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  • Writer's pictureSpencer Bennington

Martial Arts Studies Conference Presentation

Hello everyone and welcome back to the Rhetorical Roundhouse blog! Last week I introduced you to a fun new video series I've been working on. If you haven't had a chance to check out the first Tiny Tiger Lecture, take a look!

This week, however, I have something a bit longer to share with you. As you may or may not recall, I'm presenting my work at the 5th Annual Martial Arts Studies Conference this week in California! Not only am I excited about visiting a state I've only ever had a layover in, but I'm thrilled to finally meet some of the brilliant scholars I've been reading and citing for the past two years. What's more, I get to tell them about my own research and get some feedback on how to improve.

That said, I wanted to make sure that my presentation was made widely available--something I plan to do for all my future presentations/publications. So I've recorded my conference paper and presentation slides for your viewing pleasure. A transcript of the speaker notes is also featured at the bottom of this post. The MA Studies Conference theme asked us to consider the ways in which martial arts operate as political, so I discuss the ways in which Tae Kwon Do has been changed and shaped rhetorically due to political and ideological forces over time.

I hope you enjoy!

Also, check back soon because I will be updating these videos from the 4C's and ATTW conference presentations I gave earlier this year. Next week I'll share the second installment of the Tiny Tiger Lecture series so don't miss out on that.

As always, thanks for reading/watching.


Transcript of Presentation

Hello everyone--Anyunghashimika!

My name is Spencer Bennington and I am a PhD candidate at the University of South Florida, Tampa where I study Rhetoric and Composition. Because all of my formal academic training has been done in English departments, I tend to view martial arts as texts, narratives, or arguments and I’m happy to share that perspective today with such a diverse array of scholars from multiple disciplinary backgrounds.

My presentation focuses on the Korean martial art of Taekwondo and what I lovingly refer to as the “rhetorical roundhouse,” a blanket term for any situation in which martial arts operate persuasively. Our conference theme asks us to think about how martial arts intersect with politics and, given the long standing interconnected history of politics and rhetoric, I thought it fitting to analyze some of Taekwondo’s past milestone moments as a way to better understand how the art has been mobilized to support arguments for hyper-nationalism, economic development, and, eventually, for peace.

I hope that you all walk away from this presentation with a keener sense of how to recognize moments when your own martial arts are employed rhetorically in various political arenas, in the training hall, studio, octagon or fighting ring, and in media or pop culture. Furthermore, I hope that the collection of fighting scholars in this room can help me continue to respond to such public-facing political arguments, to reframe them in a way that is productive, socially responsible, and sustainable for the next generation of practitioners.

But, before we don our social justice warrior dobaks and gis to go save the martial arts world from the political propaganda machine, I should probably define some terms. Chief among these is the word “rhetoric.” Even in my own discipline, this word is debated, expanded, limited, and warped depending on the theoretical landscape in which it resides.

Classically, rhetoric was defined by Aristotle as “the faculty of observing, in any given case, the available means of persuasion.” The word itself comes from the Ancient Greek root for the verb to speak or say and is often associated with the political or legal forums of Ancient Greece. In this historical context, Aristotle identified what he called three species of rhetoric:

Deliberative (the speech used to promote or oppose public policy and legislation)

Forensic (the speech used in a court of law to proclaim the innocence or guilt of an accused) and

epideictic (ceremonial speech to praise, blame, mourn, or celebrate an occasion or event). However, despite the word’s origins in the Greek language, rhetoric is not a Greek invention. By this I mean that rhetoric as a practice is nearly universal human experience, one that manifests itself differently depending on historical context, cultural values, or political power dynamics.

Understood more broadly by contemporary theorist Wayne C Booth, rhetoric can be defined as the “entire range of resources that human beings share for producing effects on one another.” This focus on what Xing Lu refers to as “human rhetorics” allows us to recognize rhetoric in social contexts other than those Aristotle invokes his three species, especially those that don’t privilege public participation in legislature, law, or ceremony. Furthermore, Booth’s definition allows us to understand rhetoric as an exchange between participants instead of a speaker acting persuasively on an audience. This allows us to see rhetoric more in the way Kenneth Burke theorized as a form of “identification” or establishing a common ground (1945). Also important to understanding Booth’s definition is that this “range of resources” shared between participants don’t necessarily have to be logocentric. If that’s the case, we can certainly imagine human actions and artifacts that serve to produce a meaningful effect on an audience.

In the United States, for example,the star-spangled banner, is a song employed to persuade a large group to unite under a common national identity, to encourage a particular emotional reaction associated with patriotism.

Whenever played, it’s customary to stand reverently, with one’s right hand over their heart, facing the American flag. An action as simple as sitting or kneeling during this anthem serves as a kind of counterpoint aimed at the prevailing hegemonic order. This gesture, like the song itself, is also powerfully rhetorical, despite it being non-verbal, as it provokes a discussion about this so-called “shared” identity of American citizenship by visually highlighting racial inequity in this country.

