[iDC] Play and Counterpower

Sal Randolph salrandolph at gmail.com
Mon Jun 22 15:35:55 UTC 2009

Hi All,

Thanks for the thoughtful responses,  Julian.  Still mulling over the  
implications of switching from a tactical to a strategic perspective.

> While I do not agree with Sutton-smith's noble savage idea that  
> "third world people" never had a notion of winning before  
> colonialists introduced it to them I

Point taken here.  indeed.

> At the same time it is evident that this is a phantasmatic  
> empowerment which ultimately only serves to uphold existing power  
> relationships, so if this is a form of counter-power it has been co- 
> opted and turned back into a form of government.

I think what interested me in those remarks of Sutton-Smith's was the  
idea that games contain multiple meanings within their game  
structures, and those meanings and structures may offer reservoirs for  
forms of counterpower.  Not that beating Britain in cricket is  
counterpower per se, but instead that the game of cricket inherently  
contains the *idea* of beating Britain which is then available in  
thought and imagination and deployment elsewhere.  I suppose at this  
point we could begin the argument about whether ideas can have effects.

> Yes, play cannot be coerced, and it doesn't need to because it is in  
> itself so compelling. This is what happens in the transition from  
> coercive disciplinary societies to societies of control, in which  
> the means if control are internalized to such a degree that they  
> become indistinguishable from the machinations of subjectivity.

What I was hoping to get at was the idea that because play holds open  
internal spaces of uncoerced action, it has effects on internal  
systems of control as well as external ones.  Certainly this is part  
of my own experience of play and games - they act much more directly  
on my internal regimes than on my external situations.

Also I'm a little troubled by the idea that there is an inherent  
problem in forms of activity, work or play, that are compelling for  
their own sake.

Reading up in the early days of this conversation it struck me that  
there is an interesting political (strategic/tactical) problem  
presented by unalienated labor.  Basically, people engaged in  
unalienated labor (and I think this does cover a good part of the work  
under discussion here) are less enmiserated - less unhappy and less  
motivated towards political change.  Or at least they might be.  I  
think that's one of the worries behind the conversation, anyway.

To me this is an open question.  Do forms of unalienated experience  
reduce someone's potential for instigating or participating in social  
change, or do they increase it?  We could argue it both ways. The idea  
that unalienated experience might the basis for revolutionary action  
(or whatever milder version of social and political change) is often  
viewed as highly romantic or even unthinking.  And yet...

Another of the questions on my mind is whether unalienated labor and  
play are really the same thing,  Or maybe more accurately, whether  
unalienated labor is really a form of play.  It's often playful, yes,  
or "ludic," but rather than letting work and play completely collapse  
in our discussions there might be ways it's advantageous to keep them  
apart.  For instance, it seems to me we have a reasonably well  
articulated set of play theories, but a much less developed discussion  
about unalienated forms of work and experience.

One place we might look for this kind of development (as a couple of  
people on the list have pointed out) is in feminist analysis of  
women's work. There lies a whole tradition of "free work" which is  
sometimes described as playbour and other times as exploitation, and  
which from a contemporary perspective clearly has elements of both.

Where I do see play and unalienated work as intimately connected is in  
an experience of agency. Of course in contemporary discussions the  
idea of self, subject, and agency have been usefully problematized. No  
one is "free" in the sense that enlightenment thinkers imagined --  
we're all increasingly aware that we are always embedded in internal  
and external systems of meaning and control. Still, we do have  
intentions and desires, even if our actions don't always have the  
consequences we imagined.  And it's hard to imagine initiating any  
kind of meaningful political action without a sense of agency.

One thinker I find useful here is Sherry Ortner, with her idea of  
"serious games" (inspired by the practice theory of Bourdieu, Giddens,  
Sahlins, and de Certeau).

"I want to propose a model of practice that embodies agency but does  
not begin with, or pivot upon, the agent, actor, or individual.  While  
there are very definitely in this view actors and agents, desires and  
intentions, plans and plots, these are embedded within--what shall we  
call them? games? projects? dramas? stories?--in any event, motivated,  
organized, and socially complex ways of going about life in particular  
times and places.  Of the terms just noted. . . I find "games" to be  
the most broadly useful image.  But because the idea of the game in  
English connotes something relatively light and playful, I modify the  
term: "serious games."  The idea of the "game" is meant to capture  
simultaneously the following dimensions: that social life is  
culturally organized and constructed, in terms of defining categories  
of actors, rules and goals of games, and so forth; that social life is  
precisely social, consisting of webs of relationship and interaction  
between multiple, shiftingly interrelated subject positions, none of  
which can be extracted as autonomous "agents"; and yet at the same  
time there is "agency," that is, actors play with skill, intention,  
wit, knowledge, intelligence. The idea that the game is "serious" is  
meant to add into the equation the idea that power and inequality  
pervade the games of life in multiple ways, and that, while there  
maybe playfulness and pleasure in the process, the stakes of these  
games are often very high.  It follows in turn that the games of life  
must be played with intensity and sometimes deadly earnestness.  As a  
final note, there is an assumption that there is never only one  
game....."  (Sherry Ortner, Making Gender)

My own optimism about change is tempered not so much by the  
limitations and darker sides of play or even social media, but by a  
greater appreciation of the extremely varied and conflicting needs,  
goals, intentions of everyone involved, and the oblique relationship  
between intentions and consequences in any kind of action.  In other  
words, if everyone was empowered and aware of their own agency and  
fully alive etc. we still wouldn't be able to predict what would  
happen or whether it would look like anything we now imagine as good.

: : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : : :

Sal Randolph

salrandolph at gmail.com

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