Staging the Streets: The Theatricality of Science in Fin-de-Siecle Martial Arts

  • Originally published on the site on Friday, 27th May 2016

By Peter Katz, Pacific Union College

“A Fight Which Was None of Your Own Making”: Martial Arts and the Theater of Science

As they near the conclusion of their 1890 treatise Broad-Sword and Single-Stick With Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, Umbrella and Other Weapons of Self-Defense, Baron Headley (Rowland George Allanson-Winn) and C. Phillips-Wolley imagine skeptical readers who resist their admonitions to vigilance: “I can almost hear people say, ‘Oh, this is all rubbish; I’m not going to be attacked; life would not be worth living if one had to be always “on guard” in this way’” (Headley and Phillips-Wolley 111). But, Headley and Phillips-Wolley counter, “this world, from the time we are born to the time we die, is made up of uncertainties” (111). Throughout the text, lurking hoodlums and deceitful beggars embody these “uncertainties,” and at every moment destabilize the security of the unsuspecting gentleman or lady. Uncertainty gathers in these shadowy bodies with such force that the authors declare, “we are never really secure from attack at any moment of our lives” (111). As a remedy for the threat of the uncertain attacker, they suggest “the pursuit of a science,… which may… enable you to turn a defeat into a victory, and save yourself from being mauled and possibly killed in a fight which was none of your own making” (111). In short, the science of self-defense.

Science here operates primarily as a term rather than a field of knowledge; the word science, left ambiguous in Victorian self-defense manuals, rarely precedes detailed description of biological, physiological, or physical evidence or knowledge. Instead, these works deploy the word science as a performative – or socially demonstrative rather than content-driven and constitutive – marker of Victorian science’s penchant for classification. Martial arts call upon the name of science and its capacity to define boundaries between physical phenomena, such as in Charles Darwin’s biology or Alexander Bain’s physical psychology. In declaring their martial techniques scientific, these Victorian martial artists suggest that martial knowledge comprises a set of practices through which the gentleman can impose order on on the uncertain outside.

Through this framework, Victorian martial artists play at a complex network between science, theater, and bodily regulation. Play best describes these martial artists’ operative mode, for in the same way that the discourse of science functions performatively, their instruction manuals evoke a literal theater of combat – the staging of a play. Ordering bodies through their rhetoric and images, instruction manuals stage, define, and thereby control the unruly theater of the street. This paper will investigate these stagings through the writings of Edward Barton-Wright, founder of the first Japanese martial arts school in London in 1898, and his contemporaries’ writings about him. Instruction manuals and newspaper articles elucidate the intersection between the discourse of science and the physical transmission of scientific order to middle-class, male bodies through an emphasis on the staging of a system – their performatively scientific nomination applied at every opportunity to describe their marital arts.

Fin-de-siècle martial arts provide a fertile ground to explore the intersection between science and theater as mechanisms of classifying bodies in an increasingly uncertain urban environment. In their endeavour to allay their imagined critics’ suspicions, Headley and Phillips-Wolley employ science in a discursive formula commonly repeated among fin-de-siècle writers addressing self-defense. Security, these authors repeat, is uncertain. A fight is always “none of your own making,” always from the outside, and yet always present. Only the martial sciences will save the gentleman (111). As with any repeated physical practice, Victorian martial artists inscribe their science first and foremost on their own bodies. Because they directly cultivate muscle, reflex, skin – the physical body – systems of martial choreography prepare gentleman’s body for encounters with the uncertain outside. Even if the imagined opponents and the threat they pose bear little resemblance to general fin-de-siècle London life, through staged encounters with imagined opponents, these martial artists choreograph an affirmation of both the power and masculinity of the bourgeois man. Posed as means for ordering the outside, these martial treatises seek to transform the uncontrollable suburban and urban streets into vigilantly choreographed theater.

Bartitsu, the first Japanese martial art in Britain, while an arcane appellation and an obscure art, has likely crossed the path of many a Victorian scholar without her or his knowledge.1 Back from the dead by popular demand, Sherlock Holmes reappeared in 1903, saved from his plummet into the chasm concluding “The Final Problem.” And how did the detective survive his fall into “that dreadful chasm” (Conan Doyle 486)? The answer, Holmes tells Watson, lies in “the very simple reason that [he] was never in it” (486). Holmes’s nemesis, Moriarty, “knew that his own game was up,” and, “anxious to revenge himself,” tried to tackle Holmes over the edge of the cliff. Luckily for Holmes, however, the detective has “some knowledge … of baritsu, or the Japanese system of wrestling” that allowed him to slip out of Moriarty’s grip and send him tumbling over the edge (486).

For nearly a century, Holmes’s “baritsu,” mystified those few scholars who engaged the question, since “baritsu” is not a known term for any martial arts style. In 1996, Yuichi Hirayama and John Hall suggested that the word either referred to bujutsu or “any Samurai art”; jujitsu or “a Japanese throwing and grappling art” based on Meiji-era Japanese recreations of Samurai empty-hand combat; or “Bartitsu,” the hybrid martial style brought to Britain by Edward Barton-Wright in 1898 (Hirayama and Hall). Responding to Hirayama and Hall one year later, Richard Bowen suggested that Bartitsu must be the referent, since a Times article in 1901 mentioned Bartitsu with the erroneous absence of the first “t”: “baritsu.”’ The Times describes an upcoming “exhibition of the Japanese method of self-defense by [Yukio] Tani… and [Sadakazu] Uyenishi,” whom it names as “instructors at Mr. Barton-Wright’s school of physical culture” (“Japanese Wrestling At The Tivoli”). The men were to demonstrate “Baritsu,” which The Times notes is a “system … mainly based on Japanese methods of wrestling,” a description similar to Holmes’s explanation of baritsu as “the Japanese system of wrestling” (486). Whether Conan Doyle was simply under-informed or intentionally altering the decidedly cumbersome appellation “Bartitsu,” Holmes owes his “baritsu” grappling to a pioneer of Japanese martial arts in Britain.

