The Material Culture of the Boxer – a post-fieldwork reflection

[By Pete Lockwood, a former MSc Social Anthropology student (2013-14) from UCL]
When I conducted fieldwork in an Essex boxing gym for my MSc dissertation in Social Anthropology over the summer months of 2014, like a lot of other fieldworkers might do, I was reading bits of theory that seemed to speak to my emerging ethnographic data. Because my fieldwork was still going on, I ended up thinking about a few ideas that ultimately never made it into my dissertation. In the end, my argument turned out to be about the self, and the forms of practical “poiesis” through which the self is transformed in boxing (cf. Herzfeld 1985). But in building an argument about the relationship between the “sensori-motor conduct” of sport – practical activity that is inherently perceptual and has effects on human beings as subjects (Warnier 2009: 465) – and notions of personhood in a Western social context, I perhaps didn’t do enough justice to the “material culture” that “props up” sensori-motoricity as a principle of being-in-the-world (Warnier 2007: 1-3). For Warnier, material culture is investigated for the ways in which it is put “in motion” with the body, and how these forms of motivity affect or mould the body in relation to it, and generate subjectivities and ideas about the world (2007: 10-11).
Doing fieldwork in a boxing gym generally meant engaging with materials as objects in motion, rather than as signs (Warnier 2007: 3, 5-7), and what emerged was a study of practices that did stuff rather than meant something. As such, I always had my eye on what things did – their efficaciousness, to follow Jean-Pierre Warnier (2009). Ethnographically speaking, this often meant thinking about how things were conceived into other types of things when put into certain kinds of motion (Henare et al. 2009: 14-15; Warnier 2007: 3). At the Boxing Hut, non-human things such as the punching bag tended to function according to a form of practically effected conceptual transubstantiation rather than within an order of semiosis (Keane 2003). Consider, for instance, that when a boxer begins to punch a bag it might at first simply be a matter of hitting an object in order to show off. Nick, one of my informants, was enthusiastic about the role of bag-work in “showcasing” power and speed. But if one observes the way boxers engage with bags during bag-work, as it’s called, there is a noticeable change in the form of engagement between boxer and bag. Boxers begin to move around the bag like a fighter in the ring. They pick their punches, placing them high and low at carefully thought-out intervals. The boxers block invisible ripostes, and roll imaginary jabs. The bag becomes more than material charged with meaning – it changes the way trainees act towards it. Boxers enter into an activity where the bag becomes another being, and a conceptually problematic being at that.
At the beginning of a bag-work sequence, a timer will beep (loudly), signalling that the next round of bag-work is to begin. Once this beeper goes off, the boxers begin punching the bags and the coach leading the session will verbally cajole the boxers into striking it as effectively as they can. “Give it all you’ve got” – “Fast ten! Fast ten!” – “Dig deep!” – “Push the bag right back!” In this period of heightened physical intensity, the bag becomes an enemy – something to be defeated, to be pushed back. For one of my informants, boxing was related to a personal need to “let out aggression”, and the outlet of bag-work was a big part of that. Whilst this might evoke a longstanding strain of anthropological literature on violence and aggression (cf. Wilkinson: 2014), I want to consider how a non-human thing can – in a Western cosmology that tends to deny things agency (Latour 1993) – become a locus for such aggression. During this period the coach will berate the boxers, suggesting strongly that to give up or to slow down entails a failure of their character to withstand the pain and exhaustion of constant punching.
Consider also that in some bag-work exercises boxers partner-up, and the striking partner will have his fellow trainee boxer stand behind the bag and hold it in place in order to stop it from swinging backwards. In reinforcing the stability of the bag, the partnership allows it to take on even more of a problematic presence for the striking partner. The bag’s “bag-ness” as it were is accentuated. Punching bags tend to be made from leather or vinyl and are filled with grain, sand or rags that allow them to become misshapen by punches, but in such a way that they essentially “absorb” the power directed at them. So whilst bags are designed to feel good to punch, they are also made to last. But instead of swinging away, with a partner holding it in place the bag is always in the way. The bag becomes sheer obduracy; evoking the sense that most young men in Essex have of being constrained in some way, usually by the social forces they apprehend in their working lives. As much as it is about honing technique, bag-work involves the focused “release” (Wilkinson: 2014) of the inner essence – the self that is really “there” – through combat with an indefatigable foe. The bag’s obdurate material properties have a set of affordances that lend them to their imaginative use by coaches and their trainee boxers (Ingold 2007; Sneath et al. 2009). Bags are built to evoke unbreakable bodies – to offer trainee boxers a (somewhat offensively limited) perpetual opponent.
In general, boxers do not become subjects according to a logic of identification with the objects they use (Warnier 2009: 468). Warnier writes that the Mankon in Cameroon are socialised into a political culture where their identity and notion of self as a political subject happens via an analogical identification with the clay pots that contain substances (2007, 2009). Persons see themselves as containers, whose surfaces (the skin) are ceremonially embalmed in substances associated with the king, like raffia wine (Warnier 2007: 38). Boxers on the other hand do not identify, they incorporate (Warnier 2007: 168). Wraps are folded around the palms, wrists, knuckles and upper arm to support the joints when punching. Cushioned boxing gloves are then put on over the wraps to further protect the hands. Trainee boxers walk into the hut as ordinary humans, and are then upgraded; augmented with the components of the “real art”, as my friend Dave put it. Whilst boxers might appear as moving, punching and rolling networks of assembled parts (including body parts like the quad muscles in the thighs that have their musculature built-up specifically to improve stability) it’s worth noting that this human-non-human arrangement is a function of training and not an effect. Materials are incorporated into the body to enable its transformation through the long hours of training: the relentless pad-work, bag-work and shadow-boxing that make up technical training. The work of habitus formation – the creation of the fighter through the slow build-up of embodied dispositions that Loic Wacquant discussed in his classic ethnography of boxing in Chicago (2004) – relies upon the way these human-material combinations become imprinted upon bodily dispositions. Perhaps, then, the trainee boxer can be viewed as something of a cyborg (Haraway 1991), whose modified pugilistic habitus is contingent upon the incorporation of materials into an image of the body, a schema to follow Warnier (2007: 278): the boxer who, when he “gloves up” assumes a stance towards his opponent that puts in motion a Western ideology of the singular self vs. all that opposes its victory.
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Henare, A., M. Holbraad & S. Wastell. (2007). “Introduction: thinking through things”, Thinking Through Things: Theorising artefacts ethnographically, eds. A. Henare et al., Abdingdon: Routledge.
Herzfeld, M. (1985). The Poetics of Manhood: Contest and Identity in a Cretan Mountain Village, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Ingold, T. (2007). “Materials against materiality”, Archaeological Dialogues, 14: 1, 1-16.
Keane, W. (2003). “Semiotics and the social analysis of material things”, Language & Communication, 23, 409–425.
Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern, Harvard: Harvard University Press.
Wilkinson, G. (2014). “Verbal aggression and post-modern football fans: linguistic style and community”, unpublished MSc dissertation, UCL.
Sneath, D., M. Holbraad & M. A. Pedersen. (2009). “Technologies of the Imagination: An Introduction”, Ethnos: Journal of Anthropology, 74 (1), 5-30.
Wacquant, L. (2004). Body & Soul: Notebooks of an Apprentice Boxer, Oxford: Oxford University
Warnier, J.-P. (2007) The Pot-King: The Body and Technologies of Power. Leiden: Brill.
(2009). “Technology as Efficacious Action on Objects . . . and Subjects”, Journal of Material Culture, 14 (4), 459-470.

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