given at Columbia University, April 19, 1995, and published in ANY 12. (1995)
I entitled this lecture "Playtime" long before I had any clear idea what I would talk about, and during the past few months the title has often seemed to have a life of its own, gently prodding me towards levity, cajoling me to stop attaching excessive importance to every thought, to every turn of phrase. But it is not so easy to think playfully, to escape the censorships, the policing of thought which we all-to-easily succumb to and collude with. (Why is it so hard to play?) In this lecture, I have not altogether resisted the academic urge to define play, to fix in place that which should escape definition, to close what should be open. But, I have tried to follow a path opened up by the idea of play, a path both made and found. I might describe it as a kind of autopoetic search for ways of talking about technology and architecture today, in ways mediated by concepts of both play and time. Thinking about play has also afforded me ways of talking about the formation of subjects, about relations between technology and nature, about the 1960's, and about the politics of liberation.
"Playtime" is, of course, a title borrowed from Jacques Tati's movie from the 1960's, a gentle caricature of modern life, full of shiny images of hyper-rationality tinged with absurd beauty. Tati brilliantly satirized modern architecture as a world of surface, illusion and artifice, through gags such as doors that slam without making a sound or a doorman swinging the heavy knob of a broken glass door sans door . He transformed the anonymity of the international style into a stage for stylized ballets of people and machines. For Tati, the modern world is a specatacle, whose icons are modern architecture and automobile traffic, where tiny vestiges of French popular culture are indulged for their picturesque charm, and where the past is only glimpsed in reflected images.
The connection between modern architecture and the automobile is, of course, a famous one. Ever since Marinetti drove his car into a ditch, the automobile, as Reyner Banham observed, was a prime source of the "machine age enthusiasm" of men at the wheel, providing, as it were, a motor for modernism. But even Banham ruefully admitted that, by the 1960's, that enthusiasm was close to exhaustion, like "an old car with a fast-emptying fuel tank and no filling station in sight." Not only that, but the car was stuck in traffic. In Tati's films, traffic had slowed to a honking crawl, which he sweetly compared to a merry-go-round. For Jean Luc Godard, on the other hand, the frustrations of the French "autoroute" were an opening into revoutionary barbarism. In Weekend , his bourgeios protagonists casually weave their way from one bloody accident end slides to another on their way to Loinville and ultimately to cannibalism. A slogan from Paris, 1968: Socialism or Barbarism. Why can't we have Both?
One of the most profound issues facing humans today concerns their entwined relations to their inventions on the one hand and their found environments and fellow creatures on the other. How can we understand the fact that as machines increasingly hold the promise of coming to life, myriad species and habitats face extinction and death, in great part due to humans?The changing relation between the machinic and the organic is probably the single most important question of the late twentieth century. The boundaries between humans, other life forms, and machines have become fluid, their definitions interdependent. A profusion of hybrid entities, from "genetic" computer algorithms to the cyborg politics of "machinic subjects," have undermined the distinctions between the mechanical and the organic that informed technology, science and philosophy ever since the seventeenth century.
Until recently, most considerations of the modern depended on a set of distinctions most clearly enunciated by Kant, who distinguished between machines and organisms in terms of the interrelations of theirparts. (see Mechanism / Vitalism ) According to Kant, a mechanism or machine is a functional unity assembled out of preexisting parts, in which the parts exist for one another in the performance of a particular function. The paradigmatic mechanical object is the clock, that not only regulated space and time, but provided a metaphor for society and the world. On the other hand, an organism, for Kant, is a structural as well as a functional unity in which the parts exist for and by means of one another in the expression of a particular nature. The emergence of parts in an organism is a result of internal interactions instead of an assembly of parts.
Today, this formal definition has been both technologically and conceptually undermined. The study of complex systems, of self-organization in phenomena as disparate as a meandering river, an auto-catalytic chemical reaction, or the very capacity of evolution to evolve, has revealed a vast range of objects and processes, which cross the organic / inorganic divide.
This development has prompted a reconsideration of what we call life, a reconsideration that becomes all the more urgent as the technological sphere, previously so clearly defined as mechanical, has become capable of taking on organic characteristics itself. The polemics of conjoining the biological and the technical provide the force of argument of thinkers such as Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, and Donna Haraway. Despite the growing influence of these writers, Architecture and urbanism have, until recently, relied on simple and increasingly less tenable definitions of the mechanical and the organic. Today, we are faced with both symbolic and technical opportunities that not only enable us but demand that we engage in this renegotiation.
Play is a richly useful concept for this endeavor because it threads its way through considerations of the machine, of other species, and of human agency. Play, according to Huizinga, "is older than culture". It is a source of ritual, of religion and art in humans. It is an activity that we instinctively recognize in animals, particularly mammals, but it is by considering play in relation to technology that I will begin, for it is in this context that play has had a particularly problematic history.
