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Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

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Monday, May 11, 2009

you are it

Brian Sutton-Smith, a psychologist, made important studies of childhood games, play, riddles, jokes and dreams in the sixties and seventies – and he left his mark on a lot of game studies folk. He used both anthropological and psychological perspectives. In a 1971 article, he applied Kenneth Burke’s dramaturgical narrative theory to a corpus of twenty 5 year old children’s dreams, collected by Beverly Elkan:

“A Burkian grammatical analysis of the twenty dreams of twenty five-year-olds in Elkan's collection gives us the following results. While the subject is in the dream on all occasions and while there are occasionally other actors (parents = five; siblings = six; peers = one; relatives = one), the predominant counter-actor is a monster figure in seventeen out of twenty dreams (lion, ghost, tiger, witch, animal, murderer, monster). Where sex is attributed to these figures, females pre- dominate over males, seven to two. In fifteen out of twenty dreams the dreamer is the passive recipient of another's actions. The monster chases, captures, bites, hurts, scares, and injures the dreamer bodily. In only five out of twenty dreams does the dreamer counteract by screaming, saving a sibling, calling for help, or slapping a monster. Half the time the situation is domestic (bed, home, house, or room). Temporal relations are either present or not explicit. The agency through which the acts are effected does not have any consistent shape in this sample. Pre- dominant, however, are monsters coming through doors or in and out of water. The experience also differs: drowning or falling through holes, clothes being removed, being put in machines, being bitten, and so forth. The fact that most dreamers report being scared and yet do not do anything suggests a predominantly "freezing" reaction to fear, which is also the most familiar elementary fear re- sponse reported in animal and human literature.”

I want to put this at the head of my reading of ambivalence and the primal horde theory in Totem and Tabu. As I wrote in the last post, Freud, like Marx, had his version of universal history. The assault of the brothers upon the father, his murder and the feast upon his body was, for Freud, both a founding act and an act that occurred over millennia. The monster coming through the door or out of the water also occurred. It not only occurred with the children in Elkan’s study – it occurred, for instance, in my dreams. And my response was also not to do anything, until I would wake up, and then – frightened – resolve to kill the monster. With which resolution I could then go to sleep again.

Perhaps this moment of freezing, this inability to act, is connected to another of Sutton-Smith’s claims, which is that games involving defense and attack are not fully understood – or rather, understood dialectically – by children at five.

“We may sum up as follows these various approaches to the grammar of the expressive form in dreams, stories, folktales, nursery rhymes, and games. In all of these forms as used by children at the age of five, the "flight syndrome" is the key imaginative structure. Furthermore, it is predialectical. It is possible to envisage defeat and failure without adequate counterbalance, although in fully developed folktales there is usually such redress. Even in Tag-which involves both-the actor and the counteractor are not equally balanced. One never over- comes the "It" figure. At this age level he is only eluded. He is all-powerful, and the other players can only escape. In an unpublished study of children's art, Rand and Wapner have shown that when young children of age seven or less are asked to portray an event such as looking for a lost coin, they also tend to emphasize only one side of the event.19 They may emphasize the lostness of the coin, or the im- penetrability of the grass. It is defeat of action that is represented, rather than a balance between the lostness of the coin and the action of the searcher. In mythic terms, we are perhaps discussing an attitude of "fatefulness." (1971 87).

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