Entropy and the Law of Fencing

I’ve always had an odd envy of the dedicated…the “real”…historical fencers. The people that spend so much time not just parsing a system down to it’s atomic elements, but reconstructing those bits into solid decision trees. They build an impeccable logic for each choice, and can back it up with chapter and verse quotes. The result is recognizable. A clean, methodical approach to training and fighting that seems to branch across multiple systems. In the world of Western Martial Arts, it’s most apparent in the influence of Classical fencing, which has placed it’s pedagogical stamp on everything from Italian Rapier Longsword work to German Dussack. It’s a beautiful model, dominant in it’s presentation, clearly claiming it’s rightful place as the one true way. It’s not the only successful way, though.

There is no excuse for not having a deep, even atomic, knowledge of your art. You must be able to understand the most finite elements of your play. Everyone should understand the consequences of any action, and be able to extrapolate results from a single action to a phrase or beyond. These things are universal. Every good fencer can do this, even if they can’t explain it in words. It’s what happens next that makes the difference.

Facing an opponent, you observe their position. You can get a sense of what gambit they have in mind, and you decide on your best course of action. If we follow the admired Academic model of fencing, we establish a line on our opponent that they must react to, and then we close measure in anticipation of their reaction. If they do A, we will do Y. If they do B, we will do Z. We will use measure and tempo to restrict their options, until our line becomes the singular response and we strike home in safety. That’s the Academic model. It’s what most of us aspire to.

Some of us struggle to apply it. It doesn’t come naturally to some people, who follow the Reactive model of fencing…shutting the brain off and just doing what “feels” right. It’s also difficult for people who over-think, or who tend to blank out a little under stress. It’s also just plain hard to learn. It takes years of hard work to internalize compound rules and build the reflexes necessary to execute them with ease. It can be a self-defeating method of learning, too. Humans naturally desire a feeling of accomplishment while learning, so we want to test ourselves.

Early sparring in the Academic model can lead to frustration. The model is presented as perfect, so any failure to win must be the fault of the fencer. Ideally the fencer will realize that they simply need to stick to the method and success will eventually come. More commonly though, they feel that they have failed. They think they are not smart enough, fast enough, gifted enough or dedicated enough. If they don’t lose interest and drop out, they develop an urgent need to learn more. They want more knowledge, more complexity, more rules. The mind can only handle so much, though…and plateaus in understanding loom large in the students future. Stagnation can become a standard far too easily.

The Entropic model starts with a only a tiny difference, an alternate goal. With this model, the fencer looks to keep her options open as much as possible, at all times. Facing an opponent, you don’t look to constrain their actions, you look instead to maximize your own freedom of action. Seeing an opening, the Academic fencer might chose to seize the moment, if all the conditions are right, and strike…leading to the all too common double-kill. The Entropic fencer  will see the same opening, but will also see the trap of restricting themselves to only a single avenue of approach…a restriction of potential that is to be avoided at all costs.

Within the bounds of the arena and the outcome, the Entropic fencer prizes movement above all. Actions on the opponent are performed to enable more potential. I might chose to lunge deeply against an opening, or I might chose to cut against my opponents blade. Which gives me more potential? It’s still required that I know my atomic skills very well. Can I lunge in such a way that my opponents’ reaction will gain me more freedom of movement? It certainly will if I kill him…or if he is prone to flinching backwards…or if his blade is positioned in such a way that I will occupy all the remaining potential area, and deny it completely to my opponent. If I chose to cut, will my momentum constrain me to only a limited follow-up, to a small piece of space and time? Or will it gain me a larger available potential?

The Academic fencer might speak of the importance of defense as a solution to the problem of double-kills, but their approach itself has a tendency to promote them. As one follows a decision tree down to a result, it becomes physically and mentally akin to a maze. The way back becomes unclear. Focus narrows and the fighter can only see the light at the end of the tunnel. There is no way for the mind to be able to see other possibilities…only the result matters, the goal that must be obtained. Urgency becomes common sense, as it is easier to go forward than it is to abandon the work that made the fleeting opening.

The Entropic fencer will tend to avoid the double-kill because they will avoid constraining their potential. Taking a chance to win is counter to the method. Over-commitment is an anathema. Defense is not necessarily supreme, but will tend to be  a consequence of seeking freedom of action. Engagement after engagement will teach them not to try harder at actions that result in a double kill, but instead to look for new approaches in movement and knowledge that will expand overall potential.

It might be easier to explain the two models by looking to the UFC. George St-Pierre, in his fights againt Josh Koscheck, and recently against Nick Diaz, epitomized the Entropic vs Academic model. GSP maintains mobility and potential at all times, while his opponents only work to try and make their strengths work. Koscheck and Diaz are both known for their striking games, and both sought the chance to go for the double-kill, gambling that their superior skills would let them come out ahead. GSP’s Entropic approach stymied and shut down their linear, Academic mindset, leaving them confused and frustrated. Two fighters with arguably superior skills, made to look like amateurs.

It’s worth taking a moment in your fencing, especially in your slow work practice, to think about your next action. When you see an opening for a strike, take the opportunity to think about whether you are constraining yourself or not. Your correct training and practice might be leading you into being the buffalo, the bestial man you complain about others being. If you have the right skill, you don’t need to seize the fleeting opening. Patience and the constant striving for more potential will eventually offer up your point on the opponents chest.

A little science behind this reasoning can be found here, and the layman’s read, for the businessman, can be found here. And in a lovely bit of timing, after I wrote this post on the weekend, Slashdot covered the same thing.

One Comment

  1. For some interesting parallel thoughts, check out these two posts on Majia’s blog:

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