I am a huge wrestling fan. “Like…WWF and stuff?” Exactly. But not just WWE (as it is now called); small promotions, large promotions, independent wrestling…it matters little. I am simply enamored with the sport/art/medium of storytelling.
But my obsession with wrestling isn’t just for personal entertainment. The rhetorical situation of wrestling is a complex, fascinating amalgamation that is not just worthy of continued study. Wrestling’s simultaneous use of visual, linguistic, kinesthetic, and aural modes of communication make it the perfect medium to stand as the basis for understanding a theory of rhetoric that is focused on multimodal composition.
But before I can begin to theorize exactly how this will fold into my work on re-defining delivery, it’s important to turn to those who have come before me. Roland Barthes’ “The World of Wrestling” is the perfect jumping off point to begin theorizing. It’s also a unique text because one, he is focused on French wrestling (not American or even other European promotions), and two, the artform has both changed yet remained the same since he published this piece in 1972. For the purposes of this post, I plan on simply collecting my initial notes and reactions in one place that I can turn to as I develop these idea further.
Notes and reactions:
“True wrestling, wrongly called amateur wrestling, is performed in second-rate halls, where the public spontaneously attunes itself to the spectacular nature of the contest, like the audience at a suburban cinema.” – 15
This is still absolutely true of independent wrestling today!
“The public is completely uninterested in knowing whether the contest is rigged or not, and rightly so; it abandons itself to the primary virtue of the spectacle, which is to abolish all motives and all consequences: what matters is not what it thinks but what it sees.” – 15
Yes to the first part; the audience does not care that the outcomes are predetermined. This is a condition of the spectacle itself. However, the degree of agency possessed by the audience could complicate this last bit. It does matter what the audience thinks if they are unhappy with how talent is being utilized and what the outcomes are; if these are out of line with what the audience expects from the characters, this relationship becomes complicated. In this case, it matters what it sees AND what it thinks.
Side note: Does the agency of the audience change with its size and range? For instance, does the WWE live audience have more agency because the product is being broadcast globally (often live)? Does a small, independent wrestling audience have less agency because the number of affected patrons is smaller?
“A boxing-match is a story which is constructed before the eyes of the spectator; in wrestling, on the contrary, it is each moment which is intelligible, not the passage of time…Wrestling therefore demands an immediate reading of the juxtaposed meanings, so that there is no need to connect them…wrestling is a sum of spectacles, of which no single one is a function: each moment imposes the total knowledge of a passion which rises erect and alone, without ever extending to the crowning moment of a result.” – 16
It is this demand to immediately read and make sense of the juxtaposition of modes of communication that positions wrestling as a possible model/example for an understanding of how multimodal composition functions. I love the wording of wrestling being a “sum of spectacles,” moments that are complete in their communication but work together to tell a complete story. However, I do think there is a crowning moment of a result, but that result isn’t necessarily for the participants of the fight; rather, the “crowning moment of a result” is for the audience. Much like the theatre of ancient Greece, everything culminates to that cathartic moment; the release of built up tension, pressure, and anticipation. I would argue that this is a crowning moment of a result; it is simply that the result has been determined ahead of time to make the audience feel a particular way.
And how do you craft the story to move the audience in such a way? Delivery! It all comes back to delivery…
“The function of the wrestler is not to win; it is to go exactly through the motions which are expected of him.” – 16
Questions of agency abound here. Who has the agency: The performer? The audience? The promoter? In what combination? Are there different types of agency to consider?
“Wrestling…offers excessive gestures, exploited to the limit of their meaning…a man who is down is exaggeratedly so, and completely fills the eyes of the spectators with the intolerable spectacle of powerlessness.” – 16
Could prove too be a useful soundbite.
“This function of grandiloquence is indeed the same as that of ancient theatre, whose principle, language and props…concurred in the exaggeratedly visible explanation of a Necessity.” – 16
Barthes has also observed the classic principles of theatre present in wrestling. This quote works well with the previous as a good soundbite. Wrestling is a spectacle of excess, so every action must be done to the extreme to leave little to no room for misinterpretation.
Side Note: Subtlety in wrestling? This would be an interesting writing project: talk about how subtlety functions in a form that is not designed to be subtle.
