InYo: Journal of Alternative Perspectives Nov 2007

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A Critical Assessment of Deborah Klens-Bigman’s Performance Theory of Martial Arts

Copyright © LeRon James Harrison 2007. All rights reserved.

At one time, the words “theory” and “theorem” were strictly confined to the domain of jargon. Only scientists talking about theories of relativity and evolution, mathematicians speaking on theorems of algebra and calculus, and eccentrics proposing conspiracy theories consistently would use these two terms on a frequent basis. But now the term theory has entered into common parlance and is used in any number of disciplines. To understand why, one need only look at an example of this phenomenon. David Sklansky opens his book The Theory of Poker with the following statement.

The beauty of poker is that on the surface it is a game of utter simplicity, yet beneath the surface it is profound, rich, and full of subtlety. Because its basic rules are so simple anyone can learn poker in a few minutes and novice players may even think they’re pretty good after a few hours. From the expert’s point of view, the veneer of simplicity that deludes so many players into thinking they’re good is the profitable side of the game’s beauty. It doesn’t take long for pool players or golfers to realize they’re outclassed and to demand that a match be handicapped, but losers in poker return to the table over and over again, donating their money and blaming their losses on bad luck, not bad play.1

Sklansky’s theory of poker comes out of the recognition that poker is far more complex than the rules may lead one to believe. Sklansky, in his book, is attempting to describe poker in all its complexity. From Sklansky we can see that the popularization of the term “theory” reflects a growing recognition by people in their respective fields of the complexities in their fields and an attempt to address them.

Scholarship on martial arts, in light of this phenomenon, is somewhat behind the curve. Largely it has focused on exploring kinesiological and pedagogical issues, leaving a void when it comes to formulating theory. That changed however when Deborah Klens-Bigman put out her article “Towards a Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art.” As the title implies, the article is an attempt to start thinking about martial arts in a way akin to Sklansky’s thinking on poker. But as a starting point for a theory of martial arts, it is rather problematic as Klens-Bigman fails to move beyond a simplistic view of martial arts. How and why she is unable to create a more complex view and theory of the martial arts is what I shall explore in this essay. The theory Klens-Bigman asserts has an underlying assumption that she is the first to discuss the relationships among the concepts of performance, art, acting, and martial arts. While that may be true, she is not the first to discuss these terms individually or in tandem. When her theory is read against other texts on these four terms, a number of questions and challenges to her theory emerge. The fact that she never considered these nor provides any possible response to them constitutes the problems with her theory and the reason she is unable to advance a more complex theory of martial arts.

At the opening of the piece, Klens-Bigman gives the following definition of the term performance. “[P]erformance actually has more to do with how we live our everyday lives. Performance exists where any action is done in front of an audience, even an audience of one, that is, one’s self.”2 The central assertion of this definition is that all martial arts are a performance art as they are done in front of an audience. However, there is another formulation of the martial art/performance art relation. In his book On the Warrior’s Path, Danielle Bolelli develops a typology of martial arts in order “to provide a tool to help martial artists wishing to better see how a certain style relates to all others.”3 His typology classifies martial arts into five categories: Performance Art, Internal Art, Weapon Art, Self-Defense Art, and Combat Sport. He gives the following definition for the term “performance art”: “Performance Arts are those martial styles that focus the majority of their attention on the aesthetic appeal of the art.”4 He goes on to explain that only wushu and capoeira fit his definition of performance arts; the remainder of martial arts place only “some emphasis on aesthetic performance.”5 In light of Bolelli’s definition of “performance art” and typology of martial arts, we are forced to raise questions about Klens-Bigman’s assertions. Is the term “performance art” really applicable to every martial art? If so, how valid is it to create a theory of martial arts around her conception of performance art? Klens-Bigman does not give any information that could provide an answer to these questions. Her non-responsiveness in the face of these questions is the first indication that performance art theory does not address martial arts in a complex way.

