This article was written on 07 Mar 2017, and is filled under Theory.

Ontology, Trump, and the Truth of Professional Wrestling: Part II – Competing Ontologies

Yokozuna Trump vs. The RNC. Image credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Yokozuna Trump vs. The RNC. Image credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

In our previous post we showed how Christopher RayAlexander’s account of the poetics and politics of professional wrestling suffered from two lacunae: (1) an unwillingness to engage with manner in which the distinction between (baby)face and heel is substantively ethical, and (2) a related undertheorization of the manner in which we learn actual truth from fictional texts and performances. These two desiderata for Theory are inextricably linked, since much of what we learn from fiction concerns proper and improper ethical comportment in the world. Professional wrestling teaches us ethical comportment due to the fact that heels behave in ways that undermine the norms that allow people to live with one another. The role of the baby face is to reassert, re-establish, and sometimes improve these norms. Given that history is largely a story of how competing interests fight over and renegotiate norms relevant to living together, it follows that part of the charge of art in general, and professional wrestling in particular (as shown in Hebert’s dissertation), is to both reflect and contribute to history. But we can only understand this to the extent to which we understand dramatis personae as what they are, mythic embodiments of ethical norms. And we can only understand this if we can make sense of the truth in fiction. How does becoming imaginatively complicit in non-actual, fictional, worlds allow us learn about the actual moral (and other) facets of reality? How do various genre conventions facilitate this? What can we glean from individual works of genius into the workings of this process?

Let us be clear, by “truth” we do mean big T truth, whatever it was that Pontius Pilate meant to be querying Jesus about. But, this being said, we don’t intend our references to big T truth to pick out any particular theory of truth.[1] What we presuppose about truth in these posts should be held by anyone who takes truth seriously enough to theorize about it. In particular, the distinction between truth and falsity requires both the possibility of widespread falsehood and the possibility of widespread improvement as we learn to better differentiate false from true beliefs in important areas of interest. To the extent that we conceive of “theories” as being constituted by sets of important sentences held true by people who accept those theories, then there must be some sense in which our theories are answerable to the actual world. Of course this is philosophically problematic. “The world” doesn’t speak to us, human beings do. But then what sense does it make to require that our theories answer to the world?[2] While this is one of the deepest questions in the history of philosophy, we must still insist on the right to differentiate between the platitudinous claim that our theories answer to the world in a way that makes sense of the possibility of both widespread error and epistemic progress and the non-platitudinous philosophical theories of truth and knowledge that succeed or fail at gaining us the right to speak this way. To require those who traffic in the notion of objective truth to provide a theory of it would be as odious and unhelpful as, when someone told you their plans for the day, you tried to refute them with arguments in favor of external world skepticism. Yes we want a theory of knowledge to in some sense justify our everyday coping with the world and the successful knowledge claims we issue when making facets of that coping explicit. But it is perfectly coherent to maintain that there is such a thing as knowledge and be skeptical about any extant philosophical theories of knowledge. And it is the height of hubris to confuse philosophical and practical justification. This is to say that the fact that the owl of Minerva flies at night does not mean that we need to spend our days crouched in a fetal position.

To understand how we get truth from fiction we must first understand the ontology of various fictional genres. In “It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit! Performed Ontologies and Professional Wrestling,” we characterize the use of the word “ontology” by analytic philosophers in this manner:

When analytic philosophers attempt to provide an ontology of some genre of art they are trying to isolate the features of entities that make them instances of categories relevant to that genre. Isolating such features typically requires answering three questions: (1) individuation (what qualities differentiate entities of the relevant kind from each other and entities of other kinds?), (2) persistence (in virtue of what quality or qualities are entities of the relevant kind self-identical over time?), and (3) normativity (in virtue of what quality or qualities are different entities better and worse instances of the relevant kinds?).

In analytic philosophy “ontology” usually refers to a description of the conceptual architecture presupposed by our theories and interactions with the world. Doing this well requires answering the three questions above. “Metaphysics,” on the other hand, is the study of what reality must be like so that we are successful (when we are) conceptualizing the world in the way characterized by the answers to our ontological questions.

