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.

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