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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Everybody Gets a Sick Day

Welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog, your home for martial arts studies, rhetoric, and Tae Kwon Do. Last week I finally shared with you all the first step of my Tae Kwon Do journey including some raw prose from my dissertation in progress (and pictures of me with hair!) so be sure to check that out. This week, I'm feeling a bit under the weather so, unfortunately, I'm delaying the flexibility video project that I've been teasing you with for the past few weeks. I know, I know, everybody is eagerly awaiting the sage stretching advice from a guy who routinely pulls a hammy...but trust me, it's a good routine and I don't want to shortchange anyone who might benefit from it.

So what to do? Well, a lot's been going on in the past few weeks so I feel you're due a brief research update. These are going to come in no particular order so strap in!

1. Old News but Good News!

Have you heard of this Paul Bowman fellah? He's kind of the father of Martial Arts Studies as we know and love it and he also happens to be a really good writer. There's a lot of academics out there who have smart things to say or who do really fascinating research, but not a whole lot who present research in a way that has me flipping through their book like its the next big page-turning best-seller. Paul is one of the few AND, lucky for all of us, he's got a new book out! EVEN's totally free!! Mighty generous if you ask me. Deconstructing Martial Arts is free to read and download through Cardiff University press and physical copies are available for purchase on Amazon. Get yours today!

But don't just take my word for it, check out Ben Judkins's review of the book over at Kung Fu Tea

2. New Martial Arts Studies Journal!

I know, I know, what is this, the Paul Bowman fan club? Close but, you see, it's not just Bowman who's featured in the eighth issue of the international Martial Arts Studies Journal: Bruce Lee's Legacies. The newest publication features articles from Kyle Barrowman, Chris Goto-Jones, George Jennings, and Collin McGuire, all focusing on Bruce Lee's lasting impact. The issue also features a conference report on the 4th annual Martial Arts Studies conference by Xiujie Ma and Zizheng Yu as well as Alex Channon's review of Janet O'shea's new book Risk, Failure, Play.

Go forth and download your copy today!

Ok...maybe this is the Paul Bowman fan club. Fight me.

3. Everybody Seems to be Chatting about Bruce these days...

This isn't so much a research update as a bit of chatter that's been going around in the martial arts communities as of late. A good many articles and news spots have been dedicated to Bruce Lee recently, partly because of his depiction in Tarantino's newest movie, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood. There exists and interesting interplay between Bruce Lee's distance from the current generation Z population who potentially make up some portion of the viewing audience for such a film and who, likely, aren't the most knowledgeable regarding the lines between fact, fiction, and the fantastical and his iconic status for those audience members who have more emotional attachments to films like Enter the Dragon. In a nutshell, Shannon Lee, Bruce's daughter and president of the Bruce Lee Foundation, was more than disheartened at the way her father was depicted in the film. Then actor who played Bruce Lee in the film, Michael Moh, has recently responded here. And, of course, all us knuckle-heads chatted about it on Facebook. Huffpost featured this article recently regarding Bruce Lee's redefinition of Asian American masculinity so that might be worth a read if you're less interested in the hot takes on the new film. Or, maybe you're interested in picking apart Tarantino's apparent knack for stealing from other films as demonstrated in this video essay. OR, maybe none of this interests you and you'd like to move on to item number 4...

4. New Projects Underway!

So, I'm a man who wears many hats. Recently I've been hired as the Graduate Assistant to the Professional and Technical Writing Program at the University of South Florida. This means that I work to assist Dr. Lisa Meloncon and Dr. Tanya Zarlengo to ensure that anything that needs to be done in terms of curriculum updates, instructor training, and general administrative maintenance is completed efficiently. One of my tasks this summer has been to establish an online Community of Practice for the field of Technical and Professional Communication. This serves the purpose of removing content from the proprietary paywall clutches of content management systems like Canvas and helps provide open access instructor materials to people like you! While it's still in the draft stage, I don't think I'll get in too much trouble by pointing you to the (currently under construction) so you can get a sneak peak at some of the offerings there. Now, you may be asking yourself, what does technical writing have to do with sweet roundhouse kicks? I'm glad you asked! As you may or may not know, my dissertation focuses on the kinds of lessons people interested in rhetoric or writing studies can learn from examining martial arts manuals. These manuals are, in fact, a particular genre of technical writing as they seek to instruct audiences in the fine art of kicking people in the face and/or walking a path of Zen enlightenment. My research questions look very closely at the way these manuals use instructions to encourage practitioners not only to perform new techniques, but to embody particular rhetorical and philosophical beliefs (specifically those extending from the Chinese classic I-Ching) through regimented training. Speaking of my research, let's move on to the actual research update for today, shall we?

5. Pack Your Bags, We're Going to France!

I'm happy to announce that I have been invited to present a part of my dissertation research at the 6th annual Martial Arts Studies Conference in Marseille, France in July of 2020!! The theme of the conference Martial Arts, Religion, and Spirituality, and, given the I-Ching's original use as a divination guide, my study of it's incorporation into Tae Kwon Do seems pretty relevant. Speaking of relevant, I'm happy to share that my research idol, Udo Moenig, has recently published a new article on the significance of the taegeuk pumsae, one I'll definitely be citing in my presentation next year. Be sure to read it online here!

