Sunday, March 15, 2015

What Became of Bloodsports...

A few years ago, after watching the 1973 film The Sting, with Paul Newman and Robert Redford, I had the idea that every successful movie is a sort of con-game, wherein the audience gets “taken for a ride” willingly. 

Seeing the more recent movie, The Wrestler, with Mickey Rourke, had me thinking that professional wrestling is drama boiled down to its most primal attribute: physical antagonism between the featured performers. When people discuss their favourite scenes from the movies, it isn’t clever dialogue or even imaginative camera-work that they recount. It is instead specific actions, and often, these involve aggression and violence.

My thinking was that professional wrestling does away with the boring stuff between the fighting, and gets right to the latter. Attending a local professional wrestling match recently, I found that this conception might be outmoded. It was true, in other words, of the wrestling that was televised when I was a boy. But since then, it has become a much bigger business, with the most popular North American professional wrestlers being in the employ of World Wrestling Entertainment, a multimillion-dollar concern. There are in the WWE elaborate storylines that are carried on between matches, which serve in turn as the “battle scenes” in the drama, until the whole thing comes to a climax with the “championship rumble.” 

The C4 Wrestling league that put on the show I saw at the Columbus hall in Vanier, certainly does not afford such thick plotlines. 

Very Bloody Sports in Roman Times.

What I saw at the spectacle was a kind of pantomime of the blood sports that were a larger part of popular entertainment even until the nineteenth century. In this, they are quite alike with popular movies and TV programs, many of which offer a variably realistic imitation of the blood-soaked amusements that have existed in every culture. 

Humanitarian concern for the welfare of animals and people, too, did during Victorian times bring such enduringly popular entertainments as bear-baiting (where dogs were set loose upon a chained ursine) to an end. But less conspicuous blood sports such as dog- and cock-fighting have continued as underground spectacle into the present day: this was revealed a few years ago, when Michael Vick, a pro-football player in the U.S., was arrested as part of police-sting on dog-baiting operations. 

Certain blood-sports remain legal, if controversial, today: bullfighting, for example. The latter might be a surviving relic of the gladiatorial contests of Roman times, but other, completely legitimate sports have strong blood-sport undertones, as well. 

Pro (or amateur) ice-hockey is supposed to be about teams getting a puck past an opponent’s goal-tender.  However, aside from scoring a goal, the loudest spectator cheers come when two or more players become involved in a glove-tossing brawl (yes, there is a web site devoted especially to this topic). The crowd goes ecstatic when, as sometimes occurs, the benches of both teams go empty with all players fighting on the ice. Skirmishes of this type are rare in pro-football. But the whole point of that game is for players to violently tackle one another for possession of the ball. 

In recent years, the sport called “ultimate fighting”, or “mixed-martial arts”, has stolen some of the thunder that once made professional wrestling so conspicuous. Unlike wrestling, there is a contest to a mixed-marital arts fight. “Ultimate fighting” was considered so violent that some jurisdictions (including the province of Ontario) forbade it. 

Audience Participation.

As for professional wrestling, it certainly keeps alive the old form of amusement, in which the line between spectator and performer is uncertain At the show, the wrestlers did on several occasions leave the ring — sometimes spectacularly, going over the ropes and crashing violently into the seats below. Certainly, spectators affected by this spontaneously planned departure from the ring, were informed beforehand of what would happen (they may have even been friends or family of the organizers).  But the two- or three-hundred people there for the event, as with any pro wrestling show, were happy to participate in all the fun. 

Michel Foucault’s book translated into English as Discipline and Punish, discusses the gradual end of public executions during modern times. These events were not only deliriously popular with the masses. As recently as 1759 in France, capital punishment was tortuously brutal in execution. In the opening passages, Foucault cites from eyewitness description the ordeal of a traitor subject to equine draw-and-quartering. 

Except that the four horse-teams wouldn’t buck with enough force to cleanly remove the condemned man’s limbs from his trunk, even after several attempts. He then wailed and screamed interminably before succumbing to his wounds. Punishments such as these were used a Enlightened propaganda against the ancien regime. But as Foucault makes clear, the more brutal the method of execution, the more enthused were the bystanders thereof. 

During the early days of the French Revolution, when nobles and other enemies of the revolution (mostly not aristocrats) were dispatched by the medieval style of execution, their deaths were attended by thousands of braying and taunting Parisians. Later, when the rational guillotine was adopted to speed revolution into terror, the crowds had grown indifferent to the non-event that was beheading by this method. The last person put to death by guillotine was in 1977. The last public guillotining occurred in June, 1939, while three years earlier the last person was hanged publicly in the U.S. In Canada, this occurred in 1869, and in Britain, a year earlier. 


