Wrestling, the Spectacle, Politics, and the Desire for Justice

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Nearly every day, one can find an article discussing Donald Trump as a political spectacle. This morning, I saw a tweet by Salon.com likening the appeal of his political campaign to “Reality TV.” And just yesterday, I saw an article that evoked Roland Barthes celebrated reading of wrestling – in his book Mythologies – as a way of understanding Donald Trump’s political appeal. The reading, by Judd Legum, hit on some important points made my Barthes that do, in many ways, explain why Trump is so popular. He does this, especially, by noting Barthes distinction between the Boxer and the Wrestler.  I’d like to make a more detailed reading.

The key to the distinction between the Boxer and the Wrestler deals with the effacement of narrative and narrative time by the spectacle. Since what matters for the public is not “what it thinks but what is sees,” the public wants to leap over narrative. It wants the immediacy of the embodied spectacle. It is something which everyone understands. It appeals, so to speak, to “common sense.”

This public knows very well the distinction between wrestling and boxing; it knows that boxing is a Jansenist sport, based on a demonstration of excellence. One can bet on the outcome of a boxing-match: with wrestling, it would make no sense. A boxing- match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time… The logical conclusion of the contest does not interest the wrestling-fan, while on the contrary a boxing-match always implies a science of the future. In other words, wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result. (18)

The passion and immediacy, notes Barthes, comes out of what Charles Baudelaire calls the “grandiloquence of gesture.” The focus is not on narrative and not on intellectual content; it is on the body. Barthes points out that the body of the wrestler signifies immediately.   He describes the body of “the salaud, the bastard,” which appears repugnant.

Not only is ugliness used here to signify baseness, but in addition ugliness is wholly gathered into a particularly repulsive quality of matter: the palid collapse of dead flesh. (17)

The physique of the wrestler is, as Barthes notes, “preemptive.” It makes people shout out for something to be done to the body. The body is not about quality; it is about intensity and quantity. And the gestures of the wrestler are, as Barthes suggests, “diacritical.”

Wrestling is like diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes, and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious. (18)

Barthes is fascinated with this obviousness because it brings out things that are otherwise complicated, like evil, and makes them available to all viewers. And wrestling does so in an excessive manner:

What is displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks. The wrestler who suffers in a hold which is reputedly cruel (an arm-lock, a twisted leg) offers an excessive portrayal of suffering. (19)

Moreover, Barthes argues that the wrestler shows the audience the “conditions of suffering,” which, were they to be articulated in a narrative, would be more obscure.   More importantly, these conditions are displayed on a body. And when they are shown, they do not appear as a “conventional sign” so much as a “duration”(21). And in being a duration, Barthes tells us that the hits inflicted on the body call for “justice.”

But that justice differs in France and in America.

According to Barthes, the fight is more “ethical” in France, while being “political” in America. In America there is a “sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the ‘bad’ wrestler always being supposed to be Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different, being based on ethics not politics”(23). In other words, the blows dealt to the “bastard’s body ” differ based on the location of the wrestling match and the country’s interests.

But whether it is America or France, Barthes suggests that the appeal to justice is an appeal to common sense:

In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion, everything is presented exhaustively.   Leaving nothing in the shade, each action discards all parasitic meanings and ceremonially offers to the public a pure and full signification, rounded like Nature. This grandiloquence is nothing but the age-old image of the perfect intelligibility of reality. (25)

In this sense, religion is like myth since everything: good and evil, right and wrong, is visible to the viewer. When wrestling comes into the ring of politics, we have what Walter Benjamin would call the “aestheticization of politics.”   This common sense, so to speak, is focused on the body and the theater is measured or quantified by blows and gestures.

On this note, it is a fascinating to see how the blows to the body are also made into a major theme by Ta-Nehisi Coates in his book Between the World and Me (one can read a major part of the book here). But in his book as opposed to wrestling as  portrayed by Barthes, the black body doesn’t receive justice; it just gets beaten.  For Coates, the “dream” (read, the myth) obscures the fact that the black body has not received justice.  He wants his son – and the reader – to see that the match is rigged.   This is common sense to “me” (to an African American  named Te-Nehisi Coates) but it is not common sense to what Coates calls “the (white) world.” This shows that what may be common sense for some, may not be for others. Regardless, it is the body which is the focus and the image of justice that is desired.

But it is the complicated nature of Evil and justice which is not seen in all its true cruelty. And that, suggests Coates, has to do with the fact that America cannot let go of its “divine narrative” and “innocence.” Wrestling, it seems, wants to preserve it and so, it seems, does a certain variant of politics that we are seeing these days. After all, we would all love good and evil to be given immediate form and to know what is what and which is which. Without this desire, what meaning would the spectacle have for Americans?

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