Manga, Wuxia and (New) Religious Syncretisms: the Orientalization of the Western Imaginary, from Osamu Tezuka to Contemporary Oriental Disciplines
(University of the Littoral Opal Coast, France)
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A new interest in various forms of spirituality and religiosity is emerging in some subcultures of contemporary society. This tendency can be seen as an indicator of an Orientalization process that affects everyday life and lifestyles, and it can be read as a symptom of a crisis in the paradigm of Western Modernity, which is changing the relationship between culture and nature, the central role played by the rational positivist paradigm, and ideas of body, space and time.
Oriental disciplines and martial arts are a significant case study for the purpose of analyzing the on-going Orientalization process. These highly ritualized practices have become part of many people’s daily life and have affected their way of dressing, as well as the way they arrange furniture at home and the way they make decisions that involve their diet and body care. These practices may also affect people’s identities by changing their values, ethics and morality.
To explore the Orientalization process, I first introduce some features of the diffusion of the “mythical Orients” in the Western imaginary since the sixties. In particular, I focus on some media products (for example, mangas and wuxia movies) that played an important role in arousing interest in Other cultures. In this stage I will refer to some media theories, in particular to Gerbner’s cultivation theory and to the medial socialization effect.
In a second step I focus on the imaginary embodied in some Oriental disciplines and martial arts.
I refer to some results of a research that I am conducting in some martial arts gyms, starting from my experience as an instructor. In that context I performed an ethnographic study, gathering several in-depth interviews with masters, beginners, fighters, experts and therapists, and analysing the interactions within some online communities (virtual ethnography). This last method allowed me to come back to the first step, and to focus on how some features of the media imaginary are mediated through the interactions within the virtual communities.
To cite this article: Alessandro Porrovecchio (2013): “Manga, Wuxia and (New) Religious Syncretisms: the Orientalization of the Western Imaginary, from Osamu Tezuka to Contemporary Oriental Disciplines”, Journal of Religion, Media & Digital Culture, volume 2, issue 2, accessed from http://jrmdc.com/
In Die geschichte mit den schuhbänderen. Soziologe au reise Norbert Elias (2008) explains how, by simply walking through a city, everybody can “do sociology.” He writes: “I cannot help it: over and over again I am fascinated by the people and the differences in their behaviour, their way of life, whether it is at the Lido in Venice or in Rome, at Torremolinos or in London, in Paris or in a smaller German town like Műnster” (2008, p.135). While I was discussing Elias’ words with my students of the School of Motor Sciences in Turin, I understood that this could be a good starting point for my research: I had to walk through the city and to observe, like a flaneur, the people, their behaviour, their way of life, the city.
While I was walking in Piazza Castello, one of the main squares of Turin, I received some flyers. One of these flyers advertised a school that aimed to develop a spiritual path through tantra, lucid dreams and self-observation. Another one advertised the activities of a new multinational centre of wellness, inside a shopping centre near Turin. The third one invited me to a new pizzeria, and the last one celebrated the opening of a new gold buyer shop. When I got into a bookstore near the Piazza Castello, I noticed some publications on spirituality, from Osho to Krishnamurti, from South American shamans to African animisms. As I continued walking, I observed the fiction books arranged neatly on the shelves, and I noticed that the “classics” by Tiziano Terzani and Carlos Castaneda were complemented by more recent life stories, such as the one of Gregorio Manzur (2006), and by testimonies of disinterested observers, like the one of Errico Buonanno (2012). Out of the bookstore, I could choose to have lunch in a Chinese restaurant, in a Sushi Bar, in an Indian takeaway or in the Pizzeria advertised in the flyer. And then I could go to a Thai massage centre near the Indian takeaway, or simply go back home, watch a wuxia movie[i] or read an Urasawa manga[ii].
As I was walking, I had the feeling that a new interest in various forms of spirituality and religiosity was emerging in Western societies. This tendency can be seen as an indicator of an Orientalization process that affects everyday life and lifestyles, and it can be interpreted as a symptom of a crisis in the paradigm of Western Modernity that is changing many features of everyday life: the relationship between culture and nature; the role played by the rational positivist paradigm; ideas of body, space and time; spirituality and religiosity.
In this paper, I will not talk about religion and its representation in media to explore the Orientalization process. This does not mean that religious subjects are uncommon: religion is quite a common topic in many manga, such as Osamu Tezuka’s Buddha (1992). Thomas Jolyon Baraka (2012) describes an interesting case of Comic Religion, Hikaru Nakamura’s Saint Young Men (Seinto oniisan, 2006-ongoing). Nakamura proposes a story of Jesus and Buddha living as roommates in contemporary Japan. He juxtaposes the two religious founders with familiar aspects of contemporary life: they blog, they play videogames, Jesus attracts the attention of high school girls because of his resemblance to Johnny Depp, Buddha is teased by neighbourhood schoolboys for the tuft of hair in his forehead. And each of them inadvertently performs miracles in public.
To explore the Orientalization process, I will first focus on some media products (manga, anime[iii] and wuxia movies) that have been considered important role in arousing interest in Other cultures (Raimondo 2007). In a second step, I will analyze the case of Oriental disciplines and martial arts. During my analysis of the connection between media products and the imaginary – the world as it is imagined – of Oriental disciplines, I will refer to some media theories, in particular to George Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1973) and to the effect of socialization by the media (Morcellini 1997; Porrovecchio 2013a).
I started my research path by “surfing” (McLuhan 1951) through the imaginary of various Oriental disciplines. My purpose was to gather preliminary documentation for my research. In order to do so, I referred to three different kinds of documents: scientific literature, manuals, and popular culture products (movies, fiction etc.). In particular, I focused on anime, manga and wuxia movies. In the second phase of my research, I understood the importance of this first exploratory step: the words of my interviewees kept in my mind Gerbner’s cultivation theory (1973) and the effect of socialization by the media.
