The title slide of my keynote address at the July 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference.

***What follows is the text of my recent keynote address given at the 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference.  I am currently in the process of revising and expanding this paper for inclusion in an edited volume.  As such I debated whether I should post this initial draft, or wait until the additional quotes, footnotes and arguments have been added.  Further, changes are unfolding in my fieldwork site that may provide additional insights into some of the questions that I ask here.  Rather than waiting for all of these these new developments to come into focus, I have decide to make this initial draft of my paper available now.  The images included with this article are a sample of the slides that I presented with my keynote.***

“Liminoid Longings and Liminal Belonging: Hyper-reality, History and the Search for Meaning in the Modern Martial Arts” A keynote address delivered at the July 2016 Martial Arts Studies Conference, Cardiff University, UK.

by Dr. Benjamin N. Judkins


You can learn a lot about a martial arts class by the ways in which it begins and ends.  They all have their own small rituals and verbal incantations.  Consider the closing of a fairly typical class at the Central Lightsaber Academy.

Sweating, in a not sufficiently air-conditioned space, the fourteen of us gathered, saluted the instructor, deactivated our weapons and received a few parting words of advice on the drills we had run for the better part of an hour.  After which our leader, Darth Nihilus, said “Your basic combat applications are looking better, and next week we will be working on our choreography again.   Lastly, anyone wanting to spar should use the set of mats at the back of the gym.  And remember, this is all just for fun!”

This is, give or take a few details, how every class ends.  Unrelentingly upbeat and supportive, it is not the parting benediction that one might expect from a self-style “Dark Lord of the Sith.”

The students standing around me broke into groups as the class dispersed.  Four of them grab fencing masks and armored gloves so that they could get in a few last rounds of sparring before heading home.  Others exchanged contact information and planed times to get together to practice their choreography, or just hang out, during the week.  And one martial arts studies researcher stood in the middle of it wondering, “Why does someone as intense as Darth Nihilus repeatedly, multiple times a class, insist that this is all just for fun?”

Certainly the students who meet at the CLA have a lot of fun.  You can see it in the expressions on their faces, and the intensity of their engagement with the curriculum.  The atmosphere of the class is relaxed but focused.  There is not a lot of talking as letting your concentration slip might very well mean getting smacked in the head with a heavy polycarbonate blade emitting a cool blue, green or a more sinister red glow.  Weapons work always requires a high degree of mental discipline, even when the blades in question do not actually exist.

For an activity that is “just for fun,” the students of the CLA show a surprising degree of dedication.  Half of them practice daily (a few for up to an hour).  Everyone in the room has purchased their own stunt sabers, even though the school always has plenty of loaners.  Most of these are economical models, costing less than $100.  But some individuals have paid up to $500 for a replica weapon that is personally meaningful.

When asked about their reasons for coming they provide a wide variety of responses.  Perhaps the most common is a desire to find a fun way to get in shape and stay active.  For the self-described martial artists in the room the lightsaber is an irresistible thought experiment and a release from the stresses, constraints and “politics” of the traditional Asian martial arts.  And for about half of the students, the lightsaber class is an extension of their Star Wars fandom.  As one of my classmates, a self-styled Jedi Knight, memorably stated, the CLA “is where bad-ass nerds are made!”

Yet after a few weeks what almost everyone focuses on is the community.   As another member of class noted:

“When I heard about a lightsaber class I thought that it was so dorky that I was totally in.  I thought that we were just going to be goofing off and hitting each other with lightsabers.  I totally did not expect what it has come to be, which is a new group of friends unlike anything that I have encountered before.”

In her comments Darth Zannah goes on to describe the degree of personal empowerment and confidence that she discovered as she became a more competent duelist over the last several months.  Recently she even competed in an open tournament against a number of much more experienced swordsmen from a variety of backgrounds.

Darth Zannah’s sentiments seem to be widely shared and probably accounts for the Central Lightsaber Academy’s excellent student retention.  Between the fast paced classes, wide variety of activities and the general social dynamic, there can be no doubt that these students are objectively “having fun.”  Yet I found the frequency of Darth Nihilus’ refrain puzzling.

While I have always enjoyed my martial arts training, I suspect that “just for fun” is not a turn of phrase that most practitioners of the traditional arts would be willing to embrace.  What we do in the “real martial arts” is almost always couched in a rhetorical framework that at once justifies and apologizes for the resources spent on training.

