Power is a game. A game with predetermined losers. While survival and sustenance require some exercise of it, in the wake of overextended power are the injuries of dominance, invasive commerce, control, manipulation and violence. Such wanton, chaotic conflicts and struggles obscure, impede and thwart access to that state of being that precedes power: the state of play.
A society is judged by how well it treats its most vulnerable members, its most powerless. While we immediately think of damaged war veterans and abused women, the homeless, those with disabilities, with mental illness—the poor, the violated, the oppressed—it begins with the babies.
It is in these days of infancy that humans—while more helpless and vulnerable—are most like other animals. The baby is enveloped in the loving and protective shelter of parents. Until the baby discovers will and begins to exercise it, there is no conscious power struggle. One would not think of a mother’s actions to nurture and protect her newborn as an act of overbearing power. Initially, it is not. And when power is absent, held in abeyance, or recedes, opportunities for play expand. Playfulness precedes power.
Original, Cultural, and Disruptive Play
Eventually, power struggles ensue between the child and the parents, and are also encouraged in the form of games, the rewards of achievement, and contests. Noncompetitive power-free frolic, that I am calling original play, mutates into cultural play, a game of power with winners, losers, scores, and the grafting of the competitive impulse onto the more idyllic urge to play.
Everything contains the seeds of its opposite, never more paradoxically than in the relationship between original and cultural play. If we accept Johan Huizinga’s view in Homo Ludensthat all human activity is a form of cultural play,we risk missing the distinction between competitive and noncompetitive play—frolic, rough and tumble play, the play of animals and infant humans.
Cultural Play, the play of contest and competition, is the play of power, from the most innocent of children’s games to cutthroat capitalism, to cultural play’s endgame, war. Original Play is not competitive and connects players directly with each other and with fun, without scorekeeping, winners or losers. In other words, it is the antidote to power.
In fact, when playfulness and power are both present, there emerges a meta-struggle; they resist each other, cannot coexist. For what might seem all eternity, Bugs Bunny transgresses whatever order Elmer Fudd tries to impose. At its most irrepressible, play disarms and tricks power, tickles it into releasing its grip on our motives and drives. Collapse of power is not failure or surrender, an empire fallen or defeated. It is collapse into the giggling embrace of life, the realization of Martin Buber’s definition of play as the exultation of the possible.
The disruption created when original play is injected into a cultural play setting such as war, politics, or commerce is not pretty. The kind of order intrinsic to power is of ranking, scores, hierarchy, winners and losers. Thus, original players such as satirists, artists, buffoons, children, lovers, comics and agitators are seen as spoilsports and are cast out. Those who insist on confronting power with their power-free ways will publish, perform, prank, satirize, vandalize, and in general be playful where they are not supposed to be. They will soldier on in the manner of Alfred Jarry’s anarchist army, in a disobedience drill that puts freedom first. In other words, to perform original playin a cultural playsetting is to stimulate what I call disruptive play,tricking power into collapse and perchance love. (watch this space for Part 2)