Words from the World of Wrestling (#14)
The Punk and Hardy Feud
July 23, 2009
?You?ve got two strikes. You know how many I have? Zero. You know how many times I?ve been suspended? Zero. You know how many times I have been to a rehab facility? Zero. And you know what your chances are of beating me at Night of Champions? Zero.?
CM Punk delivered this promo about two weeks ago now, and after watching it just recently after the fact, I have to admit that it tickles me. It tickles me because it takes advantage of something very particular about professional wrestling, something that never ceases to interest me: i.e. how very easy it is for wrestlers to take advantage of ?real life? in their ‘staged performances.? In other words, Punk’s promo (in fact, his entire character) is grounded in the capability of professional wrestling to shuttle back and forth and to play in the space between the performers and their personas.
The recent feud between Jeff Hardy and CM Punk on Smackdown is also interesting because it exemplifies something really stunning about this particular popular art form, and it helps elucidate a few points that Nicholas Sammond makes in his introduction to Steel Chair to the Head: The Pleasure and Pain of Professional Wrestling (Duke University Press, 2005). In his introduction, Sammond extends a claim that Roland Barthes makes in his seminal essay ?The World of Wrestling? and writes ?that [the] flesh [of the wrestler]?far from being the seed of meaning from which springs the signifying force of the wrestler, or the match, or wrestling itself?is but a node in a circuit of signification. The most popular wrestlers today aren?t simply individuals; they are part of larger commodity packages? (pg. 7). Sammond continues, ?In a short circuit of signification that moves from the hard plastic body of the toy, through the hard flesh of the performer, to the massive, processed image above them, the presence of the wrestler is consumed, fragmented, and multiplied in the flow of its commodity status? (ibid).
Thinking of the wrestler’s body as a flow between various levels of signification really fascinates me, but my interest in professional wrestling’s play between reality and fiction folds itself nicely into Sammond’s claim. What problem or tension rests at the core of the performed antagonism between Punk and Hardy? The problem of discipline, particularly discipline over one’s own body. When Punk refers to rehab and suspension in the promo above, what could he be indicating except Hardy’s lack of control over (or his recklessness with) his own body? We see here that the distinction that this feud is drawing between a self-control over one’s own body and a lack of such self-control bleeds easily into a distinction in performance. During the match between CM Punk and John Morrison only last week, JR drew attention again and again to the ‘strategy? of Punk (his ground game and his striking game and his mind games) and its distinction from the incredible risks that Jeff Hardy takes in the ring (risks that he is sure to take, according to JR, at Night of Champions). Here, the bodies of Jeff Hardy and CM Punk not only become points of distinction in character, but points of distinction in style and points of distinction in ?real life.? In other words, the body does not just serve as a node between varying levels of commodification. Rather, the body serves as the vessel that allows professional wrestling to play in the space between reality and fiction because it is paradoxically the very material and the very flow that allows a professional wrestler to be a real person and to play a fake one that uses the real one’s body.
Why does this matter?
Because this incredible ability of the body to retain the characteristics of some sort of ?real life? in the incredibly cheesy circus that is professional wrestling makes the clear-cut distinctions between ?good guy? and ?bad guy? very murky. Earlier in his introduction, Sammond argues that professional wrestling, like all popular performance, ?has always been about the lived experience of social, political, and cultural life. It is about bodies marked by race, ethnicity, gender, class, and sexuality operating in a democratic capitalist national culture that lacks a robust language for speaking about concrete, lived experience? (2-3). While Sammond’s argument certainly simplifies things and groups together a vast and heterogeneous collective into a homogeneous space, I think his comment has some sort of merit and once again the Punk/Hardy feud helps elucidate what Sammond is getting at. Because the violence that occurs in professional wrestling rarely accomplishes any sort of ?moral comfort? (3), all uses of the body in professional wrestling is often far more complicated than many fans give them credit.
If anything, bodies pose problems for us, social problems about social relations: Why is it that CM Punk is getting booed instead of Jeff Hardy? Is CM Punk wrong to question a week after the promo quoted above the merit of Jeff Hardy’s boast that he hasn?t failed a drug test in a year? Isn?t he right to point out the blatant egotism in Jeff Hardy’s claim that he doesn?t need rehab? Isn?t it a virtue to admit when one needs help (if one needs help)? Why the boos, then?
At this point, fans might point out, ?You?re thinking way too hard about this, Ben.? But this all too common riposte is really all too convenient of an exit to a very legitimate question. When we hear CM Punk’s words, we hear a particular truth twisted through the lips of a persona that somehow fractures the truth and mobilizes it in the service of creating a heel and of purposely generating heel heat. What parent would doubt CM Punk’s worry that hundreds of children in the audience are wearing Jeff Hardy merchandise and that thousands of children look to him as a hero? Do these children emulate Jeff Hardy’s self-reliance or do they admire the very ?to hell with my own body? approach to his matches (and, thus, Punk would claim, to his life)? I think the audience reactions Jeff Hardy received in 1999 and 2000 help answer that question. Before he ever inspired standing ovations through his mere presence, it took hard bumps and long falls to make audience members rise to their feet. (Perhaps this point has a great deal to do with Jeff’s popularity vs. his brother Matt’s.)
Again, where am I going with this?
Although this might be a stretch, I think that the CM Punk and Jeff Hardy feud exemplifies professional wrestling’s ability to place us within a space of ethical uncertainty (perhaps unconsciously, accidentally, unintentionally) all the while it passes itself off (consciously, purposely, intentionally) as a simple, straightforward, entertaining show. This schizophrenic art form, I maintain, remains one of the most thrilling sites for exploration for those interested in the questions like: What might a body be capable of? Why does staged violence entertain us?
Perhaps we boo CM Punk because the violence he does to Jeff Hardy is very real to some degree. Both wrestlers seem trapped within personas that offers no escape. Punk’s comments do a sort of real violence, drawing from a life style literally etched into his body (across his stomach, across his knuckles) and drawing attention to actual suspensions and strikes, to actual addiction or abuse . . . and such an attack leaves very little wiggle room for Jeff Hardy: both in real life and in character.
Well, that’s enough ruminating for now. Thanks for reading!