Taekwondo builds “character” in American school children. Kendo teaches other children what it means to be Japanese.  Styles as diverse as MMA and Wing Chun claim to teach vitally important “real world self-defense skills.”  While many individuals enjoy martial arts training, very few would admit that we spend our means on a hobby that is “just for fun.”  We almost always shift our discussion into the realm of “investment” and “hard work.”

In this regard Darth Nihilus is no exception.  When not moonlighting as a Darth Lord of the Sith, he is a professional martial arts instructor.  The CLA is actually housed within a cavernous 2,500 square foot commercial space in an enclosed suburban shopping mall which, for most of the week, is the home of the “Central Martial Arts Academy.”  Nihilus, along with a business partner, offer classes in wing chun, kali and JKD.  The mall itself is located in a more affluent suburb of a medium sized rust-belt city.

The atmosphere in his other, more traditional, classes is notably different.  Social interactions are inflected by vertical hierarchies marked by an explicit system of colored sashes layered over the more traditional system of “senior students.” What had been a generally relaxed atmosphere is somewhat tenser, and that tension shows in the posture and body language of the students.  It reads in the way they automatically form hierarchically graded straight lines at the end of their classes.  This is something you never see in the CLA which manages, at best, lazy semi-circles.

The rhetoric of these traditional martial arts classes is grimmer, featuring frequent outburst like “really hit him!”; “Remember, he could have a knife!” and the warning “If you get lazy it won’t work on the street.”

Students do not come to these classes simply for fun.  Their motivations are those that we would generally expect in a martial arts school.  Some are interested primarily in self-defense, others are looking for a challenging route to self-improvement, and a few are drawn to the school’s successful kickboxing team.  No matter what goals brought them in, everyone in the Central Martial Arts Academy is engaged in “hard work” and expects to be held to a high standard.

The code switching that Darth Nihilus exhibits when the discussion shifts between these two realms is, at times, remarkable.  When talking about wing chun he is serious, adamant in his views, historically informed and visibly frustrated by the state of lineage politics within that art.  He speaks as a martial artist.  A tension enters his body language and facial expressions.

When the conversation turns to lightsaber combat he relaxes, adopts a remarkably ecumenical view of the world, is eager to explore a vast range of activities (from kata practice, to competitive tournaments to cosplay).  Here he favors horizontal forms of cooperation and association between a wide range of groups with very different sorts of goals.  It is all, as he frequently reminds us, “Just for fun.”

In strictly empirical terms, this sort of “fun” is essentially a part time job for Nihilus, occupying many hours a week.  The CLA also brings a notable number of new paying students to his classes who, in many cases, have never set foot in a gym or martial arts school before.  In the world of small, and often struggling, suburban martial arts schools, that is an economic reality that simply cannot be ignored.

In a recent article I looked at the history and basic characteristics of lightsaber combat and argued that while it is a hyper-real practice, meaning that it draws much of its inspiration from a set of fictional texts, universally acknowledged as such, it nevertheless fulfills all of the basic criteria of a martial art.  I further suggested that the invention of hyper-real martial arts might help us to better understand the processes by which all martial arts are created, as well as the varieties of social functions that they fulfill in modern societies.  That, in turn, might suggest some important hypotheses about who takes up different sorts of martial arts training, and what the future of these fighting systems might hold.

In this paper I suggest a possible framework for thinking about the varieties of the martial arts in the modern world and the motivations that fuel them.  Let us begin with two very basic questions.  What sort of martial art is lightsaber combat? Second, why would someone choose to practice it given the many other, better established, combat systems that already exist?

To address these puzzles we begin by examining a few additional details about the CLA.  Second, I turn to the work of the well-known American anthropologist Victor Turner for insights into the various ways that voluntary associations focused on transformative play might create meaning in the lives of their members.

Is Lightsaber Combat an American Martial Art?

What is lightsaber combat?  At the most basic level it is a collection of loosely associated combat and performances practices that began to coalesce in the wake of the release of the prequel Star Wars movies in the late 1990s and early 2000s.  As part of the marketing effort surrounding these films replica lightsabers with realistic metal hilts, motion driven sound and lighting effects and colored polycarbonate blades were released in 2002.  Other elements of Lucas’ media empire then began to develop an invented history for lightsaber training, selling it to a public eager for the “relics” of that far away galaxy.[i]

The creators of this new mythology had a surprisingly free hand as the actual Star Wars movies say very little about this iconic weapon.  Much of this invented history was organized around the idea that within the Jedi Order there had been “seven classic forms of lightsaber combat” which had evolved over a period of thousands of years.[ii]  As described each of these seven forms has a unique combat philosophy as well as specific strengths and weaknesses, essentially making them distinct fencing systems.

