Thursday, March 8, 2007

Actors on the Canvas Stage

At the risk of angering Mr. Shea, I'm going to write a response to Gerald Craven and Richard Moseley's piece on the dramatic conventions of professional wrestling. This piece establishes in writing the thrust of an argument that we've discussed in one way or another in this class several times, that fans may watch wrestling performances more like a drama than one would a legitimate sports competition. Think about the Wrestling Observer, for instance, where there are regular discussions of issues like match ratings, looking at performance rather than wins and losses, etc.

Craven and Moseley trace the phrase "suspension of disbelief" back to its root, with the writing of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, describing it as that situation when a spectator "accepts momentarily as real that which is known to be unrealistic" (327). They describe a spectrum we have seen several times from the fan who accepts as real to those who follow wrestling as camp entertainment. Of course, one could still say both those extremes exist, but I would argue that most fans exist somewhere between these two, enjoying wrestling as much more than camp while also not being "duped" by the wrestling show, either.

They bring up how the "rules" of the wrestling world enable several dramatic conventions, such as the "finishing hold" and how that plays into the drama: "the convention of the disqualification" and how these matches build chapters that lead to the eventual" necessity for a rematch" (331).

In short, I wanted to write a few notes about the piece from Craven and Moseley since it was delayed getting up on the site, as I didn't want their subsntial contribution to the history of wrestling criticism to be lost in the mix of the other great pieces we've been writing about. Here, you have an explicit description of the argument that many of these other scholars are building from.

Any thoughts?


katejames said...

I really liked the Craven and Moseley piece; it's nice to reach a point where we've read multiple texts approaching the same issues in pro wrestling, so we can start to see the range of analysis and framings.

I could appreciate the 'camp' vs. true believer model. I hadn't heard the word 'camp' come up as I remember, and it does seem like an appropriate checkpoint. But I agree with Sam, that there is a spectrum of fan types in between the extremes, and some outside of the dialectic set up by Craven and Moseley altogether (like the fan-as-theorist, for example).

As for the suspension of disbelief, what was most fascinating about the Coleridge reference to me was the second half of the quote: ‘that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment which constitutes poetic faith’ (327). Poetic faith seems like an amazingly appropriate way to describe what happens with pro wrestling fans. Their faith/ belief is constituted /created in a way which involves poetics; here is an out from the binds of 'real' vs. 'fake'.

To an extent, I think the application of 'poetic faith' also makes irrelevant the question of how much the fans are aware of their performance/ suspension of disbelief. If we stray from the realm of logic, and venture into the poetic, less tangible implications of a bandaid covering 119 stitches, here pro wrestling has its most profound impact as a performance medium.

Sam Ford said...

Kate, I agree that it's great to see the different theories of how one can look at pro wrestling. It's like I pointed out when Lee Benaka was able to join us last week--after he said that wrestling is full of religious symbols, it's interesting to see how many biblical stories play out, how wrestlers are framed as gods themselves, etc. How Savage's jealousy at Hogan's attention was quite like Cain and Abel in many ways, etc. And same here. I think the points made by Craven and Moseley are important for several pieces we actually read before them, especially in laying out exactly what is meant by "suspension of disbelief," a term used by many wrestling fans.

Also, very good nalysis of the "poetic faith" portion of the quote, which hasn't gotten picked up afterward, in favor of the first part, as it relates to wrestling. But you are right in that looking at wrestling from that angle instead avoids the messy questions of "real" and "fake" altogether.

Brian "Louxchador" Loux said...

To maybe add a twist on the term poetic faith, as I think reasons for disbelief do apply differently to the subsets of fans.

A quick case: John Cena vs. Umaga last man standing match had a poetic justice moment to it, where the hero was able to prove he could outlast the unrelenting bad guy. I knew the outcome, wasn't too happy about it, but I was happy to see the match because I knew the two would put on a good show.

Take either Batista v Undertaker or Cena v Michaels for this year's Wrestlemania. As you have 4 babyfaces, the outcomes are a bit more suspect (though I can guess). Still, I'm interested in Cena/Michaels and less so in Batista/Taker because of the shows the pairs can put on.

So if I'm not keen on seeing a story end all that justly, I still suspend my disbelief by cheering "yes!" or "no!" knowing the moves don't matter. I think the reason is that such fans want to make the spectacle more epic. We want to believe it transcends good athlete-actors doing their job, and maybe -to be cliche -a clash of titans. That could be their "poetic faith."

Peter "The Malcontent" Rauch said...

I took particular interest in the way Craven and Moseley described situations where the "sports" aspect and the "drama" aspect actually conflict with each other, such as the time conventions--fans know that the card lasts a certain amount of time, and the final match won't end until the prearranged length of time has been met.

What I find interesting about this is that it's not anything specific to wrestling, but rather a general rule of drama that tends to be used for any dramatization of any kind of contest. When the rookie goes up against the champion, the most practical predictor of who will win is how long the movie has been on. If it's in the second act, it's likely a loss for the rookie, to set up a grudge match in the third. I find that even legitimate sports fans seem to consider the games that (in the absence of outright fixing) approximate certain dramatic norms: the underdog victory is better than the blowout, the three-point shot at the buzzer is more exciting than the victorious team taking the lead at the start of the fourth quarter and running out the clock. (Note to blog readers: these will be my last sports metaphors of the semester, one hopes.)

Johan Huizinga suggests in Homo Ludens that play is so fundamental to animal life that it precedes culture itself; I might similarly suggest that drama, while in all likelihood younger than work (in this case, combat), is older than sport. We perceive all sports in terms of drama, whether they're real or not; I wonder if the spectacle of modern wrestling is really as young as we seem to think.

And hey, new ternary to work with: drama, sport and work.

Sam Ford said...

Your point about play in the animal kingdom and the origins of wrestling and its "fakeness" being pretty primitive is a good point. Certainly, the idea of play fighting is something my dogs engage in on a regular basis, and they only seem to do so when there is an audience watching, namely my wife and me. If that's not a version of pro wrestling, I don't know what is.