While Bartitsu worked for Holmes, Victorian London often displayed deep skepticism of Barton-Wright’s credentials and the effectiveness of his art. After three years in Japan, where he trained in various styles of Japanese jujitsu – most prominently Shinden-Fudo Ryu Jujitsu under Terajima Kuniichiro and Kyushin-ryu jujitsu under Yoshinori Eguchi – Barton-Wright compiled his art from the techniques he had learned in Japan, British pugilism, and French kickboxing or savate.2 In his publications and advertisements, Barton-Wright anticipated that the novelty of formalized Japanese martial arts training in Europe meant that his art would require constant authentication.3 Writing his second article in an 1899 series for Pearson’s Magazine, Barton-Wright debuts the name for his “New Art of Self-Defense,” and quickly adds that “[i]t is not intended to take the place of boxing, fencing, wrestling, savate, or any other recognized forms of attack and defense” (Barton-Wright, “The New Art of Self-Defence: Part 2” 402).4 Even as he placates existing and distinctly European martial arts, however, Barton-Wright immediately follows with the claim that Bartitsu “comprises all the best points of these methods” (402). Such a bold claim, of course, requires evidence, and while Barton-Wright’s article outlines numerous illustrated techniques which this paper will later explore, he begins his validation with the rhetoric of scientific authority.

Evoking science validates Bartitsu as a martial form comparable to more commonly known and accepted European arts, but even here, the scientific impulse enacts the same ordering of potential chaos. “The system,” Barton-Wright continues in his introduction to his second “New Art of Self-Defence” article, “has been carefully and scientifically planned” (402). Nearly every word in this declaration moves toward regulation: Bartitsu is a “system,” a logical structure of parts which demonstrate intentional or “planned” design and draw on scientific structure to generate the capacity to order. Even the past perfect “has been” suggests a completed process, a solidified and deliberate formation impervious to future disorder. Barton-Wright’s elaboration on the scientific plan invokes more of a suggestion rather than an explanation: “its principle may be summed up in a sound knowledge of balance and leverage as applied to human anatomy” (402). Rarely in the article following his introduction does he further explain “balance,” “leverage,” or “human anatomy” short of a reference to “the nerve of the funny bone which is situated just behind the elbow” (409), and a few casual references to leverage without describing the means by which one establishes such leverage. The invocation of science does not need to extend into his practice; rather, the idea of science in itself rhetorically validates his system.

Employing the term “science” takes on a more potent rhetorical valence when applied to validating tests of Barton-Wright himself. An editor of Pearson’s appended a note to Barton-Wright’s first article, praising Barton-Wright as a martial artist through reference to a demonstration the editor witnessed (“NASD1” 268). At this performance, Barton-Wright engaged a Mr. Chipchase, an “amateur champion of the Cumberland and Westmoreland style of wrestling” (268). The editor suggests that the performance serves “[b]y way of experiment,” and proceeds to elaborate on a series of feats in which Barton-Wright escaped and countered various of Chipchase’s holds. Clearly mystified, the editor describes how, while in mid-air, Barton-Wright managed to counter-throw his opponent “apparently without effort” at a speed “impossible for the eye to follow” (268). It is not difficult to imagine a counterfactual Pearson’s note that refers to these effortless displays as mystical or superhuman, but the editor instead describes these exhibitions as “extraordinary” yet “conclusive” – a definitive judgment. The rhetoric of experimentation and conclusion establish Barton-Wright’s abilities as scientifically verifiable.

Bartitsu becomes even more scientific in the editor’s note as he continues. He cites Colonel G. W. Fox, the Assistant Adjutant-General of York and ex-Inspector General of Army Gymnasia, who declares Bartitsu a “system … absolutely sound in theory, exceeding practical and very scientific” (“NASD1” 268). Chipchase contributes a quotation as well – which the editor reminds the reader is an “opinion as an expert” – declaring Bartitsu a “system of defence … much more scientific than my style,” and concluding that “[m]ere strength has no chance of withstanding the science of this new art” (268). Suggestive of scientific debates akin to those of Victorian periodicals, the editor employs quotations from experts to validate both his own sense that Bartitsu is scientific, and to bolster Barton-Wright’s claim to scientificity. Both experts refer to Bartitsu using Barton-Wright’s term “system,” and both of them root its effectiveness in science: Fox links theory and practice through the scientific, and Chipchase implies that Bartitsu’s superiority in combat lies in its superiority in science.

Interfering for the Sake of Humanity: Gaps in Authority

In the editor’s note to Barton-Wright’s article, the expert opinions begin to make the connection between scientificity and regulation. Fox declares that he is “quite certain that if our police were to learn some of [Barton-Wright’s] throws and grips, they could cope much more successfully with every kind of resistance” (“NASD1” 268). Chipchase as well, according to the editor, suggests that the police should take up Bartitsu, and the editor “cordially agree[s]”; “in fact,” he continues, “we are, at the present moment, taking steps to introduce Mr. Barton-Wright to the Chief Commissioner of Police.”5 As what Fox called a practical science, Bartitsu intrigued regulatory officials for its capacity to effectively control opponents on the streets of the Empire. A colonial officer, Captain F. C. Laing of the 12th Bengal Infantry, wrote an article for the Journal of the United Service Institution of India in 1903 advocating Bartitsu as a system of military promise. Laing admits that “the art of self-defence alluded to here is without the use of any recognised military weapon,” but suggests that “it may perhaps be of interest to readers of this Journal as showing what science and skill can do against merely brute force” (Laing 153). Bartitsu’s scientific knowledge overcomes an especially “brute” – that is, uncontrolled, unrefined – force. As a physical practice endowed with the authority of science, Bartitsu defends against both opponents’ physical bodies and against those bodies’ more abstract challenge to order. Barton-Wright even suggests in one of his technique descriptions that proper use of the technique will render one’s opponent “disarmed and in a position where you can break his leg immediately if you so like,” but “if you do not wish to proceed to such extremes, you can hold him down in the position shown in No. 6 until the police arrive” (“NASD1” 270). Martial science enables regulation, intersecting the ordering discourse of science with the ordering discourse of policing. Science translates martial knowledge into a system of control.

