So much to process and ponder, watching Danny Boyle's cinematically brilliant yet ethically convoluted Slumdog Millionaire. Peter Bradshaw's review in the Guardian contained one acute observation that stayed with me as I took my seat: this story about a young Mumbai slum-dweller who wins the Indian version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire was co-produced with the company (Celador) that owns the game-show format.
Could any orchestrator of mass passivity before spectacles of fortune and meaningless competition luck out more than this? That their shabby tv format becomes the hook for an amazingly rich immersion in the 21st century's most interesting megacity? Imagine Countdown as the premise for Stanley Kubrick musing on science and language. Or the X-Factor as the premise of a Don DeLillo short story on prole dreams and media machination.
Does a dumb big format like this deserve such aesthetic lustre? As this brand-perfect version of Who Wants... threaded through the movie, I thought of Paul Thomas Anderson's bleached-out subversion of the tv game show in Magnolia, where a general-knowledge format becomes a crucible for pathology and perversion. Inventing his format from scratch at least allowed Anderson to tease and jab at the genre's cheesy desperation. (I'm just as uncomfortable about Shane Meadows' Somers Town - where two London urchins jump a Eurostar train to Paris - being funded by... Eurostar. What narrative decisions were a priori ruled out because of that investment?)
Boyle says his favourite scene in the movie is where an old woman bangs on the window of the cab of the young Millionaire contestant, Jamal Malik, as he drives to the studio. "The audience and Jamal think that she's gonna beg for money [because she recognises him from the show] but she says, 'Good luck. We love you, Jamal'. I love that scene because she was just a lady off the street that we asked to do that part... and it sums up Bombay for me - it's not a place where you can predict, in any way shape or form what's going to happen, it's always surprising".
Some surprise: a street-woman in Mumbai is just as transfixed by the power of a cash-driven tv spectacle as her contemporary in Manchester, Montana or Montevideo. And you gave her the line anyway, Danny...
Ridiculously long time not blogging on the Play Journal, I agree, but have been dealing with family illness (all well now), paradigm revolution in the music business, constitutional evolution in Scotland... But with some luck, I'm back.
Pat Kane Interview with Via Positiva, January 2008
1) What is the play ethic? Why do we need it? Why should we leave the work ethic behind?
The Play Ethic is what truly supersedes the Work Ethic, and is more relevant to our times than the Leisure Ethic. The Work Ethic was a story about self-discipline and self-denial that the first age of industrial capitalism needed its workers to believe in (basically to watch the clock and accept their place in the factory system). The Leisure Ethic (what we used to know as the 'leisure society') was a mid-to-late 20th century story about the benefits of affluence - that work would be reduced to a minimum by technology and automation, and that we would have to get skilled at recreation, relaxation, self-improvement. The Play Ethic comes after the internet, and globalisation, and is a story about how to live (or try and live) a coherent life in a dynamic, unstable and emergent world. We have an innate resource by which we can do this - our formative experience as players, that burst of enthusiasm and experimentation that forges the adults we become. We need to recover the power of play in our lives, to be capable for this new world.
Tony Wilson, founder of Factory Records and the Hacienda, and Northern England's cultural magus, has just died of cancer. What a terrible, thoroughly premature loss.
I once spent a brilliant, careening day with Tony in Manchester in the late eighties, when Hue and Cry were being featured on one of his crazed late night music-and-culture shows, called The Other Side of Midnight. Hell, I think he even gome to present one of them, pairing me up with Shere Hite, the Titian-curled feminist (who I remember being as flirtatious as all hell, but that could be tricks of the memory..)
What a complete force of nature Tony was - obviously supremely intelligent and informed, but with a genuine punk energy inside him that didn't just seek confrontation and dialectic, he loved it, embraced it. Everything - from politics to pop, history to theory - was love or shove it, essential or detritus... I tried to match him 'tude-for-'tude, as a brash young Scottish post-punk, but of course I couldn't keep up.
In the middle of the day he drove me round Manchester, showing off the scientific and cultural glories of his beloved city, baiting me endlessly as a Glasgow man from a 'surely second-rate regional sub-tropolis' (or words to that effect). I remember he shoved this tape into the car deck. Kind of whiny, regional dub-funk it sounded like to me... 'You'll know all about these guys in a few years. The Happy Mondays'. Great name, I thought, and went and looked it up. 'Happy Monday's' turned out to be the medieval tradition where the workers rebelled against their work-regimes, and decided to extend their weekend for fun, love and intoxication. Of course: how Tony - cutting-edge music, yet referencing an English history of rebellion-from-below which he has always been sensitive to (particularly as a chip-shouldered Manc, and particularly from his lofty perch as the North of England's Walter Kronkite in local television).
