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Could Playfulness Be Embedded In The Universe?


In an essay in The Baffler a couple of weeks ago, David Graeber offers the idea that there is a play principle embedded in all levels of physical reality. His essay, which ranges playfully from Spencer and Darwin to panpsychism and string theory, ponders a deep and serious problem. As he writes:

"Still, if one wants a consistently materialist explanation of the world — that is, if one does not wish to treat the mind as some supernatural entity imposed on the material world, but rather as simply a more complex organization of processes that are already going on, at every level of material reality — then it makes sense that something at least a little like intentionality, something at least a little like experience, something at least a little like freedom, would have to exist on every level of physical reality as well."

Graeber's proposal is, roughly, that play provides the principle. Play is the exercise of our best powers — to run and jump and pay attention and outsmart — but in the interest of nothing at all. The power of play, Graeber suggests, consists precisely in the fact that it frees us, for example, from enslavement to the demands of means-end rationality and the market place.

Play doesn't require ego, and so it doesn't require organisms. Atoms and electrons, in the right conditions, self-organize. What if we think of the basis of these inventive groupings as something play like and so, as something like the exercise of (a very primitive ancestor to something that deserves to be called) freedom.

Whether you like Graeber's idea, the problem he faces — framing a conception of nature that doesn't make life and mind strange mysterious afterthoughts — is a real one.

Reading Graeber's essay, I found myself wondering whether he gets the phenomenon of play quite right. I am sympathetic to his suggestion that there is something wrongheaded in the idea that play, whether in humans or animals, must serve some more practical end. But couldn't the end be pleasure itself?

As he writes:

"The real question is: Why does the existence of action carried out for the sheer pleasure of acting, the exertion of powers for the sheer pleasure of exerting them, strike us as mysterious? What does it tell us about ourselves that we instinctively assume that it is?"

Now, I am not sure whether there really is an opposition between carrying out an action for the sheer pleasure of acting and the idea that, in some sense, we carry out that action for reasons or that our performance serves functions. The fact that breastfeeding is pleasurable, and that suckling behavior may be playful, is no obstacle to thinking that breastfeeding has a biological function.

I wonder, though, whether it's right to think of play as tied to pleasure in the way that Graeber does. Fun itself, it strikes me, has the curious quality that it threatens to be a pretty serious business.

Not everybody's capacities are the same, and exercising one's capacities to the fullest, for their own sake, can be painful, especially when older, faster, stronger or more driven people are ready and able to crush you. So playing with others means being open to defeat, disappointment and injury. Not that it isn't sometimes fun. It's possible to get satisfaction, after all, even when we lose.

And then, of course, there is winning, which happens sometimes too. No doubt, play is a site of pleasure, at least sometimes and so potentially, just as breastfeeding is. But pleasure is often hard-won, and the risk of loss and failure, it seems to me, are always just as much in the offing as that of pleasure itself.

Maybe the mistake, then, is thinking of pleasure as an end, even as an end in itself. Could it be that even Graeber is relying on something like the economic conception of man he criticizes (and so brilliantly in his book Debt: The First 5,000 Years)?

But once we've divorced play from pleasure, play doesn't look all that different from ... work.

What's at stake, finally, are the doings wherein we exercise our nature and our capacities. To be a human or an animal is to be a locus of activity. Reality is process and activity.

If Graeber is right, maybe it is so all the way down.

You can keep up with more of what Alva Noë is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter:

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Alva Noë is a contributor to the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and Culture. He is writer and a philosopher who works on the nature of mind and human experience.