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.
I feel that Roger Caillois, in some ways, offers a helpful rejoinder to some questions (or critiques) to Huizinga from last class through his focus on “games.” While Huizinga seemed more concerned with a broader concept of play, Caillois seemed to take a more more grounded approach. As Caillois says early on, “[Huizinga’s] work is not a study of games, but an inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture” (4).
In particular, I thought Caillois taxonomy of games proved helpful, particularly as it further acknowledged the hybrid mixes that could take place within the terms. As he lays them out: “I am proposing a division into four main rubrics, depending upon whether, in the games under consideration, the role of competition, chance, simulation, or vertigo is dominant. I call these agon, alea, mimicry, and ilinx, respectively” (12). To this “rubric” he adds a further axis between the more open play of paidia (a tem Huizinga also takes up in tension with agôn) and the more structured ludus.
I’m going to start posting my school blog posts here, just so all my writing is in one place. They’ll come up fairly regularly and will be signified by a course title. Today is Game Studies.
I had played “Werewolf” a handful of times in the past, mostly at parties with larger groups of people. These past times also had different variations, like the inclusion of a witch who could silence a villager in the night and no dead goat/cow/chicken/corn to start the game.
I have other more “pressing” things to do this morning. Perhaps some housework. Definitely some teaching prep and student feedback. Maybe research. But I feel like I needed to write this morning to get rid of a certain clogged feeling. So I’m setting a timer for 30 minutes and writing. Let’s see what happens.
I guess I’ll start looking at the feeling more directly. I’m not quite sure what it is, but it feels a bit like cabin fever for the mind, like I’m stuck doing similar intellectual activities. Or just sort of stuck in a general life way. I was doing a freewrite the other day, and this came out describing the feeling:
I don’t know how I got here. Well, I know in a literal sense, the sense that if a cop were to ask me how I got there, I could tell him. Tell him in pretty solid detail. And I’m not trying to be all abstract, thinking about genetics and geology and all that—how I got here in space time or geologic time. No, it was really more of a feeling, really. Like I was drifting in an aimless current and suddenly beached like a piece of drift wood, with the current flowing further down stream.
I think this sort of mood is pointing to some of the intellectual ambiguity that comes from overthinking existence. To thinking, learning, being, but not necessarily acting because despite all this thinking and learning, sometimes it’s hard to figure out what to do. Or how to do what you want to do. Or what there is to do.
Right now, in terms of my life, I’m on summer break before entering my second year of coursework in a 4-year PhD program in composition and cultural rhetoric. I’m teaching a summer class. I’m vaguely trying to work through an idea about video games, trying to improve my programming literacy, and read for exams next summer. But I am, largely speaking, in coursework.
This brings me back to writing and that clogged feeling. One of my friends and colleagues described that coursework feels like being a sponge loaded up with water, and since you are not doing much non-reflective writing, you don’t have an outlet to squeeze out all this intellectual saturation.
I also think this feeling has a connection to another conversation I had–a few times, actually–about the “selfish” nature of grad school, especially when it is intensive and absorbing. Doing all of this learning feels a bit cut off. A professional writer has an audience, but in coursework, I’m not sure why I’m learning quite yet, what all this knowledge is supposed to lead to, what I’m supposed to do with it.
This seems to be one of the difficult things about knowledge production to me. In the past, I’ve generally looked at intelligence and what I would term intellectual productivity in an emergent, almost playful sense. That ideas come from playing with other ideas, thinking through them, talking through them, etc. I’m having a hard time transitioning to the “production” of knowledge, from learning as work in stead of play. Learning, even when it was difficult, has always been play to me, not “work.”
I suppose I’ve been dwelling on this “work” and “play” distinction lately, which I imagine is inevitable when researching play and games. I’m not sure what keeps sticking me to it, though.
I suppose it’s the question of why work matters. Why we work. Why we work hard, in particular. Many don’t have a choice–it’s work or die–but I think a lot of people do have some choice about work, or at least the illusion of choice, and the existential anguish involved with that (maybe false) choice. This is one issue. That sense of “am I doing what I love?”Or even, “Can I do what I love?”