Why did the masses apparently lusted to observe people being put to death; and this being the case, why did public executions disappear so suddenly during modern times? According to Foucault, this has been to make the administration of justice more private and covert on the part of the state, wherein punishment is removed temporally and spatially from the determination of guilt. 

The spectacle attendant to public execution, argues Foucault, was a way for royal states to demonstrate their power over the very bodies of their subjects.  It would seem, however, that Foucault leaves unanswered the question as to why the crowd has always and everywhere relished seeing one of their own so brutally punished by the state. 

I think that in more rural times, the sight of blood and guts was in itself more common than is the case today. High-born and low, everyone would have been familiar with the various sorts of animal butchery necessary for stock-raising and the hunt, such that the mere sight of exposed guts and tissue would not have had shock value.  Indeed, until comparatively recent times, ritual slaughter was part of many diverse religious traditions

Familiarity with the results of evisceration, only whetted the appetites of people to see despised criminals put to death in such a fashion. There was, too, the need to make the ultimate punishment theatrical enough for large crowds, by mutilating, dismembering or otherwise exposing the body of the condemned. The distance of most of those assembled at public executions from the actual death-site, and their very participation in a large crowd, apparently served to dull any sympathetic instincts among spectators, given the enthusiastic response to the bloodiest types of past capital punishment.  Contrast this to the indifference that greeted the mechanistic banality of guillotining. 

Yet, in hardly more than a century, what Foucault called the “spectacle of execution” ceased to exist, while the equally popular and long-lived blood-sports faced prohibition and social delegitimization (even as they continued to be staged covertly and illegally). This is usually ascribed to the triumph of Enlightened values, though it occurred also in traditional and backward lands indifferent or hostile to Enlightenment (leaving aside the fact that, initially at least, the ultra-Enlightened took with gusto to public beheadings). 

The humanitarian motive cannot be dismissed as a factor in bringing an end to public executions and to blood-sports. Foucault has argued that humanitarianism disguises efforts toward social hegemony. However, movements for penal reform and for human dignity and animal rights, grew in tandem with the sophisticated almsgiving that eventually gave rise to the “helping professions” (the latter in turn, being subject in other works by Foucault on the same theme of power and control over human bodies). 

The impulse for control cannot really be separated from actions arising from the sympathetic drive. Humanitarianism upholds the bourgeois commitment to hard work (and most humanitarians have been at least middle class in background). Being a do-gooder is nothing if not labourious and exhausting, but the key difference being that the hard work is done on behalf of someone else, instead of capitalist self-aggrandizement. Many descendants of self-made bourgeois have abhorred the very activities which provided them with such abundant comfort. Manifestly, some of these have been affected truly by the miseries of others, with the inherent sympathy evoked by descriptions of the wretched, but also in the guilt and shame felt for living so well while others do not. 


Acting on these feelings, humanitarians nevertheless are species of the middle class. If the bourgeoisie came to rule through the progressive rationalization and mechanization of the world, the middle-class humanitarian from the beginning has sought to bring rationality to charity, applying scientific principles to improve the lot of the downtrodden. Thus there was, for example, Florence Nightingale’s practical approach to nursing (Nightingale compiled voluminous statistics to support her methods) or the empirical data used by public-health advocates to reduce communicable diseases in urban populations, long before the development of penicillin. Humanitarian pursuits sometimes were as much a bane, as a boon, to the miserable classes. Foucault, in his “archaeologies”, takes the occasional missteps of the helping professions as proof of his contention that their primary interest has been hegemony over human anatomies. But as controlling and sympathizing are both human instincts, who is to say which has been the “real” motive behind helping-professionalism? 

The Enlightened and humanitarian arguments against public executions and blood sports did not gain force until what Daniel Boorstin called the “graphic revolution” took place: that is, the invention of photography and later, the photoplay. According to the Wikipedia entry on the guillotine, public executions were ended in France because of “suspicion that the event was being secretly filmed.” Even more than the photograph (which during its first few decades could not expose light with enough speed to capture say, a beheading or even a hanging), the motion picture had the effect turning a unique and horrible event into just another scene for multiple, casual viewing.  Its value thereby cheapened by ubiquity (as occurs with money or anything at all in fact), the public execution came to a quick end, simultaneously with the outlawing of most blood sports.

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