Profane Vocation of Play (Giorgio Agamben)
The passage from the sacred to the profane can, in fact, come about by means of an entirely inappropriate use (or, rather, reuse) of the sacred: namely, play. It is well known that the spheres of play and the sacred are closely connected. Most of the games with which we are familiar derive from ancient sacred ceremonies, from divinatory practices and rituals that once belonged, broadly speaking, to the religious sphere. The girotondo was originally a marriage rite; playing with a ball reproduces the struggle of the gods for possession of the sun; games of chance derive from oracular practices; the spinning top and the chessboard were instruments of divination. In analyzing the relationship between games and rites, Emile Benveniste shows that play not only derives from the sphere of the sacred but also in some ways represents its overturning. The power of the sacred act , he writes, lies in the conjunction of the myth that tells the story and the rite that reproduces and stages it. Play breaks up this unity? As ludus, or physical play, it drops the myth and preserves the rite; as iocus, or wordplay, it effaces the rite and allows the myth to survive. “If the sacred can be defined through the consubstantial unity of myth and rite, we can say that one has play when only half of the sacred operation is completed, translating only the myth into words or only the rite into actions.”
This means that play frees and distracts humanity from the sphere of the sacred, without simply abolishing it. The use to which the sacred is returned is a special one that does not coincide with utilitarian consumption. In fact, the “profanation” of play does not solely concern the religious sphere. Children, who play with whatever old thing falls into their hands, make toys out of things that also belong to the spheres of economics, war, law, and other acitivities that we are used to thinking of as serious. All of a sudden, a car, a firearm, or a legal contract becomes a toy. What is common to these cases and the profanation of the sacred is the passage from a religio that is now felt to be false or oppressive to negligence as vera religio. This, however, does not mean neglect (no kind of attention can compare to that of a child at play), but a new dimension of use, which children and philosophers give to humanity. It is the sort of use that Benjamin must have had in mind when he wrote of Kafka’s The New Attorney that the law that is no longer applied but only studied is the gate to justice. Just as the religio that is played with but no longer observed opens the gate to use, so the powers [potenze] of economics, law, and politics, deactivated in play, can become the gateways to a new happiness.
Play as an organ of profanation is in decline everywhere. Modern man proves he no longer knows how to play precisely through the vertiginous proliferation of new and old games. Indeed, at parties, and at play, he desperately and stubbornly seeks exactly the opposite of what he could find there: the possibility of reentering the lost feast, returning to the sacred and its rites, even in the form of the inane ceremonies of the new spectacular religion or a tango lesson in a provincial dance hall. In this sense, televised game shows are part of a new liturgy; they secularize an unconsciously religious intention. To return to play its purely profane vocation is a political task.
Giorgio Agamben, Profanations (pp.75-77)
Oasis of Happiness (Eugen Fink)
Play is not happiness, not the fulfillment of the universal intention; yet by interrupting this intention, it temporarily liberates one from this directedness and precisely thereby presents, in a spatially delimited way, happiness, an “oasis of happiness.” Play fulfills, even if in its own delimited way, the universal intention of serious life; it does not stand opposed to the latter but first becomes understandable through the universal tendency of care belonging to human existence itself: “Only a being determined essentially by ‘care’ also has the possibility of ‘carelessness.’”
That, therefore, play stands precisely in a particular relation to the tendency of care belonging to life, indeed in such a way that, in it, the goal-directedness of caring life is suspended in a determinate way, grounds its “carelessness.” Even play sets goals, which are goals in its playworld; yet these goals that are immanent to play are not “projected out toward the highest ultimate purpose.” These immanent goals of play can, however, be related to the highest goal of life, insofar as these immanent goals, which are not at all immediately subordinate to the highest goal of life itself, make the latter first of all visible. Fink expresses this as follows: Insofar as play “appears to escape [entziehen] the standard flow of life, it relates [bezieht] to it in a manner that is particularly imbued with sense, namely, in the mode of portrayal [Darstellung].”
Illustration: Doris Burn (Andrew Henry's Meadow)
Proletariat of the Soul, Play! (Oğuz Atay)
The greatest fallacy of the proletariat of reason and soul is to serve the bourgeoisie of reason and soul with the hope of attaining the blessings of the latter and in doing so, due to inevitable laws of abuse, being dispossessed, piece-by-piece, of their vulnerable reason and soul.
For this very reason, I say let’s not let them into our games! Or let’s disgrace them because we are crushed in real life! Let’s humiliate them! The proletariat of the soul! Violate the real if it comes to it! Never believe the lie that truth is to be spoken even in a game. I warn you! Truth is not on your side! Do not be played upon! You play up on them. Do not challenge them in the field of reason they rule on. So what if you play home for once? Never trust if they say there is but one field. Do not listen to those who dare you with the risk of losing your mind. We have nothing to lose. It is now time to see where our own power lies.
