Friday, 15 January 2016

RIP David Bowie ... Martial Artist?

Introducing an Implausible (But Compelling) Conjunction – Bowie and the Martial Arts 

As I write, it is the week in which David Bowie died, and the media has gone into paroxysms of mourning for him – and quite rightly so, in my humble opinion. I'm quite happy to add to the mountain of obituaries – as a popular cultural figure he's one of the few, perhaps, about whom it would be impossible to write too much. Given the subject of this blog – martial arts cinema – I can perhaps only, however, hymn him as a figure in relation to the martial arts, rather than as a pop star.

But – David Bowie as a martial artist??????? Isn't that – well – rather preposterous?

What's this? Bowie-style high-kicking action? Can it be?

On the one hand, yes, it is a completely preposterous idea. But on the other, I have a certain faith that pursuing impossible conjunctions probably ought to be an important intellectual or academic method, certainly when it comes to the analysis of culture. Some impossible conjunctions (like the one that started me on the body of research of which this blog is just the occasional offshoot) have a power of compulsion behind them and in this case they surely take on the nature of the 'symptom' – the thing which in psychoanalysis calls for explanation and for some form of therapeutic 'working through'. The symptom marks the locus of a desire and a fantasy – and the very constitution of the subject itself. When we leave the analysts couch behind and start to look at culture, the questions might remain, of course: 'whose symptom?' ; 'which subject?' ; 'the symptom of what?' Perhaps the symptoms that I describe here are only mine and they are irrelevant to anyone except for me; but my wager is that they have a wider meaning than that. Perhaps if the paradoxical idea of David Bowie as Martial Artist has already drawn you thus far, through some rather dense academic prose, it suggests that it's your symptom too...

The idea of posing a relation between David Bowie and the martial arts (and in particular Hong Kong martial arts cinema) was, in any case, the subject of a short academic presentation that I gave a couple of years back, in order to give a flavour of my research to colleagues. That paper was called (rather mischievously) 'Panic in Hong Kong, or, David Bowie's Karate Lesson', and it sought to sketch a suggestive network of associations between a European countercultural milieu, in the thrall of a cosmopolitan vision of the global village, which might provide a figure for the valence of Hong Kong cinema as it was taken up in the West in the early 1970s. If it doesn't tell us 'what such films meant' as such, it certainly gives us an image of a set of relations and associations that we can interpret them as having entered into.

In the last few days, as Bowie songs have been going around and around my head, I've found myself thinking about this presentation again. But after all, the figure of return is also another marker of the symptom. So here goes a kind of self-analysis, which will start with me and open out to propose a set of wider cultural significances.

Panic in West Hampstead

Image result for Panic in detroitPerhaps the origin of this presentation – and of the strange conjunction of Bowie and the martial arts as a compelling (if implausible) one for me – lies in my own martial arts training, and in some things that might, if you want to dismiss my association of the two, be put down to accident. (But as Freud notes – there are no accidents in the unconscious.)

My own martial arts teacher is clearly a fan of Bowie, and he will frequently play Bowie songs during our classes. I remember in particular one class – one of the best classes I attended – in which, as we strove as students to draw martial spirit and martial awareness into our tai chi practice, he repeatedly played Bowie's 'Panic in Detroit' (again and again and again), stopping at one point to ask us about whether we knew what the song was about and to ask us why he might think it has something to do with the practice of martial arts. (Although, always enigmatic, he never directly answered that question himself, and left us to figure these things out). In any case, the thundering rhythm section of this song, for us in the lesson, stood the part of the war drums which I always imagine having accompanied military training in historical China. Some of Bowie's songs are simply great to do martial arts to – though that's far from a meaningful answer to the conundrum I'm setting. I think in many ways I 'found' David Bowie through my martial arts practice – as I've actually 'found' a lot of other music that I probably never would have become invested in had I not encountered it through this route. But my finding it is far from accidental. In some respects, I'd suggest, the music found me – there is an element of predestination in my seemingly random experience.

