Sunday, May 04, 2008


The thought occurs to me, and I won't say that it's either pleasant or unpleasant, that in lieu of discussing ideas what I actually do here is play with ideas. Playful discourse, discursive play—and so I begin by playing with the aimless, one of the many destabilizers that will play into this discussion.

In the back of my mind now is Gaston Bachelard's idea that "all rationalism is interrationalism." I favor pluralism and disagree with any equation of pluralism to dialecticism, but I find it difficult to assail the dialectician's position without confirming it, so I will be playing with these ideas instead of assailing them. Mind you, this is all in the back of my mind. I'll waltz with Bachelard's Dialectic of Duration anon. Today I'm going to respond briefly to Agamben's essay "In Playland" (in Infancy and History), which is wonderfully fun to read and in large measure an all around agreeable sort of text.

Agamben gives us the gist of his foray into play: "we can regard ritual and play not as two distinct machines but as a single machine, a single binary system, which is articulated across two categories which cannot be isolated and across whose correlation and difference the very functioning of the system is based" (p. 74, Agamben's emphasis). I might provisionally agree that play can't be isolated, though the provisional nature of the agreement cannot be stressed enough, and yet still question the existence of a single binary system, or more particularly its status as an object of thought or topic of discussion. In what sense would such a system not be a structure? Would a system's inclusion of event warrant making the claim, should our thought be called into question, that the system does not have the properties of a structure? Certainly there are reasons people speak of fluid, dynamic systems, or systematic processes and the like, and one of those reasons may be precisely to avoid confusion with structures. Yet in this case, in the case of the structuralism of Claude Lévi-Strauss, to whom "In Playland" is dedicated, given all that is claimed of structure, pointing to a system outside of the existence of structure becomes a dubious gesture, even when the gesture appears to be authorized by Lévi-Strauss himself.

Let's examine the problem from a slightly different angle. If one were to speak of an interpolation of some entity or force with structure, just supposing, what qualities would the interpolated necessarily possess? What qualities would have to belong to the context of interpolation? (What qualities would have to belong to a context of an interpellation?) For structure to remain structure in such a context what qualities would it appear to impart? Alternatively, we might simply ask what properties must structure have in order for there to be metamorphosis, for metamorphosis is very much at issue.

Can culture rationally be isolated in the way Agamben intends? Agamben's binary systems are entirely coextensive with cultures in a Boasian sense, and this occasions the question of whether contemporary ethnography would endorse such a view. Provisionally, sure, we can isolate culture. However, we may want to introduce more than a few caveats before jumping to descriptions of the functioning of the cultural system, were that our aim, and we should want know about such caveats before deciding on questions of isolation. I don't doubt that culture can be isolated, for heuristic purposes, for instance, but I shall never tire of questioning how and to what purpose one isolates culture or any other phenomenon for that matter.

If anything can be isolated, and of course we would issue provisos, then we have to keep our minds open to the possibility that play can indeed be isolated with reason. Isn't this what we do for the sake of discussion? And perhaps also we isolate play for the sake of play, though I am not sure what happens to reason in that case. Is there something like a spirit of play that would animate our toys, fill our playgrounds with laughter, guide our most theatrical gestures, even the aimless ones? Does play have something to teach us about rationality? If there is a spirit of play, or a muse, surely she would smile, bemusedly, on an idle engagement with play, jealously guarding against interference from the forces of seriousness. Above all play demands to be played with. In subscribing to the position that the phenomenon suggests how it ought to be approached, I am conscious of making a move I might not want to make if I were coaching myself from the sidelines. Why, one could insist that play must be approached with seriousness, because dialectic demands it, or for some other reason.

