Circles Drawn in Water: Play in the Major Key

In the contemporary society without qualities—that of global connectivity, of techno-scientific efficiency, of self-realizing consumer-citizens, of entropic dissemination of information, of post-political parliamentarism, of ecological destruction, continuous war and social polarization—cultural and democratic institutions are put under pressure systemically and fundamentally, their right to exist questioned. But also imaginaries, concepts and practices through which modernity has been shaped are radically transformed or silenced, in keeping with our ability to critically reconstruct and intervene aesthetically in the present. Maybe democracy will turn out to have been a cultural phenomenon of the 20th century, for instance, just as the concept of work for better or worse will never be the same after the computer has entered the workplace. Maybe childhood and play, too, have become verified as something they never were, and hence they are now near-irretrievable as themselves.

Less than half a century ago play was necessarily opposed to society. Today the ludic is integrated, and an integrating function, too. It is informed on the one hand by discourse (pedagogy, child psychology, education, and so on), and on the other hand by a regime of gamification, in which ludic mechanisms are generalised through the explosion of screens. Play is being realized—for learning, profit, to make the city liveable. Even if the latter aren’t mutually reducible, a boundless capitalism will bend them towards each other and tempt their integration.

To Giorgio Agamben, modern society is a concentration camp. Even if this assertion is a paranoid metaphor borrowed from yesteryear’s totalitarian world, he may be right that there are certain pervasive logics at work in contemporary social organization. You could paraphrase Agamben that it isn’t the camp, but the playground that has come to include all of society, if we with this understand a site organized for the purpose of the stimulation and change of behaviour through the anticipation and commercialization of play.

“The unreality of games gives notice that reality is not yet real.”1 Thus Adorno formulated the game’s resistance to the exigencies of the given. This is not only about children, then. But they remain emblematic, as players and experiencing subjects, and are inevitable placeholders of this discussion, as subjects who not yet fully inhabit language, citizenship and the city, and whose proto-being or “not-yet”-condition is privileged in the untimeliness of play. The following is an attempt to begin thinking about how such a deferral or even negation of reality through play may be recuperated, on the background of cultural manifestations of the ludic and its history of ideas. How can play be taken beyond functions that are set to mediate the child’s anachronic being into maturity?

A pile of sand for peeing and playing

The children’s playground teaches us to walk after having stumbled and fallen, and to use our own understanding without another’s guidance. There is nothing sadder than a run-down or ill-equipped playground: here exuberant ludic energies will remain disorganized. Such a site speaks of individual freedoms neglected or ill used by society, of a missed chance for sensitisation. Céline’s description in his inter-war novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932) of a little town park, “hemmed in by warehouses,” is a prism for all neglected 20th century play spaces: Here, “all the strays in the neighbourhood come and misbehave on the mangy lawn, on the senile boule ground, around the incomplete Venus, and on the sand pile for peeing and playing.”2 For a similarly disenchanted view today’s counterpart to Céline’s town park would be the computer-designed, mass produced children’s playground that conforms to EU safety regulations and is as expressly purposeful as a sex toy; a guarantee of compensatory stimulation.

But why is play charged in this way? Why does it promise so much in the first place that its sites speak to us so emphatically of hope and disappointment? Play has been a modern truth—a minor and soft truth, but nonetheless one that upholds modern attitudes. It can be argued that since the end of the Enlightenment, play has functioned in a major key in Western culture. To Isabelle Stengers, a major key identifies a “centre stage” for thinking that constitutes an all-encompassing vision (social, theoretical, political, aesthetic) that is defined by an “‘either / or’ disjunction,” something there is no getting around. And there is no getting around the playing child: to not acknowledge it is barbarism. But again, play doesn’t quite fit the bill of a major key or a centre stage. It is inescapable as a global motif yet lives in the margins. In Hegel’s famous phrase in his Aesthetics (1835) it can be nothing more than the small event of a boy who throws stones into the river and “marvels at the circles drawn in the water as an effect in which he gains an intuition of something that is his own doing,” as a formative experience for his creative sensitivity.