Starting from this preliminary documentation, I used my personal experience of practicing and teaching martial arts to produce a qualitative research design. I became a participant observer in one of the many martial arts gyms in Rome, the Tao Chi Kwoon, a traditional kung fu school supervised by Sifu Maurizio Di Bonifacio[iv]. I collected detailed field notes, on the spot or right after every training session.
Because of my interest and long-term involvement in martial arts, there was the potential for me to go native (Hammersley, Atkinson 2007), which would affect my ability to engage in the field. So I decided to widen my research field by training in several gyms in northern Italy, where I practised disciplines both from South-East Asia, such as Pençak Silat and Filipino Kali, and from Europe (Sicilian stick, knife fighting). The goal in this phase was to explore, as a beginner, a considerable number of symbolic worlds, and to meet and interact with a large number of martial artists who practised disciplines different from mine. This strategy enabled me to ask probing theoretical questions about the data I collected and the interpretations I provided (Jennings et al. 2010, p.536-539). This research approach, as with Samudra’s (2008) notion of thick participation, provided many details of the multi-sensorial and emotional nature of the Oriental disciplines practised in the Kwoons.
Finally, I accompanied this research path with a virtual ethnography (Hine 2000, 2005; Porrovecchio 2012) that I conducted in some martial arts and manga fan communities. This last method allowed me to come back to the first step and to focus on how some features of the media imaginary are mediated by the interactions within the virtual communities and personal experience.
It is important to note that this analysis is only the beginning of opening a slightly different perspective on the relationship between media, religiosity and sports. As such, I hope that my study encourages further investigation. In particular, I believe that the cultivation and the socialization perspectives are useful, but I have addressed them from a purely descriptive point of view. I am aware that I should have addressed them from an empirical point of view. One way to start this work might begin from a comparative analysis that should take into account four samples: people who practise Oriental disciplines; people who don’t practise/are not interested in Oriental disciplines; people who used to be interested on Oriental media products[v]; people who have never been interested in Oriental media products. Paraphrasing George Gerbner’s suggestions (Gerbner et al. 1973), a researcher should examine the responses given to questions about the East among those with varying exposure to the world of Oriental media products.
Orientalism and mythical Orients
Edward Said (2003) explained that Orientalism is a system of thought that approaches a “heterogeneous, dynamic, and complex human reality from an uncritically essentialist standpoint; this suggests both an enduring Oriental reality and an opposing and no less enduring Western essence, which observes the Orient from afar and, so to speak, from above. This false position hides historical change” (p.333-334). The implied critique here is that the supposed opposition between East and West is both misleading and undesirable. Furthermore, according to Said, it is important to point out that contemporary critical consciousness should be warned about the risks that arise when we talk about Eastern culture: in fact, the “East” is nothing more than a sort of social construction (Berger, Luckmann 1966). This means that, for example, many of the stories about the world of Oriental disciplines may consist in idealized reconstructions of an imaginary world. For this reason I do not provide an anthropological analysis of the identity and the social and cultural origins of each Oriental discipline, or each media product. According to Kaplan (2006) and Brown et al. (2010), undertaking a cross-cultural analysis requires sensitivity, because “we are forced to read works produced by the Other through the constraint of our frameworks/theories/ideologies” (Kaplan 2006, p.157). The risk is to succumb, on the one hand, to Orientalist discourses, and on the other to our way of decoding these media products.
Those difficulties convinced me to diverge from Said’s idea of Orientalism, and to embrace Durand’s (1963) and Corbin’s (1964) more generic concept of mythical Orients. Durand and Corbin were among the first scholars, in the first years after World War II, to argue that the great Western values were declining in favour of alternative cultural systems. The expression “mythical Orients” doesn’t refer to a specific geographic area, but to the idea of an Orient that could be found increasingly in everyday life: Zen philosophy, Tibetan Buddhism, Chinese takeaways, Thai massages, Sushi bars and so on. In a few words, mythical Orients are different ways of dealing with nature and with the world.
As we can see, the concept of “mythical Orient” implies a rather generic and fuzzy idea of the “East” as a geographic area and of the “Orient” as a form of the imaginary that is socially constructed. This implies – as regards the researcher – a precise choice concerning the “point of view” from which to start the analysis: the Western one. For this reason I won’t outline any cultural axiom that could be “Oriental” and/or “Eastern,” and that could serve as indicators in my analysis. I will outline only some configurations of the imaginary of what Westerners perceive as “Oriental”. This choice could seem to undermine this research project, but it will keep the initial spirit with which it was designed: this is not a study of Oriental cultures but a descriptive study of Westerner’s perceptions of the Orient, and of how these perceptions seem to cultivate some aspects of the Western imaginary.
First part: A new imaginary?
According to many scholars, such as Sergio Raimondo (2007), the mass perception of Oriental disciplines began to change with the rise of Eastern philosophies in the wake of the 1960s and 1970s, and then with the global success of Hong Kong’s wuxia cinema, thanks to which audiences discovered that martial arts were not only Japanese. A new imaginary composed of renewed mythical Orients[vi] started to spread all over the West; it was composed of many narratives coming from wuxiapian, manga, anime and Oriental philosophies.
“Caution: this movie reveals the Kung Fu for the first time. Kung Fu is the Eastern most deadly way of fighting. We inform everybody that the imitation of what you have seen on the screen leads to serious and irreparable injuries, and in some cases to death” (Raimondo 2007, p.69). This alert was displayed in a movie theatre in Rome, on the 26th of January, 1973, to introduce Five Fingers of Death (Chang-Hwa 1972). In Hong Kong, the first release had not been particularly successful, as the film was part of the copious production of the local wuxiapian. Between May and June of that year, Five Fingers of Death had great success all over Europe and USA, together with two other movies produced in Hong Kong, which starred Bruce Lee (Lo Wei 1971, 1972). The global success of Hong Kong wuxia movies merged with Japanese tradition and contributed to the creation of a double configuration of the imaginary. I will address this idea of a double configuration of the imaginary by applying a slightly adapted version of Toshio Miyake’s (2011) simple but helpful model, proposed during a conference held at the University of Naples “L’Orientale” some years ago.
