The Representation and the Represented

I was thumbing through Aldous Huxley’s The Doors of Perception last evening and came to one of my favorite lines:

“However expressive, symbols can never be the things that they stand for.”

That idea dovetails well into a few thoughts on kata that I’ve been mulling over lately, namely a categorization scheme of the current trends in interpretation, and rationalizations about the role of kata in training (there is an awful lot of variety here, but two sweeping categories can be made: the absurd and the plausible).  Lifting a few ideas from the cognitive science approach to studying human problem solving, it seems like there are three interrelated ways that kata are used within karate (which we will refer to here as schema):

  1. As prescriptive algorithms- performing and applying the kata in an exact way will always yield a “correct solution”(a subset here could be performance only, depending on the group in question)
  2. As heuristics- simple, efficient strategies (rules of thumb) that help us to discover a “correct solution” in training for conflict, or actual conflict itself
  3. As mnemonics- viewing kata as patterns without an inherent meaning, upon which skills developed (discovered) through drills, sparring and violent experiences can be  superimposed where there is a similarity to gestures or across sequences of gestures; the “correct solutions” are arrived at independently, and the kata serves as a way to catalog them

Obviously, an enormous amount of variance is possible among these three schema. Each produces models of fighting and the skills used to negotiate conflict that have a lesser or greater similarity to actual fighting.  The greater the similiarty, the better chance that the skills will be sucessfully applicable in an actual conflict. However, development of these skills and faith in their succesful application in a fight is balanced by the understanding that “symbols (kata, drills, techniques) can never be the things that they stand for.”

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2 responses to “The Representation and the Represented

  1. Kata in my opinion is also martial cryptography. One can either see what is obvious or try to read between the lines to see what is there with historical/holistics/anthropological/cultural research and training with other folks.

    Gen. Alexander Retuinskih, founder of the ROSS style of Russian martial art (student of Alexey A. Kadochnikov, and master of sports in Sambo, Wrestling and Judo, and trained with Prince Boris Golitsyn who taught him his own family style of Russian Martial Art) says:

    “Martial Art forms of different nations have their own code, in which it learns, improves, and at the same time hides and enciphers. These codes and ciphers are dances, ceremonies, and legends, fables and drawings, which are transmitted from generation to generation, such as with the secrets of our own Russian martial art as an integral part of the culture of the Russian nation.”

    This is also true for Okinawan martial arts.

    I was at the Japanese festivals and some Okinawan dancers were doing dances that looked like the Pinan series. The Motobu udon ti fighting art has resemblance to the Okinawan folk dancing (read Mark Bishop’s book titled Okinawan Karate, he discusses this at length). This is true also for Kobudo, where there are village dances with various weapons such as the bo staff.

    (This pattern is repeated in Indonesia, where some silat resembles its folk dancing, and kalari payat of India, and also the recently surfaced art of 52 Blocks from New York City, from which the “Uprock” portion of breakdancing came from. )

  2. Pingback: The Representation and the Represented: Further Analysis of Kata as Schema « TKRIblog

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