Play is at odds with the tenets of the Enlightenment: to Kant, Spiel was nothing more than mere Erholung, recreation and rest. And even when it is seen to suggest a human essence, it isn’t carried out by humans: humanism’s universal subject was mature, self-relying, grown-up, a father, Man as the measure of all things, and play makes things and beings immeasurable, deprives them of their cultured scale. Nonetheless, play came to redeem the promises of modernity. It became a necessary prelude to citizenship and social amelioration, something that must watch over thinking. Play doesn’t realize dogma or epistéme, is indomitable but doesn’t impose itself to rule. Instead it communicates generously and pleasurably, and shows what universal emancipation might be like, without having to rely on declarations of rights and liberties. The impatience of the child who wants to play is comparable to the urgency of the Enlightenment impulse: neither play nor urgent reform can wait till tomorrow.

In this way the aspects of thinking that to Adorno makes thought resemble play represents “the unbarbaric side of philosophy:” A blitheness that makes it capable of escaping what it judges, of taking liberties.3 There is an element of exaggeration in play that makes the thinker “overshoot the subject,” thereby creating a “self-detachment from the weight of the factual, so that instead of merely reproducing being it can, at once rigorous and free, determine it.” In other words, play cannot authorize anything, nor can it be held or possessed, but it can determine what exists. In this way it has remained untainted by the dialectics of Enlightenment.

Play considered as an irrepressible need makes it equivalent to self-realization in the profound sense of that term. As proposed by Friedrich Schiller in the late 18th century, the one who recognizes and obeys her “play drive” (Spieltrieb) as an individual instinct and as a basic element in the creation of authentic social communities, is essentially a human being. One will find Schiller’s famous statement in the better toyshops of the German-speaking world: “Man only plays when in the full meaning of the word he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays.”4 According to Schiller, the play drive educates the emotions and stands in contrast to the seriousness, rules, and sensibilities that prevail in goal-oriented behaviour. This accords play a mediating function between sensory perceptions of the physical world and the sphere of eternal ideas, and between the individual, culture and the social sphere, and it connects the passionate with the lofty, action with contemplation, phenomenon with reason. Play guarantees a modern attitude, while it modifies and supplements it by no longer invoking reason as the sole guidance in human life. This defiance of knowledge enables the promise of play as an essential factor in establishing a harmonic social order where the free can engage in necessary social change without resorting to violence. In Schiller, play is mobilized as socialization and citizenship training towards a pacifist civilization based on the whole human being in an unconditional sensorial community.

On the limit of modernity the ludic is a powerful mediator of subjectivity and of history itself. Schiller’s carving out a philosophical niche for play planted the seed of a neat paradox: Play is typically carried out by those who are un-cultured (children), but their practice as players opens up to authentic culture. In various ways this echoes in 20th century art. From Dada and Surrealism to Art Brut, Situationism, and Fluxus, the ludic was reiterated as the possibility of an art that is dissociated from normative notions of form and beauty. Instead the ludic is posited as an infra-social essence of art.

In Occidental thought in general, the social inclusion of games signals a liberal spirit. A Northern Irish college teacher, Brian Keenan, who spent more than four years as a hostage by Shi’ite militiamen during the Lebanese civil war in the 1980s, describes how he and his fellow prisoners would secretly construct games—Monopoly, a deck of cards, a chess set—to pass the time. If their guardians found out, they would destroy the game boards, the cards. He remarks that “the playing of games is anathema to the fundamentalist mind, which believes it should have no preoccupation but God. Our God, we quietly acknowledged, existed in each other and it was to please each other and ourselves that we played our games.”5 Today the liberal spirit of playing resurfaces as a caricature, quite literally, in infantile cartoons of the prophet Mohammad that supposedly safeguards freedom of speech. It seems like we forgot how to play with each other.

The triumph of unknowing!

The ludic has been allowed ambivalence, or it has taken the freedom of ambivalence; a condition which the modern has otherwise only scantly tolerated. This is also how it is associated with childhood (un mistero, according to Maria Montessori) and to the art work (to Adorno, ein Rätsel). The ludic flickers. We may be uncertain as to whether children’s play is their authentic self-expression, or merely imitative of the adult world and hence a copy of a copy, a trace of a trace. Or it is the farce of adult life, its distortion and belittling. Similarly, play is not a struggle, but games are ritually circumscribed by war and battle. It is not direct action, but it rehearses for goal-oriented behaviour. It is Dionysian and domesticated, productive and unproductive. Perhaps it is thanks to this categorical vacillation that prohibitions and concerned guidance surround its autonomy: the ludic is demarcated because playing out of place is irreverent and dangerous, and play is already out of place, divided against itself.