Another sign of the non-complexity of Klens-Bigman’s theory is that the concept of performance art is not always as positive a term as she asserts. In his discussion of performance arts Bolelli comments, “[i]nstead of being fighting styles in the purest sense of the word, Performance Arts combine gymnastics and martial arts movements, resulting in what is better termed as a ‘martial dance.’”6 Bolelli’s statement is a very frequently heard criticism of wushu. The late preying mantis master Brandon Lai made a similar critique of wushu in an interview in Inside Kungfu Magazine. “To me, an art like wushu is not traditional. To be traditional you must be effective; wushu has no power in their punches or their kicks. I don’t call this a martial art. I don’t denounce it, but they will have to change to be considered a martial art.”7 These comments illustrate the next challenge to the performance art theory. The label of performance art in the mind of Bolelli, Lai, and other martial artists is antithetical to the concept of martial arts. They assert that martial arts are not fundamentally about performance. So this raises another question that Klens-Bigman gives no indication how she would answer: How do you turn the concept of performance art into a positive term and still address the critiques given by Bolelli et al ? It is after her definition of performance that she makes her assertion about why martial arts are a performance art. This is the point when the questions about the theory cease and the challenges and contradictions in the theory become apparent.

Klens-Bigman’s theory is not always at odds with other writings. The French literary theorist Gérard Genette has this to say about “performance art”: “A first feature distinguishing work[s] of performance… is that [works of performance] are frequently produced collectively; this often mobilizes a group of a certain size… to work together so closely that it sometimes becomes impossible to sort out each individual’s contributions to the whole.”8 Klens-Bigman says something similar to Genette in her discussion of martial arts. “The whole class may perform kata together, during which time the emphasis is less on technique than on creating wa (harmony) among group members…. In this case the emphasis is less on ‘self’ expression than group expression.”9 But the synergy between Genette and Klens-Bigman ends there. Genette’s concept of art is far different than Klens-Bigman. He explains the title of his book The Work of Art in the following way: “The work of art, then, refers to the artwork for the nonce; later it will also come to designate more ambitiously the work done by this work, which is of course the work performed by art itself.” In the footnote to this statement, G.M. Goshgarian, the translator of the book, explains “l’œuvre de l’art, the French title of this book, suggest something like ‘the work art does’; a ‘work of art’ in the ordinary sense is une œuvre d’art.”10 Genette’s definition of art emerges from the recognition that the phrase œuvre d’art has not one but two connotations. The word œuvre literally means work; thus the phrase has the idiomatic meaning frequently used to refer to paintings on walls, statues in museums, etc. But there is also the literal meaning of the phrase which points to “the work art does.” Both have art as a common reference point but refer to two different concepts. To make the distinction between the two Genette labels the literal meaning l’œuvre de l’art and leaves the idiomatic notion to œuvre d’art. But in order to discuss art, Genette must examine both concepts as the two are interconnected with art. This is what drives Genette in his exploration of art.

There is a similar recognition occurring in scholarship on sports. In his book Players All, Robert Rinehart acknowledges

[c]ertainly sports has always, to some extent, been performance-based. But a real difference in contemporary sport is the performer’s awareness of their performance; thus we see athletes parodying their audience, turning the focus back on the audience…. Likewise, the audience become[s] performers as well as spectatorial presence.11

Rinehart realizes that the relationship between athletes/performers and audience is not fixed; it can be and often is in flux. Upon realizing this he pushes for “a sociology that deals with people, not objects; complex, irreducible relationships, not simplistic, reductionist, independent components; a sociology that examines the conjectures of personal and public realms.”12 But we do not find statements like these anywhere in Klens-Bigman’s theory. Largely, her theory is centered on art “as a means of self-expression” and self-expression as “always exist[ing] on some level.”13 But the lack of recognition of the fluid, interconnected nature of relationships on Klens-Bigman’s part is driven by her use of drama and acting theory.

At the beginning of the article, Klens-Bigman gives the first discussion of martial arts in terms of acting and theater.

[Richard Schechner’s] analysis of the workshop as a site for developing creative work can be used to examine dojo practice. Schechner defines a workshop as a small gathering of people formed to a common purpose in a specially designated space. The group establishes an environment in which activities set off from normal life can take place in an atmosphere of relative safety. As a result of this protected environment, participants assume roles that are, to a variable extent, separate from the participants’ everyday lives. Schechner the professor becomes Schechner the director. Participants from numerous walks of life become performers, and later adopt the personae of the theatrical production in development.14

This quote reveals why Klens-Bigman does not see the fluid, complex relationships that Genette and Rinehart do. To her, the space that martial arts practice takes place in is firmly removed from the normal word. Because of that the roles in that space are solidly fixed and not in flux like Genette and Rinehart assert. She reiterates this later in the piece. “Within the framework of dojo practice, everyone has a role to play, from sensei to beginning student. Students are respectful, and in general, do not question what they are being taught. The rarefied atmosphere allows students to take risks…. Everyone accepts the role-playing or they do not study in the dojo.”15 Once she establishes the dojo as removed from the normal world and possessing fixed roles for all participants, she turns to explaining how these roles work by using the acting theory of Konstantin Stanislavsky.