If a song can bring grown men to tears and a simple body posture can enrage legions of conservative sports fans to burn piles of Nikes, how could something as dynamic and complex as a system of fighting NOT be considered rhetorical? This is especially true when considering that martial arts like Taekwondo are so densely packed with ethnic mythologies, cultural histories, theories of power, moral and ethical philosophies, and bodily epistemologies that it’s impossible for them to not facilitate such heated discussions or visceral reactions from external audiences as well as internal ones.

To be sure, I understand all martial arts styles as rhetorical in a number of ways. They are often rhetorically invented in response to a particular cultural or social exigence, they often undergo a series of re-inventions during their formative years depending on how the art spreads or how it’s kept isolated, they are often operationalized to produce specific contextual meaning for various outside stakeholders, and they serve as institutions in the Foucauldian sense as Bowman (2015) reminds us by disciplining practitioners with participant-facing rhetorics. Today, I’ll examine Taekwondo’s positioning on this historical, political trajectory to better illustrate some of its particularly rhetorically effective moments.

Before I proceed I want to make a quick note: Recently I’ve been reading a lot of Paul Bowman’s work and I’ve noticed in his own critiques as well as the places where he’s quoting other Martial Arts Studies folks doing media studies work or cultural critique, I see the word “discourse” come up a lot. So really quickly I just wanted to establish what I think is a key difference between rhetoric and discourse. Put simply, I think the difference is intent. Discourse connotes the kind of unmediated chatter or reaction to a phenomenon. For example, Bowman (2016) discusses the kinds of jokes different communities tell about martial arts as a type of discourse worth studying. In this way, I think of the word more in terms of an audience’s response. Rhetoric, on the other hand, suggests an intent, a specific, often persuasive purpose or design created for a particular audience or exigency. The moments in Tae Kwon Do’s history I’ll be looking at today are rhetorical because they feature Tae Kwon Do leaders performing, transmitting, or disciplining towards a specific purpose.

This diagram is one way I’ve tried to theorize the ways in which Taekwondo has operated rhetorically for outside spectator audiences as well as inside practitioners over the course of the 20th century. Today I’ll briefly discuss three of these milestone moments as they reflect the political invention of Taekwondo between 1954 and 1973, the globalization of Taekwondo as a lucrative cultural export and combat sport from 73 to the present, and the rise in Taekwondo diplomacy after its first appearance as a medal sport in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. Throughout these periods, there has been a fluctuating emphasis placed on various internal, institutional rhetorics stemming from Confucian value systems, Daoist philosophy, and modern foreign affairs policies.

One of the first ways Tae Kwon Do functioned rhetorically and politically was in 1955 when a council of Korean martial arts masters agreed on proposing its name to president Sygman Rhee. Two years prior, General Choi Hong Hi had demonstrated this nameless art for president Rhee as an effective military combat system, one that, according to Choi and other famous Tae Kwon Do pioneers, was instrumental in fighting the Japanese in World War Two and the communist north in the Korean War. President Rhee saw the kicking techniques and immediately thought of the Korean art of Takkyeon, a type of leg-wrestling folk game that was still practiced to some degree in his youth. Naturally, Rhee wanted to attach this label to Choi’s art to give it a distinctly Korean tradition in the wake of annihilation left from civil war. But Choi and many others resisted this naming, and with good reason. Not only was their fighting art dissimilar to Takkyeon, it wasn’t Korean in origin at all!

Choi, like the majority of other original Kwan leaders, studied Okinawan Shotokan Karate while pursuing post-secondary education in Japan. What they were teaching in Korea was Karate through and through, from the techniques, to the philosophy, to the training practices such as kata or patterns, something Steven Capener, Alex Gillis, and Udo Moenig have documented thoroughly. In addition, Takkyeon was always more of a folk game, sport, or ritual performance—it was never intended to be a practical fighting system in the way Choi envisioned his art. So the masters needed to come up with a name that appeased President Rhee’s nationalistic concerns while balancing some sense of the authenticity of this system as a practical system for self defense. As Moenig (2015) explains, the name Tae Kwon Do was selected more for its auditory similarity to the name Takkyeon and less for its meaning or significance.

Ultimately, it would be this rhetorical exigency, one of building up what was, in 1953, one of the poorest nations on the planet, that demanded Taekwondo become a bastion for South Korean history, tradition, and pride, one that would drive the first wave of Tae Kwon Do as a political argument between 1955 and 1973.

One of the Chief ways Tae Kwon Do was used to promote the strength of the South Korean nation was in international demonstrations. General Choi travelled with his team across Asia much in the spirit of a military parade to showcase the physicality, power, and indomitable spirit of his people through Taekwondo. This kind of political argument is a familiar one for martial arts fans as we’ve seen countless examples of characters like Huo Yuanjia in China or Jack Johnson in the Jim Crow American South perform the role of champion for a nation or for a race, a trope that would be carried through into films like Bruce Lee’s Fists of Fury, Jet Li’s Fearless, or even Sly Stallone’s Rocky 4.

