the middle classes. People come from the West to even have the freedom of travel, and a kind of vocational selection, are of a different class than most of those in the Muay Thai world. It's not just economically that this is so, it is also a difference in perspective, the way that a person experiences themselves and the project of their lives. It's a difference in what maybe is best called a difference in genus of liberation. Westerners have a kind of interpersonal freedom that comes out of the growing looseness of its social bonds and the atomization of personal definition. In a certain regard, men and women of the West come to Thailand training camps to be liberated, to find, or even construct a liberation, I would argue. Or, perhaps, a restoration. Much can be broad-brushed here. The "freedoms" and disassociations of the West can prove imprisoning emotionally, psychologically, under a great variety of kinds, and the romanticization of Thai customs & traditions, its efficacious, high-level of fighting skill creation, and most importantly the work itself, can become a path to a certain kind of liberty, an evolution that simply cannot be regularly found in one's own culture, if there at all.

This article is founded on Sylvie's own, incredibly intense devotion to this kind of project. It's focused on my experiences of it, but though no one in the history of the sport has ever done what she has done - amassing so far 259 fights in the country (more documented pro fights than any female in history), fighting at an unparalleled rate, and month-to-month out-training pretty much everyone in her gym (that chip on that shoulder) for about 8 of those years - I suspect that these truths can be extracted out to much less intense, but still very real projects by other Westerners, male and female, all the way from serious train-cationing Phuket gym goers who may not ever fight to the historic Ramon Dekkers. These are projects of transformation.

Bourdieu's Habitus, Doxa and Hexis

I'm going to be working from two pages from "Unconscious culture and conscious nature: exploring East Javenese conceptions of the person through Bourdieu's lens", by Konstantinos Retsikas, as found in the anthology Making Knowledge: Explorations of the Indissoluble Relation between Mind, Body and Environment. I use these selections because they provide a succinct explanation of doxa and hexis, in the way that I am thinking about them, but you certainly could turn to more exhaustive primary sources. Also, the essay itself does provide some insight into Thailand's Muay Thai (femeu vs muay khao; Bangkok vs provinces) if anyone wishes to read it. As a way of brief introduction, Bourdieu used the concept of habitus to talk about how one's socially imbued environment (for him a field) structured you, in unconscious ways, inscribing onto your person the social forms of the culture you are in. He was concerned with understanding how class differences, and gender differences (dominations) perpetuate themselves, communicating themselves to new generations. The habitus helped explain all the ways the milieu, or milieus, you found yourself in made you what you are, determining how you saw yourself and the world. You are who you are because you have been unconsciously habituated in mind and, even more importantly, body. The pages below talks about this, and his related concepts of doxa and hexis.

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The architectural theorist Erwin Panofsky influenced Bourdieu. I suspect that the example of anamorphism in perspective provides a good touchstone for some of these ideas of the structured subject. In the 16th and 17th century hallways would be painted with anamorphism. We see this today in optical illusion sidewalk paintings, but here is an example:

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Anamorphic paintings make the most sense if you stand in a particular position, adopt a particular perspective, otherwise they can be unclear or outright confusing. Departing somewhat from Bourdieu's field+capital theory, I would argue that the structuring of the habitus works something like this, but not upon your eyes. It works across your whole being. Because human beings crave sense, and draw sense from others around them, you learn to "stand" in relation to the social world so that the "painting" (its structures) make sense. You are positioned. You cannot help but be positioned, because the organism requires coherence. It must find the pattern. Not a painting on a wall, but a highly complex stratification of human qualities gets doled out to people according to class, ethnicity, gender, religion, and a great number of other distinctions. Everyone learns where to stand, so that the world makes sense. And remarkably, everyone is standing in slightly different places, holding the entire kaleidoscope in place, reinforcing its nature. At least, that's a starting point.

Bourdieu uses doxa to explain how beliefs about the world become inscribed upon your - well, let's say nervous system - person, through the conditioning of sense through the field/habitus you are exposed to. And these beliefs appear entirely natural. The are part of the Natural World. Not only can't you readily think outside of these beliefs for long, it would probably never occur to you to even do so. Through hexis the body is essentially trained to adopt the perspectives of your social position in the milieu. As written above "whole cosmologies" can be anchored in "motor schemes" and somatic dispositions. It starts almost from birth.

This is where things get very interesting.

What authentic Muay Thai training in Thailand involves...and I say "authentic" purposely, because it self-authors, it writes (from Greek authentikos "original, genuine, principal," from authentes "one acting on one's own authority," from autos "self" (see auto-) + hentes "doer, being," from PIE root *sene- (2) "to accomplish, achieve."), what authentic Muay Thai training in Thailand involves is the structuring of the Self at the level of "motor schema" and ultimately somaticized belief. You are not just trained in "techniques" that should be accomplished with precision (see my: Precision – A Basic Motivation Mistake in Some Western Training), you are trained in the entirety of your person, effecting every posture, sigh, gaze, gate, tempo, pause and motor reaction. And, it is done in a highly hierarchical milieu, a situation unfortunately that many Westerners may not even perceive because they have not been inculcated in the culture. The more you do see this, the more the field/habitus of the nak muay will shape you. This is done under the auspices of a sport, the National Sport of Muay Thai, and with the aims of communicating the Art of Muay Thai, but also ideally with very concrete aims of winning actual fights under the demanding aesthetics of the sport. When a Kru tells you not to lower your head in the clinch, or bend yourself, he is communicating habitus truths of the art and sport, which align with the doxa of the subculture...a culture which is not you. You are undergoing hexis, which anchors beliefs you do not have, or may not even understand, as your ruup is conditioned. Ruup (posture, frame, outward bodily disposition) is of immense importance in Thailand's Muay Thai. And differing styles, krus or arjan may have different ruup that they teach. But, you are undergoing a kind of unconscious inculcation to the Art.