Stanislavsky believed that a role’s physical actions should reflect a sense of truth and the actor’s faith in them in the performance of his or her role. For example, an actor in a romantic role constructs his character’s actions in such a way that he feels he is really in love with his leading lady onstage. Rendering his part in such a way that he “believes” it, the idea is that the audience will believe likewise. Is the iaidoka’s technique real enough that if the scenario from the kata were to take place, he feels he would win the contest? Can he “see the enemy”? Performing kata using a scenario to impact truth to action is a form of self-expression…16

With this, Klens-Bigman fully commits herself to seeing martial arts as a performance by turning martial artists into actors and seeing the movements in kata and practice as the fulfillment of a role. However, Rinehart, who devotes a chapter of his book to debunking this very train of thought in sports, would strongly disagree. He opens the second chapter of his book with this statement:

[S]ports as a dramatic narrative [is] a linear, traditional, restrictive, modernist, and ultimately hierarchical metaphor. Constructors of sport as drama presume that a good story will create a larger audience…. In contrast to this approach, most athletes I have known have been too involved in the task at hand, in the pragmatics to see any larger thread of storyline…. The experience is in many cases cogent, yet not linear and dramatic.17

Rinehart here shows a number of things Klens-Bigman ignores when she adopts acting and drama theory. Participation and experience are forgotten in favor of self-expression, performance, and fulfillment of set roles. Along with this, the thoughts of the martial artist/performer are de-emphasized while the reception from the audience is privileged. But the problems do not stop there. As Rinehart explains later, “sports contests are not inherently dramaturgical (indeed, it is questionable whether ‘everyday life’ is inherently dramaturgical, or whether it is, much like the self, “created and presented in the course of interactions through discursive acts). [The] linear narrativity is imposed and instilled into them by sport discourse.”18 Here he asserts that her reading of martial arts in terms of acting theory and drama is in fact nowhere to be found in martial arts. This is, in reality, something that Klens-Bigman projects onto martial arts. Some might believe that there is no harm in Klens-Bigman’s act of projection; Rinehart, however, does not. He goes on to state the consequences of adopting the sports-as-drama model.

While sports as drama as a ‘master narrative’ is rampant in popular, personal, and scholarly discourse, reliance upon the sport-as-drama metaphor limits research to narrative formations, ostracizes the study of non-narrative formations, (re)creates unexamined assumptions of linearity and causality in sports, and perpetuates hierarchy [and] canonization…19

If we were, according to Rinehart, to follow Klens-Bigman’s drama/acting theory we limit our view of all martial arts to see everything in terms of that metaphor. Klens-Bigman herself does this very thing at the end of her piece.

There are many other example of martial arts as performance that I have not addressed here. Tournaments present a very large and complex avenue of performance research. Though I have primarily used Japanese martial arts as examples, lion dancing and demonstration by gongfu groups in New York’s Chinatown and Flushing neighborhoods during Chinese New Year and other special occasion are also subjects for continuing study.20

To Klens-Bigman, martial arts as dramatic performance is present not just in Japanese martial arts but also in Chinese martial arts and via tournaments present in Korean, Filipino, and other martial traditions. She is “(re)creating” this onto other martial arts, something Rinehart warns will happen. As far as ostracizing is concerned, the notion of performance and the very things she examines, as I said earlier, ignores the performer and his/her thoughts because they may not share the same view. The hierarchy aspect is present in her discussion of ranking, which also has the potential of being “(re)created” in other martial arts and being the source for ostracizing arts that do not possess a hierarchy. Everything Rinehart discusses is inherent in Klens-Bigman’s theory as she subscribes to the martial art-as-drama metaphor.

The most comprehensive critique of Klens-Bigman’s theory, however, is found in the late Pierre Bourdieu’s book The Logic of Practice. In it he makes the following statement.

