This article was written on 31 Jan 2017, and is filled under Theory.

Ontology, Trump, and the Truth of Professional Wrestling: Part I – RayAlexander’s Argument

We actually started writing this essay on November 2, 2016. For the previous few weeks, we’d been discussing how our own work on the ontology of professional wrestling intersects with Christopher RayAlexander’s provocative earlier intervention in this forum, “Truth, Trump, and the Poetics of Professional Wrestling.” RayAlexander’s account of how the professional wrestling concepts of “work,” “shoot,” and “worked shoot” apply in the political arena struck us as an interesting spring board for bringing together work from our unpublished paper “It’s Still Real to Me, Dammit! Performed Ontologies and Professional Wrestling”, some of Cogburn’s work on fiction [1], as well as recent work on the revival of metaphysics in Theory [2], some of which comes from Hebert’s dissertation [3].

Unfortunately, on November 1, the day before we started typing this, the Washington Post-ABC News Tracking Poll reported that Donald Trump was tied with Hillary Clinton among likely voters. And the penultimate paragraph of RayAlexander’s piece uses his analysis of Trump’s political “wrestling heel” persona to confidently predict that It Can’t Happen Here:

Unless Trump can miraculously transform himself into a face for a general election audience, he is bound to learn the true meaning of “heel heat.”  As legendary heel CM Punk puts it: “That’s my job: to get people to want to see somebody beat the hell out of me. A lot of the time they themselves want to beat the hell out of me.” This is why Trump’s success as a heel in the political arena will ultimately also be his political undoing.  Like a worked shoot, the absurdities of his campaign may have called the very meaning of truth in politics into question, but they have also totally destroyed the possibility of Trump gaining credibility as a babyface with an audience broader than that of his hardcore base supporters.

And then, of course, November 8, 2016 happened.

Part I: RayAlexander’s Argument

To get clear about the reasoning that led RayAlexander to conclude that a President Trump would not be in our future, we do well to first consider the bit of regional ontology with which RayAlexander begins his essay. He characterizes some of the key ontological kinds in professional wrestling thusly:

Work: 1) An event meant to perpetuate a story line.

2) To make someone believe something.

Shoot: An event that presents a truth that seems to challenge or resist a story line.

Kayfabe: 1) The totality of story lines in wrestling.

2) Practices and conventions meant to keep pro wrestling’s secrets confidential.

Pop: Positive emotional intensity or crowd reaction.

Heat: Negative emotional intensity or negative crowd reaction.

Blow-off: Cathartic climax of a series of pop and heat events that closes a particular story line.

Getting Over: Achieving popularity with the crowd.

Heel: A wrestler that gets over by angering the crowd and generating heat.

Face: A wrestler that gets over by pleasing the crowd and making it pop.

While we would quibble with some of this (more in Part II on “work” versus “shoot”) the characterizations are sufficient to present RayAlexander’s argument.

RayAlexander first notes that Trump manifests many of the characteristics of wrestling heels. In particular, heels always maniacally privilege their own dominance over others, so much so that they are willing to break with the social conventions that support human beings’ ability to live in communities. To understand the point of this in wrestling and life, note that philosophers as diverse as Georges Canguilhem, David Lewis, and Saul Kripke [4] have all pointed out that the norms by which we direct our behavior are so numerous and enormously complicated that it would not be possible to enumerate all of them. And even if one were Godlike enough to do such a thing, one would still need further norms governing how to correctly interpret the resulting list of rules. If we enumerated those norms, one would still need further norms for interpreting and following the new explications of the rules for interpreting and following the original set, etc. etc. etc. ad infinitum.

