This was a great pleasure! Not just being sought out by Varoom magazine's editor John O'Reilly, who is an academic at St. Martin's Art School in London, and who asked very meaty questions (the full interview text is below).
But also the final manifestation of the interview in the magazine itself (see the PDF copy) - which felt physically like a copy of a mid-80s NME (see above - and very appropriate, given all the references!).
The layout itself is also cool, accompanied by witty Lego illustrations from Christoph Niemann's New York Times Abstract Sunday blog, and its "I Lego NY" project.
Varoom is a magazine for illustrators, who occupy a niche between fine arts, advertising, design. I was invited to explore much relevant ground to the creative classes - and found myself anticipating some of Paul Mason's arguments about postcapitalism and "networked individuals" in his new book.
As ever, all comments and shares welcome.
ORIGINAL INTERVIEW TEXT:
John O'Reilly: You published The Play Ethic in 2004. Its subtitle, A Manifesto For a Different Way of Living signalled its breadth of discussion and its existential urgency, but it also also captured and focused a concept which had become increasingly prominent in debates in the Humanities since the 80s as translations of philosophers such as Barthes, Lacan, Derrida, Baudriallrd, began to be published.
It was also a kind of sensibility partly driven by Guy Debord and the Situationists in the 60s, indeed the opening pages of the book begins with a quote from Raoul Vaneigem’s 1967 book The Revolution in Everyday Life. And for you the practices of the Post-Punk culture is a major driver. Why do you think interest in the notion of Play became such a hot-button idea in the early 2000s?
Pat Kane: A number of reasons. For one thing, the increasing cultural prominence (and mass usage) of computer games and web culture - the immersion and competitive power-ups of the former, the sheer exchange, modifications and social “interplay” of the latter.
As writers like Fred Turner, John Markoff, Erik Davis and Stewart Brand have noted, there is a directly link between Californian “counterculture” and world “cyberculture” - not just in terms of personnel (Steve Jobs, etc), but in terms of the values of self-expression, imagination, experimentation both technical and social. When network society began to mature in the early 2000s, to me it was no surprise that the ethos of openness and experiment - a playful ethos - was, as it were, “baked” into the very technology itself.
As a “theory” and “post-punk” child of the mid-80s myself, I do also think that we (the Euro-UK-Atlantic humanties grads!) were mentally ready for the recombinant potential of net/web/game culture. Having an understanding of semiotics and the mutabilty of signs and images (Barthes), appreciating language as a network of difference (Derrida), accepting that simulated realities have power to shape the course of events (Debord, Baudrillard)… all of this prepares you for not being surprised by cyberculture and its mutations.
I could go deeper, and say that the European experience of social upheaval (68 in France, the hot seventies in Italy and Germany) generated such an intellectual ferment that it even anticipated much of our current network society - Deleuze and Guattari’s concept of “rhizomes”, and their position in general that societies are suffused with potentials for change that don’t always rely on full human intention (ie, sometimes on “assemblages” of technology, environment, people). It now feels, in an age of memes, flash events in the stock market, robomania, that their time has just about come...
Pat Kane's notes towards his presentation to #ikeatemporary, Milan Expo, 26 June, 2015
FIVE WAYS THAT PLAY CAN SAVE THE WORLD:
1 PLAY IS AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF HUMAN NATURE - AND ONE OF OUR BETTER PARTS. THE MORE WE EXPRESS IT, THE BETTER WE BECOME
2 PLAY HELPS US BECOME WISER - BOTH PERSONALLY AND AS CITIZENS
3 PLAY POINTS TO A DIFFERENT (& BETTER) SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ORDER
4 PLAY BRINGS MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN TOGETHER - & PUTS CHILDREN FIRST
5 PLAY RECONNECTS US WITH THE PLANET - BUT IN A COMPLEX, PRAGMATIC WAY
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1. PLAY IS AN ESSENTIAL COMPONENT OF HUMAN NATURE - AND ONE OF OUR BETTER PARTS. THE MORE WE EXPRESS IT, THE BETTER WE BECOME
A playful revolution in intellectual life
First in philosophy and social sciences from the sixties to the nineties... Then in biology and mind science in the last 20 years... Science defeated old Puritan and industrial-age idea that play is trivial, or silly, or worse - "the souls playday is the devils workday"
The version of that in science - evolutionary science - is wondering how play can even exist - it wastes energy, it leaves us open to predators, it risks injury - maladaptive. But it exists in nature! How/why? Play like sexual pleasure or deep sleep - we don't need as much of it to survive as we do - but boy does it help!
