Finn Sivert Nielsen Anthropologist
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Broken bodies – Open minds

Studying the post-European condition

by Finn Sivert Nielsen

 Table of Contents 

Chapter 2. Playing Reality


 Introductory note to this chapter


In this chapter certain theoretical themes will be developed, with my informants entering at times from the sidelines to elaborate on my conclusions. This chapter is the result of a rethinking and deepening of my theoretical work in the 1980's. It builds a case for a less goal-oriented and utilitarian view, not only of social reality, but of anthropology as well.

     Nota Bene! As in other excerpts from this manuscript, the informants mentioned in the text are not true people. They are composite figures, and my stories about them are composite stories. – (The present edition of this text does not include references or a bibliography.)


2. Playing reality


Faith consists in believing that God is love and nothing else.

But that is still not the right way to put it.

Faith consists in believing that reality is love and nothing else.

Like a child in play, hiding from its mother behind a chair, so God plays at separating himself from God behind the creation.

This joke of God's is what we are.

Believe that reality is love, while still seeing it exactly as it is. Love what is intolerable. Embrace what is made of iron, press one's flesh against the metallic harshness and chill.


Destroy everything in the soul that is not closely allied to matter. Expose naked to the heavenly light that part of the soul which is little more than inert matter.

The perfection proposed to us is the direct union of the divine spirit with inert matter. A perfect image of perfection is inert matter regarded as thinking matter. This is the justification for what the Hebrews called idolatry.


But better than a carven idol is something without a human face: such as a stone, or bread, or a star.

If we imagine a spirit combined with the sun, that is a perfect image of perfection.

That is why this universe made of inert matter is beautiful. More beautiful than the most beautiful human beings.

The inertia of matter corresponds to the justice of divine thought.

Simone Weil, 1942          


Any fool can have ideas.

Bernhard Lee Finn, 1962          



Against the vast narrative of history and personality suggested above, anthropological analyses seem narrowly utilitarian: glittering threads of distinct purpose leading through the meaningful fog of interaction we call "society". Our representations "have focus", we believe that "good research" is research that "makes sense", "comes to the point", "produces results". It is true that we have seen a drift toward more skeptical and self-conscious ideas of research, motivated, no doubt, most fundamentally by the "moral fix" of the participant observer, whose "formal explanation" turned into practice. Postmodernism in anthropology springs from the need to conceptualize such problems theoretically. But some habits of thought die hard. We teach first-year students not to "reify" the world, not to focus on fixed structures, but on process, on action, but we believe that action itself, though it no longer simply reproduces the social order, should in some sense be subsidiary to it: an externalizing agency, that changes, contradicts, challenges, or "constructs" social reality. This preference for the efficacious is hardly surprising. All it means is that anthropologists share a number of critical notions with the rest of classical European science, and with it accept that human cognition and behavior are intrinsically goal-oriented processes, directed by conscious choice towards rational purposes external to themselves. We assume that this species of action defines homo sapiens as a biological species.

    We naturalize productivity. But what we are actually dealing with, as Weber points out, is a culture-specific, classical European ideology of action. A recurrent motif of this ideology is a direct and cumulative relation of means to end, production to product, past to future, which has formal equivalents in Aristotelian logic, Euclidian geometry, and Newtonian physics, in the climactic tradition of European literature and music, and in the result orientation of market economics, bureaucratic policy, utopian politics, and applied mathematics. In its rational or romantic guise, utilitarianism is an integral quality of our intellectual baggage, as anthropologists, and as bearers of the classical European tradition. But as anthropologists we feel free to ask whether doxic premises of this kind are valid representations of human universals. And when we conclude that they are not, as the "excessive" and "irrational" character of the stories recounted above might prompt us to do, the theoretical and methodological consequences are profound.



If culture is "constructed" or "produced", then anthropologists differ in their understanding of the "product" of the "work of culture". For functionalists and cultural ecologists the "goal" of action is an ideal system in dynamic equilibrium. For marxists and evolutionists it is a cumulative historical movement with exploitative effects for the actor. For transactionalists it is attainment of value by individuals. In theories of meaning – such as semiotics or structuralism – it is logical consistency or communicative efficacy. And in postmodernism it is escape from the constraints of “grand narratives” and overarching explanations, into a deconstructed, “natural” world. Such variations in emphasis have occasioned major controversies in anthropology and we should by no means underestimate their importance, but the idea of action as "work", as "social construction", is common to them all. Which is perhaps why we tend to overlook the fact that many acts are neither "social" nor "constructive", neither interact "usefully" with each other nor "achieve" anything in particular themselves.



There are significant adaptational reasons why this should be so: if the hunter's intentions are too obvious his prey will elude him; if his attention is focused too narrowly on the chase he will ignore the signs of an impending storm. The perfect hunter is not a slave of his purposes; he stalks his prey by feint and deception, by unpredictable departures from the expected path and attentive responsiveness to every change in the world around and within him, because he knows that the world is too powerful to control, too complex to predict. The proficient actor likewise knows that many determinants and relevancies of his action lie outside the sphere of influence of the cultural consensus he has been brought up to believe in: he eats, sleeps, laughs, learns, and dies, walks around mountains rather than through them, speaks with his mouth, sees with his eyes. How he does these things may be determined by culture, but no culture can escape the fact that they must be done. These essential aspects of social reality are not socially constructed.

    Nevertheless, social science has a long tradition of dismissing the non-social underpinnings of action as featureless constants: "drives", "instincts" or "natural constraints", that may safely be bracketed in discussions of the social sphere. Even with today's growing interest in body-oriented issues (from habitus and gender-studies to medical anthropology), such complacency is still common enough. This is striking when we consider that it contradicts a very large body of evidence that has accumulated in the natural sciences over decades: the "constants" of social science have effectively been decomposed into unstable epiphenomena of complex and unpredictable physico-biological processes in the human body (which merges seamlessly with the psyche) and the ecosystem (with its human transformations). The facts (as far as we know them) testify that the natural basis of human action is not a blank slate on which culture may write what it will, but a rich and dangerous living landscape in which every actor must be a hunter or die trying. The topography and weather patterns of this landscape cannot be indifferent to social scientists. They are vital determinants of human interaction, with profound repercussions for the societies people enact.

    In recent decades there has been a growing awareness among anthropologists of both the non-deterministic complexity and the bio-social involvement of action. Non-linear models of social systems first made their appearance in studies of ecology and cybernetics, in the 1940's, 50's and 60's (Bateson, Barth, Rappaport). These were followed by a string of neo-marxist reinterpretations of infra/superstructural dynamics in complex dialectical terms, which figured prominently in the subsequent development of what Sherry Ortner refers to as "practice theory". The practice theorists are a heterogeneous and indistinctly bounded group, in whose work many building-blocks of a new generation of anthropological grand theory may be discerned. In its widest sense, it includes the neo-neo-marxism of Bloch, Bourdieu, Appadurai, and Giddens; Barth's rethinking of culture as traditions of knowledge mediated by individual consciousness; studies of the interface between culture and emotion (Rosaldo), culture and the subconscious (Bateson, Obeyesekere), culture and sense perception (Sperber); along with Keesing's quasi-Chomskian role-theory, Turner's quasi-Jungian concept of meaning, and even (at opposite extremes) the total (and hence self-transcending) relativism of Wagner or Strathern, on the one hand, and the bio-determinism of the sociobiologists on the other. What this miscellaneous group has in common is an intensified interest in human action, and in the complex structuring of its relationship, on the one hand, to the natural world through which it flows, and on the other, to the fabrics of meaning it weaves. And although the conclusions drawn by various scholars differ in specifics, there seems to be a growing consensus that "action" is best perceived as a conceptual interface between nature and culture (Barth, Habermas, Giddens, Bateson), and that by exploring the ramifications of this border-line position we may make significant gains in our understanding of socio-cultural processes. As yet, the epistemological implications of this line of thought have barely been explored. We have, however, gained significantly in our empirical insight into the act itself. The idea of action, in the abstract, as consistent, conscious achievement, is losing ground to a more nuanced and ambiguous typology of action patterns, from quasi-automatic and unconscious habits, skills, and doxic routines (Giddens, Bourdieu, Wagner, Bateson), to unpredictable innovation and creative communitas (Turner, Bateson, Wagner, Barth).

