plā′wėrk′ings, n. Portions of play matters consideration; draft formations.

Posts tagged ‘phenomenology’

On play and psychogeographical praxis

When we walk around our neighbourhoods, or around areas unfamiliar to us, what do we feel? What does the area we’re in press on us? Which emotions, desires, or ‘pulls’ do we feel on us? What has this to do with play? Bear with me in this post, because this is, in itself, an exploration: a laying down of a foundation I may come back to sometime.

I have recently become interested in ‘psychogeography’, which is defined by Debord in his 1955 essay, Introduction to a Critique of Urban Geography, in part, as the study of the ‘specific effects of the geographical environment . . . on the emotions and behaviour of individuals’. In truth, and without really knowing it, I have been undertaking an uninformed and unformed background study of this for many years, as it seems. That is to say, I can now add to my act of walking my conscious awareness of the study of my emotions as I walk. Before I come on to play, a little more information on a certain means of movement: linked to the psychogeographic concept is the idea of the ‘dérive’, or drift, the definition for which I take from Wiki, so I trust it holds, though things seems to be fairly consistent across reading material:

‘In a dérive one or more [people], during a certain period, drop their usual motives for movement and action, their relations, their work and leisure activities, and let themselves be drawn by the attractions of the terrain and the encounters they find there . . .’

— Knabb, 1995, citing Debord

The added aspect to this is that this is not so aimless a drift; rather, it’s a conscious awareness of what pulls the drifter along. It is a way of experiencing (in this case, urban) areas in non-functional ways: where function and the playful have a fusion. Knabb (1995) also writes: ‘Cities have a psychogeographical relief, with constant currents, fixed points and vortexes [sic] which strongly discourage entry into or exit from certain zones’. (This I shall return to, because there is a reflection to be had on this as linked with play).

There is one final piece of background information to add in: Debord (1955) also writes about ‘the sudden change of ambiance in a street within the space of a few metres; the evident division of a city into zones of distinct psychic atmospheres; the path of least resistance which is automatically followed in aimless strolls (and which has no relation to the physical contour of the ground)’.

So, within the psychogeographic study of how the urban area ‘pulls’ on the walker, the drifter, or he who is in his dérive, what emotions and behaviours are produced by the ever changing ‘ambiance’ of each segment of a street (sometimes just yards apart)? The only way to find out is to find out. Hence, psychogeographic ‘praxis’ (the actual doing, rather than just a thinking theory) is important. I will come to play. First, and next, some walked recent affects on this experimenter, edited out of the context of the whole (a sort of textual collaging in itself, rather than a ‘map’ of the whole):

This exercise of considered dérive is not as simple as one might think. First we have to come to be in a state of some flow, and then we must retain this whilst also maintaining a watchful eye on the shifting states of the self. Record every sensory impact, or as many as possible, and walk slowly. Remember to look up and around.

Certain streets exercised what I termed, in the moment, as a ‘pull’ (and I retain the phrase throughout because it seems to fit). Each pull needed accepting or rejecting. Each decision needed in-the-moment analysis of why it was accepted or rejected (for this ‘dériver’, at least!). I don’t know how much I was consciously aware of Knabb’s writing on a city’s ‘currents and vortices’ (in truth, probably not a great deal, in the moment), but they could be felt. Entrances and exits to pulling streets, defensible (invisibly boundaried) space, the affects of T-junctions or assumed cul-de-sacs, and so on, tended towards rejections rather than acceptances of drift. There is also, as is assumed, such potential psychogeographical impact on the ranging child, if the child has this opportunity to roam.

There was a dominant desire not to double back for this dériver, and later, on the inward stretch of the circuit as it became, back home, a desire not to accept the pulls of streets or ways that led me farther out. Accepting the feelings and reasons for these, as you go, as an honest approach, was a useful mode of being.

