…a few months ago, I was working on a blog post & painting the MMA fighter Diego Sanchez. At that time, my friend Michael Verfallen & I were talking about doing a joint post on the subject of fighting, getting into the ring, the violence &c. The ideas sat on the back-burner till now & have transformed into an interview. I don’t have many opportunities in my day-to-day routine to interview anyone who is seriously into mixed-martial arts, but I’ve always been interested, & Michael is that rare fighter who also studies anthropology & philosophy. While I was thinking about the interview, I was also reading Bergsonism by Gilles Deleuze. This had me ruminating on the Deleuze/Bergsononian concept of the virtual. As is the case, Verfallen is a virtual friend, I’ve never met him in person & I haven’t even seen a picture of him. What I do have is our virtual friendship consisting of e-mails & tweets. In our busy world we usually don’t give much thought to the meaning of this word virtual, & in our contemporary usage we might mistake it as something that is not real, or something that is possible. Both these meanings get away from Deleuze/Bergson’s virtual. What is fascinating about the way we are to think of their virtual has more to do with it as a real & generative idea, rather than that which is just possible. In this case the virtual becomes creative, instead of narrowly definitive. What this could mean in an online context is important to think of with respect to understanding a virtual friendship as a relationship to be realistically actualized as it is here. This virtual interview is an actuality & not a mere possibility. This virtuality offers an alternative to a typical way of trying to vigorously narrow down meaning (online or off). This is where the virtual becomes a point of multiplicity & difference. This is where meaning is becoming & thought is generative…
…also, I’m psyched to feature two images from Adam Smith’s MMA series Fight Journal. Interestingly enough, Smith regards the images as anthropological records. With this said, a single photograph is an excellent non-verbal way to document human relationships & behavior. As much as the phenomena of cage fighting is hyped & commercialized today, it’s easy to recognize that fighting is a primordial sport to participate in, as well as to watch. Its origins are pre-human. Please note that the two images included here are not of Michael Verfallen, but they have been used with Smith’s generous permission.
Aurelio Madrid: I want to start with a little background…like about your fighting career & how that was connecting to your anthropology background.
Michael Verfallen: First, thank you for the opportunity for this dialogue. It is not everyday I get to talk up two of my favorite activities in one conversation. On the surface it seems almost contradictory to discuss sport combat and philosophy in such tight relation. But, here we are.
To be honest, my participation in martial arts and my interest in intellectual activities evolved quite independently until late in my academic career. Martial-arts and fighting are pursuits I took up early in my teens for a variety of practical and emotional reasons, with philosophy becoming a central passion just a few years later. Although in retrospect each interest likely originates from a related set of motivations – motivations which have had a significant role in my life: pushing internal thresholds and resisting external powers.
To put all this in context, I spent many of my most formative years in a series of government housing projects – places and situations where children where routinely forced into precarious situations and confrontations with their peers and adults, fighting in defense, for respect or often out of frustration. Being able to ‘throw hands‘ and inflict instant and decisive violence had the dual benefit of protection while also generating the kind of symbolic capital – in this case fear – most poor people could not otherwise accumulate. Intimidation was as good a currency to gain respect in such contexts.
So martial-arts was (and is) very empowering in that it allowed me to resist the threat and actuality of violence and domination from without, but it also helped me discipline my body and allowed me to expand and develop my capacities from within, so to speak. Martial-arts and boxing challenged me to do things with my body I never thought possible and pushed me mentally and emotionally to the point where I learned so much about my strengths and weakness as a living being. I believe strongly that martial-arts generally touches on all aspects of human potential and provides a concrete set of practices with which to evolve those capacities. So when done properly (e.g., with the right teachers, in the right setting) martial-arts is one of the most effective personal development practices humans have yet invented.
Interestingly enough, as I was maturing physically and developing technical proficiency in the art of combat, I was also becoming very introspective. I had always been introverted as a child, but around the same time as i was gaining competency in fighting I also became intensely self-reflective (although still narcissistic, as teens can be). There was a whole chunk of my personality that became compelled by much more abstract interests. Examining my life and pursuing the so-called ‘big questions’ rapidly became as important to me as martial-arts. But both interests continued to push boundaries and help build my immunity to potentially dominating outside forces.
My first foray into theory and academic ideology began with Nietzsche. Nietzsche had everything I wanted at that young age: the will to power, the championing of the free Dionysian energies, transvaluation of all values – basically Nietzsche offered intellectual legitimacy for a youthful rejection of conventional morality and institutional culture. You can imagine what kind of havoc such thinking provoked in my teenage life for a while. But what I came away with was a strong desire for fearless inquiry which drove me to go find out more about what was going on in the world, outside of what others purported to know.
