Presented April 12, 2023, to Mercy College.
What do true crime, paranormal studies, and professional wrestling all have in common?
Likely many things, but I what I want to focus on is something that I have been contemplating for over 20 years now.
All exemplify the co-construction of reality as people make sense of the physical through their individual and collective interpretations.
The purpose of my discussion and dialogue here today which I don’t wanna call a lecture as I don’t wanna see myself as lecturing you but I want to talk about this idea that is my understanding of kayfabe as a co-construction and how this, I believe, helps reveal the nature of reality and truth.
At WrestlePosium IV earlier this month, I heard someone wisely observe that if you asked everyone what their definition of kayfabe was, that you would receive a plethora of varying definitions. Indeed, the Professional Wrestling Studies Journal released a special issue last presenting such a variety.
In this conversation, I define kayfabe As the blurring of lines between reality and fiction. It is the understanding that professional wrestling matches are predetermined or at least roughed out as a the plot that the professional wrestlers then have to act and improvise to perform. In the past, kayfabe was this essential idea of portraying everything that happened inside and outside of the ring in relationship to professional wrestling as factual, as authentic, as real. Indeed, I probably will use the words real, authentic, factual interchangeably throughout this talk today. This idea tried to and often succeeded in presenting wrestling matches and the wrestlers themselves as legitimate competitors struggling to win a la any other form of sport that humans have concocted. Wrestlers who had legitimate heat or animosity toward one another in the ring were not meant to be seen in public as the friends they likely truly were.
This idea came from professional wrestling’s early association with traveling carnivals. As a sideshow event, the audience largely had no other knowledge about the wrestlers other than what was presented and performed. In carnie speak, such an audience was an easy mark to convince or con into believing the reality of the fiction they were being shown. Over the next hundred years, as pro wrestling moved from sideshows to streaming, many fans learned the truth about its fiction as online fan communities shared what was learned from wrestlers and promoters themselves. The wrestling audience became smart.
Yet why would smart people still buy into, go along with, and invest in something only pretending to be real? Theories from literary and film studies such as the suspension of disbelief have been suggested to explain authenticity engagement, while others continue to deride fans as gullible marks.
I prefer a different approach that also comes from the history of literary and film reception studies: audiences are playing with belief through a process of co-construction. This approach, I believe, better empowers audiences in relationship to wrestlers and promoters without any potential defamation of character. Simultaneously, it demonstrates the applicability of kayfabe as a concept beyond professional wrestling.
Whenever I discuss the nature of reality with my undergraduates, I always approach it as the intertwining of objective physicality and subjective phenomenology. What we call “reality” is only knowable through our senses. Yes, a physical universe does exist all around us and constitutes our bodies and the constraints impacting it. That physical universe, however, is only made aware to us via our senses and our brain’s processing – aka perception, attention, and interpretation—of that sensory information. Furthermore, that processing is influenced and informed by our physical body – it’s biochemical/biophysical affordances and constraints – and our lived experiences that shape what we perceive, attend to, and interpret. Even two individuals with identical biological constitutions will still come to process “reality” differently due to variances in their lives experiences.
What we call “reality,” then, is a mixture of physical nature, embodied constitutions, and subjective engagement. Additionally, through thr subjectivity we must include the consideration of our social nature. Our lived experiences are comprised by both our individual experiences and our interactions with others, though which we may acquire ideological knowledge that fuel our assumptions and expectations, our stereotypes and attitudes, about reality. Such knowledge helps us determine how to behave when encountering the various situations they become our lives. Reality, then, is the result of embodied, individual actions in relation to communal and social rationalization.
Perhaps by this point you have a sense as to why I find kayfabe fascinating.
We only know about reality because of how we interact with it. Reality contains these physical tidbits that our brains process via sensory information and then ascribe meaning to via interpretations.
In true crime, we refer to these tidbits as forensic evidence. In paranormal investigations, such tidbits could be a black shape or an odd sound. In true crime, evidence is used to reconstruct the story of who did what, how, and why through scientific and logical reasoning. In paranormal investigations, that black figure either becomes a shadow person, which may be demonic or extraterrestrial, or a result of digital imaging compression rates – depending upon what you believe.
In professional wrestling, the tidbits or physical traces become kayfabe when they are used to present performances, tell stories, and create meaning. We see a wrestler’s grimace or blood. We hear a slap or thud. We smell sweat and fear. We vibrate with energy and enthusiasm.
We may also see the fake blow or whiff. We may also see the wrong move or botch. We may see the leg slap that accompanies the sound. We may hear the wrestlers improvising in the ring. We may see the razor blade that opens the skin in place of the pizza cutter. We may have the facts that reinforce the fiction but choose to ignore those and favor the ones conveying authenticity.
