The dialectics between fist and face: An examination of wrestling and ideology

After editor Jack Brindelli’s Bray Wyatt article published in the Norwich Radical, writers seem to have treated it as a “want some, come get some” open challenge in the pages of Hollywood Hegemony. The most recent, and extensive of these, comes two days before an “Elimination Chamber” pay-per-view – in which individuals inescapably collide amidst an “evil structure” of steel – places ideology, wrestling, and academia in a frantic cage of pain, and forces them to face one-another. In the article that follows, Charlie Giggle makes what can only be described as a landmark contribution to the academic side of the WWE-culture-debate, not equalled since Barthes himself. 

JAHN CEENAH! I WILL FORCE YOU TO CONSIDER THE IDEOLOGICAL RAMIFICATIONS OF WRESTLING.

JAHN CEENAH! I WILL FORCE YOU TO CONSIDER THE IDEOLOGICAL RAMIFICATIONS OF WRESTLING.

The relationship between academia and professional wrestling is not complicated. There isn’t one. There have been brief forays (MIT courses, passing mentions of Brecht on documentaries trying to excuse their subject matter in the overture, or whatever the starting bit is referred to) but the lack of communication between people wanting to take it seriously has lead to three depressingly solipsistic basic themes of analysis, and all of them represent propaganda about the subject at large in their own right more so than actual descriptions of what is happening when we watch a wrestling show. I understand that I am not doing anything astonishingly radical in accusing academia of disappearing up it’s own backside, but I’m also suggesting something more like a bizarre good cop/bad cop routine wherein the officers have argued so hard-headedly that they’ve lost track of the criminal and he’s already escaped through an air vent. Okay, so… Three types:

First, narrative apologetics. Here I’m referring to the type of writing wherein the purpose of the piece is always ‘defending’ wrestling as an art form against the imagined bugbear of societal prejudice. Examples of this can range from Max Landis’s fantastic analysis of Triple H’s character in his short film to cringeworthy ‘we have run out of ideas on our show so let’s hire Roddy Piper and have the characters take the piss out of the fans we’re telling the network we want to bring in for ratings’. The problem with this lies in the inconsistency of the narrative. Not so much in that all wrestling fans fundamentally always disagree about what wrestling is, but more so the differences in whatever the writer sees as the opposition to pro wrestling are vast, and in this you can see that wrestling apologetics are strictly super-egoic.

To those with leanings on the Christian right (most wrestlers, to be honest), they are quick to defend how tough they are, their possible MMA background, how tough it is to take bumps and the gruelling schedule, as if pure Calvinistic spirit is the thing which gives meaning to the art. Liberals and to an extent, leftists will espouse the community spirit of wrestling and the ‘experience’ of the greatness of the show and the richness of life blah blah hedonism. Sportsmen defend the athleticism and film-makers (see Wrestling With Shadows & Beyond The Mat) always jump first to the entrances, the pageantry and the characters. People in this vein often invoke Barthes on wrestling, from his Mythologies. The problem with this argument is, however, is that people just tend to point to Barthes and Brecht and other perceived academics who have declared a passion for wrestling in a similar vein to this as if to say ‘See! They like it! So it’s fine that I like it!’ However, if I may quote a paragraph from Mythologies:

‘This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time. The spectator is not interested in the rise and fall of fortunes; he expects the transient image of certain passions. Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them. The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.’

Firstly, take that haters etc etc, good stuff. However, some of this sounds good but doesn’t apply at all in todays world. What is the ‘this is awesome’ chant if not a celebration of excellence? Oh and as for a boxing match being constructed before the eyes of a spectator? Sounds like wrestling to me. You can bet on most PPV WWE matches, too. Not to mention the guys who get the best reactions and draw the most attention are generally the ones considered to be ‘better’, which implies some sort of discipline within the discipline. Sounds pretty Jansenist to me. But I’m not really surprised the argument wasn’t relevant for a long period of time because ultimately this is an elaborate extension of the apologetics argument. The fans (me) are not stupid like you may think, we instead take it in like theatre with glasses of red wine and expensive shoes, don’t you know? But has this really done the job of explaining wrestling at all? Is wrestling as a genre fully explainable to a sentient extraterrestrial entity as just an extension of theatre? A form of street art? It’s not really that these apologetic arguments are wrong in any literal way, but they first come in the form of pure defence of the self, and in the post-modern (post-attitude) era they’re more formed as a conflict between what wrestling ‘is’ and what wrestling ‘should be’. To the liberal, wrestling should be an amazing community experience that everyone ruins with all their hate. To the conservative, wrestling should have tough guys who work hard, kick ass, stick up for their country and will have a drink in the bar afterwards. To the film-maker, they’re mostly just sick of being bored watching the actual matches waiting to be visually pleased for the next time. So you see my point, when reading apologetics, the reader has to ask the question ‘who is the author excusing wrestling for?’ to avoid getting lost in oversimplifications like the ones Barthes fell into. The truth is closer to wrestling being somewhere in between what he calls the boxing match and what he calls the wrestling match, why does he feel the need to not connect them? Perhaps wrestling is the connection.

