Dojo: Senshin Center
Location: Dojo Address: 193 Turnpike Rd. Santa Barbara, CA.
Join Date: Feb 2002
Re: Culture of Martial Mediocrity?
Thanks for replying. Much appreciation.
I would like to return the favor for both of your posts.
To be sure, there are those seminars out there where they are just so huge and short on time that hands-on time with the seminar leader is pressed and shallow. I think everyone has experienced something like that or has at least heard of such huge events. I do not think anyone would consider them "excellent" seminars, though they may still be informative for some. I was not really referring to those kinds of events. As I wrote in my reply to Ron, I had qualified what you yourself experienced and I also gave my reasons for saying that such events do not really directly contribute to a notion of "excellence" if we are defining excellence as the capacity to demonstrate Aiki spontaneously, etc. In other words, if it were an excellent seminar, I would say it was only that -- it was an excellent technical seminar (assuming one feels Yamada/Doshu's Irimi Nage is consistent with Aiki -- which, I'm sorry to say, I do not.). It was excellent for what it attempted to cover and for the manner in which it attempted to cover that information.
My issue is that we tend to over exaggerate the scope or such events or the material that was covered at such events. In other words, these are excellent technical matters, but if we do not have access to a viable means of generating the spontaneous application of Aiki within ourselves, these things lose much of their value (when we are defining "excellence" in the art as we have been doing here). I do not wish to speak for the whole of Aikido -- it is a very big world after all -- but in my experience I have met a hell of a lot of folks that believe seminars to be "excellent" but do not have any viable access to generating the spontaneous application of Aiki within themselves. Something is wrong with this picture and it becomes evident when you ask: "If you have no viable means of cultivating the spontaneous application of Aiki within yourself, what are seminars excellent for?"
When we do not have a viable means of generating the capacity to demonstrate Aiki spontaneously, all technical matters become a matter of "form for form's sake," and/or matters of addressing the institutional and economical needs of our various political allegiances, etc., and/or cashing in one some cultural capital via these institutions. A culture of mediocrity does not come about because people start wanting to be mediocre. It, like all cultures, is not tyrannically placed upon oneself from the outside. Rather, they are always self-adopted. Today, even though it probably started a long time ago, "excellent" has come to be defined as, for the most part, what fulfills the institutional and economic needs of our self-adopted politics. That is why today, excellence sides more with form for form's sake than it does with a reconciliation of form and non-form. This is why there are some very hardcore folks, very strong and powerful folks, very committed folks, alpha-type folks, etc., that are part of federations and that are great at forms. As part of a culture, federations are not, as some have been suggesting, lacking in hardcore "hard as nails" fully committed folks. They are there; only they are hardcore in relation to forms, committed to learning forms, and hard as nails within forms.
There is a logic to all of this -- after all no matter how artificial a culture may be, it has to present a kind of sense. One can do nothing institutionally or economically with a reconciliation of form and non-form. I mean we can see right off the bat that an emphasis upon the reconciliation of form and non-form would lead to individual dojo and/or teachers being emphasized and not the art and/or the over-riding governing body said to head that art. Ultimately, a reconciliation of the subject/object dichotomy is always going to be anti-institutional. We can also note that even if folks were involved in such training, dissemination of the art will always take place faster than such reconciliation can occur in the individual. Hence, an upholding of form for forms sake has played a vital role in the spreading of the art and thus in the growth of the art (to some degree), and thus more folks will always be exposed to that type of training and its notion of excellence than to any type of training that has to do with spontaneity. Finally, when one reconciles form and non-form, the usual boundaries of one's art (and the boundaries of other arts) become blurry, if not outright meaningless. Try rallying huge numbers of folks around that one! In other words, there is a very tight connection, culturally speaking, between federations, the dissemination of the art, the identity of the art, upholding form for form's sake while devaluing the spontaneous expression of Aiki, and our current (popular) notion of excellence falling way short of what it could or should. In the same way, there is something very anti-federation, anti-disseminating, anti-identifying, anit-form-for-form's-sake, etc., concerning a reconciliation of form and non-form.