Objectivism constitutes the social world as a spectacle offered to an observer who takes up a ‘point of view’ on the action and who, putting into the object the principles of his relation to the object, proceeds as if it were intended solely for knowledge and as if all the interactions within it were purely symbolic exchanges. This viewpoint is the one taken from high positions in the social structures, from which the social world is seen as representation (as the word is used in idealist philosophy, but also as in painting) or a performance (in the theatrical or musical sense), and practices are seen as no more than the acting-out of roles, the playing of scores or the implementation of plans.21

As Bourdieu points out earlier in the book, objectivism “ sets out to establish objective regularities (structures, laws, systems of relationships, etc.) independent of individual consciousnesses and wills.”22 Klens-Bigmans’s theory, as I have said earlier, sets out to see the dojo or practice area as being removed from the normal world and governed by a set of fixed relationships. In doing so, she turns martial arts into the very things Bourdieu states. It becomes a spectacle, a representation, and a performance; this is all best exemplified in her discussions of enbukai. “Enbukai are the most consciously performative events of dojo-based martial arts, involving martial artist as performers, a public audience, theatrical spaces, lighting, costumes, and staging.”23 To Klens-Bigman this exemplifies everything that is right with her theory; to Bourdieu, these same things exemplifies everything that is wrong with it. The position that she adopts is “the position of the ‘objective’ observer who, seeking to interpret practices, tends to bring to the object the principles of his [or her] relation to the object.”24 The position of the “objective observer” is the very one Bourdieu describes in the first citation, the viewpoint high in the social structures, and this is very position that Klens-Bigman occupies and speaks from as she gives her theory.

Bourdieu later speaks of “a feel for the game,” which has the same interconnected nature as Genette’s notion of art and Rinehart’s discussion of performer and audience in sports.

[T]he “feel for the game” is what give the game a subjective sense—a meaning and a rasion d’être, but also a direction, an orientation, an impending outcome for those who take part and therefore acknowledge what is at stake (this is illusio in the sense of investment in the game…). And it also gives the game an objective sense, because the sense of the probable outcome that is given by practical mastery of the specific regularities…25

I believe this concept is applicable to martial arts, so we can change Bourdieu’s concept to a “feel for the art.” But the fact remains that this concept is nowhere to be found in Klens-Bigman’s theory. The reason why is that in taking the objective view of martial arts and deeming them performance, she has completely forgotten about the subjective aspects—the sense of purpose, the investment of time and effort, and the goal(s) driving the martial artist. Once she removes the subjective elements of martial arts, she removes the possibility of the “feel for the art” ever existing. Along with this, she has completely removed the raison d’être (the reason for being) behind martial arts from the picture. If there is no reason to practice, no goals to achieve, and no investment towards improvement, then there can be no rationale for staging any performance be it inside or outside the dojo. The theory of martial arts as performance, therefore, is a self-defeating argument at its core. Klens-Bigman’s theory is problematic not only as it has overlooked all that Genette, Rinehart, and Bourdieu point out but, as it is a self-defeating theory, it does not further our knowledge and understanding of the martial arts.

While Klens-Bigman’s theory is not a good starting point for a general theory of martial arts, reading it against Genette, Rinehart, and Bourdieu reveals three principles that are necessary in creating a theory of martial arts.
  1. Consider the context of the terminology being used. There is nothing inherently wrong with discussing martial arts in terms of art or performance as Klens-Bigman attempts to do. The problems arise when she ignores prior discussions of the same terms. No term is without a context and that context has to be considered if we want to create a theory that applies to martial arts.

  2. Draw on examples from various martial traditions, not just a familiar one. If the goal of creating a theory of martial arts is to describe all martial arts, their similarities and differences, we can only do that through considering examples drawn from various martial styles. Looking at Sklansky’s theory of poker, Sklansky does not limit himself to just using examples from Texas Hold’em (which due to the so-called “poker boom” has become the most popular version of poker) to illustrate his theory. He draws examples from seven-card stud and draw poker as well as games he makes up to show how his theory works. Likewise a theory of martial arts should draw on examples from Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and other martial traditions.

