The art, the poetry, the idiocy of YouTube street fights.
Cheap, ultraportable video technology has freed bystanders at street fights to do more than simply shout, "Fight! Fight! Fuck him up!" Now they can record the event for posterity, too. The result is a growing online video archive of informal fisticuffs. You can find these videos collected on Web sites that specialize in them—ComeGetYouSome.com, Psfights.com, NothingToxic.com, and others—or you can just go to good old YouTube and type in "street fight" or other evocative keyword combinations, such as "sucker punch" or "knock out." The videos that come up offer near-infinite permutations on the eternal street-fight drama of posturing, mayhem, and consequences.
The more of them you watch, the more familiar you become with certain recurring formulas: mean kid or kids nailing unsuspecting victim, drunk guy flattening drunker guy outside a bar, bully getting or not getting comeuppance, go-ahead-and-hit-me scenarios, girls fighting for keeps while male onlookers anxiously strain to find them hilarious, backyard or basement pugilism, semiformal bare-knuckle bouts, pitched battles between rival mobs of hooligans.
Some of the fights are fake, many are real, some fall in between. There's a lot of hair-pulling incompetence, but there are also moments of genuine inspiration in which regular folks under pressure discover their inner Conan. And, of course, there are a few very bad boys and girls out there who know what they're doing. (Some offer how-to lessons.) Watching fight after fight can grow dispiriting (look, another brace of toasted poltroons walking around all stiff-legged, puffing out their chests and loudly prophesying each other's imminent doom), but only when you have worked through a few score of them does the genre begin to amount to something more than the sum of its often sorry-ass parts. The various subgenres and minutely discrete iterations flow together into a cut-rate, bottom-feeding, mass-authored poem of force. Ancient Greece had its epic tradition, and classical Chinese literature had the jiang hu, the martial world; we've got YouTube.
I realize that this probably makes me a bad person, but I find the online archive of street fights to be edifying, even addictive, ripely endowed as it is with both the malign foolishness that tempts you to despise your fellow humans and occasional flashes of potent mystery that remind you not to give in to the temptation. There's an education in these videos—in how to fight and how not to fight, for starters (executive summary: Skip the preliminaries, strike first, and keep it coming), but also in how the human animal goes about the age-old business of aggression in the 21st century.
Here's the beginning of a guidebook, a preliminary sketch of some lessons to be learned in the land of a thousand asswhippings.
1) If you're going to pick a fight, or consent to such an invitation, know what you're getting into and be prepared for a fast start and a quick finish.
Squaring off for a street fight resembles questioning a witness in court: Like a lawyer (and unlike, say, an English professor), you should know the answer to your question before you ask it. The question is, "If we fight, who will win?" The answer frequently comes as a surprise to all involved.
For instance, this unfortunate guy picked a fight with the wrong motorist. Note the brisk elegance of the victor, who acts as if he's double parked and in a hurry and just has a moment or two to spare to lay out this fool. He doesn't even break stride before delivering the bout's first and only meaningful blow, a crushing forearm shot. Having just KO'd the big talker, he should spin on his heel, stalk back to his car, and depart, like some tutelary deity of street protocol making an instructional visit to Midgard. But he ruins a moment of gemlike concision by staying to rain follow-up blows on his helpless antagonist. They don't do as much damage as the first one, but they're a lot harder to watch.
These two louts don't exactly pick a fight, since they don't do any actual fighting, but they ask for the spanking they get. With an accomplice manning the camera, they appear to have picked the wrong victim for a "happy slapping" attack. Depending on whom you ask, happy slapping is either the fad practice of smacking strangers for fun that swept Great Britain and Europe a few years back, or it's a scare label applied by a nervous press to a few random incidents. (Either way, given the American tendencies toward violent touchiness and carrying concealed firearms, you can see why it didn't really catch on over here.) One of the pair contrives to bunt a passing woman in the face, and her escort punishes them with a whirlwind series of combination punches. Some of the blows don't land, but his form is always good, and some definitely do. Note the lovely around-the-shoulder-from-behind shot with which he catches the slapper, who has turned away in an occluded attempt to flee his wrath.
These guys likewise commit the double error of messing with the wrong opponent and being unready for a fast start. As a general rule, if you pick a fight with someone who immediately assumes a relaxed but erect shuffle-stepping stance with his hands up and his chin tucked and a blandly businesslike expression on his face, you have probably just answered the question of the day wrong, even if you have him outnumbered.
2) If people are standing around smiling mysteriously and pointing cell phones at you for no apparent reason, you should get ready to duck.
Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College.