In one respect, well, I like Bowie – but so what? And my teacher's interest in Bowie, a skeptic will argue, may just say a lot about him, and about his particular tastes. There is no significance beyond that. But it also, to begin with, signals something about how old he is, having come into adulthood around the time that Bowie would have rose to fame. Here we are already edging beyond the accidental and the specific. This generational moment, which Bowie must surely signify for him, and from which his interest in Bowie (alongside many other musicians of the same era) must emerge already perhaps marks the conjunction as a significant one. And it is significant, too, in that my teacher belongs to a generation whose coming of age also coincided with the moment when Asian martial arts, too, were emerging (like rock) as a pursuit for disenfranchised youths, looking for meaning in their life. As well as Bowie, the transition from the sixties to the seventies was the moment of the rise of the kung fu film – alongside Bowie arrived 'Grasshopper' and Bruce Lee.

Bowie's first (eponymous) album was released in 1967, the same year as Chang Cheh's breakthrough film, The One-Armed Swordsman, revolutionised Chinese swordplay films. In 1969, as Bowie was recording Space Oddity, King Hu would already have been in the midst of filming A Touch of Zen, which ultimately came to be the first Chinese-language film to win a Grand Prize at Cannes. In 1971, when Bowie released his next album, Hunky Dory (his first album to reach the top 10, climbing to no. 3), Bruce Lee also performed in his first starring kung fu role in The Big Boss. The 'kung fu' film proper had been born. In 1972, the first kung fu films reached the major distribution in America (5 Fingers of Death/King Boxer being the first to receive a screening), and Bowie released The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. In 1973, when Aladdin Sane and Pin Ups were released, Lee starred in Enter the Dragon, the first 'Hollywood' kung fu film, and the genre's great global blockbuster. This was the year that 'Panic in Detroit', the song from which we drew so much in our lesson some time in the 2010s in a church hall in West Hampstead, was recorded.

Bowie and martial arts, then, were contemporaneous, synchronous even, I would argue. However, what we might still need to start to think about is whether they were in any sense bound together; and if so, what on earth this unlikely juxtaposition might mean, beyond their simultaneous existence for an audience of young consumers of popular culture.

David Bowie's Karate Lesson

Let's jump then to a particular moment in the media, back in those glory days. David Bowie's Karate Lesson. Perhaps this gives us a snapshot of a kind of significance that Asian martial arts had within a particular nexus, and the way that they entered into a particular world of pop-cultural, subcultural and even countercultural meaning-making.

The date is January 3rd, 1976, and David Bowie is appearing on the Dinah Shore show. Bowie is thin, suave, androgynous, debonair, seemingly shy, but nonetheless exudes a powerful charisma, a gentle grace and his hesitancy or shyness itself functions as a disarming charm. And – to join David, Dinah, the 'Fonz' and Nancy Walker – Bowie has brought on to the show his karate instructor, Dwayne Vaughn. Vaughn is super-fly, fast as lightening, proudly sporting an Afro, looking for all the world like the star of a blaxploitation film, though dressed in his karate gi – a real life 'Black Belt Jones'; or a carbon copy of Jim Kelly's character Williams in Enter the Dragon. (As Williams says of another character: 'Man, you come right out of a comic book!')

No, it's not my fantasy, it really happened.

As the interview unfolds, Bowie talks to Dinah Shore about his motivation for starting karate. It was because a number of friends and band-members were doing so. It was, it seems, in the air in rock'n'roll circles – even (especially?) the circles which must have surrounded as un-macho a form of music as Bowie's gender-bending performances. Bowie talks about the similarities between the discipline of mime he learned at theatre school and those of the martial arts. Karate, it turns out, is, for him, a kind of fast-motion mime. Bowie and Shore, echoing each other's movements, turn a karate block ('wax off'?), which Bowie points out resembles a mime artist running his hands against a pane of glass, into a sort of dance. Dinah adds in a wiggle of the hips, and then bumps hers against the Fonz's, karate providing an alibi for something that floats between an aggressive and a sexually provocative action (both perhaps somewhat taboo behaviours for a 'nice' lady, even in 1976). There's something complex going on here in terms not just of the layers of movement imagery that lie one on the other (dance-mime-martial art), but also of the pastiches of gender performance that aggression-as-flirtation-as-dance-as-karate-as-mime seems to involve. Bowie giggles a little, perhaps like the women professors discussed by Joan Riviere in her famous 1929 psychoanalytic paper on 'Womanliness as Masquerade', who were worried about having asserted themselves too 'masculinely' by being clever, and so feel a need to compensate with an extra, exaggerated show of the 'feminine'. To put it in another, more 'oriental', way, yang and yin need to be balanced in Bowie's complex play of personae.