All three are zones where humans can safely, or at least non-fatally, explore the possibilities of their world - both mental and physical, emotional and conceptual. We need to do this because not only is our world complex and demanding, but WE are too - we reflective, imaginative, tool-using creatures, who love and lie, build and destroy.
I call humans the RADICAL ANIMAL radical because we have the mental power to go to the root of things animal because we are not robots (yet! Though we can use them!). We yearn, are enraged, are fearful, are caring, are lustful, are curious. PLAY is the behaviour that helps us to manage and make the best use of our radical, transforming, sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible human nature.
Our forms of play, our playgrounds - whether arts or sports, or games and tech, or in leisure and family pursuits - are the places where we safely explore and test and prototype our relationships with others and the material world. The more we play, the better we get at living our complex human lives [Steven Pinker - the Better Angels of our Nature - fall in the rate of daily violence in our lives since medieval times - accelerated in an era where social contract and the rule of law engenders concept of "fair play"]
2 PLAY HELPS US BECOME WISER - BOTH PERSONALLY AND AS CITIZENS
We are leaning so much from child psychology and mind science at the moment A consensus - that we are over-managing our children's development, particularly when it comes to their play Jaak Panksepp, the great figure of affective neuroscience, talks about the importance of social play, or even rough-and-tumble play, to development of complex mammals. Families can and must play together - but parents must let children play amongst themselves too.
• we connect with the world by playing with it - crafting and testing its materials. And the joy we get from that! From being active, not passive, in relations to the stuff of our world! IKEA!
• In the games we play, we figure out what it is to agree a set of rules with other human beings, that might - for as long as we agree - bind our behaviour.
But in PLAY - as opposed to politics or business - we remember that those social rules can be changed, for the sake of a better, more satisfying, more inclusive game. A better play childhood will makes us less slavish consumers and more active and conscious citizens.
But remember what the scientists call neuroplasticity - the very playful malleability of the brain. A better play adulthood can also create the same effects. Which brings me to my third way play can save the world...
3. PLAY IS THE PATH TO A DIFFERENT (& BETTER) SOCIAL AND ECONOMIC ORDER
We need a very big perspective here... We are just about to come out of two centuries of scientific industrialism into a new model of productive society. And all over - the manufacturing robots will eventually come to China and South America too! We have also gone through a century of advertising-led consumer society. This has to some degree exploited our playful natures - our appetite for novelty, for pleasurably mimicking and copying others.
But there has been for a long time a deep contradiction in our consumer society - in one part of our lives, urged to be dutiful, self-disciplined workers, but in another, urged to be hedonistic, desiring, dissatisfied creatures. The work ethic subverted by the pleasure ethic. Now when Google's robots drive your cars, buses and trucks... When IBM Watson answers your legal, medical and financial questions... Do robots need a work ethic? No - they just keep on working.
But how can WE maintain an industrial work ethic when there is no industrial work? We have to search for a new ethos - one that helps us adapt to a new industrial era we are less and less a part of. (My consultancy and book is all about what I call a "Play Ethic".) If we have a deep understanding of play, I think we can find it. Perfect dramatisation of this shift is the Pixar movie Wall-E. On one level, these lazy, spherical blobs are the outcome of the March of the Machines - if the old model of hedonistic consumption persists. We are all watched over by loving machines, in space malls, while the planet fills up with rubbish... However by the end of the movie, what happens? The robots and the humans return to their polluted, degraded planet, and together, they start to reanimate and restore the place - using their skills, imagination, ingenuity, teamwork.
Now here we are in IKEA, with a new product to sell...But like Lego, IKEA have the seeds of a new world in what they do. If we have to recover those wise skills of craft and citizenship, in a highly automated world, we can recover them:-- -- the HARD way - the way that the Greeks or the Spanish are, turning to each other with radical political options under collapsing economic and social conditions --- or an EASIER way - through new products and services that invite us to try out a more active, more joyfully skilled way of being. I would say that IKEA, in comparison to many, are at least pointing in the right rather than the wrong direction.