Then why do we sometimes make explicit some of the implicit norms that guide our behavior? Reasoning by way of analogy with respect to the role that disease and pathology play with respect to our biological theories, Canguilhem notes that we are only called to make explicit a norm when it is broken, e.g. “Rule begins to be rule only in making rules and this function of correction arises from infraction itself” (Canguilhem, p. 214). From this perspective, part of the role of the wrestling heel (and fictional “bad guys” generally) is to help us to explicate those non-verbal norms that are in need of being explicated. With respect to Trump, note that most of us purport to hold the abstract principle that an ethics of pure domination (what Christians are supposed to mean when they refer to “pride”) is a bad ethics, but we need fictional heels to show the specific forms of harm that people following an ethics of domination can commit. The reason that the psychologist’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual  is damned to be a hopeless mess in every iteration is that human beings are endlessly inventive in messing up their own lives and others. This is in part because there is genuine novelty in the world that the bad guy messes up and also in part because bad guys are skilled at discerning, in a wholly non-linguistic manner, new ways to act against the collective good. Thus, it should be clear that fiction is in part the proper way we deal with the inventiveness people bring to bear with respect to discerning and enacting novel particular ways of messing things up. In becoming aware of specific kinds of infractions and how they play out in social settings we are in a position to begin to use our discursive reason to direct ourselves towards the good, in part by further explicating the manner in which one can enact goodness in reaction to the principles and powers that endlessly tend to ruin things in the changing cultural milieux.

Fans of professional wrestling cannot but recognize Trump as a wrestling heel. He is defined by well-worn tropes enacted by heels, e.g.: the manner in which he mercilessly bullied and belittled his Republican opponents during debates, his penchant for brutalism expressed in his embrace of torture and abuse of women, his inability to accept responsibility for any of his own errors, his incredibly thin skin and the way that it is tied to a fundamentally selfish world view, the incessant boasting, the manner in which his racism functions to blame others and deflect responsibility, etc. etc. etc.

But heels are not merely heels in virtue of the role they play in violating the shared norms that make communal life (mod a society’s given moment of cultural, technological, and economic development) possible. As RayAlexander notes, they can also be characterized in terms of audience reaction:

Nevertheless, this [morality based] understanding of faces and heels is too reductive because being a paragon of virtue or evil is not in itself what makes a wrestler a successful face or heel.  Instead, the audience’s reception of each character largely determines their success or failure.

First, note how tautological this is. A successful heel is successful because she is successful. But there is an important informative nugget here. Faces get over by pleasing the crowd while heels get over by angering the crowd. RayAlexander in effect argues that one has to characterize face and heel in terms of whether they anger or please the crowd because one and the same behavior can at various times please the crowd and at other times anger the crowd. For example, when Stone Cold Steve Austin punched Vince McMahon (his boss in story-line and real life), he solidified his turn from heel to face. As with so much in the late 90s “Attitude Era” of WWE, behavior that would have been characteristic of heels became associated with faces. The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) was a wonderful talent in issuing promos (speeches and interviews given by wrestlers that help forward the storyline) but the way in which he bragged about himself was something traditionally associated with heels. Degeneration X (Triple H, Shawn Michaels, Rick Rude, and Chyna) were sexually crude and they cheated, but they nonetheless were fan favorites.

In Part III of this essay we will give our own analysis of the blurring of face and heel in the Attitude Era, one consistent both with Trump winning and with him being a heel in real life. For now, note how RayAlexander goes from saying that the moral characterization of “heel” is insufficient to the stronger claim that it is false:

The poetics of pro wrestling classify heels and faces by the way they emotionally engage an audience, not by their moral fiber or mastery of technical performance.  If we only focus on character and ignore its relation to kayfabe and audience reaction, we lose sight of the way the spectacular whole enforces its justice on the meaning of every character and every match to keep fans coming back for more.

In this passage, the moral characterization account (heels violate moral norms) has been replaced by a crowd reaction account (heels get negative crowd reaction). And it is this elision that is key to the argument that led RayAlexander to predict Trump’s defeat.

That is, if we put all of the above together, we see that RayAlexander’s thought was that Trump got media attention in much the same way that a wrestling heel drives pay per view purchases, because of the reliable negative crowd response of most of the viewers/members of the electorate. But to keep getting that attention Trump had to continue to do things that would provoke the sensibilities of most of the viewers/members of the electorate. But doing so should guarantee his unelectability.

