Transnational Physical Cultures

Broderick Chow and Ella Parry-Davies

The title of this set of interventions—Transnational Physical Cultures—is composed of three terms that are by their nature slippery and contested. This contestation emerged in Broderick and Ella’s first conversations about the theme.

Having come to the end of a two-year fellowship exploring the cultural history of men’s fitness as performance, ‘physical culture’ was at the top of Broderick’s mind; and in beginning a three-year fellowship exploring embodied relationships to urban space in the context of transnational migration, also of Ella’s. Broderick’s specific definition of physical culture (purposive systems of exercise, health, and strength training aimed at ‘culturing’ the body and muscles) was based in the 19th century Physical Culture movement, the precursor to modern bodybuilding and fitness. Physical Culture as a proper noun emerges in a Western European and American context, primarily in England, France, Germany, and the United States of America.

But in the context of this co-edited issue, the idea of physical cultures demands a broader, more expansive definition, one which has already been in play in sports sociology and critical sports studies for some time. Patricia Vertinsky and Jennifer Hargreaves’ collection Physical Culture, Power and the Body (2007) takes in a wide range of practices beyond Physical Culture in its 19th century definition such as boxing, striptease, dance, and team sport.1 In Vertinsky and Hargreaves’s editorial work, physical cultures are the practices, institutions, and techniques by which a body is socially constructed. In a sense, physical culture might be aligned with visual culture—the way that culture is done through the body, in practices that simultaneously construct the body. Without drawing too strict a line with expressive practices of theatre and performance art – and in embracing an expansive sense of the theme in the contributions in this issue – we acknowledge the sportive origins of the term. Thus, we might begin to think of physical cultures as performative and embodied practices whose presentational aim is not necessarily towards the audience, but whose focus is instead on the doer. They may take place in the presence of others, but not always. Sometimes the audience is a mirror. Other times it is the somatic experience of the body alone.

The expanding definition of physical culture was necessitated by a considering its already-transnational context, the way in which a practice (Physical Culture) indexed to white European- and American-ness emerged in a context of colonial plunder, empire, and racial capitalism. The history of Physical Culture, in fact, is one of immigrant bodies and is full of acts of passing, resistance, and embodied exchange. But ‘transnational’ raised similar questions: what is the ‘national’ in transnational? And therefore what is the ‘trans’? Must the ‘trans’ in transnational by definition take its frame of reference from the ‘nation state’ as a colonial construct, and from national borders?

The interventions grouped in this issue, and the cultural transitions – imagined and embodied – that they explore, would seem to suggest otherwise. In some cases in these contributions, physical cultures do cross the borders of nation states and geographic distances: this is the case for the practice of Muay Thai in the east end of London, a martial art that has ‘travelled’ through the movement and training of bodies from Southeast Asia to the UK (and elsewhere). Though respect, humility and confidence are touchstones of all the interviewees of the club in the soundwalk Shadow/Boxing, they are diversely understood by them in relation to other practices that are gendered and informed by ethnicity and religion. East London is not the (somehow neutral) ‘host’ site of Muay Thai’s migration, but an already transnational place, insofar as bodies that are transnational in their experiences and training make a further encounter that engenders resonance as well as difference.

It is similar experiences of ‘transnational’ physicalities – which do not necessarily involve the crossing of national borders, but entail a history of it – that Raafat Majzoub explores in his text ‘Leaving a Secret Place’. Here transitions occur not only through space but also time. In returning to a mosque, to Arabic from English, or to a particular tree in Cairo or Beirut we are no longer the same person. The physicality of (or afforded by) that ‘place’ has changed. And we are also travelling between what Majzoub understands as different types of fiction – active and dormant. If minority histories become fictions – “weightless” – in the face of suppression, then in stepping behind a particular rubber tree we also move from the fiction of public Beirut to that of queer Beirut,2 where two boys, one a porter and one an assistant at a juice stall, take a brief pause from their working days, to explore and touch one other “as if they could reach in and touch themselves”.

