Epic Life: Preface

Aug 29, 12 Epic Life: Preface

So at the end of the Rules of the Text series, I put forward the claim that “playing the past is an absolutely essential part of living the present.” Testing that claim is the purpose of Epic Life.

Thus I mean in Epic Life to take the formulations I made in that last post, about where a rules-of-the-text reading can get us, towards an understanding of how describing this great chain of practomime in relation to our lives in culture, as the job of the humanities, may allow us to measure at least with qualitative precision the kind of learning outcomes (call it παιδεῖα [paideia] if you want) humanistic study can effect: critical thinking, contextually-sensitive analysis of cultural heritage materials, historically-sensitive analysis of contemporary cultural performance. If my notion of text as ruleset has traction, not only performances in the Iliad and the Academy and in Skyrim, but also performances on Facebook and Twitter, are on the one hand legible both as performances of rulesets and as, themselves, iterated rulesets, and on the other hand susceptible of development in both capacities, according to analysis that is at the same time performance within the ruleset of a discipline, itself an iterated ruleset of the study of the humanities that goes back through Plato to the homeric bards themselves in such passages as the “Embassy to Achilles,” where the bards analyze the warrior-code, in the voice of Achilles, just as Plato will later analyze the work of the bards in the voice of Socrates.

The role of humanistic study, on this understanding, might be seen as enabling subjects (people) to become aware of the way their performances are shaped by the rulesets that have come before, and the way in turn that their performances function as rulesets for performances that come after. You know, like getting up from your seat in the cave and getting a good look at what’s really going on.

All this grandiloquence about using game studies to put the humanities on a proper footing vis-à-vis the modern educational context–that is, the way we currently transfer culture–is, to be sure, apparently insane. In that modern educational context, however, I submit that as much as humanists whine that they shouldn’t be made to show that their pursuits materially benefit their communities, it would be retrograde, reactionary, and simply foolish to reject the benefits scientific fields like educational psychology and cognitive science can bring to our ability to change the world for the better through a study of the past.

My apparent megalomania comes from an encounter–an auseinandersetzung, as the teacher who started me on this journey put it many years ago as he told me to read a crazy book, my first real encounter with scholarly German–with homeric epic through the critical lens of that teacher’s work, and so to honor him and to find a path forward by tracing its origins in my own earlier work, this new project begins with a connection of the criticism of Gregory Nagy, who in The Best of the Achaeans began to demonstrate how precisely we can delineate the homeric rulesets, to my theory of the rules of the text. (The book was Wolfgang Rösler’s Dichter und Gruppe (Rösler 1980), as auspicious a beginning for the study of the interaction of occasion (ruleset) and performance as can be imagined, I believe.)

One way to formulate my purpose in this series, then, would be as a return to Nagy, in an attempt to establish his work as having the same foundational importance for practomimetics that Johan Huizinga’s (Huizinga 1955) has for game studies and, just to continue the grandiloquence, because practomimetics precede game studies as ground precedes figure, to establish Nagy as precedent of Huizinga. Sebastian Deterding has called for a return to Huizinga in order to clarify that games and fiction are both species of play (Deterding 2009); I here call for a return to Nagy in order to clarify that play-performances of every kind–games, novels, epics, paintings, audiobooks, tweets, status-updates, critical essays–take place within rulesets that those performances make legible, and that in turn instantiate new rulesets to be in turn made legible by subsequent play-performances.


  • Deterding, Sebastian. 2009. “Fiction as Play: Reassessing the Relation of Games, Play, and Fiction.” The Philosophy of Computer Games Conference, Oslo.
  • Huizinga, J. 1955. Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston.
  • Nagy, G. 1996. Poetry as Performance: Homer and Beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge UP.
  • Rösler, W. 1980. Dichter und Gruppe: eine Untersuchung zu Bedingunger und zur historischen Funktion fruher griechischer Lyrik am Beispiel Alkaios. Munich.



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