The End(s) of Play in Contemporary Culture

By Hans, James S. | Philosophy Today, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The End(s) of Play in Contemporary Culture


Hans, James S., Philosophy Today


More than forty years ago, Jacques Derrida presented his seminal essay "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discourses of the Human Sciences" at the famous Johns Hopkins conference on structuralism, shocking both European and American critics with the radical form of questioning that would become the centerpiece of his deconstructive enterprise. Given the importance of that moment in the critical history of interpretive communities, it is worth reconsidering how far we have come - or strayed - from the fundamental wager Derrida placed before us at this particular moment. As the conclusion of the essay makes clear, the question before us always involves the play of interpretation and the manner in which we undertake our critical engagements with the world. Derrida insisted that we were at a crucial juncture in our discourse and exhorted us to fully consider the ramifications of our linguistic activities at every level. He also announced with great fanfare what seemed to be the emergence of new ways of working within discourse that managed to avoid the crippling paradoxes inherent in the western mode of thought going back as far as Plato. Even more pertinently, Derrida cast his wager in the form of a game-like structure that, he insisted, began and ended with our orientation to the fundamentally playful nature of the individual and collective ways in which we took up our place in the world. The question before us is how well we have measured up to the imperatives that Derrida laid out in this essay. The easiest way of addressing that question is to consider our stance toward the playful at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

At its most basic, Derrida's commitment to the playful is concisely announced toward the end of "Structure, Sign, and Play), when he establishes a fundamental relationship between the playful and the most basic elements of our being. Derrida suggests the need radically to revise our understanding of our relationship to play:

Besides the tension of freeplay with history, there is also the tension of freeplay with presence. Freeplay is the disruption of presence. The presence of an element is always a signifying and substitutive reference inscribed in a system of differences and the movement of a chain. Freeplay is always an interplay of absence and presence, but if it is to be radically conceived, freeplay must be conceived of before the alternative of presence and absence; being must be conceived of as presence or absence beginning with the possibility of freeplay and not the other way around."'

It would not be too much of an exaggeration to say that in many respects, contemporary critical discourse derives from this statement, beginning with the distinction between the tension between freeplay and history and freeplay and presence. It would also not be too much of an exaggeration to say that both the interest in freeplay and the assessment of its relationship to presence have pretty much disappeared. What we are left with today are various species of history, all of which seem to have swallowed up Derrida's larger concerns about the ways in which we orient ourselves to the world. Far from seeing a "tension" between freeplay and history, we see only history, as reconceived in ways that don't begin to acknowledge their playful origins or the necessity for aesthetically engaging the origins of their own activity. As Derrida notes, "Freeplay is the disruption of presence," a problematic issue we seem to have lost interest in. But freeplay is also the disruption of history; it inevitably undermines or causes ruptures within the historical rubrics that seek to establish themselves as the official discourse. We have forgotten this fundamental point, and our discourse has suffered greatly as a result.

Just what does it mean for freeplay to be the disruption of presence, or for it to be that which disrupts the course of our historical narratives? Most importantly, the disruption of presence leads to our realization that nothing in the world is self-present, nothing is transparent, nothing is immediately available to us. …

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