For theorists of the machine age, the progress of machine technology consisted in the elimination of play in a very literal sense. In his Theoretische Kinematik of 1875, Franz Reuleux described this correlation: the more primitive the technology, the less attuned the parts of the machine to each other, the greater the degree of play -- the more perfected the technology, the closer the fit, the less play between the individual parts. From the late nineteenth century on, the progress of machine technology was measured by the formation of great machinic ensembles such as the railway, every element of which fit together to minimize play and friction. The goal of eliminating play was not confined to overtly machinic ensembles, but became a general principle of social dynamics. The great processes of social rationnalization, a kind of feedback process transforming society in the image of its own machine products , were based precisely on work, not play. After Max Weber, "Rationalization" became the terms used to describe not only social formation, but the value orientations of the personality, and the overall meaning structures of culture. When the Frankfurt School criticized technology as a form of " instrumental reason," of a "reification as reason" which suspends all judgement on its inner logic, technology had become the central figure in a culture of domination and control, from which play had been thoroughly excised. If play retained a social role, it was primarily in the "autonomous" sphere of art, in the parodies of machine art from Dada through Jean Tinguely to Survival Research today. Yet even here, when machines discover their own eroticism or escape the regime of control, they often turn their destructive powers on themselves or on their makers, in a tradition that runs from Mary Shelley's Frankenstein to the Terminator.
Even in the psychoanalytic field, progress was understood in terms of the elimination of play, in the descriptions of childhood as a move from the Pleasure principle to the Reality principle. According to Freud, the infant's ego at first knows no boundaries and recognizes no external objects that escape its control. Later, the reality principle sets the boundaries between ego and world and allows the negotiation of deferred pleasure. In its first experiences of civilization and its discontents, the child learns that its wishes cannot always be fulfilled, that objects and persons exist outside the self, and that frustration is an inevitable, but manageable, part of life. Insofar as play is understood in relation to pleasure, for Freud, then, accepting the reality principle is to forgo the pleasures of play and to accept the frustrations of work. Freud conceded that "As a path to happiness, work is not highly prized by men. They do not strive after it as they do after other possibilities of satisfaction. The great majority of people only work under the duress of necessity, and this natural human aversion to work raises most difficult social problems."
I think it fair to say that the disprivileging of play was a fundamental component of the development of modernity. Yet when the prevailing views of modernity began to be revised during the 1960s, play became a privileged arena of alternative investigation. According to the great child psychologist Donald Winnicott,whose Play and Reality was published posthumously in 1971, play is central to the development of the psychological self. Although Winnicott accepted the Freudian schema in the main, he accorded play the status of a semi-autonomous phase or "transitional" state, between the pure pleasure principle and acceptance of the reality principle. For Winnicott, play is a psychological state where the boundaries between self and the world remain labile and fluid, a state which is important not only for the development of the child, but with significant ramifications for human life and culture in general. In the state of play, objects can take on a paradoxical status. A bit of blanket, for instance, can become a "transitional object", one that is neither fully part of the self nor an explicitly external object, neither thumb nor Teddy-Bear. For Winnecott, play requires an acceptance of this paradoxical status, and he argues that this acceptance is the source of creativity and of human engagement in the cultural field.
Winnecott emphasises that the space of play and its transitional objects must remain beyond the reach of a question that he poses thus: "Did you find that (in the world) or did you make it up?"
This question is at the heart of my interest in play, and I would like to think about both in terms of the question and in terms of the answer.
What is at stake in this question? When is it appropriate to ask it? When is it better to reject or ignore it? When would any answer have to be "both"?
If the child psychologist refrains from asking this question, for fear of destroying the realm of play, this is precisely what critical culture asks of science "Did you find that (in the world) or did you make it up?" It is the basis for all de-fetishizing or demystifying criticism that uncovers the work of "naturalization" behind invented culture passing for found nature. It is the question that purports to differentiate human technology, the prime example of invention, from nature, the question the very asking of which forms the basis of culture. Today, this question and its use seems to divide cultural criticism, especially in its contemporary textual and social-constructivist forms, from creative exploration, and I believe that it is only by accepting this paradox, by holding the question of finding or inventing in abeyance, that the pleasures of play can lead to the possibilities of other "intermediate" cultural experiences that might include architecture.
This paradoxical quality of play provides a way of thinking and designing "otherwise" -- a way of engaging issues normally posed as dualisms that accepts their continuities as much as their discontinuities. It suggests paths through some of the heavily contested terrains of nature and technology, of gender, political tradition, and provides an architectural direction for today, one that is gently experimental.
The last time there was a prevailing cultural ethos of play--when Winnecott was working for example--was also, interestingly enough, the last time the relations between architecture and technology were significantly thought through. During the 1960's, Reyner Banham was the most brilliant and adventurous interpretor of architecture's relationship to technology. In an article of 1969, entitled "A Home is not a House", Banham proposed an "environment bubble" to replace the American Home. Borrowing the concept of a "standard of living package" from Buckminster Fuller, he asked, "When your house contains such a complex of piping, flues, ducts, wires, lights, inlets, outlets, ovens, sinks, refuse disposers, hi-fi reverberators, antennae, conduits, freezers, heaters -- when it contains so many services that the hardware could stand up by itself without any assistance from the house, why have a house to hold it up?" Accompanying the article were illustrations by Francois Dallegret showing a nomadic "media womb" -- a place of liberatory hedonism responding to Herbert Marcuse's contemporary call for the re-eroticization of society, a place to sit naked, play the guitar, and smoke a cigar, a place where technology enabled an arcadian relation to nature, or, perhaps more accurately, to nature as through a condom. In a spoof of both the American romantic fascination with nature and its moralism, Banham argued that if " old nature could be kept under the proper degree of control (sex left in, streptococci taken out) the United States would be happy to dispense with architecture and buildings altogether."
