Living by the threat of violence, is one of the defining features of slavery and contemporary incarceration (Wacquant, 2004). It is essentially the defining patriarchal over the female that has dominated most of human history as well (Hunter, 2010; Craig, 2010). Enforced labour straddles the line of slavery and living under the threat of violence as an arbitrary enforcement practice. Under most civil circumstances, habeas corpus allows us to go about our days with the fear or ‘freedom from’ any violence, save, for the unfortunate circumstances where it does occurs. There are certainly random acts of violence, and these are always there for consideration. However, largely most of us do not live in a world with the constant threat of violence. There is a randomness that threatens this constant state of ‘habeas corpus’, but the opposite is also the case for those on the other end of the spectrum. The constant threat of violence is sometimes ‘interrupted’ or challenged by its random opposite. In boxing, Muhammedi Ali tactically allowed fighters to hit in order to tire them, and so the ‘constant threat’ is inverted by him, and it baffles but also tires the opponent (Wacquant, p. 34). The book in question goes in and out of contrasting the ‘changing’ with the ‘unchanging’. The ‘finite’ versus in the infinite. The contemporary prison is a good example of where the ‘threat of violence’ is instantiated in a completely ‘permanent’ or ‘thorough’ sense. The consequence of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is high among inmates. The ‘constant’ stress of living in a hype vigilant or guarded sense, is a cumulative problem, and one that is a stands in an opposite relation to what we regard as a world where there is ‘freedom from’, and ‘freedom to’ (Wacquant, 2004). In the case of an individual who is incarcerated, even when they might have ‘yard time’, their bodies and the space that they occupy, is likely owned by one of the power wielders such as a gang, and so on. For Wacquant, boxing developed for him this very same relationship to the body. There is a hyper awareness that is developed when exhaustive long term training yields a synchronization between ‘body’ and mind or ‘soul’ as the title indicates, where there is a unity of body on the basis of threat. The dualism that is so prevalent in Western or Occidental thought, emphasizes the ‘soul’ over the ‘body’ (Hunter, 2010; Craig, 2010). The Church, coupled with the idea that ‘abstract’ thinking was exclusive to humans among the animal kingdom, meant that the brain and reason were an adaptive trait that became morally revered. Wacquant tries to get back to a more ‘body’ based approach when it comes to the subject matter. That is announced in terms of his personal involvement with the sport itself. The backdrop for the dissertation at the University of Chicago which became the main content of this book, is living near a boxing gym and then pursuing a passing interest in the sport, and finding that transform into an obsession. The connection with the body through that sport, is an important aspect of the ‘motif’ of the body in Wacquant. The centrality of this idea, justifies some further elaboration.
The limbic system in the brain is made up of three different, but interconnected regions known for controlling behaviour or motor actions that are voluntary, involuntary actions such as breathing or heart pulse, etc., and finally, thought processes that would be connected primarily with the frontal and the pre-frontal cortex of the brain. The ‘frontal’ brain, so to speak, is one of the distinguishing features of humans against other primates. Where reptiles are mostly ‘automatic’ brains — the basic regulating functions dominate the ‘majority’ of the physical structure in a reptile (Francis, p. 14). And, primates include these but have a more developed brain that enables between sensory motor functioning. That is, the brain and body interaction that explains their incredible agility, balance, and hand brain coordination. Humans, have the sensory motor portion in their limbic systems, the automatic or motor function portion but a more developed frontal and pre-frontal context. However, for Wacquant, this is just a ‘fact’. A fact has the property of being true, or false, and the approach taken by the author completely intersects the notion that ‘value’ and ‘fact’ can be blurred. However, the dominant patriarchal ideology of Western thought has valued this as ‘greater’ than the other parts of the brain. It is a form of social Darwinism to think that ‘reasoning’ is the pinnacle of human evolution, and it is supersedes all other parts/functions of the brain/body in importance because it is that which distinguish’s us from our closest primate cousins.
Wacquant is accurately aware, and therefore, incorporating the problems of observer bias, and the problems of ‘cultural appropriation’. Both in terms of becoming a boxer, and becoming a scholar of African American culture, he is positing his ‘outsider’ status on the table at the outset. There is an interesting metaphor in the very idea of him ‘stepping in the ring’. The qualifying remark at this point, says that he is stepping in the ring while being aware of his background being basically at odds with what he is confronting.