Now, some very good people, with loads of talent, are working within these systems to be defined as excellent according to their cultural understanding of excellence. They are not setting out to be mediocre. Larry just seems to have turned things on its head -- rightly so if I may add. He did this because he bothered to see one of the current backlashes to such a system: Folks trying out their Aikido spontaneously and not being successful at it and thereby making the mistake that it is the art that is flawed and not their own talent at the art.
Today, things seem to be ripe for the raising of these kinds of issues. Certain areas of the world have had enough exposure to the art and to its means of dissemination to go on to ask questions penetrating enough to force some changes according to its own stated positions and/or assumptions. For example, during a time of wide dissemination, during a time when no one was questioning "form for form's sake" as a legitimate measure of skill, folks were still spouting the value of Aiki -- as an apex of martial strategy and tactics. All that folks like Larry are doing nowadays is saying, in a way, "Hey, you are right, Aiki is at the apex of martial strategy and tactics, so don't you think you should be able to demonstrate it spontaneously since that is really what ‘martial' implies?" Personally, I think that is what our generation should be doing now -- the post-Japanese Shihan era folks. We do not have such a huge dissemination problem to address -- at least not comparatively speaking and certainly not in the States. The art does not need one more forms specialist. It is time for us to free ourselves from the culture of breadth and dissemination and to adopt for our own times a culture of depth and of penetration. Now of course, we all think we are doing this, so more specifically let me say: It is time for us to take on seriously the task of gaining the martial spontaneity of Aiki and to develop various viable means by which to lead others to that same level of cultivation.
In that way, in answer to your question, yes, I do feel that the "cult of testing," because it is such a vital practice of the institutions that require excellence to be defined as form for form's sake, is part of the culture of mediocrity. The only true test our generation should have is the test that takes place daily -- the measuring of ourselves in terms of quality and in terms of distance from spontaneously being capable of performing Aiki within combative situations. Under such a daily measuring, techniques take on a completely new meaning. No longer are they mere answers to a type of physical quiz, they are now the real bread and butter of our practice. In a strange way, to truly come to value Aikido waza, we have to devalue them first to a secondary position in the measuring of excellence. That is to say, when the spontaneous application of Aiki from within combative situations becomes the central aspect of our practice, techniques, their proper and improper way of execution, become vital to that practice.
However, I would not count that the little randori one sees at the end of a test as really a departure from the cult of mediocrity. Such a thing is really the culture trying to stay true to its original discourse while not wholly subverting itself. One sees these kinds of things in cultures of all sorts. They, like in a test of form for form's sake, often come whenever a culture comes closest to contradicting one of its most valued discourses (i.e. Aiki is at the apex of martial strategy and tactics). Colloquially, we call them "lip service." But with all forms of lip service, if you look at them, no culture can really 100% mean what it is saying, so it is always said in a way that it more resembles the contradiction (i.e. form for form's sake) than it does its discursive or stated truth (i.e. Aiki is at the apex of martial strategy and tactics). This is why randori often has folks doing expected things (i.e. uke madly running at nage with both arms outstretched in front of them and nage performing variations on kokyu-nage and ate-ago). In other words, at such times, the culture does all it can to appear to be addressing spontaneity while it equally does it all it can to not actually be practicing spontaneity.
Again, I think Larry has said it the best, when he wrote:
"In other words if the reflection is a poor one, don't break the mirror or paint a false image over the one that is there and stick around with your dojo mates who will always tell you how great your demos and kata are (regardless of the reality), but accept what is really there in humility and work to honestly improve towards the goal of achieveing spontaneous Aiki and deeply understanding and applying the principles of Aiki."
If we do this, we are always going to see our way through things like seminars, tests, the "martial," multiple attacker situations of three or four or more folks, etc., to our generations most important task: Cultivating Aiki spontaneity within ourselves and developing viable means for others to achieve this very same cultivation.
Thank you very much,