Along the way, pulls were not just streets but also a gathering accumulation or awareness of sensory impact: the smells of flowers I could and couldn’t name, perfumes of passers-by; vistas and aspects, slices between houses or whole views; the shift in the overcast sky, its brightening or the affect of drizzle; temperature changes; the sounds of planes and hard and soft traffic, the sound of the almost ubiquitous (assumed to be) wood pigeons, unseen; light shifts under, and out from under, trees; colour recognitions and juxtapositions; states of vertiginous positions (at the bottoms and tops of steep slopes) . . . all these pulls had an affect on the emotional and behavioural (directional movement, observational stance, internal desires to interact or refrain). This last point leads me to where I’m heading (this writing, as could be conceived, being a textual psychogeography in itself, if that’s not stretching it too far!): simply, certain pulls provoked the possibility of play in this dériver.

On the inward sweep of the large circuit, finding myself at a green hill, the level paths pulled me most: these paths that led roughly towards home with the least energy to be expended. A dirt track up a steep hill pulled unexpectedly, and it was accepted. It was, on the face of it, a futile climb: it was difficult to climb with only a few roots to hold on to, and it led to a short track which took me back to the track I was on before. I climbed it anyway, because it was there, feeling at the top of the hill something akin to what I remember feeling as a child: this hill has been climbed; let’s move on.

The climb affected the dynamics of the rest of the dérive. Steeply stepped pulls uphill were no longer rejected. The affects of the wind in the trees was noticed, as was the movement of every single tree on the top of the hill. A small movement and moment of play can produce a tumble of further shifts along the way. The functional aspects of the city (or one small area of it) can be — to use Neil Gaiman’s (2006) term, out of context — ‘upsettled’. The function and the play (or ‘the ludic’) can come closer together and fuse. Where does function and play start and end? This dirt slope was a track of sorts, functionally, but playfully it was a climb. Or, functionally, it was a climb, and playfully it was a track. Onwards in the dérive, the hill top is a magic circle of trees but it functions as the clearing at the top, a place of gathering. Or playfully it’s a clearing of moving trees, and functionally it’s a magic circle to be seen and engaged with.

In the psychogeographic consideration of my recent days, I’m wondering how the ‘ambiance’ of certain areas of cities can be affected to break down the rigidity of their functional selves, and to open up awarenesses of the playfulness that can fold in. Maybe we should all go on our own local dérive: a walkabout, perhaps — an awakening to what the urban ‘pulls’ cause in us, of what play folds out from us because of this.

Debord, G. (1955), Introduction to a critique of urban geography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Gaiman, N. (2006), The hidden chamber in Fragile things. London: Headline Review.

Knabb, K. (Ed.) (1995), Situationist International anthology. Berkley: Bureau of Public Secrets. Cited in Wiki: Psychogeography [Online]. Available from: (Accessed July 13, 2015).

Why play? (An appearance of transformative soup)

Something has troubled me for a long time about play: or rather, something has troubled me about how play can be made use of. What it boils down to, this disturbance, is the idea of play being used in the pursuit of ignoble social engineering: let us create our perfect society by manipulating play. ‘Perfection’, of course, is subjective, and this is another problem, but the focus of my disturbance is others’ conscious envisioning of play as a means of, a tool for, the dubious shaping of society. I shall write this post in a deliberately philosophical manner, but it’s inspired by two brief observations of play that took place recently.

In the garden, I was sat in a chair and just relaxing as play took place around me. Princess K. and Dino Boy (who are nearly five and three, respectively) were sat in deckchairs nearby when a spontaneity of ‘Mummies and Daddies’ play broke out. I was co-opted into the play of the moment: ‘You be Daddy’, I was told. She, Princess K., would be ‘Mummy’, and Dino Boy (a.k.a. her younger brother) would be ‘Baby’. This was all nothing new in the observation, and I tried to stay somewhat out of it anyway because, frankly, I was more interested in the observing than in the energy involved in order to be an active participant. I was passive ‘Daddy’. What struck me here most of all though was the voices the two children used to narrate the set-up of the scene to myself and to each other, and in the continuation of that scene: the pitch of their voices went up to a higher degree and stayed there, in role. It was almost like young children enacting what they perceived to be young children: quite odd.