A really important part of this, linked to the authenticity of the training, is whether the gym itself is primarily focused on raising Thai boys to become fighters, and not just working as a business in adventure tourism. The reason for this is that we from the West come to Thailand's Muay Thai as adults. We are already, fully inculcated. Our bodies are already hard wired for our beliefs. In Muay Thai the training of Muay Thai starts in youth, sometimes as young as 6 or 8. That is because it is a process of inculcation. It isn't just acquiring skill, or training techniques that you can repeat in the ring, at will. It's an entire picture of masculinity that is taught from the ground up, inscribed on the body of a boy. The more committed a kaimuay is to that process, the process of inculcation, the closer it will be to those principles, those unconscious truths, as expressed by the martial art. This is a fundamental reason why there is very little overt, physical instruction in traditional Thailand kaimuay, nor verbal instruction (two things Westerners hope for). It's because what is being taught is not "this thing" or "that thing". It's disposition. Its a relationship to the space, the milieu, through authority and peers, accomplished and expressed through technique as folded into practice and extremely difficult training. You can extract the techniques out, but you have removed a limb from a living body.

 

The Trans- Experience of Training (& Fighting) In Thailand

There is of course a great variety of training experiences in Thailand, and exposure to those specific inculcating, milieu-bound forces of shaping may only very seldom happen to a select few. True kaimuays that Westerners come in touch with are few and far between, and are becoming even more rare. And even if in one, age, race, gender lack of language skill, physical size, may really impair a direct transference. Most Westerners come to gyms that have trained their business toward the Adventure Tourism of Muay Thai. But, in the techniques themselves, the scoring principles of Thailand's Muay Thai, the arduous training experiences, the kru dispositions, some if not a great deal of the structuring inculcation can come across.

What I want to raise here is that Westerners are undergoing an inculcation, a hexis, at the motor schema level, which expresses the hypermasculinity of the Muay Thai art, and if this is done sincerely and with deep commitment, this hexis will start to unanchor your doxa, your world. Again, there are great differences between a commercial Phuket gym and a family community kaimuay, but when you come to train, seriously, you are entering a process of new habitus. You are undergoing a new structuring. If you stay for 3 months the effects of this may be minor or fleeting, it takes a very long time to inscribe a world, a cosmology, but if you submit yourself to new habitus, and experience continual shaping, you are necessarily undergoing a trans- experience.

For someone like Sylvie who has spent 8 years of habitus pressures, fortunately many of them in a fairly authentic, family guided kaimuay that existed to raise Thai boys into stadium fighters, this is a world-altering experience. Literally, world altering. It's because the experience is meant to re-write the anchors of your person. In Sylvie's case, and in the case of other serious female fighters, there is also a powerful dis-junction along the lines of gender. One has left the habitus structure of your home culture, the complex anamorphic painting which has told you where to stand for everything to make sense, and you have undergone a specialized hexis training in the art of hypermasculine expression, an inculcation of the bodily dispositions of aesthetic (& effective) hypermasculinity, which is counter to your own gender. You are both in a foreign land, and undergoing the training of masculinist hexis. This is necessarily a trans- experience. The masculinity is not the masculinity of your own culture, so the portrayal does not conflict abruptly with your own lifetime of inculcation. This makes the overwriting of the body on the unconscious level not face as much conflict it might have in one's own culture. When living in the culture of Thailand, moving about, learning the language, forming friendships and bonds, you are being rewritten. You are not in a tug of war between what the gym is inscribing, and what you have been inscribed by your whole life. You are being trans-ferred to another world, starting at the motor schema level.

There is not time to go into the rich and complex ways that this inculcation of disposition occurs in Muay Thai. Breathing patterns, signatures of aggression, obedience, principles of auton (endurance), all the ways the body unconsciously signifies itself. It is not so much that these are disciplined away, as, because she was a part of Thai boys who she trained with, under a silent hierarchy, they become absorbed and habituated. Many times they will become conscious aims. Bourdieu likes to focus on the unconscious processes, and this is important, but at times they become dispositional skills that are practiced until they become your own. I am not talking about techniques of Muay Thai. I am talking about techniques of the Body and Person. One has left behind, to some degree, what you "are", and is in discovery of what one can be. Its a flight of self-creation under the exposure to a regime of habitus, doxa and hexis.

 

There is a wonderful, instructive analogy that I cite in my article on Deleuze, Wittengstein and Transidentity. I'm going to quote from it here:

 

Quote

 

Deleuze and Guattari want us to see a priority of affects, the way that our affects actually work to define what we are capable of doing, and thus what we are. In a telling, counter-intuitive example they suggest for instance that a racehorse has less in common with a workhorse than does an ox. Working within a cartographic measure of parts which undermines any descriptive speciation, they write:

Lattitude is made up of intensive parts falling under a capacity, and a longitude of extensive parts falling under a relation. In the same way that we avoid defining a body by its organs and functions, we will avoid defining it by Species or Genus characteristics; instead we will count its affects…A race horse is more different from a workhorse than a workhorse is from an ox (257).

For, the body of a racehorse goes beyond our classifications of kinds—though these too demarcate the kinds of experiences a racehorse can have, for instance the experience of mating with a workhorse. A racehorse will likely experience things in a manner no workhorse will come to, while the ox and workhorse will have a community of affects historically determined across species.