The first configuration, as explained by Miyake, is rooted in the opposition between Western and Eastern identity. If one of the pillars of Western identity is modernity (with its paradigms: reason, progress, scientific method and so on), the East is perceived by Westerners as traditional, in fact, hyper-traditional. The effectiveness of this perception becomes manifest when we observe some cultural products coming from the East, and some recurrent well-known images crystallized in the occidental imaginary, and articulated in an a-temporal way and a-spatial way: the geisha, the samurai, Mount Fuji, shaolin and wudang temples, cherry blossoms, monks. All these images emerge in many occidental cultural products that propose some peculiar representations of the East: just think about best-sellers like Memoirs of a Geisha (Golden 1997) or popular movies like The Last Samurai (Zwick 2003).
If we analyze these images, we can identity some isotopies (Greimas 1983), namely some recurring themes that characterize mythical Orients and distinguish the hyper-traditional Eastern imaginary from the Western one. The East has mainly been represented as feminized, childish, emotional and in harmony with nature. As cultural forms of a collective imaginary, the origin of these aspects could be barely explained exhaustively, and this is not my aim. Instead, I want to propose some significant examples of these aspects.
The perception of an (Eastern) imaginary as feminized is strongly linked to the overcoming of Westthe West’s traditional gender order and dichotomies. As regards gender order, an interesting example can be inferred from an analysis proposed by Brown et al. (2010). In their paper, they analyze the positioning of forms of masculinity within the global gender order that male bodies in Asian martial arts films negotiate. Their theoretical sensitivity is taken from Connell’s relational notion of “multiple masculinities/femininities” (1995), to make sense of the performing martial arts body as a gender-associated phenomenon. Throughout their study a construction emerges of a masculinity diverging from the Western hegemonic one. Bruce Lee’s masculinity, for example, is very interesting, because he is one of the recurrent characters being discussed in the virtual communities considered in my research, and a point of reference for many martial artists. His masculinity seems ambiguous: “it is a masculinity that resists the patriarchal ideologies of a hegemonic masculinity while refusing to be characterized into dichotomous models of sexual identities” (Chan 2000, p.375).
Similarly, in many manga and anime gender dichotomies are constantly upset: one of the most recurrent archetypes is the androgynous (Jung 1959). This archetype manifests in many ways. For example, sex/gender swapping are common: a significant example is that of Takahashi’s Ranma½ (Ranma Nibun-no-Ichi, 1987-1996), in which the main character often changes into a girl to advance his goals. Intersexuality and gender indefiniteness are common too: the protagonist of Osamu Tezuka’s Princess Knight (Ribon no Kishi, 1953-1956), due to an error of an angel, has two hearts, a male and a female one, and resides constantly in a grey area of indefiniteness.
The East has also been perceived (and represented) as childish. Another recurrent archetype is Jung’s Puer Aeternus (Jung 1959; Hillman 2006). It seems clear that many protagonist of manga and anime are personifications of this archetype; just think about Goku (the main character of Toryiama’s Dragon Ball/Doragon Bōru, 1984-1995), detective Conan (a sort of fusion of a Puer Aeternus and a Senex; Aoyama, Meitantei, 1994-ongoing) and Arale (Toryiama, Dokutā Suranpu, 1980-1984).
The childish aspect also emerges if we analyze manga’s consumption: the most successful manga genres are shojo manga (marketed to a female audience roughly between the ages of 10 and 18) and shonen manga (marketed to a male audience aged roughly 10 and up) (Bouissou 2006; Pellitteri et al. 2011; Calderone 2011), although the fans usually read several genres[vii]. If we surf through some virtual communities, we can find articles talking about the preferred or most recognizable characters[viii]. It seems clear that most of them are personifications of the Puer Aeternus, or simply childish characters: Doraemon, Hello Kitty, Totoro, Super Mario, Astro Boy, Pikachu, Goku, Arale and so on.
The other two recurrent features of Westerners’ imaginary related to the East (emotionality and harmony with nature) will be the core of my discussion; for this reason they will be analyzed in the second part of this paper.
During the 1980s, along with the economic and financial rise of some Eastern countries, the second configuration of the imaginary emerged. It has been defined techno-Orientalism by Morley and Robins (1995). Techno-Orientalism displays itself as a process of differentiation from the West that pushes some parts of the East (Japan, Chinese megalopolises and so on) towards a distant future, out of time and space. Miyake (2011, p.179) defines this configuration as a hyper-modernity based on the strategic selection of some high-tech features. In this case, in the Western imaginary, some images and stereotypes emerge that could be considered dysfunctional or negative with respect to the occidental idea of modernity. Examples include cyborgs and robots, suicides, urban alienation and atomic bombs. As we can see, they are spread mostly by manga and anime, and propose a dystopian vision of the East.
Robots and cyborgs seem to be the largest and most known manifestations of media imaginary: the most cited by our interviewees, the most discussed on virtual communities and probably the most pervasive and influent. The interest in robots arises with the success of Osamu Tezuka’s Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atom, 1952-1968)[ix], and Yokoyama’s Ironman 28 (Tetsujin 28-gō 1956-1966). Yokoyama proposed for the first time an anthropomorphic technological giant, controlled through a remote control by a young boy. Thanks to the creativity of Nagai Go, , this kind of robot spread in the imaginary all over the world in the early 1970s: Mazinger Z was produced as a manga in 1972, and immediately adapted into an anime. Then arrived Getter Robo (1974), Kotetsu Jeeg and Ufo Robot Grendizer (1975), the best-known robot in Italy.
