Insomnia | Essays

The Athlete as Buffoon: Cultural and Philosophical Considerations on Professional Wrestling

By William G. Plank

William Plank teaches French at Montana State University-Billings. He is the author of The Quantum Nietzsche: The Will to Power and the Nature of Dissipative Systems.


I'm awful close to bein' the last American hero.
--Hulk Hogan in a TV interview


In the evolutionary process there are winners and losers and more organisms that are losers than winners. Cultures, like organisms, evolve according to their own laws, laws which have nothing to do with human freedom, in a non-teleological system which evolves according to principles of which the members of that culture are unconscious. All kinds of academics try to isolate the principles of this evolution, and politicians and tyrants adopt those principles in the hope of controlling it. The efforts of these academics and political scientists are then almost immediately absorbed into the evolutionary process to complicate the forces already at work.

A good example of this view of culture is Jacques Ellul's definition of technique as a non-human, non-moral, self-augmenting, universalizing organism to which human happiness, welfare and dignity are irrelevant. Ellul sees technique as a synonym of culture in the modern industrial society. Another example of the evolution of such an entity is linguistic evolution in which a language, such as Latin, develops into French according to laws of phonology fairly easily identifiable by the linguist, but of which the speakers of that language were completely unaware -- even though the evolution took place in their very minds and mouths.

This view of culture is rather an ordinary one and is accepted by many sociologists, anthropologists and ethnologists, especially of the structuralist persuasion. Not many academics are naïve enough to insist that we got where we are because we intended to. Our problem is to determine how the mixture of choreography, vaudeville, body-building, and elementary gymnastics which has come to be called professional wrestling fits into this view of culture. In the evolution of cultural institutions, what is the meaning of professional wrestling? What statement does professional wrestling make as an expression of our cultural organism?

Greek art and civilization enthroned the athlete as the male ideal, effectively identified with the military ideal. This ideal has been passed on to the 20th century through renaissance classicism, the baroque, and romanticism, the male physical ideal not having changed significantly since a greater realism and attention to musculature were reintroduced at the end of the European Middle Ages. Michelangelo put the finishing touches on the ideal when, in his David, he merged the Christian hero with the Greek athlete and Bernini went one further in his own David, a David who, caught in the act of launching his stone, reminds us of the Discobolus. Admiration, respect and emulation have accompanied this physical and spiritual ideal since ancient times: "Mens sana in corpore sano," a healthy mind in a healthy body, writes the Roman poet Juvenal in Satire X, although we have changed his original meaning some to fit our own needs.

The American public has been well educated to accept this image through TV and spectator sports in professional, college and high school teams in baseball, boxing, track, football, basketball, and in the Olympic Games. The values of the athlete have been associated with fair play, the team spirit, cooperation, decency, high production, high-minded commercial aggressiveness, political astuteness, the best education for a young man and the American way of life.

It is all the more surprising, therefore, that an American audience educated in the finest athletic values and admonished about the concomitant spiritual values can not merely tolerate professional wrestling, but by their patronage make it big business. Many of these wrestlers are not merely large, strong men: they are Mr. America types, magnificent physical specimens exemplifying the classical ideal, the result of months and years in the weight room, assisted by steroids. But in and out of the ring they are clowns -- bombastic in their threats of mayhem, adopting frightening, comic-book names, wearing Disney-like costumes, proclaiming mysterious powers and mystic holds which render an opponent unconscious. This buffoonery extends to other sports figures, especially to baseball and football players, in commercials for sports magazines, shaving gear, flowers and beer, where we see exploited the stereotyped -- and totally unclassical -- idea that strong men are noisy, dumb and overbearing.

There are a number of superficial explanations to account for the popularity of professional wrestling, among which are that it is an attack on a shallow machismo; that it can be associated with the rise of feminism and the visibility of homosexuality; that it has an erotic aspect associated with physical violence, cruelty and pain; that the athlete as buffoon is a symptom of an unconscious anti-militarism. Neal Gabler ("God, Country, and Professional Wrestling," George, July, 1999), considering the election of Jesse (the Body) Ventura as governor of Minnesota, thinks that Minnesotans have realized that "wrestling and politics are both ways to express anger and disaffection" (quoted by Garry Wills, NYRB, Aug. 12, 1999). Wills partly dismisses this explanation, calling the sport a "Jerry-Springerization of cable-TV wrestling," which has "created a kind of scumbag chic, with a frisson of sex and nihilism" (Ibid. p. 41). These theories are generally unsatisfactory, although some may have an element of accuracy.

