Mitochondrial Vertigo

April 23, 2010

Muay Thai: Martial Art of Spinozist Clarity

Spinoza and the Downward Elbow

The philosopher Spinoza – and those readers come from my past incarnation at Frames /sing know that I am a radical Spinozist thinker – challenged that he would write of the emotions as if they were the lines and planes of Euclid. The things most unclear, he would make crystal. I and my wife are recently returned from Thailand, a two month trip that almost exclusively involved her fulltime training and fighting in the Thai art Muay Thai (which means merely Thai boxing). After a few years of dedicated one on one training under a Thai instructor here in the states, it was time to see the art in its organic context, the country of its birth and most acute and aesthetically pure practice. To see,  learn and fight. I trained as well for the first month, but our raison d’être was my wife’s dedication the sport. And the training is grueling, in a beautiful way.

For those who don’t know, aside from the sub-culture influence of the Tony Jaa action film Ong Bak (2003) which featured the unsurpassed Muay Boranish “fightclub” scene below (note the issues of Nationalism and class, no translation is needed) …

Muay Thai is a martial art most recently brought to public’s awareness through the rise of MMA cage sports which have vied for the post-boxing entertainment dollar. It’s most basic movements help form the blueprint of the “standup” aspects of MMA fighting (along with Western boxing), although what comes through such a negotiation of techniques and rules really isn’t Muay Thai any longer. In the Western eye Muay Thai gained much of its reputation for being seen as especially brutal, as it employs not only kicks and punches but makes proficient use of elbow and knee strikes (whose dynamism can be seen exaggeratedly in the Jaa clip above). Muay Thai is seeping aesthetically into the Western consciousness in much the same way that so-called Kung Fu populated the American mind in the 70’s with near definitional power. Now when heros fight on film they use trademark Muay Thai blows as proof of their virility, even Sherlock Holmes delivers a fight-ending (?) prototypical Muay Thai front kick in Robert Downey jr.’s recent modernization of the cerebral cluefinder.

Nation, Class and Movement

Aside from these spectacular influences and imaginations, the Muay Thai of Thailand is quite different. It is the national sport and woven into the fabric of Thai notions of nationhood, masculinity and aesthetics, perhaps to even a greater degree than baseball is in America. Whole swathes of Thai society – and most fighters come from the poorer ethnic minority regions to the Northeast, Isan, just as much of the sex trade industry draws Isan women – are devoted to Muay Thai as a sport. Every Thai boy (and very, very rare girls) dream of becoming a Buakaw or a Sanchai or Yodsanklai (ironically, Buakaw who is possibly the most recognized Muay Thai fighter in the world earned his standing fighting in Japanese K-1 max tournaments which bar a great deal of what makes Muay Thai what it is – elbows and clinching). It is perhaps fair to say that unless you understand Muay Thai, you will fail to understand Thailand, and Muay Thai is only something I’m beginning to understand.

It’s an interesting martial art and sport, and this is the aspect that brought me to write. Firstly, it is designed for smaller framed people. Its emphasis on speed and directness of impact is difficult to properly carry out by heavy-bodied people. For this reason the well-muscled Western men who often gravitate towards fighting simply distort its forms and application – its essential, full-bodied whiplike action – often beyond recognition. It is not a big man’s art, and some of the best Muay Thai in thailand is fought by the innumerable 12 and 14 year olds in rural festivals throughout the countryside and towns. Secondly, it is a martial art whose logic was organized by warfare itself. It was assumed that in battle you would lose a weapon, would experience injury. So the thought goes, if you lose a spear the same motion of attack can be accomplished with a fist or an elbow. If you injure your lower leg, strike in the same manner with a knee. It is designed around the attrition of battle, and because it heritage is thinking in terms of battles there is great emphasis on ending the combat as soon as possible. There is an incredible economy of motion and directness in the under-structure of Muay Thai.