From the start a clear equation was made between the fictional fighting systems of the Jedi and their real world Asian counterparts.  Each form was given a vaguely Eastern sounding name (Form I is “Shii-cho”) and an Orientalist animal association (again, Shii-cho is “the Way of the Sarlacc”).  Popular notions of what a “proper” martial arts should be seem to have shaped much of what the seven forms became.

The first lightsaber group to gain national and international notoriety (if perhaps not the first to offer a public performance) was “NY Jedi”, founded in Manhattan in 2005 and still holding weekly classes.  They combine instruction in traditional martial arts techniques with a heavy emphasis on choreography and stage performance.  After their rise to prominence other groups quickly coalesced and began to articulate their own vision of what lightsaber combat should be.

Some focused on costuming, public performance and charity work.  Others opted to create something more akin to a bladed combat sport.  More recently, a number of groups have dedicated themselves to combining the mythology of the “seven forms of lightsaber combat” with historically based fighting traditions to create an authentic martial arts system.

The Central Lightsaber Academy falls into this latter category.  However, a number of members, led by Darth Nihilus himself, enjoy producing the occasional fan-film.  This sort of mixing of interests seems to be more common in the lightsaber community than in other areas of the martial arts where practitioners sometimes seek to draw strict boundaries (often based on competing definitions of legitimacy) between “practical” and “performance” based arts.

We know that lightsaber combat is a hyper-real martial art.  It is a fairly new, and also a market driven, creation.  What else is it?  Is it an American martial art?

In the current era many martial arts have come to be seen as indicators of national and regional identity.  In some places the practice of these systems has even become a mechanism for producing a certain sort of citizen, typically ones dedicated to the nation, embodying certain identities and capable of carrying out the state’s demands.

In Japan the Budo arts are seen as revealing the essence of Japanese identity and they have been closely associated with the state since the late Meiji period.  In China the Jingwu Association rose to prominence during the 1920s by promising to create a rationalized, modern, middle class martial art that would increase the physical and spiritual strength of the people, ensuring “national salvation.”  With some variation of emphasis this same mission was carried on by the later Guoshu and Wushu movements.  This interest in uncovering the “national essence” and “cultural heritage” of an art can even be seen in popular discussions of “Israeli” Krav Maga, “Korean” Taekwondo, “Thai” Kickboxing and “Brazilian” Capoeira.

The rise of the martial arts as a tool that both states and other social groups adopt to define their identity and promote their values is one of the most striking trends of the 20th century.  This strongly ethno-nationalist turn has become a means by which the martial arts do social and political work.  They first labor in the production of mature and strong citizens, and then in the promotion of certain identities both at home and abroad.

What sort of “social work” does lightsaber combat do?  Is it an American martial art projecting American cultural values and identities within the global marketplace?  Or is it something else?

The Star Wars franchise has already attracted attention from critical theorists and academic students of cultural studies.[iii]  Many have looked at the project with some ambivalence.  They have seen in these films some of the most conservative and reactionary elements of American society.  One could certainly see the export of these films as a clear case of the global spread of American popular culture.

I suspect that these theorists, if they were to ever consider the question, would not hesitate to label lightsaber combat as a uniquely American martial art.  After all, it is hard to think of any film franchise that is more culturally American.  The opening chapter in the series was a mashup of a western and classic Hollywood swashbuckler reimagined in the universe of Flash Gordon, mixed with a hint of Kurosawa.  How could be it be anything else?

Without denying those basic facts, it is nevertheless fascinating to see how resistant the global lightsaber community has been to such labels.  Lightsaber combat has been culturally translated and localized with surprising ease.  Indeed, one of the most striking things about this movement has been its near universal popularity, from South East Asia to Europe and, of course, in the Americas.  How has this been possible?

Through a wide variety of books, DVD special features, documentaries and interviews the Star Wars mythos actively presents itself to audiences as culturally universal.  The creators of these products explain the on-going appeal of their story lines by invoking the structuralism of Joseph Campbell and Carl Jung.  While these sorts of theories do not sit well with scholars today, they seem to have become an important element of how many of the more thoughtful Star Wars fans around the world understand their own engagement with the franchise.  The end result is to partially obscure the national and ideological origins of the story’s core value systems in favor of a more psychological and universal discourse.