Musically, there's no argument - one of the greatest ever A&R men. Business-wise? Well, his idealism about music meant he was never going to do anything else but dig large holes and just about fill them in again. But if you ever wanted to create a genetic fusion of Greil Marcus and Ahmet Ertegun, you'd end up almost certainly with Tony Wilson. Great taste, and a great mind, and a great big ball of energy inside to dynamise them both.
I thought he would beat the fuck out of this cancer. He had probably the most interesting rock biography ever to write, and I was sure that no metastasis of errant cells would get in his way. But as his old punk show put it, referencing Kurt Vonnegut (literate as ever), So It Goes. My condolences to his family and friends. One of the great players is off to complete the infinite game.
Music, I believe, was always one of his main sources. The other I understand to be his childhood. Or, rather, his childlikeness. To me this is a highly positive quality. I believe that the true artist is the child. When we grow up, before school starts reproaching us if we show too much trust in imagination and fantasy, when reality's letters and mathematical formulas must rule, we lose a lot of what we had by nature before. We lose that unfettered faith in the forces of fantasy and imagination. But not only because it could help us in building inventive wooden huts or rafts, or making pirate ships out of pieces of bark. We need fantasy and imagination to deal with the difficulty that so often comes with life.
Swedish literature is enriched with many illustrations of children who have used fantasy to avoid being swallowed up by a complicated, depraved and dangerous world of grown-ups. If, later in life, having - hopefully - made it through school, you wish to become an artist, then you must recapture what you had as a child. Humanity would not have had access to fantasy and imagination unless we needed it to survive. We are rational beings; fantasy and imagination are in our genes. I have met many significant artists in my life, and not one has denied that it is precisely in the exploits of childhood that the cornerstones for all future creation are to be found. Later in life, that becomes supported by experience, acquired knowledge and political or moralistic convictions.
It's a delight to bring Gwen Gordon's new site to your attention. Gwen is a play advocate, life-trainer and scholar operating out of the Bay Area in California. Gwen has a fascinating history - she started out designing and building Muppets for Sesame Street! She branched out from there and has established a practice that does personal, group and organisational consultancy, using all the dimensions of play to revivify lives and enterprises.
I deeply admire both her practicality, and her searching, spirituality-meets-science approach. Some of the academic papers she has recently published on definitions of play (What is Play? Toward a universal definition, Integral Play, and Are We Having Fun Yet?, all PDF's) are ground-breaking, in my view. She's beginning to point towards the idea of developmental levels of adult play - play that gets more capacious, more complex, more ethical - which I've begun to talk about in some recent presentations, particularly at the BBC Digital Futures event at the beginning of the year.
For those of you Enlightenment, neo-Calvinist Brits who can't quite cope with Californian optimism, suspend your scepticism, and dive in. As Martin Buber says on the cover: "Play is the exultation of the possible".
I like this Dylan Evans fellow in the Guardian. An except from his latest (I'm blogging from a PDA, so pardon the poor formatting):
"...If idealism without a dose of reality is simply naive, realism without a dash of imagination is utterly depressing. If this really was the end of history, it would be an awful anticlimax.
"Look at the way we live now, in the west. We grow up in increasingly fragmented communities, hardly speaking to the people next door, and drive to work in our self-contained cars. We work in standardised offices and stop at the supermarket on our way home to buy production-line food which we eat without relish. There is no great misery, no hunger, and no war. But nor is there great passion or joy. Despite our historically unprecedented wealth, more people than ever before suffer from depression.
"The major political parties are reduced to tinkering with the details of our current system. Their only objective seems to be: more of the same, only perhaps a little bit more cheaply. They have no grand vision.
"It is this complacency, this lack of idealism, that is in part responsible for the repugnance with which Muslim extremists view western society. When George Bush speaks of exporting democracy to the Middle East, he should realise that liberal democracy on its own is a limp, anaemic idea.
"If the west is to provide a more inspiring ideal, then it is time we devoted more thought to the questions that Plato, More and Marx placed at the heart their utopias; the question of how to make work more rewarding, leisure more abundant, and communities more friendly."
