The Best Sentence of the Day

This blog is a cut-up of a dissertation in progress. Each day, I will post my favorite sentence that I have newly scribed. Everything out of context, but suggestive. I hope.

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I'm a game designer, a games researcher, and a future forecaster. I make games that give a damn. I study how games change lives. I spend a lot of my time figuring out how the games we play today shape our real-world future. And so I'm trying to make sure that a game developer wins a Nobel Prize by the year 2032. Learn more here in my bio or get my contact information on my contact page.

Monday, June 12, 2006

Best Sentence #80

It's hard to believe, but a full, complete dissertation draft is just 1-2 weeks away from completion. Only 14 more best sentences at most! (I suppose then we'll start the "Best revision of the day" era of this blog.)

As I near a complete draft, which incidentally is looking to weigh in at about 400 pages, ai yai, I keep wanting to post more than a sentence. I'm ready to show more.

But I want to keep the formal aesthetic of the blog. So here, one sentence; you can always check the comments for context and elaboration.

If the thesis of Homo Ludens is that all of humanity’s great institutions and achievements have their roots in play and games, then its stakes are this: Huizinga’s growing concern that society worldwide is abandoning its play ethic.


Blogger Jane said...

Dutch historian Johan Huizinga’s 1938 Homo Ludens takes its name from the author’s now famous use of scientific nomenclature to classify humans, among all other species, as particularly and quintessentially playful beings. Huizinga observes: “A happier age than ours once made bold to call our species by the name of Homo sapiens. In the course of time we have come to realize that we are not so reasonable after all as the Eighteenth Century, with its worship of reason and naïve optimism, thought us” (i). Huizinga suggests an alternative classification, arguing that for humans playing is “just as important as reason”—indeed, “civilization arises and unfolds in and as play” (i). Huizinga intends to show how all of humanity’s significant institutions and cultural achievements, from religion, law and politics to philosophy, music and poetry, have their origins in play. He therefore proposes, “Homo ludens, Man the Player, deserves a place in our nomenclature” (i).

Huizinga could have easily titled this work “Man the Player,” the translation he provides immediately following his proffered scientific term. Instead, he grounds his argument in the conventions of biology’s formal naming system. Why begin with Carl Linnaeus’ Systema Naturae, a hierarchical classification of species that is the basis for modern scientific classification, as the entrée into a project he just as quickly claims will be “approached historically, not scientifically”(i)? What leverage does a taxonomical argument provide Huizinga, when he otherwise insists that “play is to be understood here not as a biological phenomenon but as a cultural phenomenon” (i)? The counter-intuitiveness of Huizinga’s scientific rhetoric demands a closer reading than it traditionally has received.

Any interpretation of Huizinga’s taxonomy-based argument must begin, of course, by noting the naturalizing function of scientific classification schemes. In his landmark 1970 essay on “Classifying,” Michel Foucault thoroughly explores the rhetorical power of the “the exact Names of things,” that is, the system of binomial nomenclature articulated by Linnaeus and other founding taxonomists (159). Foucault quotes Linnaeus’ 1788 assertion that it is only through a deliberate naming process that “character emerges” (140). Here, “character” is the essential, defining trait of any biological thing. Character is discovered through the realization of a name that could not reasonably be applied to any other biological thing. Foucault notes that Linnaeus defines the work of taxonomy as revealing definition, rather than imposing it. The proper name is discovered, rather than artificially applied—as if the living thing itself were capable of whispering its own name. Taxonomies, Foucault therefore observes, aspire to natural knowledge, which is found by investigators rather than constructed.

But how can Huizinga lay claim to the natural knowledge afforded by a rational taxonomy? It seems either pure wit or audacity (or perhaps both) to argue that man is not the supreme rational being the Enlightenment once claimed while simultaneously adopting one of the Enlightenment’s hallmark achievements, the classification of species, in order to make that very argument. Since Huizinga explicitly rejects the scientific approach and the biological framework, why does he not take up a more classically humanistic approach to the problem—for instance, Friedrich Schiller’s philosophical description of play? Schiller, a century and a half earlier, made a claim quite similar to Huizinga’s opening assertion. Schiller said: “For, to speak out once and for all, man only plays when in the full meaning of the world he is a man, and he is only completely a man when he plays” (56). Although Schiller’s sentiment is quite similar to his own, it is not this humanistic tradition of thought that Huizinga chooses as the context for Homo Ludens. He references Schiller’s notion of “the play-instinct” only briefly and somewhat belatedly in his chapter on play in the plastic arts (168).

How do we reconcile Huizinga’s preference for a scientific rhetoric with his rejection of science as a critical framework? In his chapter on play in philosophy, the author offers a resolution to this seeming paradox with his rather rapturous description of the Scientific Enlightenment. He points to the 18th-century birth of modern science as a quintessential example of culture flourishing through play. He describes Linnaeus’ era as one in which “Natural Science underwent a glorious efflorescence” resulting in a “frivolous Rationalism.” This exuberant blooming of scientific discourse, according to Huizinga, marks Linnaeus’ original taxonomical efforts as “an essential part of that playfulness which nobody will deny the 18th century” (157). The phrase “frivolous rationalism”, it is important to note, is not meant to undercut the importance of the work of Enlightenment thinkers. For Huizinga, the term frivolous expresses a deep respect for the lively and “agonistic”, or heatedly dialectical, spirit of competition that drove the natural philosophers of the time.