As with a deep account of the nature of truth, we pass over questions concerning the connection between metaphysics and ontology. Let us note that, so characterized, there are paradoxical conclusions. First, metaphysics might reveal that our folk ontologies are in some sense both necessary (in that we can’t help think of the world in certain ways) and false. Perhaps the human condition is one of believing in necessary fictions. Second, ontology always has its revenge on metaphysics. One must always ask of the ultimate categories used to explain the successes and failures of folk and scientific ontologies our three ontological questions. Third, and this is the essence of postmodernism, the combination of our first and second points brings up the possibility that metaphysics itself is a necessary fiction. Or perhaps something more extreme beckons. Perhaps the only metaphysics worth having is one that explains what reality is like such that metaphysics itself is impossible.[3] Fun stuff! In “It’s Still Real to Me” we show how professional wrestling’s own paradoxical viewing standards are implicated in this predicament.[4]

From our previous post, we hope that it is clear that to fully understand Donald Trump, professional wrestling, and the connection between the two, we must spend some time getting the ontology right. In that post we argued against RayAlexander’s characterization of the categories “face” and “heel” and criticized what we took to be RayAlexander’s mistaken concessions to moral relativism. Here we must attend to his account of  “work” and “shoot” to criticize his concessions to metaphysical anti-realism.

RayAlexander’s post characterizes a work as:

an event coordinated with a dominant story line and decided upon in advance to ensure that a match or set of matches credibly arrives at a desired conclusion.

This generalizes grammatically. For example, if a wrestler is signalling to the crowd that an opponent’s move has injured his knee, the movements are referred to (by “smart marks” who know that the outcomes of matches are predetermined) as “working the knee.”

In a normal smart-mark conversation, the phrase “a work” usually only comes up when discussing whether a promo or fight is a work or a shoot. RayAlexander characterizes the latter as:

an action which seems to break with, defy, or threaten what kayfabe[5] represents as the truth.  A shoot event can be something as banal as making an inopportune insider reference on camera or being overheard discussing how to improvise the match by a poorly-placed ringside microphone. But shoots can also provoke a rupture with the narrative by being too real and causing a shock to the spectator.  A broken nose or rib from a purposeful and ill-intentioned blow can ruin a story line and a wrestler’s career just as quickly as bad writing and unconvincing characters.  And while it might seem easy to determine which events are “worked” in pro wrestling, figuring out just what might have been a shoot is far more difficult.

This is importantly mistaken. Even though a wrestler can only “work the rib” if the rib is in fact not broken, this does not mean that a real broken rib is a shoot. Narratives can be ruptured without anyone shooting. If one wrestler breaks a rib then the loose choreography for the match that was agreed to ahead of time must be altered. The heel, who usually directs the match, will call different moves than s/he would have otherwise done. But, unless one of the wrestlers is completely incapacitated, the match will almost certainly still end in the way determined by the bookers. The in-ring narrative is disrupted, but, pace RayAlexander, nobody is shooting.

On our account, a shoot canonically involves either (1) a wrestler giving comments in a “promo” (the speeches wrestlers give leading up to matches) or interview that reflect the performer’s true beliefs and that are at variance with the storyline being told by the skits, matches, promos, and ringside announcers, or (2) one of the wrestlers departs from the agreed upon loose choreography of the match to try to legitimately harm her/his opponent. This second sense of shooting can involve not acting hurt by an opponent’s offensive moves, trying to injure an opponent more than has been agreed to previously, or trying to pin the opponent even though the opponent is scripted to win the fight. For a canonical instance of a performer shooting during a promo see this 2011 promo by C.M. Punk, where he insults owners of the WWE promotion. For in-ring shooting, see this informative youtube video of seven classic instances of in-ring shooting.

We should note that the categories of work and shoot inconsistently overlap in some cases. For example, a “planned shoot” either happens when: (1) the promotion tells one of the wrestlers to shoot on the other, without the other one knowing ahead of time, or (2) when promotions have staged fights where both wrestlers know that the outcome is not predetermined. And there are also “worked shoots” where viewers are led to think that a wrestler is shooting, when really (in the case of a promo) the wrestler is doing exactly what s/he is supposed to be doing, or (in the case of the match) both wrestlers are performing within the boundaries of the loose choreography that they have agreed upon and which the promotion sanctions. For every famous shoot (such as CM Punk’s promo) legion is the number of internet denizens who argue that it is really a work.

