Monthly Archives: June 2024

High Stakes in Pro Wrestling

“Heat and hatred” has become a catchphrase of Joe Lanza from the Voices of Wrestling Flagship podcast. Heat and hatred draws money, that’s his point. It gets people excited so that they want to buy a ticket and see the show. It’s what creates interest. Pro wrestling has been built on heat and hatred, especially in the United States. I don’t disagree about this. One of the reasons that wrestling falls into the sports entertainment trap, though, is that they push for heat and hatred while forgetting one other thing: stakes.

Why do people watch competitive sports? At any particular time in the US, the major sports league in season will destroy the attendances and TV ratings that wrestling does. Now, a lot of people are determined to ignore business signals and such. I am not. You don’t need to be engaged in this stuff to enjoy wrestling but, aside from wrestling, I am interested in persuasion. In this instance, that means the fact that competitive sports are more popular than pro wrestling is interesting to me and it deserves some exploration. Pro wrestling has one foot in a lot of different worlds, and the fact that it grew out of competitive sport is a reason it will always be tied to that world.

So again, why do people watch competitive sports? Or, to be more precise, why do people generally prefer to watch elite level sports competition (national leagues, world championships, the Olympics) over lower-level competition? I think it’s because people like to watch the best of any type of thing they’re interested in. That’s where the draw of critic ratings in all sorts of things comes from. If you like comedy movies, you are probably somewhat interested in what people consider “the best comedy” to be; even if you personally don’t like it, you’re more likely to check it out than many other comedy movies. The same is for wrestling. This attraction to “the best” happens for two related reasons. First is the straightforward prestige. Showing that one has proven that they are superior in a skill to everyone else has its own attraction. It’s an accomplishment, a feat that only a few can do, and just on reason of rarity it’s interesting. The second reason is that high skill in anything usually translates to a more compelling performance. High-level sports are much more dynamic than lower-level sports due to the higher skill level and athletic ability involved.

Heat and hatred exist in competitive sports. Longtime sporting rivalries are well known in the US; I’m sorry that this sounds like SEO garbage but I’m not a big team sports fan so I can’t call out my favorite rivalry that people would know about. Americans have probably heard about European football hooliganism, another expression of how heat and hatred can draw people in. I do think “heat and hatred” refer to two different concepts, but I’m going to leave them linked as something “emotional charge” as I don’t want to presume how Lanza would make this division. For what I need here, it’ll work well enough. My point in bringing it up is that though heat and hatred does provide some draw to competitive sports, the primary draw is not heat and hatred. The primary draw for competitive sports is stakes.

The stakes of a contest is, essentially, what each participant has to gain or lose from the outcome. The highest interest matches in competitive sports are championship matches — where teams have the chance to become the overall league winners — and matches that will set one up for or eliminate one from reaching the championship match. All contests are rated according to what they mean for that ultimate stake. Things that happen to members of each team are also rated in their importance relative to what it might mean for the team reaching the championship. Understanding each set of stakes relies on knowing what happened before and on all that information being clear. Without those stakes, one contest is almost equivalent to another, meaning that the interest level remains at a baseline level.

A consequence of a high stakes situation is that each side is likely to put out more effort than in a low stakes situation. This isn’t to say that people consciously don’t try hard in low stakes situations, more than people have extra incentive to work harder than their usual when the stakes are higher than their usual. As a result, those people may be even more dynamic and exciting than they would be at other times. That acts as an aid to the “drawing power” of the contest, as not only will a potential fan see this contest as important enough to want to see it themselves, they can be more confident than normal that they will see an exciting contest. None of these require heat and hatred to exist beforehand, but they are all enhanced by the addition of heat and hatred.

Lanza says there are two aspects that lead to drawing potential, heat and hatred. I think there are four: heat, hatred, stakes, and character. Of these, I think that heat and hatred are actually the least important. I don’t say this as an insult to Lanza and I think he is correct in saying that heat and hatred are where “real money” come from, as that is how wrestling has generally drawn money. What happens for most people who discuss wrestling is that “character” is not considered separately from heat and hatred (which it should be) and “stakes” are treated as a given. The focus in wrestling storytelling from a planning/theory perspective has classically been on heat and hatred, at least in the United States. I think that, historically, Japan has had a stronger relationship with stakes than the United States has, though this has been changing in recent years.

When I say that stakes are taken for granted, what I mean is that there is very little attention paid in American wrestling to making stakes clear. As I stated above, for the fan to understand stakes properly, the stakes have to be presented in a clear and unambiguous manner. The championship title matters, yes, but everything around the championship also matters, because the stakes involved are not just who has the title but the entire context around the title. Every new complexity that is added into the situation makes it harder to understand stakes. Multi-side contests (like triple threats and fatal four-ways) confuse the situation. “Dirty finishes” like when someone cheats to win confuse the situation. Unexplained changes of how contenders are determined confuse the situation. All of these reduce the effectiveness of stakes in making matches stand out and be more important. This certainly leads to reduced interest and it may also lead to reduced effort; even though professional wrestling is not strictly competitive, most wrestlers will agree that they put more effort into high stakes contests.

