How shall we start talking about the course of activities that does not serve to represent you? Would you be interested in such an activity in the first instance? Do you believe in ‘being makes being possible’? Do you like the idea that play permeates play? How can we involve ourselves in an activity that ever-repeats itself without there being an authenticity as such? How is it possible that each and every iteration of an event is unique, but compliant with a structure that only emerges within the modes of engagement with it? We are not talking about something that is outside of the everyday.
On the contrary, the schemes and doings of the everyday are marked with a non-purposive rationality. Have you already lost the thread? Play is a basic human experience, and is diffused through all aspects of culture, spanning art, politics, religion and even warfare. It comes from nature, or more significantly according to cultural historian Johan Huizinga, it is the gift of nature that accelerates the feeling of being alive.
Nature, so our reasoning mind tells us, could just as easily have given her children all those useful functions of discharging super abundant energy, of relaxing after exertion, of training for the demands of life, of compensating for unfulfilled longings etc., in the form of mechanical exercises and reactions. But no she gave us play, with its tension, its mirth and its fun.1
Indeed, play excels and accentuates the experience of life at large; it pronounces that everything that lives has ‘its source of movement within itself and has the form of self-movement.’ 2 Imagine two children engaged in a ball game, which involves bouncing a ball back and forth. In this picture there is no goal whatsoever that can be associated with their action in continuum: the ball is passed on from one set of hands to another with no purpose other than the action itself. In addition, this active engagement involves certain flexibility and freedom: e.g. flexibility and freedom to choose, move, respond, engage… According to philosopher Aristotle, self-movement is an essential characteristic of living beings. According to philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer, when self-movement is associated with the notion of play it exhibits a phenomenon of excess, of living self-representation. In other words, subjects engaged in play manifest beyond the necessity of being; they embody being as such, without the clear demarcation of their self as separate from the event they are taking part in. Words like ‘tension’, ‘release’, ‘challenge’, ‘effort’, ‘uncertainty’, ‘risk’, ‘balance’, ‘oscillation’, ‘contrast’, ‘variation’ and ‘rhythm’ typically describe the activity of playing as a temporal modulation of rising, falling and evolving intensities that the subject floats through. That is:
In play, the movement to and fro is not coordinated for some further aim or goal: play as a form of self-movement does not pursue any particular end or purpose so much as movement. Hence the subjects in play – as in the case of two kids with a bouncing ball – are free to submit themselves to the sphere of the game, along with its rules and prescriptions. The submission to play may take a different tone when grown-ups are engaged in courtship, immersed in the movement of to and fro. The space that is between, the ball that bounces through, may be replaced with a gaze moving back and forth between the subjects, the movements of the hands, or evocative bodily gestures. In the space in between, if it stays unchanged at all times, play is to accelerate its course of action. Huizinga describes play as a free and meaningful activity, carried out for its own sake, spatially and temporally segregated from the requirements of practical life, and bound by a self-contained system of rules that holds absolutely. There is freedom, both in the decision to enter the sphere of play and in the choice of games. There is freedom within the choice of entering play, as well as within the domain of play fostered by the boundaries of the game.
All philosophy starts from praxis (human practice). The ubiquitous and ineffable nature of being precedes, conditions, makes possible the particular forms of human knowing through self-movement. The Heideggerian concept of Dasein (there-being) insinuates such engagement with the world. Heidegger concentrates on the moments where a breather takes place; say in our case you are engaged in a game of battles and you are oriented towards overcoming a competitive challenge or, in other words, overwhelming your partners in play: according to Heidegger it is when you pause, lose or win the game, when you stop from engaging with the world as it is happening, but find yourself in an instance of time, that there is a clearing, a possibility of seeing the bigger picture. The breather, or clearing, could also take place between action; it is not a hiatus as such, but a moment of slowing down in which you are able to see the bigger picture. In the course of the aforementioned courtship, when two or more bodies bring their pace down, this is where the arousal of sensuality takes place. Like taste buds providing more particular information to your brain on the food you are chewing when you breathe out. Human understanding occurs when one steps into such breathing moments, like a clearing in a dense forest where sunshine reaches, where trees and leaves are most visible and shimmering. Likewise, the clearing, as a wide-open space, is a place where thorough understanding happens, where philosophy over praxis rises, where there is room enough for free play to occur. In this regard, it is plausible to recall another Heideggerian concept, phronesis, that which constitutes a mode of self-knowledge and a mode of insight that has its own rationality, irreducible to any simple rule or set of rules. Engaging in forms of play can be a sufficient channelling of self-knowledge where the self-in-play is activated through its immediate and ‘unplanned’ responses. It provides an emphasis to the practical ‘being-in-the-world’, which is not mapped by theoretical apprehension. It also provides a mode of insight into the practical and existential situation of the self, presenting an immediate mirroring. In play, practice rises; in its aftermath is the meaning.
