Tear Up — “Do You Even Know How to Throw a Punch?”

An excellent example of subjectivation and re-subjectivation in combat sports is the story of two fighters that forms the center stage of Johnny (Bang) Reilly’s documentary Tear Up. The original title of the film was Turnover; to signify the transition from one sport to another. A narrative that guides us through the journey of Muay Thai fighters changing their fighting style, stepping out of familiar territory and into the world of boxing. In parallel, we will read through Michel Foucault’s The Hermeneutics of the Subject and focus on lecture seven. Specifically: “The question of the Other: three types of mastership in Plato’s dialogues.” The fragment describes three particular technologies of self-formation that strongly resonate with the governmentalities of fighting sports.

The film opens with an interview. A conventional boxer provides some additional insight into the world of combat sports, confirming once again our previous observations: “you see, when you get to the top, there has to be some people getting slaughtered; as fighters will come along… they think they can do better. But they can’t, they are only limited” (Reilly, 2017). Implicit in the statement, is once again the liberal ideology of individual choice, responsibility and a clear obliviousness to the structural societal forms of constraint and coercion (or productive incitement) that more often than not, lead the subject towards making oneself into a fighting body. Not to mention questions concerning the role of class and privilege, their decisive role in separating the ones who are “limited” from those who are at the top. “you can be brave for those… twenty minutes, and then you go back to your house and you are by yourself… there’s nothing happening… your life is just injuries, and you’re damaged… and you’re scarred for life” (Reilly, 2017).

Another clear instance of “the gentle way in punishment”, the integration of play into work and battle is a description of the productive subjectivation of fighters offered by one of the coaches from Tear Up: “at the beginning of training we do a lot of touch-sparring, not hard, and when they like the game, then you go hard. And then they don’t mind if you hit them hard from time to time, and eventually they grow into the system, it’s just a system. But you don’t start too hard, you will break them” (Reilly, 2017). It is important that the fighter is well-trained, but not in the sense of severity or strictness, quite the opposite. The combative needs to enjoy the game. Like a well-bred house pet, one need not raise one’s voice or hit the animal with a stick in order train it well, negative reinforcement is brought to a minimum in combat sports — once again, we are not dealing here with a drilling of a soldier, but with the formation of a desiring subject of violence.

In The Hermeneutics of the Subject Foucault distinguishes three distinct techniques of the self, the purpose of which was to train young men to establish an exclusive relationship with themselves. A relationship of generalized mastery, which was not directed at this or that particular form of expertise and not even that of governance. These were elite groups with a particular privilege and status. They sought to achieve a particular form of freedom through a series of practices of self-care. The specific set of techniques in question concern the relationship of the self to the Other, that is, the role of the other person in helping, guiding or otherwise recalibrating one’s self-directedness.

It is obvious, that combat sports for the most part, and unlike the kind of training we encounter in this part of Foucault’s lectures, does concern itself with assimilating a distinct form of mastery with a very narrow focus and a goal — dominating the opponent. Foucault makes an important distinction between domination and power. One could interpret mastery or self-care “proper” as an indefinite accumulation of power, which may or may not manifest in domination. It remains as a pure capacity. In boxing, it is indispensable that power metamorphoses into a violent act of subjugation. What both games have in common is the accumulation of potentialities. These remain permanent and indefinite with the ancient practices of the self, whereas they are constantly depleted, so to speak, in combat sports. Unlike the Greek aristocrat, who seeks to care for himself permanently so as to establish a way of life, a fighting body is a mere standing reserve of violent deployments. Eventually, the body is “squeezed dry” and it shows “diminishing marginal returns on violence”. The fighter is too old to fight. Focusing on those elements that fighting techniques and ancient practices of the self have in common, let us compare and note how the three technologies of power bear a resemblance to one another as they are practiced in both ancient Greece and the world of 21st century American elite boxing.

