Modernity beyond the ring : visual, artistic and literary portraits of boxers in France (1903–1938)

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2020-04-22

Authors

Leconte, Maxence Pascal Philippe

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Abstract

Modernity Beyond the Ring examines the rise of prizefighting in France between 1903 and 1938 and proposes a rereading of the male boxer’s portrait as one of the most ambiguous gendered expressions of high modernity in France. With a focus on gender theory, race and commodification, this dissertation simultaneously builds on and contests preconceived notions discussing the significance of physical culture in early twentieth century France. Much like Edgar Allan Poe’s figure of the lonely man in the crowd who personifies modern alienation, the prizefighter in and out of the ring typifies modern times’ troubled constructions of gendered identity, categories marked by contestation and instability, and increasingly animated by a rhetoric of masculine crisis. Amidst the decline of bourgeois male values and the rise of the New Woman, one of the most powerful manifestations of masculinity during high modernity is, unexpectedly, the prizefighter; variously represented as a unique subject and as a common object of visual or spectacular consumption, this complex figure becomes a switching point for competing discourses (literary, visual, artistic, social), all of which strive to identify him with a new ethos of twentieth-century French masculinity. By exploring French society’s shifting constructions of class and capitalism (in the figure of the working class boxer), of race (in the figure of the Black boxer), and finally aesthetics, in the avant-garde’s fascination with prizefighting, I demonstrate how boxers – real and imagined – redefined experiences of violence, vulnerability and failure for an entire nation. As such, their representations must be perceived as a watershed in our understanding of gender, sport, and embodied identities as they were negotiated in high and low culture in France during the period. Using the prism of defining cultural practices of late modernity, such as the rise of popular literature, early French cinema, Dadaism, Surrealism and Negrophilie, I argue that prizefighters portrayed in fiction, art, and film not only function as a pivotal intervention for reexamining forgotten and marginalized types of modern identities, but also reveal the power of literary, visual and artistic productions in shaping memory, national and cultural discourses.

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