Next, Vaughan leaps onto the set, appearing on screen mid-way through a flying kick to tumultuous audience applause. Bowie is, he says one of his 'best' students. Vaughn and Bowie perform a miniature 'street defence' lesson, showing off the practicality of karate, where Bowie learns about being attacked by someone bigger than himself. Vaughn iterates the 'oriental' wisdom that the movement and force of the aggressor can be used against them even as they attack. Passivity, or non-aggression is a kind of advantage. When Vaughn opens a sentence, "If I was going to choke you like so..." Bowie cuts in, joking: "I would scream very loudly". The capacity for violence is performed and disavowed at the same time. Vaughn talks of distracting the opponent and then hitting them in the groin (Bowie laughs, and so do the audience at the suggestion of genetalia). Vaughn shows (with Bowie his training partner) a series of strikes – to the groin, kneck, eyes, shins, back – causing Dinah Shore to recoil in camped up mock horror, and the audience to laugh uncomfortably again at this spectacle of rather mild, choreographed violence that's been conjured into prime time television – the acted-out image of a killer art. To a contemporary eye, there's something of Master Ken in all this. (Watching it again today, I expect him to advise restomping the groin).

Vaughn discusses the importance of relaxation in developing speed, discussing the wasted force of tensed muscles, and goes on to perform a lightning-quick, devastating-looking kata, full of power and explosive motion, to rapturous applause.

David Bowie's karate lesson, within the space of prime-time chat-show television, has been a complex affair in which race is performed and negotiated, with Vaughn both expressing and in many ways transcending his 'blackness' through his mimesis of the gnomic and powerful Asian (rather than African) master. Masculinities, too (also in turn raced, and classed) are performed and transcended – the 'thin white duke' (as he was about to become) leaving aside his 'thinness' and 'whiteness' (and suburban Britishness) through the appropriation of the imagery of violence, through his play with pupillage in relation to an African-American karate instructor, and their shared process of 'turning Japanese'. The relation to violence and masculinity (and to a racialised image of the violence or militancy of black masculinity) are conjured onto the screen to be repeatedly disavowed or held within the safe confines of a giggly humour that holds it under erasure. Shore and Nancy Walker both mime out at once a fascination with a form of male potency and also an always-already erased female appropriation of this system of fighting, which no longer requires strength but skill, and so evades the brawn with which more typical forms of Western masculinity are associated.

Panic in Hong Kong

He looked a lot like Che Guevara
Drove a Diesel Van
Kept his gun in quiet seclusion
A very modest Man 
He was the only survivor,
Of the National People's Gang...
(opening lines of Bowie's 'Panic in Detroit' (1973)) 

Bowie's 'Panic in Detroit' was written in 1973, and draws on Iggy Pop's memories, which he had recounted to Bowie, of the radical scene around Motor City in the era of the riots of 1967. The images are dark and despairing, looking back at a madly idealistic moment, in which people who 'looked a lot like Che Guevara' drove Diesel vans, were members of organisations (now stamped out by the violent reprisals of an authoritarian state) called things like the 'National People's Gang', and carried hidden weapons, dreaming of the violent overthrow of capitalism and the liberation of racially oppressed minorities, pot-smokers and the urban poor alike. The character described at the start of Bowie's song is often discussed as having been partially modelled on John Sinclair, manager of the MC5 and founder of the White Panther Party, an organisation that took literally Heuey Newton's suggestion that any white people who wanted to support the Black Panthers' cause should go and found their own version of his party. The White Panthers' ten-point manifesto propounded the 'total assault on the culture by any means necessary, including rock and roll, dope, and fucking in the streets'. The imagery of the song fluctuates between a sort of utopian wish expressed existentially in violence, a melancholic nostalgia for such a lost moment of revolutionary explosion, and the threat of closure of the possibility of such a desire within the already post-modern moment that the transition from the sixties to the seventies seems to mark. The swirling, entropic guitar lines seem to speak of both the darker aspects of violent revolt, but also a pervasive nihilism that seemed to follow in their wake.