My hot take is that people don’t need “storytelling”, what they need are favorites. Storytelling is a great tool to use in creating favorites, but what really draws people in are not the overall stories but the personal stories of their favorite wrestlers. By “personal stories” I’m not talking about boo-hoo family drama. What I mean is, if Jon Moxley is having a feud with Naito Tetsuya, what is important to fans is not if the feud is artistic, what is important to fans is what the feud means for Moxley and what the feud means for Naito. This is what I mean when I say that “character” is the fourth element of drawing, and it is probably the real difference between a good draw and a great draw. Heat and hatred help to enhance character and stakes and cultivating heat is highly important, but there is no sizzle without steak and I am absolutely mortified that the homophones there line up so well. This was not planned.

The best version of wrestling, in my opinion, is one with colorful characters that focuses on building stakes, and then uses the most popular characters in stories with heat and hatred that can keep the show exciting without locking in the entire roster into a complex and never-ending high school play. Clear stakes are more effective than confused stakes. Having more than two sides in a match makes the stakes involved almost irrelevant. Dirty finishes confuse stakes, clean finishes don’t. These are obvious lessons but ones that I think are more pressing when you understand that building stakes is incredibly important to how wrestling draws interest.

Leftism Should Stop Punching Itself

The problem with modern left-wing politics is that they are defeatist. Being defeatist isn’t just a matter of not thinking you will win; in fact, I would say that most defeatists are convinced that they will eventually win. Defeatism, especially in terms of left politics, is an assumption that one’s real desires cannot be achieved. It is a reformulation of desires in a way that substitutes inadequate tokens for the real objects of desire and puts those desires off forever. Social democracy is a defeatist idea. Eurocommunism is a defeatist idea. They take it as read that essential parts of socialist & communist ideology, as conceived of in the war years and the Soviet period, are unachievable and therefore not worth striving for. Left defeatism treats the success of capitalism as being a result of capitalism’s innate correctness and therefore determines to subordinate its wants to those of capital.

The primary weapon wielded against the left is the prospect of chaos overtaking society. This is not the chaos of the left, however. This chaos is like an allergic reaction. A peanut is introduced to the system, something that doesn’t harm the system as a whole, but the system misunderstands and reacts by distressing the body, possibly to the point of strangling it. The damage from an allergic reaction is not caused by the peanut, the so-called foreign agent, the damage is caused by an overreaction of the body itself. At the same time, I want to stress that this is a metaphor and society is not an organism as such. People do not choose their allergic responses but they do choose their political actions. I likened rightist response to an allergic reaction not to suggest that this response is natural or intrinsic, I did so just to highlight that the damage and chaos may be related to the introduction of the new material but it isn’t actually caused by the new material.

I bring this up because left defeatism is directly related to the trigger for that chaos, and defeatism’s central premise is that society can be convinced that the left will not lead to chaos. This premise is bogus. The right causes the chaos because of what it knows the left must do. They are resisting the expropriation of their wealth. When the wealth of the wealthy is threatened, they are likely to react violently. The fundamental problem with left defeatism on a functional level is that the left must expropriate from the wealthy. If it doesn’t, it no longer performs the basic deeds that people expect from the left. It effectively stops being left-wing.

Why does the left have to expropriate? In brief, it is because primary value always equals 1 whole. This might be easier to understand by equating “primary value” with “priority for society”. If we view priority as a substance to be distributed, those with higher priority get more and vice versa. It should be clear that nothing increases or decreases the “total amount” of priority in a society. With that understood, we can see that if something has high priority, something else has low priority. One of the illusions of capitalism is that primary value can be extended. This is one of the roads that defeatism travels on: leftists feel that they can’t defeat capitalist forces and so decide to buy into this lie, hoping that enough value can be created such that everyone can get as much as they desire. Labor relations show that this is a lie. We know that we produce enough that the idea of poverty wages is not justifiable by the constraints of production. We know that improved conditions enable more production. Our current situation persists not because “the numbers don’t work” but because they mask the real operation of primary value. My point here is that the poor and underserved cannot be helped unless primary value is redistributed. Leftism fundamentally cannot avoid expropriation if it wants to totally reform society.

What is the solution for the left? My suggestion is the embrace of functional terror. The “terror” in question is the process of expropriation. This was the spark of left revolutionary terrors: the reaction to expropriation by the wealthy/right led to the repression of those resisted expropriation. Left defeatism’s principal argument is that we must reject concepts like revolutionary terror and dictatorship of the proletariat, but that is because it ahistorically locates the cause of that chaos in a left desire for vengeance; it treats the chaos as something for the left only to stop.