Huizinga’s attraction to the playfulness of Linnaeus’ scientific era explains his own agonistic approach to the naming of the human species. “Everyone is taking up new positions; camps and factions fill the scene,” Huizinga writes of dueling scientific theories of centuries past (156). And so Huizinga creates his own new position, opposing Homo sapiens and establishing camp on the side of Homo ludens. In doing so, the author performs for readers what I take to be the ultimate goal of Homo Ludens: the purposeful return of the play element to contemporary cultural institutions. Huizinga worries, for instance, about 20th-century science, which he claims “is far less liable to fall into play as we have defined it than was the case in earlier times, when scientific thought and method showed unmistakable play-characteristics” (204). With his frivolously rational challenge to the classification of our own species, I believe Huizinga is modeling the return to play that Homo Ludens is intended to inspire. This forward-looking purpose is stated most plainly in the final pages of his sprawling examination of civilization’s unfolding through play: “More and more the sad conclusion forces itself upon us that the play-element in culture has been on the wane ever since the 18th century, when it was in full flower. Civilization today is no longer played” (206).

If the thesis of Homo Ludens is that all of humanity’s great institutions and achievements have their roots in play and games, then its stakes are this: Huizinga’s growing concern that society worldwide is abandoning its play ethic. The most poetic expression of Huizinga’s lament appears in the widely read 1955 English translation of Homo Ludens: “The real play spirit is threatened with extinction” (199). Although the translator takes some liberties with the phrasing of the original German sentence, I believe his interpretation opens up another important aspect of Huizinga’s attraction to binomial nomenclature as a rhetorical strategy. It is not, in fact, abstract ideas like “play” that face extinction. Species face extinction. In the end, then, Homo Ludens is as much a deeply troubled text, worried for humanity’s future, as it is an exultation of playful civilization past. It is not just a history of play—it is a call to play, first modeled by the author’s playful intervention into conventional taxonomy and then rhetorically strengthened by Huizinga’s positioning of Homo ludens as a species facing its own extinction.

2:42 PM  
Blogger Ken said...

You go girl!!

Great job. You'll let us know when it's in press?

6:27 PM  
Blogger Stratman said...

Jane said... this can't be the Jane from Dick and Jane can it. She's all grown up.

8:04 PM  
Blogger seeking_jazz said...

This sounds better to me, because the overall subject of your sentence remains a person, or his work. Pardon my impudence.

If the thesis of Homo Ludens is that all of humanity’s great institutions and achievements have their roots in play and games, then its stakes must be Huizinga’s, who had a growing concern that society worldwide is abandoning its play ethic.

8:47 PM  
Blogger Jane said...

Hi gnshsbrmnn-- I appreciate your thinking about how to help me make my points as clearly as possible! :) Something you might be interested to know, and I'm assuming here that you're not a performance studies researcher, is that in performance studies, we speak of texts and projects as having stakes. It's one of the classic rhetorical practices of the field. I totally get that might be unclear to folks not in the field, but ultimately I am writing for that particular academic audience. When I publish my book (thanks for asking Ken!), the language will definitely be different! :)

9:09 PM  
Blogger MachSirius said...

Maybe I'm missing something or don't know any of his work, but isn't Huizinga really just arguing semantics, or rather a strict semantic?
Your supporting post explains Huizinga states "play" is not just something "man" does, but is a part of what man is. So how can society lose this?

I would say, and I'm sure developmental psychologists would agree, that game play is very much entrenched into not only human, but most animals with more than just a hindbrain. That's how we learn.

But whether something is a "game" or not is a definition of semantics. Does one have to know a game is being played for it to count? Isn't control over a "fight or flight" reaction a game of sorts? When you're able to calculate a strategy and weigh it's liklihood of success AND be able to override your natural instinct at the same time? Isn't this a competition? is a competition a game?

In light of the belief that humanity's greatest institutions and achievements are derived from play,I would have to say, unequivocally yes, "play" is therefore synonymous with cognition.

But again, maybe I just don't understand what he would classify as a "game".

4:12 AM  
Blogger bokkie sucks said...

A great sentence or dialogue in my opinion is this one:
"What do you think of the western civilisation"
Daila Lama:
"It would be a good idea"

4:59 AM  
Anonymous Misc said...


8:25 AM  
Blogger Online Degree said...

400 pages! Wow...

1:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

wow..your blog leaves one speechless

1:31 PM  
Blogger dr.holza said...

That was very interesting and enlightening!

1:59 PM  
Blogger Bazza said...

I wonder if one could 'construct' a book from 'found' sentences in the same way as one might make a scupture with 'found' objects?

It would be fun to put them in a hat, shake them up and draw them out like raffle tickets, and then submit them as a dissertation!

Great blog, Jane.


3:25 PM  
Blogger gianna said...


1:02 PM  
Blogger gianna said...


1:03 PM  

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