The students of the CLA have also sought to construct lightsaber combat in ways that escape the ethno-nationalist pull that surrounds many other martial arts.  Again, these are not ideas that they are ignorant of.  Their classes take place in a space that prominently advertises training in “Chinese” Wing Chun and “Filipino” Kali.

Surrounding mall storefronts offer Taekwondo, Karate, Hung Gar and Olympic fencing (among other options).  Anyone coming to a lightsaber class must make a conscious choice to physically pass by a number of competing alternatives, most of which are culturally associated with a specific national or regional identity.  The question is why?

Some of the more experienced martial artists in the class have drawn explicit connections between the “culturally neutral” aspect of their practice (as they see it) and the possibility of pursuing more creative types of martial play and research. Multiple of them stated that Western, Chinese, Japanese and Filipino styles could be brought together and tested under the guise of lightsaber sparring in ways that would not normally be possible in a traditional instructional environment.

When discussing his lightsaber class Darth Nihilus, repeatedly noted the sense of freedom he enjoys in leaving behind the lineage politics that dominate the more traditional Chinese martial arts.  This has translated into a greater technical freedom to combine multiple approaches free from the sorts of social surveillance that would normally inhibit this type of hybridization.  It also manifests in an ability to engage in performance based activities like cos-play, choreography and hero-building.  Such activities were actually the origin of Darth Nihilus’ memorable name and in-universe identity.

It would seem that lightsaber combat is not seen as an “American martial art” precisely because those who adopt its practice are seeking a specific type of freedom.  This manifests in a self-conscious turning away from the constraints of historically grounded and ethno-nationalist martial arts.  Many individuals are drawn to an activity that is like the martial arts on a technical level, but one that does different sorts of work.  In lightsaber combat we see a rejection of constructed nationalist histories and a move towards a system of forward looking, and open ended, mythic play.

To better understand the details of the social “work” done within the traditional martial arts, as well as the means by which more recent hyper-real systems might seek to escape it, we will need a set of theoretical tools focused on the ways in which voluntary associations mediate the relationship between “creative play” and the process of personal transformation.  In his writings on the nature of liminality in the modern western world Victor Turner has provided one such framework.

Liminal History and Liminoid Mythology

Turner is particularly helpful in the present case as much of his research and writing touched on the question of how meaning is generated through ritual and drama.  In his ethnographic research he expanded on the ideas of Van Gennep to better understand the ways that symbols and rituals functioned during “rites of passage,” or those instances in which people leave one social status (a child, single individual or uneducated person) for another (a married, adult, university graduate).[iv]  Anthropologists had noted that through rites of passages such transitions could be made both socially legible and personally meaningful.

Following Van Gennep, this transition has often been described as a three part process.  Transformative ritual starts with a period of separation, in which the individual is removed from her normal community, a liminal period in which the previous identity is stripped away, leaving the initiate in Turner’s famous term “betwixt and between.”  Lastly, the transformed individual is reincorporated back into a society that will now support them in playing their newly constructed role.

Much of Turners writing and thinking focused on the middle (or liminal) stage.  What exactly happens when an individual enters a threshold state but has not yet passed beyond it?  How is social meaning created and social knowledge bestowed through ritual and symbolism?  According to Turner this often happened in very creative ways.

Through a rich combination of rituals, myths, rites of reversals and other modes of symbolic teaching, Turner found that individuals can engage in a period of cosmic play in which they themselves rearranged the symbolic building blocks of the social order, often in ways that seem chaotic or disordered.  In so doing they confront fundamental truths about the community that were not previously accessible.  By going through this process, initiates learned something both about their own identity and the nature of society.

While Turner’s work (like others in his generation) tended to focus on what were then referred to as “primitive societies,” both he and his students immediately recognized many parallels to these processes in their own, much more modern, lives.  Indeed, there may have been too many parallels for comfort.

Turner’s later critics would note that there was a certain strain of universalism and cultural essentialism in his work that may have led him (and Van Gennep) to project these basic patterns onto other non-Western cultures inappropriately.  Nor did Turner spend enough time exploring the “borderlands,” or those areas of society comprised of individuals who either refused to integrate through totalizing social processes, or who found creative ways to subvert this process and use similar structures to create counter-systemic identities.[v]

It is not difficult to find striking similarities between the ritual and initiatory processes described in classic ethnographic accounts of rites and passage and current practices in modern Western society.  The process associated with fraternity initiations on college campuses, religious baptisms in neighborhood churches, or joining a social order like the Masons, all exhibit something very much like the same three part structure of separation, liminality and reintegration.

