Game as Cultural Form, Play as Disposition

[Note: This post originally appeared on both Terra Nova and]

February 7, 2009

I’ve just posted a piece to SSRN about play. In the past I have focused on games as a culturally-shaped activity (what we anthropologists would call a cultural form), and in the course of that I have made explicit efforts to decouple games from the concept of play (see here, for example). I argued that it is not very useful to see play as an activity, with games as a subset of it, and suggested that play more usefully denotes a disposition, a way of approaching the world.

In doing that I wasnt trying to argue that games and play are not related to each other, but rather that we need to move beyond seeing them as intrinsically linked (where the question of, for example, whether something is a game boils down to whether it brings about a playful experience). The primary motivation was to make room for an approach to games on their own terms, but the issue of play has been simmering with me for a long time. The posted essay is the result – a long-planned attempt to articulate play as a disposition.

In the piece I look at how anthropology as a discipline stumbled a bit in thinking about play, but simultaneously managed to develop a useful approach to ritual. This approach avoided making the litmus test of a ritual whether it brought about religious experience, and therein is a lesson for those of us studying games and play. Pushing further in this direction, I assert that the ideas of William James and the pragmatist philosophers in general may hold the key to moving forward in our understanding of games and play.

Here is an excerpt (the many footnotes excised here, for convenience):

Huizinga set the tone for much of the inquiry into games and society in the latter half of the twentieth century with his book Homo Ludens. This book bears much responsibility for fostering the unfortunate view, developed more rigidly still by Caillois, that games are culturally sequestered and consequence-free activities. Still, here as in many such midcentury works of cultural history, illuminating contradictions abound. As Huizinga’s argument develops, near the end of his text he focuses on something quite different: “Civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play…it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.” Huizinga is much more enlightening when he speaks of the “play-element” (just the type of experience or disposition that interests us here), rather than of “play” as a (separable, safe) activity. For him the play-element marked by an interest in uncertainty and the challenge to perform that arises in competition, by the legitimacy of improvisation and innovation that the premise of indeterminate circumstances encourages is opposed above all to utilitarianism and the drive for efficiency. Caillois likewise, despite his misleading claim that games are occasions of “pure waste,” recognizes the centrality of contingency in games. Huizinga felt that the play element had been on the wane in western civilization since the eighteenth century, threatened by the drive for efficiency and the routinization of experience it brought.

These tantalizing recognitions of the contingent nature of experience in the world direct us to sources and analogues in philosophical thought. American pragmatist philosophers broke from the Western tradition in their rejection of an ultimately ordered universe: for them the universe was, as Louis Menand put it, “shot through with contingency.” The pragmatists were not alone in this insight. The phenomenologists also gestured toward it, notably in Martin Heidegger’s concept of “thrownness” (which was developed in anthropology by Michael Jackson). The ideas of “practice theory,” as Ortner described it, are also consistent with this picture of the world as an ongoing and open-ended process: Pierre Bourdieu, Marshall Sahlins, Michel DeCerteau, and Anthony Giddens each have sought in different ways to overcome determinative pictures of the world. Although the scope of this essay allows only a broad description of these connections, I suggest that we are at a point where, in recognizing these commonalities, we can begin to forge a useful concept of play that will inform our understanding of experience in a uncertain world.