Here's the abstract I submitted in case you're interested:



Embodying the Dao: Tae Kwon Do pumsae as Moving Meditation


Tae Kwon Do scholarship has focused primarily on the discipline’s mythologized beginnings or technical developments into a combat sport (Moenig 2015). Some recent articles describe connections between Tae Kwon Do and Eastern religious systems (Martinez 2018), but these explorations only scratch the surface by investigating the presence of symbols like the taegeuk in training studios. My presentation takes this research one step further by examining the connections between the eight color-belt pumsae (forms) recognized by the World Tae Kwon Do Federation (WT) and Daoist cosmological principles extending from the I-Ching. Furthermore, I analyze these forms within the historical context of their design to suggest that this imbuing of spirituality into martial practice may have functioned more as a way to appeal to Western audiences than any type of genuine attempt to transform Tae Kwon Do into a more reflective, meditative practice.

My research interrogates a variety of Tae Kwon Do manuals to understand the methods by which a practitioner embodies these eight principles of palgwe/bagua through pumsae practice and what this means for the larger spiritual cultivation of the martial artist. As Udo Moenig (2015) has already pointed out, this self-cultivation component is not always stressed at every dojang, thus leaving contemporary Tae Kwon Do in a state of fractured identity. With this in mind, I use autoethnographic notes as an observer-participant to better contextualize how the average American practitioner understands or ignores the spiritual component of their practice.

My audience will receive a keener understanding of how the palgwe correlate with Tae Kwon Do pumsae, the historical exigency for their design, a contextualized understanding of how spiritual components are (mis)understood by contemporary practitioners, and a theory of what these components could mean for transferable inter/intrapersonal skills development.

Key Words

Tae Kwon Do, Daoism, pumsae practice, embodiment, self-cultivation


See you in Marseille!

5. Bonus Preview!

So here's the thing...I had big plans for this summer. All said, I accomplished a lot (and I'm not finished yet!). I got two chapter drafts written and revised for the dissertation with a third chapter draft in progress, I read some sweet books for pleasure (can you believe it?) I did my whole jobby-job thing, traveled, wrote, created job documents, and lots of other great things I'm proud of. The one thing I thought I was ready to do that I had to put on hold, however, was write a big-boy manuscript for a journal in my field. I started one, then it took a turn toward a totally different argument that I don't really have research to support, then I got sad and stopped. BUT! After that, I realized that perhaps I do have the steam in my engines to write a manuscript for my Martial Arts Studies colleagues, particularly one that stems from the work I presented at the conference this summer. So, to give myself the necessary kick in the pants to finish it, I'll post the introduction I wrote for it here today as incentive. Let me know what you think!


Working title: That was a rhetorical roundhouse kick: Understanding Martial Arts as Disciplinary Institutions.


Martial arts have previously been described as institutions in the Foucauldian sense (Bowman 2015, 2016). Essentially, this means that a martial art can function as a standardized, regulatory agency, one which disciplines practitioners to behave in certain ways, subscribe to specific ideologies, and/or embody particular philosophies. Institutions not only discipline those practitioners who exist inside the community, however, they also often project a well-crafted image for public consumption, one which protects the sanctity and security of the martial entity. For example, Foucault’s discussion of the modern prison system reveals how penal institutions discipline those incarcerated while simultaneously promoting these structures as bastions of law and order, cornerstones of a well-organized, sophisticated society. The same is true for mental health institutions. The bodies of patients described in Foucault’s sanatoriums are highly regulated, policed, diagnosed, and pathologized and this process is understood culturally as a system necessary, humane, and beneficial in the age of modern psychiatric medicine. Bowman (2015, 2016) has rightfully pointed out that martial arts, especially those that have been standardized or state-sponsored I would add, function much in the same way as the prison or the asylum by shaping what Foucault refers to as “docile” bodies, those that are malleable, prepared and ready to be transformed through disciplinary means.

But what exactly causes a body to become docile instead of recalcitrant? Bowman and many others in the martial arts studies community have rightfully pointed out the role discourse and media play in shaping or, perhaps, softening people’s attitudes toward martial arts and even the martial practices themselves. This discourse could extend from texts as disparate as a Gichin Funakoshi Karate training manual or the latest video game in the Mortal Kombat franchise. Perhaps this discourse also plays a role in “softening” would-be practitioners, persuading them to investigate a martial art further by more direct means.

This is because martial arts discourse does much to shape the public opinion of the martial arts themselves and, in many cases, change the actual practice of these arts. Consider, for example, Bruce Lee’s famous "three kicks" and the uptick in people seeking such skills. In my own experience, I've witnessed a number of martial artists attempt to learn how to break boards with a one-inch punch after seeing Bruce Lee’s technique appropriated in the Kill Bill movies. This is all to say that the unmediated discussions, representations, and appropriations of martial arts help change the institution itself. Obviously then, paying attention to such texts and media is important, but there is still a missing link between the thing itself (martial arts institution) and its supplemental discursive representations.

The State maintains certain institutions like the prison by persuading citizens that it is natural, necessary, and important for public safety—a place of punishment, atonement, and rehabilitation. The discourse surrounding prisons is, in many ways, responding to and in conversation with the kinds of narratives initiated and popularized by the institution itself. I argue that in order to better understand martial arts institutions we must investigate how they communicate themselves to outsiders, how they present an individual system of sport or combat as elite, scientific, family-oriented, educational, spiritual, etc. In other words, it’s important to investigate how martial arts function rhetorically.

This article will discuss a methodology for investigating such research questions by comparing the usefulness of rhetorical analysis, discourse analysis, an rhetorical historiography in understanding the development of Tae Kwon Do over the past sixty-five years. Ultimately, this case study will offer readers new ways of examining their own martial arts as rhetorical institutions, ones that utilize communication tactics to foster discourse communities or market a particular style for a specific exigency.


Ok, maybe it's a little rougher than I remember...all the more reason to get up off my butt and finish the draft! Wish me luck :)

That's enough for this week. I promise, promise, promise that next week is really going to be the week where I give you some more sweat video content so stay tuned.

As always, thanks for reading.


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