To embrace functional terror is not to love violence but to be prepared for it. It acknowledges that expropriation may be “terrifying” but that it must happen, and also that the purpose of terror is not to enact punishment but to reorder society. Rather than pretend at being harmless, we should point out that the wealthy cause this chaos all the time in their violent opposition to, for instance, poor workers who want a raise that may make their disgustingly wealthy employer just a little less wealthy. The idea that this position should be respected to the point that leftists blame themselves for the push-back they experience is frankly insulting. Left defeatism is a fucking dead end. Realize what has to be done, don’t run from it.

French Propaganda Technique, or Why I Bounced Off of Jacques Ellul

I have just put down Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society and Propaganda. I say that I put them down because I didn’t finish them but I got it. I read enough, I sampled later sections, I read reviews that I could find. To sum up my thoughts, I would say that I do not believe these two works will be truly useful without a thorough critical commentary.

What these two works do, in my opinion, is provide a studious but amateurish observation of the issues they tackle. The problem I have with his attempt at analysis is that he clearly locks himself out of making full analyses. For instance, in Propaganda, he frequently makes sure to say that propaganda cannot really be understood if it is only looked at as a bad thing, then he specifically constructs his definition such that it will be a bad thing. Further, he never actually treats propaganda neutrally, he always views it as something dangerous and to be resisted. He allows that sometimes it may be intended for good things but he does not seem to, for instance, talk about people being happy with the propaganda they’ve imbibed. He does not explain why we have to ignore non-totalizing methods of persuasion, he just disqualifies them. Effectively, he’s not making an analysis as much as explaining why propaganda is bad.

A better attempt to understand propaganda would take seriously the individual/mass duality that he talks about (I use the term “aggregates” or “individuals considered as a group” for this concept). He does observe that propaganda needs to appeal to the individual as well as the mass, but he repeatedly treats propaganda’s effectiveness as a foregone conclusion. In fact, he is almost only considering propaganda as a thing that works; if it doesn’t work, it isn’t propaganda. Seen in that light, the way he figures propaganda as being essentially totalizing, essentially tension-creating, etc. is accurate, but the issue is that he needs to explore why it must be those things. He observes how “total propaganda” will totally consume a person, but it is obvious this isn’t a real state of affairs. Why should we assume that we’ve achieved the full spectrum of possible media? Looked at another way, say that you live in a place where you have access to newspapers, radio, and TV, but no internet; are you now not subject to propaganda just because you don’t have internet access? That doesn’t make any sense. But Ellul doesn’t investigate what “total propaganda” would actually be, what its real constraints are, he merely observes the effects that it has and treats them as definitional.

The Technological/Technical Society has many of the same flaws. For that book, I primarily had issues with the claims he makes about how technique was and was not used in history. Chiefly, describing the European Middle Ages as an age without technique is simply being ignorant, and I think it has a lot to do with Ellul’s Christianity. Again, like in Propaganda, Ellul clearly distrusts is topic (technique, here) and is making an invective against it, despite his protests otherwise. He therefore has a good reason to not locate technique in Christianity, and he explicitly says that Christianity is without technique, almost categorically against technique. Of course, anyone passingly familiar with people like Roger Bacon would know that scientific technique certainly continued, and certainly the Church advanced in administrative technique throughout that period. He gives a good account of technique but he is not as complete as he could be because he is directed to justify his biases before doing anything else.

These works of Ellul are thought-provoking but they are not works of first-rate philosophy. Ellul’s analysis in them is too limited. His observations can be made more useful but they will need someone who can go through his works line by line and elaborate the points that he touches on. As accounts of these phenomena — the technical society and propaganda — the works are illuminative, but they are not much more than accounts. To view these as works of “sober philosophy” rather than as polemics is to be propagandized by them.

Hot Allostatic Vampire Castle

I’m gonna have to do a version of Exiting the Vampire’s Castle that doesn’t suck shit huh. One that isn’t just crypto-rightist grievance.

I’m not saying he describes the thing badly, I’m saying you shouldn’t have to be forced to sympathize with fucking Russel Brand in order to get that point

I’m probably not the right person to do this though because I haven’t experienced this specific kind of trauma. Like, when I read it, I see all the bad parts but I’m not sure that I would actually be able to construct a new version of this that’d be useful.

One thing I will say is that I see that there are two main conversations when he’s talking about the vampire’s castle, he combines them but they’re separate. On one hand there’s his basic incuriosity and bitterness at the world. On the other hand is the struggle session.

A bunch of Fisher’s argument is just like “I think X but other people said Y and I think they shouldn’t get mad at me”, that fucking sucks. That part of it is useless to me. The part that is useful is the aspect of it which is struggle session, which is apart from that.