4. PLAY BRINGS MEN, WOMEN AND CHILDREN TOGETHER - & PUTS CHILDREN FIRST
One way that play can clearly save the world is by putting child development, and then adult development, at the centre of our priorities as a society. How would we design our cities, how many hours would we work, what kinds of products and services would we engage with, what politics would we pursue, If we put the health and development of children truly at the heart of our lives? What the play science tells us is already changing the way we think about education, from pre-school all the way to graduate level. And about how the test of a great, vibrant city or town is the extent to which children can be seen playing in its midst. But this "right to play" - meaning the right to seek forms of living and activity which answer our evolved need for joyful experiment and exploration - shouldn't just be for children. Nor even just for families. We are here at the Milan expo - it's an example of how the festival and the carnival are becoming (or returning to become) the dominant social forms for a more playful society. Other models - like the makersspace, the lab, the studio - may also express better our need for a new balance between work & play.
5. PLAY CONNECTS US WITH THE PLANET - BUT IN A COMPLEX WAY
Other animals play - and not just complex mammals, birds, octopuses - but none as powerfully or as transformatively as ourselves, the radical animal. There is a deep paradox in human play on this planet - a capacity for infinite combinations and possibilities and desires, on a planet whose finite limits (or planetary boundaries) are becoming ever more obvious. So can we really all become quiet, contemplative monks, living lightly and calmly on the planet, as some green activists would like? I find that vision of a less aspirational, less yearning human nature unrealistic - at least to those who are not primarily spiritual or religious.
But an understanding of play can help us address realistically how humans - complex, radical and playful as we are - can be engaged in the challenge of a low-carbon planet. To think of ourselves as gardeners or curators of the earth, rather than its exploiters or victims, gets nearer to answering the playful urges of human nature. What are the ingeniuous challenges of sustainable energy? How do we identify the building blocks - of wind, solar, wave, geothermal, energy conservation, new production systems, automation - and put them together in new ways? What are the models and the modules? How do we learn to think and act like this? Who can devise the methods and the marketing?
Another joy of the day was following Stuart Brown, the magister ludi of play studies, whose book Play is the best guide to the multidisciplinary nature of play scholarship that you could want. I spent an hour or so with him and his lovely family, trading anecdotes like crazy. Though I doubt I'll beat his about the great Irish mythologist Joseph Campbell, who - at a dinner party with Stuart, Jonas Salk and the physicist Murray Gellman - began to recite Finnegans' Wake, from memory, for 20 minutes solid. At which point, a hitherto sceptical Gellman had to murmur, "you're a genius".
Here's my slides from the day (an underline usually means it's a hotlink to a source or article, so please explore). The Twitter account for ECI is here, and the hashtag for the conference #eciglobal. Anyone who attended and wants to know more about the points make, please don't hesitate to mail me at the contact address on the menu above.
One of the most deeply enjoyable gigs I did last year was to be the opening facilitator, and conference blogger, to "Cultural Encounters" - a meeting of 22 cross-continental winners of European funding for humanities projects, organised by HERA (Humanities in the European Research Area), based in the University of Galway, and funded by the European Commission.
A blog accompanies the process, and I wrote three entries leading up to and reviewing the conference. As I note in the blogs, for me this was an exciting return to an engagement with humanities scholarship that I began over 25 years ago, doing English and Film/TV studies at Glasgow University (I've explored this intellectual history here).
I chaired an event on "Knowledge Exchange" in Dubrovnik: but the whole conference was at pains to show how the critical and historical understanding of culture had great relevance to the societal challenges of the future (HERA is part of the European Commission's Horizon 2020 research programme).
I explore some of these issues in the following writings:
From March 2012 to the end of September 2013, I was asked by Geoff Mulgan, the CEO of Nesta (the UK's innovation agency) to lead-curate a massive festival of the future called, appropriately enough, FutureFest.
The plan was to occupy Shoreditch Town Hall in London, over the weekend of 28th-29th September, and fill its Edwardian municipal grandeur with visions, arguments and demonstrations of the near-future (with an implicit mid-century horizon of 2050).
Well, we finally executed the plan - and it was an extraordinary event, the speakers, discussion and performances fully captured on the legacy FutureFest website (video, podcast and blogs).
Over these three blogs (one, two, and three) I explain my curatorial vision - but these paragraphs give you a flavour:
Go back to any of the great expos, or even to the earliest futurologists – like Francis Bacon’s New Atlantis (1627), with its longevity drugs and flying machines, its robots and clones – and it sometimes seems that modernity has always contained the same set of yearnings about the future: stronger, faster, more automation, more communication.
