[iDC] Play and Counterpower

Sal Randolph salrandolph at gmail.com
Sat Jun 20 20:40:43 UTC 2009

Greetings IDC friends,

In the breath between act I and act II, I'd like to take up the thread  
on play, labor, and playbour that's been batted around here,  
especially by Brian, Pat, and Julian. Just catching up and keeping up  
with this whole discussion has been quite a playbour.


While we're invoking Sutton-Smith, here's another bit of his regarding  
some of the political consequences of play.

"The selling of sports...although it often resulted in the direct  
ludic identity of the imperial sports teams, also led the colonials or  
Third World people to adopt the rhetoric of game superiority (called  
winning) that went with playing those sports; in the long run they  
sometimes successfully contested their overlords for that same glory.  
It is another paradox that the British imperial powers should use  
contestive games to sell their own rhetoric identity of moral  
gentlemanliness when they were also, less wittingly, selling the game  
notion of legitimate opposition."

He goes on:

"Perhaps it can be said that whenever one is taught and beaten at  
games by another group—whoever they are, masters, aliens, foreigners,  
adults, gangs, or the opposite sex—one’s own group frequently develops  
a desire to contest that superiority on the same playing field. This  
opposition is a public transcript widely shared by the world’s  
underdogs, and indeed it is a breach in the hegemony of the dominant  
groups, even though the playing of the same games is itself consistent  
with such hegemony (Scott, 1990). Many authors have seen the selling  
of sports as a facet of the extension of imperial hegemony or the  
capitalist way of life, work, and consumption. The problem is that the  
same imperial way of life in some places permitted different social  
classes or ethnic groups to compete for hegemony at least within the  
ludic sphere. And such participation is at the very least a form of  
enactive subjunctivity, with all its implied optimism and fantasies  
about the possibility of success."   (also from The Ambiguity of Play)

Here play is seen to have consequences other than those intended and  
also to be a kind of reservoir of counterpower.  Although the kind of  
example he gives is specific and limited (the story he tells in this  
section is primarily about cricket and rugby in the British colonies),  
it's my feeling that both these qualities are always inherent or  
latent in the very notion of play.

In the conversation we've had so far about play we've seen allusions  
to a good play, or a play we like, which is subversive and a bad play,  
a play we're suspicious of, which is selfish and distracting and  
easily co-opted or exploited.

One thing that strikes me is that from the outside it's very difficult  
to tell the two apart (and this may be one of the things that gives  
play some political potency --  they way play resists surveillance of  
its *meaning* in particular).  People suffer from internal regimes  
that are opressive and repressive as well as external ones.  Think of  
Deleuze and the Society of Control here.  Or the subtle systems that  
make forms of self-control both voluntary and desirable which Brian  
ties back to Schiller's aesthetic state.

But as compelling as Brian's case is, for the idea of free play as  
just another regime, I'm going to argue the opposite.  What if, for  
instance, Schiller was actually just wrong about play.  What if there  
is something about play that opposes regulation, both internal and  
external?  Something that tends (not all the time of course) to throw  
a shoe in the works of the machine?

Play, for instance, is all about unknown outcomes - if it can be  
completely predicted, it's not play.  There's a reason factory workers  
aren't encouraged to play with what they are making (though a little  
joking might be allowed) - in the fordist factory every part and every  
action must be known in advance.  In this kind of environment any kind  
of play equals sabotage.

Play can't be coerced (again, it becomes not-play), a quality that  
even by itself is pretty interesting.  It means that as long as play  
exists there's a sphere of the uncoerced. Personally, this is one of  
the aspects of play that makes it so compelling, worth defending time  
and space for in my daily life.

Playing with tools changes their use, sometimes very simply as when  
you use a shoe as a hammer. But even a simple transformation like  
that  implies a rethinking of the structures of expectation and social  
meaning -- from there it's a short leap to more profound  

Pat mentions play's darker side (peeking into the Marquis de Sade's  
bedroom), its essential amorality. But it strikes me that play  
wouldn't be interesting (wouldn't make anything happen) without that  
darker side. It's the amorality that allows for the return of the  
repressed, the thinking of the unthinkable, a reserve of opposition or  
counterpower in every situation.  Meaning that this aspect of play is  
genuinely something to be scared of, but also that it's what might  
allow us to play our way out of systems of control.  Especially  
internal systems of control.

So on the one hand you have the Schillerian idea brought up by Brian  
that play and aesthetic play help further regulate people and  
society.  But on the other you have the idea that play, precisely  
because of its elements of amorality and unpredictability always  
contains the seeds of an opposition to whatever the dominant systems  
are. From this point of view play isn't utopian; play is in fact what  
unmakes all utopias.

I haven't really gotten to playbour yet, but I'm going to stop and  
post this before I fall too far behind the conversation.

-- Sal

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