Dangerous Games, Oğuz Atay (1973)
Edge of the Possible (Eugen Fink)
The path of life, so to speak, is determined by an uncanny, accompanying contraction of our possibilities. Every activity that we earnestly carry out makes us more determinate and at the same time less possible. We continually determine ourselves, do irrevocable things. The more we attain to determinate actuality in the self-actualization accomplished through our deeds, the slighter do our possibilities become. [...]Play does not exhaust itself in a slavish reproduction; it also brings forth entirely new motifs, gets new possibilities to flare up, possibilities with which we are not acquainted in the space in which we otherwise carry out our lives. As a variation play is creative—but its productive power can only unfold in the useless realm of the “non- actual.”
Image: Man with Cuboid (1958), M.C. Escher
An Activity Producing Itself (Eugen Fink)
Playing is not an activity of fabrication, which would come to an end in a result detachable from the process of fabrication. We do not play after we have fabricated the game or the playworld, but rather we play only so long as we produce the playworld. The production of play does not come down to a result. Or in other words and formulated in a sharper antithesis: playing exists as the producing of playworldly appearance. The production of play primarily concerns human beings themselves, is a relation of enactment to a continually cultivated non-actual sphere of human roles...
There is no work in which playing crystallizes and comes to an end. Its process is itself its work, it happens spontaneously and ceases, it is an activity that happens for its own sake (...) In playing, the time in the future that remains outstanding is submerged as a motive force of acting. The futural whip drops away that otherwise goads us, hounds us, drives us, uses up the moment as a means. An existence pacified in itself in its carrying out of activity pervades the player and bestows a pure, felicitous present.
The Goal of the Future (Arthur C. Clarke)
CLARKE: ... We're in an early stage in the evolution of intelligence but a late stage in the evolution of life. Real intelligence won't be living.
GENE: I understand your meaning of that idea as a beneficial thing in which man is rendered obsolete as a specialist, obsolete as all the things he's been up to now (...) but, on the other hand, man is then totally free to live comprehensively, nonspecialized, like the freedom of children.
CLARKE: That's how I ended one of my essays on the subject. I said "Now it's time to play." The goal of the future is total unemployment, so we can play. That's why we have to destroy the present politico-economic system.
Source: Expanded Cinema, Gene Youngblood (1970)
Against the Daemons (Eugen Fink)
[T]he conspicuous thing in archaic existence is indeed precisely the belief in daemons, the paralyzing horror in the face of uncanny, spectral beings, the panic- stricken anxiety before numinous powers. No warrior’s bravery helps against this primal anxiety, no diligence and exertion at work helps. Precisely the two serious activities in which the human otherwise asserts himself, belligerent struggle and the toil of work, remain inconsequential here. One cannot battle with daemons and one cannot break their resistance by working. But the activity that one for the most part regards as the least serious and that one commonly believes to have no power, namely, play, becomes the sole possibility for the human being to counteract the magic power of the daemons or to turn their malevolence around. The mask of the player itself becomes a magical force. What that means philosophically is a most difficult problem.
Oasis of Happiness: Thoughts towards an Ontology of Play (Eugen Fink)
“Play does not fit into this manner of life in the way the other activities do. Play is conspicuously set apart from the whole futural character of life. Play does not allow itself to be incorporated without further ado into the complex architecture of purposes. It does not happen for the sake of the “final purpose.” Play is not worried and disturbed, as our acting otherwise is, by the deep uncertainty in our interpretation of happiness. In relation to the course of life and to its restless dynamic, to its obscure questionworthiness and its forward-rushing orientation toward the future, playing has the character of a pacified “present” and self-contained sense—it resembles an “oasis” of happiness arrived at in the desert of the striving for happiness and Tantalus-like seeking that is otherwise our condition.”
“Originally play is a portraying symbol-activity of human existence in which the latter interprets itself. The earliest games are magical rites, the great gestures of cult, in which the archaic human being interprets his inner standing within the context of the world, where he “portrays” his fate, brings to presence the events of birth and death, of weddings, war, hunting, and work. The symbolic representation of magical games creates elements from out of the circuit of simple actuality, but it also creates from out of the nebulous realm of the imaginary. In primeval times play is not so much understood as the deeply pleasurable carrying out of life on the part of isolated individuals or groups that temporarily remove themselves from social connection and inhabit their small island of ephemeral happiness. Play is primordially the strongest binding power. It is community-founding...”
“In the dawn of European thought Heraclitus poses the aphorism: “The course of the world is a playing child, moving pieces on a board—a king’s power belongs to the child” (Fragment 52). And after twenty-five centuries of the history of thought there is Nietzsche, who writes: “In this world only play, play as artists and children engage in it, exhibits coming-to-be and passing away, structuring and destroying, without any moral additive, in forever equal innocence”—“The world is the play of Zeus . . .” (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks).”
Full text of the article is available here.
What is to be Done? (Jean-Luc Nancy)
This evokes some answers; which are still to be played out though.
"What is to be done, at present? The question is on everybody’s lips and, in a certain way, it is the question people always have lying in wait for any passing philosopher. Not: What is to be thought? But indeed: What is to be done? The question is on everybody’s lips (including the philosopher’s), but withheld, barely uttered, for we do not know if we still have the right, or whether we have the means, to raise it. (...) Perhaps though, we know one thing at least: ‘What is to be done?’ means for us: how to make a world for which all is not already done (played out, finished, enshrined in a destiny), nor still entirely to do (in the future for always future tomorrows).