    In a sense these changes merely manifest a potential that has been latent in the anthropological tradition since Malinowski and Boas. It is hardly a coincidence that our dominant method of "data collection" is fondly referred to as "hanging out with the natives". There is an underlying paradox in this practice, that shows through in our textual representations when we least expect it. In the empirical literature in particular we find frequent hints that in many societies around the globe, people spend a disproportionate amount of time producing nothing and performing no goal-oriented work, but simply "hanging out" (with or without the fieldworker), simply "being there". Even analytical purists such as Fredrik Barth do not avoid such poetic lapses, and the classical texts are full of them. And have we not all, during fieldwork, stopped to ask ourselves "what was going on" – when absolutely nothing seemed to be going on at all; when social integration and logical consistency had been achieved within reasonable bounds; after a tactical victory had been won on the way to a strategic goal; or when a goal was abandoned, the vigilance of moral control relaxed, the message got through to the receiver, exploitation rested, – in short, after the "work of culture" was done? Did culture "do" anything at all (other than prepare itself for some future "purpose") under these circumstances? Or are such situations, though common enough, perhaps not "data"?



Anthropology's search for "results" highlights its historical derivation: it echoes the classical European ideologeme expressed in the ora et labora of the Medieval monks and the economic ethos of capitalism. Our notion of action as work thus represents and reproduces a culture-specific western European narrative, and this places arbitrary constraints on our collection and interpretation of data. But why indeed should “work”, “production”, “intention”, “construction”, and other goal-oriented terms be singled out as root metaphors of action, rather than other equally valid and interesting states of being? If there is a "work of culture" there must be an idleness and love of culture, an improvisation, boredom, humor, bravery, violence, anxiety, euphoria, anoxia, addiction, paranoia, ecstasy, clumsiness, torture, sarcasm and envy of culture. Each category highlights existentially valid aspects of human interaction-and-cognition, that constitute a patterned style of motion-and-emotion within the body-nature interface. Each may be formalized and applied as a universal style of analysis as freely as the action-style we refer to as "work". These unmentioned action-styles remain an indeterminate doxa to explicit anthropological opinion.

    I shall explore the potential of one alternative imagined descriptor. For action as work I substitute the notion of action as play. This choice of focus is, one might say, quite arbitrary; or at least as arbitrary as the notion of action-as-work. It has a more specific attraction, however. As “western” society is transformed in countless ways from classical into post-European forms, we witness a similar abandonment of the classical morality-and-esthetics of productive self-application, in favor of a flickering, postmodern morality of grab-the-moment, channel-hopping play. Thus my preferred model of action reflects the historical context of my endeavor. Play, I self-consciously assert, is a more typical and adequate paradigm of action in the post-European world that I myself inhabit, than “work”.



One might object that work is a sensible paradigm that needs no replacement. Like the forces of physics, it may be focused, regulated, and coordinated towards conveniently specific, often quantifiable, goals. Its effects can be predicted, its motives nailed down, its functional laws deduced. None of this can be said of play. Play is purposeless and directionless, its effects intangible and dispersed. Its "rules" are so inconstant and inconsistent that they resemble ornaments rather than regulations. What use is such a vague and "fuzzy" concept? Why wrap the world in an apolitical, afunctional, amoral blur? I shall not attempt to respond to such objections at this stage, except to suggest that the world itself is inconsistent, and the post-European world particularly so. If we wish to understand an inconsistent world, should we not be willing to imagine concepts that resemble it?

    Two examples may clarify what I mean. Both exemplify "complexity in motion" and strong, "bodily" emotions such as love, hate, rapture, rage. Both are sociological examples, in as much as they involve a tension or mediation between "free" emotional expression, and constraint, pattern, "rules".



The first is an example of play in the "narrow" sense, reproduced from Viggo Vestel's study of a Norwegian kindergarten. In a memorable scene that he quotes verbatim from his field notes, the anthropologist, notebook in hand, is watching a group of boys doing nothing in particular:

    "Mikkel and Fredrik," he records, "have left the swings. They seem to be discussing something that's happened. Nils returns from his cat-hunt, without any luck, it seems."

    Then, there is a ripple of change:

    "Fredrik: Oh look, here's something scary. I saw a spider - it was that big. (Shows about half a meter with his hands.)

    Nils: No, that's how big it was. (Both arms fully extended.)

They stand for a while, poking at the ground. Nils goes back to sit on the swing."

    Here a new game is begun, then it is dropped; nothing "comes of it". The children, barely roused, go back to "idling" ("poking at the ground": routinely "prodding" their surroundings to see if they can set "something" off), back to a default state of "searching-and-hunting" play, that "waits and sees". Prior to this return, a step was taken toward "something" else, a more exceptional kind of game that would be "more fun", "more exciting", more of "a real game". But it is hard to accept that this step was directed towards a "goal". The point of mentioning the spider was not to "get" anywhere in particular (whether to "win" an argument about its size, or to "maintain" the conversation), otherwise the contest could have been prolonged much further than it was. The spider is a "probe" that discovers nothing worth "getting into". It is dropped, but a moment later a second probe is set off, as Fredrik, still looking for "something", "eyes the flowers in the garden, where the cat was just before...

    Fredrik: Oh, we have to pick some pretty flowers.

    Mikkel and Fredrik both go over to the garden. Nils stays on the swing. From the house Lise (40) has seen what's happening. She comes outside and tells the boys not to pick the freshly planted flowers, but help her look after them instead. The boys stop picking."

    Again the probe is abandoned, but this time for a different reason. Lise (in spite of her friendly attempt to interest the boys in another – "more useful" – game) represents the long arm of the law: if the spider-game was too boring, the flower-game is too dangerous. Indeed, danger lurks not only outside the game, but in it: Nils has been left alone, now he threatens to abandon his playmates altogether...

    "Nils (in a slightly 'offended' voice, from the swing): If you don't come now I'll drive off without you!"

    At this, the magic starts. Caught between two threats, two dangers, the game might be expected to make a consistent, "productive", attempt to "break loose", – to avoid or overcome either or both of its constraints. But instead, it "takes off", taking advantage of inconsistency to propel itself to a new level of vacillatory intensity...

    "Fredrik (glances at Nils, then gives Mikkel a pointed stare and says, melodramatically): Oh, he's leaving without us. He and Mikkel rush over with affected seriousness to sit on the swing, roaring with laughter.

    Mikkel (imitating the way Fredrik said it the first time): Oh, we have to pick some pretty flowers. Mikkel and Fredrik, laughing, go over to the flowers, and 'pretend' to look at them.

    Nils (seems a little doubtful, almost unhappy, but then says, hesitantly): If you don't come now I'll drive off without you.

    Fredrik (imitating his own voice, the first time around): Oh, he's leaving without us! Both boys rush back to sit on the swing, while they all, including Nils, laugh uproariously.

    Nils (giggling): Oh, I think I have to pick some flowers. Nils and Mikkel get off the swing and run over to the garden, and 'pretend-pick' the flowers.

    Fredrik (remains seated on the swing, while he calls out to the others): If you don't come now, I'll drive off without you (mock-seriously).