 

Deleuze and Guattari suggest that even though a race horse and a plow horse may share a great number of features as part of being from the same species - and there are so many ways to quantify this - at the level of affects, one might even say hexis, a plow horse and an ox are of greater similarity. Their lived experiences in a shared habitus inscribes on their bodies a "world" a cosmology that a race horse cannot have. This is the praxis of training. When you commit yourself to the living milieu of a Thai gym, not only the rigors of physical training (the twice a day bagwork, shadowboxing, padwork, clinch), but when the training is authentic, to the bodily dispositions, the micro-motor adjustments of personal expression, the aptitudes of gaze, posture, gate, rest, aggression, within the inculcation, and the social restraints and demands of authority, friendship, exchange, the plow horse and the ox have something powerfully in common, a "community of affects". A Hexis, and to some degree over time doxa. You have become other than your history. All your possibilities that were before you within your native habitus did not contain this. This is the possibility of a new world, a differing cosmology, and your place in it, through the practices of an art in a culture that is not your own, taken to the nth degree, because it is a trajectory.


 

 

 

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Doxa and The Fighting Arts

It may seem a bit of a stretch to imagine that cosmologies can be unanchored, and anchored, through motor schema rigor, and exposure to training subculture habitus. But interestingly enough there is ethnological discussion in just this direction. "In Practice Without Theory: a neuroanthropological perspective on embodied learning" by Greg Downey, in the same anthology, Embodied knowledge theory is used to investigate the teaching of the Brazilian fighting art Capoeira. After the author describes the development of "kinasethetic style", through largely non-verbal instruction and more important mimetic accumulation, "forms of moving and gesture, and habits across all practical, linguistic, and cultural obstacles" (notably, this study seemed to be of transmission of the art not in the authenticity of the strucured habitus of Brazil, but in New York), the Capoeira player comes to acquire malicia, in a sense of the game, which is a vision or outlook upon the world, which flows from the social conditions under which Capoeira developed:

On malicia:

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I screen quote and comment more from the article here:

The author is very interested in the division between conscious acquisition and unconscious acquisition, because in the fighting arts so much of what is experienced in the intentional practice of the art and its techniques, and Bourdieu on the other hand is insistent that the structuring process of embodied inscription: habitus, doxa, hexis, occurs unconsciously. The reason for this is that Bourdieu is looking for all the hidden ways in which our cosmology, so to speak, is preserved and passed on, especially in terms of injustice. But, it is easy to appreciate that there is a gradation of conscious to unconscious inscription, actions taken which bring to bear structuring at the motor schema level, which come to embody beliefs, and reasons for being. If the author found elements of this from training Capoeira in New York city, far from the original habitus of Capoeira's development (and all the attendant habitus structuring), so much more would one imagine that these inscription occur richly in the native habitate of Capoeira, where the unconscious structuring can become much more thorough. This is why I include concepts of "authentic" Muay Thai training in Thailand. It's not that more commercial, more adventure-tourist models of practice are "less real", as much as they have been extracted further from so much of the unconscious structuring that gave birth and inform the art, a mode of liberation or change. A well-known American coach of Muay Thai joked about people in the West trying to make their Muay Thai training more and more like "real" Thai training, favoring a much more hybrid approach of tradition and western methodology "What do you want? Are you going to have dogs chasing you on your runs?" (paraphrased), referring to the somewhat well known high presence of street dogs on morning and afternoon dogs which will give chase, sometimes a bit dangerously, when the Thai boys run. The truth of the matter is, even something as trivial as random dog aggression (and discovering solutions to it, in a group) can be part of the field/habitus of Thailand's kaimuay Muay Thai. These group runs, running with the other fighters, in fact are structuring processes. Only one of a thousands that happen in a kaimuay. And, the coach is right. Which of the 1,000s of habitus experiences are you going to replicate, in a foreign gym? Not dogs on runs, but maybe wai-ing formally to your coach? As one moves from the conditions of the production of Muay Thai, it is abstracted, and with it the doxa and hexis is changed, because it is within a differing milieu and its habitus.

In a larger sense, returning to Sylvie's trans- project of liberty, by way of conscious and unconscious conditioning, involving not only the kaimuay, but also the habitus of fighting, something she threw herself into committedly, with over 260 fights, leaving the limiting structure of her own cultural doxa, reconditioning herself at the motor-schema level, what is the doxa she is taking on, in a hybrid sense, built into and over the doxa of her youth and early adulthood? It can only be called a layering of worlds perhaps, accomplished through the acquisition and performance of a fighting art, under great duress. A re-formulation of the Self, into a line of flight, as the doxa of a new world starts to show itself.

A general presentation of the doxa concept:

 

 

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Habitus & Hexis vs Overt Instruction in Thailand's Muay Thai

Anecdotally, showing aspects of disposition that unconsciously are communicated in Muay Thai training, these are three examples of the positioning of the subject as nak muay in non-technical (mechanical) sense. These may feel like subtle, and even quite minor aspects, but habitus inculcation is filled with a myriad of these, across all domains.