Police in riot gear in Hong Kong, 1967.

In 1967 Hong Kong, where the kung fu film would soon develop, saw its own riots, as pro-Maoist groups sought to capitalise on discontent with injurious labour conditions, inadequate social care and  the (racialised) colonial hierarchies of the era. The Hong Kong riots, like those in Detroit, perhaps did not lead to the kind of radical utopia that some of their promulgators hoped for. In many ways, with Cultural-Revolution China as the alternative to colonial rule, the people of Hong Kong were lucky that the rioters failed to overthrow the Hong Kong state. In both cases, however, perhaps, the violence of the uprisings sent a shock into the system of colonial and capitalist cultures, and contributed to a loosening of a series of forms of repression that typified the world of that era – especially for those not privileged to be white, male, heterosexual, middle class and living in the global 'centre' rather than its peripheries. If they didn't trigger revolution, reform may well have been one of their longer-term consequences.

Both elsewhere in this blog, and also in a longer article (published last summer in Asian Cinema 26.1) about Chang Cheh's film The Assassin, which was made in their wake, I have argued in much greater length for the importance of the Hong Kong riots as a determining factor in the development of Hong Kong's martial arts cinema and the invention of the 'kung fu' film. Their images of violence, I argue run to the logic of the revenge fantasies of the colonial subject described by Frantz Fanon. Fanon's description of the role of violence within the psyche of the colonised subject might be useful in thinking about the nature of the Detroit riots too – and perhaps the need to appropriate and manage a violence which is normally aimed at one, from the outside, in African American appropriations of karate and the martial arts (as discussed, for example, in Vijay Prashad's fantastic book, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting).

In that article, I make much of a resonance between Fanon's description of the dreams and fantasies of fantastical physical strength and power that he found common amongst colonised peoples, as a symptom of the desire for metaphorical as well as corporeal liberation, and the kind of imagery so around which kung fu films are structured. Fanon describes dream imagery of being able to outpace lines of traffic in great leaps, and this is curiously echoed in American film critic David Bordwell's much-quoted description of his response to kung fu cinema, which often left him (though a portly academic) with the thrilling illusion as he left the cinema that he, too, could vault parked cars in the parking lot outside. Such car-jumping imagery is echoed once again in Bowie's vision of what's at stake Detroit. My favourite passage in the song runs:

Putting on some clothes I made my way to school
And I found my teacher
crouching in his overalls
I screamed and ran to smash my favorite slot machine
And jumped the silent cars that slept at traffic lights
The 1967 riots of Hong Kong and Detroit were both, perhaps, fore-echoes of the phenomenon that came to be the global unrest of '1968' and Bowie's songs and performances, too – with their audacious renegotiations of sexual, gender and even racial identity – are also a part and parcel of the era of rebellion that has come to be marked by that symbolic year.

And kung fu, too, would fit into this picture if we read it through Bowie. That such a reading is plausible is supported by another, triangulating, narrative (which on its own, again, might be only anecdotal): when Felix Dennis turned away from the vanguard counterculture of OZ magazine (founded again in the magic year of 1967), to become a capitalist, the venture (in that other magically recurring year within my account here, 1973) that spanned his transformation of role from radical activist to publishing magnate was Kung Fu magazine. The craze for kung fu (and Kung Fu) seems to mark both the last glowing ashes of a radical project of anger, hope and emancipation, and its subsumption into a world of commercialised popular culture (rather like Bowie on the Dinah Shore show). The massive success of Kung Fu – largely a vehicle for Bruce Lee fandom – formed the economic ground of what would become a massive publishing empire.