    Nils and Mikkel (parodically-dramatically): Oh, he's leaving without us! We've got to get back...

    The pattern repeats itself again and again, with rotating roles and constant, very noisy expressions of delight. Glorious laughter, shouts. Furious activity on the swing."



At last, "something" was accomplished. But the key to this story is redundancy and repetition rather than finalized attainment. Between two constraints (offending authority or offending each other), a rhythmic oscillation is generated, embraced, and endlessly modulated; and it is this movement that we shall refer to in the following as play. Perhaps it is a result of "transaction". But if so, it is a very peculiar "result" since it is neither explicitly planned for (one might claim that if the boys had "planned" their moves they would not have achieved the "result"), nor a delimitable "object" that might be "used" for anything in particular. Nor can the case be dismissed as an empirical oddity with no significance outside its ethnographic context. To suggest only one parallel, there are striking similarities between the process by which the boys "found their game" and classical accounts of decision-making in acephalous societies, as reported, e.g. in Roy Rappaport's study of the Tsembaga Maring. Here, as in the kindergarten, group participation in a "new game" (starting a new swidden) is rarely the outcome of explicit proposals that are debated, voted on, or enforced by an executive. Instead, the subject is repeatedly brought up (indirectly and as if by accident), until someone senses that the "time is ripe", at which he initiates a "probe" (starts working), and is followed by the group if he has judged its mood correctly, or made its laughing stock if he was mistaken. Here, as in the kindergarten, what the successful "probe" accomplishes is not a "result" or even an "act" as such, but a "change of pace" from one state of oscillation and resonance – one style of play – to another. There is an ambiguity, a teasing quality to this wavering, directionless, infinitely changeable movement, that attracts and engages us, if we're not drawn into its vortex too far or let ourselves be alarmed and run away Play is thus, on the one hand, a release of pure spontaneity and joy, an outpouring of the Self into process, which, like dance, borders on ecstasy. On the other hand, there is fear, that the game should suddenly break apart, go serious, turn real, an element of "intra-specific aggression", which, as Konrad Lorenz suggests, is a trait all animals have in common, and a trait without which even a children's game would have little appeal.



A similar play on ambivalence is seen a second, more complex, example, from my fieldwork in San Francisco in 1990. The main actor here is a composite character I call Vance, whom I have described from one point of view above. Vance struck me from the first as an intensely passionate man, whose passions were deeply concerned with taste. "You're a slob," from him, was a harsh repudiation: you were ugly, hence out of control, untrustworthy, dangerous. Morality, in his world, was a function of beauty. Vance expressed these attitudes in his catlike physical grace, his artistic perfectionism, his climactic, and often violent, human relations. His greatest loves were music and women, and to get (and keep) them, together or singly, money was essential; but his love was not just of any woman, or any music (still less of money, as such), but of the pure, incandescent, wild, stylish cascade embodied in Kate Bush's Sensual World – in impeccably mixed digital stereo sound. Anything less than "perfection and grace" was "fucked up". He repeatedly left (otherwise wonderful) concerts in a rage because the sound was "unacceptable". He detested "stupidity" and pretension. This, obviously, often got him in trouble.

    I sensed these qualities in Vance from our earliest meetings, though we kept a wary distance at first: I with a certain skeptical apprehension, he (probably) doubting my common sense. The beginning of our friendship was the day Vance and Janice fought. Vance hated constriction, and always seemed to assume that he had a lot more space around him than he actually had. I asked him, some time later, why he thought there was so much violence in the United States. "Because of poverty," he replied. When I objected that there were lots of places in the world with a lot more poverty than America, he reflected for a moment. "But America's up for grabs. There's so fuckin much of it." This was perhaps as close as I ever got to an emic diagnosis of rage (a theme we may return to). In Bonita Street, Vance had the sometimes exasperating habit of playing perfect music, very loud, hour after hour, on Friday nights in the living-room of the apartment we all shared. The living-room was wall-to-wall with Janice's bedroom. Late one evening she came home – a slightly tipsy, slightly wise-ass, slightly gutsy near teenager – with a boyfriend, and asked Vance, "sloppily", "Could you turn that down..." They started yelling at each other. Soon they were furious, and far past caring about the consequences. He slapped her, hard. She hit back. "Watch out," I thought, "leave him alone." Her boyfriend grabbed her by the arms, I grabbed Vance, and they were escorted off to their respective rooms.

    In Vance's room in the cellar he was shaking with rage. I tried to be calm. I could sense his fury building, then subsiding, building and subsiding, but the waves were slowly decreasing in frequency and strength. Something was taking place that was very similar to the game with swings and flowers, but in this case the rhythm was cooling down, winding back from a danger that might seem trivial, but was all too real. After a while I thought I would play him some music. I put on Monteverdi's Missa Papaea Marcelli, – an enveloping swell of 16th century Italian acoustic brilliance that is the most soothing sound I know. To my surprise, it carried him off. He started playing for me: Miles Davis (Aura), Kate Bush (The Hounds of Love), Ronald Shannon Jackson (Texas), and other "music, sweet music", wall after cascading wall of perfect sound falling all around us. We sat there, exchanging an occasional word, but mostly in silence.

    We made a kind of pact that evening, I think. We had both been "losing it" recently, each in his way. I had a very bad case of "fieldwork blues". Vance, for whom violence was intimately connected with crack, was being drawn back into the "negative" vortex he had barely escaped from alive when he came out West. Now, if I tried to grab him before he "freaked", he would teach me about music. It was a sensible deal, and we were both shortly feeling better. Vance still got violent and self-destructive. His black moods were intense, and it was easy to think they must be lasting. But he would manage to "pull out of it" and "cool it", and with time, as when we sat together in the cellar, the violence of the waves receded. One day I came home to find him calmly seated with Janice on his bed. Their calm, I sensed, was forced. Vance's fist was bloody. I got a sick feeling. They pointed at the pasteboard wall beside the door with a punch-hole right through it. We looked at each other again and started laughing. There was a long untroubled period after this...

    One night we had played all this serious music, and gone through various modulations of conflict, depression, and understanding, and at around 6 AM it was all beautiful outside with this pale San Francisco morning light and we were getting hungry. I suggested that we fry up some burgers, and as we got started he left the kitchen with this look in his eyes. "You're putting on some music?" I asked as he returned. "Yeah, you've got to hear this," he said, snapping the tape into our gigantic boom box. "It's burger music." It was the Grateful Dead, which will for ever after be "burger music" to me.



It might perhaps be argued that Vance's perfectionism and rage had a "point": a purpose, function, value, product, meaning; and that the change he went through reflected a goal-oriented choice on his part. But perhaps the "point" of his story is its lack of any well-defined focus. What I have described are not "acts" that are "going places" or "doing things" but complexities of rhythm in motion, with terrors and attractions, extravagances and splendors, fears and delights, that bind and free the actor more effectively than any "norm" or "choice". Indeed, these latter terms seem passive; they allow or disallow an act, but have no intrinsic enchantment in themselves. Once they have performed their "function", they are analytically dead. In contrast, you can get "hooked" on a rhythm, because it repeats. Because it repeats you can learn it (a singular cannot be learned: what would be the point?); and anything that can be learned, can be improvised, extrapolated, elaborated: as any addict will tell you, this was the main reason why you learned it in the first place. Vance's rhythm of crack, music, love, and violence is compelling precisely because it is free, because it is fun, because it is perilous, because it opens worlds of experience. It is by modulating and embellishing that rhythm (rather than statically proscribing it) that change is brought about in his life.



