[iDC] : getting beyond the 'play-labor nexus'

pat kane playethical at gmail.com
Mon Jun 15 18:53:12 UTC 2009

Trebor has asked me for my take on some definitions of 'play' and  
'labor' – let me come at it this way…

So much of this discussion is rooted in a Marxist/post-Marxist  
framework about the nature of labour as 'exploitation' (in terms of  
realising surplus value) or 'alienation' (in terms of the divisions  
of labour and their effect upon our subjectivities). I want to try  
and step back towards some roots of the Marxist analysis, and attempt  
to link that to current multidisciplinary understandings of play.

In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton devotes a chapter to  
Schiller's Letters of the Aesthetic Education of Man – one of the  
most important theories of play ever (and much quoted by Johan  
Soderberg in Hacking Capitalism). Eagleton notes that Schiller's  
evocation of the importance of play – what he called the 'play drive'  
– allowed Marx to envision the kind of rich, fully-extended humanity  
that exploitation and alienation would damage and distort. "Marx's  
critique of industrial capitalism is deeply rooted in a Schillerian  
vision of stunted capacities, dissociated powers, the ruined totality  
of human nature" (http://bit.ly/rcBx).

The "play-drive" for Schiller is also the ground of possibility of  
all human action: it suspends the destructive tendencies both of our  
appetites ('sense-drive') and our reason (form-drive), and creates a  
zone of "free determinability". From this sublime experience of  
possible states of being (which Schiller terms 'aesthetic'), we will  
be able to assess the best, most "graceful" options for personal and  
social action.

So Schiller's vision of the play-drive is that of a space of  
potentiation in the human condition – and I guess Marx's radicalism  
was to see that this protean, self-creating force at the heart of our  
species being needed a revolutionary redeployment of resources to  
come into its own. But what is interesting about the study of play  
since Schiller, right up to the present, is that so much biology,  
zoology and psychology confirms his characterisation of play as that  
zone of possibility in the human condition.

Play is 'adaptive potentiation', as the great play scholar Brian  
Sutton-Smith puts it. By this he means all those experiments,  
simulations and virtualisations that we recognise as play, but which  
clearly serve an evolutionary purpose - namely, to aid our survival  
and flourishing. How? By helping us rehearse strategies for dealing  
with our complex social worlds, composed (as they are) of other  
linguistic and richly emotional human beings. (On Sutton-Smith's  
latest formulation of this, see http://bit.ly/wQTwp).

So play is deeply constitutive of human sociality: we know this from  
child development. And that productive adulthood has been about the  
'soul's play-day being the devil's work-day', or the 'putting away of  
childish things', is a Puritan truism that any student of Weber knows  
about. And any other student of E.P. Thompson also knows how  
relentless was the campaign needed to subject the pre-capitalist  
culture of festivals and 'Happy Mondays' to disciplinary, workplace  

But here's what might be the truly revolutionary fact of our digital  
and networked lives: Its symbolic and immaterial plentitude, and the  
participative design of its tools and platforms, helps adults to  
recover, and then extend and develop, that constitutive experience of  
play. As many of the Italian Marxists say, particularly Paulo Virno  
in his recent 'Multitude' books, there might be a new anthropology  
required to cope with a world in which the most protean of human  
faculties – language, affectivity and symbolic analysis itself –  
becomes the basic productive infrastructure of organisational,  
community and personal life.

Does this deep nexus between species being and our digital+networked  
'extensions of the human' (to smarten up McLuhan), around the axis of  
play, have consequences for how we arrange our productive lives? At  
the very least, one can point to the amazing diversity on this list –  
every "adaptive potentiation" from a mark-up language that encodes  
the working conditions of its sites, to an iPhone app that helps you  
do voluntary info-work for charities, to Ned Rossiter's 'organised  
networks' as the successor to trade unions – as indication that an  
extraordinary creative energy is being tapped. Shirky tells us that  
it's a matter of insanely-easy group-forming networks opening up  
space beneath the Coasian floor, but there's more to it than that. To  
explain this fecundity, I keep finding myself turning away from  
sociology or economics, and either turning to philosophy – the  
creative ontology and transcendental empiricisms of Deleuze, Negri,  
Virno and others – or to what has to be called (with some  
tentativeness, I concede – but only some) the 'socio-biology' of  
play. (Maybe biosemiotics – see http://bit.ly/SvDT5).

