Bowman, Paul. Mythologies of Martial Arts. New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2017. Pp. 210. $39.95 paperback.
Reviewed by Wesley R. Bishop
Was the recent Marvel and Netflix show Iron Fist racist? How do we define cultural appropriation and orientalism in cultural studies, especially when cultural productions deal with popular representations of other cultures? What does it mean when people sing “Everyone was Kung Fu fighting”?
These questions are at the center of Paul Bowman’s new book Mythologies of Martial Arts. Deeply theoretical and wide ranging in its focus, Bowman provides a fascinating insight for those interested in cultural studies to begin thinking about how martial arts in general have been situated in American society. “For martial arts are everywhere in the West,” Bowman writes, “and yet they remain strangely marginal” (p. xix).
“Strangely” is a word that does considerable lifting in Bowman’s ensuing analysis. Moving through multiple scholars, cultural artifacts, archives, and observations, Bowman argues that the central place martial arts has come to occupy in the United States is one of constant periphery. Viewed as “strange,” “comical,” and perpetual alien, Bowman advances an observation that to understand the significance of martial arts in American culture, one must view it through the prism of mythology.
It is here that Bowman invokes arguably the most important theorist in his study, Rowland Barthes, and his 1957 book Mythologies. Using Barthes’ text, Bowman argues that the very act of trying to essentialize and permanently define a subject is dangerously problematic. Instead, any subject of study in culture must be read in a broader cultural context with martial arts being no different. “As scholars who have studied European imperial and colonial cartography have taught us, the attempt to define cannot easily be disentangled from the attempt to control,” Bowman explains. “In my experience of discourse in and around martial arts studies, I have come to realize that the project of trying to define is often a trap that many people . . . fall into, again and again: they move from trying to make sense of it all, to imagining a system, to regarding that system as law” (p. xviii).
Instead, martial arts and all cultural products that carry such heavy representational weight must be read as parts of a complex and ever shifting sphere of communication. Mythology, with its ability to simultaneously prescribe meaning and elicit predetermined reactions, thereby simultaneously fixing meaning to the cultural object in a larger system of meaning, but doing so by understanding that meaning is not based on permanent, a priori truth, i.e. a fixed essence. Instead, it is subject to change as the larger system of myth changes overtime in a historic culture.
This leads Bowman to one of his most thought-provoking arguments, namely a larger refutation of the charge that martial arts’ representations in the United States are “orientalist.” Bowman primarily relies on Rey Chow’s 1998 essay “The Dream of the Butterfly” to frame a larger challenge to readings of martial arts representations deeply influenced by Edward Said’s Orientalism. Bowman argues Said’s interpretation-which envisioned Western discourses of the East as another world, with an essentialist nature, that was primarily defined by mystical archetypes for white consumption–was too simplistic. “Chow suggests,” Bowman writes, “too many scholars now use an approach to cross cultural interests and issues that boils down to first choosing texts to study that immediately look a bit orientalist on first glance, then looking for orientalism within them, feigning righteous indignation at finding it and going on to judge the texts harshly accordingly” (p. 24). Bowman sides with Chow that this use of Said by later cultural studies does little to understand the complex and ever shifting nature mythologies possess, and at worst produces a kind of moralizing on the part of the critic that essentializes culture, passes prejudgment on cultural productions, and passes “PC concerns” off as cultural studies.
“What this means,” Bowman continues, “is that ‘orientalism’ has become something of a judgement or moralistic stick to beat people with” (p. 28). Bowman includes Chow’s concern with this kind of cultural studies as “the fascist longings in our midst,” and says, “The use or abuse of supposedly egalitarian, politically correct, or politically progressive ideas and arguments as tools to keep people in line” is to be avoided (p. 28), especially when studying something like cultural representations of cultural objects like martial arts.
Instead, Bowman maintains, a broader understanding of cross cultural exchange should be developed in understanding martial arts. Yet that term “cross cultural,” for Bowman needs further explanation—
For when we evoke ‘another culture,’ this conjures up and sets to work lots of ontological assumptions. If there can be ‘another culture,’ then this must mean that there is a ‘present culture’— ‘this culture’— a culture here and now and present and singular. So it implies that both of these cultures are unitary, unified, univocal, and discrete. And this is a problem that the language of ‘multiculturalism’ and even ‘hybridity’ does little or nothing to improve. The problem is essentially that diagnosed by Jacques Derrida: it is the problem of what he called the metaphysics of presence— the idea that here is ever a present, unitary, indivisible, non-partial/non-multiple, thing— a noun-object as opposed to a verb process” (p. 41).
Bowman maneuvers first by charging cultural essentialism of those who attempt to arrest and present cultures as static, and then pivots to provide a complex, and fascinating reading of Lacan and Zizek that combines desire, exchange, and creation to try and argue for a new vision of popular understanding of cultural productions as they traverse various geographic locales. Bowman complicates this reading considerably by daring to dive into the question of heteronormativity in martial art depictions and popular understanding, with the result being a complex and often deeply thought-provoking text that will undoubtedly inspire widespread debate and reflection for cultural studies scholars.
Specifically, the reading of Said is bound to raise questions from cultural critics. Are film critics wrong to cite orientalism in a cultural production like Netflix’s Iron Fist or DC’s Batman, when the stories center on depictions of white western men who travel to “the orient” to gain mystic knowledge, package that knowledge, and turn around and use it as a tool to save humanity? Is that not perpetually keeping martial arts in the margins, introducing it to the mainstream only through the fists and kicks of white saviors? Is that not literally one of the major concerns raised by those who deploy Said? We inhabit a world in which the occident uses an unchanging, mystic orient, rescuing the world through the ingenuity and supposed dynamism of white westerners because the knowledge in the hands of Easterners was static, fixed, and forever alien. Compound this with continual issues of whitewashing that Hollywood and streaming services like Netflix have been charged with (literally removing people of Asian heritage from stories to substitute them with more “appealing” white characters) and one cannot help but wonder if, perhaps, Said and those who used his work were simply right.
Nonetheless, Bowman masterfully enters this discussion, raising much needed debate, and doing it in a way that demands readers be serious about the field of cultural studies. Dividing the book into separate chapters, all of which deal with a specific set of questions, documents, and arguments, this text would fit well into any advanced graduate reading seminar, either as a complete text or with select chapters serving as standalone essays. Likewise, this work is bound to raise the interest of cultural studies scholars as treats its subject with intelligence, and focus. One can hardly ask for anything more when reading a book.
Wesley R. Bishop is a PhD candidate at Purdue University. He studies the history of the American labor movement, social reform, and political and intellectual history. He can be reached for question, comment or debate at email@example.com.