We thus attribute two opposed qualities to play - the thrill and the limit - but play is neither one of these in itself, but the act of oscillating between them, of challenging fear and death, and laughingly pulling back from the brink. In meta-sociological terms, we may think of "play" as a response to the paradox of paired concepts such as "structure and agency" (Giddens) or "categorization and process" (Bateson), since it incorporates the idea of atemporal distinction directly into the temporal continuity of action, – as rhythm and melody are merged in music. In play there is always a boundary, though it may be diffuse and shifting; and a repetitive flow of action up to that boundary and away from it. In the repetitious aspect of this motion there is an element of routine, and hence of predictability and security, which allows attention to wander while the game continues on its own. In the boundary lies an opposite quality of fickle and potentially lethal mutability, an unpredictable veering away from whatever "point" you seemed to be bound for, which demands swift decisions, sharp awareness, intuitive and flexible responses. Play unites the opposite qualities of rest and exploration. It neither pursues a goal nor attains it; but weaves a flickering path around its goal, enveloping it in a living mesh of ever-changing, but still somehow regular pathways, as a cocoon surrounds a chrysalis, or with a more complex and appropriate metaphor, as the atmosphere surrounds the Earth. Work is a specific and limited type of action. Play is an infinite typology of action patterns, that are varied, specified, formalized, and elaborated in countless ways. Work produces a new reality. Play is content to embellish a reality that is already there: it is closer in spirit to ritual and art than to productive economics.

    For mainstream social science, with its emphasis on humanity's social achievements, the usefulness of such a paradigm may still seem obscure. Patterns of play look pretty, but are not very helpful in the serious business of "constructing reality". But if we consider that most of reality is "constructed" independently of conscious human intervention or interpretation, and that our primary concern is not to create the world, but to maintain ourselves in a healthy relationship to it, then play appears both adequate and realistic.(1) For while the ideal of society may well be a "timeless" abstraction, the human body (on which society after all is based) is temporal and needs to rest, since its physical capabilities are limited. And while culture in the abstract may be a self-contained and self-defining world, the human organism is dependent on a concrete and capricious environment, which it must constantly explore to stay alive in. Perhaps if nature were indeed governed by mechanistic predictability the paradigm of "action as work" would be preferable. But as biologists and physicists have become aware, natural processes do not conform to rigid laws, but follow chaotic (or still more complex) "patterns-without-pattern", which are similar in principle to the ornamental cycles of play: cardiologists recognize that it is a sign of health if the heart beats irregularly, meteorologists conclude that the Earth's climate cannot be modeled even approximately by linear mathematics, prototype theorists assert that linguistic meaning is "spun" around the organic life of the body in the world and neuro-psychological experiments lend biological credence to this claim: Figure 1 – a representation of aggregate patterns of neural firing in response to a smell – illustrates this graphically.


Figure 1


    Play is therefore above all an adaptive mode of behavior. It responds dynamically and sensitively to natural processes that resemble it (rather than resisting or trying to direct them), and its relaxed and meandering search-patterns consume less energy and leave fewer tracks than the consistency of linear accumulation. Play seeks no specific object, but a holistic condition conductive to the survival and well-being of the body-mind. In play, we look for ways to "enjoy ourselves" as organisms (though we do not always find them), ways to act that express and treat the body well (though, again, the results are unpredictable). There is no deferred gratification of needs, no extrapolation of abstract futures from equally abstract pasts. Our attention is set free from externalities and allowed to wander in the "here and now"; which is the only time that is real for the body. Where work materializes an imagined "absent object," play elaborates and embellishes a real "present object" by increasing its a-functional redundancy: its pain, meaning, beauty. Beauty, as Bateson reminds us, is a patterning that is sufficiently complex and varied to interface healthily with the body-in-nature.

    As will be seen in the following, I am in many respects indebted to the work of Fredrik Barth, but on this point we differ. Barth has always insisted on the rationality of choice. I argue (here and elsewhere) that we do not choose items of behavior (acts); but patterns of behavior (styles of action). We do not "work", we "play". Like children, we explore for a while, then get tired and take a break. Like Vance, we modulate complexities of motion. Every act, no matter how "explicit" and "controlled", is part of a patterned play of exploration and rest: parts of the body-mind, parts of the time, are in focus; parts of it are peripheral, waiting, ready for change; and the shifting rhythms of focusing and defocusing that undulate through the body-nature interface cannot be reduced to unidirectional movement any more than dance can. In an investigation of eye-movement and visual perception it was thus shown that subjects would glance at an unknown object, quickly zero in on its distinctive features, and on that basis establish a regular "beat", an "observation circuit", which ignored entire areas completely but kept coming back to points that were ambiguous or characteristic (when watching a person, typically the mouth, eyes, and hands - see Figure 2). The better an object was known, the more ingrained and habitual was the eye's circuit, and the harder it became to diverge from the established path: a trail of vision, an erratic, but recognizable pattern of rhythmic motion, lingering at an earlobe, bypassing the obvious.


Figure 2


    Again, the adaptability of play is seen: goal-oriented consistency promotes specialization, which in the long run wears down, through disuse, the range of options open to the body and reduces its flexibility and endurance. Theories of "action as work" escape this dilemma by viewing human activity as a train of discrete "events", interrupted by pauses for planning and recuperation, without which the body would ultimately kill itself. Thus the act becomes an "object", bounded in time and space, which may be "chosen". In play, rest is an intrinsic quality of action, which, since it purposelessly elaborates (rather than statically realizes) a pattern, tends to widen (rather than contract) the body's flexibility. As play, moreover, action may legitimately be conceptualized as a continuous process running without pause throughout the individual's life. You take time off work, but you cannot stop playing any more than you can halt your heartbeat. Play is a self-regenerating biological process: to live is to act: to act is to explore: to explore is to embellish: to embellish is to rest. There can be no stopping "outside" the act to plan, no arrival at goals, reasons, or meanings; only an incessant, organismic ebb and flow, focusing and dispersing the energies of the body and the attention of the mind.

    "The human mind," Roger Keesing remarks, "expands and elaborates cultural detail to fill whatever 'space' is available." As anthropologists we recognize the truth of this statemen. The "excess complexity" of kinship, politics, religion, economics, indeed the vast exuberance and redundancy of every aspect of culture, is an undeniable empirical fact which makes no sense at all to the utilitarian mind. But homo ludens is here in his natural element: a world of frills and curlicues, superfluity and extravagance, "space", "slack", "idling", "shootin the breeze"; festivity and boredom, innovation and endurance, perilous beauty and fire-side chats; childlike innocence, foolhardy imprudence, and wanton destruction. Indeed, the rich and vigorous emotional variety of the experiences encompassed by play, the sheer existential vitality of the concept (as opposed to the "negations", "absences", and "shortages" of utilitarianism), urges its acceptance as a model of action.



In order to approach this field systematically I shall distinguish between two states, phases, modalities, or aspects that occur in play, which will enable us to use the concept analytically. We shall return, first, to our initial impression of play as a repetitive flux approaching and receding from a boundary, and distinguish between play as rhythmic rest-in-motion on the one hand; as liminal boundary exploration on the other.



The relationship between these concepts may be clarified by a detour into the study of ritual, typically one of the most embellished, body-oriented, and "playful" fields of cultural institutionalization. Due to these qualities, the utilitarian search for purpose and rationality in ritual has often failed. Most ritual, no doubt, performs productive functions, but it seems constantly to digress from whatever it "should be doing", into overstatements and diversions that cannot be rationally justified but are crucial to the participant. In ritual, there can be no doubt at all that the point is not to arrive at a goal, but to approach it in style. This makes such obvious sense to homo ludens, while to homo economicus it is so abstruse, that successful analyses of ritual usually rely in practice on an implicit switch to the former perspective. Consider Evans-Pritchard's classical study of Azande witchcraft, with its emphasis on the tautological underpinnings of common sense (which translates as routine), on which the conscious, formal system depends; or Bateson's analysis of Iatmul ritual, in which the author alternates between mutually contradictory analytical viewpoints (intellectual play here simulates bodily play); or Rappaport's redundant interweavings of nature and culture in his Tsembaga study; or, finally, Barth's discussion of ritual innovation in Highland New Guinea. But the wider theoretical implications of ritual as play are rarely discussed.