Martial arts as martial science brings together self-defense and the police. And yet, Sherlock Holmes defines himself against the police through figures like the “absolute imbecile” (Holmes’s phrase) Peter Jones and Inspector Lestrade. The Yard in the Holmes stories exhibits such drastic incompetence that any real policing must come from outside the police. This framework resonates with D. A. Miller’s argument that detective stories operate under a “perception of everyday life as fundamentally ‘outside’ the network of policing power,” since the police seem powerless to exert their power (Miller 37). It is no coincidence then that Holmes utilizes baritsu, for even as self-defense’s reliance on the discourse of science readily aligns it with discourses of state control, the physical exercise of science through gentleman’s body enables him to personally exert the science’s ordering power. Faced with the insufficiency of the state control apparatuses, Holmes takes self-defense quite literally into his own hands. The gentleman who makes use of Barton-Wright’s system of self-defense, while able to order a disorderly opponent until the police arrive, must still make the initial ordering exertion with his own body. Even as science brings martial arts into the same discursive domain as police control, the very need to defend one’s self suggests a break in the ordering power of the police – a break that the middle-class gentleman must fill. For the middle-class martial artist, where pugilism reeks of working-class brutishness and the then-illegal duel implies an impotent and wasteful aristocracy, the martial science of the middle class produces order and stability.

The individual gentleman as physical conduit of order acquires its discursive center not in the defense of the self, but in using self-defense to defend others. Headley and Phillips-Wolley assert that “science gives a consciousness of power and ability to assist the weak and defenseless, which ought to be most welcome to the mind of any man” (111). A “consciousness of power” unveiled through the ordering science of self-defense, which the authors claim “gives you your real authority,” becomes the gentleman’s responsibility to society, for “there are times when it may be necessary to interfere for the sake of humanity” (111). Derivation of “real authority” from self-defense, as with the gap of authority in the police, suggests that “real authority” exists in insufficient quantity; that is, there would be no need to utilize self-defense to gain one’s “real authority” were that authority already in one’s power. Authority must not be immediately present, however, for “if the science is absent, you dare not, from very uncertainty, use those very words which you know ought to be used on the occasion” that one must assist the weak for the sake of humanity (111). The middle-class – from the vigilante Holmes to manly gentlemen like Barton-Wright, Headley, and Phillips-Wolley – faces a dual insufficiency of power: the failure of the police to adequately protect in everyday life, and the fragile basis for the “real authority” of the bourgeois.

Statistics and the Suburbs: The Character of the “Dangerous Fellow”

Barton-Wright and his contemporaries employ a consistent discursive framework when describing the origin of the threat to the authority and order of the bourgeois. At the conclusion of their work, Headley and Phillips-Wolley caution their readers that “[i]n the environs of our big cities there is always a chance of attack by some fellow who asks the time, wants a match to light his cigar, or asks the way to some place” (116). The dangerous fellow may not even give the courtesy of a false question however, Barton-Wright warns, as “one of the commonest forms of attack is that in which an assailant makes a rush at his victim from behind, and seizes him by the collar of his coat” (“NASD2” 409). All three authors enjoin their readers “always to walk in the middle of the road,” so that they can see an oncoming attack and prevent themselves against an ambush from the side (“NASD2” 270; Headley and Phillips-Wolley 116). A spectator at a Bartitsu tournament, writing anonymously for Sandow’s Magazine of Physical Culture, conceded that, “[g]ranted suspicion of the intentions of a man by whose side you may be walking, and a knowledge of Bartitsu will stand you in good stead,” enabling the gentleman “to lay your hooligan on his back with a suddenness and vehemence that will surprise him” (“Bartitsu Tournament” 29). The deceptive question or rush from behind, the knife attack from the side, and the constant need to watch for hooligans on the street coalesce into Headley and Phillips-Wolley’s spectre of uncertainty that began this article – a criminal underclass that threatens to strip the bourgeois gentleman of authority over the streets of London.6

The notion of a “criminal class” was hardly new in Barton-Wright’s fin-de-siècle London. In fact, the discourse around such a class had by the 1850s coalesced with conversations about urbanization and geography in a manner that remains recognizable throughout the work of late Victorian self-defense authors. Citing “the aggregation of population in large towns and cities” as the ultimate cause of “the development and rapid growth of certain forms of crime,” an 1854 writer for the Eclectic Review declared “a new estate, in utter estrangement from all the rest” (“Juvenile Delinquency” 387). In his introduction to the discursive construction of the criminal class, crime historian J. J. Tobias pairs this anonymous author with the Rev. W. D. Morrison, who in 1891 echoed the declaration that “[t]here is a population of habitual criminals which forms a class by itself” (Tobias, Crime and Police in England, 1700–1900 57). These two Victorian writers, bookending the mid-to-late Victorian conversation on crime, censure the need for debate: the criminal class exists and persists. Granted, the Eclectic Review’s panic acquires nuance throughout the century, gradually separating the criminal class from the working class; Morrison reminds his readers that members of the criminal class “are not to be confounded with the working or any other class,” and instead number approximately 60,000 or twelve percent of the population separate from the working and “well-to-do” classes (Morrison 141–42). Even as he separates the criminal class from the labouring class, however, Morrison does not sway from his scientific conviction that they present a real and present danger. At the same time, criminal statistics and the narratives woven around the numbers flatten out the difference between 1850s London and 1890s London, resulting in either a synchronic persistence of a criminal class, or the diachronic narrative of that class’s erasure.7 What purpose, then, does a narrative of a persistent criminal class achieve for Morrison, and more importantly, Barton-Wright and other self-defense writers?

Geography provides one compelling answer: the unregulated presence of the suburbs and the streets between the suburb and the city. Discourses about the criminal class coincide with the urban aggregation of the populace; this aggregation, claims the author in the Eclectic Review, yields the “development” of the criminal class. An outgrowth of urbanization, the uncontrolled space of the suburbs precludes statistics in the imagination of Barton-Wright and his contemporaries. The suburbs transform London into “a hyperactive and increasingly unknowable city,” one which distributes “widespread nervousness about a poorly-defined lower middle class” (Early 172). Ambiguity about whether or not the criminal class statistically exists in fin-de-siècle London, and the definition and containment of the increasingly present “lower middle class,” reshapes London as an uncontrolled space. Publications such as Charles Booth’s 1902 Life and Labour of the People of London map the striated divisions between neighbourhoods and even streets, attempting to provide classification for the people who inhabited each area of London. And yet, as Julie English Early points out, “[t]he very detailed effort by the guidebooks… to read the suburbs only underscores their unreadability” (173–74). Neighbourhoods shifted class as London sprawled outward, and the diversity of income and lifestyle render inert any easy equation for classification.

