The Fight of His Life


Cage Image

A Review of The Professor in the Cage The Professor is Jonathan Gottshall, a Ph.D. in English who, at the age of 40, is still working as an adjunct professor despite an impressive academic record. He’s part of a new breed of literary scholars who believes that one hope for the revitalization of the humanities will come in an alliance with the sciences, especially the socio-biologists and neuroscientists. Gottshall’s work involves demonstrating how an understanding of evolutionary biology can inform our understanding of the narratives we create, our identity as story-telling animals, and the social work that literature does. Thus, the novels of Jane Austen can be read, in part, as case studies in social adaptation; Austen’s heroines triumph in a competitive marriage culture because they possess the intelligence to discern a fit husband and the social graces to insure a lasting marriage. We read Austen and become more discerning and empathic ourselves.

Gottshall is also a father of two daughters and the brother of three rough-and-tumble male siblings. He mines his household observations for telling examples of his propositions about gender differences and social training.

The Cage is the world of the Mixed Martial Arts (I’ll use Gottshall’s shorthand – MMA) that he willing enters in order to explore the big questions that provide the subtitle to his book: Why Men Fight and Why We Like to Watch. He embarks on a two year training program in an MMA gym for a variety of reasons, but it’s mostly so that he can test his own courage in hand to hand combat. He claims that he, like most men, are fascinated by the question of how they would defend themselves in a situation calling for self-defense. Behind it all is the desire to explore the myths of manhood and masculinity experientially at a time of confused gender identities.

He knows the world of the office cubicle; he wants to understand the world of the octagonal combat space; he wonders if it’s possible to live in both worlds at the same time.

Gottshall is a bit apologetic that his book is another piece of “stunt literature,” an emerging non-fiction genre in which writer-explorers participate in pre-season professional sports training camps, cook for a year as Julia Child instructs, follow faithfully Christ’s examples in the scriptures, and drastically reduce their carbon footprint. In many of these works, the writer tries to provide wider context (and scholarly backing) for their experiment, and Gottshall’s book is no different. But it is Gottshall’s narrative about his weekly workouts at the gym, his struggle to remain committed to his resolution, his comraderies with other courage-seeking “90 pound weaklings,” and his climactic fight that provide the best reading.

Gathered around the training narrative are a host of questions that amplify the subtitle. How is little girl play different than little boy play? How do you explain the tribal loyalties that are displayed in any professional sports arena? Are “the playing fields of Eton” places where a nation trains its soldiers in the physical skills and cooperation necessary to win real wars or are ritual combats the way in which war is avoided through the use of highly-regulated, aggression-releasing war simulations? Did Obama win the 2012 elections because he took back the Alpha male crown in his second debate with Romney? Why despite Title IX have the female graduates/ interest and participation in athletics remained essential the same as before the landmark legislation?

If there’s a fault to the book, it’s that Gottshall casts his net too widely. He could have profitably left out a section on the rise and fall of dueling as a socially approved dispute resolution mechanism, though it is fascinating to know that dueling became obsolete as the state provided safer means for the determination of right and wrong.

Like the social science popularizers Malcolm Gladwell and David Brooks, Gottshall collects a roomful of experts as guides: novelists Norman Mailer and Joyce Carol Oates on boxing, historian Johan Huizinga (Homo Ludens) on play as vital element of culture, zoologist  Konrad Lorenz (On Aggression) and his many disciples on violence as part of our DNA, sports historian Allen Guttman on the early predecessors to football and lacrosse, the socio-biologist E.O Wilson on the nature and function of hierarchies in ant and human colonies.

Unifying all of the sources is an acceptance of “the monkey dance,” the ritualized competitions that stir the blood, whether they be in the neighborhood bar where men engage in mutual insults (which serve paradoxically as terms of endearment) or in Soldier Field where men and a fair number of women don Matt Forte jerseys to watch the violent battle between the Bears and the hated Packers. The “mark of Cain” dramatically persists.

Recruited into the conversation are a host of non-academics, the childhood heroes of the action adventure shows that the young Jonathan watched during his adolescence. Martial Arts idol Bruce Lee stands with 19th century psychologist William James as a source of insight. If there’s one set of guests that he wants to distance himself from it’s those guru-like Mr. Miyagis (The Karate Kid) who try to promote the spiritual dimensions of martial arts training. Throughout the book there’s a running debate between Gottshall and faculty colleagues Nobu, a chemist, and “the poet” who represent the transcendence school. As Gottshall comes to understand, it’s all about winning no matter how it’s achieved. This understand comes in part from traveling to Toughman competitions in obscure West Virginia towns, where they’ve never heard of Nietzsche, to watch 30 or more fights in a single evening.

How does Gottshall manage to integrate his world of teaching and research with his world of the combat arena. He fears that his experiment might be a form of professional suicide, and his activities, well-beyond the boundaries of the common pursuits of academics (theatre, bridge, foreign travel), may well get him kicked out of the tribe. He knows that for all of the hoopla about college sports and it obsessional following in the culture, many college professors lament the adulation given to the touchdown scorer rather than the poet maker. They perpetuate the image of the dumb jock even though college athletes are a very mixed lot.

But his fear is also triggered by what he perceives to be the feminization of school. While concerned about bullying in the primary schools, he is very much of the school that there is quite a bit of unnecessary shaming and punishment meted out to “boys who will be boys.” As a professor of English he knows firsthand that the arrival of feminist critics has resulted in the connection of  masculinity with anything “oafish, bullying, and oppressive.” While there is a scattered Men’s Studies movement in higher education, the prevailing wisdom is that masculinity must be “relentlessly dissected, suppressed, and reformed into something better, something more egalitarian, more cooperative, something close to femininity.” That female culture critics like Camille Paglia and Laura Kipnis share the same concerns is not like to change the dominant narrative about male villainy.

As a father of two pre-adolescent daughters, he takes his foot off the pedal and counsels that biology is not destiny. He claims that currently male dominance is due to the fact that men, unlike women, see virtually daily life as a series of competitive encounters. We’re still like our primate relatives engaging in the inherited “monkey dance” of status positioning. Yet the spirit of cooperation, empathy and inclusion that women possess as a result of both DNA and socialization may be more highly valued and more vitally necessary in a future world where technology makes physical prowess unnecessary. Even as he seeks the core of his own masculinity in the cage, he speculates that the “age of testosterone” may be coming to an end. And the outcome of his bout in the cage lets him know how fortunate it is that he’s a knowledge worker.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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