The history of manga in Italy is particularly recent (Calderone 2011). The Italian media system has always been characterized by a discontinuous trend and an uneven evolution of the various apparatuses, in contrast to other modern Western societies. One of the features of the “Italian case” is the fact that the distribution of audiovisual media – paradoxically – has always anticipated the spread of reading (Morcellini 2005): the spread of television and cinema preceded the spread of the press, and similarly it seems that the passion for anime has been the driving force behind the success of manga, both in Italy (Calderone 2011) and in France (Bouissou 2006). Bouissou explains that the diffusion of manga in France is entirely thanks to the anime, or, among today’s generations, to computer and card games (Pokemon, Yu Gi Oh): 95% of his respondents discovered manga in that way.
The spread of anime in the West was encouraged by two particular circumstances (Pellitteri 1999, 2010; Calderone 2011). The first one is the introduction, in 1975, of a time slot in the evening (from 07:00 pm) in which American TV series and cartoons were broadcast. The second one was the growth of local and national private broadcasting (Ciofalo 2011). One of the effects of the multiplication of televisions was the necessity to fill many hours of broadcasting with different (possibly low-cost) contents. One of the strengths of anime, in the seventies, was their cheapness to produce. Nowadays, their strength is the fact that they are part of a wider marketing strategy which relies on products based on imaginary universes that develop through many media, a sort of embryonic trans-mediality (Jenkins 2006a, 2006b; Giovagnoli 2009, 2013) involving anime, manga, video and web games, card-games, virtual communities, theme parks, fairs and so on. This last feature emerges clearly from my research: martial arts practitioners, for example, usually refer to imaginary worlds that develop through the contents proposed by a constellation of media, and convey these imaginary worlds through some practices, like cosplay or video/webgame challenges and so on. Some of the practitioners of the Tao Chi (but also a Taekwondo Master that I interviewed in Turin), for example, usually organize their cosplay challenges on the occasion of comics fairs, like Romics in Rome, or Lucca Comics in Lucca (the most important comics fairs in Italy), transforming their bodies into their favourite characters.
The first anime broadcast in Italy was Vicky the Viking, a Nippo-German co-production (Chiisana Viking Vikke, Saito, 1975). The first important success was UFO Robot Grendizer in 1978. It opened the doors to a phase of massive importation of Japanese cartoons and to the phenomenon of the “anime boom.” Since then, Italian private televisions provided a lot of stories of robots, cyborgs, heroes, little sorceresses, thieves, young girls in love and football players.
From the early eighties, some Italian editors began to publish stories based on the most successful anime (Pellitteri 1999, 2010; Ciofalo 2011). In a first phase the comics were produced in Italy, and they were not based on the original manga: the structure of the page was different from the original, and images were mostly taken from the anime. Even when the editors translated (unsuccessfully) the originals (as for example Great Mazinger, 1979-1980 in Italy, and Candy Candy, 1982), they sectioned and published them in the usual occidental layout, transfiguring – in fact – the original product.
The first Italian-language manga comparable to the original was the Italian translation of Otomo’s dystopic Akira (1990). But it had been adapted, filtered and modified from the US version. In the nineties, the editor of Granata Press started a politic of diffusion of manga through many magazines, but bankrupted in 1995. Then, Star Comics finally opened the doors to a sort of mass market, with the publication, in 1995, of Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball in the traditional Japanese sense of reading, from right to left.
In this analysis of the publication and consumption of manga and anime in Italy, my main focus of analysis has been robots and cyborgs. One of the reasons for this choice is their diffusion and pervasiveness in the Occidental imaginary related to the East. A second and equally important reason is the fact that the Eastern tradition, in particular the bushido’s imaginary – the way (do) of the warrior (bushi) – merges in an original and surprising way with the science-fictional hypothesis of an hyper-technological world. Many Japanese robots spread an imaginary that recalls the iconography of the samurai: they embody the postures of the traditional martial arts, they use some ancient weapons, like katanas, halberds, swords and chains, they wear suits of armour that recall those of ancient warriors.
These two configurations (hyper-traditional and hyper-modernity) vary from time to time: what they have in common is their logic of distancing from the Western model. Their interaction leads to a condition of constant contradiction – emerging, for example, in many manga or anime – that actually makes the Eastern imaginary a-rational and particularly fascinating. These features emerge clearly, again, if we analyze the cases of robots and especially of cyborgs (Ghilardi 2010, 2011): their imaginary swings constantly between nature and culture, their bodies swing between organic and mechanic. The struggle between culture and nature, in some cases, leads to an anomic (Durkheim 1897) or even dystopic condition: Fist of the North Star (Hokuto no Ken, Buronson and Hara 1983-1988), for example, is the story of a world, in “199X,” in which civilization was ruined by a worldwide nuclear war. It is the story of Kenshiro, one of the most-known and most cited characters in the gyms where I trained. In this story we can find almost all the isotopies of the hyper-modern imaginary: a violent, anomic and alienated post atomic world with all its corollaries.
On ethics and religion
Marina D’Amato, an Italian sociologist, analyzed cultural products for children and young people throughout her research. She proposed an analysis of the ethics emerging from Japanese anime (2002). She explained that the religious factor was the one that linked together all the anime that her research team analyzed; it acted as a point of reference of ethics and values that structured all the episodes.
In her book, D’Amato explains that in all the stories the characters look for some kind of “absolute,” and they do it in their specific and peculiar way: sportsmen do it through competition, and the constant attempt to “defeat the enemy within the Self”[x]; everyday characters do it through ritual actions often ending in self-transformation, imposed from nature or inspired by their ancestors (we will see the importance of these ways of acting). The behaviour patterns of all these characters are based on codes that consider the shame of losing honour as a fault and a potential risk of disorder for social harmony; all human behaviour is evaluated according to its effects on the community. In this context, winning is a way to improve the Self, but it is also an obligation towards the peer group and the wider nation. This approach also characterizes the latest wuxiapian: Brown et al. (2010) describe the final part of Fearless (Yu 2006) as full of good intentions but with also a certain dose of nationalism. Similarly, the main theme of Ong Bak (Pinkaew 2003) goes in the same direction.