1. The wai - Lanna Muay Thai was Sylvie's first gym in Thailand. It wasn't so much an authentic Thai kaimuay, as it was opened by pioneering westerner Andy Thomson and had a history of being a home for sincere, long-term western fighters. It was an integrated western/Thai hybrid space that importantly did raise Thai boys up to become ring fighters, and in many respects maintained very distinct Thai elements. In fact, it was probably the last western-friendly gym in all of Thailand that maintained a separate ring, only for men under the superstitions and bias against female gender, a ring separation of genders I wrote about here: So What’s the Big Deal About Women and the Bottom Rope In Thailand? (There is a lot that can be said about habitus and that ring, I suspect.) Andy was an innovator, but the gym itself was left to be run by Thais, building a few Thai fighters, and training westerners in a more or less "Thai way". There were still strong Thai habitus qualities within the gym when we spent our 2 years there. This story is about how the mother of Chopper, a teen Thai fighter from Isaan who had transplanted to Lanna Muay Thai in Chiang Mai. In a slight digression, Lanna Muay Thai had another name, a Thai name: Kiatbusa. These two names might very well represent two differing habitus that overlapped, a western-oriented one, and the Thai one. In any case Chopper was quite skilled from his Isaan experiences, and he became a sparring partner with Sylvie due to size. Chopper's mother was working class. She was a tuk tuk driver in Chiang Mai, and she was friendly with Sylvie when she would come and pick Chopper up. One day, as I remember it, she pulled Sylvie aside to tell her that she was wai-ing wrong for a woman. She explained to her that it was not lady-like how Sylvie wai-ed, and it was not especially polite. Sylvie had been in the gym training full-time for at least a year or more, I suspect, and had spent a lot of time with the Thai boys she trained against and with. And she had learned wai-ing from all the examples around her. She likely practiced how to wai when she first came to Thailand, with perhaps examples from YouTube even, but she actually, unconsciously, learned how to wai from watching all the teen age boys wai. Whereas Chopper's mother showed her that a woman properly wais with the hands together about chest level, and the head lowering the chin, forehead to the hands, Sylvie wai-ed by placing her hands over her nose, with a little casual nod. We have joked that it was a bit like blowing your nose into a handkerchief.

Chopper's mother was in particular concerned with Sylvie's actions as a woman. A proper woman. It was jarring to see her wai like a teenage boy. None of this was on purpose, none of this was conscious choice. I'd add that Sylvie had also picked up a series of grunts and vocal delays from Nuk, one of the old time trainers who talked in an exaggerated way, often grunting in approval to something he heard or saw. She wai'ed like a teenage boy, and talked at times like a grizzled padman. She had absorbed these behavioral qualities, these modes of expression and disposition, mimetically.

This is only to point out, the habitus of the gym was constantly inscribing itself on Sylvie, and a large measure of this was unconscious. It's the fabric of dispositions out of which Muay Thai technique and aesthetics grow. It was not two things, but it was a 100 things. A 1,000 things, that dispositionally transferred themselves to her. It's a kind of sculpting of disposition that works itself down to gestures of respect and ways of speaking. As a female training and fighting seriously in Thailand, this necessarily is an adoption of a project of hyper-masculinity...because Muay Thai is a Thai hyper-masculine performance. This cannot really be done without the grafting of any number of supportive dispositions. In Thailand, head position, and head-lowering is extremely important, and is divided by genders. In Thai scoring you learn, technically, never to lower your head (without direct purpose). This is powerful sign of masculinity itself, both in and out of the ring.

2. Calling points. Thailand's form of sparring is quite different from that of the West, speaking very broadly, especially when sparring as a boy. The overriding quality of sparring can be play and experimentation (and not "properly" executing techniques). It is a sandbox of learning to perform, with your whole body, and all the signification of affects that play a role in Thai scoring. Mimetically you absorb behaviors and dispositions from others in the ring. It isn't just techniques that are passed between fighters, it's ways of being, a sense of the game. Every gym will develop its own style of comportment. It develops not only out of the styles of the krus, which work to enforce their own sense of what is aesthetically pleasing or proper, but also from the personalities of all the fighters. It's a melting pot of influences and creation. In the gyms Sylvie has been in calling out your own points plays a huge part of sparring. You learn the theatre of dramaticizing your scores in various ways. This goes to a larger principle of never showing that an opponent has an advantage. You learn to ignore and shrug off anything done to you, and celebrate, or at least indicate all your points. It can be anything from a subtle posture change or smile, to shouting out "ooooi" or some humorous comment in Thai. This can be a very jocular form of training, but it is extremely important to a Nak Muay's performance in the stadia.

Sylvie saw this pretty early on, point calling in the gyms she had been in. It's part of the game as much as slamming down a domino might be in dominos. She just could not do it. The way she was raised, as a girl, in her house...but in a wider degree in her culture, was that a woman should never call attention to herself. The habitus of the West, and of her home directly contradicted what was required to play at sparring in her gym. Years passed, it was not possible. The inscriptions of the habitus of the Thai kaimuay were in conflict with those of her history. We are not exactly sure when they changed. There were some conscious attempts to do it, almost to force it, but they were unsuccessful. It was just a matter of spending more time in the water. At some point, several years in, calling points emerged. In fact, Sylvie has a really wicked sense of humor, an incredible playfulness she would not ever show when attempting to accomplish a task, for instance, that started showing through. Eventually, through no actual conscious change, she has become the loudest one in the gym. And, when she goes to other gyms and spars or clinches with Thai boys - something that can be quite stressful for the Thai boy, because he's on stage vs a female - it's her cackling, and joking and point calling that breaks all the ice between them, and allows the boy to call his own points, make his own play. Which is the "real" Sylvie? The quiet, nose-to-the-grindstone girl who would never call attention to herself, or the boisterous, cackling, joke-teller who brings light to the training ring? Each was created by a habitus. A different habitus. Each feels "natural" and a "real you". Perhaps it would be best to say that the habitus of each draws out the potentialities of a person, each equally real. In this case the latter is part of the inscription of hypermasculinity as portrayed by a nak muay, at least in the training circumstances she was in --- there are quiet, non-celebratory Thai nak muay too.