Nor would we be the first to note that martial art training is full of rituals, both large and small.  They can be seen in the wearing of special clothing (the white karate gi symbolizing burial clothing) and the grueling public ordeals endured in some rank tests or tournaments.  All of this is explicitly designed to fulfill two functions.  First, to elevate an individual’s status within the community, transforming them from novice to expert.  Second, to create a sense of social meaning and fulfillment by passing on a specific set of physical practices or cultural philosophies which (we are constantly reminded) have their truest applications beyond the confines of the training hall.

Is it surprising that in the current era Western consumers have come to see the martial arts as vehicles of personal transformation?[vi]  In an increasingly secular society they appear to be taking on essential social and psychological roles that might previously have been fulfilled by other sorts of community rituals.[vii]

Nor are individuals the only ones to have taken note of the transformative powers and liminal potential of the martial arts.  States such as Japan, China and Korea, to name a few of the better known examples, determined during the 20th century that martial practices could be adapted not just to improve civilian fitness and public health, but to create institutions through which individuals would be inducted into a new, specifically curated, vision of the nation and society.

Martial arts reformers, eager for government patronage, designed specific programs, and lobbied to have them included in school curriculums, to do just that.[viii]  The emergence of a close association between some Asian martial arts and ethno-nationalism was neither a coincidence, nor a reflection of the essential nature of these practices.  Both martial arts modernizers and government reformers worked hard to make this connection happen and then to promote their new creations on the international stage.

So, on one hand, individuals adopt these processes as a means of personal improvement, or just recreation.  On the other, powerful social and political forces have attempted to co-opt them as modern rites of passage, ones that could do the social work of producing certain kinds of citizens and favored identities.  Of course there is no necessary reason why these two goals must contradict each other.  Yet sometimes they might.

To grasp what this implies for our theoretical understanding of the nature of lightsaber combat, we must return to one of Victor Turner’s fundamental questions about ritual.  What, exactly, is transformed in a rite of passage?  Is it the initiate?  Or should we instead be focused on the community?

Turner argued that the intended subject of transformation in a classic rite of passage was actually the community.[ix]  While the individual was affected, the fundamental issue was actually how the group processed and this change.  Turner noted that his students were thus mistaken when they described their own initiatory experiences as “rites of passage.”  He cautioned in his 1974 essay that true examples could only be found in small scale societies characterized by primary social interactions.[x]

Given the obvious structural similarities, what exactly separates the two scenarios?  The fact that these rites were often compulsory in small scale communities betrays the fundamentally social nature of the exercise. These rituals were events through which society understood itself.  Even seemingly riotous rites of reversal and bacchanalia were, for Turner, examples of social work that demanded the participation of the entire community.

All of these activities are socially mandated and therefore a type of labor, no matter how much “fun” the participants might be having.  None of them fall into the category of “leisure” as we typically use the term in the modern West.  Turner argued that this slightly different category is really a byproduct of the commodification of labor that occurred during the period economic and social transformation that Karl Polanyi called the “Great Transformation.”

An individual who joins a modern church, fraternity or martial arts class is in a very different position.  These are activities that, within modern Western society, explicitly occupy our leisure time.  They cannot be compelled.  Individuals participate in these activities and rites because they themselves feel drawn to them.  This takes what was once social work and makes it a much more personal experience.

Nor are all of these experiences exactly the same.  Turner concluded that at least two distinct types of institutions structure modern voluntary activities.  The first category was still referred to as “liminal” as they most closely resemble the rituals of previous eras that they may have, in some cases, grown out of.  These include things like formal initiations into religious groups, seasonal celebrations or a traditional wedding ceremony.

Yet while they resembled older rites of passage, they are still voluntary.  Simply put, no one can force you to join the Rotary Club. As such, he noted that his continued use of the term “liminal” needed to understood as metaphorical.

Turner then identified another group of activities which were even less socially focused in nature, and more oriented to individual play, experimentation and self-expression.  These could still induce a process of personally meaningful transformation, but they were less likely to be focused on conforming one’s life to a hegemonic social pattern.  At times they could even take on an anti-systemic nature.  Turner termed this second group of practices, “liminoid.”

By Turner’s own admission, his exploration of these categories was partial and experimental in nature.  As a first cut he found that liminal practices tend to be community oriented.  They emerge out of larger social patterns and are comprised of symbols that are universally intelligible. They are fundamentally eufunctional, meaning that they reinforce widely held social, economic and political identities.  A baptism or religious wedding ceremony fit this pattern.