According to D’Amato sports-themed anime are inspired by an idea of sport that is absolute, totalizing and one-dimensional, which has little to do with the morality of Western sports. All the episodes of these series are characterized by a common sequence of events: very hard training, violent and infinite struggles, the crisis of the hero, his self-analysis, the overcoming of the crisis and the obligation of the victory. Within this standard sequence we can find two constant elements: physical suffering as an external manifestation of inner turmoil, and the presence of a Mentor (the coach or the Master), who spurs the hero and conforms his behaviour and attitude to the “must be” of the ethical and religious principles. These include dedication, shame, honour and loyalty, which not coincidentally are regarded as some of the main values (if we replace shame with humility) by the martial artists that I met during my ethnographies.
The stereotyping of the characters, says Marina D’Amato (2002), finds its raison d’être in one of the core elements of Japanese religious/philosophical thought, the tendency to transform the abstract into the concrete. Moreover, the inclination to a primitive simplicity is a characteristic of the teachings of Lao Tzu. The culmination of this feature is – in the Japanese tradition – the Kannagara, namely the feeling that all actions are dictated by emotional and impulsive moods, and only in a second phase they are rationalized (Tucci et al. 1973). In the anime examined by D’Amato this aspect is particularly marked.
A last feature analyzed by D’Amato is nature. It is considered sacred, feminine and maternal. Nature is always present and, although attenuated, all-pervading. The aesthetic attitude of the characters towards nature is always emphasized, expressing the pathos of the individual placed into the reality of things, being (or trying to be) in harmony with the Cosmos.
We will see that many of these features emerge in Oriental disciplines’ practitioners’ imaginary.
Second part – the other side: martial arts and de-rationalization of life[xi].
One of the issues that emerged during my research among Oriental disciplines’ practitioners was that Oriental discipline was a form of “secular religion” for its practitioners (Aron 1958; Bailey 1998; Jennings et al. 2010; Porrovecchio 2013b, 2013c). My interviewees made a selection of elements that they liked within the Oriental disciplines’ imaginary (Luckmann 1967, 1996), creating a sort of bricolage. For example, A. A., a 33-year-old woman teaching kung fu at the Tao Chi Kwoon in Rome, described her practice as “monastically devoted.” This statement echoes Loïc Wacquant’s words, referring to boxers: “The most striking character of the workout is its repetitive, denuded, ascetic quality: its different phases are infinitely repeated day after day, week after week, with only barely perceptible variations. Many aspiring boxers turn out to be unable to tolerate the “monastic devotion” … [the] absolute subordination of the self that this training demands” (Wacquant 2003, p.60).
Through various processes of spiritual bricolage, some of the features of Taoism, Shinto and Buddhism become achievable. In this way, the goals of Oriental disciplines become sacralised through the exercises and the body techniques. Each practitioner experiences the holy part of the discipline in its own way: the discipline becomes a kind of intimate secular religion.
According to Jennings et al. (2010) this is the first key feature in analyzing Oriental disciplines as a secular religion. This feature involves the ways in which practitioners evolve from an everyday secular practice into something more spiritual. The second key is related to the importance of the body and to how the Oriental discipline’s habitus (Bourdieu 1979) develops over time: the body is not simply a machine that has to be programmed. At the core of these practices there is a highly specialized habitus, namely specific embodied schemes of dispositions acquired through the diligent long-term practice. This practice must be strenuous, stressing and must require sacrifice: it emerges both from the words of A.A., who talks about hard work (which is also the translation of the term kung fu in English), and from the analysis of the interactions occurring in many forums online, in which the term “training” is usually supported by the term “hard.”
The new schemes interiorized by the practitioners become an unquestionable act of faith in the Oriental discipline. Each member of the group of practitioners embodies a different degree of this habitus, and its acquisition is central to the whole raison d’être of the system.
Harmonies, Holism, Eternity
The Western world passed through a phase in which instrumental rationality led to the modern disenchantment of the world (Weber 2004), and then to the contemporary phase of slow re-enchantment, of which the success of both Oriental disciplines and the cultural products that I described in the first part of this paper are significant signs.
Martial arts and Oriental disciplines too relate to a condition of (re)enchantment: they are highly ritualized physical and mental practices, born in the Far East and south-east Asia, devoted to combat, to peace and relaxation, or to the treatment/therapy of the human body. For the purpose of my research it is useless to differentiate martial arts and Oriental disciplines, since the real goal of all Oriental disciplines and martial arts is to defeat the one true enemy that lurks within the Self “without doing battle” (Ming, Weijia 1994, p.101). As we have seen, “defeating the enemy within the Self” is also one of the recurrent themes that characterize the constant quest for some kind of “absolute” in manga and anime.
Another feature of Oriental disciplines that characterizes them in the frame of (re)enchantment is the fact that they are based on a kind of social action (Weber 1958) that we can define as both traditional[xii] and emotional; we can call it holistic. These kinds of acts were typical of traditional socio-cultural conditions, while in the modern era social actions were more rational and instrumental (Weber 1958). I prefer to use the term “emotional” here, and not “affective” according to the definition proposed by Max Weber. The kind of action proposed by Oriental disciplines, in fact, presupposes a certain voluntarism on the part of the practitioners, who seek to manage and channel their emotions. So, in a second phase, their actions are rationalized. This feature too recalls the description proposed by Marina D’Amato (2002), when she explained that anime’s characters are strongly stereotyped: all their actions seem dictated by emotional and impulsive moods, and only in a second phase they are rationalized.
The fact that many of the participants in my research, both in the interviews and in the online forums, refer to a transcendent energy (see for example the areas dedicated to the Traditional Chinese Medicines in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/) that permeates the universe is a clear indicator of the fact that they embrace a holistic/pantheistic and re-enchanted Weltanshauung. In this context, the body and corporeality take on new connotations: one of the objectives of Oriental disciplines is to turn the body in its ideal image: to transform the transient reality into a myth, to make the dying body eternal.