What are the features of play as a disposition toward the world in all its possibility? First, it is an attitude that is totalizing in the sense that it reflects an acknowledgment of how events, however seemingly patterned or routinized, can never be cordoned off from contingency entirely. As the scientist James Clerk Maxwell put it, the “metaphysical doctrine that from the same antecedents follow the same consequents is not of much use in a world like this, in which the same antecedents never again concur, and nothing ever happens twice.” The earthier popular sentiment in American English, “Shit happens,” signals the same conviction. Second, the disposition of play is marked by a readiness to improvise, a quality captured by Bourdieu in his development of Mauss’ concept of the habitus. To be practically equipped to act, successfully or not, amid novel circumstances is the condition of being a social actor at all, Bourdieu argues. One can also note Dewey’s argument that uncertainty is inherent in practice, and that it is in contrast to this practical open-endedness that theoretical claims to certainty seek to marginalize and denigrate practical knowledge. Finally, play is a disposition that makes the actor an agent within social processes, albeit in an importantly restrained way; the actor may affect events, but this agency is not confined to the actor’s intent, or measured by it. Rather, it allows for unintended consequences of action. This is consistent with Oliver Wendell Holmes “bettabilitarianism,” his answer to utilitarianism; every time we act, we effectively make a bet with the universe which may or may not pay off.

The Market, in the 4th Dimension

[Note: This post originally appeared on]

Feb 10, 2009

There is no shortage of opinion, much of it from folks more knowledgeable than I, about how we might make sense of the recent financial catastrophe. Still, I continue to be struck by the way in which a recollection of Adam Smith is apt. By this I mean Adam Smith in his actual writings, not in his mythicized persona – Smith seems to share with Charles Darwin the indignity of massive and sustained misunderstandings of his core ideas. This makes it all the more remarkable that, for us today, Smiths vision of the market 230 years ago was so clear that he can help us understand even its recent, science fiction-like, turn.

As I see it, many of the central lessons of The Wealth of Nations are about a tempering of enthusiasm for market forces. At every turn, Smith is ready to specify what the market cannot do. It cannot answer the demands of infrastructure, for example, or education. I suspect he would have agreed with the phrase that occured to me after Katrina: The invisible hand doesnt rebuild levees.

One of his least often noted but bedrock critical claims about the market is about the relationship between laborers and employers. Smith recognized that laborers are unique among commodities in the way they bid for the price of their own labor. The upshot of this is that, as soon as laborers are competing with each other for jobs, and thereby given a choice between no job and a job for a pittance, they will take the pittance. This can easily leave them working for wages below subsistence level.

So Smith concludes from this that the only broad market condition that stands a chance of improving the workers condition is an expanding market. If the market expands in space rapidly enough, finding more people to participate in buying and selling, then demand can be high enough for workers to be scarce, and for the rising tide indeed to raise all boats. But Smith notes that should the market stop expanding, or contract, things turn very bad for the worker, very quickly.

This is an old economic lesson, of course. And I am sure that it could be picked apart in particulars – it is, after all, a very broad way of talking about things. But what I want to consider for a moment is this notion of expansion in space, and wonder what happens when the market, effectively, runs out of space.

If a significant cause of the recent catastrophe was the ease of credit – many formerly unable to buy homes led to purchase them, most famously, but let us not forget the proliferation of consumer credit in the form of credit cards – then suddenly the so-called prosperity of the last fifteen years or so makes sense in Smiths terms, as long as were willing to shift from thinking about expanding in the dimension of space to that of time.

Consider what credit is – it is effectively an agreement that a future you will actually purchase the item at hand. So in a way the expansion of credit (helped along by a proliferation of financial instruments and related technology) fulfilled, temporarily, exactly what Smith would have predicted. It expanded the market not in space, but forward in time, and the number of available consumers continued to grow. We expanded our market in the fourth dimension.

But of course, it could not be sustained. The bets we made with our future selves were overly hopeful, themselves grounded upon the promise of more of the same paper-thin prosperity. We were not actually finding new markets (which in the long run is a losing proposition in any case) – we were finding ways to sell to us, but in another time.

And it all came crashing down, back to the present.

Urbanist Games

[Note: This post originally appeared on both Terra Nova and]

Feb 8, 2009

In a recent post I raised the idea that, like religious experience for William James, play may best be thought of as a mode of experience. Less foregrounded in that discussion was a further lesson from James: that we should expect to find this disposition in as many varieties as there are times and places for human life, rather than in some universal form. Ive recently posted a paper to ssrn that aims to get us thinking about how play may be distinctively configured in different times and places, specifically in Europe directly after WWII and in the United States through the present day. In it I consider New Babylon, the fascinating project of Unitary Urbanism by Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), who through it sought to make a city for Homo ludens. I set Constants vision against Linden Labs Second Life, a world also deeply informed by ideas about games and play. In both, though in quite different ways, architecting for play held the promise of post-bureaucratic sovereignty.

