The Importance of Being Playful

One of my duties as a scholar, I’ve come to believe, is to pick the stick up from the other end. When I can’t do it on my own, it follows that I appreciate instances in which I find it being done by others. Huizinga’s “Nature and Significance of Play as a Cultural Phenomenon” is one such instance. There, Huizinga’s purpose is to show how the concept of ‘play’ is suffused with cultural and phenomenological meaning.

By positing a necessity of play extending beyond mere biological instinct and characterizing it as a “social function” (4) on the level of religious feast and storied myth, Huizinga makes a powerful claim that play is literally the stuff of human identity and civilization as we know it.

Civilization arises and unfolds in and as play. (Foreward)

Huizinga details six main characteristics of play:

  1. Play is voluntary and free – “Play to order is no longer play.”
  2. Play does not constitute ‘ordinary’ or ‘real’ life 8 – “Nevertheless…the consciousness of play being ‘only a pretend’ does not by any means prevent it from proceeding with the utmost seriousness, with an absorption, a devotion that passes into rapture and, temporarily at least, completely abolishes that troublesome ‘only’ feeling.”
  3. Play is spatially secluded and temporally limited (9) – “Play begins, and then at a certain moment it is ‘over’. It plays itself to an end.”
  4. Play not only creates order, it is order (10) – “All play has its rules. They determine what ‘holds’ in the temporary world circumscribed by play…Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed the whole play-world collapses. The game is over.”
  5. Play is for play’s sake (13) – “It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it.”
  6. Play holds a social position within a culture, and is often associated with secrecy (12-13) – “It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference form the common world by disguise or other means.”

“‘Life must be lived as play, playing certain games, making sacrifices, singing and dancing, and then a man will be able to propitiate the gods, and defend himself against his enemies, and win in the contest.’” – Plato (19)

Using Plato’s stance on play as his guiding principle, and turning the anthropological notion of ritual as prior to play on its head, Huizinga argues for not only the primacy of play to ritual but also for the need to reconceptualize ritual as play: “The ritual act has all the formal and essential characteristics of play which we enumerated above, particularly in so far as it transports the participants to another world…Inside this space the play proceeds, inside it the rule obtain. Now, this marking out of some sacred spot is also the primary characteristic of every sacred act” (19).

If we accept the close relationship between play and ritual, feast, myth, and language itself that Huizinga illustrates, and if we have approached this essay with the mindset that play is “merely” childish diversion, then, at last, we are forced to re-conceptualize play as something bearing the gravitas of what it means to be alive.

And so it happens that the stick is picked up from the other end–thinking about and through play turns out to be intensely serious. Play itself turns out to be profound and aesthetic. It is, paradoxically, both our ethea and our habitus–our wildness and the place to which we perpetually return. As myth and language, it comprises the foundation on which cultures are born.

I thought a lot about Richard Lanham while reading Huizinga’s piece. Lanham seems to have picked up on Huizinga’s play on Homo Sapien (i.e. by recasting it as Homo Ludens: Man the Player) when he conceived the dichotomy between homo seriosus and homo rhetoricus. Not only that, but Lanham also delights in picking the stick up from the other end. He too understands the seriousness of play, and actually goes so far as to claim that to not play–with language, with style–is dangerous. Lanham actually does with language and play what Huizinga does with ritual and play, the end result being the rehabilitation of play and the amplification of its centrality in linguistic and societal contexts.


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