“challenge, that of my original project: Could I grasp and explain social relations in the black ghetto based on my embedded in that particular location? My long-term immersion in that little boxing gym and my intensive participation in the exchanges … “(Wacquant, p. x)
As his description of the sub-culture, and some of the history of the subcultures of boxing unfold, he arrives at a point where he is discussing the professional boxing that he is exposed to directly in Chicago. He discusses the topic of “journeymen” (p. 186-9) and how they are the most “feared” (p. 187) by fighters because they have lost. A journeyman is as it sounds. It is a term used to describe a boxer who moves from town to town in search of paid fights. Some of the fights can be completely underground, and some of them can be no different than they were before the rules of boxing came into effect or in the Twentieth century, and that is all comers fighting. A journeyman will fight anyone and that is part of their identity in the boxing world. Wacquant interviews a number of boxers who identified the types of fighters that fighters themselves wanted to avoid fighting. There is a sense that journeymen are like ‘terrorists’ in that they make the typical rules of engagement nullified or limited. In the Cold War era, a ‘balance of arms’ growth and a matching bomb for bomb, was a paradigm for strategic engagement for thousands of years. If one army has 100 soldiers, the other tries to establish one with 101, so to speak. In pure numbers, a single terrorist can wipe out 100 soldiers in a single act of violence, and so the randomness or the ‘unbalancing’ effect is a feature of it. The journeyman, is like a terrorist in the sense that they throw off the normal balance of how boxers evaluate each-other against one another. The normal routine is that a positive ‘win and loss’ record is stated front and centre. There is an advantage to having a good record in obvious terms, but there is also a practice of transparency about it as well. The boxer wants others to know who they have beaten. With journeymen, the ‘math’ or the rational paradigm of the ‘balance’ of power approach is challenged because they do not want to disclose any information other than that they have ‘lost as many fights as they have one’, or something as equally vague (p. 187).
The ‘rules of engagement’ are thrown off balance by their subverting the normal course of transparency. And, there is a ‘symbolic violence’ to this at the same time.Without knowing the background of a fighter, the amount of variables for an opponent to consider (p. 168) increases. That is, journeymen are deliberately vague, and it is one example of how ‘power’ is deconstructed within the boxing paradigm according to Wacquant. It is an emphasis on the “permanent” of “permanent confrontation” (p. vii) that holds a premium place in his overall scheme. When one thinks of the ‘balance of powers’ and the ‘rules of engagement’, the ‘quantifiable’ generally comes to mind. The ‘weight’ and ‘experience’ variables that mean so much on the one hand, and the interaction with these variables among other fighters. It is the defining features because of the fact that boxing is regulated from state to state and even county to country. As Wacquant points out, the earlier history of boxing meant longer fights and often to the point where the ending or victory was not determined until one of the individuals were completely knocked out.
There is a logic that is subverted with the techniques employed by Muhammed Ali, argues Wacquant (p. 34). Considered one of the greatest heavyweights of all time, one of the consistent strategies he used, was to tire the other fighter out. To achieve this, Ali would allow the other fighter to hit him, and the harder the better. The more the fighter exerted themselves in the opening rounds, the more they would expend energy. The counter intuitive part of this tactic, is that you have to absorb the hits in order to benefit from them. However, it is a logic that subverts in the ‘interaction’ between violent interaction. Under the normal rules of engagement, a boxer or an army is trying to protect themselves at all costs. This would be an assumption of boxers, and that Ali used to do this obviously confused a lot of his opponents who were expecting to engage in a different way. Ali used to move around a lot, and then, leave himself deliberately wide open Wacquant points out. When the “permanent” structure or the logic of a practice is understood, it can then be manipulated
Wacquant maintains a concept of symbolic violence borrowed from his mentor Pierre Bordeiu (p. v). It is mentioned that the eminent sociologist Pierre Bordieu who supervised his Phd, was involved at the outset when the ethics and methodological questions, issues and concerns of researching the subculture of boxing while directly participating in it was the topic being pursued were raised. Further, the question of the safety of the endeavour is raised by Bordieu as well. One of the dimensions of ‘violence’ that cannot be too over-emphasized, is the lasting impacts of it. Physical disability on the one hand, and emotional ‘scarring’ on the other hand, are two major examples of the probable outcomes of violence. In the case of the research, there is the potential of having both factors emerge. The author took a significant amount of physical risk, and with the support and guidance of a prominent sociologist. This raises a whole number of important considerations, and not just in terms of the ethics, but also in regard to the ‘borderlines’ of cultural appropriation which was an issue that was raised earlier (Hunter, 2010; Craig, 2010).