Play, I later considered, had transformed the children’s usual selves. It is to this transformative effect that I shall return later. First though, another brief observation involving the same two children a day later at the local park: both children busied themselves by stuffing various found things (fir cones, bits of grass, sticks, feathers, and so on) into an up-tilted metal spinning device. They were, apparently, making soup. ‘Soup’ feeds into the current philosophical thinking . . .

Play, I’m proposing, can be seen in terms of verb and noun: that is, ‘to play’ (verb) and play as a thing in itself (noun). It is to the latter that my attention is drawn. In making use of play (as noun), as a tool or a medium, the social engineers are bending it to their will (in the building of a society they wish to create): in this model of operating, play is something that can be discarded when the product (child as configured future adult) has been realised (created). This leaves a somewhat disagreeable taste: use play to create fit and healthy people who don’t drain the future economy; use play to develop a literate future workforce; use play to manufacture a society just happy enough with their material assets not to resort to active mass dissent at the ruling few. I’m being cynical, but close analysis of modern society might well justify these statements.

Alternatively, I propose, play (as noun), as thing in itself, ‘is’ the soup we live in. Play is not the tool, the medium, to be discarded after its engineering use is spent: play is the medium in which we live. It’s always there around us, in us, through us: play transforms us, continuously. This begs the question: is this ‘transforming’ what play is for? Further to this, there’s the consideration of the distinction between what play is ‘for’ and what play ‘is’ (or, at least, what it ‘appears’ to be).

Those who make use of play for the building of the great utopian future-society seem to miss the point of what play ‘is’: play is the soup, the fabric, the magic in which we all live. Admittedly, this is a subjective perspective because the best any of us can hope to perceive is what play ‘appears’ to be to them, rather than what it ‘is’, per se. However, all my study, all that I’ve been taught, and most importantly all that I’ve witnessed and personally felt about, and in, play leads me to this conclusion. This is where I position myself. Play should be given the chance to flourish in individuals, in collectives, in the built environments of cities and so forth. Why?

Simply, in asking ‘why play?’, we might as well be asking ‘why breath?’ (Note: I do mean ‘breath’ as noun here, not ‘breathe’ as verb). Play transforms us: not for economic, socio-economic, or passive-consumer purposes, but just because that is what play (this soup, this fabric, this magic in which we live) does. If it is ‘for’ anything, then surely it’s for this, as follows: in our momentary transformation is the moment that is play’s potential to continue, to roll and cycle on, to keep being. Play appears to me to be something that needs to keep moving, swilling, in order for it to be. To attempt to manipulate play for social engineering purposes, to try to mould it into something in order to hammer an object (this child, that child) into a perfect-future product is disagreeable.

What though might we think of ‘noble’ manipulations of play? That is to say, play as therapeutic tool, for example. Children traumatised by abuse, bereavement, ill-health, and so on, can surely be led upon the road to recovery via altruistic mindful therapeutic support? It is to the question of what constitutes ‘noble’ that I focus in on here in trying to make a way through this conundrum. If play is acknowledged, given a chance to be, in the noble aim (yes, again my own subjective analysis) of truly supporting the individual, then play is not manipulated as such but seen. If (‘therapeutic’) play is used in terms of conditioning individuals out of ‘undesirable’ traits, then this also leaves a disagreeable taste.

I know a boy who’s maybe thirteen or fourteen. He’s the big fish in the little pond that is the playground. One day we were surprised to see him in the sand pit. I hadn’t noticed him for a while up till then. It wasn’t that he was in the sand pit that was surprising: he was there for a good twenty or thirty minutes, at a guess; he was with another boy of about the same age; they were poking around with sand and water, and with things to mix one with the other; the boy was actually playing — this was the surprise. Play, that soup, that fabric, that magic, had swilled around and in him. He was absorbed. It was rare and special.

The point of this story diversion is that there is a difference between the over-engineered and the natural. It is the chance for play to take place, to take root, to flow, that we should be engineering, not the children, or the moulding of their play. Why should we being doing this? Isn’t this the same as saying that we’re trying to create a better future society? No, we should be looking to see what’s already here. Play is here. If we look, we’ll see; if we listen, we’ll hear.