In the youth revolt of the 1960s, ludic tropes of spontaneity and playful non-conformism were used pervasively to introduce social change. Street theatre, for instance, bent reality in the fusion of forms of protest and fictionalization, the playing forth of a new society. The symbolic power of the child was such that it could even be enlisted in proactive efforts to subvert culture. Just think of the flower children of the 1960s who rebooted society for a new age. In a perverse reversal of hippie narratives of historical innocence, California’s murderous Manson Family exalted the child as a figure of uncorrupted vitality. In Europe, Otto Muehl—artist-turned-collectivist guru—called his preferred method of socio-sexual critique prinzipieller Infantilismus, infantilism by principle. If “the childish contaminates art,” according to Adorno, artists and the counterculture saw it as a way to deliberately infect both art and social life with subversive, utopian riddles.6

At the same time, the notion of games was central to the counter-culture’s denunciation of alienated “straight society.” To the LSD guru Timothy Leary human relations are “games” that we play for each other, including “behavioural sequences defined by roles, rituals, goals, strategies, values, language, characteristic space-time locations and characteristic patterns of movement.” Leary opposed these to “so-called non-game behaviour, including physiological reflexes, spontaneous play, and transcendent awareness.”7 A peculiar, metaphysical conundrum is in this way created between social games and spontaneous play, where the ludic is surprisingly present at both sides of the antinomy: on the one hand the inauthentic subject plays the game, while the authentic subject is seen to play spontaneously. The un-thinking automatism that hereby is presumed in the conformist subject is paradoxically mirrored by a “pure” state of mind based in virgin reflex. As culturally dissonant as the psychedelic revolution was on many levels, it ended in Leary’s version as a harmonious cancelling out of any political tension around the idea of play that, again, remained uncaptured.

Exacerbating the tension around knowledge and difference, Georges Bataille unworked play with Nietzschean pathos into “a true triumph of unknowing.” Play is decisive, he writes in 1951: “My thought has but one object, play, in which my thinking, the working of my thought, dissolves.”8 When we relinquish the will to socialization and knowledge we have the possibility of “a far more intense contact with the world.”9 In Bataille’s radical anthropology play feasts on the failure of the everyday, in a kind of voluptuous panic that destroys reality. We understand that the ludic in Bataille is not only an object (or a meta-object), but also hints at a methodology that playfully surrenders cogito. The ludic is life that undoes will and intention, and unsettles the servile spirit of knowledge and the institutional or political domination over it.

The stakes in the ludic must be high, and its outcome uncertain for it not to end up with a restorative or reconciliatory role. When play is affirmed as enchanting and delightful, it tends to disarticulate the power relation between those who play, and between the players and those who allow for play to take place. We cannot only allow for play to be worked over by the forces of production. It must also be affirmed as a force by which we can extend ourselves towards a margin or an outside. Ludic sensuality returns as thinking’s sense of expenditure and becomes a vanishing point for modern Man, who is absorbed by volatile dynamics. The sensuality of play returns as thinking’s sense of expenditure, an impulse that undoes relations of representation and identity (including anthropological constants of the homo ludens, we can add, which was always a contradiction in terms).

Mandatory passivity and barefoot events

In our digitally connected reality we have to eke out our humanity in relation to machines and networks. So what really makes us different from the intelligence of our devices? What constitutes cognition and soul vis-à-vis computing power and data storage? According to some, desire is the substrate of the human: what makes us different from machines is our ability to desire—sexually, creatively, mentally. Political thinkers hold that the fundament of our being-human lies in our ability to say no, to refuse work, to strike, because no computer ever refused to carry out a command. A third answer could be that even if machines can beat humans at our own games, they don’t play. Machines don’t manipulate and modify objects with pleasure as the sole objective … Maybe.