3. Music. One of the most difficult things to learn in Thailand's Muay Thai is the music of its rhythms. Not only do differing styles and krus have differing musics, but the Western ear for fight performance is far out of whack of almost everything a Thai fighter expresses. Westerners will hear things like "relax" (sabai) or "tamachat" (be natural) and have very little access to what these things actually mean. A foreigner can try to approximate the rhythms they see around them, and many of them do. But, this is conscious imitation, and honestly quite far from what these expressions actually are. Many times they are poor copies. One of these principles is "don't rush" (mai don reep). Sylvie knew this principle conceptually, and even in conscious practice, but she never really "got" it. Not the feeling of it. It's about a quality of tempo. You can face a lesson many times, until it finally hits you in the right way, and for Sylvie it was in the Muay Thai Library documentary session with Kru Khorat: #39  Khorat Saknarin - Precise Tensions (97 min) watch it here . For whatever reason, when Kru Khorat told her to stop, pause, take a beat, it sunk in from all that she had experienced before this. This musical, tempo'd aspect of the meter of beats in striking is connected to the Thai principle of making strikes visibly clear, distinct. Not "muddy Muay Thai" (muay mua). This a non-technical (mechanical), highly aesthetic, but still efficacious dimension of Muay Thai. It's something that Sylvie is growing into. In this clip of sparring below, you can see the pause in the beats, resisting the urge to rush through advantage as you build a momentum of effect, demonstrating/indicating control over the space, as well as the playfulness: 

The nature of pauses or regularity, not rushing strikes is a groundwork of much larger musicalities in Muay Thai styles. Great fighters like Karuaht, with whom Sylvie has studied over many years, was practically a symphony of musical effects, delays and advances. You can try to learn these as part of the form of techniques, for instance the built in delay, as the chest rises up in Karuhat's Golden Kick, as he teaches here:

But the more germane aspect of this sub-article are all the unconscious ways the musicality of Thailand's Muay Thai come to be communicated to you in the training environment, the habitus of a kaimuay. Among these things are very small things like learning to delay, to wait, between a single strike and another. These are motor-schema inscriptions that develop unconsciously, though conscious direction and conceptual understanding can be a part of (or a prevention of) acquiring them.

I also reference this small bit of habitus/hexis differences between race, gender and ethnicies. I don't know if this study has been discredited or reargued, but it's a famous case of misunderstanding between races in the West. White teachers take direct eye-contact from a student as a sign of submission, attention and respect, whereas in some black culture, a subordinate student would not make direct eye contact. One person, under the habitus of their inscription is showing respect, but it is being read as disrespect in the habitus of their inscription. These are the types of dispositional knowledge and expression we are talking about, experiential signification of the Self. And these are the things which can and do undergo change in the rigors of Thai's kaimuay.

 

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The Habitus and the Living Recording

There is another very interesting aspect to Sylvie's prolific fighting and training in Thailand, and that if of a living, "carnal sociology" of Muay Thai itself. One of the somewhat unstated implications of Bourdieu's concepts of habitus & hexis is the notion that our bodies become living inscription surfaces. Written on our nervous systems and in our brains is a "record" of what is, the milieus we have lived in, and strained ourselves in. In just a blunt way Sylvie's bodied record of the Muay Thai of Thailand (in kaimuay, as discussed above), and in fight milieus is in many ways unparalleled. What follows briefly is going to sound a bit like championing her, which I do as her husband, but the raw fact is that she's a unicorn in the fight-ethnographer world. She has embodied the fight milieu of Thailand, it's great variety, more often than any western man or woman with over 250 fights in the country, far outstripping very serious others. But, she also has been an informal ethnographer of Muay Thai itself. Aside from her personal writing and note-taking over the last 9 years, more than 1,000 articles written on her site, many of them in very specific subjects like the Gendered Experience in Muay Thai in Thailand, itself a prolific assemblage of personal documentation perhaps more voluminous than any other fighter in history, she also has produced the massive Muay Thai Library documentary project, an archive of over 120 hours of video commentary preservation of the techniques of legendary fighters and great krus throughout Thailand, under the view that these are disappearing fighting forms, fighting habitus that no longer are being transmitted to future generations. The Muay Thai Library project is a treasure trove of historical documentation, likely the most detailed and comprehensive of any martial or fighting art history. While fighting more prolifically than any western man or woman in Thailand, she also has been producing documentation like no other. This creates an incredibly rich inscription upon her person, something we may not think seriously about as a subject of study for decades.  

Archive vs Repertoire

Here though, I want to bring in Diana Taylor's idea of the difference between an "archive" and a "repertoire", with the repertoire being a parallel, living history to any material history. Sylvie's Muay Thai Library project no doubt is an archive, but her experiences in creating the archive also have produce a repertoire, a living recording. Citing from:

"Pierre Bourdieu: Issues of Embodiment and Authenticity" by Herman Roodenburg (2004)

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On one level, just becoming the student of so many legendary fighters, under the conditions of producing the archive, alone might produce the effects of a repertoire recording, but it is much more than that. She, as the most prolific fighter (possibly in the world), has been creating this archive all in the context of actual fighting, at an incredible rate, developing herself as a fighter. She is processing her studies through the field of fighting and the field of the kaimuay, integrating them into the living matter of her own habitus. She herself, is a living encyclopedia of traces, that is parallel to the material archive itself. In the history of ethnographies these types of integrations, at this volume, are likely extremely rare. She has been archiving the embodied histories of the art and sport, while performing the art itself at elite level.