“Each sign in wrestling is therefore endowed with an absolute clarity since one must always understand everything on the spot…the public is overwhelmed with the obviousness of the roles.” – 16
Not sure this is the case anymore. This issue is something that has changed since the public acknowledgement that wrestling outcomes are predetermined. Before this, I do think the roles of the wrestlers were obvious and needed to be. Now, audience agency no doubt comes into the question. Because every member of the audience (of a certain age; I’m sure children do and should believe in the illusion of the spectacle) is in on the story, if a particular wrestler is being misused or pushed in an unfavorable way, the audience has tools available at its disposal to “change” the story, and thus change the roles.
Examples: John Cena – Though he is the face of the company and the quintessential good guy, in many venues, he’ll draw the most boos from the crowd. This is because the audience is tired of the obviousness of his character and is craving just a bit more “reality” from the character.
Stone Cold Steve Austin – Though his actions were those of a bad guy, he became the most popular wrestler on the planet and consistently received the largest cheers because he was so good at the role he played. He wasn’t getting recognized for his work, so the audience, through their participation, forced the promotion’s hand. His character remained the same, he still performed actions that a bad guy would, but this made the audience cheer even more. Here this “obviousness” of the role becomes clouded. (We can also see this happening currently with Dolph Ziggler.)
“classical concept of the salaud, the ‘bastard’ (they key-concept of any wrestling-match)” – 17
Good to note.
“the passionate condemnation of the crowd no longer stems from its judgement, but instead from the very depth of its humours.” – 17
Note: this occurs in a discussion of the physical appearance of the wrestler and how his very look contributes to how his character should be interpreted. The physical is absolutely part of the “obviousness”; a poor “ring look” can contribute to the failure of a character.
Forces at work here: multimodality, visual rhetoric reinforced by kinesthetic rhetoric, reinforced by oral and aural rhetoric.
“It is therefore in the body of the wrestler that we find the first key to the contest.” – 17
Ties into previous quote/comment.
“Wrestlers therefore have a physique as preemptory as those of the characters of the Commedia dell’Arte, who display in advance, in their costumes and attitudes, the future contests of their parts.” – 17
I don’t know why I never made this connection! The connections to classical Greco-Roman theatre are obvious, but there are so many parallels to Commedia as well, particularly in character construction! Absolutely build upon this in the future.
“The physique of the wrestlers therefore constitutes a basic sign, which like a seed contains the whole fight, But this seed proliferates, for it is at every turn during the fight, in each new situation, that the body of the wrestler casts to the public the magical entertainment of a temperament which finds its natural expression in a gesture.” – 18
Kinesthetic and Visual modes of communication are primary in wrestling; the oral/aural and linguistic elements ultimately serve the physical.
“Wrestling is like a diacritic writing: above the fundamental meaning of his body, the wrestler arranges comments which are episodic but always opportune, and constantly help the reading of the fight by means of gestures, attitudes and mimicry which make the intention utterly obvious.” – 18
See previous quote/comment.
“What the public wants is the image of passion, not passion itself. There is no more a problem of truth in wrestling than in the theatre. In both, what is expected is the intelligible representation of moral situations which are usually private. This emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, this exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art.” – 18
I would say this is another difference between when Barthes was writing and now; given the breaking of kayfabe and the presence of real personalities coinciding with character, sometimes if that passion is missing from a real persona behind the character, the audience will not connect. Or the opposite, if the passion is genuine, than the wrestler will connect no matter what the story dictates (i.e. Daniel Bryan, Stone Cold Steve Austin).
This being said, can a wrestler “fool” the audience with a convincing image of passion, even if it is not genuine? Yes. But I think it’s much, much harder in today’s social conditions.
“the wrestler’s gesture needs no anecdote, no decor, in short no transference in oder to appear true.” – 19
Ties back into previous observation that a wrestling match is made up of intelligible moments that build into a “sum of spectacles.”
“What is displayed for the public is the great spectacle of Suffering, Defeat, and Justice. Wrestling presents man’s suffering with all the amplification of tragic masks.” – 19
Connection to theatre. Beyond Greco-Roman and Commedia, I think this quote in particular also brings in ties to Medieval theatre and morality plays. Barthes does make some connections between wrestling and religious rhetoric, but I think theatre may be the connecting factor in this discussion.
“a concealed action that was actually cruel would transgress the unwritten rules of wrestling and would have no more sociological efficacy than a mad or parasitic gesture. On the contrary suffering appears as inflicted with emphasis and conviction, for everyone must not only see that the man suffers, but also and above all understand why he suffers. What wrestlers call a hold…has precisely the function of preparing in a conventional, therefore intelligible, fashion that spectacle of suffering, of methodically establishing the conditions of suffering.” – 19
Illusion of suffering, ties back into necessary obviousness of the gesture.