    A notable exception is Victor Turner's work on the liminal period in rites de passage; which we shall approach by way of one of its critics, Maurice Bloch. Turner and Bloch both base their analyses on Arnold van Gennep's original scheme of "separation, liminality, and aggregation"; both expand this model to a general theory of ritual; and both accord a central place in their theory to the body. But while Turner articulates van Gennep's second, liminal phase, Bloch effectively restricts himself to phase one and three. Bloch considers ritual as a functional expression of the universal human need to reconcile the mortal body's temporal existence with the "immortal" (structural) a-temporality of the social institutions which the body creates and endures (the sacred is here the quintessentially social, as in Durkheim). At initiation, children are physically cut off from the continuum of everyday life, brought together in isolated communities where commonplace assumptions are caricatured and distorted, and finally returned to social normality. In the first movement, the initiates are symbolically killed, so they will be able to participate in the trans-mortal spirituality of social institutions in the liminal phase. In the finale, they celebrate their victorious return to society by killing animals or enemies, i.e. by "conquering" their environment. The ritual transforms the novice from "prey into hunter", from a vulnerable child to a responsible adult, who participates in the transcendence of society, because he has substituted the native, physical life of his body (which was "killed") with the life of an appropriated ecology. The central metaphor of initiation is thus a transformation of the body-nature interface from an "animal" to a "human" state. The utility of ritual is explicit in Bloch's text: ritual "works" to produce the power of the a-temporal and cultural over the temporal and natural. But as in the texts mentioned above, Bloch's explicit utilitarianism is implicitly relaxed. This occurs, for example, when he emphasizes that the initiates are not the only participants in the ritual; it involves all members of society, and the final victorious re-entry of the novices is the triumph of the entire group. In the course of an individual's life, therefore, initiation is repeated many times over, as a kind of punctuation marking that divides up the continuum of ongoing social life into discrete phases, stages, tasks, relationships or categories. This is what Rappaport brings out so clearly in his study of Tsembaga ritual: each ritual occurrence is a beat of bodily movement in nature, part of the ongoing rhythmic flow of a ritual cycle that continues beyond the life-span of the individual, but embraces his motion-and-emotion in itself.

    As Bloch correctly concludes, the initiation cycle as a whole thus acts as an instrument of power by enveloping the participants in its constraining routine. But the coercive force of the whole cannot, as Bloch assumes (and as the utilitarian cult of consistency would seem to demand), be directly transposed onto its component parts. Instead, as Turner points out, each individual initiation is more aptly described as an escape from power than a reproduction of it. This seeming contradiction is resolved within a model of ritual action as play. Here, power is seen to be the result, not of abstract, a-temporal rules that deny the body as an "absence", but of the sheltering-and-constraining rhythmic periodicity of the ritual cycle through time, which subordinates the body's native, biological rhythms (metabolism, physical motions, task performance, life-cycle) to its overarching punctuation sequence, its beat, the beat of power. But each beat in the sequence remains transitional and liminal, a death and a rebirth, because it is a protracted sequence of action in time, not a one-dimensional digital "difference". Each beat is therefore a unique event, and is never, even in the most highly formalized ritualizations, repeated exactly: the rhythm it is part of is loose, improvisational, adaptive. "When the ritual leader of the Baktaman decided to perform the sixth degree initiation during my residence there in 1968," Barth recalls, "he had to set aside several days to try to remember and reconstruct in his mind just how it was to be performed. He turned to a few intimates for help and discussion, but they likewise saw the task as one of remembering, with the subsidiary question arising of whether they should copy the neighboring community and adopt a new procedure for one of the parts of the ritual." The power of the whole thus lies in the rhythmic sequencing of its parts, not in the replication of "the same" in each instance: the body can never exactly repeat any set of actions, because they are never performed under the exact same circumstances, their environment is constantly in flux.

    We may thus consider ritual, or any habituated action-pattern, as a semi-stable sequence of semi-stable sub-routines: strings of rhythmic bodily motion that are joined at liminal cusps. Each of these "joints" is a locus of insecurity and unpredictability, since its raison d'être is to enable the attachment of a given action string to a variety of alternative strings, themselves habituated to various degrees. There are always countless potential continuations from the endpoint of a habituated string of action, and, though some of these are doubtlessly more probable extensions than others, possible alternatives include string types that range from the almost entirely improvisational to the almost completely hard-wired. (Think of what happens, for instance, when highly formalized ritual is suddenly "broken off" by an unexpected and irresistible outside force, or when strict routine is applied to defuse a crisis.) An initiation ceremony is therefore "productive of social power" only to the extent that it is a part and nothing but a part of the ritual cycle. But the quote from Barth indicates that this is not the case at all, and indeed, Bloch's own theoretical discussion forces the same conclusion. When the initiate's body is symbolically killed, its links to the community are severed. What liminality denies is therefore not the body (as Bloch claims), but society's power over the body. In liminality we see a forceful turning of the body's attention away from the power of the collective social order, and inward towards its own imperatives.

    This is precisely Turner's point. Liminality, as he sees it, is any boundary-state, any condition of doubt, waiting, expectation that marks a transition or break in the composite processual continuum of society. In a rite de passage, the novice is placed in an intentionally staged situation of this kind, and thereby (as Bloch puts it) effectively "removed from the temporal continuum". But this implies that he is removed, not from nature, but out of reach of all goal-oriented, productive purposes, – since purpose, as we have seen, derives its meaning from extrapolations forward and backward in time. The novice is thus returned from abstract social historicity to the natural "here and now". He is set free in a playground of chance, to prove himself and explore things on his own, without the supportive constraints of everyday cultural consensus: to reflect, to improvise, to innovate. It is true of course, as Bloch and others point out, that this rich and terrifying phase will eventually conclude with the impression of a new set of reassuring social constraints on the novice, a new and more reponsible subordination of his body-rhythm to the controlling power-rhythm of the culture as a whole, that lasts until the next liminal beat arrives. But as long as the novice remains in liminality, he is in a process of exploration, and from this process he acquires something entirely different from the status he assumes after the ritual is consummated: he learns the art of exploration itself, the art of survival in an unjust, irrational, unpredictable world. He learns (or deuterolearns, to follow Bateson) what change, choice, and learning themselves imply, and the core of his lesson is the experience of physical insecurity and danger that is forced on him, by the simple fact that he cannot know what comes next. The novice is told, in unmistakable terms, that the social world, which he had hitherto perhaps admired or taken for granted, will not always be there to support him, that society itself is poised in the midst of wider, more complex and unforeseeable natural systems, on which its existence as well as his own are entirely dependent. This is why his body is threatened with death (though that amounts to an affirmation of the body, rather than, as Bloch assumes, its denial): the necessities the novice faces are natural, not social; physical, not symbolic; and no amount of "socially constructed fear" can convey their urgency to him. To understand them, he must confront them directly, with his own natural being, with his body, in ordeals designed to increase his awareness of his body's weaknesses and strengths, develop its expressive potential, and introduce it to new physical sensations and skills. Only thus can the novice learn to master the body-nature interface and mutate from "prey into hunter" – not the rapacious hunter of Hobbesian imagination, but a real hunter: responsive, unpredictable, ironic.