Here is the abstract:

Constant Nieuwenhuys (aka Constant), 20th-century painter and architect and founding member of the Situationist International, is perhaps best known for his ambitious project of unitary urbanism, New Babylon, on which he worked from 1958 until 1973. This proposed city (which would, theoretically, cover the globe) was intended to prompt all people to express their creativity through their constant reconfiguration of its open and malleable living space.
Explicitly designed for Homo ludens, in it social life was to be constituted by architectural play. But, as Mark Wigley has noted, play was the whole point of New Babylon but not its mode of production. As designer of this universalizing and revolutionary play-space, Constants role entailed the contrivance of open-endedness, and thus implicitly relied upon the very artistic authority that the Situationists had rejected (Constant left the Situationists in 1960). Today, fifty years after he began his project, we can witness similar ideals and contradictions in the virtual world Second Life, an architected social space which also claims to be an infinitely malleable forum for creative expression. In this article I trace to what extent the ideological foundations of both of these projects can be linked to postwar attitudes toward technology and authority on both sides of the Atlantic, and explore how they each draw upon notions of play in distinctive ways. Arriving at the same ideals and contradictions via separate but related paths, New Babylon and Second Life reflect two responses to the challenges of design and post-bureaucratic hopes for the productivity of play.

Burke the Pragmatist?

[Note: This post originally appeared on]

March 12, 2012

We are in the midst of a fascinating moment, when much seems up for grabs for one of the United States political parties. As the GOP looks to right its ship after the disastrous adventures of the Bush administration, a number of conservative writers have understandably begun to re-examine what conservatism is. Meanwhile, the success of Obama has raised the stock of the word pragmatic, even if for the most part the word is tossed about in a pretty vague fashion, as Ta-Nehisi Coates has noted.

So it should not be a surprise to those like me who admit to some schadenfruede at the rights current predicament to see that one move currently gaining ground is an attempt to claim that conservatism was pragmatic all along. Thus is conservatism to be kept well clear of the rising toxicity levels of the word ideology. Of course, to make this move to higher ground stick, one must aim to make a pragmatist of the granddaddy of all conservative thinkers, Edmund Burke. And while Sam Tanenhaus, Andrew Sullivan, and most recently David Brooks have all jumped on board to re-chart this territory, there is only one problem: what Burke actually wrote.

Tanenhaus article for The New Republic is the most in-depth and direct attempt to turn the ideas of Edmund Burke (and hence conservatism) into a kind of pragmatism, so I will focus my attention there. He gives a detailed and learned account of what has happened to conservatism over the past half-century or so, but the heart of his piece is his treatment of Edmund Burke and Benjamin Disraeli. For Tanenhaus these figures represent what conservatism has been and should be: against all dogma and ideology, willing to make expedient decisions – ones that are practically sensible as against those that would merely conform to ideology.

What Tanenhaus would like us to believe is that conservatism had always been essentially pragmatic. On this view, the tumultuous shifts in conservative thought over the latter half of the twentieth century become nothing more than the tainting effects of ideology running rampant over the few remaining voices of pragmatism, such as Whittaker Chambers. And thus is a return to pragmatism held forth not as the immediately attractive tactical move in light of Obamas association with it (and its related centrist appeal), but rather as a return to what conservatism has always been.

I will not take on Tanenhaus portrayal of Disraeli in disputing his picture, as I am not as familiar with Disraelis actions and ideas. The work of Edmund Burke, however, is something I know well enough to be quite skeptical of this political makeover.

