Fist to Brain

The boxing ring is a ritual space dedicated to the vulnerable materiality of the human brain

Last Saturday I visited an amateur boxing fight in the outskirts of Berlin. My friend and I paid 6€ each, stepped into the old gymnasium, bought some beer and walked across the wooden floor towards the brightly lit boxing ring in the back. We saw men and women of all ages, and the atmosphere was more serious and more exciting than the junior fight I had seen last summer. Usually, in these amateur fights that last only three rounds, no one gets knocked out. They take place in the outskirts, in old gymnasiums with shitty sound systems, self-made sandwiches and senior photographers that send a boyish smile your way when they realize you’re watching them keep missing the right chance to take a photo. When a boy wins, you might see him get covered in hugs and kisses by his grandmother, his biggest fan.

“Arbeite! Arbeite!” The boys and men on the side shout at their club members and sparring partners in the ring. Work Murak, work Denis, work Dominik, work Abu, work! “See, he’s tired already, so keep working!” I don’t know what the boxers in this league get paid for a fight, nor how much more it is for a victory, but they are getting paid for this, as workers do.

Boxing is a working class sport. If it wasn’t, no one would have needed to come up with an upper class version of it. Since a gym in New York did so in the late 80’s, “White-Collar Boxing” has become both extra income and an alternative business model for gyms in New York, London, Hong-Kong, Singapore and a few other metropoles of finance capitalism. WCB allows businessmen in their 30’s to have their own separate competitions and more expensive classes, protecting them from punches by men different from them: younger men, stronger men, men without a proper job, black men?

The film Fight Club picked up on this trend, and the bare-knuckle fist fighting club depicted in the film is very white indeed, and not at all about working. Fight Club is about crossing a line, risking to be hurt and allowing yourself to be brutal. At White Collar Boxing fights in London the spectators pay a lot of money which is then donated to charity, as if the whole thing was a guilty pleasure, as if it were a Christian sport.

In 19th century England, boxing – timed fist fighting with gloves inside a ring – started out as prizefighting, as the most dodgy kind of sports betting. Barely legal and sometimes very bloody, it entered capitalist society with the promise of fame, money and respect for young men who had nothing else to sell but their labor power. But unlike a factory worker, the boxer is completely left to himself in the ring. No one can protect him, not even the father figure in his corner. In this ring that is in fact a square,

Kasimir Malevich, the Russian avant-garde painter who painted Black Square on White Background, was a boxer
he is stripped of everything except his confidence. His physical self is put on display and he will perform it and let it be destroyed in front of the audience, animated by what Joyce Carol Oates called, in On Boxing, a “shadowy third player”: the bell, that “sets into motion the authority of Time.”

As a boxer you don’t score goals or break records. As a boxer you don’t compete with other performers to produce a ranking, a bureaucratic list of who is better than who — as in gymnastics, athletics or talent shows. If boxing is about competition, it is as much about putting an end to competition. You direct all your attention to the other performer, your opponent, your enemy, your mirror, with the goal to knock them out, to be the only one standing. Of course the K.O. fails to permanently solve the problem of competition. Even if you were to become the Heavy Weight Champion of the world, you would have to keep getting into the ring to defend this most precarious of titles. Every time you step into the ring, you meet an opponent who is just like you, but who might be able to beat you in an unexpected way. This contradictory drama of equality and competition has made boxing a capitalist entertainment par excellence.

It could be argued that US-American cinema in its early days was influenced by boxing as much as it was influenced by theatre. The pioneer of stop-motion-animation, Willis O’Brien, who achieved fame for his animated dinosaurs in 1925’s The Lost World, first tested the method of Claymation by animating a boxing match in 1915. O’Brien used to be a professional boxer himself and, years later, his famous giant gorilla still moved like a boxer in King Kong. But recreating the rituals of boxing didn’t only motivate the pioneer of special effects: Some months ago, at a conference on media archeology, Thomas Elsaesser claimed that Thomas Edison was first convinced that the cinematograph would be a commercial success when he realized one could show boxing matches. Cinemas could be used to mechanically reproduce the performative labor of boxing, so one could theoretically make endless amounts of money out of a single fight! Until it was discovered that the emotional labor of female star actresses sold even better than the physical labor of fighting, boxers were the ideal performers of early American silent film – a solely visual spectacle of affect and style. No editing required: the drama was already there, as attractive as it was real.

But for some performers the silence of the boxing ring was louder than for others. For almost a century, boxing was one of the few contexts in the US where a Black man could be respected by white people, where he could meet a white man face-to-face. In the 1960’s, Muhammad Ali made clear that he did not intend to limit his performance to the ring. In a TV interview he said: “Boxing was just a way to introduce myself to the world.“ Some men had to go through the ring, a violent ritual space where words have no power at all, in order for their voice to be heard. Some men had to take thousands of blows in their head and liver before they would be listened to. Muhammad Ali is one of those who got punched too hard too many times, and is now remembered not only as a great boxer and a great speaker, but also as a man with a damaged brain.

The permanent brain damage in a boxer is diffuse, involving all areas of the brain. […] In place of destroyed and lost neurons, proliferation of glial elements, especially astroglial cells, has occurred. The destroyed neurons are replaced by glial scar tissue, which cannot perform the functions of the lost neurons. It is a process which is called partial necrosis of brain tissue.