Yeah, the author brought his own sock out to meet Mick Foley. Play it cool, son.

Speaking of connections… Yeah, the author brought his own Socko out to meet Mick Foley. Play it cool, son.

So, the next question the traveller comes to, assuming they’re not a snob of course, is ‘why do we have to excuse wrestling?’. My criticism of Barthes brings me into the next type of analysis, materialist apologetics. This criticism is currently the most popular in terms of the newsletters the industry pays attention to (PWTorch, Wrestling Observer). This type of academic sees the first apologetics and accepts them but then grounds his theory in their wider phenomenological universe. That is to say, this academic sees wrestling companies as wrestling companies and thus the purpose of wrestling is to make art to make money. This is the school of thought that WWE grounds themselves in, Vince McMahon in particular. For him, the transcendent goal of wrestling/sports entertainment (same thing, by the way, getting people annoyed at the difference between the two is part of the marketing trick of presenting WWE as reformed, it’s really quite genius PR) is to be accepted by mainstream society and to create money, jobs and ‘experiences’. The experience of course, is in a sense material because it is pure commodity. To use the old Zizek analogy, it’s like the coffee without cream. What it really amounts to of course is a more expensive seat close enough to be blocked by a different tall guy on ground level, but I digress. A lot of this side of the business is a bit A-Level business studies and overall quite boring. However, this approach is not hegemonically controlled by the capitalist inclined. No I’m not going to spin this into dialectical materialism with wrestlers as moving action figures/comic book characters which some people buy into, that sounds horrific. No. What I suggest more is that people in this vein are never really purely concerned about the business from a cold, logical point of view because wrestling is competitive and to get to where they are they have to love it irrationally. To offset the issue of being knowingly biased and not being able to help it, these people lean to observing others in a quest to find material truth in the human will. Good luck, right?

So the third type of analysis is reaction analysis. The basic philosophy to follow would be something along the lines of observing the crowd closely, comparing reactions of different people, maybe looking into demographics if they’re inclined more to the business side of things. So what’s the problem? Well the problem is the same problem with democracy, and the beauty of wrestling is such that people knowingly and willingly place themselves into a position to take in propaganda. The art of being a wrester is to an extent the art of propaganda, it’s the art of positioning and holding yourself in certain ways, a certain cosmetic burden and avoiding public castration in a psychoanalytic sense, not in a ‘masculine’ sense. However, we get lost in the creative process because we can never really cross the gap between our two antinomies, formed by our own guilt about the content we’re consuming or the other way around. If we go by reactions, we have to deal with the fact that NXT audiences don’t act like WWE audiences, and the fact that people cheer Dean Ambrose and cheered Daniel Bryan IN SPITE of the way he is booked not because of the way he is booked. In wrestling we all act as if we think separately, but in reality the only way to enjoy wrestling is to suspend your disbelief, accept an audience position and accept it, and this is more akin to the way we experience sport.

This is where the film people fall short, regularly. In the same way that Barthes tries to explain wrestling by making references to comedia dell’arte, they miss something. A film is just a play on a screen. A play is just a film on a stage. But are the experiences of watching a play and a film the same? Are the experiences of listening to a youtube video of a band playing on the best speakers in the world the same as going to a gig? No. In fact, is a film in the cinema the same as a film on a laptop with a bag of Salt & Vinegar crisps in bed? No. The factor that separates all of these things is the existence of the crowd. A film is a direct dialogue between the art and the singular viewer, a play is directed to an audience, and for me, therein lies the difference.