But that’s not the only question. One has issues like “fullfilling work,” a fairly recent idea, or the odd tyranny of play that may happen when one is expected to know certain media and play becomes work. The difference between productive hobbies and wasting time. Production v. play. What it means to earn a “living” and not just “an earning.” When a passion becomes something else.
My timer is winding down, so I guess I’ll end in this messy set of contradictions. But I think this this particular fixation does point to larger things, or could. I’m just not quite sure yet.
When I was younger, I built things. Rolling out an industrial-sized roll of thick, white paper onto the cold floor of my parent’s glassed-in back porch, I drew grassy fields, rivers, mountains, and beaches that gave way to scribbled-on seas. But that was just the first step. Soon I took out slender wooden train tracks and blocks, building a set of towns and rail networks across my paper countryside.
In the summer, my neighbor and I made paper planes, folding for hours on my grandfathers weather-grayed table in the backyard. We also drew designs in notebooks: go carts, forts, a zip line to deliver notes between houses. My basement table was covered with LEGO models, K’Nex, Tinker-Tots–whatever sets I could find.
As we got older, we built robots, using a kit to construct and program them. Inspired by the show Robot Wars, we mostly had them fight, filming them on my parent’s VHS camera. But they had other uses, like taking care of my rabbit or trying to go up and down a particularly difficult hill.
These days, I don’t build much. Except with my nephews. But even they often prefer videogames, kickball, and playing with their instruments.
So, considering multimodal composition–through both digital architecture and tactile 3-D printing–brought back a spirit of play and tinkering. The pieces also brought some helpful elements to draw from for concrete teaching moments and larger teaching philosophies.
Playdough. Tiny hands tweak, pinch, stretch the dough into tinsels, meaty threads, snakes curling into snail shells–suddenly smashed flat, “like pancakes,” and rolled smooth in young palms into spheres. Perhaps, with a few gentle, well-placed tugs, the children teas out arms and legs, or a simple face, then the fingers close, vise-like, dough peeking slightly from the spaces between, molding shaping it into a small brain, nooked and crannied, and grained with palm lines.
Then, at the end of the day, it all goes back in the plastic can, smashed, once more, into an uneven cylinder. “Don’t forget,” say the teachers, “or else you won’t be able to play with it anymore.” Sealed behind primary-colored lids and walls, the malleable plaything remains withdrawn and dormant, waiting.
“Writing is revision.” A teacher I once shadowed said this a few times. So did I to own students, thinking it a properly provocative, axiomatic phrase. Something White Lotus from Kung Fu might say if he taught first year composition.
But, to be honest, I don’t really know what it means. Is it a reference to something like Linda Flowers and John R. Hayes and their “cognitivist approach to writing,” in which revision and pre-writing are part of the “writing process”? Or perhaps it’s a more political adage, on the “revision” of ideological entrenchments and social structures. Writing allows one to “revise” the state of things, both inside our heads and outside, in the world.
Or it may stretch the never-ending inventive tweaking that revision entails over the whole of writing. In other words, writing is a constant “revision” of sorts, a constant trying to get words out as best as we can. We are never done. The moment we pick up our pens, we are already revising. The moment we “finish,” we are still revising.
If one mentions (or Googles) Albert Camus, the word “absurdity” is not far behind–neither is “existentialist,” which is a whole other issue. But, as with most cases of historical association, things are more complicated.
The “absurd” is the first of three philosophical progressions for Camus. During WWII, Camus wrote the trilogy of the absurd: the play Caligula (1944), the novel The Stranger (1942), and the essay The Myth of Sisyphus (1942). This, he said, would be his guiding process, tackling his ideas with a play, a novel, and an extended philosophical essay.