This would mean that the question places us simultaneously before a doubly imperative response. It is necessary to measure up to what nothing in the world can measure, no established law, no inevitable process, no prediction, no calculable horizon—absolute justice, limitless quality, perfect dignity—and it is necessary to invent and create the world itself, immediately, here and now, at every moment, without reference to yesterday and tomorrow. Which is the same as saying that it is necessary at one and the same time to affirm and denounce the world as it is—not to weigh out as best one can equal amounts of submission and revolt, and always end up halfway between reform and accommodation, but to make the world into the place, never still, always perpetually reopened, of its own contradiction, which is what it prevents us from ever knowing in advance what is to be done, but it imposes on us the task of never making anything that is not a world."
Conversations with Brecht (Walter Benjamin)
July 12, 1934. Yesterday, after a game of chess, Brecht said: 'If Korsch comes we shall have to work out a new game with him. A game in which the positions do not always remain the same; where the function of the pieces changes if they have stood for a while on the same square: then they become either more effective or weaker. Like this, the game does not develop; it stays the same too long.'
The Grasshopper (B. Suits)
At this Prudence whispered to Skepticus. 'The end must be near; his mind is beginning to wander.' But Skepticus just looked keenly at their friend and teacher as he continued to speak.
'I admit that this is a wild fancy,' the Grasshopper was saying, 'and I hesitate to tell you my thoughts. Still, I am used to being thought foolish, so I shall proceed, inviting you to make of my words what you will. Then let me tell you that I have always had a recurring dream, in which it is revealed to me - though how it is revealed I cannot say - that everyone alive is in fact engaged in playing elaborate games, while at the same time believing themselves to be going about their ordinary affairs. Carpenters, believing themselves to be merely pursuing their trade, are really playing a game, and similarly with politicians, philosophers, lovers, murderers, thieves, and saints. Whatever occupation or activity you can think of, it is in reality a game. This revelation is, of course, astonishing. The sequel is terrifying. For in the dream I then go about persuading everyone I find of the great truth which has been revealed to me. How I am able to persuade them I do not know, though persuade them I do. But precisely at the point when each is persuaded - and this is the ghastly part - each ceases to exist. It is not just that my auditor vanishes on the spot, though indeed he does. It is that I also know with absolute certainty that he no longer exists anywhere. It is as though he had never been. Appalled as I am by the results of my teaching, I cannot stop, but quickly move on to the next creature with my news, until I have preached the truth throughout the universe and have converted everyone to oblivion. Finally I stand alone beneath the summer stars in absolute despair. Then I awaken to the joyful knowledge that the world is still teeming with sentient beings after all, and that it was only a dream. I see the carpenter and philosopher going about their work as before ... But is it, I ask myself, just as before? Is the carpenter on his roof-top simply hammering nails, or is he making some move in an ancient game whose rules he has forgotten! But now the chill creeps up my legs. I grow drowsy. Dear friends, farewell.' (p.9-10)
It is impossible to win a game and at the same time to break one of its rules. (p.20-21)
In morals obedience to rules makes the action right, but in games it makes the action. (p.32)
…playing a game is the voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. (p.41)
In summary it may be said that triflers recognize rules but not goals, cheats recognize goals but not rules, players recognize both rules and goals, and spoilsports recognize neither rules nor goals… (p.47)
Game playing makes it possible to retain enough effort in Utopia to make life worth living. (p.172)
Martin Heidegger: Between Good and Evil (R.Safranski)
The animal has a certain openness toward the world, but the world cannot become "manifest" to it as the world. That happens only in man. Between man and his world, a free space opens. His world connection has loosened to such an extent that man can relate to the world, to himself, and to himself as something occurring in the world. Not only is man differentiated, but he can also, on his own, differentiate himself from others. And he can not only relate to different things but also differentiate between things. This "area of play"-as we already know-is called by Heidegger "freedom." (p.199-200)
But, asks Heidegger, "Can Being be estimated higher than being specifically elevated to a 'value'?" He answers: "Even by being appreciated as a 'value.' Being is already reduced to a condition set by the will to power itself:' and as a result "the road to the experience of Being itself is expunged."
"Experience of Being"-as has been shown-does not mean experience of a higher world but experience of the inexhaustibility of reality and astonishment over the fact that in its midst an "open place" has revealed itself, where' nature opens its eyes and notices that it is there. In the experience of Being. man discovers himself and his play space. He is not captured or trapped in the existent (im Seienden). Amid the things he has free "play:' just as a wheel must have "play" at its hub in order to move. The problem of Being, Heidegger states. is ultimately "a problem of freedom." (p.304)
On Situationist Games (Guy Debord)
The Glass Bead Game (H.Hesse)
… without constant practice and constant association with equal and especially better players, it’s impossible to learn anything, of course. Playing alone can at best replace such practice the way talking to oneself replaces real, serious dialogue. (p.280)
One who had experienced the ultimate meaning of the Game within himself would by that fact no longer be a player; he would no longer dwell in the world of multiplicity and would no longer be able to delight in invention, construction, and
combination, since he would know altogether different joys and raptures. (p.115)