For a contemporary point of view, a detachment from the factual through playing might adequately describe the video game. In the realm of the digital, play is no longer reality-initiating but instead reality-breaking, experience-defying. The scripted and controlled sensuality of the video game breaks with material reality. Today, video games are the world’s biggest culture industry. Not that this in itself is a cause for concern. There is nothing new in the fact that play and games are economical objects; also anthropological definitions of play as unproductive, rule-governed, make-believe, open-ended, and separate within limits of space and time, can be tried against video games.10 But what is the big game-changer, to put it this way, is that the ludic has become a comprehensive apparatus of capture in itself.

Already in the late 1970s, Jean Baudrillard predicted that late capital would be organized in participatory rather than spectacular ways. Constructed directly from the implication and “active” responses of the subject,“‘ludic’ participation”—a cultural economy based on “spontaneous response and joyful feedback.”11 Today this paradigm is fully realized in gamification, in which the ludic finds multiple forms outside of the world of video games proper. The term designates the ensemble of connected dispositifs that permit the transposition of mechanisms of games to the ensemble of everyday life.12 Digital technologies are eminently “playable” and capable of stimulating ludic attitudes, whether it is in our physical interaction with devices and with software interfaces, or in tests and evaluations we are asked to take and respond to as we work, use services, submit to controls, or strive for symbolic recompense. All these amusing, game-like operations tacitly affirm the world’s mise en nombres; that our being and the social world can and should be measured and defined numerically.13 In gamification profit, control and social competition is given a ludic face, resulting in what Baudrillard would call “mandatory passivity.”

Playing subjects are not the subjects of the game. Instead players are commanded by playing, and the game absorbs the subject and what it knows. According to Hans-Georg Gadamer, “The player knows very well what play is, and that what he is doing is ‘only a game;’ but he does not know what exactly he ‘knows’ in knowing that.”14 Now, what is disconcerting is if we are commanded and absorbed by the inescapability of capitalism as a game: when play is as common and indisputable as it ever was but no longer essentially free, and disconnected from the pleasure of the game, one begins to see the outline of a strange regime, a ludic hegemony.

A game that continues with unwilling participants suggests a violation. We are familiar with forced labour, but we could also consider the notion of forced and conditioned play when we, through extrinsic motivations, get accustomed to life under capitalism in risk rehearsals whose real stakes are obscured in fun. Finally, unpossessable play has become possessed, in all senses of that term. Not only claimed and owned, but haunted, inhabited by an unwanted presence that animates it and speaks through it. In this way play has been pushed beyond itself—in spite of itself, through itself. Adorno writes that in a patriarchal society, woman is “the dupe.” Perhaps in gamified society it is the child who is the dupe, the one who has been had, when we have copied its games and taken its toys. 15

We can reach back to its farther historical limit with Jean-Baptiste Siméon Chardin’s painting L’Enfant aux toton (1738) in which a boy beholds a top that he has sent spinning on his desk. The miniscule object is in motion, depicted in suspension before its movement ceases under the eyes of the child. Play in the major key is predicated on precarious acts; stones thrown in a stream, a spinning top about to topple and fall, playing cards.

Play determines reality but doesn’t judge it. When it invades life it introduces change by bringing discontinuity and accelerating time (Agamben).16 Play charges history from an outside that is but temporal; an open future or a regenerative past. The playing child is not necessarily averse to a mangy dog, bad or dysfunctional toys, to plastic and municipal standards, to rain … The hope that we can attach to play revolves around its capacity to absolve and take back any kind of function, whether related to use value or exchange value. Such an appropriation of any place and (dys)function is put to good use in a game, where it may remain unseen to anybody but the players. No doubt it is in un-monumental, mood-dependent, barefoot events such as these, below the “maturity” of our times that play persists. We play to overshoot history and make the world immeasurable.

Theodor W. Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from

Damaged Life (London and New York: Verso, 2005), 228.

Louis-Ferdinand Céline: Journey to the End of the Night (London: Alma Classics, 2013 / 1932), 244.

T.W. Adorno, op.cit., 126–7.

Friedrich Schiller: On the Aesthetic Education of Man.

Letter 15 (1794).