I knew such a hunter in Russia. Alya, as I shall call her, is again a composite figure, whose story echos that of many young, bright women from the outskirts of the Soviet empire, who had come to Leningrad to gain an education, and fallen in love with the bright lights of "culture" in the metropolis (Vera was also one of these). One evening in 1983 on my way home from town, I thought I would drop by a friend in one of the dormitories close by where I lived on Vasílevsky Óstrov. I'd been there often before, and as I entered the shabby building, the guard waved me past with a bored gesture. I mounted the stairs, and as I opened the door to my friend's room, realized that I'd climbed one story too far. Sitting in front of me on one of the four bunks, dressed only in a demure, but suggestive nightgown, was a girl I'd spoken to once or twice at the University. "How nice of you to drop by," she smiled. "Can I get you some tea?" I accepted the offer, and we sat up together that night around her tea kettle, talking and laughing until four in the morning.

    Alya was a cheerful, impulsive person, with a relaxed sense of humor and a lively charm that I took to instantly. She'd come to Leningrad six years before from a regional capital in the Northern Caucasus. She described her family as large, noisy, and hospitable, with siblings and cousins, uncles, aunts, grandparents, and toddlers in and out of her parents' sprawling villa, surrounded by lush gardens, with the great mountains in the distance. Our mutual attraction was obvious ("we're both from mountainous countries, you know," she would say with a sultry wink), but balanced by an easy camaraderie that turned each flirtatious advance off at a tangent: we might have ended up in bed together, on that or other occasions, but we preferred not to. That first night, it was I who retreated slightly at a point when the electricity between us was crackling. Her response was perfectly matched: a withdrawal clear enough to make any further backtracking on my part unnecessary, but subtle enough for the pleasant tensions between us to persist. After some rather confusing experiences with Russian women, Alya's fluent control and discretion came as a surprise.

    When I visited Dagestan, I thought I recognized this light touch in a marriage dance: the two young bodies, his warrior-like and challenging, hers upright and proud, step closer and closer, so close you think that now they must touch, but they never do; the slowly undulating figures keep a fraction of an inch apart as they follow each other in impeccable synchronization. "Men," Alya told me, "have a hard shell, but they're soft inside. Women are soft on the outside. They haven't got a shell. They just get harder and harder the further in you get. Men think in ideas and absolute norms. Women are masters of the art of cunning (khítrost')."

    Alya's ethnic affiliation was ambiguous. Her father, a Russian engineer who had gone South in the early 50's, had married a woman from one of the mountain tribes. Alya had been brought up in the classical Russian and Soviet tradition, and was as much at home with Pushkin and Tolstoy, with operas and museums, as much in love with Leningrad's white nights, as most Russian girls of her class and age. Nevertheless, when I described the Dagestani dance, her eyes lit up, she shook her hair, and laughed, "Like this, you mean?" – she replicated the woman's movements perfectly. Even then, her command of Russian was flawless, though with a faint exotic lilt. I asked her what she considered her mother tongue. She dropped her stance, growing serious.

    "In school we learned both. But Russian was more important."

    "Do you think that's good or bad?"

    "I don't know... Good, I think."

    "But I thought you people were so proud of your mountain traditions."

    "Yes," she laughed again. "Yes, we are, of course. We're very fond of them too. But our contacts with Russia go way back, and the national traditions are weaker than in Georgia or Armenia."

    "But you still feel that you differ from the Russians?"

    "Oh, definitely. You can always recognize a Russian face. No matter how different Russians are, they still have something in common."



Alya's identity as a "Soviet woman" was a boundary condition around which she played; and her play was part of the vast, continuous aggregate she spoke of as "Soviet society". As anthropologists we are aware that such aggregates are not integrated totalities that exclude all that they do not specifically prescribe. We may think of them as tangled growths, woven out of rippling strings of liminality and rhythm, transitional dips and repetitive plateaus, bodily exploration of nature and bodily rest in the routines of culture and power. Alya's attitudes to the Soviet Union, to Russia, to her mother's people, to women and men, reverberated between confrontation and acceptance, exploration and rest. But her attitudes were not binary, logical oppositions, that aggregated into neatly consistent, discrete "events", "opinions" or "acts". True, she was soon to pass through a violent transitional drama that might be said to have an over-all liminal character, while other periods of her life seemed to have been as predictably rhythmic as a ticking clock. But even the most cataclysmic upheavals (revolutions, war) are compounded of more or less regular rhythmic sequences (why else do soldiers march?); and even the most stable routine includes sub-routines separated by discontinuities, which are liminal, and thus potential "breaking-off points" and "wells" of randomization (what did you think while waiting for the train?). As part, and nothing but a part, of "Soviet reality", Alya's life is subservient to the power inherent in that reality. But Alya is more than a part – she is a living creature, playing reality.

    Alya was not uncritical of her own society: "Yes, everything is not as it should be here. There are problems both here and in the West." But she always insisted (not defensively, but as a matter of honor) that our "systems" were equal. In this she differed markedly from most Russians I knew, who tended to rank themselves either above or below the West. Still, there was much she did not know, she had lived a carefree life, and had never encountered people who had had serious problems with the powers (vlásti) that be.

    Two years later, she was no longer so naive. She was by now a graduate student, far more dependent on her teachers than before – and, as a corollary, more attentive to the power they wielded. When she expressed spontaneous indignation at the unfair treatment accorded a fellow student, her supervisor reprimanded her and continued to hold a grudge, and at her next examination he treated her so roughly that she barely managed to pass at all. It was clear that during the next term she would be lucky not to flunk. This might force her to leave Leningrad, as she would no longer have legitimate business here.

    "What do you think you'll do? Move back home again?"

    "That's what I'm supposed to do. That's where I'll get a job. But we'll see."

    "But would you want to stay?"

    "I've lived here such a long time. I have all my friends here..."

    Alya had "dropped out" of a carefree world into a dark void of peril and injustice. Many informants described this experience: of a curtain being rent, of suddenly seeing through the "lies" of communist pedagogues and protective grandmothers, to the "truth" about Soviet society. I saw this happen several times: light-hearted, optimistic, almost childlike people would plunge into sudden, often disastrous, disillusionment. Alya met the shock with grace. Life had grown very serious, her prospects very bleak. But she held her head high and tried to be loyal to her convictions...



There is play within play within play. Alya's initiation is not dissimilar to those we discussed above, nor does it lack their ritual elaboration. Like them, too, it is rhythmic when seen as part of a multi-generational cycle which "people go through", but as a singularity, an individual punctuation mark in Alya's life, it is a liminal juncture. And a liminal beat is not an a-temporal "discontinuity", subservient to an abstract "social structure" it is part of. It is a string of body-motions occurring in time and space, each of which may be broken down into rhythmic sub-motions (some strictly formalized, as in dance, music or oratory; others looser, as in eating or gossip). These sequences are separated by further liminal beats with indeterminate outcomes, which may again be broken down, and so on indefinitely. The incision cut by power through Alya's life exposes a torn, coruscating surface of living tissue – not a neat, polished, digital divide.

    There is play within play. Action is not a linear force, but a turbulent wave front analogous to the geometrical figures that Bénoit Mandelbrot calls fractals, which exhibit "self-similar organization" on all levels of scale: they contain "pattern within pattern within pattern". This same layered complexity appeared in Vance's case: small-scale fluctuations of rage, as he cooled down after his fight with Janice; larger-scale waves, as he slowly modulated out of the cycle of addiction he was trapped in; and, beyond this, as I later realized – perhaps even his "escape" was part of a longer-term pattern. Friends who had known Vance longer than I, insisted that he had "been through all this" before; and two years later, when I last saw him, he was back in another love-affair, and (seemingly) on his way back into a new phase of addiction (they were having a great time, though; going there in style). In Alya's case also, a liminal drama was enacted, there is a similar "fall from grace". But again, the effect is not as much of discontinuity as of modulation. As with Vance, there is a continuity of action style running through Alya's life. In Vance's case, this style is evoked by the term "perfection". He would search in music, in love, in crack, for an elusive point of brilliance that would lead him out of the daily grind, and in his search we recognize the echo, not only of Horatio Alger's "self-made man", but of F. J. Turner's "frontier society". With Alya, I believe "pride" is the key term: "pride", in the Middle Eastern sense, as a style of play, a game of "challenge and riposte" (Bourdieu). Alya enacts this style of "touch me – touch me not," first within the limitations of a secure environment, later – outside that context – in an environment exposed to the beat of power.