All of this being said, despite our misgivings about his characterization of a shoot, RayAlexander is onto something vitally important with respect to the ontology of professional wrestling. The disruption of either in-ring (meaning particular to a given match) or out of ring narratives is an interesting and pervasive fact of traditional wrestling. And, as we illustrate in “It’s Still Real to Me” one cannot understand contemporary professional wrestling unless one understands how the fictional elements have evolved in reaction to the crowd’s sensitivity to such disruptions. We show that this is actually fundamental in the sense that the artform encompasses two mutually inconsistent ontologies, which viewers have to be constantly tracking. This is why we are all smart marks now.

The work ontology of a fiction is what the world would be like were the fiction actual, while a shoot ontology is what the actual world is like such that (in the case of performance arts such as professional wrestling) the fiction can be performed. If we consider the category of “match” it is clear that the two ontologies are inconsistent with respect to it. From our paper:

In the 1970s and throughout much of the 1980s, wrestling television shows were not a revenue stream because, unlike today, promotions did not receive money from TV stations to put on a wrestling show. Rather, television shows were most frequently a loss leader—a wrestling promotion would pay a carriage fee to get their television show on a local network, then use that show to promote live events throughout the geographic area that could watch the show. Thus, on TV “The Nature Boy” Ric Flair and Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat might have a confrontation that leads to a title match. But to see the title match, fans would have to buy a ticket to the promotion’s next local event. Interestingly enough, however, is that this title match might occur at every arena within a geographic area that receives a promotion’s television, and promotions would promote this match at a variety of live arenas. Thus, fans in Charlotte, Atlanta, and Charleston might all see Ric Flair lose his NWA heavyweight championship to Ricky Steamboat. Indeed, if a fan bought tickets and traveled to all three shows, she would see Ric Flair “lose” his title three separate times because the same match (even if some of the moves are different) was repeated at each show, and according to local or area-specific television, each of these individual shows was the “real” match between Flair and Steamboat (i.e., the match to which all local TV would build).

In the shoot ontology “match” has identity conditions along the lines of plays or musical works, abstract entities that can be instantiated at different places and times. In the work ontology “match” is a performance kind, something which is non-repeatable.

All works of fiction have shoot versus work ontologies, but in no art genre is the tension as central to the standards of appreciation as it is in professional wrestling. Viewers must constantly keep track of two separate storylines, one involving the fictional characters in the storyline and another involving the performers in the actual world. One can and often does root for the (shoot ontology) performer to become more and more popular while also rooting for that performer’s character (work ontology) to lose matches. And many of the storylines in the work ontology cannot be understood without knowledge of events in the real world (shoot ontology) which contradict the work ontology stories.

Being clear about the difference between a given genre’s shoot and work ontologies is necessary for characterizing the material preconditions for a given artform, as Hebert laboriously does in his dissertation. If the “historicist turn” in recent Theory is to be lauded it is because it involves taking shoot ontologies seriously. If it is to be critiqued it is because it doesn’t take seriously enough the work ontology or the relation between the work and shoot ontologies, especially with respect to the way work ontologies are a constitutive part of the way we learn truths about the actual world (the topic of our next and final installment in this discussion). RayAlexander is generally on the mark when writing about the work ontology of wrestling, but his mischaracterization of the category of “shoot” within (or perhaps at the permeable borders of) that ontology leads him to a lack of sensitivity to the respect in which Theory must characterize shoot ontologies. For RayAlexander, a shoot happens whenever there is an event that destabilizes the coherence of the fiction. This is an “internalist” characterization of shoot since it does not involve the way “the real world” external to the shoot effects the kind of destabilization in question. But as we have shown above, such destabilizing events can happen without anybody shooting! By contrast, we characterize “shoot” (and “planned shoot” and “worked shoot”) in a way that utilizes our notion of a shoot ontology and the fact that most spectators of wrestling inconsistently track both ontologies at once. A shoot only happens when the performers’ (as opposed to characters’) real world animosity overtakes what their characters are supposed to do or when the real promotions’ (as opposed to the fictional promotion presented in storyline) machinations are inconsistent with what performers have been told prior to matches. But one simply cannot make sense of this without referencing the actual material conditions that make possible the performance of the work ontology.

As noted above, in our previous post we argued that RayAlexander made too many concessions to moral relativism in his characterization of “heel” versus “face.” And we showed that one cannot make sense of Donald Trump while making these concessions. Here we are arguing that his characterization of “shoot” versus “work” makes too many concessions to philosophical idealism, the persistent allergy to talking about the actual world.