What is perhaps most interesting is that a great deal of her attention has been directed towards all the differences in energy and ruup, found not only in each fighting style, but more importantly, in the complete uniqueness of the great fighters that she has studied and documented. Video is used to record them in full length hours, so to capture as much of their habitus as possible. Not just their techniques (which is the preoccupation of much of the West, as it seeks to raid the Muay Thai technical cupboard for its efficacy), but the ways of talking, the postures between and during explanation, the nature of exhortations, the facial displaces of judgement. Her - and my - theory has always been that each legendary fighter or kru has a muay that is embodied in them, and you cannot know the technique without knowing as much of their person as possible. She has been noting this, and maybe more importantly experiencing this, for several years now. You can watch a video of Dieselnoi, but until you stand in front of him you cannot really feel the energy, the comportment. You cannot take it onto yourself as a trace. 

To take a more concrete, less unconscious example: Dieselnoi, in teaching, has a very distinct demand of how to return to your corner after a fight round. This is also how you rest after a hard round of training. It has a very specific ruup. An elevation of the posture, a way of breathing, which for him communicates vitality, but also expresses the very elan of his fighting style, which is like no other in Thai history. You can learn this if you train with him. It can consciously be taken on as a repetition and trace, but more so, if you spend time with him the entire habitus of his disposition as a fighter will become imprinted, far beyond this breathing part of his repertoire.

Remarkably, Sylvie has taken on these traces, in person, with some of the greatest fighters and krus in Thai history. Her own habitus is imbued with the shaping forces of these exposures, many of them coming through friendships that have lasted for years. In all that she does, her habitus has become a repertoire preservation - however pale or distinct - for rare habitus of Thailand's Muay Thai, not only in the ring, but in the culture of the ring as well.

 

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Two Published Resources on Habitus and Fighting Arts

Searching around there actually is a "embodied knowledge" approach to fighting sports and martial arts that I was not aware of. It largely stems from the work of Wacquant and boxing:

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Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer by Loic Wacquant

"When French sociologist Loic Wacquant signed up at a boxing gym in a black neighborhood of Chicago's South Side, he had never contemplated getting close to a ring, let alone climbing into it. Yet for three years he immersed himself among local fighters, amateur and professional. He learned the Sweet science of bruising, participating in all phases of the pugilist's strenuous preparation, from shadow-boxing drills to sparring to fighting in the Golden Gloves tournament. In this experimental ethnography of incandescent intensity, the scholar-turned-boxer supplies a model for a "carnal sociology" capable of capturing "the taste and ache of action." Body & Soul marries the analytic rigor of the sociologist with the stylistic grace of the novelist to offer a compelling portrait of a bodily craft and of life and labor in the black American ghetto, but also a fascinating tale of personal transformation and social transcendence."
 
Stemming from Wacquant's work is this anthology of the application of Bourdieu's concepts to martial and fighting arts:
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Fighting Scholars: Habitus and Ethnographies of Martial Arts and Combat Sports Raúl Sánchez García (ed.), Dale C. Spenser (ed.) 

‘Fighting Scholars’ offers the first book-length overview of the ethnographic study of martial arts and combat sports. The book’s main claim is that such activities represent privileged grounds to access different social dimensions, such as emotion, violence, pain, gender, ethnicity and religion. In order to explore these dimensions, the concept of ‘habitus’ is presented prominently as an epistemic remedy for the academic distant gaze of the effaced academic body. The book’s most innovative features are its empirical focus and theoretical orientation. While ethnographic research is a widespread and popular approach within the social sciences, combat sports and martial arts have yet to be sufficiently interrogated from an ethnographic standpoint. The different contributions of this volume are aligned within the same project that began to crystallize in Loïc Wacquant’s ‘Body and Soul’: the construction of a ‘carnal sociology’ that constitutes an exploration of the social world ‘from’ the body."
 
My observations: To be honest, reading through this anthology I felt it was very uneven. I do understand that this is a nascent field of study, but some of these approaches seem to have two worlds to them. One is just the repetitious framing of the theoretical perspective, positioning the article within academic discourse, and in many times directly within Wacquant's work, and the other world can be rather banal "recording" of facts of training or transmission, in the role of ethnographic "notes" (being objective and science-ish). Inserted between these two worlds can be biographical descriptions of the author, which supposedly work to mediate between them. I've not completed the anthology yet, but the Muay Thai chapter was a specific disappointment, just mashing short term "field notes" with some Bourdieu sociology and a story of gym hopping. What seems lacking in some of these articles is insightful and inventive connection between the two worlds, sewing them richly together. I will say "The Teacher's Blessing and the Withheld Hand" on the South Indian martial art kalarippayattu in Chapter 8 was one of the stronger ones in terms of personal report around two vignettes, and "White Men Don't Flow: Embodied Aesthetics of the 52 Hand Blocks" has some very interesting points of observation which I quote from in posts below, mapping onto Thailand's kaimuay Muay Thai. And "Japanese Religions and Kyudo (Japanese Archery): An Anthropological Perspective" is philosophically expressive, melding practice/habitus to Deleuze's actual/virtual.
For me a perhaps more intellectually robust anthology is Making Knowledge, exploring more of the connective tissue between theory and embodied practice, though with only one chapter on fighting arts (Capoeira):
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This quotation from "White Men Don't Flow: Embodied Aesthetics of the 52 Hand Blocks" of the Fighting Scholars anthology has a really good description of the embodiment of techniques at the emotional/affective level, something Sylvie's talked a great deal of. 52 Blocks has a kind of Internet disdain as a fake fighting style, but it makes a great case history because its influences, practices and pedagogies are so incredibly eclectic. It's very hard to pair away the "boxing" influence from the 1970s Hong Kong Kung Fu movie influence, because its a bricolage art deeply buried in a subculture. This makes a sociological study of it of some interest, because categories of description have to flow over a varied landscape. 

