A critique of play
Refractory: A Journal of Entertainment Media, 16
The concept of play has been a touchstone for cultural studies since the translation of Mikhail Bakhtin’s work on carnival (1968), a natural and liberating resistance to domination. As the neo-baroque constructs its spectacles, it requires a spectacular, unquestionable depiction of both Evil and the Good (Bather 2004). Articulated as it is with the markets for consumer goods, through product placement, tie-ins and merchandising, all pitched at the youth market, play offers itself as the royal instantiation of good. The ludic may well be instinctual, but only in the same way that hunger and sex are instinctual. Humans, mammals, are born with an interest in play, but that interest is as thoroughly socialised, as thoroughly historical, and as thoroughly open to exploitation as the other primal forces acting on the human psyche. Play can no longer be thought of as an instinctual revolt against domination, a kind of instrumental irrationality. Instead, like hunger or sex, it has become an integral element in the imbrication of the somatic into the social. Integral to the management of creativity in the sunrise industries, play is also a privileged vehicle for socialisation into the contemporary. To be specific, contemporary capital opposes evil not with good but with innocence; and play constitutes the single most manipulable tool for the construction of innocence, on screen and in life. The predilection of postmodernism for play in all its guises is inadequately critical. Which kind of game? Are all games equally and essentially good or are there distinctions to make between them and histories to tell? Is the celebration of play merely a reaction to the imagined high seriousness of modernism? Is there a cultural task remaining, to build new modes of play?
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