Emancipation through the play ethic?

Pat Kane on the theory and emancipatory possibilities of play:

The text appeared on the IDC mailing list in preparation of a digital labor conference.

Pat has three reports so far that result from this discussion. See: 1, 2, 3

“In The Ideology of the Aesthetic, Terry Eagleton devotes a chapter to Schiller’s Letters of the Aesthetic Education of Man – one of the most important theories of play ever (and much quoted by Johan Soderberg in Hacking Capitalism). Eagleton notes that Schiller’s evocation of the importance of play – what he called the ‘play drive’ – allowed Marx to envision the kind of rich, fully-extended humanity that exploitation and alienation would damage and distort. “Marx’s critique of industrial capitalism is deeply rooted in a Schillerian vision of stunted capacities, dissociated powers, the ruined totality of human nature” (http://bit.ly/rcBx).

The “play-drive” for Schiller is also the ground of possibility of all human action: it suspends the destructive tendencies both of our appetites (‘sense-drive’) and our reason (form-drive), and creates a zone of “free determinability”. From this sublime experience of possible states of being (which Schiller terms ‘aesthetic’), we will be able to assess the best, most “graceful” options for personal and social action.

So Schiller’s vision of the play-drive is that of a space of potentiation in the human condition – and I guess Marx’s radicalism was to see that this protean, self-creating force at the heart of our species being needed a revolutionary redeployment of resources to come into its own. But what is interesting about the study of play since Schiller, right up to the present, is that so much biology, zoology and psychology confirms his characterisation of play as that zone of possibility in the human condition.

Play is ‘adaptive potentiation’, as the great play scholar Brian Sutton-Smith puts it. By this he means all those experiments, simulations and virtualisations that we recognise as play, but which clearly serve an evolutionary purpose – namely, to aid our survival and flourishing. How? By helping us rehearse strategies for dealing with our complex social worlds, composed (as they are) of other linguistic and richly emotional human beings. (On Sutton-Smith’s latest formulation of this, see http://bit.ly/wQTwp).

So play is deeply constitutive of human sociality: we know this from child development. And that productive adulthood has been about the ‘soul’s play-day being the devil’s work-day’, or the ‘putting away of childish things’, is a Puritan truism that any student of Weber knows about. And any other student of E.P. Thompson also knows how relentless was the campaign needed to subject the pre-capitalist culture of festivals and ‘Happy Mondays’ to disciplinary, workplace rule.

But here’s what might be the truly revolutionary fact of our digital and networked lives: Its symbolic and immaterial plentitude, and the participative design of its tools and platforms, helps adults to recover, and then extend and develop, that constitutive experience of play. As many of the Italian Marxists say, particularly Paulo Virno in his recent ‘Multitude’ books, there might be a new anthropology required to cope with a world in which the most protean of human faculties – language, affectivity and symbolic analysis itself – becomes the basic productive infrastructure of organisational, community and personal life.

Does this deep nexus between species being and our digital+networked ‘extensions of the human’ (to smarten up McLuhan), around the axis of play, have consequences for how we arrange our productive lives? At the very least, one can point to the amazing diversity on this list – every “adaptive potentiation” from a mark-up language that encodes the working conditions of its sites, to an iPhone app that helps you do voluntary info-work for charities, to Ned Rossiter’s ‘organised networks’ as the successor to trade unions – as indication that an extraordinary creative energy is being tapped. Shirky tells us that it’s a matter of insanely-easy group-forming networks opening up space beneath the Coasian floor, but there’s more to it than that. To explain this fecundity, I keep finding myself turning away from sociology or economics, and either turning to philosophy – the creative ontology and transcendental empiricisms of Deleuze, Negri, Virno and others – or to what has to be called (with some tentativeness, I concede – but only some) the ‘socio-biology’ of play. (Maybe biosemiotics – see http://bit.ly/SvDT5).

In a recent presentation, http://bit.ly/RGjlU, I talked about the common conditions for a ‘ground of play’. Cubs cavorting on the savannah, children having fun in a playpark, adults interacting with the Web: each of these playgrounds have 1) loose but robust governance, 2) ensure a surplus of time, space and stuff, 3) treat failure, risk and mess as developmental necessities. I went on to cite Google’s 20 percent rule – where its engineers are encourage to devote 20% of their work time to projects that don’t follow company imperatives – as a rare example of a mainstream company trying to recreate those constitutive conditions of play for their employees. (I’ve also been delighted to dive into Fred Turner’s archive, triggered by his contribution to this list, and find this brilliant essay on Google’s embrace of Burning Man culture, which corroborates my point http://bit.ly/AvFUZ).

Does Google, or any of the ‘netarchical capitalists’ that Michel Bauwens talks about, in any way exhaust the organisational possibilities available? In no way. And can the engaging interactions that we have upon these ‘grounds of play’ be pointed towards socially progressive ends? Well, I’m looking at the Extraordinaries app on my iPhone at the moment (though I’d like to have more to do than tagging the Smithsonian’s pics). And we know from people like Jane McGonigal (http://www.avantgame.com) how much gaming has the possibility to improve governance, foresight and collective wisdom.

So I’d like to resist the notion of the ‘play-labor nexus’ advanced by Julian Kucklich, Jonathan Beller and Brian Holmes on this list, and perhaps suggest a ‘play-network terrain’ instead – a landscape to be explored, and flexibly de- and re-territorialized, rather than a fiendish strategy to create ‘dividuals’ out of individuals, and extend the tendrils of biopower everywhere (first the cinema makes our minds and passions machinic, then television, then the internet… I prefer going from Kubrick’s flying bone, to the spaceship, in a jump cut…)

We need to keep carefully attending to the design of our networks, protocols and interfaces – immersing ourselves in an “aesthetic craft” which Schiller and Marx would both have recognised as the authentic practice of autonomous, non-alienated labor. (And which playcraft Richard Sennett in his book The Craftsman locates as the very conditions of citizenship http://bit.ly/nQTS). As Soderberg rephrases Schiller in his book (http://bit.ly/DsZ3a),

“If man is ever to solve that problem of politics in practice he will have to approach it through the problem of the aesthetic, because it is only through Beauty that man makes his way to Freedom”. Both adherents and critics of Schiller have pigeonholed him in the tradition of romanticism. It would do Schiller more justice if his words were recovered from the fine arts scene and instead applied to the politics that flow from the “beauty of the baud” and the play with source code in the computer underground.

Like Bauwens, I see this playfully-driven moment of infrastructural and organisational creativity as an opportunity for civic enterprise on a number of fronts (and niches), rather than as one more version of the ‘bigger cages, longer chains’ tradition of left pessimism (as Brian Holmes at least admits). Trebor’s wish that the Digital Labor conference has a strand concerned with “peer producing infrastructures ourselves”, without which the “sharing mode by itself is not strong enough to sustain itself”, is one I share. Building good, generative playgrounds is noble labor indeed.”

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