When I interviewed some practitioners, I asked them in which ways Oriental disciplines had transformed their lives, and how they had changed. At first, they explained that their lives had changed completely because they had a new approach to everyday life and a new vision of reality. They changed their relation to the Other thanks to their new relation to the Self. They had changed their perspective about nature and said they were in equilibrium with society, culture, and nature; this could mean that Oriental disciplines, as a spiritual/holistic practice, operated in all spheres of people’s existence.
This led me to develop some broader considerations about Eastern disciplines. We must assume that the transformation of the body should not be considered only an aesthetic transformation: in addition to an idea, perhaps now obsolete, of homo æstheticus (Maffesoli 2007), maybe we should refer to the emergence of a holistic individual (Nocchi 2008). This is an anthropological figure, which conceives the body as an expressive form of the mind and as a small element of the infinite puzzle represented by social and natural infinity. This means that the holistic individual seems to have started the difficult process of re-union between the biblical Nefech Hayah (the body as object, as biological organism) and the biblical Bassar (the body as subject, with feelings and emotions) (Milanaccio 2009, p.15-28).
Starting from these assumptions, the body becomes a vital, albeit small, piece to build the Everything. In the imaginary of many Oriental disciplines it becomes a fundamental element to access to a sort of synergy with the cosmos, because it contains within itself an internal energy (the Qi for the Chinese disciplines, the Ki for the Japanese ones, and so on) and the primordial elements of Nature (Brambilla 2009). These elements are the inner guide of Man, they guide his mental and psychological sphere. All the above concepts come from ancient Oriental disciplines (see for example, Huang Ti 2002), which were coded according to a specific assumption: the body, conceived as an object (Nefech Hayah), allows one to access three other dimensions: psychological, energetic, and spiritual. As a consequence, the training of the body allows the immersion and the fusion of the individual into the Everything.
Therefore, the practice of Oriental disciplines, at a broader level, appears as that research on the Other which is needed as a basis from which to understand, manage, and build the individual’s Self. We can identify three different kinds of Other. First, the Other can be seen as a form of culture different from the Western one: it represents a form of mythical Orient, which links Oriental disciplines to the enjoyment of Other cultural products, such as manga, anime and wuxiapian. From this perspective we can analyze the construction of myths related to alternative spaces or times, the stories of great masters, legends and lineages (the great heroic figures that have characterized the history of martial arts), often proposed by wuxiapian, that hold the narrative of the martial art itself. Next, the Other can be a different kind of social action, opposed to the instrumental rationality (Weber 1954) that dominated Western societies until the seventies (Maffesoli 2007). Oriental disciplines propose a different kind of rationality and tend to be emotional. Finally, the Other can be a spiritual Other that focuses the individual’s attention on the inner nature of the body. From this perspective the body becomes a medium to build identity and social relations.
Through the practice of Oriental disciplines, the individual balances and rebuilds his own Self according to the Others mentioned above. In this manner he is able to experience, on a spiritual level, its synergy with the universe (holism). The values of martial arts and Oriental disciplines, therefore, lie primarily in their ability to allow the development of multiple aspects of the individual’s life, affecting his spiritual dimension.
The holistic individual can find in the corporeal dimension the possibility of operating a full (re)construction of the Self. The body is also a tool to reach a deep individual Harmony that is essential to activate the energetic Harmony and to awake the primordial archetypal capital that governs the spiritual and psychological dimension. This means that the holistic individual is fully aware of his psychosomatic unity and of his role as part of the Everything. So he is in potential harmony with the natural elements and the environment in which he lives.
Another aspect that I would like to emphasize is the possibility of overcoming modern conceptions of time, through the embodiment of Oriental disciplines’ imaginary. Looking at the differences between modern/occidental idea of time and Oriental disciplines’ one, it is evident that they are antithetical. The modern individual is enslaved in an idea of linear time in which the present is erased to focus on future goals (Elias 1984; Harvey 1990); he is always pushed towards an endless teleological and rational action that leads him to value appearance more than substance, targets more than paths. Meanwhile, the traditional (Oriental) model is based on a circular and cyclical idea of time in which the present moment must be fully internalized. This sort of eternal return also characterizes TV seriality in general (Gerbner et al. 1973; Leonzi 2010) and anime in particular.
The differences between the two conceptions are not confined to the return of a sense of cyclical time that takes the place of the modern idea of linear time (Leonzi 2010). Holistic time is also a time of fracture, for three reasons. First of all, the cyclical aspect, namely the eternal return, allows one to embody the Other’s traditions and philosophies. The first radical change is a temporal short-circuit that moves symbolic universes coming from distant eras within the context of contemporary society. The second radical change bases on the fact that cyclical time is a feminine time (Durand 1963; Ortner 1974; Maffesoli 2007; Leonzi 2010). According to Sherry Ortner (1974), men are closer to culture while women are closer to nature, due to their natural cyclical bodily rhythms; starting from this premise, the return of a cyclical idea of time should assume the rising – as a sort of fracture – of a new naturalized and feminine world, that should be replacing the modern culturalized and patriarchal one. The third radical change can be found in the nature of Oriental disciplines and in the goal of their practise: they aim to go against time and to break the linear essence of the modern age, thus eternalizing human nature. Many Oriental disciplines cultivate the idea that the body is constituted of all the five elements (wu xing) of the cosmos. This means that it can be considered a sort of representation of the cosmos. The correct interaction of the wu xing could stretch the life of every individual[xiii] and could lead to the secret of immortality pursued by the alchemic Chinese tradition. This trend – as well as others – can be found in many Taoist works, and the idea explained above is especially present in the Taoist Canon[xiv].
