[iDC] work, play, praxis

Ken Wark warkk at newschool.edu
Thu Jul 2 17:42:44 UTC 2009

I want to pick up on something Paul Miller said, if somewhat indirectly. I was reading Shershow's book on The Work and the Gift, and while its synoptic power is very great, the gift section really is quite unsatisfactory. He follows Derrida's amazing text on the gift, which shows quite powerfully how the pure gift is an impossibility. The gift as act of generosity without thought of return can't exist. But Shershow uses this pretext to dismiss the gift altogether. If the gift can't be the special key to a general economy, then it is nothing. 

Mauss wanted to use the gift as a critical tool for undermining the centrality of the commodity and of exchange. In doing so he puts the non-western once again at the heart of debates about, for want of a better name, the philosophy of praxis. Shershow's dismissal of the gift seals up western discourse in itself, once again. 

Of all the readings of Mauss he discusses, one he omits is Henri Lefebvre. For Lefebvre, the gift doesn't have to be pure. It can be a tactic in a strategy, a moment of contestation. In short (borrowing from Huizinga) he puts the game alongside both gift and exchange as relevant forms of praxis. This i find extraordinarily enabling. The gift does not have to be a complete utopian alternative to the commodity, particularly if thought throught the game. Lefebvre does not add, but it is a consequence, that the non-western is freed to some extent then from its special but disabling status as 'other'.

Praxis, then: here I want to mention, by way of responding to Paul, Susan Buck-Morss's book Hegel, Haiti and Universal History (Pittsburgh, 2009). Its about Hegel's master-slave dialectic. In short, she shows pretty conclusively that Hegel is really writing about the revolution in Haiti. His 'slaves' are not a metaphor, or an idea from Aristotle. He is writing philosophy as world history.  

This i think really changes the way one thinks the master-slave dialectic (not to mention its influential re-readings, by for example Kojeve). One is talking very directly then about the slave's accepting the challenge of death, of taking the skills acquired in laboring with nature and turning them against domination. This is not a metaphor, or not only a metaphor. It is an event in world history. The revolution in Haiti.

What does this have to do with work and play? As Lefebvre says, work is only one kind of praxis. And praxis might be the key term to be thought. By praxis i might mean something like a collective effort to transform a world which is at the same time self-transforming. And to think about praxis one might need to break open the provincialism of how it is thought in the west, where the non-west just appears in the supporting role of 'other'. 

The really challenging term in Buck-Morss' book is 'universal history'. To what extent are global relations of praxis (game, gift, work, and yes, still also slavery) interconnected? To what extent does the detour through difference bring us back to processes within which we are all enmeshed?

McKenzie Wark,  Associate Professor of Media Studies, Eugene Lang College and the New School for Social Research

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