In contrast, liminoid activities tended to arise later in history and are more focused on individual attainment.  They are often distributed via economic markets and develop at the margins of society.  Thus they are fragmentary and experimental in nature.  Liminoid activities can rearrange symbols in highly idiosyncratic (even monstrous) ways, and have the potential to critique dominant social discourses.  Common examples include the creation of art and literature or the development of many sports and games.

These categories may help us begin to make sense of what is going on with Darth Nihilus’ two seemingly contradictory martial arts institutions.  They may also suggest something about the variety of social work that martial arts are called on to perform in the modern global system.  Lastly, a closer examination of how these ideas function in the realm of the martial arts might suggest some way to refine Turner’s original concepts.

From Liminal Work to Liminoid Play in the Martial Arts

It is not difficult to discern a liminal aspect within the Chinese martial art.  While students of martial arts studies tend to classify wushu as a voluntary activity, one suspects that many of the young children that fill the wushu based technical schools of Henan and Shandong province were not full consenting participants in the decision making process that sent them to these grueling boarding schools.  Instead their guardians made the decision that this was a better environment for their children as it would give them the technical and cultural foundation to become a certain sort of adult.  Specifically, one who could get a job with the police or military.

The martial arts have come to be an accepted aspect of childhood education in the West as well.  What do we hope that our children gain from these exercises?  To listen to the rhetoric surrounding these practices, confidence and compliance are the actual goals of our efforts.  Regardless of what is actually accomplished, these classes are often framed as a means to create certain sorts of adults, ones that will succeed within society’s dominate cultural and economic paradigms.

Many of these same more liminal tendencies are evident in adult martial arts classes as well.  As Jon Nielson and I reported in our book, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, Ip Man’s notable martial arts abilities were not the only thing that attracted teenage and young adult students to him in the early 1950s.  After all, in the aftermath of the 1949 liberation of the Mainland, Hong Kong was quite literally overrun with talented martial artists.  So what set him apart?

Ip Man had grown up as a member of the “new gentry” in Guangdong. As such he received a dual Confucian and Western education.  He had deep cultural knowledge of a past that young adults in the crown colony of Hong Kong felt isolated from.  He was an individual who had synthesized the lessons of two worlds and could model the value of an unapologetically Chinese identity in a modern, globally connected, metropolis. Many of his younger students idolized the Confucian glamor that he radiated.

Contemporary government sponsored wushu and the wing chun community that existed in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s are very different types of institutions.  Yet both of them are engaged in the social work of producing certain sorts of citizens.  In the first case this takes on a more statist cast, while Ip Man’s project was more social and cultural in nature.  Yet in both instances, we see that martial arts training attempts to produce a certain sort of student, one accepting of important social values, through a process of physical transformation.

This is one of the reasons why the creation myths of the various Chinese martial arts are so interesting.  It would be a mistake to view them only as poorly recorded history.  Instead they function as a lens by which the community sees itself, defines core values, and finds its place in the social landscape.  Yim Wing Chun, Wong Fei Hung or the many monks of Shaolin are important because they point the way.  They illustrate a destination that the initiate has set out to achieve.

A traditional martial arts class is characterized by a type of liminal play.  We set aside our mundane professional identity when we enter the training space and submit ourselves to a new social hierarchy.   We reverse and rearrange many of the most basic cultural values that we brought with us as we suddenly find ourselves punching, throwing and choking our fellow initiates.  Yet all of this happens within limits and is subordinated to a single, unified, transformative vision.

All of this conforms to Turner’s expectations for a more traditional liminal experience in the modern world.  Creative play is possible, but only up to a point, and only in the service of certain goals.

I have spent a number of years observing Wing Chun classes.  And while you might hear individuals expressing admiration for Ng Moy and Yim Wing Chun, or in other cases doubting their existence, I have yet to hear anyone declaring their allegiance to the villains of that particular creation myth.  After all, the Manchu banner troops did succeed in burning the Shaolin Temple to the ground, which much say something about their martial prowess!

Yet that is exactly the sort of thing that happens multiple times a day at the Central Lightsaber Academy.  At first glance one might think the biggest difference between it and a traditional martial arts class is the non-reality of their chosen weapon.  It is easy to become fixated on the glowing, buzzing blades.  Much more important is the open ended and free-wheeling way in which symbol can be manipulated, reversed and hybridized in one environment, but not the other.