The acme of this might be Walt Disney’s mid-fifties EPCOT (Experimental Community Of Tomorrow), a theme park in which cosmic exploration leaves behind a happy planet of harmonious cultures and sociable, zip-suited citizens.
Well, it’s 2013, and of course we’re wiser and more civilization-weary than all that. Those intricate techno-sciences we devise and set running? They end up rattling our economies, fighting our wars, bombarding our attention spans and challenging our bio-ethics around birth, health and human potential.
And some of the more massive trends heading into the future – the inexorables of population growth and global warming, emergent economies and regions with their own claims to truth and justice – would seem largely resistant to the glittering technical fixes that future-types of the past have put their faith in.
But it’s 2013, and of course we can also imagine – because that’s what humans irrepressibly do – how this progress towards the mid-century might be quite different.
Radical innovation could well find us a combination of energy sources that mitigate the impact of a heating planet. Our computers and devices could as easily amplify our natural capacities for invention and community, as unravel or stymie them.
Over only a few decades of bioscience, our “new normal” could be closer to that menagerie of mutants and cyborgs that you see in the average Star Trek street-scene, than it might be to the mutton-chopped visitors to the Crystal Palace.
How to capture all of these possibilities, in a particular time and place? And in city where the weight of the past, and the chaos of a globalised future, can easily be mapped from the top of a giant glass shard? The principle of a festival – with its tolerance for enthusiasm, dissent and experiment – seemed like the only way it could be gathered together and curated.
FutureFest takes place in Shoreditch Town Hall, London – a building which itself brims with Victorian progressive self-confidence (its motto on the stained glass windows is “more light, more power”). In its cavernous rooms we will be deploying three different methods of thinking about the future. Firstly, great minds and practitioners (some writing in these pages) will give short but powerfully focussed takes on our options heading towards mid-century, and beyond – everything from the future of religion and altruism, to the future of eating and manufacturing.
Next, we’ll offer immersive spaces in which participants can literally “meet and experience” the future. Real – or at least, artistic and creative – humans will conduct a variety of performances, installations, social games and even banquets, that will leave visitors in a delightful space between “now” and “next”.
And finally, we’ll allow people to go deeper into the future, with a range of forums, seminars, makeshops and technical expos from organizations like the Oxford Martin Institute, Arup, the BBC, Berg, Dyson and many others. (Pat Kane, "Making the Future Dance", Futurefest site).
We had a sell-out on the day, saw millions of interactions around the #futurefest hashtag on Twitter, and with any luck FutureFest will become a regular event in the cities of the UK for years to come. Certainly one of the most satisfying creative endeavours I've yet directed.
Wendy Russell, a senior lecturer in Play and Playwork at the University of Gloucestershire, who has been a practitioner and advocate for Playwork for over 30 years. Her report to Play England, "Play For A Change", is an authoritative review of the scholarship of play and its contemporary policy implications. She also founded the Philosophy at Play conferences.
The event was opened by the Minister for Children and Young People in the Scottish Government, Aileen Campbell, as part of the run-up to the launch of their Play Strategy for Scotland (vision statement and action plan). The Scotsman ran a preview feature, where I was quoted on the event.
Below are the slides to my presentation to the Young Foundation, a social enterprise think-tank in London founded by Micheal Young, exploring the concept of the "Big Society" - the UK Conservative Party's big idea for its Coalition government - in relation to my evolving theories about play, human nature and governance.
The slides may need a little context. My subtitle as announced on the day was "48 hours in the life of an London ideas merchant". The day before my Young Foundation presentation I'd had a meeting with a commercial digital agency to see if we could devise some useful strategies about convincing advertisers and marketers that they should approach a game/play based approach to their expenditure. We cited the work of game analyst Sebastian Deterding, from whom the test of a great game experience is that it allows "meaning, mastery and autonomy".
That evening, while preparing for next day's presentation, I was reading the Conservative MP Jesse Norman's The Big Society on my Kindle - when I came upon a passage where he talked about the Big Society's motivational drives being that of "autonomy, mastery and purpose/meaning"... Thus alerted to a synchronicity in the world of ideas, I tried to follow through the consequences...
All comments welcome below. (An extended article will be available over the next few days).
