For Johannes Huizinga: "Play is older than culture," (p.1) and "all culture is a form of play." (According to Lewis Mumford, Huizinga's English translator was so shocked by the latter assertion that he changed the statement to read that "play is an element in culture.")
"Animals play just like men." (This is one way in which the boundary between human and animal can be broken down) Animals, too, can recognise that a sign is a signal. (Bateson) When they engage in mock battle, they have to be able to communicate to each other that "this is play." If the nip denotes the bite, at the same time it does not denote what the bite denotes. The bite is fictional. (see schizophrenia for inability to engage in such metacomunication) Note also the relationship for Bateson between threat and play. Threat also stands for other actions. (see also ritual in animals)
For Huizinga play is a significant function very close to both the religious (esp. the ritual) and to art. In fact, the ludic function serves as the best description of the origins of archaic ritual. Like ritual, one of the most important characteristics of play is its spatial separation from ordinary life. (see sacred / profane) See Otto Rank, "The Play-impulse and Aesthetic Pleasure," in Art and Artist. The ludic function is also very close to the definition of the aesthetic, "zwecklos aber doch sinnvoll."
Schiller's Letter on the Aesthetic Education of Man (1795), written largely under the impact of Kant's Critique of Judgement, aimed at a remaking of civilization through the liberating force of the aesthetic function. From Kant's writings, Schiller developed his own theory that art is the result of the "play impulse." a free play of the faculties without ulterior motive; that an appearance is aesthetic only insofar as it 'expressly renounces all claim to reality'; and that this appearance must be enjoyed without desire and without 'asking after its purpose.' Operating through the play impulse, the aesthetic function would "abolish compulsion, and place man, both morally and physically, in freedom." A crucial difference of emphasis between Kant's aesthetics and Schiller's conception of artistic education is that the former is concerned with theoretical reflection, while the latter is concerned with social behaviour.
Gottfried Semper echoed the Romantic tradition which sets up play as the basis of the aesthetic drive. For Semper, play is humanity's "cosmogonic instinct" through which he creates his own "tiny world" and mediates his contact with the world outside. Architecture takes its starting point not in the physical imitation of the larger world, but in the aesthetic mimcry of the world's lawful and rhythmic order. The wreath, the scroll, the circular dance, the beat of a drum or an oar -- all are the legislative and playful instincts out of which architecture and the arts collectively arose. (Harry Mallgrave, Intro to Semper's Four Elements of Architecture.)
As Herbert Marcuse points out, in Eros and Civilization, "The play impulse does not aim at playing 'with' something; rather it is the play of life itself, beyond want and external compulsion -- the manifestation of an existence without fear and anxiety, and thus the manifestation of freedom itself." (p.187) For Marcuse "Play is unproductive and useless because it cancels the repressive and exploitive traits of labor and leisure; it "just plays" with reality." (p. 195)
What is the fun of play? For Huizinga, "The fun of playing resists all analysis, all logical interpretation. As a concept, it cannot be reduced to any other mental category." (Homo Ludens, p. 3) The play-mood is labile moving between frivolity and ecstasy. "The fundamental feature of play is, that it is gratifying in itself, without serving any other purpose than that of instinctual gratification." On the other hand, "to work is the active effort of the ego...to get from the outside world whatever is needed for self-preservation." (Barbara Lantos, "Work and the Instincts", in International Journal of Psychoanalysis, vol XXIV, (1943))Marshall Sahlin's analsis of hunter/gatherer societies, which he calls "the original affluent society," suggests a model of sustenance that does not consist of work. For Sahlins, "We are inclined to think of hunters and gatherers as poor because they don't have anything; perhaps better to think of them for that reason as free " (Stone Age Economics, p. 14) At least some Australians, the Yir-Yiront make no linguistic distinction between work and play. (see Lauriston Sharp, "People without Politics" in V.F. Ray, ed. Systems of Political Control and Bureaucracy in Human Societies.)
Emil Benveniste studied the relationship between play and ritual in "Le jeu et le sacré" Deucalion no. 2, 1947. For Benveniste, play "has its source in the sacred, of which it supplies a broken, topsy-turvy image. If the sacred can be defined as the consubstantial unity of myth and ritual, we can say that play exists when only one half of the sacred enactment is fulfilled.." see also relation between play and time.
Drawing on Levi-Strauss, Giorgio Agamben describes the function of ritual to adjust the contradiction between mythic past and present, reabsorbing all events into a synchronic structure, while the function of play is a symmetrically opposed operation: to break down the whole structure into events. (cf machine ) In Levi-Strauss' account, games are structures that generate events. They start from a symmetry and engender assymetry (winners and losers) from the contingent nature of events. In ritual, on the other hand, an asymmetry (between sacred / profane, living / dead, initiated / unitiated) is conjoined into a new symmetry through events whose nature and ordering is genuinely structural.