This description of a student, the author, not taking the right affective disposition in learning a technique is actually quite close to something Sylvie has repeatedly insisted upon when documenting the muay of legends of the Thai ring. Each legend has his own affective disposition which is expressed through his muay, itself an individuation, and sometimes an amalgum of, larger Muay Thai fight styles, which hold their own aesthetics. In this example, from 52 Blocks, the author/student does not have enough disdain. The affects and habitus patterns which ground a great fighter's style in Thailand, which animate it and make it do what it does, have to be inhabited, in order to understand (and execute) the techniques within. You cannot have Karuhat's "kick" without something of Karuhat's aloof, floating, artful grace, affectively. It comes out of that affective matrix. Sylvie insists that in learning the muay of legends, it is best to actually impersonate them, everything about them. How they talk, stand, walk. Be them. These are embodied techniques.

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This goes against the grain of much of the rationalized, mechanical abstraction Thailand's fighting techniques, mining them from not only the fighters who expressed them in the ring, but also the micro-cultures and conditions which bore them. The rational mind seeks to just harvest the "efficacy", often, without the affective truth which holds that efficacy together. Techniques can become modular, mechanical plug-and-plays in a constructed fighting apparatus, placed into an assembly line of students.

In this slow motion treatment of the very famous padwork video of Dieselnoi, at the peak of his greatness, you can feel the disdain (or some related, relentless affect) which is necessary for the technique of his knees. They are not separable.

 

The article on 52 Blocks also draws elements of importance from posture and symbolic signaling, and also the specific rhythms of fighting, both things can be hidden or hard to learn aspects of Thailand's kaimuay Muay Thai. I was somewhat surprised by how much of the ethnographer's conclusion could map onto Western attempts to learn the kaimuay Muay Thai of Thailand:

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Here is the entire "White Men Don't Flow" article in video scroll. I was pretty surprised by the kaimuay Muay Thai relevance of the ethnographer's perspective, on a fighting art that may not be widely embraced as efficacious or even authentic, perhaps complicated by the public YouTube popularity of it. I put it here for you to decide for yourself. I also really enjoyed its incredible variety of influences, its meaning & lore and assorted veracities.

 

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Thick Participation

Memory in Our Body: Thick Participation and the Translation of Kinesthetic Experience
by Jaida Kim Samudra (The JSTOR Google sign-in allows 100 online articles read per month)

This essay which presents the concept of Thick Participation is a seminal one in the discussion of embodied knowledge. One of the early pages of the essay. Note, one of the aspects of contention is Bourdieu's insistence upon unconscious knowledge as the basis of the habitus. Those who study practiced arts, like combat sports, or dance, find it important to make room for practiced, but yet non-verbal knowledge. One can definitely see the value of those kinds of conscious-but-non-verbal awarenesses and practices, but in terms of deeper meanings, its the unconscious elements that are rooted beneath those practices that may carry the weight of what an art is:

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In its discussion of Silat it picks upon the role of confusion, the lack of verbal answers given, and the need to experience and explore the answer. Methodical, rational "counter" teaching in the West often elides this method of discovery:

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I wrote about this "not being given the answer" aspect of kaimuay learning in Thailand, discussing the benefits Sylvie experienced over many, many months, under a very difficult lock being done to her...until she eventually started inventing solves:

 

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On 11/13/2021 at 4:00 AM, Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu said:

Doxa and The Fighting Arts

It may seem a bit of a stretch to imagine that cosmologies can be unanchored, and anchored, through motor schema rigor, and exposure to training subculture habitus. But interestingly enough there is ethnological discussion in just this direction. "In Practice Without Theory: a neuroanthropological perspective on embodied learning" by Greg Downey, in the same anthology, Embodied knowledge theory is used to investigate the teaching of the Brazilian fighting art Capoeira. After the author describes the development of "kinasethetic style", through largely non-verbal instruction and more important mimetic accumulation, "forms of moving and gesture, and habits across all practical, linguistic, and cultural obstacles" (notably, this study seemed to be of transmission of the art not in the authenticity of the strucured habitus of Brazil, but in New York), the Capoeira player comes to acquire malicia, in a sense of the game, which is a vision or outlook upon the world, which flows from the social conditions under which Capoeira developed:

On malicia:

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I screen quote and comment more from the article here:

