I am down an hour before sunrise, an enterprise some might say has spiritual overtones, since reverence and awe is involved, or some might call it Deep Play. Or this drive I have could be characterised as a desire for a sublime aesthetic experience, which I use to produce poetry and photographs as art. Art is play, experiment, and creative fun, though play is not a necessary or sufficient condition for art (games are play and some art/craft would not normally be considered play). Such a notion of play does not undermine art’s seriousness, and a sense of art as a revelation of reality.
The last few days, she has been spectacular, but not today. I love colour and colour always shines somewhere, sometime. When Helios shows up colour mills in low amplitude between the breakers, golden pools swirling around dark blue cysts.
The Sooty Oystercatchers are foraging exactly where they were yesterday. They are getting used to me, slowly closing in on their formal magnificence.
I glance up, a Goshawk (pale morph) is flying across the cliff, I have never seen one here before, only in the forest – you never know what you might see.
Importance of play – Homo ludens
‘Man is only truly human when he plays,’ claimed Schiller, which Colin Falck concludes – ‘thereby also suggesting a foundation for a new non-instrumental and non-theoretical understanding not only of art but human life as a whole.’[i]
The Dutch anthropologist Johan Huizinga claimed that human culture is founded on play, which he defined as, ‘an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, invisible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material ability.’ [ii]
‘The complete character of a human being does not come into view unless we add Homo ludens, man the player, to Homo sapiens, intelligent man, Homo faber, man the maker of things, and Homo laborans, man the worker . . . The aim of work is to exert power over the hostile world, to subdue it, and to extract from it what may be useful for satisfying wants; the aim of understanding is to discern the intelligibility of the world . . . I shall also use the word ‘play’ in a wide sense, to stand for an activity that, because it is not directed to the satisfaction of wants, entails an attitude to the world that is not concerned to use it, to get something out of it, or to make something of it, and offers satisfactions that are not at the same time frustrations.’[iii]
Play is activity framed as play, as Gregory Bateson argued: ‘play’ becomes ‘play’ when the action in that sphere is interpreted through the frame of ‘play’. He noticed the paradox of play while watching otters in a zoo; they bite each other but each know when the bite is serious or play. This is the paradox of the Cretan Epimenides when he utters, ‘All Cretans are liars.’[iv] He argued that ‘play’ becomes ‘play’ when the action in that sphere is interpreted through the frame of ‘play’. Bateson defined the frame of ‘play’ as, ‘These actions in which we now engage do not denote what those actions for which they stand would denote.’[v]
Erving Goffman classified the framing Bateson noted as transforming activities, one (aggressive biting) is transformed into another, (playful nipping) by participants construction of the context.[vi] Goffman uses the theatre metaphor to explain how we ‘stage manage’ our self-image and play roles. [vii]
Our commonplace notions of play come from an urban industrial context. Play was very different for our ancestors: ‘Children play at hunting, gathering, hut construction, tool making, meal preparations, defence against predators, birthing, infant care, healing, negotiation, and so on and so on; and gradually, as their play become increasingly skilled, the activities become productive. The play becomes work, but it does not cease being play. It may even become more fun than before, because the productive quality helps the whole band and is valued by all.’[viii]
Diane Ackerman begins her book, Deep Play, ‘We evolved through play. Our culture thrives on play. Courtship includes high theatre, rituals, and ceremonies of play. Ideas are playful reverberations of the mind. Language is a playing with words until they can impersonate physical objects and abstract ideas. Animal play serves many purposes.’[ix]
Brian Sutton-Smith doubts there is one definition of play, emphasising that any activity can be play. He offers seven rhetorics of play which illuminate its various aspects:
- Play as progress, from a biological approach, sees play as an aesthetic expressive force. ‘Its adaptiveness might centre on what play does for a sense of well-being, an ecstatic play, rather than what play does as work or as adaptation.’ From my perspective, bricolage is a central process in human development that requires, curiosity, intelligence and play
- Play as fate, emphasis on luck rather than talent (antithesis to 1 but shares a future orientation).
- Play as power-play, as a rational activity.
- Play as forming identity, as bonding and celebrating community.
- Play as imaginary and creative. (He suggests we need a rhetoric of the irrational to deal with this.)
- Play as self, focus on fun and phenomenological aspects.
- Play as frivolity and nonsense. [x]
To enlarge 5, play is closely connected to skill and tool use, think of sports. Edward Thomas noted, ‘Two boys were doing the cleverest thing I saw on this journey. They were keeping a whiptop, and that a carrot shaped one, spinning by kicking it in turns. Which was an accomplishment more worthy of being commemorated on a tombstone than the fact that you owned Glastonbury Abbey.’ [xi]
Play has now found a home in screens, and for the younger children in plastics.
‘The gaming industry is making more than three times as much money as the music industry and almost four times as much as the movie industry. One of the main reasons for the gaming industry’s success is the increasing popularity of mobile gaming.’[xii]
We live within the system of capitalism and consumerism, reliant on tools and technologies. Without fire and tools like language and the Oldowan toolkit, Homo sapiens would not be Homo sapiens. Tools have evolved into machines. The word derives from the Greek mékhané (skill, cunning invention) produced by métis (cunning intelligence), but machines have become technology draining us of embodied skills.
