Journal of Martial Arts Anthropology

Abstract - ‘Does anybody here want to fight’… ‘No, not really, but if you care to take a swing at me…’ the cultivation of a warrior’s habitus in a Venezuelan combative art

Introduction. The enduring legacy of the fighting stick among rural Venezuelans has led me to examine the persistence of stick, machete and knife fighting in Venezuela and what it has to say about modernity. I look at one example of a global tradition of living civilian combative traditions still practiced and transmitted to protect one’s body, command respect or protect ones property from expropriation at the same time the student is taught a respect for life and the values of the community. One element missing or downplayed in the scholastic literature of many combative systems is a consideration of the emotional commitment needed to succeed in combat. Among those who practice martial arts as a survival tool there is the recognition that a fighter must develop both insensitivity to the suffering of others as well as an emotional detachment to analyze the situation. In what I call the ‘Warriors Habitus’ I suggest these types of aggressive and pitiless dispositions are not purely biologically based but are often culturally mediated and shift through time and space in relations of apprenticeship with skilled combative teachers through the transmission of new ways of holding and moving the body in conjunction with material technology.
Methods. The material for this study arises from a long-term project looking at the extent and role of stick fighting in rural Venezuela. Between 1998 and 2013, 4 trips ranging between 2 weeks and 7 months were made. Data collection relied on semi-formal and informal interviews as well as apprenticeships. Archival research and a literature review of relevant works were also employed to set stick fighting in a broader context.
Results. A common response to the question of what qualities does it take to become a good stick fighter is the idea that a love of stick fighting should ‘be in the blood’, or ‘one must like it’ suggesting an inherent trait. However, the willingness of teachers to train and socialize students in the intricacies of garrote suggests this trait may be open to modification. The ability or willingness to ‘go to the dark side’ or deliberately target vital or vulnerable areas of an opponent’s body in order to quickly and efficiently end a combative encounter and the way this disposition is cultivated and managed through training is seen as vital part of training. In conjunction with the desire to close in and engage an opponent, equally valued is the ability to maintain a sense of emotional detachment in order to seek out and exploit any weakness in the opponent’s defense. The successful domination of an opponent often results in overwhelming feelings of elation or joy that can lead to the active seeking out further combative encounters to test one’s skills and access the intense feelings of power and joy that comes from winning. In order to prevent a student from becoming a threat to their own community the ability to mediate one’s response depending on the modality of combat is treated almost as importantly among garroteros.
Discussion. Traditional warrior arts are concerned with technical efficiency first and foremost and morality last. The training of the body and the emotions for combat while retaining a sense for the humanity of others is what I call the ‘Warriors Habitus’. I find this a useful concept to explore how different combative systems over time and through space have wrestled with and tried different solutions to deal with the realities of violence facing communities on an everyday basis while at the same time cultivating a sense of the importance of human life without which a community would destroy itself. As it took shape in Venezuela, this type of ‘emotion work’ or learned restraint acts as a type of ‘civilizing processes for garroteros. Students are exposed to sets of locally developed bodily movements in conjunction with a range of available weapons to channel their desire for high risk acts as well as a sense of emotional detachment when fighting as well as the ability to turn away from the pleasures associated with victory. Not only are the chances of dominating a combative encounter improved through this type of training, but the mastery of these dispositions are valued by the community grounding an individual’s sense of identity and belonging in a restricted set of movements. Ideally this type of transmission shows a student has been trained in a specific local style and that he has been deemed morally worthy to uphold and protect those around him. Through training the political nature of subjective relations are seen through the amount of time and quality of training imparted. Similarly observable are the levels of skill reached by students, notwithstanding the level of instruction suggesting the habitus as the dominant factor in subject-formation is questioned.
Conclusion. Interested in the persistence of local combative traditions in the modern world, this paper has focused on the role of developing and refining the necessary disposition of the emotional detachment and the enjoyment in the destruction of an opponent and then the ability to mediate these dispositions as not to become a threat to one’s community. In rural Venezuela men skilled in garrote were alternately feared or respected and the skills and attitudes they embodied were often seen as possessing a set of values, attitudes and practices that can up through today serve young people well in their struggle with a sometimes hostile and treacherous world.
Research suggests the cultivation of these dispositions occurs through culturally mediated forms of moving the body with a number of different weapons highlighting the variable and temporal nature of corporeal knowledges. In working class neighborhoods and rural areas throughout the world where there is a concern with one’s public reputation, weak state control and a tradition of self-help strategies, learning how to fight with weapons, when to fight, and then how to spin the circumstance of fights to protect yourself from retaliation or to shore up your prestige become key lessons in negotiating everyday life. These lessons often arise unexpectedly, are brutal and unforgiving. Those that can successfully navigate through these episodes are often physically and emotionally scarred but can function or even prosper as model members of a community to be turned to when the community is in danger or to be looked up to by the younger generation to be imitated. For those young men who do not learn these lessons their road often takes them down the path to an early death, prison or madness. The main problem facing the young men raiding, dueling or brawling is how to re-integrate them back into society to act as a protector of their communities. The different pedagogical approaches enabling a young man to ‘flip the switch’ and fight, then teaching him to ‘turn off the switch’ and restrain these impulses has proven to be fraught with difficulties. Among my teachers the desire to close in on an opponent while maintaining a sense of emotional detachment and the instilling of a respect for life are key dispositions in the development of a garrotero. The unstable and fragile set of dispositions needed to excel in combat and become a respected member of a community which I call the warrior’s habitus is the subject of ongoing research.