Home“It doesn’t even hurt!” Mock battles and the aesthetics of violence in traditional festivals

“It doesn’t even hurt!” Mock battles and the aesthetics of violence in traditional festivals

« Même pas mal ! » Combats figurés et esthétisations festives de la violence

Revue « Ethnologie française »

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Published on Friday, September 08, 2017 by Céline Guilleux


By using the phrase “mock battle”, we propose to examine a large set of contemporary practices which display ritualized competitions according to very specific modes. The issue would like to gather articles which, on different fields, analyze practices consisting in “pretending to fight” and which display violence in a figurative, aesthetic, metaphorical or euphemistic way.


Issue Editor

  • Laurent Sébastien Fournier, senior lecturer, Aix-Marseille Université, IDEMEC


The questions at the origin of this call for articles first concerned the phrase “mock battle”, a phrase often found in accepted British anthropology to designate fights within which the fighters engage without any intention to hurt their opponents. In this context, Gluckman [1954] studies “ritual wars”, between African tribes, which stop “at the first spilled blood”. Other similar examples are documented by historians, for instance in relation with the “lithobolia”, a ritual stone fight in Korea [Quisefit, 2012], or with urban factionalist struggles in Safavide Iran [Perry, 1998]. Closer to us, in the South of France, there were until the 19th century festivals called “bravades” [Roubin, 1970; Agulhon, 1970] where two rival troops were in contest for the ritual conquest of a fort. The same feature still exists today in the Spanish festivals known as “moros y cristianos” [Albert-Llorca & Gonzalez Alcantud, 2003; Krom, 2008]. In Russia, Propp [1987] wrote about the ritual struggles to take over a fortress built on a frozen river during the Spring festival of Maslenitsa. In New Guinea, Godelier [1982] has documented apparently comparable practices opposing two rival factions. All these examples seem to form a homogeneous class of practices featuring mimics of fighting, often connected with festive traditions well known by contemporary anthropologists [Fournier & al., 2009; Crociani-Windland, 2011; Boissevain, 2013; Gauthard, 2014], euphemizing or playing with customary oppositions. However, one of the problems risen by this well documented feature is that we usually don’t know much about the intentions of the actors, their real engagement, and the limits existing between play and fight.

By using the phrase “mock battle”, translated in French as “combat figuré” (figurative fight), we propose to examine a large set of contemporary practices which display ritualized competitions according to very specific modes. The issue would like to gather articles which, on different fields, analyze practices consisting in “pretending to fight” and which display violence in a figurative, aesthetic, metaphorical or euphemistic way.

In the mock battles we want to work on in this issue, the idea of figuration is central, like if the fight was only a pretext to display something else. Therefore, the case of mock battles will enable us to work out the notion of “figure” used by Gestalttheorie in order to understand better the interplay between “figure” and “background” in violent settings. This opens to a phenomenological comprehension of the formal conditions of perception and knowledge of violence, leading to a differentiation of the “figurative” and the “fundamental” aspects of violence. The case of mock battles then leads to understand violence as a complex relation or as a structure instead of simply explaining it as a matter of individual psychology or of social determinism. Mock battles eventually reinforce the formal theory of violence proposed by Simmel [1995] and the configurational theory developed by Elias and Dunning [1986], therefore contributing to a broader contemporary reflection on the anthropology of violence [Onofrio & Taylor, 2006; Benda-Beckmann & Pirie, 2007; Michaud, 2012].

The questions are then to know how far the protagonists of mock battles play their role, how they are determined by the context within which they act, to what extent their play is controlled, reflected, retained, and eventually what are the meanings of these fights in the specific social and cultural situations where they appear. Are these fights “all in fun”, are they euphemisms and pretenses, and what rules do they follow?