These transitions also reflect a world in which national borders have not disappeared, but nor are they necessarily visible as walls. As Mezzadra and Neilson have argued, the linear border “as a cartographic imaginary” has “splintered into a multitude of temporary, transportable, deployable and removable border-synonyms”, where “some of the most stringent and sophisticated techniques of discipline and control” are operating.3 Clearly, the transit of physical bodies and cultures is not smooth or freely available. This prompts the question of what it means to focus on physical cultures in a discussion on transnationalisms with an anti-racist agenda.

In her interview with Broderick, dance and fitness instructor Kelechi Okafor describes being confronted with obvious racism in her initial training in pole dance: ‘I remember vividly, the teacher becoming very intimidated and not helping me for the entire class, so I had to teach myself from looking at what other people were doing. Even after asking, I don’t quite get this, she came over and said “you’re strong, you’ll figure it out.”’ The UK is not alone in figuring ‘multiculturalism’ as a discourse in which emphasis on ‘cultural’ differences – the trope of the strong black woman, for example – can simply replace older forms of othering. As Goh and Holden note in the Singaporean context, “culture replaces essentialized biologisms at the surface of racial discourses: the target of racism becomes lifestyle ‘choices’, ethnicity, or immigration, rather than directly articulated references to race itself.”4 And as Fatima el-Tayeb states of continental Europe, “The ideology of ‘racelessness’ is the process by which racial thinking and its effects are made invisible.”5

Physical cultures might be a space for difference to be negotiated, and made visible, through the body, rather than denied or displaced from it. We see such negotiation in the history of physical cultures like wrestling (as seen in The Dynamic Tensions Physical Culture Show), where the dialectical nature of presenting violence while performing care enabled potential affinities and solidarities to be formed in practices. Similarly, in Broderick’s interview with Kelechi, we find striking affinities between the interviewer (a Chinese-Filipino Canadian man) and the interviewee (a British-Nigerian woman) in their discussion of forms of training and nutrition (yam and white rice). In such conversations, embodied difference is not denied or universalized but opened up as a space for negotiation. In Shadow/Boxing, one British-South Asian participant articulates a related dynamic in the relationship between Islam and Muay Thai. If Euro-American stereotypes have sometimes insisted on the association of Muslim masculinities with aggression, and Southeast Asianness with docility, this participant sees the practices of Islam and Muay Thai conversely as enjoined through discipline and respect. Physical culture might represent the site for alliances between “immigrant” groups that have been pitted against each other via structural racism and the myth of the model minority.

Such negotiations and alliances can take place through remembering the existing transnationalism of physical cultures, and need not ‘over-theorise’ it, to borrow Kelechi’s words. As Kelechi’s practice recognises and remembers twerk’s historical formation in the circulations occasioned by the transatlantic slave trade, so another participant in Shadow/Boxing insists on the historical inter-religious inclusivity of Muay Thai, and its lessons for anti-racism today. Each intervention grouped here might therefore be understood as a way of simply tracing or documenting the cultural circulations that are already inherent to the physical cultures practiced by the contributors.


Broderick Chow is Senior Lecturer in Theatre at Brunel University London and was Principal Investigator on the AHRC-funded project Dynamic Tensions: New Masculinities in the Performance of Fitness. He is co-editor of Žižek and Performance (2014) and Performance and Professional Wrestling (2017). Broderick is a competitive weightlifter and coach.

Ella Parry-Davies is a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, University of London. Her research concerns relationships between performance, space and memory-making in contexts of transnational migration.

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  1. Patricia Vertinsky and Jennifer Hargreaves (eds), Physical Culture, Power and the Body (London: Routledge, 2007).
  2. Sofian Merabet, Queer Beirut (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2015).
  3. Sandro Mezzadra and Brett Neilson, Border as Method, or, the Multiplication of Labour (Durham: Duke University Press, 2013), p. 6, p. 22.
  4. Daniel P.S. Goh and Philip Holden, ‘Postcoloniality, race and multiculturalism’, in Race and Multiculturalism in Malaysia and Singapore, ed. by Daniel P.S. Goh, Matilda Gabrielpillai, Philip Holden, and Gaik Cheng Koo (London and New York: Routledge, 2009), p. 2.
  5. Fatima El-Tayeb, European Others: Queering Ethnicity in Postnational Europe (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2011), p. xvii.

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