“wrestling is the only sport which gives such an externalized image of torture. But here again, only the image is involved in the game, and the spectator does not with for the actual suffering of the contestant; he only enjoys the perfection of an iconography. It is not true that wrestling is a sadistic spectacle: it is only an intelligible spectacle” – 20
Ties in with previous quote/notes.
“what wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice: – 21
Ties into theatre discussion.
Side note: Could be a fun side project to explore the outright references to justice that occur in wrestling. Primarily, right now with The Sheild’s success as a faction, calling themselves the “hounds of justice” and making justice their primary concern for ever appearing in the WWE.
“The baser the action of the ‘bastard’, the more delighted the public is by the blow which he justly receives in return.” – 21
Eye-for-an-eye reciprocity. There must be a balance to the actions in the ring (scales of justice?).
“Wrestlers know very well how to play up to the capacity for indignation of the public by presenting the very limit of the concept of Justice, this outermost zone of confrontation where it is enough to infringe the rules a little more to open the gates of a world without restraints.” – 21
Ties into previous two quotes/comments.
“wrestling is above all a quantitative sequence of compensations…This explains why sudden changes of circumstances have in the eyes of wrestling habitués a sort of moral beauty: they enjoy them as they would enjoy an inspired episode in a novel, and the greater the contrast between the success of a move and the reversal of fortune, the nearer the good luck of a contestant to his downfall, the more satisfying the dramatic mime is felt to be.” – 22
Ties back into the audience’s cathartic moment.
“true wrestling derives its originality from all the excesses which make it a spectacle and not a sport.” – 23
I just really like this soundbite. May not get used, but I want it available for quick access.
That being said, I believe it is a spectacle AND a sport. Ever watch two wrestlers grapple? Improv a match, or even just a sequence of moves? Wrestlers are athletes participating in a sporting event. It’s just that his even has very specific rules, one of them being that the story comes first.
“The rhythm of wrestling is quite different, for its natural meaning is that of rhetorical amplification: the emotional magniloquence, the repeated paroxysms, the exasperation of the retorts can only find their natural outcome in the more baroque confusion.” – 23
Ostentatiousness, excessiveness, obviousness. It is a spectacle because of this aspect of the show; it is a sport for the physicality.
“in America wrestling represents a sort of mythological fight between Good and Evil (of a quasi-political nature, the ‘bad’ wrestler always being supposed to be a Red). The process of creating heroes in French wrestling is very different, being based on ethics and not on politics.” – 23
This statement is worth revisiting and researching further. Given the intense global communications of the 21st century, does this still hold? No longer are our villains foreign; in fact, those who target foreigners can be bad guys now (Zeb Coulter). Granted, the Coulter example is also inherently political, so it may not be the best example. However, I think this example shows a move in American wrestling to also create Good and Evil characters based on ethics instead of (or in addition to) politics.
“Such a precise finality demands that wrestling should be exactly what the public expects of it. Wrestlers, who are very experienced, know perfectly how to direct the spontaneous episodes of the fight so as to make them conform to the image which the public has of the great legendary themes of its mythology.” – 24
“In wrestling, nothing exists except in the absolute, there is no symbol, no allusion; everything is presented exhaustively.” – 24
Ties into discussion of obviousness. Also ties into musing about subtly.
Is this complicated in 21st century wrestling? Again, is this different now that the audience has information about the “real” life of a wrestler? Can absolutes exist is such a time?
“What is portrayed by wrestling is therefore an ideal understanding of things; it is the euphoria of men raised for a while above the constitutive ambiguity of everyday situations and placed before the panoramic view of a univocal Nature, in which sign at last correspond to causes, without obstacle, without evasion, without contradiction.” – 25
Love this quote. Not sure how I’ll use it yet (too many possibilities!), but I have a feeling it will be used at some point in my scholarship.
“In the ring, and even in the depths of their voluntary ignominy, wrestlers remain gods because they are, for a few moments, the key which opens Nature, the pure gesture which separates Good from Evil, and unveils the form of a Justice which is at last intelligible.” – 25
See previous comment.
Quotes from: Barthes, Roland. “The World of Wrestling.” Mythologies. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972. PDF.