Was Burke appalled by the actions of the philosophes of the French Revolution, as they hubristically sought to remake the very foundations of society? Yes. This is the essence of his position. But to claim that this means he did not display ideological commitments in his own ideas about politics is simply wrong.

Burke saw the existing social institutions in place in any society as, first, something to be reckoned with when it comes to political theory and action. This is pragmatic, as far as it goes. For Burke, the primary sin of the philosophes was not ideology, but the belief that their vision of society based on that ideology could be implemented without regard for history:

[The philosophes] have no respect for the wisdom of others, but they pay it off by a very full measure of confidence in their own. With them it is a sufficient motive to destroy an old scheme of things because it is an old one. As to the new, they are in no sort of fear with regard to the duration of a building run up in haste, because duration is no object to those who think little or nothing has been done before their time.1

But when it comes to understanding Burkes own position, his proper attention to history does not absolve it of ideology. And he does not even hide the fact that his own position is informed not simply by an awareness of history, but by an ideological conviction: that the longstanding and conventional – the products of history – are right by virtue of beinglongstanding. This is the reason that Burke is the father of conservatism, because its claim is that the primary principle by which good governance can be achieved is through a conservation of what has come before. This does not exclude any change whatsoever. Instead, in matters of policy it gives precedence to what precedes. In the case of Burkes own time, that specifically meant a valorization of existing social rank and privilege, itself tempered only by the persistence of chivalry, in his romantic conception.

Consider the following quotes from Burke which make this attitude plain:

The power of perpetuating our property in our families is one of the most valuable and interesting circumstances belonging to it, and that which tends the most to the perpetuation of society itselfThe possessors of family wealth, and of the distinction which attends hereditary possession (as most concerned in it), are the natural securities of this transmissionFor though hereditary wealth and the rank which goes with it are too much idolized by creeping sycophants and the blind, abject admirers of power, they are too rashly slighted in shallow speculations of the petulant, assuming, short-sighted coxcombs of philosophy. Some decent, regulated preeminence, some preference (not exclusive appropriation) given to birth is neither unnatural, unjust, nor impolitic. (p. 45)

If civil society be the offspring of convention, that convention must be its law. That convention must limit and modify all the descriptions of constitution which are formed under it. Every sort of legislative, judicial, or executory power are its creatures. They can have no being in any other state of things. (p. 52)

Or consider his valorization of chivalry (p. 67):

The principle [of chivalry], though varied in its appearance by the varying state of human affairs, subsisted and influenced through a long succession of generations even to the time we live in. If it should ever be totally extinguished, the loss I fear will be great. It is this which has given its character to modern Europe.It was this which, without confounding ranks, had produced a noble equality and handed it down through all the gradations of social life. It was this opinion which mitigated kings into companions and raised private men to be fellows with kings.

But now all is to be changed. All the pleasing illusions which made power gentle and obedience liberal, which harmonized the different shades of life, and which, by a bland assimilation, incorporated into politics the sentiments which beautify and soften private society, are to be dissolved by this new conquering empire of light and reason. All the decent drapery of life is to be rudely torn off.

Perhaps this is the most telling passage (p. 30, emphasis added):

We procure reverence to our civil institutions on the principle upon which nature teaches us to revere individual men: on account of their age and on account of those from whom they are descended. All your sophisters cannot produce anything better adapted to preserve a rational and manly freedom than the course that we have pursued.

Burke did stand for the view that one ignores history at ones own peril, but he also stood for the view that the conventions arrived at historically had more than literal precedence. To claim that Burke was not imbuing existing social forms with an inherent rightness is to try to turn him into something other than a conservative. One can understand the desperate rush for dry philosophical ground by those fleeing the warship of modern conservatisms recent and extreme campaigns, but Burke (for one) cannot be pulled quite that far ashore.

1 Edmund Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, 1987 [1790], edited by J.G.A. Pocock (Indianapolis: Hackett), p. 77. All further quotes are from the same edition, with page numbers given.