Thursday, May 11, 2017

Homo Ludens at Work and Play

 Art can allow the city dweller to escape the “world of production,” the term Richard Schechner uses in Performance Theory, to denote the world that is not the world of playful performance and ritual. The worlds of sport, art, play, ritual, exist alongside the mundane world of production. These worlds of performance are not “window dressing” but are necessary for the survival of a culture. Performance can as what seems to be a poignant question at times: “Why can't all be play?” Why does it seem the world of production must be different from this other, parallel world? Different and, as common sense seems to have it, less fun?

Let us grant Schechner's claim, that this world of play or play-acting, existing along a continuum of dead seriousness and plain pretending, is as necessary for a culture's survival as are the activities of production: growing food, building and maintaining lodgings etc. Collingwood and Danto argue that art is something other than entertainment, and is something other than decoration and embellishment. I have read an art work shows what it is like to believe something. We will leave aside detailed consideration of the interdependence of the play and work worlds, while allowing that each may make the other possible. It is as if a culture's members cannot simultaneously work in the world of production and consider this production from an artistic, playful, play-acting, or ritualistic point of view, and art in the "showing" sense is necessary to provide this view of the world of production, in a shareable form, to give solace to the workers; they may not be able to escape the world of production as often as or as much as they would like, and it soothes them, gives comfort to them, and is reassuring to know that their experience of the world of work has an articulate voice. “Misery loves company,” and the miserableness of the requirement of a culture, that some of its members work, is mitigated by the company of the comparatively “sacred” world of the artist.

For many, “art” as experienced is likely to be limited to – beyond museum trips – to such activities as watching television, listening to pop music, and advertising “art works” such as logos and jingles. Television provides, during prime time, some artist-entertainers' views of the profane world of work, and that assumption is a large one; the television is not always done in earnest, authentically. The worker, seated before a sixty-inch-diagonal flat-screen television-computer with 5.1 surround sound, streams into his or her “leisure” world the laugh tracks of 1950s middle-America and the acting-school-honed voices of – as Edward Abbey noted were brought even into the wilderness, decades ago, by vacationers – Los Angeles. The miseries of the world of production are ameliorated because someone else appears to have seen a vision like the worker's own, of this misery. Once the worker has “rested” before the television – whether this is supposed to happen in a living room or a trailer towed to a campground – equilibrium returns to him or her, and the world of work will always welcome a fresh start from a “refreshed” service vendor, barista, doctor, pharmacist, motorcycle mechanic, IT manager, or new college graduate on the “job hunt.”

Hobbies are recommended often, it seems, as a fix for the mental dis-ease of the post-/modern worker. Growing tomatoes, it is believed by some, will alleviate the suffering of a business analyst who is sometimes tormented by her boss. The showing what it is like to believe something, of Collingwood, allows the sharing of unfairness, injustice, hope, and grief among people who have never and may never meet. The world of art, play, play-acting, and ritual, would seem to be the sick-bay of the human spirit; the world of production requires the other world, to keep its workers in suitable psychic shape to work indefinitely.

At the same time, the players, play-actors, artists, and ritualizers, need the support of the world of production; without its fruits, both literal and figurative, they would starve to death within days. Each world depends upon the other, and one person can move between them, now planting tomatoes for a hobby garden, now compiling business reports on the tastes in music and clothing of college students.
The world of work, like spilled water, seems to spread and infiltrate as much as, and into as much of everything, as is possible in early 21st-century United States salaried positions. “Work-life balance” and checking email on weekends, and working through “vacations,” as well as eating lunch at one's desk, are said to be common, for example. The smartphone or vanishing Blackberry-branded handheld device makes the salaried worker instantly available, “on call,” 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Ernest Dimnet pointed to the encroachment of the business world's language into the private world of personal-letter exchanges. Nietzsche, before him, opined that the language of business in Germany was corrupting his fellow Germans' use of the German language.

Citing Johann Huizinga's Homo Ludens, Schechner points out the suggestion of paradox in the simultaneous “non-serious” nature of play, and the player's being absorbed in the play activity “intensely and utterly.” We can see this same apparent paradox expressed by Friedrich Schiller, as: “[M]an only plays when he is a man in the full meaning of the word, and he is only completely a man when he plays,” and perhaps more famously, “[M]an is never so serious as when he plays.” “From the standpoint of productive work, it is silly to put so much energy into the 'control of the ball' or the 'defense of 10 yards of territory' " (p. 11, Performance Theory, Schechner). It is an interesting question, why we take play activities so seriously at times – one partial answer to which may be: “For the fun of it.” Play may have intrinsic value; the world of production has extrinsic value.

“Flow” is a term popularized by Mihalyi Csiksentmihalyi to describe a state similar to or identical to that of the absorbed player. Flow appears to be a way to transform work into play. Employers appear to be attempting to intrude into the world of playful performance by bringing “play” into the world of production, tying it down, and convincing the worker that he or she is free and is engaging in free play. Can this be the case, and if it can be, is there any permanent, insurmountable difference between the two worlds discussed here as Schechner's “world of production” and the world of playful performance? Does all work involve performance? Does performance involve work?

A key element in – if not they key element in – “optimal experience,” Csikszentmihalyi says, is the achievement of or attainment of this flow state. Flow would seem to unify the dual worlds of production and of performance. To the world of production and its workers, the linking of optimal performance with optimal experience signals “dollar signs.” “I can get paid to play!” exclaims the worker. “I can convince my workers they are playing and not working! I can pay them less, and if they don't agree with the new plan, and don't feel as if they're playing – “Motivation 2.0,” intrinsic motivation, the “borrowing” of the style of open-source software developers and Wikipedia denizens – I can get rid of them and find someone I can convince, someone who is more autotelic in my service,” says the worker's bosses.

Maybe the worker participates in the world of production as much because it will “put food on the table” as because it will “buy” “free time,” during which the worker can leave the world of work to become the player, and experience flow. Whatever benefits a workplace has, in which “play” and flow are valued, there would seem to remain the catastrophic danger of a total conflation of work and play, and with it the emergence of a whole society as a (dystopian) “total institution” like a prison or a mental hospital. The most important thing to recognize about play is that it is not “for” the “recovery” of the worker; it is not justified by its existing – as if it were a luxury – “for” the world of production to appropriate or even for it to benefit from. Play is self-justifying activity and requires no further justification. The world of production cannot justly lay claim to it or to any part of it.

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