Even as attempts to regulate the houses and regions of London collapse, the geographic space of the street itself dashes all hopes of classification. Whether one is of the upper middle class commuting through the suburbs into the city or of those closer to the center of the city increasingly populated by unknown peoples, the street comprises a space of dangerous fluidity. In the street, the science of statistics breaks down, for the street constitutes a space of broken boundaries: the upper middle class must travel into the increasingly uncontrollable city space through an even more uncontrollable street. Herein lies Headley and Phillips-Wolley’s “uncertainty” and the need to avoid the man asking for directions or the time, for the street compounds uncertainties and rewrites any other body as a potential threat. The Sandow writer at the Bartitsu exhibition grants Bartitsu’s effectiveness only if one suspects the man at one’s side, but grimly notes that “nothing will save you from the ruffian who unexpectedly draws a dagger and jabs it into your back or ribs” (“Bartitsu Tournament” 29). As a conduit from the suburb to the center, the street interrupts the physical and geographic boundaries between classes and bodies; circulation becomes at every moment an opportunity for an attack against the gentleman’s body and his identity. Following the advice of self-defense manuals and walking down the middle of the street geographically positions one at a point of maximum control over the uncontrollable. Suspect everyone on the street, the self-defense manuals declaim, because only the science of self-defense can reassert order.

Taking Back the Streets, Taking Back Bodies: Regulating the Hooligan

Scientific suspicion forms the paradigmatic cornerstone of late Victorian self-defense first and foremost as a regulatory discipline: it constrains and defines bodies and the rules of engagement between those bodies. Locating this suspicion geographically in “the street” establishes a domain needful of this discipline, for the fight, while “none of his own making,” still draws in the Victorian gentleman. One does not chose confrontation; it is a duty, an inevitability. Faced with the inexorable threat of otherwise uncontainable violence, the Victorian martial artist responds with a system capable of staging the fight. Given this structure, the remainder of this essay will explore in detail some of the self-defense techniques Barton-Wright outlined in his publications, and the ways in which those techniques classify and regulate the “uncertainties” of the street. Through choreographed techniques of disciplining one’s opponent, I suggest, these fin-de-siècle martial arts stage the uncertainties of the street in controlled theater, and reiterate the martial artists’ own strictures and boundaries against imagined threats.

To consider Barton-Wright’s technique manuals requires first a consideration of martial arts as a practice. In order for his system to have effect for its practitioners, Barton-Wright emphasizes the need for “steady practice” through repetition and study of the discipline (“NASD1” 269). Bodily conditioning as part of fin-de-siècle “physical culture” comprises a major element of such practice, but in contradistinction to a more individual sport like running or lifting, self-defense explicitly cultivates a relationship between two or more bodies. With this dependency on multiple bodies, practice in Barton-Wright’s gymnasium would involve a defender repeatedly conditioning not simply his techniques, but the fundamental basis of his approach to others’ bodies through staged attacker/defender scenarios. Engaging with other practitioners taking on the role of attacker, the Bartitsu student ostensibly learns to classify and regulate other bodies.

This regulation, however, entails more subtlety than mere coercion. Before unveiling a sampling of his library of techniques in Pearson’s, Barton-Wright abjures the fear that “it will be impossible to get the assailant into the positions shown” by reminding his readers that “you are not seeking a quarrel or attacking, but simply defending yourself” (“NASD1” 269). The logic in play here makes a double-turn, first abnegating authority to dictate the uncontrolled assailant in order to ultimately claim mastery of the uncontrolled. The science of self-defense suggests simultaneously that one cannot predict how and when one will be attacked, but behind claims such as the popularity of the rush-from-behind rests the assumption that one will be attacked – and more importantly, that one will be attacked in this particular manner. I will unpack this logic further, below.

One of the primary means of reining in the uncontrollability of the uncontrollable lies in the capacity of the “system” to “embrac[e] every possible eventuality” (269). “System” again evokes scientific authority, and this time gestures toward science’s ability to interpret data and predict results. Already in this phrasing the double-play works its reordering logic, dismissing the untenable assumption that one might predict the specific actions of a specific attacker, while simultaneously claiming the power to predict all of the actions of all possible attackers. The vigour of such logic lies its scientific potential: generalizing from assumptions, generating probabilities, classifying and ordering the unknown. Equal to its dependence on science, Barton-Wright’s logic depends on staging these attacks as a tightly choreographed theater of conflict. Simulating attack and response drills within the geographic confines of the gymnasium systematizes the parameters of the uncertain attack. To amass a syllabus of encounters produces a system of control, especially when compiled with the scientific predictability and methodological application that Barton-Wright and his contemporaries emphasize.

Tacit speculation engages dialectically with imperious control to form the center of the technique simulation. It is at once imagined and ordered, uncertain and defined. As a demonstration of his system, Barton-Wright opens with a defense against a knife attack:

“We will suppose that you have to pass through a locality late at night where there is a likelihood of such an attack [with a knife], and you do not wish to run the risk of bringing yourself within the law by relying upon a revolver.

Carry your overcoat upon your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves, in the style of a military cloak, with your right hand ready upon your left shoulder to use your coat in the way explained below, should the necessity arise. Be careful always to walk in the middle of the road. Directly your assailant attacks, face him and wait until he is within a distance of two or three yards. Then envelop his head and arms by throwing your coat at him, with a sweeping, circular motion of the arm. This will obscure his view momentarily, but not your own, and will give you plenty of time to deliver your attack, which should take the form of a right-handed knock-out blow to the pit of the stomach.” (“NASD1” 38)

From the onset of the technique, Barton-Wright begins with the speculative “We will suppose.” This opening gesture initiates a controlled theater of engagement: here, the bodies are set as if staged in a play. The “locality” of the street, that liminal arena of anarchy, at once asserts its presence as the geographic unknown where one will come under attack; yet, in its presence, it surrenders power to the scientific knowledge of the self-defense practitioner. Supposition permeates Barton-Wright’s instruction manual: from the reiteration of the phrase “We will suppose” (272, 273; also “NASD2” 402, 405) as well as the double-speculative “[i]t might be supposed” (“NASD2” 404) begin nearly half of his techniques in the two-month Pearson’s series. Notably, these speculations occur only at the beginning of techniques, for every action thereafter – whether the action of the self-defense practitioner or his assailant – happens “directly,” or simply as an absolute “will.” In these embodied stage-plays, after establishing the imagined “suppose” the remainder of the technique transitions to assuming as fact its own speculations – and in doing so, brings order to the engagement’s uncontrolled bodies.