As a similar approach, Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender and Rights in South Africa (2010) by Mark Hunter and Philippe Bourgois (2010) In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, both approach the subjects in the same way. There is a level of involvement that is announced at the outset, and it is a theme that runs through the entire narrative of the work. Like Wacquant, these studies go fairly deep in terms of the interaction and extent of the engagement. At the same time, they are off setting the proximity by raising the questions about difference. For example, Hunter asserts that it is the “constant” “interconnections” (Hunter, p. 24) bet wen labour and the power relations that define and perpetuate it for workers in South Africa, and the notion of “constant” is similar to the idea of ‘permanence’ discussed in relation to the ‘value’ placed on ‘reason’ or the ‘soul’ over and against the ‘body’: “constant “emotional labour”: managing emotions to make or foster connections between people.” (Hunter, p. 24). Deconstruction means the dismantling of ‘structures’ that hold an argument in place. However, they hold it together with a ‘false’ premise of sorts, and that is the false idea that it could even be ‘permanent’. Deconstruction is the deconstruction of ‘metaphysical’ ideas like “constant” (Hunter, 2010) and “permanent” (Wacquant and Bordieu, 2004). It is in the contrast that information is presented, and that is part of the consequence of this method. There is a contrast between ‘finite’ and ‘constant’ or ‘permanent’. ‘Difference’ can be seen as ‘affective’ in these works in the same sense that there is a relationship between the ‘background’ of a portrait painting and the subject of the portrait painting. The subject would not be defined as a subject, if there was not a ‘background’ (Hunter, 2010; Craig, 2010) by the very definition of the genre and functional application of this form of painting. The difference is what defines the subject, and it is not just the subject alone, so to speak.
The author’s in question insert themselves into a subcultures and cultures in order to ‘engage at the level of the body’, but they do so knowing that it is their ‘differences’ that are what yielding the information that is most useful. And, most useful in terms of the relationship between ‘body’ and ‘violence’, and the body as an object of enslavement by the dominant culture. However, this can only be understood as an integrated ‘body’ and ‘soul’ without hierarchy, if the contrast itself is participated in. The first person approach is a questionable methodological one.
It is difficult to know how far this method can go. In terms of methodological issues, one of the standards for evaluating any scientific fact, is the application of a ‘falsification’ test. We accepted Galileo’s theorem about uniform acceleration because it could be falsified. Because objects of different weights could be dropped at the same time, the potential to ‘falsify’ his theory was a part of the theory itself. Hence, it is what made it scientific. Applied to the method of the author’s of these studies, a point of criticism emerges. For example, there is no question that a drug addict is an individual who is exposed and involved with a ‘subculture’. Heroin is not exactly acquired at Starbucks or Holt Renfrew, and so there is a whole social and cultural context to those behaviours that are essentially ‘marginal’ by virtue of being defined as systemically ‘outside’. The ‘boundaries’ are an important consideration when it comes to violence. Consider again the example of enslavement. An individual who is enslaved to do labour or an individual who is enslaved because they are incarcerated, is directly controlled with the threat of violence. And, the threat of violence, can be an imposed violence under various circumstances or causes. Heroin is a good example of a subculture that ought not to be studies in the same manner as the authors use. There is a threat of violence in the sense that there are all kinds of potentially fatal risks associated. There is a high prevalence of overdoses, there are situations where individuals are robbed and violated by other addicts who are desperate for even small amounts of money or drugs, and then there is the long term imprisonment of addiction itself. Addiction to anything, means a body that is enslaved in terms of time and space. Therefore, as an analogous are of study, could their methods be used accordingly?