Why play? What is it for? Play is transformative for its own ends. Why play? Why breath (noun, thing in itself)?

Play: soul, substance and belief

What you believe is true. Richard Garcia’s writing (The heart and soul of play) is the starting point for this post. Richard writes about play and love and soul and spirit which, after some time settling as a bookmarked ‘thing to remember’, I finally got round to commenting about. Richard’s writing has led me to think more on play, in this way. I’ve also been communicating with Arthur about haibun (you’ll need to look up haibun if you don’t know), and this thinking is also going to colour parts of what I’m about to write, I suspect.

My thinking has taken me on tracks of philosophy, phenomenology, word definitions, and the like: so I need to be clear here with all the tangled lines. This is the opening of it: what is it that this ‘soul’ of play is? Or rather, what is it that this soul of play appears to be? You see, we all see different things, of course.

It’s evening, just as the sun sets over the hill to the west. There’s a pastel red smear on the sky, which is sort of milky. I stand on the hill in the east and look down on the city. Orange lights are just starting to come on, here and there. I hear the sounds of skateboarders’ wheels before I see the skaters. They’re on the top level of the empty car park below me. They use the ramp from that level down to the next. I don’t hear them speak: they either don’t, or I’m too far away. No-one else can see them: they’re up above the city.

I watch them for twenty minutes. I think that this is play, though they themselves may not call it this. It’s play to me. What is it to them? I hear the sirens of an ambulance, or a fire engine, I can’t tell; then I see the blue lights in between the buildings somewhere in the city. I see the headlights of cars, nearer down there, and how they seem to be, with the nearby branches between me and them. I think how this interaction wouldn’t be if I were to stand a step to the side.

This isn’t a haibun, above, but haibun writing informs it. I’m also going to do a very unhaibun thing here and give a commentary on what I’ve just written. Here it is: ‘the skaters played’ because it appeared to me that this is what they were doing; likewise, the lights of the ambulance, or the fire engine, I couldn’t tell, played in between the buildings; the headlights of the cars played against the branches of the tree, from my perspective. Play was everywhere, perhaps.

I’m going to delve down a philosophical avenue now. If play is everywhere, that would imply that it is a ‘something’, that it is a ‘material’ thing: some substance in the universe, like particles. How can this be? I need to go back to the thinking of Descartes (and here I shall also loop back to what Richard Garcia wrote in ‘the heart and soul of play’): Descartes’ thinking on ‘soul’, as I understand it, was as an ‘immaterial substance’ (i.e. not the physical substance of the body). There is a link between ‘soul’ and ‘mind’: a brain has mass, but a mind does not.

Simply, if there are ‘material substances’ (like bodies) and ‘immaterial substances’ (like minds), what is play? It must be immaterial, right? Play isn’t comprised of physical particles, as the rest of the universe is. Yet, what is dark energy? Theoretical physicists say it’s essential in the universe, but they can’t say what it is (or what it’s made of). So, is play energy? It’s in all of us, after all.

What caused those skaters to skate, the lights of that ambulance (or fire engine, I couldn’t tell) to play between the buildings, the headlights to play against the branches? Was it the play energy of the universe? In a non-theological, non-religious way, if we humans can be seen to have a soul/mind, which isn’t a material substance like a body (i.e. there is an immaterial substance/something ‘in’ us), then immaterial substances do exist and can exist ‘out there’.

There is a word I’m rather taken with at the moment: immanence. This is about the idea of ‘being contained within’. In a religious sense, ‘God is within’. I’m not religious, so treat that as a metaphor. Play is within. Play is immanent, perhaps. At the same time, in this thinking, play is within everything — everything — and we live within play. It’s not a case of ‘now it’s play time’ because play is in all of this that we are, it is the fabric of our existence, and it is the fabric in which we exist.

We just have to see it, that’s the trick. It’s a matter of perspective, of seeing that the play of the skaters is play (in our view); that the play of the lights of the ambulance or the fire engine (whichever these lights actually belong to), between the buildings, is play; that the play of headlights against the branch, is play: it’s all some play. If we step to the side, we don’t see that play . . .

At the end of the day, what we believe is true.

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