Once established via “we will suppose,” Barton-Wright’s techniques take on an imperative that reframes the engagement from a scientific hypothesis to a scientific fact. The directly of “[d]irectly your assailant attacks” forms an imbricated argument which commands both attacker and defender. The most probable iteration of this command – something along the line of “as soon as” or “immediately” – shapes the self-defense practitioner through its imperative to prepare one’s self. More interestingly, it also functions as a stage direction or director’s utterance to define the assailant, as in, “you will attack directly.” Grammatically felicitous as this slippage may be, its conceptual importance cannot be understated: once the manual establishes the scenario the assailant must attack directly. The stage is set and the bodies on it must play their part. The Bartitsu practitioner moves from supposing through a direct order to “will”: his view will be obscured, and you will have plenty of time for the attack. Both as a description of the inevitable and an imposition of the self-defense practitioner’s agency, will becomes the operative term of Barton-Wright’s techniques. One’s grasp “will cause pain” and one’s opponent “will bend his body backward to avoid it” (274); one’s opponent “will be easily thrown”; (275), and one “will find that it will be your assailant and not yourself who will be lying on his back” (273). Only once does Barton-Wright acknowledge any contingency in his mandates, when he declares that there “will probably be no difficulty in executing” an over-the-shoulder throw (273). Even in this instance, however, will neutralizes probably – and if it does not, then he orders: “jerk your head backwards, striking [your opponent] in the face. Then, having by this manœuvre effectively loosened his hold,” complete the throw. Two branches exist as possibilities: that one “will” have no difficulty, or that if one does, one will perform a single technique to eliminate the contingency.

Neutralization of supposition through the scientific will becomes even more evident in Barton-Wright’s later Pearson’s two-article series “Self-Defense with a Walking Stick,” for here, not only do the responses become natural, but they apply even more dubiously to even more uncertain situations. When using one’s walking stick against an opponent with a stick, Barton-Wright instructs the practitioner to leave an intentional opening. “Encouraged by the apparently exposed position of your left arm” when in this stance, Barton-Wright dictates, one’s opponent will “naturally’ attempt to strike (Barton-Wright, “Self Defence with a Walking Stick: Part 1” 12).8 The practitioner, having prepared his body systematically through the science of self-defense “anticipat[es] the attack” and responds accordingly with an upward sweep of the arm, a motion which “automatically causes you to swing your left foot well behind your right” (12). In this example, rhetorical moments scientifically regulate uncertainty in both bodies: the opponent’s body will “naturally” strike, and the Bartitsu practitioner’s body will inevitably anticipate and “automatically” respond.

So inevitable are these anticipations and responses that Barton-Wright applies them to more than simply two bodies. When using the weapon in a crowd, Barton-Wright dictates the following sequence: “Lunging at the body of the nearest man on your left, you disable him, and cause him to retreat precipitously. In doing so, he involuntarily forces back those in his immediate neighbourhood” (“SDWS2” 134). The precipitous retreat and its involuntary effects serve to script the entire crowd of hooligans, to the point where one turns and, “seeing another man close to [a previous opponent] with his legs slightly apart, you make a dive with your stick between his legs and upset him” (134). These bodies fall into line in a scientifically choreographed dance, in the proper poses and positions for the inexorable equations.

Counterfactual alternatives to this kind of rigid layout – the establishment of a possibility and a single, direct counter to the possibility – seem inevitably ridiculous: perhaps a flow chart of contingencies and responses, or a series of nested suppositions about possible complications. On the one hand, then, Barton-Wright’s supposition to command to inevitability formula simply reflects the most practical form of transmitting bodily practice through writing. And yet, cumbersome and short-sighted strictures derived from form make evident the relations of power at the root of self-defense. The very existence of a self-defense system suggests that the martial artist can script bodies ahead of time, classify them into supposed attacks and responses that ultimately will become reality. Writing down this system through print media make literal the process of scripting bodies, for self-defense’s science linguistically constrains all the bodies it addresses. Self-defense makes use of science as a rhetorical strategy of staging which becomes almost a rhetorical inevitability, in order to transform the uncertainties of suburban fin-de-siècle London into a sequence of eminently scriptable bodies.

All the World’s a Stage: The Science of Tableaux and Photography

Barton-Wright’s manuals augment their scientific rhetoric with photographed tableaux depicting the martial techniques. These media – the tableau and the photograph – bring to bear their own theatrical performances of science that bolster Bartitsu’s systemic power to control. Formally, readers of Pearson’s would have found familiar the choreographed tableaux that accompany Barton-Wright’s manuals, such as the series of images that depict the use of the “Walking-Stick as a Weapon in a Crowd” (Figure 3). While earlier in the nineteenth century the tableau signalled an eroticization of the female body, and often found itself the target of moral reformers seeking to do away with its pornographic valences, by the time of Barton-Wright’s publications, theater had undergone a “blurring of boundaries,” as Juliet John and Alice Jenkins refer to the process in Rethinking Victorian Culture (4).9 Blurring of boundaries transported theater from the realm of the popular into the bourgeois, where, as Rosemary Barrow argues, “the assimilation of classics and fine art into the mass-entertainment context of West End popular theater brought previously unmistakable markers of exclusivity” to art forms formerly considered beneath the bourgeois (Barrow 210).10


“Walking-Stick as a Weapon in a Crowd.” Photograph from E. W. Barton-Wright, “Self-Defence with a Walking-Stick: Second Article,” Pearson’s Magazine 11 (1901): 134.

Beyond its artistic acceptability, theater in tableaux acquires a scientific valence through photography, especially when framed within the rhetorical performance of scientificity Barton-Wright deploys. Physical culture and photography meet in work such as that of Eadweard Muybridge, whose series of all-but-erotic tableaux exhibit the male body in motion. In his endeavours to explore bodies and movement, Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion included human men and women engaged in various activities, largely domestic for the women and athletic for the men, including a series on boxing and pugilism. Despite the blatant exhibition of nude bodies, “critics and viewers seem to have been blinded to the unusual, potentially scandalous subject matter of the nudes,” Sarah Gordon argues (Gordon 10). Gordon goes on to suggest that a “particular confluence of power, prestige and professionalism at the core of their production” enabled the Animal Locomotion instalment to circumvent moral criticism (10–11). These varying factors depend upon a performance of science: association with collaborators and academic institutions, and a framing of the medium that suggested an objective, systematic eye.
Legitimacy acquired through “the ostensible goal of the project, the study of muscle movement in humans and animals” figures most importantly for the study of Barton-Wright and fin-de-siècle martial artists (10).