The struggle session is a kind of violence that I think we only recognized when it got that name in China, but it probably isn’t new exactly, it’s just that that’s when it sort of got codified. And that *is* a leftist thing inasmuch as it is not a central power at work.

It’s about making you sort of reckon with the things you’re supposed to believe, a kind of weaponized accountability. That sort of confrontation is something that I think we don’t have a robust language or theory for, and Exiting the Vampire’s Castle is a stab at it. A bad stab but a stab.

Because if you just read through it… Fisher is just mad that people yelled at him on Twitter and he wants to accuse them of being non-leftist because of it. That’s it. There’s nothing else really going on. He describes struggle session because he went through it, not cause he has good thoughts.

I am eventually going to read Capitalist Realism but, as I’ve said before, I’m not really looking forward to it. Finding out it’s only 80 pages is both a relief and extremely typical. It’s a shame that it seems he never really ran himself against a big brain cause ah… woof.

Reprise: The article Exiting the Vampire’s Castle came up in the context of another piece, Hot Allostatic Load, which is about being accepted into trans/queer spaces and how that can simultaneously open one up to being disposable. Both describe the anxiety at the root of community: what happens when the community turns against you? Or, perhaps more accurately in reference to Hot Allostatic Load, what if it was against you from the start? This is an extremely valid concern for all communities. The issue that both articles share is that they are building specific grievances into that discussion. This is not to say that these grievances (I use “grievance” to make their position here distinct) are invalid, only that they are specific and, perhaps more to the point, personal. To use Castle as an example here, it is very clear throughout that piece that a primary preoccupation for the author is that they were criticized and they view that criticism as being unjust. Though that does touch on the issues with community, the author obviously can’t simply build on their irritation at being criticized in order to form solutions that actually deal with the problem of community rejection, but that’s what he does. The fact that he begins by saying “it’s ridiculous that people think you are minimizing race and gender just by mentioning class” and ends by saying “this is why class must always trump identities like race and gender” should make it very obvious that he’s not proposing any real solutions, he’s just venting his irritation. All of his solutions are like that. His analyses involve laying out why his opponents are ideologically wrong and his prescriptions are all “shut up”. Hot Allostatic Load is similar in many respects. It never analyzes why something should or should not be done — for example, certainly some people should be ostracized (or otherwise handled) if they are dangers to the community — it simply lays out things that happened to the author and says they are bad and should never happen.

The reason that this distinction is important is because both Vampire’s Castle and Allostatic Load locate the issues as specifically being within leftism, progressivism, trans identity, etc.: generally left-wing politics. This identification is a result of their specific grievances, not because leftism itself has a problem. These problems are problems of community in general. Looking at them as being a problem with “tolerance run wild” or people “weaponizing their politics” will always fail because it isn’t actually addressing what is going on. All communities, not only leftist ones, provide the opportunity for their members to utilize ideology as weapons against other members.

This is not to say that I think these grievances should not be aired. I think Allostatic Load has a good case to be aired: abuse happened, people’s lives were actually ruined, and that is a real issue beyond the political/rhetorical hairs I’m splitting here. I don’t think that Vampire’s Castle had a good case because I do not give a shit that people yelled at Mark Fisher online. Be fucking serious. The point is, again, to understand that these works are not primarily works of analysis, they are expressions of specific grievance, and they should be understood on those terms.

Trying to Fix a Missing Stair

Recently, my corner of social media has lit up with a somewhat complicated controversy. The details of it are important but aren’t important for me here. This was a case of a missing stair and the people who wanted to fix it. I don’t have the time right now to construct the beautiful evolution of the metaphor that would have been here, so let me cut to the chase. Communities can be thought of as networks of relationships. Each relationship may not be critical to every other relationship but many relationships rely on the existence of a few relationships. “Fixing a missing stair” implies that you can simply replace that hole with a new stair, but really, when you take out a community problem you are often ripping apart that problem from their existing relationships, which changes what the community as a whole is.

What happened was, I feel, effectively a party split. For some people, the existence of the party as-it-was is the most important thing, because that idealized party is what they associate with good things. Their main concern is that their community as-they-know-it is being threatened. The other side will have members with one of two characteristics. First, they may be relatively unconnected from the “missing stair”, so they aren’t as threatened because their relationships aren’t being attacked. Second, they may be committed to the effort of reforming such a community without the problem of that missing stair.

To use the crude metaphor that I had been trying to avoid, when you fix a missing stair, you are not replacing one stair, you are ripping down the staircase and building a new one. Let’s say it’s a Model X staircase (I’m sure they don’t have “models” but go with it). Some people will only be satisfied with another Model X staircase. Some people will not even trust that a new Model X staircase can be properly built and so they’re against fixing it in the first place, even if they think the missing stair is a real problem.

Some people just want to be able to get from one level to the other. We have to ask ourselves: is having the exact same staircase more important than being able to get up and down without tripping?