A structural description is possible: professional wrestling shows a decadence of the idea of male physical strength and emphasizes the "signifier", i.e. the external forms of violence over the "signified," i.e. the meaning and the reality of winning and defeat. Such proponents of signifier-signified explanations (Saussure, Lacan, etc.) have got a lot of criticism lately. In terms of Jean Baudrillard we are as a society consuming the signifier. Nevertheless, the model applies quite nicely. A similar emphasis on the signifier showed up in the TV series, the A-Team: despite the use of automatic weapons, high explosives, armored vehicles and aircraft by highly trained, cigar-chomping Viet Nam veterans, no one bled, not one was ever killed or even wounded. The bad guys were merely stymied, frustrated, humiliated and sent on their way.

Concomitant with the emphasis on the signifier, on external forms, is the wrestler's development of secret, esoteric holds, characteristic of an activity which reaches its decadence and emphasizes the technical over the substantial, the form rather than the substance. The rodeo in the American west even exhibits the tendency, especially in break-away roping, where the lariat releases after the rider has shown his skill, but the animal does not have to be thrown -- a "decadent" proposition as a result of the disappearance of the frontier. When a culture, a movement, an institution or a scientific theory reaches its end, there tends to be a great emphasis placed on technique, on performance, rather than on production or the explanatory value of the theory. Fredric Jameson has written in The Prison House of Language that the last days of a theory are characterized by more attention being spent to adjust the theory so that it will remain valid than on applying it. Decadent literature emphasizes style and technique over content. In roping, it is the technique, the form that counts, not the capture of the animal.

Public events tend to be of two kinds: (1) the mythic, folk-festival type, sought and approved by theoreticians such as Rousseau and Artaud, in which the difference between the spectator and the participant is not clear and in which the event is an expression of cultural values. The rodeo, folk festivals, masses, and a good number of sports events are examples of this type; and (2) the traditional theatre, which Rousseau decried as an exercise in duplicity and immorality, in which there is a broad dividing line between spectator and actor, i.e., the proscenium, and it is understood that the actor is an imitator of reality. Nietzsche has a similar complaint about Euripides who, under the nefarious influence of Socrates, ruined the Dionysian theatre of Sophocles and turned it into a "technical" theatre which divorced the "spectator" from the mysteries.

Wrestling, from the ancient Olympic Games to almost the present, was a kind of mythic theatre in which the virtues of male strength were celebrated and in which victory and defeat were real. Professional wrestling may thus be seen as a public activity which has moved away from the mythic type of theatre and toward the idea of theatre as imitation. It is the ritualization of athletics, in which the manly virtues are no longer used for their real end as in the military or in most boxing and in the Olympic Games. Ritualization is a repetition of the external forms and it frequently causes us to lose sight of the original intention of the activity. It sacrifices the sometimes deadly result of male competition, thus becomes cut loose from its meaning and turns into buffoonery, to theatre, to comedy. In like manner, if the communicant in the Christian communion really believed that the wine was transubstantiated, really into blood, there would be fewer communicants and some gagging. One may see a similar dichotomy in the traditional distinction between tragedy and comedy in the theatre: Athletics in which the goal is to win or lose is the homologue of tragedy. Athletics which is meant to ritualize and repeat the signifier is the homologue of comedy.

Professional wrestling is the first major sport to evolve so far toward theatre, but it is not the only one: basketball, as played by the Harlem Globetrotters, participates in this buffoonery. It is not so important whether the Globetrotters win or not as that they display the virtuosity, the technique, and the athleticism which contribute to real victories and defeats in professional teams, where winning means dollars. When technique becomes of major importance, then humor seems to arise. It is therefore no accident that vaudeville developed pratfalls and spills very much like what we sometimes see in the wrestling ring. The same criticism can be made of modern jazz: virtuosity on the instrument replaces the real texture and drama of musical structure and harmony, and the best musician seems to be the one who can play the fastest.

When professional wrestling becomes theatre, it begins to develop like theatre: it thus creates characters, costumes and entire off-stage roles for the participants. It develops stereotypes much in the same manner that the Italian commedia dell'arte developed stock characters during the renaissance. It is a gallery of American heroes and villains, the villains being frequently foreigners or exotic types: Japanese, Turks, and even a Russian who touts the superiority of Russia and insists on singing the Russian national anthem before the match starts.

To some extent, of course, wrestling owes its evolution toward theatre to the television industry. The television is an apparatus which demands that everything be made theatre, transforms everything into entertainment, and emphasizes that transformation by the ultimate proscenium of the cathode ray tube, which allows us to be present at and yet perfectly absent from the actions. Science, politics, the news and even justice, in the Peoples' Court, are grist for its mill; and special athletic events are concocted for entertainment personalities and professional athletes.

