Homo Ludens: The Power of Play

Reading Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens, I became very transfixed on the semiotic power of the word play, particularly in the sections “Playing and Knowing” and “Play-Forms in Philosophy”. I’m still puzzling over the (im)possibility of distinction in defining play as both outside of ordinary life while simultaneously absorbing individuals in play.  This resonated for me in thinking back to meaningful play in Salen and Zimmerman’s Rules of Play and in continuing to try to both illustrate and complicate their nested circles diagram of play as [starting from the center and radiating outward] rules) play) culture). Salen and Zimmerman describe meaningful play as the process by which a player takes action within the designed system of a game and the response of the system to the action—meaning is in the relationship between (player) action and (system) outcome. Perhaps inappropriately doing so, I feel like I am trying to equate system to culture in some respects, at least in as a means of providing context. Culture, to define it simply, is the “real” setting of time and space (which encompasses an expanse of elements in its boundedness). It is a space that play happens within as a negotiation between players and play (games/rules). Despite it being bounded in terms of some governance of order/pattern and formal structures, there is still room for a degree of unknowing or ambiguity in what emerges. In Huizinga’s work, I am likening this to his account of the sophists in the function of language as a “knowing-game” (154) in that there exist play-qualities in the art of declamation and disputation (153) as competition. Because human judgements are ambiguous, “one can put a thing like this or like that” (152) in order to create meaning. While this is ambiguous in a sense, it still seems like potential connectivity with culture and play from S/Z in that language is meaningful play. It adheres to structural constraint but is productive in its emergent qualities. I find this illustrated in Huizinga through his account of playing and knowing:

The astonishing similarity that characterizes agonistic customs in all cultures is perhaps nowhere more striking than in the domain of the human mind itself, that is to say, in knowledge and wisdom. For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is a magical power…For this reason there must be competitions in such knowledge at the sacred feasts, because the spoken word has a direct influence on the world order (105).

Language as meaningful play is something I’m still working on articulating, but find potential in Huizinga’s description of play and seriousness through scared play as extension. Sacred play in knocking at the door of the unknowable (107). A sacred game cuts across distinction between play and seriousness because it is both at once—a ritual of the highest importance and essentially a game of recreation and philosophy. Civilization arose out of the combination of play and seriousness as a mental medium (110-11). Meaning is constructed through language play.

In being transfixed on the semiotic power of play, I was reminded of George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s book Metaphors We Live By for its exploration of metaphor as a mechanism of the mind that allows us to use what we know about physical and social experiences to provide understanding. Their terming of conceptual metaphor shape not only our communication (language), but how we think and act—we perceive and act in accordance with metaphor.

Metaphor for most people is a device of the poetic imagination and rhetorical flourish—a matter of extraordinary rather than ordinary language. Moreover, metaphor is typically viewed as a characteristic of language alone, a matter of words rather than thought or action. For this reason, most people think we can get along perfectly well without metaphor. We have found, on the contrary, that metaphor is pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. Our ordinary conceptual system, in terms of which we both think and act, is fundamentally metaphorical in nature.

I’m wondering what Lakoff and Johnson’s conceptual metaphor/structure can make available in Huizinga’s treatment of seriousness and play. They end their book with a chapter on understanding in which the position metaphor as imaginative rationality through experience. They state that:

  • The metaphors we live by, whether cultural or personal, are partially preserved in ritual
  • Cultural metaphors, and the values entailed by them, are propagated by ritual
  • Ritual forms an indispensable part of the experiential basis for our cultural metaphorical systems. There can be no culture without ritual (234-35)

How might these help to understand play in culture?

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