The Play of History

The following is a guest post from Andrew Salvati,  a Media Studies Ph.D. candidate at Rutgers University, interested in media history, myth,memory, and representation. The post is based on a paper he presented at the first meeting of the International Network for the Theory of History (INTH) in Ghent, Belgium, July 2013. You can find him on Twitter @Andrewsalvati

A while back, a colleague of mine in the Media Studies doctoral program at Rutgers University declared that I was not only a media historian, but that I was genuinely a fan of history. I took this as a compliment. Like many historians, I have always been fascinated by the stories we tell each other about the past – the way we can argue endlessly over facts and perspectives, how we often use the past as a means of understanding the present, and how the past is framed as entertainment. I even preferred the castle and pirate Lego sets as a child.

Being a fan of history has of course informed my research interests. And recently, I have been examining how the past is represented in a variety of media contexts, with a particular interest in how the past can be depicted playfully (perhaps an artifact of childhood Lego fun time). Aside from games, readers of Play the Past are likely familiar with the various ways in which history is represented playfully in popular culture. In movie theaters, Abraham Lincoln battles hordes of the undead. On television, the History Channel plays with retro-chic in I Love the 1880s, and celebrities reenact inebriated narrations of landmark events in American history on the Comedy Central (formerly Funny or Die) series Drunk History. And of course, computer simulations can offer immersive, authentic-feeling historical environments, or allow players to explore realistic historical environments, events, and processes. In the last few decades or so, the work of representing and interpreting history has been co-opted by media producers who have playfully invoked the past as the setting for films, games, mash-ups, reality television, satire, and so on.

Rather than focus specifically on games in this post, I want to take a broad perspective on meaningful play by exploring the ways in which the writing of historical narrative might itself be conceptualized as a playful endeavor. In this context, I understand play in terms of the poetic and creative elements of historical representation, which may be shared (though in different measures, and for different ends) by formal historical writing and historically-themed pop culture texts. It is my intention here to ease into a discussion about what “counts” as a work of history by outlining a few points of contact between historical interpretation and play. When developed more fully, it is my hope that this conversation will result in a coherent theoretical framework (or several) that expand the rather sticky concept of play beyond its customary associations with leisure and frivolity, to creative modes of expression that provide insight into the cultural and cognitive category that we call historical knowledge.

In a sense then, this post is itself a playground – on which the merging of concepts may result in a fruitful cross-pollination, or may simply collapse into a theoretical version of Mad Libs. Obviously, I suspect the former of these outcomes to be the more likely. But the more subtle point here is the double modality of play, which can be both serious business and joyous fun.

Johan Huizinga

In his comprehensive analysis of the rhetorics of play, the play theorist Brian Sutton-Smith observed that the diversity of practices that could be described as play or playful, suggests that “almost anything can allow play to occur within its boundaries” (1997, p. 3). By contrast however, it would seem that the rigors involved in analysis and explanation should exclude modern historical inquiry from Sutton-Smith’s sweeping claim. Let me begin, then, by laying out the apparent incompatibility between these two concepts – formal historical inquiry and play – and the peculiarity of their juxtaposition. On the one hand is play, a generally relaxed, imaginative, even frivolous activity endemic to all human cultures. Play is notoriously difficult to define, but typically interactive, and can be open-ended and spontaneous as it can be structured and goal-oriented. As the Dutch historian Johan Huizinga (1955) tells us in his classic work on the subject, play is “free, is in fact freedom” (p. 8). On the other hand history, within its disciplinary organization suggests a seriousness leaving little ambiguity in the way of frivolity or fantasy. A modern, rational-critical discourse bearing the imprint of Western tradition, history proposes a meticulous enquiry into past events supported by a plenum of documentary evidence. Further, the dispassionate objectivity mandated by professional conventions generally discourages playful speculation about historical possibilities and counterfactuals – indeed it is noteworthy that exploratory modes of this kind are typically numbered among the merits of history games. In short, historical research is work, and historical writing aims to be concrete and specific, whereas play is intuitive and fleeting.

Such a superficial treatment, I argue, overlooks some commonalities.

In his characterization of man the player, Homo Ludens, Huizinga establishes play as a fundamentally civilizing activity at the crux of all of human culture, which “arises in the form of play … it is played from the very beginning” (p. 46). Though humans are not the only species that play (indeed as I write this, our two cats are making a big fuss over chasing each other around the apartment), Huizinga observes that the activity of play is marginal to the biological and material needs of life, and so concludes that culturally, play has a significant, symbolic function. Separated from everyday reality, yet continually re-imagining and re-arranging that reality, play for Huizinga always carries meaning, and is the fountainhead of more sophisticated human cultural activities: “law and order, commerce and profit, craft and art, poetry, wisdom and science. All are rooted in the primaeval soil of play” (p. 5). This is not to say, as Huizinga cautions, that all of human life and activity are playful – just as the complexities of history, often a legacy of immense and unspeakable human suffering and tragedy cannot in all cases be reduced to play – but that play is an important dynamic of human interaction, and that the “play-element” is latent, or completely superseded within modern institutions and cultures.

