Children’s Games, Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1560

Theorizing Play

Instructor: Heather Ohaneson
Big Irv’s
381 Hooper St
Brooklyn, NY 11211

In 1938, the Dutch scholar Johan Huizinga set forth an ambitious argument in Homo Ludens (“Playing Man”) that culture arises in and as play. The French sociologist Roger Caillois responded to this foundational text of play studies twenty years later with his own seminal work, Les Jeux et Les Hommes (translated loosely as “Man, Play and Games”). A member of the Collège de Sociologie circle in Paris—alongside such figures as Alexandre Kojève, Walter Benjamin, Georges Bataille, and André Breton—Caillois sought to provide a corrective to Huizinga’s account with a fourfold typology of play as agôn or competition; alea or chance; mimicry or simulation; and ilinx or vertigo. (Notably, one of Caillois’s chief criticisms of Huizinga was that he overlooked gambling.) In this class, we will explore these and other definitions in order to address some of the vast array of activities that seem to fall under the concept “play.” From the roll of the dice to the role of games in economic modeling, from the avatars of Vishnu to the avatars of videogames, we will ask how play mediates value, meaning, sacrality, and even biological being in the contemporary world. How does play relate to the evolution of animals, the development of children, and the expression of cultures? Does play have an ethical significance? Drawing on an interdisciplinary set of readings from Huizinga, Caillois, Plato, Freud, Pascal, Jesper Juul, Gordon Burghardt, and others, we will seek, put simply, to theorize play.

Course Schedule

Thursday, 6:30-9:30pm
July 07 — July 28, 2016
4 weeks

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