ambiguity and ambience in play

I continue to take interest in play as a space of possibility and to imagine what that space can be. After our conversation in class last week in which we imagined play less in terms of bounded space/boundaries and more ecological/network like in that it has nodes and edges brought into being by affect relationships, I couldn’t help but think about play (space, time, human and nonhuman objects) in terms of ambience. I am co-currently reading Thomas Rickert’s Ambient Rhetoric: The Attunements of Rhetorical Being and am dwelling in the conceptual space it generates in relation to Roger Caillois’ “The Definition of Play” from Man, Play and Games and Brian Sutton-Smith’s “Play and Ambiguity” from Ambiguous Play.  What is resonating from Rickert’s work is his careful attention to reimagining the rhetorical situation as one of ambience. Rickert is influenced by ambient music, particularly ambient music as described/coined by Brian Eno. To Eno, ambient refers to music that facilitates listening at various levels of attention—it can shift from background to foreground or vice versa, it can permeate a space and transform mood or feeling, and it creates a sense of space that can compliment or alter environment. Rickert sees the rhetoricity in ambience as evoking the concreteness of place through various experiential registers to constitute situation—the affective, material disposition one finds themselves in; the environment is not background for emergence but an active player in it. A rhetoric of ambience is “the decision to stop seeing yourself as the centre of the world, to see yourself as part of the greater flow of things, as having limited options and responsibility to your actions” (Eno qtd. in “Circumnavigation”, Ambient Rhetoric). In ambience I am trying to dwell in the elements of play in all things (as remnant from Huizinga’s Homo Ludens).

From Rickert’s work to re-imagine rhetorical situation as dwelling in ambience and ambient agency (instead of a person fixated notion of environmental control in awareness, delivery, and construction of meaning), I  found resonance in “Play and Ambiguity” as Sutton-Smith explores the reasons for ambiguity in “play” in searching for definitional clarity by opening play almost as a means of taking stock of possibility. He lists play activities as play forms and/or play experiences in themselves to represent the complexity of play:

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He then posits seven rhetorics of play—or subject-matter narratives— to seek the sources of play ambiguity: the rhetoric of play as progress, the rhetoric of play as fate, the rhetoric of play as power, the rhetoric of play as identity, the rhetoric of play as imaginary, the rhetoric of the self, the rhetoric of play as frivolous. While I am still parsing through aligning these categories of play and rhetorics to account for play, I find emerging interest (and confusion) over their ranging affective dimensions. I don’t know of a better term for it, dimensions being both space and action. To these rhetorical framings (dimensions) of play, Caillois perhaps offers some way of better conceptualizing action. Caillois works from Huizinga’s inquiry into the creative quality of the play principle in the domain of culture to define characteristics or qualities of play as: free (not obligatory), uncertain (undetermined course), separate (circumscribed in time and space), unproductive (creating no new elements of any kind), governed by rules (conventions that suspend ordinary law), and make believe (special awareness of a second reality or a free unreality).

Probably from the influence of ambience, I started thinking about PolyFauna. PolyFauna is an app created by Radiohead that “comes from an interest in early computer life-experiments and the imagined creatures of our subconscious” emergent from the band’s album The King of Limbs. The rules (?) or orientation within the app (which I would like some complication/clarification from game) state:

Your screen is the window into an evolving world.
Move around to look around.
You can follow the red dot.
You can wear headphones.

Members of the band collaborated with Universal Everything in creating the app|game, the process of creation can be read about the project from Matt Pyke, founder of Universal Everything. Pyke describes the project as

The idea was to create a world to experience Radiohead’s music in a totally different way – something beyond a remix or a download that would push the boundaries of what music and digital can do when brought together fully. We hoped the experience of PolyFauna would be unique to each individual person, rather than everybody having the same record or app with the same sounds and images. We also wanted to open up the possibilities of what music can mean in the digital age, beyond tiny thumbnail artwork and YouTube.

What is of interest to me in this app|game is the simplicity/complexity of its play—it seems emergent, it’s ambient. It’s simultaneously structured and open (dynamic/plastic), it accounts for agency/action of the player (person) and the players in the form of the environment (time, space, object). I see it as a possibility space to further explore play as poeisis, as affective structures for activity that is meaningful but resultant from different matter—something less human-centered. I am curious as to the affordances of Callilois’ multifaceted definition of play as impactful of culture but less rooted in competition (from Huizinga) which seems very human action oriented and in Sutton-Smith’s play rhetorics as a means of exploring ambiguity and perhaps hybridity of human and nonhuman players. I think what I’m getting at is exploration of post-human play—not the loss of the human player, but the acknowledgment of nonhuman players to look differently at ambiguity in play and culture on the premise of action|agency.

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