Chapter 11 Play as Paradox

Play between text and context, conflict and existence, order and anarchy.

Brian Sutton-Smith criticises theories whose perspectives are restricted to the content and function (text) of play.

He believes that the astonishing dynamism of play and the wide variety of circumstances and variable premises in and under which play occurs and develops (context) are of extremely great importance.

Brian Sutton-Smith’s works therefore include a synopsis of theories to date. He develops them further, integrates them and gives examples via studies of a popular and anthropological kind.

Sutton-Smith calls play a relativistic existential phenomenon in which nothing is given in advance. Play and games involve children and adults alike in a constant, existential conflict socialisation as all games and play contain complex contradictions and involve deep emotions.


Text and context

In order to create an overview of the many elements of play, Sutton-Smith applies the relationship between text and context in communication as it has been described by Bateson (1955) in his theory of communication. The simple theory is that any game (the text) functions as commentary on or interpretation of what is happening in the circumstances and beyond the framework of play (the context).

As earlier mentioned, Bateson calls that aspect of communication which is the experience of how the text is interpreted by the person-at-play metacommunication.  Play is therefore seen as a unique phenomenon for comprehending the depth and nuances in all human communication. (See Chapter 12: Genre relation and object transformation.)

Applying Bateson’s concepts, if the person-at-play is to be able to play at all, he must by definition be able to comprehend the often complex relationship between text and context in play. (There is, however, no guarantee that the observer is able to comprehend this - unless he is informed in advance of the complex aspects of the game in question.)

As Huizinga indicates, the “group-at-play” naturally rejects persons for whom the game is no longer play. In other words (in relation to toys), the person-at-play naturally rejects anything he can’t play with. There is, however, something paradoxical and contradictory about the metacommunicative message of play because “the processes in which we are currently engaged do not constitute that which ought to be constituted by the processes constituted by the processes.” Bateson (1955:177-193).

Åm (1987:115-124) describes this too:

The paradox is found in the fact that the word “constitute” is applied at different levels of abstraction used synonymously. The person-at-play contravenes the laws of logic. According to Bateson (1955:193), this is due neither to ignorance nor to human imperfection because the origin of play is the human capacity for creating paradoxes within communication.”



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