Why, then, do so many smart ignore some truths while highlighting others?
We convince ourselves and each other of the authenticity of these interpretations through rhetoric, persuasion, coercion, and yes, even propaganda. Reality is based on sensory tidbits and socially accepted interpretations. But it is in their willing acceptance of this interpretation that people both are empowered and manipulated.
In seeing reality as a co-construction, that means it evolves and develops through a process involving the negotiation of various competing, even contradictory, subjectivities or small-T truths. Over time, due to power and/or persuasion, certain truths become accepted and normalized as long as play along with and buy into that reality as true. Accepting the boundaries, rules, and roles of this reality reflects adherence to life’s magic circle, and as long as people play the game, reality holds.
The same holds true for kayfabe, which becomes true, subjectively and objectively, as long as promoters, wrestlers, and fans perform their roles. No wrestler gimmick or characterization succeeds without faith in it or acceptance of it. No predetermined match can be taken seriously as competitive without acceptance of its semblance as such. No fictional storyline can be considered as logical without a desire, however and subconscious for it to be as such. We want to believe and will go all-in when that desire hits.
What is considered true is malleable and adaptive to what is deemed rationally necessary for the situation. A desire to believe that Kenny Omega and Bryan Danielson are so evenly matched that they wrestle to a draw can circumvent and/or prevent a consideration and realization of the match’s predetermined conclusion, as doing so would ruin “the fun.” In performing required roles, wrestlers and fans alike demonstrate the playful spirit at the heart of kayfabe. A willingness to play, even with objective facts, maintains the fictional reality. Each person’s subjective engaging with objective facts, when aligned under the playful spirit, produces a communal rationalization of what is real, authentic, true.
The playful spirit functions because it is based not in the suspension of disbelief but on a fundamental belief: The desire to believe in something more. The desire to transcend our limited sensory engaging of the objective world. To believe in something out there beyond our perception and to believe that that something is true. To believe there is more to life than this.
As highly cognitive creatures, we constantly search for what can provide meaning – even if only momentarily – to the fleeting nature of life. We seek the big-T Truth about reality, life, and ourselves. We ascribe meaning to the limited scope of what we perceive of the objective universe to rationalize, make sense of and cope with chaos, the unknown, and the unknowable. To make meaningful is to understand. To understand is to predict. To predict is to control. To control is to be content.
In situations of uncertainty, where there is no guarantee of objective truth – which covers the vast majority of life’s experiences – we have a need to manage and reduce such uncertainty and the anxiety, depression, and other seemingly negative mental states and affectations. Our processes of rationalization, being both a blessing and a curse, aid this quest. In kayfabe, when the line between factual and fictional is porous, rationalization can lead to entanglement or detachment. To acceptance and playing along, or to criticism and ridicule.
Either outcome is rational to that individual in that specific situation. Because reality and truth are not inherently logical but emotional, both rational to the self and irrational to the observer. Rationalization does not guarantee a rational result, if such even ever truly happens, as people will convince themselves of a reality that best serves them at that time to cope with the situation. What is believed to be true when it is needed may be enshrined as such. Reality bends to emotion.
People rationalize their acceptance of kayfabe based on emotions, not logic. The logical argument of predetermination only matters if the individual has a need of it. If the fan finds pro-wrestIing engaging, often due to emotional attachment, then they will remain entangled in kayfabe, while lack of emotional attachment and need for such leads to detachment. Knowing it is not “real” does not prevent entanglement because enough is authentic to cause doubt, leaving people unsure what to believe is real. As long as their emotional attachment remains real, so does kayfabe. Without an emotional need to question, it will not occur. Truth is not only in the beholder’s eye; it is tested and informed by the heart.
Kayfabe then help illuminate how humans engage with, cope with, rationalize and co-construct reality. Kayfabe operates as microcosm for understanding the verbing, the processes, that construct, deconstruct, and reconstruct reality. This approach neither lauds nor deplores those to whom professional wrestling still carries a semblance of authenticity, however short-lived and contextualized it may be. To say “It’s still real to me!” is to recognize one’s own power and agency in shaping reality.
Indeed, kayfabe helps illuminate the inseparability of ideology and materiality, belief and reality. When enough people believe, reality bends. While in our world, some people have more power to shape reality – the Vince McMahons and Donald J. Trumps – the increased presence of and access to social media allows more – the Young Bucks and Danhausens — such agency. Enhanced social communication both empowers them to commune and aids in the promulgation of their beliefs.
Of course, what is done with such power remains as important a question now as it did then. But it is my belief that an understanding of the co-construction of reality allows for more critical reflection and intentional actively to produce a communal rationalization and reality that is more face than heel.
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