Reading Nietzsche quickly led to an interest in the ancient Greeks, Schopenhauer and Freud, which in turn led to Jung and then Joseph Campbell. Initially it was Jung and Joseph Campbell who sparked my interest in Anthropology, through their studies of myth and symbolism, and the relationship between culture and the human psyche. These interests eventually drove me to the university with intentions of becoming a depth psychologist, but plans changed and I ended up getting my degrees in Anthropology, with an applied focus on cross-cultural psychology, the sociology of health and political ecology. Meanwhile, I never stopped studying philosophy – particularly Indian and Buddhist philosophies, along with Spinoza, Hume, William James, Santayana, Heidegger, Sartre and more Nietzsche.
Even then my intellectual pursuits evolved quite independently of my training in martial-arts. It wasn’t until getting deep into the critical theorists of the body that I began to connect these interests. With Marx, Bourdieu and Foucault in particular I came to realize how cultural forces and ‘discipline’ create body-subjects, and how our bodies are implicated in all kinds of material and social processes. What became very clear was that my own biographical details suggested how my own dispositions and beliefs were generated in conditions structured by historical and societal forces. Foucault’s later work on the cultivation of the selfwas particularly influential, in that I began to view combat training as a technology for self-cultivation. I realized that through training and study I could intentionally shape my own mode of existence in ways that make me more capable of resisting subjectivizing procedures and dominating ambient interests.
Merleau-Ponty then changed everything for me. With Merleau-Ponty I was finally able to understand what was good in Husserl and Heidegger, but more importantly, I began to see a philosophical way out of mind/body dualisms – dualisms which fighting showed me were completely groundless. So with Merleau-Ponty I began investigating human perception as nexus of possible knowledge, as well as a way towards a dynamic, non-reductive materialism. M-P clearly demonstrated how situated experiences of the sensible as the ‘flesh of the world’, it’s “reversibility”, can provide access to an immanent and consequential reality. Merleau-Ponty is central for me.
Finally, bringing together my readings of Merleau-Ponty, Heidegger and Marx allowed me to integrate my anthropological studies and develop a stable enough frameworks with which to begin understanding the relationship between embedded and embodied action and speculative imagination. From that point forward martial-arts and theory became two related sets of tools with which I was to generally explore being a hominid in contemporary contexts. Whether it was reading the books of some dead philosopher or stepping into a cage to fight another athlete, it is always about exploring and pushing the limits of my own experiences, capacities and powers in relation to those wild forces and systems which surround and sustain me.
Aurelio Madrid: With that, do you have anything to say about the differences between the intellectual pursuits vs. the physical demands of the sport?
Michael Verfallen: I think there are definite similarities between the two activities. Both require accumulating sets of skills and proficiencies, and both require an enormous amount of time and attention. To pursue anthropology, philosophy or martial-arts you have to make a choice to not pursue other activities. Such choices often limit a person’s ability to form casual relationships and/or to engage in what many consider to be ‘normal‘ social activities outside of the academy or dojo. With combat sports you have to dedicate yourself almost obsessively, or you run the risk of performing badly and getting seriously hurt. So a lot of extra-curricular pursuits get cut-out of the schedule.
Yet with both fighting and intellectual study the dedication and learning provide profound rewards both existentially and in terms of one’s ability to adapt and find their way in the world. For example, I view individual humans as loosely integrated assemblages of energy-matter with differential capacities. The physical and the intellectual are two aspects of the non-dual plasticity of humans, and exercising those broadly human capacities enables us to be more adaptive creatures. We simply end up enacting different sets of capacities based on personal history, genetics, education, class, gender, etc, etc. This is what the notion of epigenetics is all about. So martial-arts and academic study both expand an individual’s physical and imaginative capacities, respectively.
Aurelio Madrid: Can you try to explain the dynamic between you & your opponent? Was it ever a challenge to beat the crap out of someone?…or is that just a sadistic side of yourself that you liked to indulge?
Michael Verfallen: Truthfully, I have never fully understood the all of the dynamics of being a fighter. I began fighting out of instinct and necessity, and only later as a path of personal development and exploration.
