Truth in the Martial Arts: Aikido, Violence and the Practice of the Self

‘Truth in the Martial Arts.’ Introduction to a paper delivered at the Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff Wales, July 19-21, 2016


Giorgio Agamben. 1993[2000]. “Form-of-Life.Means Without End: Notes on Politics. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press

Part of my interest in writing this paper was to take an opportunity to think about Giorgio Agamben’s concept of a form-of-life. Despite its apparent affinity to sociological concepts like Marx’s species being (i.e. non-alienated existence) and Simmel’s social forms, this concept has never been very clear to me. In an early essay with that title (Agamben, 1993 [2000]), Agamben introduces the term to describe the conditions under which a way out from the contemporary relationship between sovereign power, life, and violence can be found. In his analysis—now extended through a cycle of several books– political power is founded on the isolation of naked or bare life (the basic fact of mere living shared with animals).  Going back to the ancient Roman figure of the Homo Sacer (sacred man), the original structure of sovereign power has been defined by the power to designate one who, like a bandit or an exile, but also like animals or livestock, is reduced to naked life; a being no longer protected by law and who may be killed without legal repercussions. In contrast to this, he writes, “By the term form-of-life … I mean a life that can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to isolate something such as naked life” (2-3).

This has always seemed very promising, as it derives in a logically satisfying way from his critique of the forms of contemporary power, but also puzzling when it comes to deciphering what it actually means. Is there a sociological referent to this concept form-of-life?

His clarification unfortunately is equally mystifying:

A life that cannot be separated from its form is a life for which what is at stake in its way of living is living itself. What does this formulation mean? It defines a life —human life — in which the single ways, acts, and processes of living are never simply facts but always and above all possibilities of life, always and above all power [potenza as opposed to potere] (4).

To some degree, the problem is specific to Agamben’s analysis of the “demonic” relationship between sovereign power and biopolitics.  In an era in which relationships of power are centered on the separation, securing, manipulation or administration of naked life or bare life—that is, on life as a kind of biological minimum (zoe) shorn from the bodily or cultural forms through which it is lived (bios)—can life be reintegrated in a manner that can transform the relation between life and politics?

Light on TransmissionIn casting about for models of such a form-of-life, lately I have wondered whether this is a question amenable to a reflection on the type of training we practice in the martial arts. This might come under a more general query, ‘What is the meaning of the martial arts in our contemporary, (late modern), conduct of life?’ But more specifically, to follow in the footsteps of Ben Spatz’s project—What Can a Body Do?—we might ask, can a body “do” political ontology? Can a body alter the foundations of political life? Can the transformation of the body through the practice of Aikido (or other martial arts) provide a fundamental reorientation to the living of life in which life can no longer be separated from its form? Do the martial arts offer a model of a form-of-life that is politically salient today?

In this regard I wanted to take up the theme of ‘truth in the martial arts’, a phrase from the opening pages of Mitsugi Saotome’s recent reflection on his relationship as Uchi Deshi—live in student–to Morihei Ueshiba, the founder of Aikido. What is the nature of this truth?

See the complete essay here.

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