Seven Theses On Play
Paul Z. Simons
Play is desire realized, it is the negation of domination. Play is unmediated activity that does not attempt to produce a specific emotion, indeed any emotion at all. The result of play may be alternatively orgasm, terror, delight, even death. Play is ambivalent; any one of these conclusions or any multitude of others are possible (there may even be no conclusive result). Yet, each eventuality in its own context is correct because none are specifically elicited except in the content of the play-activity that produces it.
In pre-agricultural societies, play was the common denominator of all activity, in much the same way that the gift was the characteristic mode of exchange. For the primitive, play was the activity that not only defined tribal and familial relationships, it also provided food, clothing, and shelter. In the pre-agricultural era of abundance, the outcome of any given hunt was irrelevant. Necessity (and surplus) meant nothing in such societies, consequently food-generating activities were not driven by the alternative of starvation, rather they existed simply as diversion, play. Further, play was essential to the stability of pre-agricultural societies because of play’s tendency to exclude coercion, language, even time. The death of play was the triumph of civilization, of domination…
Capital has sought to abolish play and replace it with leisure-time; a void that must be filled as opposed to fulfillment that negates the void. Leisure-time is capital’s valorization of play, another mediation in the infinite maelstrom of mediations. In capital’s dual role of pimp and prostitute, it not only creates leisure-time, it produces commodities and spectacles with which to fill it. Such valorization demands passive, stupefied participation (the negation of play) and seeks to elicit a single response, enjoyment. Which is, of course, the pay-off for time/money investment in a specific commodity/spectacle. As a result, play (like language) reverts to its magic form and becomes something dangerous, unmanageable, ultimately lethal; and capital—in order to discourage play—portrays it as such…
Capital, even in its current manifestation of real domination, has been unable to eradicate play. The “discovery” of play occurred repeatedly in this century, occasionally (though not exclusively) in the realm of the avant-garde. Alfred Jarry (in the Ubu plays and his system of pataphysics—the science of imaginary solutions) definitively incinerated the continuum of retrograde representational form. In doing so, he reintroduced play not as an anesthetic, but as a wrecking ball. Dada continued the assault, but with the exception of the Berlin variant (and its most impressive non-member, Schwitters), the notion of play became ritualized, dead. The final recuperation of the avant-garde, achieved via the reaction of surrealism and the concomitant resurrection of the representational form, eliminated play as an element of rejection until the re-emergence of Utopian currents after World War II. A number of post-war cultural movements, most notably Lettrisme, the Situationist International, Mail Art, and Neoism all incorporated play into their experimentation. Each movement, however, failed to realize the revolutionary implications of play, and in doing so allowed it once again to become formalized, rigid, and as such became recuperated as mediated activity.
Play has become an integral part of revolutionary activity. Even Lenin, the idiot father of the authoritarian left, could (correctly) describe the Paris Commune of 1871 as a “festival of the oppressed,” though he (like Marx) arrived at an erroneous conclusion concerning the failure of the uprising. There are a plethora of examples of the inclusion of play in the activity of the Communards, particularly of play in its destructive aspect. This is not surprising, given the Commune’s lack of resources, military contingencies, and the fact that the entire rebellion lasted some seventy two days. Still, the toppling of the column at the Place Vendôme (a universally hated symbol of the Napoleonic victories), as well as the attempt by a few of the more extreme Communards to put Notre Dame to the torch, can hardly be interpreted as anything but play. Such manifestations also crept into the the behaviour of individual Communards. Recall the story of the young rebel who confronted a suspect bourgeois on the street. The nervous capitalist protested that he had never had anything to do with politics, to which the Communard replied, “That’s precisely why I’m going to kill you.” Though the story ends here in historical accounts, it is not hard to imagine the young rebel flashing a fiendish grin at the shaken bourgeois and then walking off to take his place on the barricades….bon chance, Citoyen!
Modern revolutionary eruptions have also exhibited certain elements of play. The May-July events of 1968 in France immediately bring to mind the joyful, indignant posters produced by the students of the insurgent Ecole des Beaux-Arts. Further, through the blood, tear gas, and concussion grenades of the nights of barricade fighting (May 6-May 11), there emerged numerous examples of play. Most observers concur on this point; Priaulx and Ungar describe the defiant students as “one big frantic family;” even the partisan Trotskyite account by Seale and McConville includes an anecdote about the left-bank cafe Le Luxembourg. During one night of rioting the cafe had been invaded and transformed into a makeshift battlefield. After the insurgents and police moved off, the manager was directed by a prefect to close his establishment, to which he replied, “…tonight Le Luxembourg will not close its doors; it has none left!” More recently, during the suppression of Solidarity in Poland, a handful of militants produced a mask with a billed officers cap and dark glasses that affected a likeness to General Jaruzelski. The twist was that the mask was designed to fit dogs. Evidently during the final days of Solidarity the police would spend their days breaking up demonstrations and nights chasing stray canines who were, for all intents and purposes, impersonating the General Secretary of the Communist Party…
The very existence of “theses” that attempt to define and illuminate historical examples of play stand in some sad way as a testament to the alienation from the activity they seek to describe. The terminal malaise that has characterized revolutionary theory and culture for at least the past two decades must be interpreted as the triumph of formalized technique, the crushing baggage of intellectualism. Even the ultra-left communist and anarchist movements seem condemned to stumble the same squalid path traversed by social democracy almost a century ago. The “revolutionary” belief that the “liberation” of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians, or the Third World will take a significantly different form than the “liberation” of the working class via better wages, open employment policies, and “benefits” exists as an iron-clad example of the pervasive disintegrative consciousness of the left. Revolutionary consciousness, on the other hand, seems to currently reside in the refusal of all dominative forms, the permanent contestation of every assumption; in a word, play. If the new society gestates in the womb of the old, then its first duty is quite obviously matricide.
