ENG 730: Utopia, Work, and Play

For this post, I think I want to reflect on the sort of ideal play as the intrinsic for-itself activity that many readings, including Suit’s Grasshopper, point to and its connection to capitalism and consumption.

In the final chapter of The Grasshopper, Scepticus and the Grasshopper sketch out an ideal Utopia based, in their words, on “plenitude” and “intrinsic” value in place of “scarcity” and “instrumental” value. Describing a world without any material want–where diamonds grow on trees–and all social and psychological issues get solved, the pair conclude, “the Utopians only do those things which they value intrinsically is to say that they always do things because they want to, and never because they must.” As they illustrate in in the example of “John Striver,” he builds houses only because he wants to, not because anyone actually needs any.

This results in a society with a significant difference in its foundation, basing it on plentitude and play and not human striving to end scarcity, so that only games get valued, and everything becomes a game of sorts.

However, not everyone is happy, defining the initial dream that Grasshopper has, in which people disappear as he tells them about games. As the two interpret this dream, making a life based only on for-itself play would drain meaning from people’s lives. As Scepticus sums up, “they would believe themselves to be nothing at all, and one can imagine them, out of chagrin and mortification, simply vanishing on the spot, as though they had never been.”

To me, the Grasshopper’s Utopia resonates with Huizinga’s claims against professional sports and and assertions that play is outside “ordinary life.” As Evan noted in class, Huizinga sounds like he wants to assert that utility and play are opposed, with play being for itself. Similarly, in his Utopia, Grasshopper is arguing that play (being intrinsic) opposes instrumentality. This, in turn, connects to The Grasshopper‘s other lengthy arguments regarding “Reverse English” and Kierkegaard’s Seducer. As the pair note, games tend to reverse emeans and ends, so that the means become the end, prioritizing process over product. Last, though we didn’t read it, Josef Pieper’s “Leisure the Basis of Culture” argues that leisure must be utterly outside the realm of utility, arguing for philosophy (much like Aristotle and Aquinas) as being for-themselves enterprises.

One could quickly dismiss the privilege laced into these arguments, as well as the idealistic worlds they may require, but I want to put them in conversation with the arcade. When Elizabeth and I went to the Dave and Buster’s, the first thing we both associated it with was a casino. The glitzy lights, noise, the colors, the swarming activity. Moreover, we were given cards to hold our “credits” and record our winnings. Many of the games with higher chances of winning cost more, as well. In other words, capitalism.

And, as Carly Kocurek’s Coin-Operated America points out, many early arcade machines carried a negative stereotype regarding the moral decay of their gambling predecessors and material waste.  This necessitated the defense of these spaces. In other words, productivity stood in tension with consumption. Games were “a waste of time” on one end, yet people had a right to what the wanted to consume on the other, both fitting into capitalist paradigms.

As time goes on, I see this tension–capitalistic production v consumption–to be more useful than leisure v utility (Pieper), play v ordinary life (Huizinga) or intrinsic worth v instrumental worth (Suits). I’m not quite sure why, but I think it comes down to the sense that I’m not really sure that games and work are all that separate or that we could have one without the other. Moreover, I think the for-itself quality that Huizinga or Suits’ Grasshopper may advocate is a complex one.

For example, what I do for-itself may change. And how can I separate engaging for-itself activities from self-defeating ones? Neither are “productive” or “useful,” but both are for-themselves. Moreover, if I go to an arcade, how am I still in the working sphere? I get this from an economic context–an arcade is a business using and gaining capital–but from an experiential point of view, it is an escapist for-itself activity, a break from “work” and an indulgence in “play.” And I won’t even touch on all the labor required by people to produce play, whether it be stimulating or wasteful, as this alone is a major complication. Or the consumption of resources.

All this is to say,  I think work and play are really more dialectical than anything else, or perhaps more of a spectrum. Play can be work; work can be play. Personally, this doesn’t bother me, but it’s something worth thinking through.

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