What’s real and what’s not is a central philosophical problem. Is the table in front of me real, or is it imaginary? Do other people exist, or am I all alone? Do I really have free will, or is that just an illusion?
As I discuss in Philosophy Smackdown, pro wrestling is fertile ground for thinking about questions of reality. This week a highly unusual case prompted these questions once again, when Chris Jericho’s newly-won AEW title belt was apparently stolen from his limo while he dined in a steakhouse.
Immediately questions were asked: is this real – a shoot – or is this planned – a work? The astounding publicity it generated, along with Jericho’s subsequent in-character promos about recovering the belt, suggested a work. But the plain weirdness of the story, and the photos of a police report, suggested otherwise. A discussion with the Pro Wrestling Studies Association (@ThePWSA) on Twitter prompted further thought.
This seems to be a case where truth was stranger than fiction. According to the police report, Jericho had taken a limo from the airport to the steakhouse, and left the belt in his limo. The limo then went back to the airport to pick up more of Jericho’s luggage that had been left behind, and during that process the belt was lost. Very weird, and kinda complicated! If this was a work to be incorporated into storyline, it would surely be more digestible, with clearer roles to be played eventually by other AEW talent, such as the limo driver…
Jericho then posted a promo discussing the theft in character, and promising the recovery of the belt.
After the belt was recovered, he posted in character about it:
On the face of it, then, it looks as though this was a shoot that spawned a work, with Jericho’s hot tub promo promising to recover the belt, and then taking credit for its recovery, being a good opportunity to take advantage of the situation to develop his character (and, of course, get #alittlebitofthebubbly trending!).
This is supported by the evidence of the police report, and the photos of the belt in the possession of the Tallahassee Police Dept:
So, due to the weirdness of the story, and the police reports, what’s real here seems to be that the belt really was stolen, and really was recovered by police, and that Jericho turned aspects of it into a work.
AND yet… isn’t this exactly what Jericho and AEW would want us to think? Is the weirdness of the story precisely designed to make it seem as real as possible? Could AEW, with their connections in Florida, somehow involve the police dept in the ruse? – There was some oddness with the tweet from the police department being removed after it was posted…
We also don’t know how AEW intends to develop storylines on its shows yet. Until we have more evidence on that front, it is hard to know what’s a work and what’s a shoot. And this is the thing: the distinction between works and shoots makes sense when you have a general background to compare it too – in WWE, for example, we have a sense of what a work looks like, which makes it easier to demarcate work from shoot.
With AEW, granted there are general pro wrestling principles about works and shoots, but we don’t know what this company’s working product really looks like yet, at least in terms of TV. If they do more reality-based angles, then perhaps we’ll look back on this in a different way.
And this, I suppose, is the philosophical lesson here. To make sense of the distinction between appearance and reality, we need a baseline to work with. We need to see both sides of the equation: we need to have sense of what appearance looks like, and what reality looks like. If we don’t have enough evidence of what one side (or both sides) looks like, we are scrabbling around in the dark. This is what makes it so hard for us to determine whether our everyday sense experience is of a genuine external world, as opposed an illusion, or a Matrix-like computer-generated fantasy. To know this, we would need to have sense of what reality is like independently of our experiences of it, which seems impossible…
So, perhaps it is crazy to think that the AEW Championship Caper is a work, but perhaps no less crazy than thinking that the world really is as we experience it to be.