Side-control, tiny increments and walking up mountains with one of BJJ “dirty dozen”

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by Jeremy Fernando

At 11am on a Saturday morning, 28 April 2012, having stepped into Top Gym Singapore, I found myself facing a predicament. Having incurred a minor slipped disc about 2 months ago, I was put on ice by the doctors until at least the middle of the year. Which in itself is not the worst thing. However, being on the side-lines is the last place I wanted to be at a John Will seminar.

(For those uninformed: John Bernard Will is part of the “dirty dozen”—one of the first non-Brazilians to earn a black belt in BJJ. John received his black belt from Rigan and Jean-Jacques Machado Brothers; and is head of the Will-Machado team.)

Attempting to make the best of a potentially frustrating situation, I turned to the lesson of one of my favourite teachers, the German philosopher Werner Hamacher. He contends that there is a difference between listening and hearing. Not just that the former is active whilst the latter is potentially passive. But more importantly, in order to listen, one has to cease hearing: for one can hear many things at the same time, but to listen—in the precise sense of attending to, responding with—one has to select one, whilst ignoring all other sounds, voices, things.

Which is precisely what John Will recommends in any situation. Whilst reinforcing the importance of details, he encourages every one to focus on “tiny increments” rather than attempting to take on “entire problems.” For instance, if one is caught in side control, “it makes little sense to think of getting out in one move”; instead one should ask oneself “how [one] can improve [one’s] situation by 5%.” In fact, the entire notion of “moves” is problematic: for that doesn’t take into account the fact that the other person is moving, constantly shifting, reacting to you as you are to her.

And this is why Will says: “I don’t believe in having end goals.” Even though one needs to have a general idea of where one is headed, focussing on the end only serves to blinker one to the situation, blind one to the other person. Instead of attending to, reacting with, listening, one is merely hearing. In Will’s words: “one is being a crocodile—in denial of the reality, the situation, one is facing.”

Will’s reminder to stay in the moment, to listen, is a call for one to open oneself to the possibilities of the other. And: to open oneself to the possibilities of the unknown, the yet to come, about to come. In foregrounding the fact that listening entails choosing, one also unveils the aspect of exclusion in choice: in attending to one, one always already has to leave out other(s). However, this does not mean that the ones that are left aside are gone: one can always be affected by something that is beyond one’s cognitive sphere—just because you do not see a bus does not mean that it cannot hit you. So, even as listening involves ceasing hearing, one who truly listens always also keeps in mind that listening brings with it the unheard, the unhearable. One should never forget that the submission that catches you is the one you did not see—or hear—coming. This perhaps opens another dossier in Rickson Gracie’s now famous phrase “invisible jujitsu”: the invisibility is not just in one’s own movements, but also in the very relationality between oneself and the other. What remains invisible—silent—is other’s movement in relation to oneself.

Thus, listening is attending to relationality itself.

Which means that there cannot be an object in listening, let alone an object to listening. Which also means that one can never know if one has listened, or if one is even listening. It is nothing more, and nothing less, than an approach.

And it is the notion of approaches that brings us all the way back to the beginning, to the title itself. To the teaching of Aristotle: in particular his lesson on how to climb a mountain. If one were to do it haphazardly, one would be stumbling around in circles, and will quite possibly go nowhere. It is only with skill, with method—meta hodos (across a path)—that one has the possibility of ever reaching the top. This in no way means that one single method would allow one to climb all mountains: each path calls for a different response, calls for one to pay attention to the singularity of the trail. Which means that even as experience with other mountains will help, one must always listen—attend to the unhearable(s)—of this particular mountain. Every guard you pass gives you a better idea of passing guards: but one has to attend to the specific relationality that this guard is presenting to one.

So, even as we remember to drill—for learning is mimetic, and thus requires repetition—we should also keep in mind that as we pay attention to the details of every technique, we need to keep ourselves attuned to the relationality between ourselves and the other person.

And perhaps it is in this very manner that the gap between theory and practice can be approached. By keeping in mind the singularity of both situations, every situation—so, it is not that in theory this should happen but in reality there are many variations, but more radically that theory itself is multiple; each time one attempts to address a situation through theory, one is always already facing the uncertainties of reality. Thus, each attempt to theorise, to think of, is always already a practice in responding to potential unknowns, the unhearables—a practice in listening.

Since all listening occurs in a particular situation, the very place—space—one is in is crucial. Thus, we might momentarily turn out attention to the notion of seminars—and attend to the echoes of seminaries, disseminations, inseminations, and seeds (semen). For, in attending a seminar, one temporarily displaces oneself—goes away to a space specifically to learn from someone—and where the person conducting teaches, professes—bearing in mind that in jujitsu our teachers are called professors—their particular approach to the art. More importantly, the profession occurs in a distinct period, a definite time frame (a few hours, a day, even a week; but with a defined end point). Thus, rather than guide the students like (s)he would in an academy, the professor has to plant a few seeds of thought; how they develop, germinate, spread, is beyond her or his control. Moreover, those who attend the seminar can also never be sure how these seeds, thoughts, will grow, or if they even will. Hence, even as we go to seminars to learn, what, how, or even if, we learn always already remains hidden from us—until learning happens, we potentially remain deaf to its call. To compound matters, we usually realise that we have learnt retrospectively. Thus, even when the lesson is unveiled to us, the point at, and in which, we have learnt remains veiled from us. In this manner, the scene of the seminar itself is nothing more than the setting for possibility—there can be no knowable object to it, until perhaps it happens.

But, we must not forget that for possibility to be (even if it is a possibility to not-be) there has to be a space; one which cannot be defined, set, known, in advance. And what else is this space but the fringe—the demarcation that both separates and always already joins.

Perhaps then, it is only by being on the side—the fringe—of the seminar, that I had the opportunity to tune in—listen—not just to the possibilities that John Will was offering, but to the very space of possibility that is the seminar.

* Jeremy Fernando is the Jean Baudrillard Fellow at The European Graduate School. Even though he has a black belt in Judo, he spends an inordinate amount of time facing the ceiling. Whilst on his back, he has refined tapping out to an art form; complete with rhythm and all.

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