Vance and Alya changed, but self-similarity crosscuts their changes. Anthropologists have attempted to capture this underlying order with such terms as "structure" (Lévi-Strauss), "ethos" (Benedict), "primary process" (Bateson), or habitus (Bourdieu). Each term refers to a shape or style of action, rather than to an intentional content – and is thus intrinsically concerned with bodily aptitudes, practices, and skills. Each term, moreover, implies that any act, no matter how explicitly planned for and tightly focused on utilitarian purposes, has a "depth" of decreasingly conscious and increasingly embodied complexity. Most of what "passed" between myself and Vance or Alya was left unsaid, uninterpreted or ignored by waking consciousness. My relationship to both was perfectly candid in some respects, quite reticent in others, and often we were not even conscious of the reticence we showed. In yet other respects, much of what "passed" could not be said or even made explicit. Alya showing me her dance, or Vance cussing my inability to beat in time to his music allowed me glimpses into their experiential worlds, but I never learned to dance with her or play with him. Nevertheless, these silent worlds were expressed in our interaction, they were part of the style we "noticed" in each other and were attracted by.



Anthropologists have often treated verbalized language as a model of human communication, and our terminologies are spiked with linguistically inspired jargon: rules, norms, symbols, signs, codes, paradigms, syntagms, ideologies, texts, discourses; distinctions (derived from phonetics), roles (entailing scripts), values (implying codification), even classes (deriving from logic). Speech is regarded as the human quality par excellence, writing as the precondition for Civilization. On Ward Goodenough's initiative the term "culture" itself has been redefined as the "cognitive" aspect of society, and hence (if we assume, as is not uncommon, that what is known can be expressed in words), its verbal aspect. "Culture" is often understood as a (Saussurian or Chomskian) "grammar" of action, an a-temporal structure of rules residing outside action itself, or as Giddens puts it: "an absent set of differences, present only in their instantiation". This linguistic turn in anthropology parallels an opposite change in linguistics. Here it is asserted, by such authors as Eleanor Rosch and George Lakoff, that categories of language are derived from prototypes that "grow out of bodily experience and make sense in terms of it," rather than from disembodied "contrast". Prototype theory is here (though perhaps not in other respects) in agreement with the idea of play I have been exploring. As in play, meaning is not outside the act but embodied in it, and since all action-and-communication involves the body, all language may be understood as "body language". Thus, language is not a model of action; action is the model of language.(2) We shall now briefly explore some of the ramifications of this.



An act is not (as a word may seem) a focused or internally consistent event, in which the body's energies converge in an effort to realize a list of specific purposes. The acts performed by Vance or Alya are multivocal and multifunctional, explorative and routine, and as in visual perception, a large halo of peripheral indefiniteness surrounds even the most pronounced purposive center. Action is comparable to a complex, textured wave front, an expanding halo of action-strings of liminality and rhythm, self-similarly repeated on all levels of biological scale. Long-term historical plateaus and dislocations, and everyday routines of exploration and rest weave a rippling, billowing, multidimensional tapestry, and the communicative patterning of action extends beyond this, down to the level of individual tasks and activities, beyond the level of consciously distinguishable acts, into the finest-grained texturing of interaction and communication: the very substance of the communicative media themselves, the deep-learned dithering micro-movements of the body-in-nature.

    When people inter-act, multiple "wave fronts of play" intersect for a while. We might consider these intersections as composite rhythms, interference patterns that may develop into standing waves with a constraining force of their own, which have been described in such terms as effervescence (Durkheim) or communitas (Turner). As Goffman puts it, "Joint spontaneous [or ritual] involvement is a unio mystico, a socialized trance."

    Waking consciousness can monitor this wave front and its standing waves only at specific points, neighboring points may be automated routines or improvised at random: Alya is grace herself in slippers, but totters down the potholed street in the high-heeled shoes she insists on wearing since she's "out with a man". Vance is a flamboyant talker, who once got a carload of people laughing so hard we almost ran off the road, but he comes off as vulgar in conversation with a "cultured" Pole.



The act is not a pure medium, through which (cognitive) "norms" or "decisions" are transported to the (sensual) world, where (after we have made our choice or planned our strategy) it "remains only to act" and reap the consequences. If action is a continuous process, rather than a sequence of bounded "events" that accomplish discrete "purposes", then "planning" is something we do while acting, not prior to and outside the act. The most fatal "decision" of Alya's young life was her complaint on behalf of her co-student. This "act" was not planned or chosen in any meaningful sense of these words. It was not thought through, but a spontaneous response to a dishonorable situation. Even had she considered it beforehand, Alya simply did not know and could not know what she was getting herself into. Quite possibly, she would have reacted as she did even had she known, but at the time, as she told me: "I simply didn't believe that anyone could act like that, in such a vile (pódly) way."

    Alya's act is a probe, not a piece of work. It draws our attention forcefully to the fact that the fate of such a probe is dependent on the actor's perception of the world into which he ejects it. Thus, interaction presupposes the simultaneous application of two very different types of body-nature dynamics: on the one hand action as performance, which originates in the body and is externalized into the environment, on the other hand action as perception, which originates in the environment and is internalized by the body.



When we consider action as perception it is by now abundantly clear that the human body's sensory and nervous systems are not a "neutral lense" (or even a neutrally distorted lense) through which we "observe" the world impartially. They are part of a complex, species-specific, bio-social "membrane" or filtering system, which processes the infinite complexity of nature and transforms it into relatively simple schemata that the mind-body can handle, by selecting, sorting, and sequencing input in specific, pre-patterned ways. When we perceive the world, raw sensory data are put through an exceedingly complex process of compression and rearrangement, only parts of which are culturally determined. Research in neuro-science demonstrates this conclusively. It has been determined that perceptual data are derived from a number of specialized sensor systems: in the case of visual perception, different sets of cells are sensitive to color, outline, movement, brightness, position, orientation etc. The input from each sub-system is processed separately in the brain, and integrated with data from other sub-systems and other sense organs into a coherent and conscious "mental image" only at a late stage of the interpretative process. Prior to this, the mind-body perceives and judges a world of completely different images from those that waking consciousness intercepts: percepts are split into disconnected aspects, each of which is expressed in the mind in its own, untranslatable "language". As an organ of perception, waking consciousness is not even the "end result" of this process. It is one mental function among many and has no "priority" or "centrality" in relation to other functions of the mind-body. Waking consciousness processes schematic and highlighted mappings of parts of the body-nature interface on which attention focuses, but it makes use of only a small part of the body's mental capacity. According to the German physiologist Dietrich Trincker, only about one millionth of the sensory stimuli that enter the brain are ever made conscious; other workers estimate that waking consciousness occupies as little as 10-30 bits per second of the brain's total processessing capacity of at least ten billion bits per second.