F. Unterharnscheidt, “A Neurologist’s Reflections on Boxing”

When googling boxing and neuroscience, all I find are studies on how it is going to severely damage my brain. However, I am searching for a completely different reason: When I started training, it seemed that I gained communicative capabilities that I was lacking before. One night after training I found myself chatting really quickly with a stranger online and then I tweeted, new to Twitter, too: “I have learned how to chat! I had to learn boxing first”. My friend later pointed out that in English fast speech is also called sparring.

Joyce Carol Oates described boxing as “a dialogue of the most refined sort”, “a dialogue of split second reflexes”. When I read her essays on boxing I find it hard to believe that she learned all this from just watching. But maybe that’s the thing about boxing: as the boxer’s precarious physical selves are performed on stage, their experience becomes visible to the spectator. She writes:

It might be theorized that fighting activates in certain people not only an adrenaline rush of exquisite pleasure, but an atavistic self that, coupled with an instinctive sort of tissue intelligence, a neurological swiftness unknown to ‘average’ men and women, makes for the born fighter.

Regardless their neurological swiftness, women were banned from the boxing ring longer than they were banned from almost any other place in secular Christian societies. Until quite recently—amateur fights between women first became legal in the 1990’s in the US and Europe—female fighters lived a queer and rebellious hidden life in the shadow of their spectacular male counterparts. But even if the image of me boxing still looks transgressive or ridiculous at times, I want to think of this training, above all, as personal research in the philosophy of language.

Boxing is a radical form of dialogue, just like caress, but at the other end of language. A punch stands for nothing but itself, it is no symbol, it has no meaning. It only relates to what Oates has called the “unique, closed, self-referential world” of boxing itself, “obliquely akin to those severe religions in which the individual is both ‘free’ and ‘determined’ – in one sense possessed of a will tantamount to God’s, in another totally helpless.” Boxers interact in a language without signification. A punch can’t lie, but it can trick you. Someone can pretend to punch one way and then punch you another instead, or feint three punches and then strike you on the fourth. Ideally you notice their body move a split second before the punch, you notice their shoulder twitch, their arm fall, their foot step, their hip turn. But your response has to be quicker than consciousness can ever be. Your brain will have to be able to do its work even when you are not around.

It is said that Joe Louis, badly stunned by Max Schmeling in their first fight, fought unconscious for several rounds – his beautifully conditioned body performing its trained motions like clockwork.

This form of unconsciousness has nothing to do with human or animal instinct: it is zombie behavior. As Oates argues, professional boxing requires you to keep fighting beyond your survival instinct, because such an instinct would tell you to learn from your mistakes and avoid future situations that can result in you being knocked to the ground. One could also say boxing requires you to transform what the rationalist medical philosopher Antonio Damasio calls “somatic markers”, physical memories that guide your decisions rationally, without participation of your consciousness. To be able to box, it is not enough to be strong, enduring and alert. You have to seriously transform your nerve tissue.

You can support that process by repeating combinations of punches in your bed just before sleep, hoping these combinations will still echo in your brain when it finally turns all its attention inwards to its own materiality. During the deep sleep phase, when consciousness has completely left the brain, some short term memories are chosen to become long term memories, and your physical self is transformed accordingly. Not only are professional boxing matches obscene events that take place at night, but the neurological skills that boxers need are made at night, while the brain learns and the muscles heal.

The training leading up to a fight requires conscious attention to your body in the mirror. But in the fight, when your body works more or less automatically, your conscious attention will have to stay on the face of the other. That is a big deal. It was the biggest deal for me. When I started training, I would look away or close my eyes both when being hit and when trying to hit the other’s face. I was in tune with what Emmanuel Levinas has described as the face-to-face-relation. According to him, the face of the other is the origin of human responsibility. The face of the other appears to us long before we understand words and social conventions, and for Levinas it is therefore the basis for all ethics. He believes that the face, in its obvious vulnerability, says: you shall not kill.

Boxing violates this rule, and by violating it, directs all attention to it. Boxers are trained to not stop being aggressive when the face appears. Some boxers, however, seem to rediscover ethics in this very physical violation. When fighting is practiced as something so personal, it can become incredibly unethical to attack someone in any other way than in an equal face-to-face-situation. This might have been one of the reasons that Cassius Clay became Mohammad Ali – a religious pacifist, who refused to join the war in Vietnam and who even risked to go to jail for saying: “I’ve got no quarrel with the Vietcong.”

Human bodies are vulnerable, beyond the face and especially behind it. The human brain is so vulnerable that it has to be protected by a bone case. This case has holes though, in and around the face. Most communication enters the brain through these holes in the head, through ears and eyes, as signs and words. Boxing blows aim in this direction, too, but they are completely different from signs or words: Boxing blows attempt to shake the other’s brain from the outside rather than the inside. In the most vulgar way, they try to avoid the trouble of signification and take a physical shortcut right into the brain. One could say that boxing is a ritual attempt to not only put an end to competition, but to put an end to language itself.

As all good rituals, however, boxing is extremely contradictory, nurturing the very thing that it attempts to negate. Language might enter the brain through the face, but it does not leave it the way it came. Speech is created in lungs and throat, writing is done with the hands, gestures and poses use the whole body. Perhaps this is how boxing teaches me skills that are applicable to all languages, even verbal language – this semi-physical monologue of the mind that so often fails to be interactive. My fist, as it aims at the face, the brain, the liver of the other, is moved by an intelligent body, a body that is full of language capacities, a body that cannot but communicate as long it is alive. And the better this body learns to quickly respond to the attacks of the other, the more my mind is taught about the non-verbal roots of language. In the boxing ring I practice a language that was already there, before any word was understood.