The idea of not taking power seriously is frightening — and exhilarating. We're trained to be controlled, to seek solutions, to be practical and ever so grownup. Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture, by award-winning educator Shepherd Siegel, poses another option: claim play as a way to deconstruct the dystopia of our time. Kirkus Reviews calls the book “A historically panoramic examination of human playfulness as a naturally healthy and politically subversive force."
Here's what the publisher has to say:
Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture journeys from ancient folkloric appearances of Tricksters (such as Raven and Èṣù-Elegba) to their confined role in Western civilization, and then on to the Tricksters' twentieth century jailbreak, led by dada and the hippies. Disruptive Play bears witness to how this spirit informs social progress today, whether by Anonymous, Banksy, Bugs Bunny, or unrevealed mischief-makers and culture jammers. Such play is revolutionary and lights the path to a transformed society. Disruptive Play connects knowledge from mythology, folklore, popular culture, art, politics, and play theory to make its case — that to be playful means not taking power seriously. At critical mass, power collapses and leaves us swimming about in the waters of the amoral Trickster. New values emerge and could lead to some version of the dystopia that currently drenches popular culture. Or, if people can discern between the authentic contact and exhilaration of play, and branded, mediated, alienated pleasure, then we just might stumble and frolic our way to the Play Society.
Check out the excerpt below, then start your own playful revolution.
"Play is the exultation of the possible."
"Twickster! You’re the wabbit!"
I remember the first time I saw American Beauty.1 In this Sam Mendes film, Ricky Fitts is the kid who compulsively videotapes everything around him and invites the teenage girl next door into his antiseptic neat white electriclight teenage suburban bedroom. He asks her if she would like to see “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever filmed.” She agrees. In his minutes-long clip, wind plays with a plastic shopping bag, tossing it back and forth on the sidewalk, always staying in range of the camera. “It’s just minutes away from snowing, and there’s this electricity in the air,” he says. “This bag was just dancing with me, like a little kid begging me to play with it.”
He talks about the beauty of it, that the wind is able to catch this bag and show its nature as it plays with the flimsy, filmy piece of discarded plastic. I reacted along with the girl — this somewhat scary, voyeuristic weirdo is perhaps only silly. But as I viewed the video, I found myself taken with it. It is beautiful how the wind plays with the bag. And I was taken with him, fascinated. I discovered that what once was quirky now connects. That I was more like him than I realized. His strangeness came home to me; I saw that it was a sensitive response to the universe. Fitts then describes himself as someone who finds unbearable beauty in the world, more than he can possibly take.
Play is just such an unbearably beautiful energy. Play is that force, beyond culture, found in all life forms, that gives rise to creation. Even the weather, a lingering gust of wind traced by a plastic bag, embodies the elemental form of play. Play can be found in the simplest of life forms, working its way up the evolutionary ladder, from the wind and the elements, to the smallest microorganisms, through reptiles, birds, and mammals, until it finds the baby human, the highest form of life that plays without effort.
Play embraces irrationality — patterns beyond our normal comprehension. But play is problematic as an activity introduced during the struggle to survive, to be healthy, and to create a just and environmentally friendly society. It seems to get in the way of these important tasks.
Humans strive mightily towards progress and measure that progress not by whether we play but by how well we establish order and predictability. And my proposition is that playfulness is a disorderly and unpredictable core activity, and necessary to spiritual and societal growth. As we play, we enter into the larger patterns of the universe. What could be more natural? Yet we insist on forcing a rational world inimical to play onto a universe repeatedly shown to be irrational.
One of the world’s most playful artists, Marcel Duchamp, once said that “There is absolutely no chance for a word ever to express anything. As soon as we start putting our thoughts into words and sentences, everything goes wrong.2
Play is such a difficult subject to freeze in prose, and I’ve been haunted by the idea that this narrative will accomplish the opposite of its intention. By attempting to put play, an irrational activity, into the rational fictions of words, I fear that naming this magic will dispel it. But I hope for the opposite, to invoke more, better, truer play, to help life live humans.