The most important philosophical insight I had from combat sports came to me directly after my first loss in the cage. I competed against a much more experienced and dedicated fighter and was beaten pretty soundly despite going the full three rounds. A few days afterwards, I was reading some article on radical skepticism and Kant, and it struck me as so completely and brutally absurd that anyone could ever claim that humans do not have the capacity for direct experiential access to objects as such. Basically, here I was unintentionally beaten, bruised and emotionally affected and some PhD-guy sitting in some library was dreaming and writing about how humans do not directly experience other things in the world. Well, my experience and the state of my body demonstrated quite the opposite. What fighting has proved to me – beyond any sort of linguistic demonstration of logical construction – is that entities external to my perception and control have direct access to my substantial being. The plane of action is immanent. Not only did I experience my opponent’s powers cognitively but a felt them structurally, in the way he was able to intervene on my existence and disable (temporarily) certain aspects of my characteristic functionality. Never had I felt so affected. So I know that objects and entities can and do have direct and highly consequential contacts with each other. Realism is THE default position for anyone who experiences the world as a whole/embodied being. After five minutes in a locked cage with a trained opponent, I believe anyone would become a realist. Ontologically speaking, we are open and vulnerable systems.
When I was younger I definitely got a rush out of dominating my opponents. My will to overpower was strong. I had no economic means to differentiate myself and gain enough social capital to climb the hierarchies of prestige and respect, so it was exhilarating forcing that respect and admiration from within my competitive peer group.
However, my taste for domination quickly dissipated after the birth of my first child. After this, I transformed from a ruthless competitor to a hyper-sensitive, protective and attentive father, almost overnight. I always had a high degree of empathy, never wanting to significantly hurt other people, even opponents, but becoming a father amplified that exponentially. I couldn’t even watch horror movies on T.V without feeling outraged and disgusted. Needless to say I no longer had the taste for violence and physical domination. So family life combined with a few nagging injuries led me to drop out of competitive fighting for about eight years. It was only about four years ago I returned to training at a high level of intensity, and only in the last two years have I been competing again. I missed having competition fitness as well as the sheer viscerality of fighting. Training and competition will never again be about domination or violence for their own sake, but about challenging myself to be the most well-rounded creature I can.
Aurelio Madrid: with the intellectual vs. the physical question, was this ever an issue w/ the other fighters? are most fighters the meat-heads we imagine?
Michael Verfallen: Ha, I certainly don’t get into conversations about Deleuze or Hegel at the dojo (school) or gym. Everything during training is geared towards shutting down abstract thinking in order to focus on habituating skills and pushing the limits of the body. The goal in fight training is not to think, but to act, and to do so decisively and without hesitation. And I train with professional fighters: men and women who dedicate all of their time and energy to developing a certain skill-set. People who want to discipline their body and minds to become machine of destruction. So, the tendency with people so invested in the pursuit of excellence in this field is to eliminate everything else that might distract or detract from training. No, you don’t get a lot of grad students or poets or artists in there discoursing in between kicking each other in the face, wrestling each other to the ground or choking each other out.
That said, there are very smart people involved in the martial-arts. Consider the fact that a person has to train and study jujitsu four-to-six hours a week for at least eight years before getting their black belt. That could be the equivalent time and effort to earn, at least, a graduate degree, maybe even a PhD. And mixed-martial-artists train and study in multiple disciplines for about ten years to reach the level competency you might see in the UFC. So, I think we need to be sensitive to the different kinds of intelligences involved before we start comparing.
One thing is for certain though: you will not find a lot of ego-maniacs or sociopaths in an established dojo. Martial-arts has a way of weeding out the people with little character or ego problems, simply because those types of people cannot cope with being humbled on a daily basis, and often this beating is done by people who are physically smaller than they are. It is simply not possible to be super arrogant or a ‘bully’ in a place where you regularly get choked-out or beat-up by your peers. In most of the serious dojos you are likely to find some of the most humble and self-secure people imaginable. In fact, from my experience in both environments, I would venture to guess that any given university would have a much higher ratio of arrogant and intolerable people than in your local dojo.
Aurelio Madrid: …about the physical toll this kinda sport takes on your body, was that ever a problem? …cauliflower-ear, broken nose, overtraining?
Michael Verfallen: Yeah, it’s always a problem to a certain degree. I can’t remember the last time I was completely pain free. I have broken my hands, most of my toes on both feet, broken and separated multiple ribs, I have had tendon and ligament damage, sprained my back and ankles, had dozens of black eyes, bruises, several lacerations and one major concussion. Just over a month ago I required crutches to walk due to damage sustained to both of my thighs during a fight (leg kicks), and right now I have ligament damage in my right foot that does not seem to be healing. No cauliflower ear though! It is hard for me to determine what toll all of this will have on me long-term however. I hope it won’t be too bad growing older…