So, distancing yourself and trying to study crowds just takes you further from them, that’s the irony. Wrestling isn’t like painting, it’s a dynamic art form. It’s more similar to the art of conversation or the art of seduction, it’s a thing but it’s a constant thing. It’s so much a part of the way we perceive the world we don’t even realise that wrestling changes the way you look at the world. Analysing wrestling and scouting talent means existing in the murky water Triple H thinks he can jump step over by walking out of a WWE television and into a podcast set. Max Landis is a writer, a film guy, and he completely missed the point with his excellent piece. Yes, Triple H’s character is insecure and took people down to get to where he is, formed cliques and scorched his way to the top. What did Triple H say to Max Landis after it came out? ‘Yes, this guy gets it’. No he doesn’t.

In fact, neither of you do. The popularity of the film was the awkward notion that everyone knows Triple H never wanted to be perceived as anything but a badass but unfortunately, because of the way wrestling works, the most memorable moments of his career are the ones which mirror the way he was perceived as a human. That is to say no-one remembers his heroic victories but everyone remembers his nepotism, his cheating and his self-delusions about his own greatness. What’s really interesting is the dynamic between Triple H and the fans and the formation of his character out of criticism of his perceived real life. The question is, are we talking about a performer who’s incredibly secure and able to question his own foibles, or are we talking about someone who found a way to get himself a powerful, well paid corporate position by/whilst also deflecting legitimate criticism and using ‘looking like a good sport’ (even though word in WWE is that all talent was immediately barred from referring to the film as soon as Triple H saw it, and he himself didn’t react for days until he came up with the best response) to help the company’s awful position with advertisers and look into starting to work with ESPN, at least before Bill Simmons left. This isn’t transparency though, it’s just a different fake. Triple H doesn’t have 2 characters, he has 3 major ones. There’s Triple H the wrestler, Triple H the performer and the guy he is with his wife and kids. Then on top of that maybe the Triple H when he sees someone who wants to do a stop-and-chat outside the Tesco Express on the corner he walks faster, or the Triple H who pretends to get along with his uncle, or the Triple H that refuses to admit to girls that he hates cats or whatever, you get the point. I feel bad for Mr. H here though, you can’t help but recall the story of the emperor and his new clothes. The truth is though, all the best wrestlers were incredibly insecure individuals who reacted to the fans best because they NEEDED the rush. When Ric Flair was taken off television after being piledrivered on a table by Terry Funk, he was probably the second biggest wrestling start in the US, but he was paranoid that people would completely forget his existence if he went off television for even two months. Yes Triple H is incredibly needy and insecure, but so are all of us! Some of the best wrestlers ever were the ones who embraced this insecurity internally, and you can read it all over the careers of Bret Hart, Mick Foley, Ric Flair, Shawn Michaels, Randy Savage, Jake Roberts, Michael Hayes, Scott Hall and this is all enough to make you think about whether wrestling really turns people into insecure drug dependant depressives, or if maybe it just attracts the kind of person who’d become one if they were offered copious amounts of love, respect and a symbolic mandate they could never internally live up to. The smart guys were the ones who were honest enough to be narcissistic enough relate to their mandate to some extent, as if there was some kind of eternal light within them which people were seeing. They all felt it, but Bret was always able to open himself to feel the love of the fans and not fear it, this may be why he was able to be so successful and survive with his mental health intact. Really though, staying sane in a job like this must be next to impossible.

I’m far from alone on this, the generally held belief in wrestling right now is that the best characters are those which are based on the wrestler themselves, or at least a version thereof turned up to 11, as it were. Another commonly held axiom is this wisdom of ‘when I walk through the curtain I become’ or ‘sometimes I am this, then I am that’. This is something pulled off better with Lucha, the masks allow much better immersion into these characters who represent universal concepts. But even with this in mind, don’t you think it’s suspiciously simplistic in terms of the existential truths that this alleges about personality and subjectivity? There has to be a process of transference between performer and performer, and between performer and crowd. Surely, if we subscribe to the concept that it’s at least a wee bit more complicated than a simple case of lucid self-denial (acting), we have to open the whole of the grey area no-man’s-land between art and science and look around. I think those on the left may be better equipped to step outside of the antimonies and starting to think of wrestling being more like a spectrum between more sports-like and more aggrandised film-like products. But WWE is not professional wrestling. They answer to professional wrestling as a concept, whether they think they do or not. I’m not suggesting taking sides, I think it’s all awesome, but I worry that WWE propaganda about what wrestling is will lead many on the left to see wrestling as something which is there for entertainment purposes and that’s it, but I see a lot of the real world inside the fake world of wrestling, and you can learn a lot about a society from what people cheer and boo and how they cheer and boo.