With respect to Trump, moral and external world realism are needed to both understand why his voters voted for him and to make sense of the extent to which they are mistaken. For example, the forty year bipartisan neo-liberal elite project of hoovering the wealth from the poor and middle classes has been correctly experienced by white downwardly mobile middle class voters as a violation of the post World War II social contract. If you actually watched Trump rallies, he spent far, far more time promising to restore this aspect of the contract than he did engaging in racist and sexist dog whistles. He was the only candidate who promised to bring back the kind of jobs that his voters associate with dignity and autonomy. But we can only adjudicate this if our economics shoot ontologies make sense of the way that the forty years theft of wealth from the workers by the elite required the financial rewards and social status of labor being decimated by offshoring, automation, deregulation, monopolization, privatization, and anti-unionism. Likewise, we cannot criticize Trump voters’ desire to fully restore the patriarchical sexual contract unless we are moral realists about the objective desirability of a different social contract and clear eyed about the actual mechanics of gender and racial apartheid.

Trump voters don’t take Trump to be a wrestling heel, but see him as a face, the restorer and/or, much more rarely in wrestling and life, creator) of a desirable social contract. We can’t hope to make sense of this unless we can make sense of the extent to which they are correct, not just about Trump’s (in)ability to bring a society where wealth and growth is broadly shared and men are men, women are women, and minorities know their place, but also with respect to whether such goals are in themselves desirable. All of this requires both moral and metaphysical realism, as well as being clear about how work ontologies (in this case the story that Trump voters are led to tell themselves) interact with shoot ontologies (our story of how such work ontologies are performed and believed). In our next installment we turn to this task.

[1] On theories of truth, the most accessible and helpful introduction remains Richard Kirkham, Theories of Truth: A Critical Introduction (MIT, 1995). The idea that any theory of truth, no matter how minimal, must respect certain platitudes was best articulated in Crispin Wright, Truth and Objectivity (Harvard University Press, 1994).

[2] In Mind and World (Harvard University Press, 1996) John McDowell reads Wilfrid Sellars “myth of the given” problematic in exactly these terms.

[3] Cogburn’s forthcoming Garcian Meditations: The Dialectics of Persistence in Form and Object uses the work of Graham Priest to explain various strands of speculative realism and object-oriented philosophy in terms of these very issues.

[4] A fuller treatment would compare our account of professional wrestling as a paradigm instance of interesting postmodernism and RayAlexander’s similar commitments. RayAlexander writes:

This [the worked shoot] gives rise to an interesting paradox: the fundamental lesson of professional wrestling is that, to the extent that spectators of pro wrestling try to determine what “really” happened, everyone getsworked.” Marks miss the symbolic contest between the subtleties and slippages in reality and the limitations of kayfabe, which limits their ability to appreciate the physical and narratological finesse demanded by pro wrestling practice (although it may in no way detract from their enjoyment).  Smart-marks become captivated by the greater narrative of kayfabe and get suckered in by the promise of totally seeing through the illusion to a truth beyond the deformation of mediation and spectacle.  Nevertheless, the non-fans and casual commentators get “worked” most of all, because they fail to grasp that wrestling, like truth, is not less meaningful because it is structured like a fiction.  And this Lacanian insight cannot help but recall another: “Les non-dupes errent.”

We basically agree with this, but worry that, in the vein of too much post-Structuralist inspired theory, it can be too easily pushed in a neo-Kantian direction, with the necessary fictions in question understood as the result of culture and mind actively imposing a scheme on a passive, formless content, a content that can’t fail but to disappear when so conceived. As will be clear from our discussion of fiction, we reject this. The real is still real to us, dammit.

[5] Here “kayfabe” is the much broken holy code of wrestling where people involved in the industry are never to publicly admit that the outcomes of the matches are predetermined. RayAlexander takes the word to be short for “confabulation” though we suspect that it comes from a variety of pig Latin spoken by the workers of traveling carnivals where (in addition to German beer halls) professional wrestling began. Note that the lingo of “work” and “mark” come from carnyspeak, that different pig latins were widely utilized to give workers a way to easily communicate with one another and not be overheard by marks, and that “kayfabe” has all of the morphological information in the word “fake”. If we’re right one can extract part of a pig Latin from the term, with “dog” for example being “gaydob,” and “Roderick” being “Kayderob,” though from the “fake/kayfabe” codex it is not clear how to translate words that end in enunciated vowels.

For further support for our hypothesis, note that another part of the holy code of wrestling is to never actually call wrestling fake. This would be a clear instance of the norm that certain things are said in pig Latin that are never said in English.


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