Kung Fu Monthly, covers, with Bruce Lee.

China Girl / Japanese Boy

Bowie's lesson in kung fu also, perhaps, exists within a wider fascination with the Orient in his work. This in turn takes its significance within the context a wider interest of the countercultures – and the longer Western avant-garde with which the counter-cultures allied themselves – with images of the Far East. Bowie developed a complex, rich and rather nuanced (even, at its best, I think, self-critical, parodic) form of this orientalism, particularly focused around Japan – a form which allowed and opened up a space for the renegotiation of a series of traditional 'Western' cultural values and identities.

Bowie in a 'Space Samurai' costume, designed by Kansai Yamamoto,  (I believe 1973).

Fashion historian Helene Thian, for example, has discussed at length Bowie's Ziggy Stardust and Aladdin Sane costumes. These were designed by Kansai Yamamoto. Some were given trimmings of chinoiserie; others formed kimonos covered in Japanese characters; others still were formed into full-blown 'Space Samurai' costumes, echoing in form the hakama still worn by Aikido students today. His performance style was influenced by an early interest in kabuki theatre and especially its onnagata (female impersonation) roles, which were fostered during his years as a drama student under Lindsay Kemp – an added depth of allusion, perhaps, buried in Bowie's recognition of mime in karate movements expressed on the Dinah Shore show. Kemp's version of mime – and his interest in play with gender – were strongly inflected by this fascination with the orient, and both Kemp's and Bowie's acts of redefinition of masculinity were surely both inspired by (their misreadings of) the differences between 'Western' and 'Asian' forms of masculinity – however layered these were by orientalist stereotypes going back to the nineteenth century. Even the famous lightening stripe on Ziggy's face (seen so many times in the press recently) riffed on the make-up techniques of the onnagata which Bowie studied in Kemp's school under Tamasaburo Bando; and Ziggy's quick changes within a performance might also be linked back to the lightening-change techniques of kabuki.


Asia offered Bowie (and the hippies more generally) a form of 'becoming-other' within which the self could be reformed. Even if the idealisations of Bowie's 'becoming-Japanese' did not end in Japaneseness as such, and often at the very least ran very close to reiterating dangerous and invidious stereotypes that others have to live with, they nonetheless offered forms of very real self-transformation that empowered young working class people (especially, perhaps, men) and allowed them to resist the forms of interpellation that British (and American) society had hitherto imposed. A very generous reading might suggest that such forms of renegotiation, in deconstructing or undermining the supposedly solid binaries on which the relations between East and West relied, set these relations back into play, opening them up into transformation. Bowie was a key figure in the popular renegotiation of the ideas of East and West – just as Paul Bowman has argued Bruce Lee was.

Something of all this is, I would argue, at play in Bowie's karate lesson, in which, acted out on mainstream TV, a series of complex layers of racial, sexual and gendered identities are performed and renegotiated.

What this might suggest, I hope (though I'm not sure that I can do more than offer a 'suggestive' reading) is a network of countercultural projects in the wake of the 1960s into which the Asian martial arts entered as they became absorbed within Western culture. These contexts were (I am proposing) instrumental in forming at the very least one kind of socio-political significance which martial arts took on in the identity politics of the 1970s (and beyond), and one kind of appeal that may have taken many people – David Bowie himself, but also perhaps a generation of young people across Europe and America – into movie houses and training dojos with the hope of self-transformation. Self-transformation, of course, is, above all, what Bowie has always been about; and it's also been at the root of the appeal of martial arts.

As this is a kind of a tribute, the final words here should go to Bowie himself, along with a kind of toast to see him off. Here's to the hope that even in these difficult times, his project for countercultural change and challenge continues – and that images and practices of the martial arts continue to play a role in its unfolding...
I watch the ripples change their size
But never leave the stream
Of warm impermanence and
So the days float through my eyes
But still the days seem the same
And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're going through...  

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