In conclusion, Oriental disciplines may assume a maieutic role, stimulating the diffusion of that form of mechanical solidarity (Durkheim 1911) proper to a traditional historical phase, in which the collective consciousness was separated from the individual one. Therefore, I think that turning to mythical Orients is not merely a sort of unconscious way through which individuals answer to their need for enchantment (Weber 2004; Maffesoli 2007). Modern individuals have been disenchanted, but find a new enchantment in the creation of new mythologies that respond to their needs.
The above considerations lead me to conclude, then, that the rising (new) intimate forms of secular religiosities are nothing but a kind of return to a traditional condition.
Mythical Orients in virtual communities
My analysis shows some points of convergence between the imagery of Eastern cultural products and the one of Oriental disciplines. I have already stressed the coincidence of some elements that I consider fundamental to practitioner’s religiosity (or practitioner’s construction of their own intimate secular religion): the attempt to defeat the enemy within the Self; the Kannagara and the pre-eminence of traditional and emotional ways of acting; a (re)enchanted Weltanshauung; the quest for an absolute and for an harmony with the Everything, that could be reached through the management of an internal energy linking together the new Holistic Man and the Cosmos; the overcoming of the modern and linear idea of time through a (new?) cyclical perception of time (eternal return); the quest for eternity.
These Eastern principles are discussed in virtual communities, in which the syncretistic aspect of some practitioners’ secular religiosity also emerges. The following quotes are taken from a thread on Taoism and Christianism (http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/): “I myself have a way of understanding religion and basing all my life choices primarily on the teachings of figures like JESUS CHRIST (not the church), Lao Tzu, Buddha …” (Corvo della neve); “Well, as far as I know, Taoism is not a religion but a philosophy… then you could easily be a catholic christian [even if you live as a Taoist]” (Tulk4s); “Thanks to Thay Boxe, that unfortunately I had to leave because of my job, I discovered the whole universe of Eastern philosophies […]. I think that Tao and Christianity can fuse together, it depends on the person. No Way is absolute, no path is perfect, no Master is the best. So I think that in our life we must deepen more than a road and then take the best from each and create a proper and suitable way for ourselves” (Demi).
There has been a process of collaborative construction of mythical Orients that has developed over time. This construction has its roots in the interaction between Oriental disciplines’ practitioners and the internalization of Oriental cultural products, and it emerges clearly from the analysis of interactions on the virtual communities. In some forums these imaginaries are shared, constructed and socialized by the participants. This emerges, for example, from the analysis of the areas dedicated to movies and videogames in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/. I can systematize through three different Weltanschauung the construction and socialization potentialities I identified in virtual communities. They can be considered a place for:
1. Information seeking, use of multimedia content and knowledge sharing;
2. Self-expression, Self-representation, Self-narration and testing of alternative Selves;
3. Creation of a network of relationships (even labile or instantaneous, or more concrete, like the map created by some users of martialartsplanet’s community; http://mapservices.org/myguestmap/map/MAPisAwesome).
As a place to find some information and to access any kind of multimedia texts, the web can be considered an enormous encyclopaedia (Eco 1975) through which people can find any type of content related to Oriental disciplines, techniques, lifestyles, health, philosophies, values, religions and so on. For example, eiffel48 writes: “Hi to everybody in this forum. I need to know something about a kung fu style, the long xing quan (the dragon style). Thanks bye” (in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/). Another example of the complexity of the contents is rabbit’s post in www.martialtalkcom/forum: “I have a question. I have been observing other people breathe while they are asleep. It seems to be audiable, why? In plain english what I am trying to say is I can hear it. I suspect it to be using a different type of nasal breathing that I never hear mentioned in chikung books”. People interested in Oriental disciplines can interact, or simply consult the documents posted while looking for some useful information. Furthermore, through virtual communities people share and have access to a broad social and cultural capital, to which they can contribute, as we can see in some sections in which people share articles, for example, in the community of martialartsplanet (http://www.martialartsplanet.com/forums/). This is the mission of many virtual communities, and it’s precisely the reason for their effervescence.
As a place of Self-expression, Self-representation and Self-narration, virtual communities are a wide laboratory in which individuals put at stake their identities by constructing a narrative and making it interact with other Selves. Individuals test the efficiency and effectiveness of their knowledge capital, their own martial encyclopaedia, the theoretical potentialities of their techniques. Flamings are some examples of these kinds of situations. Some of the practitioners that trained in two of the gyms in which I carried my ethnography told me that they were often involved in some hostile and insulting interactions in some martials arts chats in which they participated with fictitious identities. During these symbolic guerrilla actions they tested their martial knowledge capital. The web, in this context, becomes an arena in which occur some relatively painless fights that are some opportunities to put the Self at stake in the real field. Besides offering the chance to bring into play the Self, the web also allows to experience some totally alternative Selves. It offers some opportunities to create fictitious identities, functional in this case to the construction of identity and to create a knowledge capital related to their own secular religion.
In substance, virtual communities are like some big melting pots, in which practitioners’ imaginaries, Oriental disciplines’ imaginaries and Oriental product’s ones converge and merge continually.
Conclusion: cultivating mythic Orients
When I analyzed the interactions within virtual communities, I noticed the constant reference to the imaginaries proposed by Oriental cultural products. These references were more explicit in some areas dedicated to cultural products, as for example “fun and games” in www.martialartsplanet.com/forums or “Risorse & Utilità” in http://www.forumartimarziali.com/forum/), but could be easily found also within many of the interactions on techniques or on the story of the Oriental disciplines. It seemed clear that some important parts of the participants’ imaginaries were “cultivated” by the media: they were the result of a sort of effect of socialization by the media. That mechanism reminded me Gerbner’s cultivation theory (Gerbner et al. 1973), namely television’s ability to create a pervasive symbolic environment that could lead the imaginary to replace the personal experience of reality. Gerbner (1998) states that television is similar to religion as a source of socialization: “The heart of the analogy between television and religion, and the similarity of their social functions, lies in the continual repetition of patterns (myths, ideologies, ‘facts’, relationships, etc.) which serve to define the world and legitimize social order” (1998, p.178).
