Tuesday, February 20, 2007

On Barthes

First off, I had a number of silly names for this post, and have decided to go with something plain. You're all welcome.

Barthes finally gets at something I feel that the readings have been hinting at since the beginning: as an archetypal, symbolic struggle, pro wrestling owes more to religion than sport or theater. Wrestlers "remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible."

The idea of gods as semiotic devices who "open Nature" and reveal deeper truths seems to me to be an essentially Greek idea--not in the sense of what the classical Greeks actually believed, which is a different issue altogether, but in the way Christian/Western thought worked Olympus into its own worldview (e.g. John Milton, and to a lesser extent Greek gods in pop culture, from Xena to DC's universe). However, human bodies, at the end of the day, are terrible symbols. Reality itself tends to be rather too contradictory to serve as a good metaphor for anything. if you're going to enact a symbolic battle that unveils an intelligible justice, you'd be better off with Batman and The Joker, pencilled, inked, and colored on a piece of paper, than two non-fictional human beings with actual bodies.

What wrestling offers that is unique, in my opinion, is a spectacle that tackles this contradiction head-on, and creates a world that is simultaneously real and fictional. Batman and The Joker fight it out on a comic page, Neo and Smith fight it out on a movie screen, Ryu and Akuma fight it out on a videogame screen. But when a face and a heel go at it, they're embodied. They're made of meat, like us, like actors but not like the characters they play. There's no wire-work, and there's only one take. Wrestling takes a symbolic (word) exercise and incarnates it, which is, well, pretty much the definition of the supernatural in Western culture.


Sam Ford said...

I love the way Barthes articulates the argument, and it's no surprise that this piece acts as the basis of most humanities-side research on pro wrestling that follows. Here's a fun drinking game. Go through the readings and see how many other academics, myself included, reference the Barthes piece on a regular basis.

But it really is part of the key to what makes wrestling compelling, and you can see it play out in the way wrestling promotes itself. The wrestlers are "superstars." The events are always epic struggles. Look at the wording of Wrestlemania advertisements, about the iconic moments that will go down in history, the larger than life competitors in the ring, etc., etc.

We laugh at Gerald Morton in saying that we are a culture without a mythology, because it's a typical academic overanalysis, but of course he's right in a way. These epic struggles, bodies who seem to do the impossible, and the whole question of real/fake have to do with the fact that these are indeed real human bodies, larger-than-life characters, etc. It explains why wrestling can draw on child and adult alike, why it is linked to comic book and video game culture, etc., and it explains the struggle between supernatural and "realism" in wrestling's presentation.

Rob said...

I find this idea of taking the "supernatural" or "god-like" and trying to put them into a real, physical form made of flesh and bone interesting.

However, this makes me wonder about the more violent matches in which the wrestlers are getting injured, such as the chain match we watched between Valentine and Piper. In that match (and in matches with blood in general) the wrestlers are clearly brought down from their status as gods, and shown to be more like real humans who bleed, and can be permanently injured.

Perhaps part of what makes those sorts of matches more difficult to watch is that you are suddenly watching "mere humans" rather than "supernatural gods"?

Either way, it seems to me that there is a definite contradiction between the idea of the wrestlers as supernatural gods, and matches which show blood or injury. I suppose that is why those sorts of matches are probably as uncommon as they are, though, it makes me wonder what sort of purpose they might serve within the context of this theory.

Sam Ford said...

Well, the most important takeaways people have had on Barthes is that wrestling is "a spectacle of excess" and also that wrestling, through its excessive visuality, makes the deepest human emotions immediately intelligible. What I think is not quite true is his idea that wrestling is about the visuality of that very moment, and not at all about what comes before or after. That's because Barthes was looking at a particular performance and bringing theory to it.

Ole Anderson, Lou Thesz, and Larry Matysik are talking about the psychology of booking both matches and feuds, and they would argue the art of wrestling is telling a story in the match that has a logical progression, such as someone getting injured early and then having that injured body part worked over throughout the match until it wears down (this was the Ole Anderson M.O.), and in a larger sense the way you build a feud up over time. In this way, wrestling is much more about the seriality than the immediately intelligible moment.