Homo Ludens, or "Man the Player," is a book written in 1938 by Dutch historian, cultural theorist and professor Johan Huizinga. It discusses the importance of the play element of culture and society. Huizinga uses the term "Play Theory" within the book to define the conceptual space in which play occurs. Huizinga suggests that play is primary to and necessary (though not sufficient) condition of the generation of culture.
Foreword controversy: Huizinga makes it clear in the foreword of his book that he means the play element of culture, and not the play element in culture. He writes that he titled the initial lecture the book is based on "The Play Element of Culture". This title was repeatedly corrected to "in" Culture, a revision he objected to. Huizinga explains:
The uncredited English translator of the Beacon Press version modified the subtitle of the book to "A Study of the Play-Element In Culture", contradicting Huizinga's stated intention. The translator explains in a footnote in the Foreword, "Logically, of course, Huizinga is correct; but as English prepositions are not governed by logic I have retained the more euphonious ablative in this sub-title." Thus, the translator intends no change in meaning, but essentially thought "in culture" sounded better than "of culture".
The version in print and widely available in English is a translation and synthesis of the original Dutch and the first English translation (done by Huizinga himself), because "a comparison of the two texts shows a number of discrepancies and a marked difference in style" (Translators Note, unnumbered page).
“Play is older than culture, for culture, however inadequately defined, always presupposes human society, and animals have not waited for man to teach them their playing.”
Huizinga begins by making it clear that animals played first. There is here a clear subtext to the first sentence, quoted above. Huizinga sets the book in an evolutionary framework.
One of the most significant (human and cultural) aspects of play is that it is fun. This fun aspect is celebrated by Brian Sutton-Smith in his book The Ambiguity of Play:
“Prime credit in play-theory terms for denying the puritanical and work contentions about play in modern times must go to Huizinga who [...] argues that play is a most fundamental human function and has permeated all cultures from the beginning.”
“Word and idea are not born of scientific or logical thinking but of creative language, which means of innumerable languages—for this act of ″conception″ has taken place over and over again.”
Huizinga has much to say about the words for play in different languages. Perhaps the most extraordinary remark concerns the Latin language. “It is remarkable that ludus, as the general term for play, has not only not passed into the Romance languages but has left hardly any traces there, so far as I can see... We must leave to one side the question whether the disappearance of ludus and ludere is due to phonetic or to semantic causes.”
Of all the possible uses of the word "play" Huizinga specifically mentions the equation of play with, on the one hand, “serious strife”, and on the other, “erotic applications”.
“The view we take in the following pages is that culture arises in the form of play, that it is played from the very beginning... Social life is endued with supra-biological forms, in the shape of play, which enhances its value.”
Huizinga does not mean that “play turns into culture”. Rather, he sets play and culture side by side, talks about their “twin union”, but insists that “play is primary”.
“The judge's wig, however, is more than a mere relic of antiquated professional dress. Functionally it has close connections with the dancing masks of savages. It transforms the wearer into another ″being″. And it is by no means the only very ancient feature which the strong sense of tradition so peculiar to the British has preserved in law. The sporting element and the humour so much in evidence in British legal practice is one of the basic features of law in archaic society.”
“Until recently the ″law of nations″ was generally held to constitute such a system of limitation, recognizing as it did the ideal of a community with rights and claims for all, and expressly separating the state of war—by declaring it—from peace on the one hand and criminal violence on the other. It remained for the theory of ″total war″ to banish war's cultural function and extinguish the last vestige of the play-element.”
This chapter occupies a certain unique position not only in the book but more obviously in Huizinga's own life. The first Dutch version was published in 1938 (before the official outbreak of World War II). The Beacon Press book is based on the combination of Huizinga's English text and the German text, published in Switzerland 1944. Huizinga died in 1945 (the year the Second World War ended).
The chapter contains some pleasantly surprising remarks:
“For archaic man, doing and daring are power, but knowing is magical power. For him all particular knowledge is sacred knowledge—esoteric and wonder-working wisdom, because any knowing is directly related to the cosmic order itself.”
The riddle-solving and death-penalty motif features strongly in the chapter.
“Poiesis, in fact, is a play-function. It proceeds within the play-ground of the mind, in a world of its own which the mind creates for it. There things have a different physiognomy from the one they wear in ‘ordinary life’, and are bound by ties other than those of logic and causality.”
“As soon as the effect of a metaphor consists in describing things or events in terms of life and movement, we are on the road to personification. To represent the incorporeal and the inanimate as a person is the soul of all myth-making and nearly all poetry.”
Mythopoiesis is literally myth-making.
“At the centre of the circle we are trying to describe with our idea of play there stands the figure of the Greek sophist. He may be regarded as an extension of the central figure in archaic cultural life who appeared before us successively as the prophet, medicine-man, seer, thaumaturge and poet and whose best designation is vates.”
“Wherever there is a catch-word ending in -ism we are hot on the tracks of a play-community.”
Huizinga has already established an indissoluble bond between play and poetry. Now he recognizes that “the same is true, and in even higher degree, of the bond between play and music” However, when he turns away from “poetry, music and dancing to the plastic arts” he “finds the connections with play becoming less obvious”. But here Huizinga is in the past. He cites the examples of the “architect, the sculptor, the painter, draughtsman, ceramist, and decorative artist” who in spite of her/his “creative impulse” is ruled by the discipline, “always subjected to the skill and proficiency of the forming hand.
On the other hand, if one turns away from the “making of works of art to the manner in which they are received in the social milieu” then the picture changes completely. It is this social reception, the struggle of the new "-ism" against the old "-ism" which characterises the play.
“We have to conclude, therefore, that civilization is, in its earliest phases, played. It does not come from play like a babe detaching itself from the womb: it arises in and as play, and never leaves it.”
“In American politics it [the play-factor present in the whole apparatus of elections] is even more evident. Long before the two-party system had reduced itself to two gigantic teams whose political differences were hardly discernible to an outsider, electioneering in America had developed into a kind of national sport.”
It is important to note that Huizinga died in 1945. Hence his observations on contemporary civilization in the final chapter of the book date back to the end of the Second World War.
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