Part of this directness comes through in the training of Muay Thai. Instead of elaborate katas (pre-formed, repetitions of attack and defense) that have to be memorized as you pass through levels of “belts” and authority – the only belts in Muay Thai are the belts won in stadiums – the blows are elemental. Within a week of hard training you can achieve a modest efficacy that surely would make you dangerous to some significant degree. Though there are deep subtleties in techniques that can take decades to perfect, the basic movements can be taught very quickly and practiced with real world consequence. The art is extremely pragmatic, and grounded in this world. There is nothing etherial about it (unless you see it practiced by the highly skilled). It is a plebian art.

Another feature that is of interest is that the greatest difficulty Westerns have in learning Muay Thai (and much of what is taught in the United States in gyms may not qualify), is that in order to strike properly you have to relax to an incredible degree. The fight impulse in the Western masculine conception is a clenched brutality. For a Thai the threat of violence is met with relaxation. It is not an elevated spiritual principle, but rather more a psychological aesthetic of the person and body. When you watch Muay Thai matches they are most often characterized by the opponents standing within range of each other, calming trading and receiving blows, some of which are blocked, some not. Principal is to never look desperate to strike or react. Often after a blow the receiver just shrugs. Emphasized is the display of a nonchalance, but a nonchalance that is explosive. Fights are only 5 rounds, and the first round often isn’t even spent attacking. Opponents will mostly tap each other and rock in a sleepy motion with almost no intent to harm. Usually not until the 3rd round is action full-force. Counter to Western ideals, backing up is seldom penalized and is often seen as a sign of strength.

What occurred to me as my wife trained and fought there (and Western women are having an interesting impact on the traditional highly masculine sphere of Muay Thai boxing), was the ways that Muay Thai as both an art and a sport was something of a Spinozist art incarnate. The directness and simplicity of its powerful blows and defenses spoke of Spinoza’s aim to speak of the world of the affects like a geometer. The absolute economy of closely arced kicks were a Spinozist dream of motion. It’s teachable modes of training matched the common man democracy powers that Spinoza championed when he claimed that each person has as much right as the power he has to act. Non-reactive aesthetics of calm eruption coupled with a pragmatism that makes weapons out of the weaponless is ideal to Spinoza’s world of possibilities. It is this that always struck me when I was there. It is the actionability of a person.

April 17, 2010

Threat of Half-Coup: The Spectre of Thai Factionism

Filed under: Thailand — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 11:16 pm
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Thailand mulls a ‘half coup’ by Shawn W Crispin at Asia times is an interesting in depth article on the possibility that the Thai army is splitting along Red and Yellow lines. Much of it requires the piecing together of shards of evidence found in the half-light left in the clash of last week, making it speculative and projective. Were there military Red Shirt operatives carrying out deadly hits upon the Thai army? It seems that much of Thai politics works in this way, the floating sensation that behind soft words or grand claims, or festive gatherings, there is a brute force with great financial backing that could be quite bloody.

Al Jazeera English has a related report.

What is difficult is the way the subterfuge trades upon itself. The threat of it operates with greater persistance and effect than acts alone (a few rifles fired, a few grenades tossed), yet as the image of possible civil war wedges itself within the political imagination “the few” are able to exercise power through the reference to the spectre, and ever real forces may threaten to fill the gap within the imagination itself, filling the imaginary space with hard power.  Each side using the spectre for themselves. Politics as poker game.

As Red Shirts have entrenched themselves within the narrower confines of the commercial district, literally choking commerce with farmers, almost provoking the possibility of a more bloody confrontation, one is never sure what cards each hand is holding.

