Wednesday, February 15, 2017

The Economics of Fighting

In English, you 'get into a fight.' The verb is a shortened form of the phrase 'get pulled into a fight'  and thus has passive tones, so that a fight is something unavoidable and largely beyond one's control. This may hearken back to the old Anglo-Saxon worldview of life as a series of battles, like those in Beowulf, that bring glory while young, but will eventually lead to doom and ruin.

Shift to Japanese, and the thinking is very different. One 'sells a fight' (喧嘩を売る,  kenka wo uru) or else one 'buys a fight' (喧嘩を買う,  kenka wo kau).  The active nature of these verbs implies that getting into a fight is avoidable, and one has simply to master one's will to avoid buying (or worse) selling one.

This Japanese 'economics of fighting', much like traditional economics, is based on the flawed premise that consumers are rational, which any glance at a Black Sunday sale will tell you they are not. In Japan, one's will regarding fights is only trumped when there is no choice but to buy. Right wing Japanese explain their country's participation in World War 2 as unavoidable because イギリスとアメリカは喧嘩を売ってきた。仕方がなかった。(England and the US came selling a fight. There was no other way.)

This is also fallacy. There is always another way - negotiation, diplomacy, even surrender could have avoided the escalating madness of war. Regarding Beowulf, his tale is only that of two battles. His joys, his daily happiness, the love he shared with others, are all eclipsed in the glow of these two conflagrations - in other words, thinking only in terms of fighting lessens what one is fighting for.

Perhaps it is our penchant for making sense of life through story that limits our thinking and speech in these ways. In English, the two-fight tale of Beowulf has its antithesis in the Ango-Saxon Chronicle, which is history devoid of story, and records all events, glorious and mundane. What Foucault calls the discourse of race allows one side in a conflict to focus on their injuries and victories to the exclusion of all else in their struggle for sovereignty.

I don't know Japanese literature well enough to find an analogy in it, but from what I do know, Miyamoto Musashi's 五輪書 (Book of Five Rings), written by the infamous 'sword-saint' after years of reflection on his turbulent youth, would seem to point in a promising direction for escaping the belief in the inevitability of conflict. In his final battle, Musashi gives up the sword, instead using a carved rowboat oar to best his nemesis, Sasaki Kojiro. He also calculates the time of day regarding light and tides to ensure that he leaves the small island for the duel unscathed. This testifies how a shift in viewpoint or episteme can  cause a change in the framing of a fight.

Yet the result of Musashi's final fight is the same - a man lies dead. It is instead Musashi's reflection that a great swordsman has died and ushered in the end of the age of the bushi (武士) or warrior that allows him to reach enlightenment (悟り, satori) and foreswear the ways of fighting for learning and meditation. Perhaps it is this focus on the loss involved in fighting, not just to ourselves, rather than their inevitability or glory, that can help us find a way out of the conflicts that plague us.


  1. Hey - this is Patrick Stuart from the blog Falsemachine. In one of my blog posts a looong time ago,

    you named some of the Kind of Dark in a comment. Those names are still attached to the darks and the book, Veins of the Earth is in layout now. I'd like to add you to the acknowledgements page at the front.

    I'm happy to put you in as "Tedankhamen" if you'd prefer, but if you'd like me to use a different name, and put in the address to one of your blogs, contact me at

    (Sorry for contacting you through a comment like this.)

    1. Hello Patrick! I remember you well - I still read your blog on the train, and was honoured to be on one of your to-read blog lists a few years back.

      By all means, put my name as is in your book. Another honour. Unfortunately, I have my have my hands full with raising my boy and trying to turn my phd into a cushy prof job, so no time to game or blog at present. I expect to revive the blog at some point, so keep an eye out.