The P.T. Barnum of modern British autonomism, Dougald Hine, has come up with a great new project, defined - like many of the best are - by an argument with the establishment. BBC 3, in association with the Arts and Humanities Research Council, is embarking on a quest to find "New Generation Thinkers" in the UK - meaning public intellectuals who shape debate through writing, broadcasting, blogging and other kinds of intervention.
Nice idea. Only problem is, the rules of the competition are that you have to be a staff academic in some way. Dougald quite rightly points out that not only would this disqualify past great thinkers like Antonio Gramsci, John Berger and Karl Polyani, but it disqualifies many current voices who find the time for critique and research in the midst of non-academic lives - as writers, entrepreneurs, employees, activists, artists.
So, platform-ready as ever, Dougald is going to set up a site called New Public Thinkers (first announcement here, holding page for actual site here), which as I understand it will have at least a wide-open door to those who are publicly intellectualising from a non-academic perch. Many thoughts on the state of public thinking come to mind - but to begin with, D wants some nominations as to who should be on a putative list of NPTs. Some of my favourites have already been proposed, here's some others:
Mark Fisher (aka K-Punk). Now straightaway this gets complicated, in terms of the initial definition. I didn't know much about K-Punk other than his extraordinary blog - which uses the best of radical left theory (Zizek, Badiou, Negri, Deleuze) as tools for writing heterodoxically about music, popular culture, the political spectacle and activism, in a way which for me defines what "public thinking" should be.
But the more you read, the more you realise his own predicament - as a precarious academic teacher, hopping from gig to gig teaching late teens, and thereby gaining an insight into contemporary passivities and pathologies. Keep reading, and his network of pals emerges - voices like Nina Power aka Infinite Thought (a philosopher at Roehampton University), Owen Hathereley's Sit Down Man You're a Bloody Tragedy (freelance architectural critic and lecturer), and Richard Seymour aka Lenin's Tomb (who's a PhD sociology candidate at the LSE). All writing from the theoretically-informed activist left that I value - but with some academic locus.
Should "new public thinkers" also allow for post-grads and employed academics who do carve out time to make public interventions - meaning, they don't keep their heads down and direct all their textual production towards peer-ref'd articles that can improve their research ratings and thus career? I think they should. Otherwise a lot of the new leadership that's coming from the student protests will be unnecessarily ruled out.
John Thackera (Doors of Perception). In terms of consistency of approach about the importance of "design for resilience" over the last decade, John Thackera gets my vote as a "public thinker". He isn't just a persuasive advocate of ideas about green design, but his "Doors Of Perception" conferences have been great opportunities for the meeting of practical minds across disciplines, under the urgent horizon of climate crisis. I think it's also helpful that a public thinker knows how to write clearly and effectively, particularly if the topic is recondite or specific. John, as an ex-hack, knows how to do that well. A busy man, but I'd love to see his voice much more in the agora of ideas about green economics in this country again.
Indra Adnan (Downing Street Project, Soft Power Network). Indra has been writing publicly (and from a non-academic perch) for the last four years on the nexus between Buddhism, soft power and the politics of gender and families. In her columns for the Huffington Post and the Guardian, Indra has explored how the crisis of power in the UK - exemplified by political corruption and the financial crash - has a complex relationship with notions of 'the masculine' and 'the feminine': we simply can't make an effective critique of how power structures order our lives if we don't find a way to talk about our deeply-held attitudes towards control, participation, acceptance.
Indra's advocacy and development of Joseph Nye's concept of soft power - from an American propaganda exercise, to a radically compassionate network politics, rooted in conflict-mediation and practised throughout the world - brings new insights about public life (see for example, her ambivalence about Wikileaks on this Huff Post blog). And yes, this woman is my partner, but sometimes the obvious is sitting right in front of you...
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Already excited, waiting to see a list of these thinkers in one place - feels like a handy new blogroll to look forward to.
I presented at the Big Tent green festival in Falkland, Fife yesterday - the brainchild of Mike Small (a Murray Bookchin scholar, founder of both Bella Caledonia and The Fife Diet, and one of the most innovative social entrepreneurs in Scotland).
It was an opportunity to consciously begin a dialogue between environmentalism and the Play Ethic - something that was explicitly (and to a degree inexplicably) missing from the 2004 Play Ethic book, and something that I'm thinking about seriously as the basis for my next book. These are only some opening thoughts on these topics - happy to hear all feedback. Thanks very much to the generous and intelligent audience at my event. (Yes, it's a rather - as the kids say - random first slide, but it makes more sense later on...)