Thursday, October 11, 2012

Homo Ludens: Play and Contest as Life

I mentioned a week ago that I was reading through the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga's book Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play-Element in Culture. It follows on from my recent interest in games and how they relate to stimulation and purpose.

It is an immensely erudite book in an old-fashioned way. Written in 1938, it has the feel of a time when philology and anthropology had a much more dominant role in the culture. Huizinga devotes a great deal of attention to etymology, and he has a dazzling knowledge of Greek (in particular) and even Sanskrit word origins. He is very attuned to customs and ancient practices. He talks at great length about myth, ritual and the origins of culture. He writes fluently and imaginatively.

But ultimately is a frustrating book, with a central problem; play for him explains almost everything, but at the same time almost nothing.

Huzinga believes culture in general originates from play. He stresses the competitive, or as he terms it agonistic aspect of culture is fundamental. But he also insists that play is voluntary and limited and has no function or purpose outside itself.

He never resolves this tension. And the reason harks back to the issue underlying the Suits book: are concepts precise entities, or groups of overlapping family resemblances as argued by the later Wittgenstein?

Huizinga's book is very clearly a web of family resemblances, but which wants to be a precise concept. Play for him is both a narrow concept, and in defiance of this also steadily extended to other concepts, such as games or contest or honor or glory or order or poetry or rhythm, which stretch it imperially across culture.

Play is, according to his narrower definition:

an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow. p132.

It is older than culture, he says; even animals play. There is no good functional explanation for the passion of a football crows or children's absorption in a game, either. There is no play-instinct.

This intensity of, and absorption in, play finds no explanation in biological analysis. Yet in this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play. p3

But nonetheless it underlies civilization and culture as we known them. Language, myth and ritual are rooted in play.

Now in myth and ritual the great instinctive forces of civilized life have their origin: law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play. p 5

Play is voluntary and free; it is not "ordinary" or "real life", but it can run away with the players and feel very serious as well (like flow).

Play turns to seriousness and seriousness to play. Play may rise to heights of beauty and sublimity that leave seriousness far beneath. p8

Confusion creeps in here. Yes, play can be serious - but does this not suggest it can have consequences?

Play lies outside the immediate satisfaction of wants, he says, but it is highly important.

It adorns life, amplifies it and is to that extent a necessity both for the individual - as a life function - and for society by reason of the meaning it contains, its significance, its expressive value, its spiritual and social associations, in short, as a culture function. p9

But it is

distinct from 'ordinary' life both as to locality and duration. That is the third main characteristic of play; its secludedness, its limitedness. It is 'played out' within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning. Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is over. p9

So is it limited or is it a necessity for society by reason of the meaning it contains?

Play tends to have its own marked-off , almost sacred spaces, he says, from card-tables to tennis courts or even real courts.

Inside the play-ground an absolute and peculiar order reigns. Here we come across another , very positive feature of play: it creates order, it is order. .. The profound affinity between play and order is perhaps the reason why play, as we noticed in passing, seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. p10


So we have an enormously expansive view of play. But, after all this, he also says it "does not contribute to the necessary life processes of the group."

Like all other forms of play, the contest is largely devoid of purpose. That is to say, the action begins and ends in itself, and the outcome does not contribute to the necessary life-processes of the group. The popular Dutch saying, 'it is not the marbles that matter, but the game', expresses this clearly enough. Objectively speaking, the result of the game is unimportant and a matter of indifference." p49

The argument seems blatantly contradictory, or at very least confused. Play is the essence of order and aesthetics. But it does not contribute to the group?
Incidentally, he says, we tend to be harsher on the cheat, who acknowledges the rules but quietly ignores them, and the spoilsport, who rejects the rules and hence shatters the play-world.

He goes even further. He links the competitive aspect of play to the desire to show virtue and achieve honor and glory, and hence the whole underlying drive of traditional aristocratic life:

From the life of childhood right up to the highest achievements of civilization one of the strongest incentives to perfection, both individual and social, is the desire to be praised and honoured for one's excellence. In praising another each praises himself. We want to be honored for our virtues. We want the satisfaction of having done something well. Doing something well means doing it better than others. In order to excel, one must prove one's excellence; in order to merit recognition, merit must be made manifest. Competition serves to give proof of superiority. .. Consequently virtue, honor, nobility and glory fall at the outset within the field of competition, which is that of play. p63, 64

(my bold). Honor is the very essence of traditional nobility, he says, and honor is a better explanation of war than anything else.

The highest demand of a noble life is to preserve your honor safe and unsulied. p 67

The great wars of aggression from antiquity down to our own times all find a far more essential explanation in the idea of glory, which everybody understands, than in any rational and intellectualist theory of economic forces and political dynamisms. p90

International law functions as the rules.

As soon as one member or another of a community of states virtually denies the binding character of international law and, either in practice or in theory, proclaims the interests and power of its own group - be it nation, party, class, church or whatsoever else - as the sole norm of political behavior, not only does the last vestige of the immemorial play-spirit vanish but with it any claim to civilization at all. Society then sinks down to the level of the barbaric, and original violence retakes its ancient rights. p101.

So play has no function, apart from being the one thing holding back barbarism and original violence, apparently. And it explains war and history better than any kind of political analysis as well, he says.

He elides the concept of play into that of competition in general:

Contest means play. As we have seen, there is no sufficient reason to deny any contest whatsoever the chatacter of play. p76.

Poetry ls also related to play:

What poetic language does with images is to play with them. .. The playfulness of poetic language is so obvious that there is hardly any need to illustrate it with examples. p134.

Systemized team sports, developed since the 19th century, may lose something of the play-spirit, however.

Now, with the increasing systematization and regimentation of sport, something of the pure play-quality is inevitably lost. .. The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness. p196

He concludes that civilization cannot exist without play:

real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability not to confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain bounds freely accepted. Civilization will, in a sense, always be played according to certain rules, and true civilization will always demand fair play. Fair play is nothing less than good faith expressed in play terms. Hence the cheat or the spoil-sport shatters civilization itself. p211

Ultimately it is a civilized and learned, but terribly confused book. He illegitimately extends his narrow of definition of play to also cover competition and honor and reputation and poetry and art. And in the end, far from play being purposeless, he concludes that it utterly essential to civilization itself.

I think a better conclusion would be that the spirit of play or games, with their own set of rules and motivations, underlies many aspects of human culture, as he suggests, and are linked to independent instincts towards competition and status. But those things matter. Games do extend their significance beyond the playing fleld, as deserted streets testify when a major football game is played, as people are fixated on their TV sets.

And games do have significance and purpose in a wider sense, because they are tangled up irretrievably with the things that do provide us with purpose: extending our skills, living up to greater potential, feeling more alive. The winner, whether the Cubs or the Yankees, or Barcelona or Milan, does not matter so much as playing the game itself.

Play is intrinsic to flourishing. And flourishing ought to be our principle purpose as a society.



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