Aims of the issue

On an ethnographic ground, mock battles can be used as a training for true fights, for ritual or recreational reasons, or as a “performance” (like in theater, see Schechner [2006] and Pradier [2017]). This sort of practice, which can be compared with choreography or theater but is also more spontaneous in some cases, can be more or less intense. It is testified in different historical, geographical and social contexts. In the perspective of cognitive anthropology, Bateson [1956] uses the phrase “limbo-zone” to designate the game of doggies playing to bite each other but knowing the limits between playing and fighting. Piette [1988] has used this feature to build up his theory of “interstitial spaces” in festivals. Such notions can be useful to understand what happens in the mock battles we observe on the field.

This call for articles therefore encourages to question the category of mock battles using various contemporary fields, in Europe and abroad, in order to show the relevance of this category beyond the accepted sociological interpretations and the cognitivist hypotheses. How can we define the notion of mock battle out of fieldwork? How far do the protagonists go in these fights and how do they fix the limit between playing and fighting? What are the ripple effects and how are the limits collectively fixed? In a broader way, how is it possible through this category to understand violence, the ways it is negotiated, and the construction of ritualized or emblematized representations of violence?

In the answers to the call for papers, the focus shall concern the corporeal dimensions of mock battles as well as their social and cultural dimensions. The articles selected for this issue shall work out the notion of mock battle in different social settings such as sports (capoeira, catch-as-catch-can, wrestling, martial arts), dances (traditional fighting dances, punk pogos, collective death metal dances, hip-hop battles), festivals (ritual carnival fights, crowd play, pillow fights among students), role-playing games, verbal contests, theater performances, etc.

Analytic stakes: the category of mock battle

The issue wants to clarify the category of mock battle which visibly belongs to several different worlds but seems to be useful for anthropology by its cross-cutting nature. A comparative anthropological study of this hybrid category can shed light of older works but also feed more contemporary reflections on the anthropology of violence (what is the tipping point between non-violence and violence? When does a blow becomes a true blow?) and on the anthropology of aesthetics and styles.

The category of mock battle, which the accepted articles will document, could then enable, from an analytic point of view, to distinguish often confused dimensions: simulation, figuration, spectacle, etc. The issue will help to theorize a set of categories often difficult to differentiate on the field : “simulated fights” where actors only imitate conflicts within which they don’t really engage, “historical reenactments” connected with more or less folklorized representations and cut off from their original contexts, “ritual fights”, real fights connected with specific rituals or festivals but using real blows and violence, or “agonistic games” consisting in fighting until the opponent dies for true (in bullfighting or dueling) or symbolically (in collective sports, or in individual contests like wrestling).

This issue wants to gather articles concerning mock battles and the aesthetics of violence in traditional festival or games, but also in more actual situations. A whole set of examples can be documented, ranging from practices designed to tame violence to moments ritualizing customary conflicts. In some cases, the fights suppose real training; in other cases, they are limited to a symbolical display.

In order not to simply oppose traditional and contemporary practices, we would like to gather contributions concerning different sorts of practices. The authors are invited to concentrate on practices strongly depending on the context, when the mock battles are integrated to a festive frame (ritual and festive fights), on practices belonging to the world of games and sports, which are independent of the context and follow variable and negotiated rules (ludic fights), or on practices reusing the feature of mock battles in specific social settings today.


The proposed articles (4 000 to 6 000 characters: title and abstract, including references) will be sent no later

than December 10th 2017.

They will mention the main axes of the demonstration and the material used (fieldwork and/or archives) and will add a bio-bibliographical presentation of the author.

They will be sent to the issue editor: laurent.fournier@univ-amu.fr. The selection of accepted proposals will be transmitted to the authors in January 2018.

The final versions of the articles (35 000 to 70 000 characters max., including spaces and references) shall be sent before April 30th 2018. The publication of this issue of Ethnologie Française is scheduled for Summer 2019.


Agulhon Maurice, 1970, La République au village : les populations du Var de la Révolution à la Seconde République, Paris, Plon.