According to cultivation theory, television as a “centralized system of storytelling” (Gerbner 1998, p.177) cultivates from infancy the values (Shrum et al. 2005), the predispositions and the preferences (Gerbner 1998) that used to be acquired from other “primary” sources, and it has become the primary common source of socialization and everyday information. Some longitudinal studies (for example Gerbner et al. 1994) showed that television can exert an independent influence on attitudes and behaviour over time, but that belief structures and concrete practices of daily life can also influence subsequent viewing: individuals are not totally passive, but choose television programmes on their own.
Most criticism of cultivation theory focused on the treatment of television viewing as a uniform activity that ignores variations in viewers, the content to which viewers are exposed, and the contexts in which they view or to which they are exposed and so on (Cohen, Weimann 2000, p.100). Gunter (1994) noticed that the cultivation effect could be program-specific, and Cohen and Weimann (2000) concluded that “some genres have some effects on some viewers.” On the other hand, Gerbner explains that the viewers are not so passive, as some surveys have shown that the general amount of viewing and the programs viewed follow the lifestyle of the viewer (1998).
Starting from these premises, it is clear that mythical Orients, and religious imaginaries, especially those where the body is involved, are partly cultivated by the media (Leonzi 2010). I propose a graphic metaphor, which I already used in a previous paper on gender/sexual identity construction (Porrovecchio 2013a), to visualize the construction of these imaginaries on the basis of the results of my research. Dance’s communication model (1967, img. 1) can help us visualize this process, keeping in mind that the model is idealistic and it has nothing to do with a mathematical study of the curve. So, following the metaphor and given that this is an oversimplification of the observed phenomenon, the spiral can represent the path for the construction of individual’s imaginary. The process starts from the bottom, and the vertical axis (the centre of the spiral) represents the time variable: the spiral tends to infinity (∞), namely to the end of the individual’s life. Each point x along the spiral, represents the asset of knowledge and experience of the individual at that time. Experience, of course, goes through a constant process of expansion, built on the basis of: exposing and interest towards media’s storytelling (cultivation and socialization); individual’s need for enchantment (spirituality); individual’s capacity of bricolage of new and forms of intimate secular religiosities (religiosity).
I do not propose any other kind of conclusion, because – as I stated – my analysis is only the beginning of opening a different perspective. I would just like to stimulate the sensitivity of the readers on the complexity of the phenomenon that I introduced, hoping that my paper will encourage some more research on the relationship between body, religiosity and media cultivation.
A version of this paper was presented at the “Commun(icat)ing Bodies” conference in Graz, February 2012. Some parts were published as a chapter of a book (Porrovecchio 2013b). I would like to express my gratitude to Alessandra Turchi and Ben Young, who reviewed some parts of this paper, to the peer reviewers for their suggestions and to Sifu Maurizio di Bonifacio, Master Christian Giglio, Sifu Giorgio Garabello, Master Lorenzo Tarditi and Master Marco Palermo for welcoming me in their gyms and allowing me to carry on my research even without funding.
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About the Author
Alessandro Porrovecchio is an Assistant Lecturer (Sociology and Sport Sciences), University of the Littoral Opal Coast, where he teaches Sociology. He got his PhD in Human and Social Sciences at the University of Turin in 2011. He recently published a book on the construction of adolescents’ gender/sexual identity (“Sessualità in divenire. Adolescenti, corpo e immaginario”, FrancoAngeli, Milan, 2012) and some papers on virtual ethnography. His research interests concern sexuality, health, sports and media.
Affiliation: University of the Littoral Opal Coast – URePSSS laboratory, France
[i] Wu-xia means “martial chivalry”. Wuxiapian or Wuxia pian are the martial chivalry films. Some consider martial arts movies as being part of wuxiapian, some prefer to distinguish them as two different genres. In this paper, I consider martial arts movies as part of the wuxiapian tradition.
[ii] Comics created in Japan, or by Japanese creators in the Japanese language.
[iii] Japanese animated productions.
[v] Wuxiapian, anime, manga, video-games, card-games, web-games and so on.
[vi] Mythical Orients already existed before the sixties. In a first phase they emerged from the accounts of some missionaries, then from news reports on the boxer rebellion and on the World Wars; finally they emerged from beat generation’s interest towards the East (Raimondo 2007).
[vii] The main genres are: Kodomo (for children), Shonen, Shojo, Seinen (generally targeted at a 18–30 year old male audience), Josei (generally targeted at a 18–30 year old female audience), shonen ai (with beautiful boys in love), yaoi (like shonen ai but contain largely sex scenes and other sexually explicit themes) and dojinshi (self-published works) (Calderone 2011).
[ix] Known as Astro Boy in the USA. It has been published for the first time in 1952. The manga was adapted into an anime tv series in 1963 in Japan, and broadcasted in a remade version in 1980 in Italy. It became the forefather of a generation of autonomous robots (Di Fratta 2007).
[x] This sentence recalls the definition of Martial Arts and Oriental discipline that many Masters and practitioners proposed during my research.
[xi] This, and the following parts are partially based on a chapter recently published on a book, (Porrovecchio 2013b), and a paper that will be soon published in an Italian journal (Porrovecchio 2013c)
[xii] Just think about the traditional ways of training, the traditional scripts of movements (the Japanese Kata, the Chinese Taolu, the Indonesian Jurus) that every practiser should know and embody as part of his martial capital.
[xiii] What I have just described also emerges from my observations, in particular from my interactions with a practitioner of traditional kung fu who was affected by cancer and had had many surgical operations. This woman claimed that kung fu had been a great support during the healing process.
[xiv] Daozang, a collection of over 1,400 works of various periods completed in the fifteenth century (Schipper, Verellen 2004).