  3. Discuss martial arts in a complex manner. As Genette, Rinehart, and Bourdieu illustrate, the relationships and actions involved in martial arts are not capable of being confined to one simple definition. Even the act of writing scholarship on martial arts often involves objective and subjective trends as Bourdieu discusses in The Logic of Practice. It has the objective nature of trying to show the rules and structures involved, but at the same time there is a subjective element of a reason or direction behind the scholarship. This is true even of Klens-Bigman’s theory. Her objective work of laying out the structure of martial arts as a performance art is driven by a subjective goal: “Donohue has only minimally address an element of motivation for martial art study brought in this chapter: the “art” aspect of martial arts….”26 If this is true of the act of writing about martial arts, it is all the more true of martial arts themselves.

These three objective rules are driven by the subjective goal of avoiding the mistake Klens-Bigman commits, a mistake that can be summed up using a heuristic from Stephen Levinson: “What is simply defined is stereotypically exemplified.”27 We encounter this heuristic every time a person refers to martial arts in general as karate. The goal of theory is to undo that kind of thought, to remove, as Sklansky says, “the veneer of simplicity that deludes so many.” But theory can only do so when it is not complicit in making that very veneer. What I have presented by examining Klens-Bigman’s theory and formulating the rules laid out above is a new course for theorizing about martial arts to proceed down. It involves reflecting on the complexities within the martial arts and trying to present those complexities as honestly as possible. This course is one that I believe will further our knowledge and understanding of the martial arts as they are practiced today.

1 David Sklansky, The Theory of Poker (Las Vegas: Two Plus Two Publishing, 2004), 1.

2 Deborah Klens-Bigman, “Towards A Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art.” In David E, Jones, ed. Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts (Westport: Praeger, 2002),1.

3 Daniele Bolelli, On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology. (Berkeley: Frog, Ltd, 2003), 118.

4 Ibid, 119.

5 Ibid, 120.

6 Ibid, 119.

7 Michael J. Gonzalez, “Traditionalism: Will It Survive in America?” Inside Kung Fu Magazine 24, no. 1 (January1997): 80.

8 Gérard Genette, The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence, trans G. M. Goshgarian (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994), 56.

9 Klens-Bigman, 4.

10 Genette, 2.

11 Robert Rinehart, Players All: Performances in Contemporary Sport (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998), 8.

12 Ibid, 9.

13 Klens-Bigman, 1-2.

14 Ibid, 2.

15 Ibid, 3.

16 Ibid, 4.

17 Rinehart, 21.

18 Ibid, 23.

19 Ibid, 24-25.

20 Klens-Bigman, 10.

21 Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1990), 52. Emphatics are my own.

22 Ibid, 26.

23 Klens-Bigman, 6.

24 Bourdieu, 27.

25 Ibid, 66.

26 Klens-Bigman, 1.

27 Stephen Levinson, Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000), 32.


Bolelli, Daniele. On the Warrior’s Path: Philosophy, Fighting, and Martial Arts Mythology. Berkeley: Frog, Ltd, 2003.

Bourdieu, Pierre. The Logic of Practice. Translated by Richard Nice. Stanford: Stanford University Press. 1990.

Genette, Gérard. The Work of Art: Immanence and Transcendence. Translated by G. M. Goshgarian. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1997.

Gonzalez, Michael J. “Traditionalism: Will It Survive in America?,” Inside Kung Fu Magzine 24, no. 1 (January 1997): 76-82.

Klens-Bigman, Deborah. “Towards A Theory of Martial Arts as Performance Art.” In Combat, Ritual, and Performance: Anthropology of the Martial Arts, edited by David E. Jones (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002): 1-10.

Levinson, Stephen C. Presumptive Meanings: The Theory of Generalized Conversational Implicature. Cambridge: MIT Press, 2000.

Rinehart, Robert E. Players All: Performances in Contemporary Sport. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

Sklansky, David. The Theory of Poker. 4th ed. Las Vegas: Two Plus Two Publishing, 2004.

LeRon Harrison is a doctoral candidate at the University of California, Irvine in East Asian Languages and Literature, specializing in Japanese court poetry and its appropriation .of Chinese poetics. He has a  bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley in Japanese Language and Literature and a master’s degree from Indiana University in Japanese Literature. He has practiced wushu for ten years and taiji for four. He is currently an assistant coach at the Taichi Wushu Resource in Los Angeles, having won medals in both disciplines at competitions in and around Southern California, and is now judging events in the Southern California area.

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