The machines coalesced into Blake’s dark satanic mills and then spun off around the world wherever there was cheap labour. These mills became massive factories, producing all sorts including cars.
The Protestant work ethic (hardly Protestant) and a savings mentality, the cornerstone of the American way of life, frayed after the First World War. Charles Kettering of General Motors preached a new message: ‘The key to economic prosperity is the organised creation of dissatisfaction.’[xiii] General Motors CEO Alfred Sloan marketing principles were, ‘a car for every purse or purpose’ and ‘dynamic obsolescence’ which Apple have pursued. When Sloan took over in 1923, Ford had cornered 60% of the market compared to General Motors’ 12%. By 1929 General Motors had overtaken Ford.
‘John Bugas (number two at the Ford Motor Company) coined the term consumerism as a substitute for capitalism to better describe the American economy in a 1955 speech.’[xiv] And here we are expert consumers wanting mountains of stuff.
There are currently 11 hues of green in LEGO and around 400 billion LEGO bricks circulating on the planet. Moulding of the bricks takes place in Billund, Denmark; Nyíregyháza, Hungary; Monterrey, Mexico; and most recently in Jiaxing, China.
The event, known as the Great Lego Spill
‘February 13, 1997, about five million Legos were lost at sea when a rogue wave tipped a massive cargo ship dubbed the Tokio Express. Ironically, many of the kits were sea creature themed. Ever since, collectors have gone out to look for “rare” pieces like octopuses and green dragons.
Out of the 4,756,940 Lego pieces on board, about 3,178,807 were light enough to float and are what is commonly found across 40 beaches in Cornwall.
In 2017, Rob Arnold, a local of Cornwall, and 12 other volunteers collected about six million pieces of microplastics from a beach near his home . . . The volunteers found plenty of Lego bits among other plastic pieces, including 240 Lego divers’ flippers.’[xv]
‘If you search carefully along the strandline after a wild winter storm, you might still find them. Tiny yellow life jackets and grey scuba tanks. Bright-green plastic seagrass and little spear guns in red and yellow. Blue, black and red divers’ flippers and miniature cutlasses. Perhaps a dragon or an octopus, just three inches long. Maybe even a small yellow life raft.’[xvi]
‘New research has found those classic Lego bricks take between 100 and 1,300 years to fully disintegrate at sea, depending on variations in the plastic’s composition and the marine weathering it experiences.’[xvii]
I pocket the piece, put in a bin for landfill.
[i] Aesthetic Education, letter 15, quoted Colin Falck, Myth, Truth and Literature: Towards a True Post-Modernism, Cambridge UP, 2nd ed, 1994, p103.
[ii] Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens: A study of the Play Element in Culture, trans. Karl Mannheim, (1949), Beacon Press, 1955, p132.
[iii] Michael Oakeshott, ‘Work and Play’, First Things, 54, June/July, 1995.
[iv] Gregory Bateson, ‘The Message ‘This is Play”, in Group Processes: Transactions of the Second Conference, ED. Bertram Schaffner, Josiah Macy Jnr. Foundation, 1956.
[v] Gregory Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Ballantine Books, 1972, p180.
[vi] Erving Goffman, Frame Analysis, Northeastern UP, 1986
[vii] Not necessarily cynical, role playing is ubiquitous and both conscious and unconscious. Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. based on field work in the Shetland Islands as a postgraduate student. Goffman’s Asylums (1961) is an ethnographic account of how patient’s personal identity is erased in mental hospitals, ‘total institutions’ that attempt to control behaviour
[viii] Peter Gray, ‘Play Makes Us Human, V: Why Hunter-Gatherers’ Work is Play’, Psychology Today, July 2 2009.
[ix] Diane Ackerman, Deep Play, [First para] Vintage, 2000.
[x] Brian Sutton-Smith, The Ambiguities of Play, Harvard UP, 1997, p34.
[xi] In Pursuit of Spring, 1914. In March 1913, he set off by bike from his home in Clapham, London to the Quantock Hills, Somerset, describing people, places, birds, flowers and the weather.
[xii] Gavin Divers, ‘Gaming Industry Dominates as the Highest-Grossing Entertainment Industry’, https://gamerhub.co.uk/ 24.1.2023.
[xiii] Charles Kettering quote from Jeremy Rifkin, ‘The End of Work’ p20, Putnam Books, 1995.
[xv] Elizabeth Gamillo, ‘After 25 Years at Sea, Shipwrecked Lego Pieces Are Still Washing Ashore on Beaches in England’, Smithsonian, February 16, 2022.
[xvi] Tracey Williams, ‘What 4,756,940 pieces of Lego lost at sea tell us about our attitudes to plastic pollution’, Big Issue, 11 Feb 2022.
[xvii] Carly Cassella, ‘A Lego Brick That Falls in The Ocean Could Still Be Found 1,000 Years From Now’, Science Alert,17 March 2020.