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

Julian Kücklich julian at kuecklich.de
Mon Jun 15 21:00:24 UTC 2009

Here's a quote from Sutton-Smith's The Ambiguity of Play:

"Huizinga has essentially adopted the aristocratic rhetoric of the
late nineteenth century, which sought to see games as being played for
the games' sake [...], a point of view that can be sustained in
practical terms only by a wealthy elite, or in modern terms by closely
supervised schoolchildren. Thus saying, as he did, that play is
outside of ordinary life, that it is immaterial, disinterested,
nonutilitarian, voluntary, spatially and temporally separate,
childlike, nonprofane, governed by rules, and utterly involving, he
idealizes and sacralizes play. These 'essentialistic' statements not
only contradict many of his own exemplars of play as nasty, brutish
and short but are also themselves conditions of play only in limited
circumstances. [...] He has countered the view that play is frivolous,
but in his opposition he has so idealized it that he has vitiated its
regular broad functioning in human life. [...]

"It can be ventured that the denigration of frivolous play actually
subdivides itself into six different kinds of devalued play, each of
which, in its own way, helps to sustain the six types of play that are
lauded by [the rhetorics of play]: developmental play, fateful play,
contestive play, festival play, imaginative play, and personal play.
[...] Each rhetoric involves an internal polarity between good play
and bad play and uses the term frivolous for whatever kind is chosen
as bad play. [...]

"Of all the rhetorics, progress is the most explicit in terms of
hegemony [...]. The very point of the progress rhetoric has been to
constrain child play in the service of growth, education, and progress
[...]. Most adults show great anxiety and fear that children's play
behavior, if not rationalized in these ways, will escape their control
and become frivolous or become an irrational representation of child
power, child community, phantasmagoria, and childish ecstasies. Play
as progress is an ideology for the conquest of children's behavior
through organizing their play." [203-5]

I don't think I have to point out that we might just as well replace
"progress" by "evolutionary purpose." But it might be worth mentioning
that the difference between "cubs cavorting on the savannah" and
"children having fun in a playpark [or] adults interacting with the
Web" lies in the level of organization and rationalization, or the
suffusion of these spaces with the rhetorics (or ideology) of play.

I am not saying play is by definition something that serves those in
power and I agree with Pat that it has the potential to serve the
powerless, but as long as we are in the business of building "better
playgrounds" (or mousetraps), and as long as we don't acknowledge the
destructive, violent, addictive, deceptive qualities of play, I don't
think this is going to happen.


2009/6/15 pat kane <playethical at gmail.com>:
> 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 rule.
> 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.
> ends

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