Constructivism and deconstructivism

In the previous paragraph, the term “play” was placed squarely within a play-theoretical and philosophical ideological field.

I take the liberty of labelling the finest examples of his conscious dissolution of the stereotype solutions and definitions of what exactly play is Sutton-Smith’s “deconstructivist models”.

Deconstructivism is, of course, the opposite of constructivism - but in no way synonymous with destructivism. Contrary to what many people unfortunately believe, deconstruction and destruction never have the same aim, and because so many people make that mistake, I will account here in more detail for the position of deconstructivism in modern play theory.

When Sutton-Smith explains what play is in terms which appear to a very great extent to be deconstructivist, it is not because he sees himself as a deconstructivist or as a disciple of the founding fathers or literary deconstructivism, Derida and de Man. However, Sutton-Smith has in fact utilised many of the elementary principles of deconstructivism.

In this book, I have used many of Sutton-Smith’s terms describing forms or explanations for toys and play - regardless of whether they are deconstructivistic or not.

1. Deconstruction is not a destructive method -

which emphasises that nothing can be stated categorically about the text of play and that play cannot and must not be interpreted. However, the form or way in which deconstruction is used emphasises the specific, unique, individual and existential aspects of play, whatever its content and whatever process it undergoes.

The question as to what specific aspect of play is unique and what is general or trivial is, however, one of those questions which general theories and ideologies are unable to answer. When play is played and interpreted, it is often attributed significance which is in complete contrast to the person(s)-at-play’s understanding of and intentions for the game. Put in another way: the persons-at-play cannot expect to exert an influence on how their play is interpreted, read or texted.

This explains why deconstruction is a form of analysis and interpretation which, when supplemented by other general methods, can contribute to increasing respect for the classic term “great play”.

In the meantime, however, the deconstructivist method is particularly critical of unequivocal interpretations because it relates to aspects of play which may have both positive and negative significance for evaluation of the text of play itself.

2. The use of deconstructiondoes not erase the significance of the language or the explanation.

The relationship between language and reality in modern linguistics is tripartite:

  • a sign in the form of a relationship between three phenomena: index, iconand symbol
  • the primary sign, the object to which the sign refers and the interpretant, who communicates the primary sign’s relationship to the object.

Between the index, the icon and the symbol, there is “space for interpretation”, which makes possible the use of diffuse or abstract images about the internal relationships between the three phenomena (assuming, that is, that fantasy is involved).

If we interpret the sign as “the linguistic sign”, this is the word itself - and the imaginary image it evokes. The sign’s reference is that which corresponds to  the imaginary image in reality.

These relationships are not destroyed when we used deconstructivist forms of explanation in our analysis! But it constantly presents us with a problem: how far does the imaginary image really correspond to reality?

An example: If a child at play thinks of an animal and calls the animal by its name, this name will not always evoke the same image in the child’s imagination as it does in the adult’s. And if an American child thinks of an exotic animal, he will not have the same imaginary image content as an African child who lives side by side with the animal and knows it well. Meaning is always dependent on context. See model.

Any word, including its imaginary content, acquires its meaning from its position in a sentence or statement. Words define one another but cannot always define themselves without help from another person. Meaning is therefore not inherent in a word - despite the fact that many meanings of words are interpreted quite similarly within any given culture.

The most difficult problem in this discussion of the relationship between sign and imaginary image arises where an imaginary image does not refer to the physical reality but to something fictive and “diffuse”. Whenever this is the case - and in other cases where dream images are used as imaginary images - it is not a question about whether or not we can communicate but rather a question of having the will to do so and how we achieve it. (Re the term “will”, see discussion of the missing term in Habermas’ universal pragmatism in chapter 2) - Re how and by what means we underpin our arguments and statements, see Dialogics and communication in Chapter 1).



Sutton-Smith reserves judgement on whether the interpretation of a certain game is always an unequivocal sign (or signs) referring to something very specific or an expression of the child’s being in a exact, specific, categorical psychological situation. By reserving judgement, he demonstrates his own deconstructivistic form of criticism of the dogmatic interpretative methods and systems.

For example, he (Sutton-Smith:1971:298) explains how Piaget - in interpreting the child’s so-called senso-motoric stages - entirely forgets that the child’s imaginary images are not limited to facts about reality which Piaget considers concrete and provable. Children are able consciously and unconsciously to leap between fantasy and reality, between the concrete, the abstract and the diffuse - to cheat, experiment and deliberately choose the wrong “solutions” (to see what will happen) - and they don’t ask adults for prior permission to do so.

Sutton-Smith has also contributed to a more differentiated picture of the general understanding of Freud’s texts, thereby putting a cat among the pigeons of popular psychology.

Research into toys and play over many years has covered what toys and play are and not what toys and play are about. This fact simply illustrates the difference between construction and deconstruction and suggests the natural significance of deconstructivism.

Thus, Sutton-Smith’s work has engendered a significant shift in the paradigms of research and scientific investigation into play and toys. His suggestions for many previously unimagined opportunities for the formation of new theories are naturally motivated by deconstructivism.



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