In summary, professional wrestling (1) suggests the decadence of the sport by the emphasis placed on technique, (2) emphasizes the signifier over the signified, the form over the content, and (3) demonstrates an evolution from authentic athletics and the mythic theatre toward the theatre as imitation.

Institutions (such as the value placed on male physical strength in traditional western culture) arise as they are needed to perpetuate the cultural organism. As they no longer occupy a useful place in that human-yet-non-human system, they become outmoded. As they become outmoded they are ritualized and cultural institutions in general follow that evolution from the functional to the ritual. In the latter days of their cultural usefulness, they are acted out by individuals in theatrical, ritualized ceremonies. Much of modern hunting, especially the fox-hunt, demonstrates such a ritualization. Modern hunting requires a hunting costume -- and it is not important to catch the fox.

In the French 17th century, the weapons skills of the medieval and renaissance warrior had largely been supplanted by a bourgeois boy with a musket or a peasant's son behind a canon. The exacerbated pride of the 17th century nobleman was a result of his lack of cultural utility, and in the duel, which was a common event in that period -- killing so many noblemen that Richelieu made it illegal -- ritual reached one of its highest points: the ritual of death. Such a situation was already in existence during the Renaissance in France, when the French fought in Italy and the Chevalier Bayard set the tone for the perfect renaissance hero, wearing plate armor which was more beautiful than useful and would not turn a bullet. In 17th century France, such was the adherence to old institutions, that the manufacturing of muskets was prohibited (according to Sanche de Gramont in The French). The survival and decadence of the values of the chivalric knight show up in the 15th century: during the latter part of the Hundred Years War, the French king indignantly asked the English king, who had in an ungentlemanly fashion placed his troops in an advantageous position, to bring them out so that they might fight like decent men according to the code of chivalry. The Englishman was not willing to give up his advantage for appearances, for chivalry, for glory.

Male physical strength is no longer a value to our cultural organism, to put it bluntly. In the fabric of interconnected and interdependent events which make up our culture, the value of male physical strength has been almost completely ritualized and is an outmoded institution, surviving only in athletics and pushed to the extreme of its decadence in professional wrestling. A wimp in an alley with a pistol and a drug habit is more than a match for a logger or a cowboy. Physical strength is less necessary for a warrior: women can fly F-16s and helicopters, drive armored vehicles, fire Uzzis and computerized rockets, operate nuclear submarines and fly into space. Military men, some of the most conservative members of our species, will protest that women are unequal to men in conventional warfare where one has to carry a heavy pack and a weapon through a desert or a swamp. But they are overruled by the cultural organism which decrees that conventional warfare is rapidly becoming an archaism.

This is the message of professional wrestling: a strong arm is becoming more and more indifferent to an industrial production which is striving to develop robot technology. Any industry today which depends on physical strength may as well call its lawyers and file for bankruptcy. There is only one place for the highly developed male anatomy and that is the playing field. Athletics in general are the ritualization of strength; professional wrestling is only the most extreme expression of the ritualization.

There is an irony in the black man's success in football, basketball and baseball -- an irony which is not so pronounced in the case of boxing. For there is a subtle exclusion from society's decision-making processes even for the successful athlete. When strength is ritualized, withdrawn from the production process, then the strong man is withdrawn from the decision-making process. Gladiators, we must remember, were almost always slaves. What then about actors and athletes who have achieved positions of political power and decision-making? Does that demonstrate that they may succeed in participating in the power structure? Or does it mean that our political processes are becoming theatricalized?

The body-builder himself, who is so frequently involved in the ring, is an excellent example of the value of the signifier over the signified. For the exaggerated development of his musculature is not for the performance of useful work or for the overcoming of a real enemy. Those muscles are for posing, for contemplation. They are the instrument of a strength which is not applied to a traditionally useful task; they are art for art's sake, the signifier which is the form and the goal. Such activity is a little like building war machines which we prize for their beauty but which we do not expect to use.

Hulk Hogan was right probably when he said he was "awful close to bein' the last American hero," but he is close to being what the strong man has become: A Hercules with no labors, involved in a pseudo-struggle. For the strong man has been turned into a buffoon by cultural forces which make a clown of a man who has all the appearance of a hero but not the function. But there is an underlying tragedy in many clowns. And that is perhaps the origin of the discomfort I feel when I watch on TV the humiliating shenanigans of a man who could have been a model for Michelangelo.