Agamben draws the following formula from his reading of Lévi-Strauss' La Pensée Sauvage: "while rites transform events into structures, play transforms structures into events" (p. 73). My translated edition (from 1966, UCP) differs somewhat. The passage at issue would be the end of the chapter titled "The Science of the Concrete," beginning with the discussion of the Fox Indian funeral rites on page 31. On page 32 Lévi-Strauss talks about the disjunctive function of play as opposed to the conjunctive function of ritual and he says, "Like science (though here again on both the theoretical and the practical plane) the game produces events by means of a structure." In either case play, or a certain structured kind of play known as the game, creates events. Structure is transformed, or, having served a purpose, it slips behind the event; it allows the event its lambency. You see the danger of slipping straight into the binaries, though, don't you? Elision, elusion, illusion. Is it really play if this is the way it ends up, as the mirror of ritual, or as a machine part? I rather feel that play must involve an openness, and that means play must allow for play itself, which may not mean conclusively play all by itself, like you could pack it up and take it home with you and that would still be play, but would involve spending some time at play itself.

I want to introduce a few more terms, cautious of the danger of allowing them to form a "permutation group," that is, to be deployed in the service of myth rather than some other kind of thought I might rather prefer. Levi-Strauss' formula for myth, Fx(a):Fy(b) ⋍ Fx:Fa-1(y) ("The Structural Study of Myth," Structural Anthropology, p. 228) might serve as a model for how not to play with ideas if one is to play in the spirit of play, or, indeed, the spirit of ideas, or of thought, if we presume to speak of thought. Should we allow the structuralists to distinguish the diachronic from the synchronic, as is their custom, without questioning the commonplace implication that the synchronic is in fact timeless? Isn't timelessness, or achrony, sufficiently less than synchrony in any temporal sense so as to warrant its own concept? Is there room for polychrony at any moment in the thinking of the structuralists? Will the dialecticians allow us to speak of polylectic—why should bees have all the fun?—or will they take their ball and go home at the first hint of the many? For my part I will not assume that theses and antitheses exhaust the things that may be synthesized, which is to say I will not let the thesis be pre-emptorily defined in such a way as to prejudice the synthesis. I don't mean to dwell in a paradox of allowing a synthesis to precede a thesis, but rather I merely wish to avoid too much seriousness for fear of being dreadfully wrong about how to live, or, more immediately, how to enjoy the play of ideas.

When one looks to play for models of how to think (or how to live), among the terrible mistakes one can make is to regard a model as the model. Happily, playgrounds don't have just one kind of equipment which would model play for life. Alongside the teeter-totters are the swing sets, the monkey bars, the slides, the sandboxes, the balance beams, the jungle gyms, the merry-go-rounds and what have you. It is probably a grievous intellectual mistake to believe that a society's toys and games can't be played with. Societies might rather be heating and cooling instead of hot and cold, if those are the terms one insists upon, because it's not for nothing that people play. Does play impart something to structure, even, were we to accept the idea, in transforming structure into event? How do we think around transience?

Agamben cites Fragment 52 of Heraclitus (αἰὼν παῖς ἐστι παίζων, πεττεύων· παιδὸς ἡ βασιληίη), which, as he puts it, says that Aion is a child playing dice. Agamben doesn't cite Fragment 70 (perhaps because it's apocryphal) which says that human opinions are children's toys (παίδων ἀθύρματα νενόμικεν εἶναι τὰ ἀνθρώπινα δοξάσματα). The Italian word cianfrusaglie (trinkets, rags, junk) came up in my searches for ἀθύρματα. Although cianfrusaglie resonates with Lévi-Strauss' theme of bricolage, which Agamben takes up, I would be cautious about defending opinion in these terms, whose values we would be playing with, and not at all keen to see too rigid a separation of logos from opinion, which might be implied, and which I might have already leaned towards in my wish to avoid slipping into myth. (It's hard, I know.) Agamben says, speaking of the scraps that fall into the world of the child, "Everything which is old, independent of its sacred origins, is liable to become a toy" (p. 70). The essence of the toy, he tells us, is "the Historical in its pure state" (p. 71, my emphasis). Well, what isn't δοξάσματα? What isn't cianfrusaglie? How can we be sure that Aion (or the Diachronic) or the Historical aren't cianfrusaglie? Would it be horrible to be locked inside a world of cianfrusaglie? Might that be the question of play?

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posted by Fido the Yak at 11:17 AM.


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