Play includes the context of any given incident or an event, by promoting a domain of possibilities for freedom of activity within one’s own horizon. The horizon here stands not only for the line that demarcates the sky from the earth, but also for the limit of one’s own desires, dreams, aspirations and knowledge. Horizons make seeing possible. Whether visual or epistemic, horizons delimit one’s visual field, and frame one’s situation in terms of what lies behind (that is, tradition, history), what lies around (that is, present culture and society) and what lies ahead (that is, expectations directed towards the future). Horizons not only provide boundaries that allow one to see but also make knowledge possible. Meaning, in this regard, is constructed from a full range of possibilities; it is not inherent in a concept, but arises in contexts.
ME ± YOU => WE IN MEANING
Huizinga observes that where there is play there is also ‘meaning’. That meaning is derived from the act of engagement, that playing makes sense to the players where they comply with the set of objectives and rules of the game while they consciously commit to using the equipment that the game provides. He and Gadamer both agree on the fact that play provides an alternative to scientific method, which is most commonly employed to reach a universal understanding or conceptualisation.
The self-presentation of human play depends on the player’s conduct being tied to the make-believe goals of the game, but the ‘meaning’ of these does not in fact depend on their being achieved. Rather, in spending oneself on the task of the game, one is in fact playing oneself out. The self-presentation of the game involves the player’s achieving, as it were, his own self-presentation by playing – that is, presenting – something. Only because play is always presentation is human play able to make representation itself the task of the game.3
According to Gadamer, in play we attain anti-subjective experience. We step out of the dominion of controlling actions around us; ego is still present yet silenced for the cause of action, an action in which we can experience being. If we take into account that being is defined by presentation and response, representation and judgement, then what we are left with in the course of anti-subjective experience is an aspiration as true as possible to our nature. In addition, anti-subjective experience can also be an experience that is ruled out by ourselves, so another body, another logic, paves the way. Play’s medial nature implies that neither of the parties at play controls or directs the course of the game, but all are enwrapped in its inner workings and dichotomy. Like in a fair play, where players can assume more than one role or even allow their alter-egos to take the course of action. In both cases, the subject, or the player, does not fully comprehend their being in relation to the game; they behold their agency, their faculty of judgement. However, for the sake of spontaneity and the accelerating drive to engage more, play more, strive more, they surrender to the game. That is where the anti-subjective experience sparks, where one – the player – experiences oneself as in-between oneself and the play. The nature of this suspiciously unsettling engagement is medial; it neither dominates nor suppresses the subject for his/her devoted commitment to its actions. The intention to engage in play is not anything conceptual, useful or purposive. It is the non-purposefulness that makes the play. However, there might be purpose found in the game; it is not the solution of the tasks to be carried forward, but the shaping of the game itself, which happens while the players are actively immersed within its specific domain. To play is to choose to give up your choice.
PLAY = I + I + I…
Play has a self-apparent, contained nature that encloses those who play. Once in, there is no place outside the play; the player cannot stand above the play. Play has primacy over the consciousness of the player. It follows its own course and plays itself. It is not played by a subject, but rather absorbs the player into itself, is effortless, without strain and spontaneous. One experiences oneself as in-between oneself and the play, that is, one neither exerts full control nor is passively swept along. Experience is inseparable from structured action, which is seldom carried out by an isolated ego. In most situations, the player confronts either another player or some impersonal obstacle. There is always a dynamic interplay of move and counter-move. A tennis player must wait to see how the ball bounces back from his/her opponent. The act of waiting is an essential feature of the act of playing in the sense in which there is always something that is dependent on the other and on the self-induced movement. In other words, playing is revelatory and play is always marked by self-presentation: in play we present ourselves as something.
PLAY IS BEYOND
INSTANCE OF PLAYING
In true play, the goal is not to achieve the prize, but to present oneself as something in such a way that furthers the play. We do not characteristically play to fulfil a practical task; we play for the sake of the lived quality that attaches itself to the act of playing. Thorough play allows us to tap into truth, through its medial nature by which players do not direct or control the play, but are caught up in it. It elevates the self beyond the self while mesmerising the subjects’ freedom of decision. Its dynamism holds the movements of to and fro and those of the one who plays. The alleged freedom to remain isolated, in control and able to choose is replaced by the freedom found in relinquishing oneself to the play of the game.