April 16, 2010

Standing for the King

Filed under: Thailand — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 4:48 pm
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There was an odd sensation – is that what it was, a sensation – when everyone in the theater began to stand before the film had started. There actually were very few of us waiting to see Burton’s cockamamie Alice which made it all the more odd and curious. A beautiful commercial/homage to the King of Thailand – who is the only King Thailand has ever known in more than sixty years of  “modern” times – dramatically played. It was more moving than anything the Republicans artfully produced from Reagan to Bush. You almost felt a soul pervade the room as the human characteristics of Thai esteem – images of gentleness, compassion, intellect, adventure – struck cords in your own person. What was most surprising was all the intellectual and emotional defense mechanisms against media manipulation that have helped organize me as an American subject, the kinds of disavowal that distance me automatically from powerful ideological effects whether they be the inundations of product advertisements or political spin-heads on tv, paid me little defense. The sense of the King, the sensation of the King of Thailand (a country I was coming to love), swept through me. One understood that “glue” of a King, as some theorists like to say “the body of a King”. It wasn’t an unpleasant experience, nor entirely a transportive one, but as the financial, military and affective teeth of two sides in the Thai conflict begin to be shown – and it may get bloody – there is something to learn from Kingship. We do decry these authoritarian, imaginary modes of identification, large scale projections of health into the air, atmosphere or photograph, modes by which we are “enslaved”. But these are also modes of congruence, excelerators of agreements whose power to hold the disperate should not be simple-mindedly dismissed. It seems that indeed they should be criticized, dismantled, laid bare, but as well, what they are doing must appreciated as well. It is I think a question of history and aesthetics, and more even of aesthetics. There are many Kings.

As a Spinozist I for some time thought that the war against imaginary relations was univocal and persistent, each and every imaginary relation as it was encountered in the world is better to be de-composed. This was I think a fundamental misunderstanding of the imaginary in Spinoza. The biggest realization is that Spinoza operates from a thorough-going skepticism and humility, a sense of the ironic absurd, one in which even mathematics is imaginary. Imaginary relations are real, embodied powerful things, doing real conatus-driven things in the world. There is no such thing as an inherently bad (or worse evil) imaginary relation. It took me a long time of reading Spinoza to realize this. I hope there is not going to be much theory on this blog, but it will I guess poke through. Most of the time I encounter those that want to go about destroying pernicious imaginary relations in the world I sense that we are dealing with one more very complex, not quite compassionate, highly affective, imaginary relation again. Battles of imagination.

That I encountered this as prelude to Burton’s own privatization of Alice is just one more bit of illuminating irony. Alice who ends as the self-empowered female CEO who starts the Opium wars. Is that what she has become?…hilarious, and digestive.

April 15, 2010

The Thai Clash Between Red Shirts and Government

Filed under: Thailand — Kevin von Duuglas-Ittu @ 12:31 am
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Here I repost the three videos that ended my last blog. I was particularly moved by the surreal quality of silence, lunar lighting and eruption. As some know I just returned from Thailand, perhaps 10 days before these clashes between demonstrators and government. While in the outskirts of Bangkok we saw the terrific parades of Red Shirts, combining a festive joy with something a bit ominous. Thailand seems like that, a place where anything can happen. It could be nothing, or it could be something.

One thing I learned from being there was that the political situation is far too complex to be summarily taken under a few principles. The West, maybe the academic West, at times would like to embrace the Red Shirts as some kind of REAL democracy against bureaucratic urban cronyism, military shadow rule, or antiquated Royalism, yet billionaire Thaksin the Red Shirt de facto leader was corrupt beyond expectation. There are no easy lines here, no place on which to get firm ideological footing.

The Thai situation seems to speak at large about the resistance of politics (and revolutions of many kinds) to abstract categorization. Much as Spinoza claimed that mathematics itself was Imaginary, it is only by wiping away real and powerful differences, the long, deep heritage of affects and memory, and sweeping groups into “classes”, that we are able to make a political calculation – and inhuman calculation, which then itself tries to seize ethical authority for itself, the moral choice.

What the film shows is the ambiguity of a gunshot. The Red Shirts – largely farmers from the country-side – had come to protest and demonstrate, clogging the city of Bangkok until their economic clot brought real political change, a change in government. They are dancing in the street, having been there for weeks, poised amid soldiers who also are from the Northeast, Issan, much like themselves. There is only stillness and dancing. It is both tense and peaceful. A shot rings out, an affect traveling across all the bodies. Each side claims it was the other, the insistence of secretly clothed parties carrying out armed attack. Who is moving whom?

The thing that touches you is the humanity that can be lost when we appeal to Ideas to save the humanity that is lost when we appeal to Ideas.

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