This is partly the point that Will Hutton made in his review of the Play Ethic, In Praise of Slow and How to be Idle. Should the West be seeking a more holistic and rounded lifestyle, to answer the spiritual and qualitative charges of Islam and others?
Almost forgotten I'd written this, as part of the new paperback version of the PE's promotion - a long over-due (and far too short) appreciation of James Carse's Finite and Infinite Games as my 'Book of a Lifetime' (it has supplanted yet another small black book, Adorno's Minima Moralia, as my primary life-saving carry-around). The piece doesn't seem to be available online, so it's on extended post below.
I must admit, after our recent London Tube bombings, and particularly the mistaken assasination of Mr. Menezes, this quote from Minima on the bourgeois nature of walking (how Adornian) is all too relevant:
Running in the street conveys an impression of terror. The victim's
fall is already mimed in his attempt to escape it. The position of the
head, trying to hold itself up, is that of a drowning man, and the straining
face grimaces as if under torture. He has to look ahead, can hardly glance
back without stumbling, as if treading the shadow of a foe whose features
freeze the limbs.
Once people ran from dangers that were too desperate
to turn and face, and someone running after a bus unwittingly bears witness
to past terror. Traffic regulations no longer need allow for wild animals,
but they have not pacified running. It estranges us from bourgeois walking.
The truth becomes visible that something is amiss with security, that the
unleashed powers of life, be they mere vehicles, have to be escaped.
body's habituation to walking as normal stems from the good old days. It
was the bourgeois form of locomotion: physical demythologization, free
of the spell of hieratic pacing, roofless wandering, breathless flight.
Human dignity insisted on the right to walk, a rhythm not extorted from
the body by command or terror. The walk, the stroll, were private ways
of passing time, the heritage of the feudal promenade in the nineteenth
And here's some lefty satire to polish the insight off, thanks to Red Pepper magazine.
Again, enjoying the struggle to write to this space, given the way that world history is inviting me to begin where my last book ended (see this post). I picked up a pungent Lagavulin of a book today in the LRB bookshop, called Afflicted Powers, written by a bunch of Bay Area situationists called Retort.
As ever, man in a hurry, I'm working my way back from the conclusion... which has this classic passage, where the authors imagine the justification given by an Al-Qaida vanguardist militant for their activities:
I have chosen not to be modern; and only I have a proper estimate or what it takes, minute by minute, to make that choice real. I have built a life-world which is truly the negation - the strict, obsessive, point-by-point inversion - of the modern life I once had.
I embrace the finite and bonded as opposed to the formless. I choose self-sacrifice as opposed to self-satisfaction, and hardness and cruelty as opposed to complaisance. I close myself against all but the narrowest range of messages, and those messages I repeat to myself endlessly, and deeply internalize - in flight from the lightness, the thinness and exteriority, of "belief" in modern conditions. Denial will be my God, not appetite. The planned and ritualised will put paid to contingency.
Last Man happiness will mean nothing to me ['last man' from Nietzche - see this reference]. Suicide (that most modern of negations) will be my telos, and I reserve my deepest scorn for the enemy's instituted non-recognition of death. I pursue the unmediated - the act, the killing, the pure flame of destruction - as antidote to what you moderns are living, and do not know how desperately you wish to escape from: the endless reel of representation. "Violence shall synchronize my movements like a tune,/And Terror like a frost shall halt the flood of thinking" [quote from Auden's "In Time Of War"].
Haven't read the whole book yet, but their classic situ-thesis seems to be that "the Left" need their own critique of 'the modern' - meaning our surface, choice-laden, whim-driven self-creating consumerist lifestyles - which is "non-nostalgic, non-anathematizing, non-regressive, non-fundamental, non-apocalyptic". Usual suspects are yearned after (the 'movement of movements', World Social Forum, Chiapas, etc) as possible bearers of such a critique.
What strikes me - and this may be useful, or useless - is that many of Sutton-Smith's rhetorics of play, both modern and ancient, cover both sides of the dichotomy expressed by Retort's imagined militant. In the spectrum of play forms, play-as-progress, play-as-freedom, play-as-imagination - the 'lightness, thinness, exteriority' of modern traditions of play, its 'self-satisfaction', its 'contingency' - co-exist with play-as-power (jihad or itijihad, struggle), play-as-identity (collective carnival and ritual), and play-as-fate-and-chaos (in which death is explicitly 'recognised' as a possible outcome of our plays).