In play, play takes over. Play seduces its players, putting a spell on them so they become unconscious of themselves and their actions but in sole devotion to the game itself. It draws to itself and keeps hold. It leads to forgetfulness and loss of self-possession. A player suspends their individual motives, such as release from tension, discharge of excess energy, compensation for personal weaknesses, competitiveness and the desire for fame, political advantage, financial gain, etc., not on the moment of deciding to play, but within the actual engagement.
The constant back-and-forth movement of play eludes the grasp and guidance of an agent’s will, and yet, at the same time, is seemingly full of initiative. Play succeeds when the player engages in it with ease and where the player is never awkward or removed. But neither is the play excessively competitive. Gadamer’s insistence on the ‘contested’ nature of such movement emphasizes the fact that one always plays with something or someone else. By ‘contest’ Gadamer means to suggest only that play is never the act of a lone individual – not that it is necessarily agonistic. The negative component of competition that some (Lugones) read into Gadamer is difficult to defend given Gadamer’s insistence that the goal of play is not to end the game by winning but to keep on playing. While there is an initial assertive and intentional choice of entering into a game, once the game has gotten underway, being caught up in the game replaces any prior intentionality. To play, as Gadamer suggests, is to choose to give up our choice. In play, one substitutes one’s ‘free, individual choice,’ so to speak, for the experience of a new sort of freedom which entails losing oneself in reciprocal play with someone or something else. The alleged ‘freedom’ to remain isolated, in control, and able to choose is replaced by the freedom found in relinquishing oneself to the play of the game.4
Play renews itself in continuum. Its self-generating and self-presenting structure overflows from abundance in the sense in which the subject engaged in play is free to roam within the restraints of the game. Every instance of playing could be the first or the thousandth time, but none of these repeated representations are duplicates of an original; in fact there is no original game. Every iteration brings a new phase, and renewed presentation of the structure accentuated by rules. Moreover, play is beyond each single instance of playing, and amidst all the numerous takes play itself remains unchanged.
AUDIENCE = PLAY + (MASTER I)n
for every n being a positive integer
Dialogue is rooted in and committed to furthering our common bond with one another to the extent that it affirms the finite nature of our human knowing and invites us to remain open to one another. ‘In being played the play speaks to the spectator through its presentation; and it does so in such a way that, despite the distance between [the play and the spectator], the spectator still belongs to play.’5 The belongingness is not one that suggests a ‘deep, hidden truth’, which is possible only as we look ahead, envisioning ourselves anew.
The self-enclosed sphere of play engulfs the audience. Audiences can become so deeply involved in a game, that they can be said to play. The infamous example is a tennis match where the spectators follow the ball being sent back and forth as if they are authenticating its movement. However, the players on the court are not originally meaning to play for an audience; it is an incidental fact that adds to their submission to the game, and the players concentrate on their individuated concern of winning on the back and forth movement.
ART IS PLAY IN PRESENTATION FORM
There is not one type of activity, called ‘play’, that subsequently turns into another, called ‘culture’. The heart of culture is essentially constituted by elements of theatricality, exhibitionism, virtuosity, joyful improvisation, competition and challenge. Play becomes art, when the presentation is aimed at the viewer. In the present gaze of the other, play can be transformed into art.
The playful self-presentation characterizing mediality gets to transform into pure presentation in art, signifying a potential for truth not found in the anti-subjective dimension of play. Truth can be defined as an event, in which one encounters something that is larger than and beyond oneself. It is not, fundamentally, what can be affirmed relative to a set of criteria, but an event or experience in which we find ourselves engaged, changed. It is not a result of adequacy/inadequacy of an objective epistemic relationship to the world. To experience truth requires losing oneself in something greater and more extensive than oneself. The paradigmatic example of such an anti-subjective experience is PLAY.
Art exemplifies how truth is a matter of being spoken to, being claimed and being changed. The truth emerging from art is an existential, practical one, rather than a purely theoretical one.
The practical importance of truth: when we speak of play in reference to the experience of art, this means neither the orientation nor even the state of mind of the creator or of those enjoying the work of art, nor the subjectivity engaged in play, but the mode of being the work of art itself.6
Art serves not as the mirror to the world-that-is-really-there, but as a means to opening one’s eyes to new ways of seeing and future possibilities. To encounter the truth in art is not to look back to an original. Like play, every experience of art is a new event.
1. Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the Play Element in Culture (New York: Harper and Row, 1970), p.3
2. Hans-Georg Gadamer, The Relevance of the Beautiful (Cambridge University Press, 1986), p.23
3. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd Revised ed., trans Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1994), p.108
4. Source: www.iep.utm.edu/gadamer
5. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd Revised ed., trans Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1994), p.106
6. Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method, 2nd Revised ed., trans Joel Weinsheimer and Donald Marshall (New York: Continuum, 1994), p.101