In its particular conjunction of the natural, the technological, and the psycho-social, the dome played a particular emblematic role in the culture of architecture in the 1960's. We might describe the relation between the dome and architecture in terms of the role that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari assigned to the " Body without Organs" -- an undifferentiated, automonous, and self-contained pre-oedipal alternative to the socialized self and the suburban dwelling. It, too, functions as a "transitional object." It not only enables a changed way of life, but has a paradoxical relation to the issue of finding / inventing. Defined in the terms of its construction, the dome is both a highly technological and equally natural object, sprouting up like a mushroom spore. In Banham's descriptions, the environment bubble combined an optimistic vision of human liberation with a promise of both technology and nature.
Banhams' critique of normative architecture and his desire to see in a technologically mediated nature some space of liberation must be seen as parallel to the revisions of Freudiansim conducted in the 1960's and 70's. Critics of the collusion between psychoanalysis and social repression, such as Norman O. Brown, Herbert Marcuse, R.D. Laing, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, suggested that regression in the Freudian order would be psychically liberatory at the social level. In Love's Body, Brown turned psychoanalysis against itself to describe the pathology of the construction of a self based on the childish decision to claim all that the ego likes as "mine" and to repudiate all that the ego dislikes as "not mine." Thus, he claimed "To have a self is to have enemies, and to be a self is to be at war," conducting a two-fronted battle via separation (on the outside) and repression (on the inside). Brown called for giving up the reality principle, describing it as "the false boundary drawn between inside and outside, subject and object, real and imaginary, physical and mental." Opening the way to the anti-Oedipus of Deleuze and Guattari, he claimed that "It is not schizophrenia but normality that is split-minded; in schizophrenia the false boundaries are disintegrating." In Eros and Civilization, Herbert Marcuse called for for an instinctual regression that would activate the "early stages of the libido which were surpassed in the development of the reality ego, and would dissolve the institutions of society in which the reality ego exists." He proposed that work could be assimilated to play --the free play of human faculties -- and that "If work were accompanied by a reactivation of pregenital polymorphous eroticism, it would tend to become gratifying in itself without losing its work content."
pleasures and terrors of domesticity
There is a current in modern architecture that registers the psychic and erotic dimensions of play, although this work has never been fully integrated into the canon. (This counter-tradition includes Pierre Chareau, Frederick Kiesler, Paul Nelson, Eileen Gray, and Carlo Mollino, just to name a few) It is useful to understand some of this architectural work, in which attempts to locate environments of dense psychic affect were linked to technological experiment, as substantive explorations into the space of play.
Donald Winnecott, in fact, gave play a precise spatiality, locating it in a protected space between the mother and child, in what he described as the holding environment. This "potential space" between the baby and the mother does not exist in the earliest phases of infancy, but is opened up during the phase of repudiation, when the baby is separating mother from the self, and the mother is lowering her degree of adaptation to the baby's needs. (a moment he compares to late stages of psychiatric treatment) This transitional space is both suffused with the mother's protection and characterized by the child's first freedom to create, imagine and discover. The potentially traumatic link between identity and loss is thus circumvented through confidence in the mother's reliability, making it possible for the child to separate out the not-me from the me. Winnecott argues that creative playing both fills this space and facilitates the negotiation between dependence and autonomy. This potential space is specifically a space of play, one that is eventually filled by all that ultimately adds up to a cultural life.
Winnecott's understanding of play, as an activity poised between the the self and the world, resonates in relation to Banham's attempt to find himself between nature and technology. Both sought an arena of liberatory potential in these spaces, as did the Freudo-Marxists like Marcuse. Of course, Banham's enthusiasm for technology did not altogether extend to architecture, and he, along with the adherents of Archigram, claimed that architecture, with its emphasis on monumentality and permanence had become so much cultural baggage that inhibited the pleasures of a benign technoculture. In Theory and Design in the First Machine Age, Banham argued that in order to run with the "fast company" of engineers, architects would have to divest themselves of this baggage and their professional garments as well.
It might be time to rethink the alternatives proposed by Banham, between running in the fast company of the engineers and assimilating the images of technology into architectural composition. Today, much of Banham's optimism may seem naive and out of date. To an "era of suspicion," his vision of technology as nature seems utopian, his vision of the "good life" a regressive and infantile desire. He did not address questions of gender, in either his social vision or his descriptions of technology, and his admiration of engineers seems decidedly masculinist and uncritical. But if one is to resume a discussion about architecture and technology, it is also important to think historically about liberatory regression and not dismiss it out of hand.
continued....see playtime 2