Performing science through photography depends upon a doubled logic: the systematic, scientific exploration of these bodies made their exhibition acceptable; at the same time, the deliberate exhibition of these bodies validated the scientific practice behind the images. While Muybridge himself expressed concern that he was “neither a physiologist nor an anatomist,” (Muybridge xxxi) for the common viewer – though not the scientific community, Marta Braun suggests (Braun 4) – the camera provided an objective and scientific view of these bodies.11 On the other side of this logic, framing these bodies in step-by-step motion through his multicamera technique created a scientific system, and infused the photograph with scientific value. These photos, Muybridge’s arrangement suggests, did not intend to titillate or exhibit erotic bodies for the sake of eroticism; their systematic deployment ensured that Animal Locomotion first and foremost elicited a scientific gaze.12 Framed with the scientific discourse I have investigated in Barton-Wright’s instruction manuals, the photograph exploits the rhetoric of scientific accuracy and objectivity. Depictions of Barton-Wright’s techniques scientifically validate the efficacy of his system through a documentary gaze as they invite the reader to witness the effectiveness of this techniques; at the same time, they validate his system as a science through a medium and arrangement that evokes work like Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion. If Barton-Wright can depict his techniques through photography, his system is both scientifically verifiable and a science in itself.

Scientific rhetoric – the transition from suppose to will – scripts Bartitsu as a site where masculinity and science conjoin. Of course, unlike the photography of Eadweard Muybridge or the tableaux of Eugen Sandow, Barton-Wright’s photographic tableaux do not depict naked or even muscled male bodies. While the photos call on the science of Muybridge, they set the stage on the street rather than in the scientific laboratory; while they invoke the Hellenized masculinity of Sandow, they place that masculinity in the Victorian middle-class male rather than an idealized Classical body. Tableaux imbue Barton-Wright’s body with masculinity and photographs legitimize Bartitsu as a scientific system, so that Bartitsu becomes a scientific system of masculinity. Scientific will choreographs the uncertain street into a theater of masculinity, eliminating the potential for variability. Photographs confirm what tableaux invoke: middle-class masculinity will win out.

Barton-Wright’s dramatic text interacts directly with his photographs to provide a choreographed script for the uncertainty of street combat. The first photograph of the above sequence accomplishes no scientific purpose, no instructive information; instead, it sets the scene, depicting Barton-Wright surrounded by assailants in a perfect tableau of threatened middle-class masculinity. The second tableau immediately establishes the scientific system: “Hold your stick more or less in a line with your hips,” Barton-Wright instructs, “as in the second photograph … in order to be able to guide it with certainty” (“SDWS2” 134, emphasis added). Scripted scientific certainty then translates the tableau into a Muybridge-esque capture of motion as Barton-Wright prescribes a series of attacks to specific members of the surrounding party. Where above, I drew attention to the specificity of his prescriptions for those attacks, here I would point out the choreography of the other bodies in the sequence. In each tableau, Barton-Wright’s attackers reach for him, respond to his strikes with astonishment or fear – but in every instance, they remain under control, unable to harm the martial artist.

As a science of control, these martial arts often employ incredibly violent techniques, from using a stick to “sever a man’s jugular vein through the collar of his overcoat” to “bayonett[ing] your assailant over the heart” with a cane (“SDSW1” 11; “SDWS2” 138). These ungentlemanly assaults would contradict the honor that these martial artists claim to protect, but they seek to ameliorate this tension through a rhetoric of class and nationality that renders their opponents’ bodies as foreign to society and unworthy of the same consideration the gentleman extends to men he considers his equals.

Both Barton-Wright and Headley and Phillips-Wolley’s treatises are haunted by the possibility that a dishonorable strike might end the gentleman’s science before it begins. “It is to meet eventualities of this kind, where a person is confronted in an unexpected way, that I have introduced a new style of self-defence” Barton-Wright announces in the introduction to his first Pearson’s article (269). To justify some of the rather more unsportsmanlike maneuvers in his system, Barton-Wright turns to “the conception of self-defence as generally understood by other nations” (“NASD1” 268). He begins with the observation that “[i]n this country we are brought up with the idea that there is no more honourable way of settling a dispute than resorting to Nature’s weapons, the fists” (268). The British fight in accordance with a natural code of honor. But, contrary to the upstanding British, Barton-Wright cautions that “when foreigners fall out and fight, they recognise one goal only, and that is to overcome and defeat their adversaries, and any means is considered justifiable and is resorted to, to attain this end” (268). In these instances, “chances are that he would employ what we should consider underhanded means” (268). Bartitsu offers a scientific method for the gentleman to predict and control the uncontrolled “eventualities” of underhanded attack. The system’s violence answers to an unspoken oversight on the part of honorable pugilism: the rules of the ring do not apply to the uncontrolled streets.

In his manual Boxing, Headley makes explicit the distinction Barton-Wright makes between gentlemen’s sport and fighting “burly ruffian[s] in a dark lane” (Headley 57). Headley’s formulation of this distinction conflates class and nationality, and renders the London poor as foreigners. Should one encounter one of these “roughs,” he admonishes, “do not forget any of the fundamental principles” his manual offers, but at the same time remember that “you probably won’t have a fair boxer to deal with, nor even a good old British rustic, but a tough, sturdy rough from the slums” (57). A “good old British rustic” might use the “good old British sport” of boxing, or at least adhere to the sense of honor it instills, Headley intimates. But the criminals on the London streets seem to have no sense of British honor about them, and “will take any advantage of you” (57). The modifier “British” before “rustic,” and its conspicuous absence in the description of the slums, rhetorically situates the London poor as not-British. Confronted with the threat to the stability of the British gentleman, Headley redefines the “rough from the slums” as a foreigner. In a gesture resonant with Barton-Wright’s introduction to Bartitsu, in which he feels the need to explain to the British gentleman how such criminals might act dishonorably, Headley laments the “un-English method of settling disputes” such as knives “gaining such ground in this country” (62). It is as if the dishonorable element of a robbery lies not in the robbery itself, but in the deviation from the rules of fair play, a deviation inconceivable to the British gentleman.