The author is very interested in the division between conscious acquisition and unconscious acquisition, because in the fighting arts so much of what is experienced in the intentional practice of the art and its techniques, and Bourdieu on the other hand is insistent that the structuring process of embodied inscription: habitus, doxa, hexis, occurs unconsciously. The reason for this is that Bourdieu is looking for all the hidden ways in which our cosmology, so to speak, is preserved and passed on, especially in terms of injustice. But, it is easy to appreciate that there is a gradation of conscious to unconscious inscription, actions taken which bring to bear structuring at the motor schema level, which come to embody beliefs, and reasons for being. If the author found elements of this from training Capoeira in New York city, far from the original habitus of Capoeira's development (and all the attendant habitus structuring), so much more would one imagine that these inscription occur richly in the native habitate of Capoeira, where the unconscious structuring can become much more thorough. This is why I include concepts of "authentic" Muay Thai training in Thailand. It's not that more commercial, more adventure-tourist models of practice are "less real", as much as they have been extracted further from so much of the unconscious structuring that gave birth and inform the art, a mode of liberation or change. A well-known American coach of Muay Thai joked about people in the West trying to make their Muay Thai training more and more like "real" Thai training, favoring a much more hybrid approach of tradition and western methodology "What do you want? Are you going to have dogs chasing you on your runs?" (paraphrased), referring to the somewhat well known high presence of street dogs on morning and afternoon dogs which will give chase, sometimes a bit dangerously, when the Thai boys run. The truth of the matter is, even something as trivial as random dog aggression (and discovering solutions to it, in a group) can be part of the field/habitus of Thailand's kaimuay Muay Thai. These group runs, running with the other fighters, in fact are structuring processes. Only one of a thousands that happen in a kaimuay. And, the coach is right. Which of the 1,000s of habitus experiences are you going to replicate, in a foreign gym? Not dogs on runs, but maybe wai-ing formally to your coach? As one moves from the conditions of the production of Muay Thai, it is abstracted, and with it the doxa and hexis is changed, because it is within a differing milieu and its habitus.

In a larger sense, returning to Sylvie's trans- project of liberty, by way of conscious and unconscious conditioning, involving not only the kaimuay, but also the habitus of fighting, something she threw herself into committedly, with over 260 fights, leaving the limiting structure of her own cultural doxa, reconditioning herself at the motor-schema level, what is the doxa she is taking on, in a hybrid sense, built into and over the doxa of her youth and early adulthood? It can only be called a layering of worlds perhaps, accomplished through the acquisition and performance of a fighting art, under great duress. A re-formulation of the Self, into a line of flight, as the doxa of a new world starts to show itself.

A general presentation of the doxa concept:

 

 

Oh I love that I have ABSOLUTELY NO IDEA WHAT YOU ARE TALKING ABOUT...................but I will learn 

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On the Pedagogy of Thai Padwork

The Fighting Scholars anthology cited above carries with it that demand that theory accommodate conscious experiences in practiced skill acquisition, because they speak to training milieu. Ideally, theory and description would take us all the way down, from the most conscious practices and overt skills, into the roots of an art, practice, sport and culture, the unconscious qualities of bodily disposition. In that view, one of the more rich, regular examples of skill acquisition is Thai style padwork. While in the West padwork often is the occasion for the training of combinations, in Thailand padwork is much more about discovery of positions and tempos, wordlessly directed through the padman as he frames, changes aspect, pressures, pivots and tempos. The best padmen actually mimetically sculpt a fighter along the lines of a style, pulling forth qualities that cannot be effectively described, or even mechanically directed for imitation. Instead, it becomes a symbiotic intersubjectivity which creates possibilities and subtitles, and...importantly, invites the fighter themselves to create spatio-temporal solutions to constantly posed puzzles and problems. This is the vital uniqueness of Thailand's padwork. Because padmen are often retired prolific stadia fighters themselves they are communicating their own bodily knowledge, their own inscriptions, gained not only through their ring fights, but also their own pedagogy experiences since early youth. They are not teaching mechanics so much as an undermusic. In the kaimuay they aren't even really teaching at all, consciously. Padwork traditionally was a way of simulating fighting energies, and as Kaensak told us, "charging the battery" before fights. It has evolved since the traditional kaimuay into a more guided experience because of the influence of Western students who are more in need of instruction, but with a good padman it still is not the transfer of mechanical instruction. It's a pulling of qualities of style and efficacy, especially in terms of a stylistic musicality. Padwork presents a specific case-study which stretches below the threshold of the conscious and the rational. This is where Bourdieu's concept of habitus fills in many of the unseen holes in what Thai padwork is communicating and creating.

Three Video Examples

I present three videos below, for example. The first is with the yodmuay legend of the sport Attachai. The reason this is a great example is that he's "teaching" his stylistics (fight preferences) to Sylvie who he has never trained with before. Because they do not know each other, in the example you can see through the dis-junction of unfamiliarity where he is leading. Padwork is most deeply unconscious fomulation when the padman and fighter know each other well. Then the under-patterns, which have become much more ingrained as pathways, and the fighter's own creative positional solutions have entered into an extensive dialogue.

The second video is an hour long discussion of Sylvie's padwork with Pi Nu from 2017. They know each other with great familiarity. She describes the various intersubjective tactics Pi Nu uses to draw out qualities and technicalities in her strikes and positions, ultimately a music of muay.

The third video is an extreme slow motion film of padwork with Pi Nu from 2019. Padwork is usually done in the context of the rest of the kaimuay, the fighting Thai boys, but in this case it was with the winding down gym. What one can feel in the film are all the ways that padwork between a trainer and a student/fighter is connected invisibly to all of the social space in the gym, and many of the unconscious or semi-conscious intersubjective play of looks, pauses and postures also become more apparent. These 3 videos are part of the vast ethnography that Sylvie has created, in documenting the Muay of Thailand. At bottom is a link to a thorough 1 hr discussion of the padwork of Chatchanoi, who she feels is the best padman in Thailand.

 

 

 

The Chatchanoi session for patrons sketches out in some detail the building of an initial vocabulary of one of the best padman in all of Thailand. It's great documentation of what padwork can be, as it seeks to build a style: watch it here

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