There is not much difference between becoming a heroin addict for the sake of studying the subculture, and becoming a boxer in order to achieve the same. Both have a considerable number of risks. And, the difference between the two raises and reinforces one of the important points that the entire work drives at. The risks demonstrate the ‘visceral’ immediacy of the ‘body’ being controlled as it is through a threat of violence. However, with heroin, the situation can be regarded as even riskier. In other words, at what point can it be said that the risk of harm is greater than the possible outcome in terms of research information acquired. In an age when the implications and long term problems of head injuries like concussions are widely known and accepted, allowing someone to study boxing by doing it is no different than allowing them to take heroin and become addicted as a valid research endeavour. One of the ways of criticizing their method, is to see far it can be falsified.
Where the ‘act’ is built into the language. Speech is more than a mere exchange of information, speech, gesture, or whatever form of communication medium is being used, it is something that has ‘affect’ or ‘impact’. A good example of language that affects reality, would be an interrogative such as ‘can you pass me that ashtray?’, and that would likely cause the action of the other. Language too has the power to ‘affect’ Bourdieu argues so that the threat is as significant in the ‘imaginary’ sense as it is in the real sense. Consider the actual ‘material’ relations when it comes to the audience: “the black community doesn’t support its own
boxers at all, no doubt due to lack of income.” (Wacquant, p. 188). There is no professional boxing if there is not an audience to sustain it. Most people see fighting as the ‘big ticket’ expensive television event. Currently, it is mixed martial arts fighting that has eclipsed boxing as the violent arm-to-arm entertainment or form of sport.
The driver for any activity, has to be understood in motivational terms, and in regard to boxing in the black community, Wacquant discovers the irony that while he is embedding himself as a white person in a black subculture, there are other whites within it as well. Moreover, they are there supporting it. He does not mention the motive of boxing supporters, and whether, for example, the activity of gambling is a driver or incentive. It can be said that in a contemporary context, sports and the growing industry or empire of gambling seem to go hand in hand. Without getting into the details of the entire industry, the ‘material relations’ underlying this ‘cultural production’ are an important consideration. As was outlined earlier, points of contrast yield new or clearer information. That the profit incentive perpetuates the phenomenon, it has to be seen as necessary background in the same way that a portrait works with a ‘subject’/background relationship built into the very structure of it.
Wacquant demonstrates a relationship between the body and oppression in impoverished and predominantly ‘black’ Chicago. By engaging on a personal and embedded way, the author describes how points of contrast can serve as points worth dissecting and deconstructing, invert the relationship between ‘changing’ and ‘unchanging’ or what is ‘fixed’ from what can be moulded or modified, and so on. It has been argued that the use and method of situating the ‘body’ in the ‘discourse’ chain or communication structures, is a general approach that has made its way into the lexicon of ideas through the progress of feminist thought. The authors all have explicit and implicit discussions of ‘deconstruction’ as it relates to how the ‘metaphysics’ of ideas create a value hierarchy as well as a hierarchy based on a distinction between ‘reason’ and the ‘senses’. It has been argued that although the ‘circle’ of continually redefining the immediate relationship, “permanent contradictions” (Wacquant, p. vii) yield a better understanding of oppression, that the argument at the same time, could be made without the subjective elements brought by the authors. Of course the more ‘personal’ approach, even in prose style, might seem ‘feminine’, that is not an issue or consideration here. What is important about the subjective approach, is the limit and because it cannot be falsified. There is a danger beyond which their methods cannot be accepted. They create problems rather than solve them if anyone is harmed.
Bourgois, Philippe (2010). In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Francis, Richard C. (2015) Domesticated: Evolution in a Man-Made World. New York: W.W. Norton.
Hunter, Mark (2010). Love in the Time of AIDS: Inequality, Gender and Rights in South Africa. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
Jeffrey, Craig (2010). Timepass: Youth, Class, and the Politics of Waiting in India. Stanford: Stannford University Press.
Wacquant, Loic (2004). Body & Soul. Notebooks of an apprentice Boxer. Oxford: Oxford University Press.