Both Headley and Barton-Wright rhetorically dehumanize the gentleman’s opponents and render acceptable the destruction of their bodies. The “rough from the slums” is “a cowardly pest of society, who can only be regarded as a terror and danger to women and children,” not an object of sympathy: “[o]n no account [should one] allow sentiment to interfere” with their martial justice (Headley 60). Whatever form of attack the rough uses, Headley cautions, “the very moment the attack is over you must do your very best to completely disable him in the shortest possible time” (58). To “disable” the rough, he repeatedly insists, one must remember that such people are “entitled to no quarter and no consideration what-ever”; “[s]entiment and fine feeling,” he declares, “should be absolutely nowhere” (62). Unlike Headley, Barton-Wright crafts his articles as instruction manuals with little narrative interjection aside from the introduction to his first article and the occasional insistence that he has personally used a technique against opponents on the street. However, his absence of justification is rhetorical in its own right. He describes with conspicuous detachment a method of positioning one’s opponent so that “you can break his leg immediately,” or how to render a disarmed opponent “at the mercy of the man he has attacked, who can choose any part of his body on which to administer punishment” with a cane (“NASD1” 270, “SDWS2” 132). Repeated warning to be “very careful when practicing” with friends makes all the more striking his clinical lack of concern for the implications of “throttle[ing]” a downed opponent who is “powerless to resist” (“SDWS2 131”; “NASD2” 403).13 After his chapter in which he repeatedly insists on the unsentimental destruction of a criminal opponent, Headley concludes with a seeming non sequitur, an isolated aside: “As regards the ring and ordinary competitions, be careful to remember that you must not hit or catch a man anywhere below the belt” (64). This reminder follows a clear logic, however: the gentleman should reserve the destructive, no-holds-barred fighting he describes for bodies that do not matter – for bodies he expels from society.

The Crowd and the Coat: The Slippage in the System

Staging bodies through self-defense occurs at the intersection of fin-de-siècle discourses of uncertainty about class and space. In the uncertainty of space, the suburb blurs lines between classes and bodies, and the street becomes a place where gentlemen “are never really secure from attack at any moment of [their] lives” (Headley and Phillips-Wolley 111). Self-defense practitioners present the martial arts as a means of scientifically regulating both of these uncertainties, in that it offers the power to control through staging. When the Bartitsu practitioner makes use of martial science, he extrapolates space and bodies into discrete threats which he is prepared to counter: he supposes an attack, and knows through choreography what will happen in that event. In the gymnasium, he trains these techniques again and again, shaping his body physically. Through that physicality, he trains his body socially, so that his relationships to other bodies on the street become always predetermined, always scientific.

To train the body of the Bartitsu practitioner, Barton-Wright turns to the theatricality of costume. When Barton-Wright brought jujitsu to England as Bartitsu, his training partners Yukio Tani and Sadakazu Uyenishi continued to wear traditional gi and hakama; the Sandow’s account of “The Bartitsu Tournament” describes the two as “robed in loose and baggy native costume” (“Bartitsu Tournament” 29). Barton-Wright himself practiced in this uniform when he practiced in Japan, as some of the photographs from his initial articles in Pearson’s depict (Figure 4). Barton-Wright takes a moment to explain to his readers who notice that he and his partner are “dressed in Japanese costume” (“NASD1” 272). “These photographs were actually taken in Japan,” he clarifies, adding “the majority of the feats, I may explain, being elaborated from the Japanese style of wrestling” (272). The unfamiliar “costume” of the gi links to the unfamiliar practice of Japanese jujitsu, so that the gi marks the body wearing it as a martial artist. Costume serves as an external sign that the body which wears the clothes has undergone a systematic change both in its relationship to itself, and to other bodies.

“One of the Many Ways of Defending yourself, when a Man Strikes at your Face with his Right Fist.” Photograph from E. W. Barton-Wright, “The New Art of Self-Defence,” Pearson’s Magazine 7 (1899): 408.

Importantly, the gi and hakama were not traditional Japanese martial arts uniforms, but instead traditional Japanese everyday clothing; they become costume in the transposition to the stage of the martial sciences in Britain.14 In the process that rescripted British bodies that practice Bartitsu, Barton-Wright also rescripts everyday clothing so that it becomes a costume – and a weapon. Barton-Wright insists to those who practice Bartitsu: “[c]arry your overcoat upon your shoulders without passing your arms through the sleeves, in the style of a military cloak” and, of course, “[w]alk in the middle of the road” (“NASD1” 269). To wear one’s coat in military style suggests that Barton-Wright does not reject “costume” at all: the coat serves a purpose beyond its original intent. This imperative, like the gi and hakama, changes the function of the clothing from dress to a kind of uniform or costume. Clothing becomes a sign, perhaps only to the wearer, that to walk down the street is to walk down the stage of combat.

Defensive coat-carrying mirrors the logic of the street and suburbia. Where walking in the middle of the road takes control of the threat of the unknown through an always-predetermined relationship to space, carrying one’s coat in such a manner as to use it as a weapon re-forms the coat. Everyday clothing becomes an everyday, always-weapon. Just as one must suspect all other bodies in order to beware the Sandow reviewer’s unexpected ruffian stabbing one in the side, one must suspect all implements as weapons and all bodies as vulnerable to those weapons. The coat physically redefines the relationship between the martial artist and any and all bodies encountered in the street.

The costume even re-scripts the wearer’s body, for Barton-Wright insists that the wearer keep “your right hand ready upon your left shoulder to use your coat” as a weapon. The costume of the Bartitsu practitioner defamiliarizes both his clothing and his body: a coat worn “military style,” a constant reminder of the martial threat of the street, with one hand held always across his body, prepared to fight. With no interest in everyday wear or everyday motion, Barton-Wright requires the martial artist to play his role at all times. The impracticality of carrying out this demand in lived experience emphasizes the final turn of scientific self-defense’s logic: self-defense stages not only combat, but all bodies and objects at all times. Like the science it performs, self-defense asserts universal applicability of its system – a system with a place and script for every body.