We have already noted that such extended play exists on the technical level.  Yet this ability to creatively rearrange symbols is not limited to the act of fencing.  Consider the fact that the CLA is led by a figure who has adopted the title Darth Nihilus (or Dark Lord of Hunger) as his public persona for interacting with the lightsaber combat community.

For those who may be unfamiliar with the Star Wars lore we should note that individuals who go by the title “Darth” are not the heroes of this story.  Instead they are the masters of a malignant political and metaphysical philosophy that is said to have been responsible for billions of deaths during their age old war against the Jedi.

The specific story-lines behind the various “Darths” are interesting to consider, though a full account would take us too far afield.  At the most basic level many of these Dark Lords have, through a process of corruption, become something less than human.  In many cases their loss of emotional empathy is mirrored by physical damage or decay.  The Sith do not call on the healing and life sustaining energy of the force.  Many have become monstrous human machine hybrids.

Sith characters are always sociopathic, and often psychotic.  That makes them an interesting foil for storytelling.  And when not teaching either wing chun or lightsaber classes, Darth Nihilus spends time on what might be called “hero building” (or in his case maybe “villain construction”).  This includes crafting back stories, engaging in cosplay and producing fan films in which his alter ego kills large numbers of Jedi knights (played by his students) along with the requisite innocent bystanders.

Not all of the CLA students follow this left handed path.  Others have invested considerable time and resources in the creation of more traditionally heroic Jedi persona.  A third group, turned off by the psychotic nature of the Sith and the overly disciplined lives of traditional Jedi have turned to creating “Grey Jedi” characters.  These are becoming quite popular as they allow students to mix and match symbols and histories in ways that fit their real world personalities.  Occasionally even characters from outside of the Star Wars universe are remixed into the world of lightsaber combat (a trend pioneered by the creators of NY Jedi).

Well over half of the students ignore these exercises all together.  They might instead focus on Star Wars trivia or collecting lightsabers.  Other students see themselves primarily as martial artists and arrive at class wearing wing chun or kali T-shirts.

This last contingent reminds us of an important, somewhat paradoxical, fact.  Not all of the members of the CLA identify themselves as Star Wars fans.  While pretty much everyone has seen the movies, a fair number of students have never attempted to explore the expanded universe of videogames, novels or television shows.

While some students may understand lightsaber combat as an aspect of their fandom, other participants see it primarily as a way to stay in shape with the help of a supportive community of likeminded friends.  While everyone views their practice as important and transformative, the goals that they seek are strikingly personal in nature.  There is no single symbolic pathway that all lightsaber students share.


Lightsaber combat presents us with a powerful example of Turner’s concept of the liminoid.  In comparison, the wing chun classes of the Central Martial Arts academy are vertically structured and designed to advance a very specific skillset. Its curriculum is meant to have a transformative impact on students, one that will see them replicate a eufunctional set of behaviors outside of the school.  That is the very definition of the liminal.

In contrast, the Central Lightsaber Academy exists to cooperatively fulfill individual desires for highly creative, fractured, idiosyncratic, and sometime monstrous, play.  Students are free to focus on sparring and practical lightsaber combat, or to skip that in favor of forms training and choreography.  They can engage in cosplay and hero building, trying on villainous or heroic alter egos.

The individuals in this community are not socioeconomically marginal compared to similar martial arts groups in the area.  Yet they actively choose to play at the social margins.  This cacophony of goals and purposes coexists both within the CLA and the broader lightsaber combat community as a whole.

We should be cautious about reifying these two categories, liminal and liminoid, as binary opposites.  Certain students of the anthropology of athletics have noted that Turner’s categories sometimes have trouble categorizing specific activities.  Sharon Rowe has argued that while an amateur basketball league at the local YMCA is liminoid in character, much as Turner expects, professional sports often exhibits a much more liminal nature, both in terms of their social function and the discourses that surround them.  She has questioned whether sports should ever be classified as liminoid.[xi]

Our current case suggests instead that the liminal and the liminoid may exist on a continuum.[xii]  While Darth Nihilus’ Wing Chun class appears to be liminal compared to the lighsaber group, the degree to which it is “upholding dominant social discourses” pales in comparison to the previously discussed wushu boarding schools in China.  They are literally indoctrinating and training thousands of children for future careers in a vast state security apparatus. Clearly we must consider matters of degree as well as kind when evaluating the nature of martial arts institutions.

