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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Fighting Form: Boxing and the Aesthetic Containment of Violence

  • Author(s): Costantino, Jesse David
  • Advisor(s): JanMohamed, Abdul
  • et al.

At the height of its popularity in the United States, the sport of boxing promised to satisfy the desire for an unmediated vision of social experience. Within the ring, race and class difference could be seen in the mutual violence of two bare bodies. New media technologies that emerged from the era--including film, radio, and television--picked up on the ring's peculiar claim to phenomenal reality, and long-established media like literature and the fine arts also turned to boxing and boxers as the nexus of a new unmediated aesthetics. In my analysis of boxing in literature, early film, and motion photography, I argue that this fantasy of unfettered access to the social world depends on an elaborate formalizing apparatus, both in the ring and in its representations. I contend that authors, filmmakers, and photographers find in the ring's rigid geometries, oppositional structures, and visible bodies the possibility for new visual and linguistic forms that might establish a more real realism. However, they confront a contradiction: only through a highly regimented form can they get at the raw ontological truth of social reality. The tenuous interplay between abstract form and violent reality becomes a central concern in representations of boxing. As much as these works claim to have discovered the form of violence, they also inadvertently draw attention to the violence of form.

My project attempts to bridge aesthetic theory and critical thinking about race and class. The very conflicts that have traditionally separated these fields--particularly the perceived incommensurability of formalist analysis and historical and political analysis--are the same conflicts from which boxing derives its popular appeal. In my readings of the photographic work of Eadweard Muybridge, the novels of Stephen Crane and Ernest Hemingway, the journalism of Jack London, and the films of Charlie Chaplin, I show that the many different valences of "form," whether social, economic, cultural, or aesthetic, appear to collapse within the ring into a unified structural logic. Whether it be in the visual overlap between the boxing ring and the film frame, or in the parallel between spectatorship and "race consciousness," or even in the blackness of one fighter versus the whiteness of another, boxing condenses abstractions and solidifies realities into a single, coherent conflict.

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