MetahistoryAmong the ancient human activities in which Huizinga detects the play-element are the interrelated forms of myth and poetry. These cultural forms are significant for Huizinga precisely because each seems to transcend what he considers to be the logic and rationality enclosing everyday life, and which “like everything else that transcends the bounds of logical and deliberative judgment, myth and poetry both move in the play-sphere” (p. 129). A creative, literary art that plays with the aesthetic and rhythmic qualities of language, Huizinga finds that, “in the turning of a poetic phrase, the development of a motif, the expression of a mood, there is always a play-element at work.” (p. 132). On the other hand, published well before Claude Lévi-Strauss’s insight that myth is a form of speech – and hence not purely fictional – Huizinga’s analysis of myth proceeds from traditional associations of myth as cosmologies grounded in the playfulness of poetics, allegory, and personification to interpret natural forces. Surely it would be possible to debate the merits of Huizinga’s division between everyday reality and the play-worlds of myth and poiesis, especially in the wake of Levi-Strauss and Roland Barthes. This is a conversation for another time. For the purposes at hand, Huizinga’s relation of poiesis and myth to the play-functions of creative expression and imagination bring play within the conceptual horizon of the theory and philosophy of history, resonating particularly with the work of Hayden White.

Though White did not take up play in any systematic fashion, myth – a reservoir of culturally relevant story types and their corresponding linguistic structures – is central to his notion of the historical imagination. According to White, the historian’s work hinges on the way in which she imagines the past to be some way or other, and that this way of imagining the past guides her selection and arrangement of data, facts, and events within a recognizable plot structure. Relying upon the cultural familiarity of story types, the historical imagination thus involves a twinning of mythos and logos that informs historical inquiry, and crystalizes in historical narrative. In White’s analysis therefore, the historical narrative is manifestly a literary artifact composed of “verbal fictions, the contents of which are as much invented as found and the forms of which have more in common with their counterparts in literature than they have with those in the sciences” (1986, p. 82, italics in original). In this formulation, the creative play of selecting and ordering facts within a narrative frame can be described as a kind of activity that Sutton-Smith has called solitary play – a category that encompasses hobbies, collections, reading and writing, and Civil War reenactments, among other things.

A thematic concept of his work, White’s emphasis on the creative and fictive (as distinct from fictional, or make-believe) aspects of the historian’s work proposed a significant revision of rationalist models of historiography that had emerged since the Enlightenment, and which situate history among the human sciences. Procedurally, historians operating within this paradigm adjudicate in favor of the rational assessment of empirical data, or facts, when determining the historical truth. From White’s vantage however, these constraints not only exclude entire fields of data and traditions from historical enquiry, but overlook the extent to which historians employ figurative language (tropes), creative expression, and present a certain arrangement of facts within their writing.

In his canonical 1973 book Metahistory, White argued that the singular contribution of the Enlightenment to historical thought was the development of what he called a metahistorical consciousness – that is, a set of cognitive criteria by which to distinguish the proper methods of historical analysis from improper ones. Describing this innovation in a particularly agonistic way (emphasizing the antinomy in early rationalist thought between truth and falsity), White further argued that thinkers like Montesquieu, Voltaire, Hume, Gibbon, and others “conceived the problem to be the determination of those areas of human expression in which fancy might be legitimately allowed full play and those in which it was not permitted to enter” (White, p. 52). Myths, legends, fables, perhaps even epics, memory and other forms of imprecise, or sufficiently fanciful historical imaginings were thus differentiated and disqualified from the emerging rationalist discourse of history.

Drawing upon Huizinga’s notion of the play element of culture and of mythopoeisis alongside White’s concepts of historical imagination and emplottment, we might say that the extent to which myth – and hence play – contribute to the historical imagination has generally been obscured by the social scientific paradigm informing the modern discipline of history. More descriptively, we might say play has been disciplined out of historical thinking. Re-examining the techniques of discipline, and the various ways in which knowledges and meanings of the past have been derived through play may help us reimagine or reconfigure our relationship to the past in new and innovative ways. Such a project would do well to consider the broader cultural history of play concepts.

A thorough accounting of literature in this area is of course beyond the scope of this post, but for now, let me just offer one connection.

For Huizinga, the process of subordination was not unique to any one discipline or cultural activity, but is generalized in modern society as formal structures gradually supersede the play-element in culture. Taking a slightly more nuanced approach that refuses to universalize a single play concept, the classicist Mihai Spariosu has taken up what might be called the repression of play within the “Western mentality” in his book Dionysus Reborn (1989). For Spariosu, western philosophical, literary, and scientific discourse continually oscillates between rival “prerational” and “rational” play concepts – the former of which is associated with oral societies, and the play of raw, naked power; the latter with literate societies, in which play is a rule-determined mediation between reason and chaos – both of which “engage in a contest for cultural authority that has intermittently been carried on to the present day” (p. 6). According to Spariosu, the subtle dominations and interstices between these two concepts in the Western tradition are in part what make play such an elusive concept. At the risk of greatly simplifying a carefully crafted analysis, it should suffice here to say that Spariosu asserts that since Nietzsche (e.g. Heidegger, Gadamer, Deleuze), there has been something of a return of the repressed in modern philosophical and scientific discourse. The extent to which a similar return of the repress can be identified in historical discourse remains to be investigated. It is my suspicion however, that the recent proliferation of pop culture histories in the form of podcasts, satire, video games, mash ups (et. al.) are indicative of a similar return of the play concept of history.

The intersection between these three theorists (Huizinga, White, and Spariosu – there will be others later) I argue, can provide a space for re-conceptualizing our ideas of historical knowledge that takes seriously playful and playable historical representations – setting these alongside, though clearly distinct from, formal historical writing. An investigation along these lines is all the more important given recent trends in media programming that have seized upon the past for a variety of purposes. Indeed, as we confront students and a public whose historical consciousness is informed by such media products, it is important to understand how history may be presented as play in such forms as myth, fiction, poetry, epic, satire, parody, and how the past can be reconfigured and re-shaped for fantastic or idiosyncratic ends.

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