As noted above, prior to November 2, Hebert and I found this thinking to be persuasive. And now, even after November 8, we think there is something importantly right about RayAlexander’s approach. So where does it go wrong?

First, we think RayAlexander is fundamentally mistaken in dismissing the moral characterization of the heel. For us, professional wrestling necessarily involves a fable of babyfaces restoring a workable social contract that has been disrupted by heels. As Hebert shows in his dissertation, the manner in which this is enacted is always dependent upon the challenges society is going through with respect to instantiating a workable social contract. Professional wrestling (and fiction generally) teaches us about how to order societies in part by exploring ways to deal with enemies of a workable social contract. In professional wrestling this only succeeds to the extent that the enemies of the social contract are booed by the crowds and the restorers are cheered. This is what RayAlexander has right in arguing for an audience reaction account of the face/heel distinction.

With respect to his prediction about Trump, RayAlexander’s commitment to a crowd reaction account of the face/heel distinction caused him to fail to grasp the extent to which white middle class voters saw Trump as a face. Once we realize that the job of the face is to restore the moral contract, we see that Trump voters saw themselves as voting for someone who would do just that. This involves, positively, a return to the pre-1980s broadly shared prosperity, and, negatively, a restoration of sexual and racial privileges of that same era. Once we understand that a face is the person perceived by the crowd as restoring the social contract, we see that professional wrestling teaches us that what is desperately needed for those of us opposed to Trumpism is an understanding of why Trump voters see him as restoring the social contract rather than, as the heel traditionally does, making a social contract impossible.

To the extent that the Attitude Era wrestlers mentioned above were functioning as faces, it is not because the crowd clapped for them, but because the crowd understood them as restoring or repairing the broken social contract. They weren’t faces because people clapped for them. People clapped for them because they were (unknown to the WWE initially) faces. In politics as in wrestling, we can only understand this if we take the moral characterization of the face/heel distinction to be fundamental. And, more contentiously, those of us such as Bret Hart (and one of the authors of this piece) who do not like Attitude Era are most distressed because we can’t help but thinking that the crowd got it wrong. If being a face were only a matter of audience reaction, it would not be possible for crowds to wrongly view wrestling heels such as the members of DeGeneration X as faces. But we can only make sense of this to the extent that we can make sense of fictions being false, and correlatively being true.

Whether or not the professional wrestling audience actually did get it wrong during the Attitude Era, it must be in principle possible for an audience to get it wrong. Characterizing face/heel in terms of audience reaction precludes this. And when applied to the political realm, the characterization would determine that Trump is automatically a face because he gets a bigger pop in his speeches. But of course it’s possible for an electorate to get it badly wrong.

Once we realize how RayAlexander’s account fails to make sense of how wrestling morally educates or corrupts us we can segue into our second criticism. RayAlexander’s analysis has no concept of truth. By this we don’t mean “fictional truth,” or what is true according to a given fiction, but rather “truth in fiction,” the actual truths that people learn from fiction. The important point is that if you have no concept of truth, then you cannot make sense of the possibility of widespread error. Again, what is desperately needed is an understanding of how Trump voters could be so mistaken on so many things relating both to moral character and to empirical facts (for example, concerning the efficacy of torture, trickle-down economics, blaming non-whites for their problems, and pollution). We also desperately need to understand the manner in which Trump voters might be closer to the truth in some respects, for example, with respect to their rejection of the Clinton consensus that free college and higher minimum wages will be of particular help to non-college educated middle class voters whose wages have declined since the 1970s. Likewise with respect to their non-interest (as was clear at least early in the Republican primaries before Trump off-shored the non-racist part of his policy team to party hacks, and prior to his recent detente with Paul Ryan) in the movement conservative principles that motivate the Republican party such as the importance of tax cuts for the wealthy, eviscerating social welfare programs that help the middle class, and engaging in military adventurism.