Taekwondo became first internationally known through Choi’s demonstrations, but transmitted more widely as a result of the Vietnam War. Korean masters were dispatched to train soldiers from across the world in hand-to-hand combat and, as such, created an opportunity for Taekwondo to emerge in the West, just in time for the Kung Fu craze of the 1970’s. Newly formed Tae Kwon Do organizations like the World Tae Kwon Do Federation saw this as an opportunity for South Korea in the post-reconstruction era, one that could be quite lucrative if leveraged properly. One problem, however, was that General Choi’s brand of Tae Kwon Do, despite being foundationally important, no longer served the present rhetorical situation. Choi’s art had evolved to include 36 forms which all signified some connection to Korean mythology or nationalist heroes. In addition, Choi’s International Taekwondo federation had ties to the communist north and was rumored to be in favor of a reunified Korea, a very unpopular political sentiment at the time. If Taekwondo were to appeal to Western audiences, changes had to be made, and Choi had to go.

This begins the era of Modern Taekwondo, when the more traditional martial art as self defense was transformed into a combat sport with an emphasis on full-contact continuous sparring, something that could be codified, packaged, and offered up to the International Olympics Committee for review. At the same time, this is when the techniques of Taekwondo took a radical departure visually from their Shotokan roots. The famous high-flying kicks of the sport emerged and found their way onto the silver screen to visually cement the art as impressive and unique, despite its still being called Korean Karate in many English publications. Finally, and I argue it’s just as important, this is when the WT formalized new sets of forms or pumsae in Korean, to be used as a way of testing students to become black belts.

These palgwe and later Taeguek pumsae symbolized an institutional rhetoric radically different from Choi’s patriotic and conservative forms for practitioners. Still distinctly “Eastern” in nature, these forms were designed to embody each of the eight principles of the taegeuk. Again, aptly timed for adoption in the United States, this shift to more explicitly Daoist rhetorics appealed to the counter cultures of 1960’s and 70’s youth searching for new, exotic paths to enlightenment.

These are all examples of Taekwondo as an institution responding to a shifting rhetorical exigency: international marketability. South Korean leadership recognized the path to political success involved economic development, and they saw the inherent value in Taekwondo as a cultural export. The pinnacle of this tumultuous period of economic growth came when Taekwondo was accepted as an officially recognized medal sport in the 2000 Sydney olympics, a milestone which signified Taekwondo’s formal transition from a Korean art to a global sport.

Since this time, Taekwondo has only expanded in popularity across the world. The only lingering argument is the question of a divided Korea, and even in this discussion, Taekwondo has served as a lynchpin for reunification dialogues under the maxim of “peace is more precious than triumph,” or, more recently “one world, one Taekwondo.”

With high profile joint demonstrations like the ones at the 2015 WT Championships, the 2018 Pyeonchang Olympics opening ceremony, and, more recently, at the Vatican or United Nations, contemporary Taekwondo diplomats are elucidating the ability of their art to physically bring a divided people together and reveal their common bonds. One thing I find fascinating, among many, about these performances, is they usually don’t include sparring (the practice which paved the way for Tae Kwon Do in the Olympics) or traditional pumsae (one of the key practices which visually differentiated Choi’s International Tae Kwon Do Federation from World Tae Kwon Do), instead, they are almost entirely comprised of outrageous acrobatic stunts, gymnastic maneuvers, and board breaking. Perhaps this is to suggest that, when united, Korea can achieve things that once seemed impossible, or can advance Tae Kwon Do further into the future.

I don’t have the time today to go into the detail that I’d like about each of these historical moments so I’ll revisit the point that I think is most important: Taekwondo is a martial art with a short, but complex history, one that features many moments where the art has been mobilized as an overtly political tool in various rhetorical ways. While it began as a physical argument for Korean strength and pride, it transitioned to an economically significant discussion about South Korea’s place in the globalized 21st century market, and still persists as a commonplace argument or rhetorical topos for discussions of Korean reunification. In addition, throughout these political transitions, Taekwondo served as an institution which disciplined its practitioners through any number of embodied rhetorics stemming from Confucian conservative values, to Daoist philosophies of self-cultivation, to various tenets of interpersonal and international conduct.

Despite its many rocky moments in the hands of an authoritarian government, Taekwondo managed to survive as an art which conditions practitioners to think and behave in a way which ultimately benefits a civilized society and serves as an important foil to various other contemporary martial institutions, like the so-called “fascist fight clubs” which incubate and propagate racism, bigotry, hatred, and violence. As such, it’s important for us to understand martial arts not only through their archival history, or even their narrative history, but through their rhetorical history as well, to question the ways these arts are communicated to practitioners and what kinds of communication they facilitate between practitioners and outside audiences.

Only then will we be able to identify with such institutionalized practitioner groups and intervene effectively to, with any luck, prevent unnecessary conflict before it arises.

I believe that rhetoric, at its core, is very much like martial arts in that it seeks to find pathways toward an understanding of ourselves and others who might be quite different from us. It’s our duty as martial arts scholars, then, to help ensure this understanding is genuine, peaceful, productive, and moves toward a greater good. The first step is to look closely at the disciplines producing political, martial bodies and listening carefully to the ways in which those bodies are taught to communicate with outsiders.

Thank you very much for the ways you are all already paying such close attention, and thank you for listening--Kamsahamnida.

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