In a recent presentation, http://bit.ly/RGjlU, I talked about the  
common conditions for a 'ground of play'. Cubs cavorting on the  
savannah, children having fun in a playpark, adults interacting with  
the Web: each of these playgrounds have 1) loose but robust  
governance, 2) ensure a surplus of time, space and stuff, 3) treat  
failure, risk and mess as developmental necessities. I went on to  
cite Google's 20 percent rule – where its engineers are encourage to  
devote 20% of their work time to projects that don't follow company  
imperatives – as a rare example of a mainstream company trying to  
recreate those constitutive conditions of play for their employees.  
(I've also been delighted to dive into Fred Turner's archive,  
triggered by his contribution to this list, and find this brilliant  
essay on Google's embrace of Burning Man culture, which corroborates  
my point http://bit.ly/AvFUZ).

Does Google, or any of the 'netarchical capitalists' that Michel  
Bauwens talks about, in any way exhaust the organisational  
possibilities available? In no way. And can the engaging interactions  
that we have upon these 'grounds of play' be pointed towards socially  
progressive ends? Well, I'm looking at the Extraordinaries app on my  
iPhone at the moment (though I'd like to have more to do than tagging  
the Smithsonian's pics). And we know from people like Jane McGonigal  
(http://www.avantgame.com) how much gaming has the possibility to  
improve governance, foresight and collective wisdom.

So I'd like to resist the notion of the 'play-labor nexus' advanced  
by Julian Kucklich, Jonathan Beller and Brian Holmes on this list,  
and perhaps suggest a 'play-network terrain' instead – a landscape to  
be explored, and flexibly de- and re-territorialized, rather than a  
fiendish strategy to create 'dividuals' out of individuals, and  
extend the tendrils of biopower everywhere (first the cinema makes  
our minds and passions machinic, then television, then the internet…  
I prefer going from Kubrick's flying bone, to the spaceship, in a  
jump cut…)

We need to keep carefully attending to the design of our networks,  
protocols and interfaces – immersing ourselves in an "aesthetic  
craft" which Schiller and Marx would both have recognised as the  
authentic practice of autonomous, non-alienated labor. (And which  
playcraft Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman locates as the  
very conditions of citizenship http://bit.ly/nQTS). As Soderberg  
rephrases Schiller in his book (http://bit.ly/DsZ3a),

"If man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will  
have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it  
is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom". Both  
adherents and critics of Schiller have pigeonholed him in the  
tradition of romanticism. It would do Schiller more justice if his  
words were recovered from the fine arts scene and instead applied to  
the politics that flow from the "beauty of the baud" and the play  
with source code in the computer underground.

Like Bauwens, I see this playfully-driven moment of infrastructural  
and organisational creativity as an opportunity for civic enterprise  
on a number of fronts (and niches), rather than as one more version  
of the 'bigger cages, longer chains' tradition of left pessimism (as  
Brian Holmes at least admits). Trebor's wish that the Digital Labor  
conference has a strand concerned with "peer producing  
infrastructures ourselves", without which the "sharing mode by itself  
is not strong enough to sustain itself", is one I share. Building  
good, generative playgrounds is noble labor indeed

But for my neo-Marxist friends on this list, I respectfully suggest  
that the "multitudinous, multivalent" phenomena they're observing may  
have its roots in the way that digital networks articulate a long- 
occluded aspect of our species being. Femina et homo ludens, as a  
mainstream and self-conscious identity of developed-world citizens,  
may be exactly who the bearded one was waiting for.


-------------- next part --------------
An HTML attachment was scrubbed...
URL: http://mailman.thing.net/pipermail/idc/attachments/20090615/ef6a1301/attachment-0001.htm 

More information about the iDC mailing list