Janet O’Shea 2016

Making Play Work: Competition, Spectacle and Intersubjectivity in Sparring and Sport Fighting


Janet O’Shea, University of California, Los Angeles



Sparring is a combative activity undertaken for the purpose of teaching and learning rather than only to defeat an opponent. As such, it can be understood as play, an action that is intrinsically valuable (Suits 1978, Ackerman 1993). Sparring is rooted in a simultaneous desire to win and to continue the interaction, aligning it with games. Moreover, sparring is preparation for organized, possibly institutionalized, and often spectacularized matches, rendering it training for a sport.

This presentation takes these divergent functions of sparring as a starting point, exploring the multiple connotations of competition within the overlapping spheres of game and sport. Central to this inquiry are the differences between competitive pleasure and competitive spectacle. In line with sports sociologists and historians, I argue that sport emphasizes competitive spectacle and hinges on outcome, winning or losing, rather than highlighting the pleasure of competition and how the game is played (Eitzen 2006, Eichberg 2013). I suggest that attention to physical, contestatory, and exploratory interactions between people may offset an over-emphasis on winning. An intentional reclaiming of amateurism, with its attention to experimentation (Ackerman 1999, Lewis 2014), can also play a role as can a reconsideration of the significance of failure.


Biographical Note:


Janet O’Shea is author of At Home in the World: Bharata Natyam on the Global Stage, co-editor of the Routledge Dance Studies Reader (second edition), and a member of the editorial review board for the Routledge Online Encyclopedia of Modernism. Recipient of a UCLA Transdisciplinary Seed Grant to study the cognitive benefits of hard-style martial arts training, she is currently completing an ethnographic memoir entitled Risk, Failure, Play: What Martial Arts Training Reveals about Proficiency, Competition, and Cooperation. Her essays have been published in three languages and six countries. She is Professor of World Arts and Cultures/Dance at UCLA.