Following Freud's account of the changing boundaries of the ego in Civilization and its Discontents, (p13-14) D.W. Winnicott describes the play of a child as the transition from the pleasure principle to the reality principle. (cf also John Shumacher's discussion of posture )
According to Winnicott, the child initially makes no distinction between inner desires and outer reality, experiencing the mother's breast (or the bottle) as part of its inner reality that magically appears when needed. In Winnicott's account, as the mother becomes less adapted to the infant's needs, the child begins to experience the frustration of failure and the beginnings of a transition to the recognition of the autonomy of outer objects. This is assisted by a transitional object, a bit of blanket, toy, or cloth that is under the infant's control and is reliably present when needed. The transitional object opens the realm of play, where real objects are incorporated into the world of make-believe over which the child has some control, a realm which is not challenged by the question: "Did you conceive of this, or was it presented to you from without?" (Winnicott, p. 12) The realm of play is immensely exciting because it is precarious, an interplay of personal psychic reality and the experience of control of actual objects. It is "an intermediate area of experiencing , to which inner reality and external life both contribute." (Winnicott. p.2) .."a resting place for the individual engaged in the perpetual human task of keeping inner and outer reality separate yet interrelated." a shared illusory experience.
Freud describes the transferential relationship as something like a "playground": in which the patients compulsion to repeat "is allowed to expand in almost complete freedom." ("Remembering, Repeating, and Working Through" 1914. Standard Edition, XII pp 147-56) Extending this analogy of the playground, he says that the transference sets up "an intermediate realm between illness and real life through which the transition from the one to the other is made." (cf "acting out" vs remembering in memory.) This intermediate realm consists to a very large extent of narrative activity.
In his book on sublimation, Hans Loewald cites Winnicott's descriptions of the transitional object, but suggests that this description already assumes a level of differentiation which has not yet taken place. According to Loewald, neither inner nor outer reality have formed sufficiently for this analysis. The infant does not have the illusion of having created the breast. Instead, "Mother and infant can be said to invent each other in the mouth-breast encounter: they come upon something and, out of need or desire, invent-jointly-its utilization. (p.76)
This analysis seems close to the more polemical position of Deleuze and Guattari in The Anti-Oedipus, who seek to dismantle the poles of subject and object. They describe the child-breast machine, seeing the coupling as a-personal rather than in subjective terms. For D+G, this is its schizo, or adualistic element (neither subjective nor objective.) The lack of ego boundaries makes it impossible to set limits to the process of identification with the environment. (see desiring machine) While Winnicott claims that the breast should be rather than do, (like Cleanth Brooks description of a poem) identifying the male element as doing and the female element (in males and females) as being, Deleuze and Guattari (perhaps emphasizing the male element?) concentrate purely on doing.
"It is not the object, of course that is transitional. The object represents the infant's transition from a state of being merged with the mother to a state of being in relation to the mother as something outside and separate." (Winnicott. p.14) The transitional object "is a symbol of the union of the baby and the mother...at the point of the intitiation of their state of separateness." "The fate of the transitional object is to become decathected."..(this is part of the link to sublimation ) "It loses meaning, and this is because the transitional phenomena have become diffused, have become spread out over the whole intermediate territory between 'inner psychic reality' and 'the external world as perceived by two persons in common', that is to say, over the whole cultural field." (p.5)
In "The Location of Cultural Experience," Winnicott describes culture as an extension of the area of play. "No human being is free from the strain of relating inner and outer reality." "This intermediate area of experience, unchallenged in respect of its belonging to inner or external (shared) reality, constitutes the greater part of the infant's experience and throughout life is retained in the intense experiencing that belongs to the arts and to religion and to imaginative living, and to creative scientific work."
For Winnicott, transitional phenomena "have no climax." They are what Bateson calls "plateaus." --see schismogenesis)
see Jessica Benjamin, "A Desire of One's Own" in Teresa de Lauretis, ed. Feminist Studies/Critical Studies (Indiana, 1986) for the use of Winnicott's object relations theory in an account the creation of subjective space through transitional space, allowing for receptivity and mutuality.
For Georges Bataille, "Transgression is a game. In the world of play, philosphy disintegrates." (Georges Bataille, Erotism, p. 275) Paul Valéry makes the opposite claim. For him, "No scepticism is possible where the rules of a game are concerned...Indeed, as soon as the rules are transgressed, the whole play-world collapses." (quoted in Huizinga, Homo Ludens, p.11) According to Huizinga, "The player who trespasses against the rules is the 'spoil sport'...(who) shatters the play-world itself...He robs it of its illusion -- a pregnant word which means literally 'in-play' (inludere )"Brian Goodwin gives a formal definition to play when he claims that "Play, like life, occurs at the edge of chaos."
see play and technology