This fall, I will be addressing the American Society of Criminology on the value of Carny (also known as 'Kizarny' or 'Ceazarney') to the historical study of the American prison. I am by no means the first person to notice the prevalence of this patois, as the penologists John Irwin and Inez Cardozo-Freeman found both Carny and Polari (its English counterpart) present in both the California and Washington state penal systems, despite the fact none of the cant's users had personal histories in carnival work. This seemingly-shocking discovery makes a great deal of sense when we consider Carny as the lingua franca of America's twentieth-century underworld. Early in the century, terms like "work," "heat," and "job" wheedled their place not only into professional wrestling, but also into the languages of organized crime, hobo jungles, and drug addict subcultures.
As historically important as the language is, however, there remains no place in the phenomenology of prison history for that most venerated of carnival phrases, kayfabe. In November, I will attempt to convince a room full of middle-aged academics - many of whom already hold the belief that professional wrestling is a pornography of misogynistic and racist excess - that the central conceit in pro wrasslin' can serve as a valuable tool in discussing interpersonal behaviour. This will be no simple task, in part because I'm not even sure I can define kayfabe myself.
On this site, we often discuss kayfabe as if it has a set and definite meaning, free of historical baggage or internal contradiction. The fact that we haven't an adequate definition for the term, however, belies our confidence. We can't talk about kayfabe in the same way we discuss heels, burials, or jobbing because it is an inherently more complex idea. I would contend, in fact, that it is the key term in yoking pro grappling to all the world's performative arts. Though he was undoubtedly ignorant of the term, the French cultural theorist Roland Barthes nonetheless spoke to the importance and intricacy of kayfabe when he noted in his 1957 essay "The World of Wrestling" that the wrestler's "emptying out of interiority to the benefit of its exterior signs, the exhaustion of the content by the form, is the very principle of triumphant classical art." Put another way, all art - high or low, fine or coarse - is composed of what the artist allows us to see.
Assuming kayfabe's complexity and cultural importance can be taken for granted, we're still left with a significant definitional problem. Much to my chagrin, the Oxford English Dictionary has nothing to say about the term, while the unimpeachable experts at Wikipedia claim only that kayfabe is "the portrayal of staged events within the industry as 'real' or 'true,' specifically the portrayal of competition, rivalries, and relationships between participants as being genuine and not of a staged or pre-determined nature." This is an acceptably wonkish definition, but not a philosophically pleasing one. Like Pro Wrestling Torch's definition, it stresses the role a synthetic language plays in shrouding the various realities surrounding wrestling, but it says virtually nothing about how it is used to create story and character. A functional definition of kayfabe should both be able to address how it shrouds The Undertaker's shoot identity as well as how it aids Mark Calaway in constructing his on-stage persona.
Given the seeming uniformity of definitions - including John Lister's terrific discussion of kayfabe's etymology - one might still wonder why we need to revisit kayfabe's meaning in the first place. The answer, of course, is that the term we have simply does not fit the realities of modern wrestling and hasn't for some time. With the exception of small children, one would be hard-pressed to find wrestling fans who consider wrestling unscripted and representative of the performers' real life personalities and prejudices. Not only has Vince McMahon himself repeatedly and publicly acknowledged the unreality of his product, but fans are regularly reminded of this fact on national television, with performers directly addressing the booking committee or the company's creative team. This doesn't mean that kayfabe doesn't exist, but that its traditional definition - in which wrestlers and promoters believe they can fool marks into believing the product in toto is a shoot - is now totally untenable. Well before the Pipe Bomb, we lived in the age of the worked-shoot in which everybody and nobody was a mark. Perhaps it's time to have a definition of kayfabe that fits the current episteme.
So I ask you, Cageside Seats readers, what is "kayfabe"? Leave your suggestions in the comments section and we'll try to create a new working definition.