Webster couldn’t get to it easily; the dictionary has over forty definitions for play. So what do I mean by play?
Original play is what happens when one or more beings get together to have fun and experience belonging and acceptance. Nobody gets hurt. All animals, including humans, do it, but humans are best at it during the first few years of life.
You can see it in the pretend-fighting of dogs, where the dance of “I am going to bite you” is observed and then suspended immediately before any harm is possible. You can see it in dolphins,3 that “it has been observed by many scientists that [dolphins] are pranksters, that they have a sense of humor… Play seems to be their default state.”4
You can see it in infants and toddlers. If you get down on the ground with a child under the age of four and roll around without clutching, tickling or hitting, you can have great fun without it ever becoming an actual game or without any moral lessons attached to the cavorting. After just a few minutes, you will emerge from the experience body and soul refreshed.
Original players know that they are playing and observe the rules of an imagined reality, though those rules are flexible and can be changed by mutual agreement. Players are spontaneously creative, and they play, irrationally, with no internal moral objective and no external judgment. They have no goals, winners, losers, or products. Their play has meaning but not purpose. The energy of play is ancient and predates culture but doesn’t rule it.
And all life forms play, from amoebas to kangaroos. The trouble starts with the big-shot life form, humans. Humans play. Up until about age three, we engage in original play.
Then along comes parents. Parents have often stopped playing, repeating a pattern learned from their parents. That is, when kids are about three or four, parents make a fateful decision: they get into their kids’ business by trying to teach them lessons when the kids simply want to play. They encourage them to use their play to pretend that they are grownups. They have the kids start playing games and sports that have winners and losers. Practice and skills and moral lessons are introduced into play, which then becomes games with rules, and then games with histories, so that they can keep score and resume play where they left off. So that one kid could compete better than another, so that there can be rankings. And we end up with something quite different from original play. We end up with cultural play, which is in many ways original play’s opposite.
Society needs the things that arise from cultural play: people with skills and competence and morals and, God save us, purpose. But cultural play, based upon accumulated skills, ranking, contest, etc., has gotten all out of proportion. Not too long ago, two “hockey fathers” got in a fight over their sons’ playing, and one killed the other — over a game! Sadly, we are afflicting many of our young children with obsessive achievement goals in cultural play arenas, goals that are stifling opportunities to experience the world of meaning — without purpose, winning, or losing — that original play brings.
Basically, you leave original play when you enter contest.
Now while the connection between most adults and original play is frayed, it is nonetheless there, and it is renewable. The closest many adults come is through their explorations of what Diane Ackerman calls deep play.5
This is the play that adult humans do in their own adult human way. This is that “sharpening the saw” type stuff, it’s the creative function expressed, it is adults being in the “flow” experience. Like hiking and gardening and painting and flying planes and creating great food. It’s cool, but it is usually cultivated solo, alone.
Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture is a collection of stories, ideas, and profiles about players and tricksters, bringers of visions for a society that plays more and fights less. If we take our cue from these characters, we’ll find that the mature adult can also connect with play and bring more joy, awareness, and fun into the intimidating reality we call civilized
life. But be warned, to introduce play into the not-play arenas that dominate our worlds of politics and commerce is a dangerous game, and as these stories will show, the path to the Play Society is a bloody one.
Before high school there is too little worldly awareness to connect the dots and see play as the bringer of social possibility; after, too much of a demanding world intimidates the idea. So while in that pivotal high school moment, I decided that I wanted to be a high school teacher. This sprang from a desire to help students make the most of the joys of that age — adolescence — and to keep alive the possibilities of that age — the Sixties.
1 American Beauty, dir. Sam Mendes (Los Angeles, CA: Paramount Pictures, 1999), film. 2 Calvin Tomkins, Duchamp, A Biography (New York: Owl, 1997), 65. 3 Marta Zaraska, “The Play’s the Thing,” Discover, June 2017, 55-59. 4 Susan Casey, “People and Dolphins: It’s a Mutual Fascination” (speech, Seattle Public Central Library, Seattle, WA, August 17, 2015). 5 Diane Ackerman, Deep Play (New York: Random House, 1999).