Still, Turner’s basic distinction between the liminal and the liminoid is helpful to students of martial arts studies precisely because it suggests that totalizing statements about the role of these combat systems in modern society are bound to miss the mark.  Rather than being one thing, Turner suggests that there are different types of social work that we can expect to see within the martial arts.

The success of hyper-real arts, divorced from the myths of nationalism and focused on enjoyment, rather than the “hard work” of producing even more ideal citizens, should force us to think deeply about the future of the martial arts in the current era.  Lightsaber combat demonstrates a world in which the plural, fragmentary and horizontal can succeed despite the existence of the universal, disciplined and hierarchically organized.

It may be that Darth Nihilus’ frequent refrain that this is “all just for fun” is as much a warning for us as a reassurance to his students.  Accepting his statement might signal the disruption of our understanding of what the martial arts can be, as well as the basic desires that motivate their students.  But what else would we expect form a Dark Lord of the Sith?


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[i] For a detailed discussion of this process see Judkins, Benjamin N. 2016. “The Seven Forms of Lightsaber Combat: Hyper-reality and the Invention of the Martial arts.” Martial Arts Studies 2, 6-22.

[ii] Reynolds, David West. 2002. “Fightsaber: Jedi Lightsaber Combat.” Star Wars Insider 62, 28-37.

[iii] Carl Silvio, Tony M. Vinci. 2007. Culture, Identities and Technology in the Star Wars Films: Essays on the Two Trilogies. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.; McDowell, John C. 2014. The Politics of Big Fantasy: The Ideologies of Star Wars, the Matrix and the Avengers. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.;  Lee, Peter W. 2016. A Galaxy Here and Now: Historical and Cultural Readings from Star Wars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.; McDowell, John C. 2016. Identity Politics in George Lucas’ Star Wars. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Co.

[iv] Gennep, Arnold Van. 1960. Rites of Passage. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.  First Published 1909.

[v] See for instance Weber, Donald. 1995. “From Limen to Border: A Meditation on the Legacy of Victor Turner for American Cultural Studies.” American Quarterly. Vol. 47, No. 3 (Sep.), pp. 525-536.  A more far reaching critique of Turner’s relevance to historical discussions of the Western world (particularly as they apply to women’s narratives) has been offered by Caroline Walker Bynum. 1984. “Women’s Stories, Women’s Symbols: A Critique of Victor Turner’s Theory of Liminality,” in Robert L. Moore and Frank Reynolds (eds). Anthropology and the Study of Religion. Chicago: Center for the Study of Religion. pp. 105-125.

[vi] Berg, Esther and Inken Prohl. 2014. “‘Become your Best’: On the Construction of Martial Arts as Means of Self-Actualization and Self-Improvement.” JOMEC 5, 19 pages.

[vii] Jennings, George. 2010. “‘It can be a religion if you want’: Wing Chun Kung Fu as a secular religion.” Ethnography Vol. 11 No. 4, pp. 533-557.

[viii] Gainty, Denis. 2013. Martial Arts and the Body Politic in Meiji Japan.  Routledge. Chapter 4; Judkins, Benjamin and Jon Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of Southern Chinese Martial Arts. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.148-154. Judkins, Benjamin. 2016. “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (17): Chu Minyi – Physician, Politician and Taijiquan Addict.” Kung Fu Tea. https://chinesemartialstudies.com

[ix] This is amply illustrated by the fact that the third and final phase of the ritual transformation is always reintegration into the social whole.  Such transformations are rarely undertaken purely for the edification of the initiate.  For more on Turner’s theories of ritual see The Forest of Symbols: Aspects of Nbembu Ritual (Cornell UP, 1967) and The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (Chicago: Aldine, 1969).

[x] Turner, Victor. 1974. “Liminal to Liminoid, in Play, Flow, and Ritual: An Essay in Comparative Symbology.” Rice Institute Pamphlet – Rice University Studies, 60, no. 3 Rice University: http://hdl.handle.net/1911/63159.

[xi] Rowe, Sharon.  2008. “Liminal Ritual or Liminoid Leisure.” in Graham St John (ed.) Victor Turner and Contemporary Cultural Performance. Berghahn Books  pp. 127-148

[xii] This same point has also been argued, in a different context, by Andrew Spiegel.  See 2011. “Categorical difference versus continuum: Rethinking Turner’s liminal-liminoid distinction.” Anthropology Southern Africa (Anthropology Southern Africa) 34, no. 1/2: 11-20.

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