And yet, for all the rhetorical control of Barton-Wright’s instruction manuals, the specter of the uncertain assailant remains looming in the background. The man on the far right of the “Walking-Stick as a Weapon in a Crowd” sequence, who seems perhaps the greatest threat to Barton-Wright, also escapes the tableaux unharmed and visibly ready to fight. This man in many ways (unintentionally) embodies the uncertain assailant who lurks just outside of choreographed science’s reach. At the conclusion of his highly choreographed response to the assault of a crowd, which goes so far as to dictate how and where its members will stand during the engagement, Barton-Wright posits: “you should now have sufficient room to swing your stick to right and left across people’s faces and heads until they disappear” (Barton-Wright, “SDWS2” 134). This conclusion’s ambiguity seems even more striking in contrast to the tight control of the rest of the technique, and points to the most important element of Barton-Wright’s Bartitsu and Victorian martial arts as historical artifacts: the rhetoric of science in fin-de-siècle self-defense attempts to create “sufficient room” for a classed masculinity that perceives itself under constant threat (134). Urbanization and its complexities confront the gentleman with his lack of control, and in response he swings the stick of scientific rhetoric to make the urban bodies “disappear” – though the man at the edge of the photograph endures, just out of reach (134). The gentleman uses science as a defense of the self, to create a theater of combat where he can grapple with the uncertainty of fin-de-siècle class and masculinity.


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1.This obscurity may be in flux, as an article in the Atlantic (14 Nov. 2013) offers a more evaluative, popular perspective on Bartitsu.
2.Nationalism plays a complex role in Barton-Wright’s justifications for his art. He begins his first article by situating Bartitsu against the less honorable forms of other European fighting and “foreigners” in general. This nationalism, combined with the racial elements both accented and elided in Barton-Wright’s sense of Bartitsu’s Japanese origins, suggest room for further investigation.
3.The racial intersection of Japonisme in Barton-Wright’s work demands further attention. On the one hand, he readily capitalizes on valences of exotic and hidden knowledge. On the other, he is perpetually jealous of and condescending toward Tani and Uyenishi, whom he suspected of withholding techniques from him – despite his perpetual insistence that he was a superior fighter.
4.The remainder of this essay will refer to Barton-Wright’s two-part series “The New Art of Self-Defence: How a Man may Defend Himself against every Form of Attack” parts 1 and 2 as “NASD1” and “NASD2.”
5.As far as I have been able to gather, this meeting never happened, or at least nothing came of it.
6.For more on the relationship between the middle-class and the formation of the “hooligan,” see Pearson’s Hooligan: A History of Respectable Fears.
7.And yet, while the discourse itself seems relatively unchanged over the forty years between the Eclectic Review and Morrison, the social context between the two demands oft-overlooked attention. The Eclectic Review makes the claim for a criminal class on the edge of a marked increase in violent crime between 1850 and 1853, and before the implementation of the 1856 County and Borough Police Act (see also Tobias, Crime and Industrial Society in the 19th Century, especially page 123). According to Thomas Barwick Lloyd Baker in his 1865 “On the Apportionment of Sentences to Crimes,” 1856 marked the apex of juvenile convictions, with 13,981 over the year. A mere four years later, the number dropped to 8,029, and not, Baker is convinced, simply because of a change of the definition of crime (Baker 44). Baker’s claim serves as an example of a discourse of criminality that gained traction as the nineteenth century progressed: that state measures to curtail crime did, in fact, have an impact. Baker’s narrative tells the unsurprising Victorian narrative of progress, which Rosalind Crone skeptically aligns with liberal cultural practices that sought to reform sites of disruption such as London’s East End (see also Gatrell, “The Decline of Theft and Violence in Victorian and Edwardian England,” in Crime and the Law: The Social History of Crime in Western Europe Since 1500). In her analysis, Crone reminds Victorian scholars of the rhetorical seductiveness of the singular date with “[t]he year 1870 figuring as an oft-identified ‘turning point’ in crime reduction” (Crone 259). Given a more nuanced brush, Crone suggests, one might encounter more difficulty in painting such a neat picture of progress.
8.The remainder of this essay will refer to Barton-Wright’s two-part series “Self-Defence with a Walking Stick” parts 1 and 2 will as “SDWS1” and “SDWS2.”
9.For more on mid-Victorian resistance to the tableau, see Assael, “Art or Indecency? Tableaux Vivants on the London Stage and the Failure of Late Victorian Moral Reform,” in the Journal of British Studies, particularly 749–50.
10.As an art form, the tableau vivant bore an association with Hellenism, particularly “the… relationship between Hellenism and eroticism” (Barrow 210). Hellenizing the erotic shifted the tableau away from the pornographic and toward a neo-Classical idealism. This idealism made acceptable and even desirable the exhibition of the muscled, actively physical male body. Barrow paints a network of connections between the idealized erotic and “physical culture,” in which photographs of male bodybuilders such as Eugen Sandow became acceptable on the grounds of their Hellenic valences (221). Read through a resurgence of Hellenism and the rise of physical culture, the tableau sits at an intersection between a bourgeois reclassification of theater and an exhibition of the male body – an environment primed for the staging of the victorious Victorian middle-class male over the city’s hooligan invaders.
11.For an overview of the photograph as scientific discourse, see “Scientific Looking, Looking at Science” in Sturken’s Practices of Looking, particularly her discussion of Victorian “practice[s] of cataloging bodies” through photography (281–91). Barthes’s Camera Lucida provides a foundational philosophical background on photography and truth-values.
12.Of course, for all his discursive intent, Muybridge could neither define his actual viewers’ gaze nor contain the slippage within his own formulation. For the ways in which his photos slide out from scientific discourse, see Braun’s “Muybridge’s Scienctific Fictions.” For a more in-depth exploration of actual viewing responses, see Gordon’s “Out of Sequence.”
13.Other notes of caution for practicing on friends occur throughout his articles: “NASD2” 405; “SDWS1” 15; “SDWS2” 131, 135.
14.At the time of its original development in the Heian period (794–1195 CE), the hakama designated a male member of the samurai class and carried an association with martial arts. But by the time of the Meiji Restoration beginning in 1868, the hakama had largely lost that association, though it was still a male article of clothing. However, when the first textile mill in Japan was built in 1872, the female workers wore hakama because of the additional mobility it gave them (Slade 130). Only in the early twentieth century did the hakama again come to be associated with the martial arts – in large part due to its use as costume in Western conceptions of martial arts. For more on Japanese sartorial culture, see Slade’s Japanese Fashion: A Cultural History.

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