Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Ludic Ontology: Play's Relationship to Language, Cultural Forms, and Transformative Politics

Academic journal article American Journal of Play

Ludic Ontology: Play's Relationship to Language, Cultural Forms, and Transformative Politics

Article excerpt

The author defines play as something beyond culture and its quotidian practices, discussing play as an embodied, affective experience that cannot be fully conveyed using conventional language. She looks at notions of play in the political philosophy and cultural criticism of the late-modern thinkers of late-capitalist society and notes that, although they have studied play extensively and theorized about it as a psychological, sociological, and anthropological phenomenon, they do not think play transcends human activity and culture. This means, she argues, that political theory and play studies have lost a highly productive way of considering play. To rectify this loss, the author conducts a selective survey of play scholars, including Johan Huizinga, Thomas S. Henricks, and Mihai I. Spariosu, to help her make philosophical claims about play as a basic force, one which drives language to adapt to feelings, sensations, and experiences that language currently fails to represent adequately. She argues that a more extensive exploration of this idea might enable many popular theories of culture and politics to deal more honestly with resistance, social change, and revolution. In short, she argues for a theory of play as the force that allows us to imagine alternatives to current cultural verities. Key words: democracy and capitalism; language and power; late modernity; mysticism; philosophy of play; play theory; sociology of play

In the bast range of human experiences, the idea that human beings play, and play often, is nearly universal. From dreams, to games, to sports, and even to the most abstract notion of language, human activities have often been described as playful. Yet, as sociologist Thomas S. Henricks claims in Play Reconsidered (2006), in the literature on the subject, play tends to be defined narrowly, and although scholars agree that some well-studied activities are good examples of human play, they continue to view others as only vaguely falling into that category. Henricks quite rightly points out that in the literature on play, one of the accepted signals that play is taking place is an expressed awareness on the part of players that they are only acting as if some other world or set of rules exist, and this criterion certainly seems to hold true when we look at some of the more common forms of play-from professional sports to the pretend play of little children. This basic understanding of play has opened it up to being studied empirically, and at least recently, the attention paid to play as an object of scholarly inquiry has frequently focused on the description and the function of play behaviors in adults, children, and animals (see, for example, the work of Chalmers 1984; Gray 2011; LaFreniere 2011; Lancy and Grove 2011).

Here, I attempt to provide a counterpoint to some of these more descriptive, functional, and historical accounts of play by moving toward a more philosophical characterization of play as a phenomenon that, in the vein of Johan Huizinga, Mihai Spariosu, and Friedrich Nietzsche, is transcendental of its expression in individual behavior. Such a view seeks to apprehend a notion of play as existing at least partially outside the human experience of it, and instead understands it as a fundamental force that drives not only the emergence of human culture and history but also of the natural and physical world in which human beings find themselves making the various forms of play that scholars study. The task of theorizing the connection between these two levels of play-its phenomenological manifestation in human activities and experiences as well as its noumenal character as something outside these experiences-centers on locating the interface of the two and theorizing the effects of play's translation from the cosmic interplay of inhuman forces so eloquently described by Nietzsche to the crystallization of play into concrete cultural forms or moments of pleasure found while indulging in playful urges. …

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