Personally if I were to act like someone who was fighting for a living, I’d take it really bloody seriously because I would want to win to avoid intense physical pain. To counteract this I would bring a lot of ferocity to try and mask my nerves, and this would involve mind games. In doing this I’ve explained the characters of Goldust, Bray Wyatt and to an extent, Undertaker, perhaps the most ‘outrageous’ character in wrestling history. I much prefer this definition of Undertaker to ‘Satanic Wizard hahaha’ and I bet you $500 he does too. Life itself is really strange, if you can’t figure out a reason for your character to exist and why it’s related to their performance in the ring, at some point the consistency will break, the belief and rapport will shatter and boom, Adam Rose. There’s a lot more to wrestling than just acting skills, a good gimmick and the ability to wrestle, clearly. Many are happy to call this excess ‘the it factor’. This is most likely the fetish of belief needed to sustain the fan’s cynicism, so they actively don’t want to look into why someone has charisma. However, I have no cynicism, I completely believe, and I think only in doing this can you even begin to form any kind of liberated opinion. I’m applying Hegel to wrestling, but not because working with Hegel’s dialectics excuses wrestling because LOOK I USED HEGEL, just because I think it’s the easiest way to get across the position of wrestling is that of a double negation.

It’s not real, but it’s not fake.

It’s not a sport, but it’s not NOT a sport, and there are successes and failures. There are real tangible moments of victory and defeat.

When Roman Reigns cried after not winning at Wrestlemania, was he crying because he was imbedded in his character, or was he crying because he felt like he let his family down by taking his position as star incumbent for granted and his relationship with the fans soured quicker and in larger numbers than he thought and the pro-Brock reaction humbled him? I would say it’s a little of both and also neither, that these emotions existed in a realm he only frequents for a certain percentage of his life. As much as he thinks he’s playing a character though, I think wrestlers can’t help but leave tracks of themselves all over it, and he couldn’t help but take rejection of his character personally. Of course I don’t mean to have a go at Roman Reigns, by the way, he’s gonna be great, and came across better as himself as a babyface than he ever did as Roman Reigns and so did Adam Rose. The minimalist neo-real era of wrestling could be around the corner.

So, we don’t HAVE to apply anything traditionally academic to wrestling, but if we do, it should be done with a certain about of belief in the concept of wrestling and respect for the feel of a live sporting event (it really does feel like a sport when you’re there, like it or not). You need the sport to exist because there’s no reason to watch matches if you’re not interested in the characters if there is no sport to be interested in for the sport’s sake. There are other ways to look at wrestling, but there is a lack of serious debate. I don’t suggest getting rid of fandom, I more suggest thinking a little less about the stories and the ring as two separate entities and start appreciating the gap between the film and the sport wherein nothing exists. Of course, there is the chance that this is all just latent WWE propaganda because I grew up with them, but if that’s the case, WWE latently must love wrestling outside WWE deeply, and so should we all. It’s truly a precious concept which we should treat sacred, and never allow it to be claimed. In wrestling we can practise and play around with really dangerous things like intense nationalist propaganda, constant political posturing and exhibit really intense crowd mentality and as such be able to understand it and apply it to the real world in terms the way we take in media.

If ideology is formed out of having your cake and eating it too, wrestling is about being able to see people fight and shout at each other and rubberneck without feeling guilt. As such it becomes something people are attached to and believe in its emancipatory position, this leads to an imagined version of pro wrestling which differs for everyone. It works exactly like ideology, and propaganda in this ideology is encouraged by all. Wrestling works so well that people actively do have to convince themselves it’s not real, and this embarrassment is the trauma that leads to the hatred because it’s based upon an assumption that anyone could believe this is real, but it’s just as idiotic to believe it’s fake. If wrestling is fake, happiness is fake. If wrestling hasn’t at least made you feel the least bit of anxiety at the sight of violence, the characters aren’t working. So how can the joy in wrestling be the same as theatre, when the more real it gets the more we enjoy it? Perhaps we’ve all been misreading theatre and film all along, and should be more concerned with how movies reflect the real and tell us what and how to desire things and stop being surprised and superstitious when we find ourselves not as existing beings but as a character inside a narrative we call life. Maybe that itself would make subjectivity a little less traumatic. What if the kayfabe self is more ‘real’ than our internal self?

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