WORKERS OF THE WORLD, COME OUT TO PLAY!
How to Think Like a Jacobin
Paul Z. Simons
Have no doubt of it, everything must change and end, for everything around us is unjust: victory and freedom will cover the world. Scorn nothing, but imitate nothing of what has gone before us.
According to most theorists the Jacobins and their ideology are the last word in revolutionary contradictions. The social historian Crane Brinton expresses well the type of delirium that invariably follows any current study of the Jacobins when he concludes, “the Jacobins present for a brief time the extraordinary spectacle of men acting without apparent regard for their material interests.” Such a statement, however, belies the essential truth of the Jacobins. For though the Jacobins were concerned with the economic betterment of the poor, they were not class warriors. The revolutionary programme of the Jacobins was something much deeper and more elemental than later conceptions of revolution (e.g., Marxist or anarchist). In a very real sense the Jacobins were men at war not with economic disparity nor government, the Jacobins were at war with society itself. They sought to realize a New World in terms of the utter destruction of the Old, and it was this attempted realization of Utopia that fueled both repression and liberation during the Year II. In addition, examination of any historical struggle that sought to destroy a despotic, corrupt regime in favor of Utopia can only inform contemporary revolutionary theory.
Before examining the tenets of Jacobinist ideology it is essential to bear in mind a few facts that were peculiar to the Jacobins and to the epoch in which they existed. Foremost of these is the necessity of perceiving Jacobinism as a revolutionary tendency, for though the Jacobins certainly existed in the context of static (that is, non-revolutionary) societies, it was solely in the realm of revolution that they proved to be an active and effective force.
One must also recall the social, political, and economic milieu that the Jacobins existed and developed within. During the late eighteenth century, Europe was a continent engulfed by dying reactionary structures. In terms of political systems, absolutism and feudalism were the rule, and vocal opposition, if it existed at all, was to be found scattered among the educated. Further, capital (in this context, industrial capital) had failed to gain any serious footholds on continental Europe. Excepting the Rhine valley, Marseille, and Lyon, the predominant mode of production was still cottage manufacture or, in cities, small- to medium-size artisanal production. Some thinkers (esp. Marx) attributed the slow process of industrialization to the intransigence of feudalism and its tenacious hold on the reins of power. It is, however, important to recall that more effective forms of refusal were brought to bear by both artisans and peasants (e.g., machine wrecking and sabotage) against the encroaching factory system than any informal proscription imposed in feudalist self-interest.
Given these facts it is perhaps possible for us to understand the nature of the society in which the Jacobins flourished. A society of non-industrial wage-earners, where an artisan and the journeymen he employed felt a common anger with the unscrupulous speculator who for the sake of profit drove up rent and food prices. A society at once deeply pious yet boisterously irreligious. A society of discontented intellectuals, landless farmers, and hopeless, homeless beggars. A society founded on absurd, meaningless, and finally despotic principles—in short, a society very much like the one of today.
The ideas that animated the Jacobins were drawn and synthesized from many sources; the influence of both Rousseau and Montesquieu are cited often by historians, yet it is not so much the ideas that the Jacobins took as it is what they did with them. One of the core ideas of the Jacobins was the essential equivalence of revolution and regeneration (moral, political, social, and individual). To the Jacobin, revolution had less to do with the seizure of state power than it did with the eradication of fundamental societal assumptions in favor of other, more rational, “virtuous” assumptions.
The Jacobins were among the first to recognize the conscious mind as being one of the primary battlegrounds of the revolution. The adoption of the republican calendar and the metric system may be viewed as outgrowths of this realization. If the ideas of what constitutes the individual or society may be either reactionary or revolutionary, then why not the passage of time, or the measurement of physical objects? The Jacobins demanded of their revolution a new totality, a new world to be placed in direct contradiction to and in confrontation with the old. Revolution is regeneration and regeneration is nothing less than a total war against a corrupt society. The statement of Marat concerning the vices of aristocracy is telling, “The evil is in the thing itself and the cure is violent. One must apply the axe to the root.”