“First, mastership through example. The other is a model of behavior that is passed on and offered to the younger person and which is indispensable for his training. The example may be passed on by tradition: there are the heroes and great men whom one comes to know through narratives and epics etcetera. Mastership through example is also provided by the presence of great prestigious souls, of the glorious old men of the city.” (Foucault 2005, 128). A very similar culture of idolatry is found in boxing, especially today. From posters of Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson hanging on the walls in the rooms of teenagers and college students around the world, to world-champions visiting various gyms to perform seminars, to direct and inherited family traditions of passing on the boxing career to the next of kin. One need only look at the lives of Chris Eubank and Chris Eubank Junior, or the Mayweather family to see how powerful the role of the Other can be in the training of young combatants as the role is assimilated directly by the family. One can imagine, it must have a very powerful effect on the mind of the “soon-to-be” fighting body, when the hero or the great man of the epic tale is quite literally his own father. Interestingly, the father may or may not turn out to be the coach. This brings us to the second technique of self-mastery.

“A second type of mastership is the mastership of competence, that is to say, quite simply, of the person who passes on knowledge, principles, abilities, know-how and so on, to the younger person” (Foucault 2005, 128). To return to the legendary families of Eubanks and the Mayweathers, we can compare and contrast the two in terms of apprenticeship and the role of the Other as father. Where Floyd Mayweather Sr. did train his son directly as a coach, he turned out be a bad mentor and an incompetent manager/promoter (leaving the personal family drama aside) to the point where Mayweather Jr. fired him. It seems to be quite the opposite with the Eubank family, where Chris Eubank Jr. had a separate coach for training. His parents were concerned solely with institutional side of things.

The third type of relationship with the Other had to do with the more familiar type of mediation and apprenticeship. The Socratic method of elenchus. “what takes place in the case of Socratic mastership — the fact that he does not know and, at the same time, that he knows more than he thinks he does” (Foucault 2015, 128). This line of interrogation is very familiar even to the most superficial readers of philosophy. It will be our claim, that in boxing and throughout masculine culture today, especially typical “like father, like son” moments, Platonic dialogues form a notable aspect of the formation of fighters. One could loosely refer to this practice as the ritual — “Do you even know how to throw a punch?”. A banal conversation that is bound to take place in most families. Simultaneously, a moment of initiation as well as on-going subjectivation.

The ritual operates in a way that is quite similar to the Socratic method, except (or perhaps more so, in the sense) that it operates at the bodily level, at the level of self-care, rather than the more familiar Cartesian variation of the gnothi seauton; the “know thyself”. The pugilistic form of self-knowledge could be a very helpful catalyst in demonstrating the Foucaultian relationship between epimeleia heautou and the gnothi seauton. Put simply: The fact that the first had been neglected for the latter. It is precisely through the corporeality and the particularly embodied nature of self-care, that boxing can aid in the re-adjustment of the historico-philosophical focal point to accentuate the Foucaultian Renaissance of the epimeleia against the seauton.

What is noteworthy about the ritual is that it follows the now familiar neoliberal ideology of natural propensities and instinct. The father approaches the son, who is already subjectivized as “a boy”, “a man”, “a hunter” or some other male archetype who is supposed to be “inherently dominating” in virtue of his given, universalized biology. The father then asks the son a Socratic question, concerning violence. In a very clear sense, the boy is already given to the father as something that does not require to be trained as a violent subject per se, but as a subject that needs to acquire a technique. I.e. the boy does not know that he does not know, what it really means to punch someone. But certainly, it is in his nature to think he knows, because it is part of his “natural” desire. The truth is, of course, that his “preparedness for violence” is entirely cultural, he is already constituted as a subject that desires to be trained. His desire for violence is already a result of a technique. It is therefore the Socratic-Platonic method of questioning par excellence where the boy does not know that he knows how to throw a punch. The problem is, of course, that his prior, hidden or unconscious knowledge is neither natural nor an expression of innate Ideas, but the effect of a particular, historical and material deployment of a technology.