This is important. Since at least the presidency of George W. Bush, our era is perhaps best characterized by the right’s adoption of traditionally (at least since the Reagan Revolution) left wing ideas, such as using the critique of identity to support white nationalism or epistemic relativism to support environmental and economic policies that have been empirically rebutted. In the process the right has revealed at the very least the moral bankruptcy of these ideas. But the idea that the critique of identity and embrace of relativism somehow magically put one on the side of angels was epistemically bankrupt as well. Since the election, much has been written (e.g. this post by Kevin Drum) about how Trump is a “post-truth” candidate as Trump partisans glorify how we live in a “post-truth world.” Yes he is, and no we don’t, and never has it been more important for those of us doing Theory to have true beliefs about truth.[5]

We agree with RayAlexander that one cannot understand Trump, or our particular sorry place in history, if one does not understand how professional wrestling works. Against, RayAlexander we think that this understanding must privilege how wrestling questions the manner in which a social contract is imposed and negotiated in society. And we cannot do this unless we better understand the connections between fictional narrative and actual truth. In the next two installments, we will extend RayAlexander’s analysis to begin to achieve both of these desiderata.

[1] The theory of fiction as Gedankenexperiment is first broached in Jon Cogburn and Mark Ohm, “Actual Qualities of Imaginative Things: Notes Towards an Object-Oriented Literary Theory,” Speculations (2014) 5: 180-224, and further developed in Jon Cogburn and M. Silcox, “Against Brain in a Vatism: On the Value of Virtual Reality,” Philosophy and Technology (2013): Neither of these publications broaches the issue of how the mechanics of truth of fictional texts differ with respect to genre. In our next installments we develop this with respect to how we typically learn moral truths from tragic versus non-tragic fiction. The final account will need to clearly accommodate the manner in which the same texts have tragic and non-tragic elements from which we learn.

[2] For a Whig history of speculative realism, assigning a pride of place to Graham Harman’s guerilla readings of Heidegger and Husserl, see Cogburn and Ohm’s “Actual Qualities of Imaginative Things.” Cogburn’s forthcoming Garcian Meditations: The Dialectics of Persistance in Form and Object (Edinburgh University Press, 2017) presents a much more detailed version that contrasts various movements within speculative realism in terms of how they can be represented as responding to inclosure paradoxes. The post-phenomenological, metaphysical reading of Deleuze was canonically developed by Manuel DeLanda in a series of texts starting with Intensive Science and Virtual Philoxophy, Bloomsbury Academic (2005). Interestingly, Harman and DeLanda have a forthcoming book (The Rise of Realism, Wiley (2017)) where the speculative realist and Deleuziana wings of the new continental metaphysics will enter into dialogue. For new materialism, see Diana Coole and Samantha Frost (eds.). New Materialisms: Ontology, Agency, and Politics. 2010. Duke University Press. There isn’t yet a canonical work tying together new materialism with speculative realism and/or Deleuziana, but the connections have begun to be made. See especially Katerina Kolozova and Eileen A Joy (eds.). After the “Speculative Turn”: Realism, Philosophy, and Feminism. 2016. Punctum Books.

[3] Neal Hebert, Professional Wrestling: Local Performance History, Global Performance Praxis, dissertation, 2016.

[4] David Lewis, Convention: A Philosophical Study (Blackwell, 2002), Saul Kripke, Wittgenstein on Rules and Private Language: An Elementary Exposition (Harvard University Press, 1982), and Georges Canguilhem, The Normal and the Pathological (Zone Books, 1991).

[5] This gripe was a running subtext in many of the essays in Daphne Patai’s and Wilfrido Corral’s Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent (Colombia University Press, 2005), one of the great “what might have been” texts of the era of Theory’s decline. Unfortunately, the future we seemed to have gotten in the intervening decade was a revivified historicism, a perfect strategy for an age where the ruling class embraces a simulacrum of post-modernism’s greatest hits and intellectuals are to be seen and not heard. But what if everyone involved with Theory had just taken a few classes in analytic epistemology over in their philosophy departments? It wouldn’t have been (and still wouldn’t be) that hard, as that stuff is much easier than the post-structuralists who (rightfully!) form our canon. This being said, as with the social and economic forces relevant to the presidential election, so with the future of the humanities. Sometimes the bad guys win no matter what one does.

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