Brian Keenan: An Evil Cradling (Vintage, London 1993), 304.

Theodor W. Adorno, Aesthetic Theory, trans. Robert Hullot-Kentor. (London: The Athlone Press, 1997), 92.

Timothy Leary, with Richard Alpert and Ralph Metzner: The Psychedelic Experience. A Manual Based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. Penguin, London 2008 (1964), 5.

Georges Bataille, Un-knowing and Rebellion, (1951) in

Fred Botting and Scott Wilson (eds.): The Bataille Reader (London: Blackwell Publishers, 1997), 327.

Bataille, op.cit., 324.

See the introduction to Roger Caillois, Man, Play and Games (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001 / 1958).

Jean Baudrillard: Symbolic Exchange and Death (1976),

in Poster (ed.): Jean Baudrillard. Selected Writings.

Cambridge 1988, 144.

I am paraphrasing Mathieu Triclot: Philosophie des jeux video. (Paris: La Découverte, 2011), 231.

To Stéphane Vial, writing in L’être et l’écran (Paris: PUF, 2013), Le jeu vidéo est un objet numérique total, 241.

Hans-Georg Gadamer, Truth and Method (London and New York: Continuum Press, 1960 / 2004), 103.

Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections on a Damaged Life, op.cit. 91.

For more on this see my essay Circles Drawn in Water: Play in the Major Key, in the exhibition catalog: Playgrounds:

Reinventing the Square (Madrid: Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía, 2014).

Giorgio Agamben: In Playland. Reflections on History and Play, in Agamben: Infancy and History. On the Destruction of Experience (Verso: London 2007 / 1978), 76.

Starship 13: Geld Alkohol Feminismus Sex - Cover Monika Baer
  1. Cover Monika Baer
  2. Editorial Starship 13 Martin Ebner, Ariane Müller, Nikola Dietrich, Henrik Olesen
  3. Greer Lankton Greer Lankton
  4. New New Impressions of Africa Jakob Kolding
  5. Contents
  6. Lost in numbers Karl Holmqvist
  7. Interview with Robert Bittenbender Robert Bittenbender, Robert McKenzie
  8. Das Lamas-Haus Florian Zeyfang, Lisa Schmidt-Colinet, Alexander Schmoeger
  9. Clouds Stephanie Wurster, Vera Tollmann
  10. Das Licht ist so hell Hans-Christian Dany
  11. Mollicutes Tenzing Barshee
  12. Crumbs Gerry Bibby
  13. Petting Zoo Francesca Drechsler
  14. Lee Miller Ariane Müller
  15. Dull and Bathos Jay Chung
  16. Liotard Christopher Müller
  17. Littoral Madness Chris Kraus
  18. aus: Am kühlen Tisch Amelie von Wulffen
  19. Visiting Highgate Cemetery Mercedes Bunz
  20. sub rosa Scott Cameron Weaver
  21. Institute of Flexibility Marte Eknæs
  22. The Bank of England Museum David Bussel
  23. Die kleinste Einheit (eine verrufene Münze kursiert geheim) Ulla Rossek
  24. Circles Drawn in Water: Play in the Major Key Lars Bang Larsen
  25. Orgy Marte Eknæs, Nicolau Vergueiro
  26. Circle, Senki, Mingei, Starnet Richard Birkett
  27. Untitled (F.P. #2, H.B.—  part 1 & part 2, Q.B. #2, Q.B. #1) Liz Deschenes
  28. 3 bad habits Monika Baer
  29. Moneydreams Rainer Ganahl
  30. Mathieu Malouf Mathieu Malouf
  31. Hallo, Dr. Fanta Max Schmidtlein
  32. Arts & Foods Amy Lien, Enzo Camacho, Ilya Lipkin
  33. Die Morschen Monika Rinck
  34. 1976, 1983, 2015 Julie Ault, Lucy R. Lippard
  35. what am i doing here David Antin
  36. 1. Get on board! Peter Wächtler
  37. Vacation Tobias Spichtig
  38. if you did, do we share something now? Lou Cantor
  39. Marinoni Tennis Club Ariane Müller, Martin Ebner
  40. Valparaiso Martin Ebner
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