His second trilogy centered on revolt, inserting human values in the face of nihilism. Writing the book-length essay The Rebel (L’Homme révolté, 1951), Camus received a wave of criticism. For one, he attacked the French left, which included his friends Sartre and Beauvoir, because they knew about the atrocities of the GULAG and still supported Stalin.
But more pointedly, Camus also changed his thoughts. He no longer was the “prophet of the absurd,” but the spokesman of revolt. While some argue this shift was a complete rejection and others say it forms a “continuum” with absurdity, both represent a shift.
As Camus writes in his essay “Enigma,” “Everyone wants the man who is still searching to have already reached his conclusion. A thousand voices are already telling him what he has found, and yet he knows that he hasn’t found anything.”
Camus was still searching, still stumbling and exploring his ideas, flashlight in hand, but his public name was already solidified–and, in many ways, remains so.
Playdough is revision. You’re never done tweaking or sculpting it. As it’s name suggests, playdough is always “play,” never product. Pure process, pure doing, all about feeling the grainy pliant substance stick and fold with your fingertips. And each time, it goes back in the container, like an artist who scrubs away his canvas just to start again.
It’s not “art for art’s sake,” but creative construction and exploration without a clear endpoint. Like a sand box or a “sand box” game, playdough provides a space to explore the space. That’s its end and means.
In a sense, it even differs from a “game,” our usual sites of play, as playdough has no constraints. No “rules” that structure the game. For example, in soccer (i.e. football), because you can’t use hands and arms, the “game” is to use one’s other body parts to head, dribble, kick, cross, and score.
Playdough has no “rules,” except, perhaps, a parent saying you can’t stick it on the rug.
Camus also wrote that writing is a “daily fidelity,” a daily act of holding onto and working one’s ideas and images into something that may take years. For some reason, Camus often latches on to five years, saying that one must have an idea five years before one starts writing about it.
Camus’ often forgotten first novel A Happy Death is a steppingstone to The Stranger. The character is a cold, detached Algerian named Mersault (a one letter difference from The Stanger‘s Meursault.). It evokes similar images, similar echoes and feelings, though the novels differ profoundly.
Scrapped and unpublished in his lifetime, A Happy Death may be a failure in some ways. Or a mere writing exercise, a book-length warm up for a new writer. But still, the question remains, how much does it stand on it’s own? How much is it part of The Stranger? And how much does the distinction matter?
I always remember that our English “essay” comes from “essai,” the French word for “trial” or “to test the quality of” (like metal in a furnace), echoing Michel de Montaigne’s Essais, which he viewed in a similar light. They were not meant to be polished, finished pieces, but “trials” and “attempts,” sketches or studies in a sense that tested his ideas.
Like Camus’ daily fidelity and playdough’s unfinished pliancy, Montaigne’s Essais were searching, roving, and unfinished–despite receiving countless edits, read throughs and revisiting. And like Camus writing, the Essais offer profound political and philosophical insights. Here, writing is revision, and revision is powerful.
Encountering most essays, however, we often see them as static and finished. We also see them as discrete and separate–or when not separate, as “derivative” or “remixed.” But technology provides a possible return to Montaigne’s Essais or a possible shift into the realm of playdough, of productive play, as our “interfaces” are often not static. Here, writing is much like revision.
Only I shudder to use the word “productive,” because it has become an instrumentally focused word, layered with nasty, anxiety-inducing overtones that make me wonder if I’m “doing enough,” and “keeping up,” and not “wasting time.”
So, in a sense, technology allows us to have interfaces of co-authorship, interaction, constant change, new mechanics of invention, etc., but we also need a culture that can explore this. We may have playdough interfaces, but we need a playdough culture, a culture that isn’t telling us what we have “found,” to paraphrase Camus, but relishes the play of the finding. Doing so, we may further liberate our technology and creativity to innovate and express. But most of all, it may bring more freedom and joy back into the creative process.
As I said above, it’s not art for art’s sake, but doing for doing’s sake. It’s about turning revision into invention and vise versa. It’s about taking our tacky, doughy language and playing with it, seeing what comes out as we stretch and flatten it into compositions.