The sheer diversity, and often contradictoriness, of play's values often confounds those studying it (and Sutton-Smith's anchoring of it all as an evolutionary strategy for humans, our 'adaptive potentiation', always threatens to stop rather than start discussion). But perhaps it points to the underlying value of a playful perspective - which might be as the most appropriate sensibility for appreciating true human diversity.
A playful world is one in which we might want the option to be either egoistically free, or ritually bonded, or both, or neither. Yet all options will be explored by consciousnesses that know they exist in a mediated, globalised world - meaning no return to some purer, pre-modern past - but are also strong enough to regulate their levels of connectedness to that world. What kind of post- or alter-modern mindset might this be? What Robert Kegan calls 'constructive post-modernism'?
And yes, the spiritual ground of play - explored wonderfully by a new friend of the Play Ethic project, Gwen Gordon - will be a necessary baseline for such a world. Those on 'the Left' (a tribe I fitfully belong to) are often woefully inarticulate about such matters, and even less willing to allow others to anchor their activities in some conception of the sacred or cosmic. But my last full chapter in the Play Ethic gave voice to spiritually-grounded cultural critics like Douglas Rushkoff and Ziauddin Sardar, who demonstrate the kind of literacy required.
I know my ambitions for play as an explanatory framework are often lofty. But even in these panicky times, it still seems like a mindset that could allow the spiritual and the secular, the terrorist and the situationist, the devout and the profane, to at least begin conversations about how to build a world adequate to the complexity of human consciousness, motivations and values.
It may seem a bit off-topic, but I was interviewed heavily by my old employer The Sunday Herald today on the Pope's death, and its significance for Scottish Catholics.
I wrestle a lot with the implications my Catholic background has had on my world-view, even my epistemology - how its spectacle and ritual, and its mysticism, has shaped my more visionary tendencies. There's an element of this in the Play Ethic of course - my opposition to the Protestant Work Ethic, its communitarian regulations and sensual prescriptions; my validation of other literacies (visual, networked) and the power of icons and symbols, rather than the merely textual perspective of classic Bible-based Presbyterianism.
I suppose, also, it's part of the player's faith that one's most elemental human spirit is creative and reciprocal, rather than 'fallen and sinful''; players are gnostics in that sense (I've struggled with that one before, in a more Marxisant frame of mind, and am always inspired by Erik Davis's Techgnosticism.) I've put my full exchange with the Herald below in extended post, but here's a paragraph that didn't (unsurprisingly) make it in:
I'm something of a fan of
Catholic mysticism, magic and weirdness, and the way it anticipates our
current wild science. Virgin birth and IVF? Transubstantiation - loaves
and fishes, water into wine - as a dream of biotech and nanotech? And
in terms of gayness, who's more androgenous than a Jesus icon? I think
there's so much sexiness and style in Catholicism - its paganism and
iconophilia needs to be liberated from strictures like celibacy and
right to life. I visited St. Peter's in Rome last year, and I've never
been in such a Palace of Bling in my puff.
Some fine correspondants have let me know that the author of Finite and Infinite Games, James Carse, has had his recent lecture, 'Religious War in light of the Infinite Game' to the Long Now Foundation uploaded as an MP3 file from the Long Now seminar page (warning: it's about 23Mg). As well as this slightly mad transcript from Future Hi, there's also a more dutiful one from the Eric Nehrlich's Rantings weblog. I've listened to the recording, and he's a somewhat infuriating and hesitant speaker - but for those of us who are devotees to the book, it's great to hear Carse's mind operate in real time. From Nehrlich's post:
[Carse] described a friend of his who'd put all his savings into a business that was heavily dependent on a particular supplier, and who then got screwed over by that supplier. He ran into his friend at an airport, asked him how things were going. His friend said that he'd run into that supplier just then. Carse asked "So what'd you do?", imagining a thrashing (the friend was a former Marine). His friend said "I bought him a beer". When Carse's mouth dropped open, his friend said "It's only business." It's just a finite game. Move beyond those self-set boundaries, and take on the infinite game of life. We have the "freedom to give up the involvements of daily life." So easy to say. So, so, so hard to do. Or I'd be trying to turn this blogging thing into a job right now.
Which, btw, makes it clear for me what relationship this blog has to my other, more prosaic consulting gigs: it keeps my infinite game in play. But this is a marvellously expansive lecture, at least in content.