Tuesday, August 14, 2012


At a gym where I used to train, the senior students sit on the edge of the boxing ring, passively eying the throngs of regular students jumping rope.  Their gaze pans evenly across the room, never lingering on any one student for more than a second or two.  A regular person might acknowledge someone’s quick footwork as they jumped, might nod approvingly, might wince as a mistimed rope slapped sharply against the tops of the jumper’s bare feet.  But the senior students won’t do any of that.  It is a point of pride for them not to react to anything less than a foot flying towards their head, and even then, only with bored indifference, as though moving out of the way is a bit of a bother.

This is how martial arts people look: the blank face. I’m kind of a connoisseur of it.  I often find myself studying the still expressions of fighters on the side of the ring, training partners and classmates waiting for their friend to fight, teachers in the windows of karate schools, former high-school wrestlers.  They all have some form of it, a slackness of the facial muscles that normally would be showing engagement, interest, reaction.  

The blank face is what allows martial artists to recognize each other in public places.  They are the ones who don’t flinch when the waiter drops a tray of glasses to the floor, who brush past creepy drunk people blocking the sidewalk as though they haven’t quite noticed them, who quietly step out of the way of that guy trying to punch them in the bar, causing him to fly head-first into the wall, who return to their beer as if nothing had happened.

When I earned an English Ph.D., I was taught to have a cool nonchalance towards unfamiliar information.  “Doesn’t Zizek’s analysis of hegemony invalidate your argument?” someone would ask.  The trick was to stay calm, to redirect the question, to say something like, “Well, Zizek’s view of hegemony is useful but hardly an ontology,” to point your accuser to something like Foucault’s analysis of hegemony.  No one must ever know the shameful truth that your knowledge of Zizek was limited to one article about Lacanian psychoanalysis that you read and barely understood during a first-year theory seminar.*

This kind of bullshitting wasn’t an incidental skill one had to pick up to survive; it was an explicit part of our training.  I was told repeatedly by my professors, an insider secret not announced in a lecture but passed from mentor to student during private office visits: “You need to learn to speak on any topic, even if you know very little about it. That’s one of the main skills of an English Ph.D.”  Practicing this skill during oral exams, dissertation defenses, job talks is how students are conditioned to be scholars, unshakeable under the most obscure and unpredictable attacks.

Learning the blank face is something like that. No teacher gives a lesson in it, but they tell you again and again, as you grimace in pain or scowl in frustration: “Don’t react.” It’s partly for the same reason as the literary grandstanding, to avoid showing weakness to one’s opponent.  But mostly, the blank face is not for the purpose of deception. Rather, it’s a technique for staying in the present moment, which we must do when we fight.  A reaction prolongs and memorializes a moment that has already passed.  In a fight, you don’t have time to congratulate or chastise yourself, to gloat or get angry—everything moves too quickly.

Blankness also allows us to focus on a task rather than on the social exchange involved with that task. Normally we spend a lot of energy reacting to those around us, but this performance can actually prevent us from observing and absorbing information, as when we are so focused on our eye contact and firm handshake that we cannot remember the name of the person we’ve just been introduced to.  I used to nod at my teachers even when I didn’t understand the direction, until a teacher told me, “Don’t nod, just do what I say.”

Now I know all about the blank face, but I’m still not always good at it.  I might scowl or smile, depending on my mood, when my teacher tells the class to do something impossible like throw four minutes of roundhouse kicks or do a hundred pushups or lift a forty pound weight over my head.  Sometimes I become angry when I feel a larger sparring partner is using his size against me, and my anger shows.

I could work on not getting angry, at not caring whether I have to do something impossible, but I could also just work on not expressing those emotions on my face.  Just as smiling has been shown to make people feel happier, lack of facial expression can make us more inwardly stoic about our fate. If we can appear equally content to do whatever our instructor tells us, then perhaps we’ll learn to be equally content to do something fun like throw roundhouse kicks or something hard like do pushups or something boring like clean the wrestling mats or something scary like fight that guy over there.  And then, like the stoics, we might be equally content with whatever fate brings to us, sickness or health, companionship or solitude, life and death.

*Regarding the topic of Slavoj Zizek’s thought, Wikipedia warns: “This article may be too technical for most readers to understand.” 

The illustration depicts the blank faces of my three kickboxing teachers at the 2000 San Shou Nationals Tournament.


sondra said...

Oh, Karin, I haven't read your blog in so long--for some clearly crazy irrational reason--and it's pure pleasure to sink again into your prose and your thoughts. Please tell me you've collected all these wonderful musings into a book, and that it will be published soon, and that millions of people will read it!!

Bob N. said...

Love the post!

Absolutely horrified by the confirmed suspicion I always had about English (or Russian, for that matter) majors. =)

Karin Spirn said...

Thanks, both of you! Sondra, I think it would be cool to put them into an ebook, like someone just suggested on facebook.

And Bob, the literature MAJORS were okay--just undergraduates, not worth imparting the secrets of the trade to. Your English/Russian PROFESSORS were the ones to view with suspicion.