Virtue is a term that has lost much of its meaning. Currently, its use is confined solely to religious fanatics and generally in the context of sexual abstinence. In the late eighteenth century, however, virtue was an irresistible force. The Jacobins were both serious and sincere when they mentioned virtue, and when they did so it was usually in pursuit of and as justification for extreme revolutionary measures. Virtue served, however, not only as a goal, like Liberty, Fraternity, or Equality, but also as a means, a method whereby further goals could be delineated. In a day-to-day working definition, the Jacobin may have enunciated the idea that virtue was living one’s life in harmony with moral principles. Alternatively, he might have given an example of the virtuous man: a poor artisan who after a day of work went to his section or political club to debate the pressing issues of the day, an individual ready with pike, musket, or sword to defend the freedoms that he had won.
The above definition and example were not simply interdependent to the Jacobin, they were the same thing. The political and personal lives of the revolutionaries were one, an indivisible quantity. It was not enough to denounce privilege from the podium, one had to live consistently with what one said. This was the first modern variation of the now popular expression “the personal is the political.” To the Jacobin, such a statement would have been yet another suitable definition of virtue.
This New World that the Jacobins envisioned is hard for us to conjure. If anything it takes as much from medieval communalism as it does from Rome and Sparta. It is ferociously nationalist, yet proclaims the highest form of patriotism to be the love of humanity. A federal government is provided for but it is weak and its constitution is constantly revised as the people see fit. Representatives are subject to constant review and censure, the people maintain always the right to insurrection in order to redress the wrongs of the government. The Jacobin Utopia guaranteed property for everyone, its ownership being a natural right that no one may infringe. A world of both small, rural communities and large cities organized locally. A world of face-to-face direct democracy and popular militias.
In order to realize this Republic of Virtue, the Jacobins hoped to utilize justice as the revolutionary midwife. In January of 1793, justice meant regicide and less than ten months later, justice was the Terror. Most historians deal with the Terror on the level of a historical fact, a loosely contrived series of events that resulted in the deaths of around 17,000 individuals. Yet, as with most of history, facts have little to do with the truth. For the Jacobins the Terror was more than an internal purge of undesirables, more than a mass state-instigated bloodletting, it was an ideal, as essential to their revolution as virtue. Robespierre, in an address to the National Convention stated plainly what was on the mind of the Jacobins, “…the basis of popular government in time of revolution is both virtue and terror: terror without virtue being murderous, virtue without terror being powerless.” He continued, “the Terror is nothing but prompt, severe, inflexible justice and is consequently an emanation of virtue.”
The final ingredient in understanding the mindset of the Jacobins, as well as the last integrative tenet in their “social war mentality,” was a lethal dose of paranoia, verging on mass hysteria. Though some of their fears, such as assassination, were real enough, it was their irrational horror of “plots,” usually foreign and aristocratic in origin, that set the raging blaze to the Terror. Though paranoia is more a diagnosis than a tenet, it did play an essential role in what the Jacobins became. When they found themselves at war with the past, they conjectured that the roots of the past were much more tenacious than the revolutionary ideology that they were evolving. Thus they ceased to be a body that tried to exemplify the revolution and began instead to be the revolution’s taskmasters. Essentially, they began to doubt themselves. This led them on the fateful route too often traveled by revolutions, the endless cycle of repression in the name of saving the revolution. The example of Stalin comes to mind in this context and the final spasm of Jacobinist violence, dubbed the Grand Terror, is a suitable name as well for most “revolutions” in this century.
I am questioned occasionally about my fascination with the French Revolution. A usual response is that within this first great upheaval can be found the seeds of every revolution and revolutionary movement that has existed since. But that is insufficient as well, for within the French Revolution lies one of the profound lessons of history (and about history). Individuals (esp. “revolutionaries”) have a tendency to judge social conflict with the same yardstick applied to gas mileage. There is a certain desire to perceive revolutions on a cost-benefit type basis, that is, what was accomplished versus how many people died. This “technological”* outlook begs the question of revolutions and possibly history itself. By their very nature social upheavals tend to their own conclusive result; logic, reason, and order be damned. Still, there is a great need among some to condemn, to see the world in terms of black and white, good and bad. It is this tendency that will certainly produce new “Terrors” and not the other way round.
It is essential for revolutionaries to acknowledge their past, to accept it, and in so doing to inform the project of revolution in their own time. The French Revolution is ours, for good or ill. The heritage is twofold: it is the ascent up the steps of the guillotine and it is the all-night meeting debating the nature and necessity of liberty. And therein lies the final question that the French Revolution raises, the eternal question for revolutionaries, as it were. Are extreme goals always served by extreme methods? Are blood and liberty inseparable quantities? How far will you go to realize your desires? Sleep well, revolutionaries…
*(cf. Jacques Ellul’s classic and exhaustive debunk of modernity, The Technological Society)