Music of the spheres

Caillois’ notion of play and games, outlined in Games and Man, attracted an influential attack, “Homo Ludens Revisited”, by Jacques Ehrman in 1968. Ehrman’s article is one of the first really deconstructive articles published in America. It appeared in the Yale French Review, which was establishing itself at the time as the bridgehead of a Tel Quel sensibility in the United States.

The attack took on the underlying binaries, such as Ehrman saw them, in Caillois’ essay. The strategy of showing an underlying incoherence in the binaries, either as an overlap of their extensions or as an insufficient motivation for the arguments based upon them – either as too much or too little – went on to become a common feature of American literary criticism. Deconstruction in America became a form of demasking – which is an especially pertinent term for the criticism of an essay that poses the question of the function of the mask.

Ehrman ostensively directs his attack at Huinzinga, but the emotional onus is really on Caillois. Here’s where we begin:

“Play or seriousness. This alternative is sometimes treated as a dialectic: play and seriousness which, in turn, implies a whole series of others: gratuitousness and/or utility; play and/or work; play and/ or everyday life; the imaginary and/or the real; etc. . . . The concepts here placed in opposition or in parallel are found constantly in Huizinga - as in Caillois, moreover, and in an even more pronounced way, since the latter's definition and classifications of play lead him, as we have indicated, to delimit too categorically the sphere of play by opposing it to the real, to work, and so forth.”

Ehrman develops his criticism in terms of the idea that one cannot call upon the real or the serious to do one’s conceptual work, as these terms are both too vague and too all encompassing. If play exists, it must, by definition, exist in everyday life – and thus play cannot be defined over against everyday life.

“For finally, if the status of "ordinary life," of "reality," is not thrown into question in the very movement of thought given over to play, the theoretical, logical, and anthropological bases on which this thinking is based can only be extremely precarious and contestable. In other words, we are criticizing these authors chiefly and most seriously for considering "reality," the "real," as a given component of the problem, as a referent needing no discussion, as a matter of course, neutral and objective. They define play in opposition to, on the basis of, or in relation to this so-called reality. As the criteria against which play is measured are external to it, its nature remains necessarily second in relation to the "reality" that serves as its yard- stick and is therefore considered "primary" (cf. Huizinga: "Play al- ways represents something," p. 35). But it is legitimate to wonder by what right "reality" may be said to be first, existing prior to its components - play in this case (although it might just as well be some other object of the social sciences) - and serving as their standard”

In moving from criticizing the vagueness of ‘ordinary life” to the implicit claim that play puts it into question, however, Ehrman opens himself up to the charge that some supposition, here, is being assumed rather than argued for. For what does Ehrman mean by the ‘status’ of ordinary life? Is it the status of something that doesn’t exist? And how does this status exist? In what society or culture? If it is the culture that allows Caillois and Huizinga to use these terms (and their allied syntagmas – in particular, work) is unmasked by Ehrman, he perhaps owes us an account of this status and its construction. But no geneology is forthcoming in Ehrman’s essay. Nor is there any attempt to overview Caillois’ essay beyond remarking on the ideologically motivated argument that defines play in opposition to work, games in opposition to ‘the real’, the ludic in opposition to the earnest, etc.

I can grant Ehrman’s objections to the unanalyzed role taken by those oppositions in structuring the argument that Caillois makes, but I am, as well, unconvinced that the contradictions or tensions here vitiate the essay. In fact, the essay produces what I would call doxic moments – moments in which plausibility structures the conceptual given, rather than a logic of definition – in order to use its contradictions to build a history. And this is not an unworthy task, though it is shot through with a Eurocentric and ethnocentric vocabulary.

One should begin by putting Caillois’ essay in the context of his project, about which he wrote extensively: diagonal science. As we have noted, Caillois was attempting to create ‘transversal cuts” across the disciplines to explain or observe phenomena that are, indeed, obscured by the assumption that the division of the sciences corresponds, exhaustively, to the division of the natural kinds. In this, he is making a move that goes sharply against the definition of ‘seriousness’ as something appertaining to our present epistemological arrangements. He is, indeed, willing to risk appearing like a savant freak, a kook. At the base of this effort is Caillois’ sociological interest in the economy of sacrifice. Sacrifice and the sacred are constant preoccupations within his work. This, unfortunately, one would never know from the attack on the micro-level of the play essay by Ehrman.

Like many savant freaks, Caillois had a fondness for new classificatory schemes. The ‘science’ of games was, at the time he wrote his essay (1958), a terra incognita, an unnamed blank space, waiting for the first explorer to name its parts (a colonialist metaphor! And meant to be so, since there is no point in denying Caillois’ inheritance from a colonialist mindset, even as modified by an extensive acquaintanceship with anthropological reports). I have found some of those categories – such as ilynx, or vertigo – extremely helpful.

But what is missing in Caillois is a larger sense of how play or a game self-enclaves. Here, Ehrman is certainly correct, even if his categorical rejection that such a story is possible seems unwarranted. I think that Caillois can be usefully supplemented by Simmel’s hints about the three encircling institutions in modernity: the law, education, and money. Sphere calls to sphere, circle calls to circle – or evokes further circles, to use Caillois’ term. About which I will write more in my next post.