Janus-Faced Play

Rosenstock-Huessy begins his sociology with a lengthy discussion of the spaces of play. His premise is that “in play, it transpires that we anticipate the experiences of real life.” A little girl marries her boy doll to her girl doll. A boy enacts a battle with his toy soldiers (47).

But that’s too simple. Play is more deeply connected to “serious” endeavor because it is both imitative of a past experience and anticipatory of a future: “Playing therefore wears a Janus face: it repeats an old experience – a boy playing war, as his ancestors did in earnest – and at the same time confers on childhood the role of anticipating in play the serious occasions of life” (47).

That seems simple, but Rosenstock argues that our failure to reckon with the simple realities of life will lead us astray. Play has the same structure as thought: “For every thought is, at one and the same moment, an afterthought and a prior thought” (48).

More fully: “we can actually learn something about thinking, by attending to this bilaterality of playing time. Playing and thinking take place in leisure time, Because they are temporally parallel and appointed to a secondary time, every game can be started and ended at any time, as we please. It is indeed how we recognize that we are playing – namely, that we remain free to continue our game, or to quit. Whoever plays under compulsion is not playing. And similarly with our thoughts: If they don’t cease at our bidding, we will fall ill.” In short, “playing space and thinking space are the theaters of freedom” (48).

Though he distinguishes play and serious business, he also recognizes the interpenetration of the two zones of life – the imaginative inner and the serious outer: “Most of the ‘civilized’ processes of life are somewhere between a hundred percent seriousness and a hundred percent play; for in almost anything we do, we seek to inject a little freely determined time and predetermined location,” which is the mark of play. He concludes, “Our whole life is accordingly built on the basis of the mutual permeation of play and seriousness” (48-9).

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