Albert-Llorca Marlène & José Antonio Gonzalez Alcantud, 2003, Moros y Cristianos. Representaciones del otro en las fiestas del Mediterraneo occidental, Toulouse, Presses Universitaires du Mirail, Grenade, Diputacion de Granada.

Bateson Gregory, 1956, « The message “This is play” », in Bertram Schaffner (ed.), Group Process. Transaction of the Second Conference, New York, Josiah Macy Jr Foundation : 145-242.

Benda-Beckmann Keebet von & Fernanda Pirie (eds.), 2007, Order and Disorder: Anthropological Perspectives, New-York et Oxford, Berghahn Books.

Boissevain Jeremy, 2013, Factions, Friends and Feasts. Anthropological Perspectives on the Mediterranean, New-York & Oxford, Berghahn Books.

Crociani-Windland Lita, 2011, Festivals, Affect and Identity. A Deleuzian Apprenticeship in Central Italian Communities, London – New-York – Delhi, Anthem Press.

Elias Norbert & Eric Dunning, 1986, Sport et civilisation : la violence maîtrisée, Paris, Fayard.

Fournier Laurent Sébastien, Dominique Crozat, Catherine Bernie-Boissard & Claude Chastagner (eds.), 2009, La fête au présent. Mutations des fêtes au sein des loisirs, Paris, L’Harmattan.

Gauthard Nathalie (ed.), 2014, Fêtes, mascarades et carnavals. Circulations, transformations et contemporanéité, Lavérune, Editions L’Entretemps.

Gluckman Max, 1954, Rituals of Rebellion in South-East Africa, Manchester University Press.

Godelier Maurice, 1982, La production des grands hommes : pouvoir et domination masculine chez les Baruya de Nouvelle-Guinée, Paris, Fayard.

Krom Marjoke, 2008 « Festivals of Moors and Christians : Performance, Commodity and Identity in folk Celebrations in Southern Spain », Journal of Mediterranean Studies, vol. 18, n° 1 : 119-138.

Michaud Yves, 2012, La violence, Paris, Presses Universitaires de France.

Onofrio Salvatore (d’) & Anne-Christine Taylor (eds.), 2006, La guerre en tête, Paris, Cahiers de l’Herne.

Perry John, 1998, « Artificial Antagonism in Pre-Modern Iran : The Haydari-Ne’mati Urban Factions », in Donald J. Kagay & L. J. Andrew Villalon (eds.), The Final Argument. The Imprint of Violence on Society in Medieval and Modern Europe, Woodbridge, The Boydell Press : 107-118.

Piette Albert, 1988, « L’intervalle festif. Hypothèses théoriques et problématique de recherche », Cahiers internationaux de sociologie, LXXXV : 325-342.

Pradier Jean-Marie, 2017, « De la performance theory aux performance studies », Journal des Anthropologues, 148-149 : 287-300.

Propp Vladimir, 1987 [1963], Les fêtes agraires russes, Paris, Maisonneuve et Larose.

Quisefit Laurent, 2012, « La violence lithobolique en Corée : jeu de guerre, simulacre cathartique et rituel agricole », in Luc Robène (dir.), Le sport et la guerre, xixe-xxe siècles, Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes  53-62.

Roubin Lucienne, 1970, Chambrettes des Provençaux, Paris, Plon.

Schechner Richard 2006, Performance Studies. An Introduction, New York, Routledge.

Simmel Georg, 1995 [1918], Le conflit, Belval, Circé-Poche.


  • Sunday, December 10, 2017


  • violence, rituel, jeu, fête, combat


  • Laurent-Sébastien Fournier
    courriel : laurent [dot] fournier [at] univ-amu [dot] fr

Reference Urls

Information source

  • Nicolas Adell
    courriel : nicolasadell [at] yahoo [dot] fr

To cite this announcement

« “It doesn’t even hurt!” Mock battles and the aesthetics of violence in traditional festivals », Call for papers, Calenda, Published on Friday, September 08, 2017, http://calenda.org/415437