2:45-3:05: “The Match You Wrestle Must Prove It Desires Me: Authorship and audiences in the empty arena era”

Ryan J. Cox teaches English, Film, and Cultural Studies at Keyano College. His research focuses on the intersection of poetics, popular culture, and identity.

Wrestling has changed before. Whether the result of new technologies, new economic models, or the crossing of new borders, professional wrestling has adapted to new realities. The COVID-19 pandemic by precluding the participation of a live audience has required, or perhaps facilitated, a fundamental change in the way professional wrestling produces meaning.

This paper argues that the shift that has occurred in the past year should be understood as a shift from what Roland Barthes calls a “writerly” text to a “readerly” one; or, one in which the audience plays an active role in the production of the text to a text that is received, “read, but not written.” While the audience has traditionally played a crucial role in Wrestling’s composition both at the level of the individual match and the event as a whole—Ric Flair’s dropping the NWA World Heavyweight Title to Jack Veneno in 1982 in order to prevent a riot serves as a prime example as does AEW’s recent kayfabing of the end of the Moxley/Omega match at the Revolution pay-per-view—this is not the case when they are absent from the event or only present virtually.

The empty arena shows, the use of wrestlers and other workers as an ersatz audience, the virtual audiences of WWE’s Thunderdome and Capitol Wrestling Center, and other attempts to confront the lack of a live audience necessarily shift composition from a collaborative act to one that privileges the promotion.

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