    When we turn to action as performance we see a very different picture. Even when waking consciousness monitors an act rigorously, the hard-won precision and clarity of its intentions are lost the moment they are acted out. We cannot act except as total socio-bio-physical beings, and therefore, no matter how focused our consciousness, action always outputs into the world holistically and diffusely, merging seamlessly with the body-nature interface and contributing to it on many levels of complexity. This means that the amount of control that waking consciousness can exert over any act is limited: we never "choose freely" except in a superficial sense. The reason for this is not that action is governed by deterministic laws, but that even the simplest act is far too complex for waking consciousness to grasp. For the person affected by an act (performed by another or himself), the act is always an unfocused and total reality. The actor's intentions may be reflected more or less clearly in various parts of that totality, but the recipient, in principle, has no way of knowing what elements of the perceived act are intended transformations of those intentions, or what transformations have produced them. To him, the act is a holistic reality that may be perceived by the mind in countless ways: because it is natural, not cultural. From the standpoint of the recipient, there is no difference between acts (his own or others') and other sources of sensory input.



This might seem to imply that human communication must be unpredictable and chancy, since the focused interpretation that a person generates on the basis of an observed act may easily have nothing at all in common with the actor's intentions. Indeed, the actor himself may interpret the act very differently as soon as he faces it as an accomplished fact. ("He was horrified by what he had done." "I'm surprised at myself.") Human beings, however, have evolved means of making communication more explicit than this. Verbalized language, for instance, gives the actor the ability to indicate very precisely to his communication partners which specific elements of the act, or of the surrounding world, should be focused on in particular situations. We may refer to this as the indexical function of language. All life-forms use indexing systems of this kind, but human language seems to be unique among such systems in its ability to project composite and flexible "maps" of communicative relevance. Nevertheless, verbalized language is itself nothing but action, a rhythmic wave of bodily motion: it is this that gives language its idiosyncracies, flavor, bias, the power to move our emotions. Language is like music, in that it "paints with sound", generates playful phonetic analogues of natural and mental conditions. I shall refer to this as its simulation function. Indexes are liminal discontinuities that pinpoint positions of focused attention in time and space, and are hence often considered "semantically arbitrary". Simulations, however, are continuous textural rhythms, which model the flow of reality in sound. These functions work together in all linguistic genres from rhetoric to logic: a phonetic-musical simulation is built up, and a pattern of indexes inserted into it to mark focal points of attention:


  I am moved by fancies that are curled
  Around these images, and cling:
  The notion of some infinitely gentle
  Infinitely suffering thing.
  Wipe your hand across your mouth, and laugh;
  The worlds revolve like ancient women
  Gathering fuel in vacant lots.


The flowing, unobtrusive music of assonance, dissonance, rhyme, and rhythm that runs through the first part of this passage is abruptly broken off at the start of the second part by the rasping word "wipe" and the irregular syncopation of the line that follows. We are lulled into a soft, dreamlike, curling and clinging state in the first stanza, and jarred out of it into the harsh light of reality in the concluding lines.



We may now return to the problem of power. As we have seen, the novice participating in the initiation ritual must subordinate his rhythms of play to the play of power that the ritual transmits, and this subordination must take place on all levels simultaneously. While he dances, the novice's body-motions are coupled with the ritual's pulse on a second-to-second basis. By taking part in the dance at all, his play is punctuated by the slower rhythmic movements of the initiation ceremony as a whole; and the ceremony itself is an indexical-liminal slash-mark across the life-cycle of his body. Even the complete multi-generational cycle of initiations is only a single strand in the interwoven fabric of rhythmic-liminal motion that is the total play (the "culture") of the group. The various ritual and non-ritual punctuation sequences that make up this fabric, with their varying beat distributions running at various speeds, tenors, and intensities, constantly impinge on the play of its enactors, contributing to and overlapping with it in complex aggregate textures of rhythm upon rhythm upon rhythm. Some wave fronts of play-patterning that enter into this totality are formalized ritualizations, which perhaps recur only rarely, like the initiations discussed above. Others, like the routines of sleep and waking, eating, productive work, and everyday social etiquette, may repeat on daily, hourly, or second-to-second schedules. But every movement, on every level, must be acted out by human bodies in nature, and every percept is potentially a holistic bodily experience. Their rhythms superimpose themselves upon the rhythms of the body-nature interface, forcing or controlling, delaying, hurrying, suppressing or enhancing its native rhythmicities.

    There is an important distinction to be made, however, between the direct, situational power of these rituals, and the indirect, historical power of complex societies. Situational power is made possible by the innate flexibility of the human body-nature interface, which leaves considerable room for cultural imprinting and modulation. Situational power may deform the body, and will always at least shape it and thus affect its survival parameters. But historical power deforms and shapes the environment, and thus changes the survival parameters of the human collective, and ultimately of the ecosystem itself. Situational power is an aspect of all communication, since any impulse entering the body will always, with its rhythm, interfere with the rhythms of the body, forcing them to form composite standing waves with it. When the same rhythmic patterning is applied to the body repeatedly, its long-term stance or posture may be permanently imprinted with the effects of power, as input permeates ever more finely textured levels of biological organization, causing irreversible changes in the body's internal systems. In the original human societies, many of the effects of situational power were routinely bypassed by appeal to the extreme multivocality of any act. From this perspective, no input is ever the same; every distinct discontinuity is a potential liminal well. But as historical power was established in scattered islands around the globe, society gained the physical means (technologies, architectures, infrastructures) to enforce certain types of repetitive action and repress others. This change implied an increased capability for large-scale social organization, but for the individual the resulting loss of "uncommitted potentiality for change", reduced the flexibility of his responses to power. What used to be an "eternal return" becomes "more of the same”.



One of the most striking effects of this change is the vast increase in the prestige and potency of verbalized language. As power is historicized, so is language, with the introduction of writing, and with the sudden increase in the storage capacities and specialized modalities of human memory. Literacy introduces into language an enhancement of its indexical function and a weakening of simulation that Keith Thomas refers to as the "decline of magic".(3) But the roots of historical power lie not in language, but in the changes brought about by technology in human play. This change involves a dilemma of adaptation. The human body is highly adaptive and responds with great flexibility to a wide variety of circumstances, in unexpected or even clearly dysfunctional ways. In its search for an adequate poise in nature, the body enters liminal states that are similar, from a subjective viewpoint, to contemplation or trance, in which we depart from conventional viewpoints in order to explore the infinite potential of the world. In these states, the body-nature interface is most precisely described as "playful": teasing, testing and caricaturing the organic substrata on which it depends, inventing gods and bogey-men, friends and enemies, humor and rage, deference and demeanor, all of which, potentially and unpredictably, confuse or distort the body's relationship to the world.

    The historization of power might in this perspective be regarded as a "game of trance" that went wrong. A group started to play the game, under exceptional or highly stressful circumstances (e.g. in response to dramatic climatic change), and from that point on the game was locked in place in human history and has inexorably advanced. Bloch has argued that the underlying reason for this is that "frozen labor" has been imprinted in physical transformations of the environment, giving them a value as hereditary property. Like a violinist, drawing his bow across the strings, we "draw the body" across the environment, playing it: harmoniously or with distortion. Thus, history is generated out of frozen time. We "play back" the past, by aligning the body's rhythms with the imprints of history in the world, and thus, in turn, imprinting history on the body, acquiring deep-learned skills and wounds.

    In the original human societies, where rhythms of power were mainly imprinted on the body itself, major transformations of the ecosystem were impractical. In such a system certain types of human play are almost automatically repressed: since you could not resist nature very long or effectively, you had to adapt to it, letting its rhythms impinge on and shape the body's rhythms and the rhythms of the collective. In such societies, Ivan Illich suggests, "life is predicated on the recognition of limits that could not be transgressed, and each culture was the historical expression of a unique celebration of life within an art of suffering that made it possible to celebrate necessities." We see this attitude in ideologies such as the Dreamtime of the Australian aboriginees. The original human societies "played in nature" and the nature-of-their-play derived from intimate bodily knowledge of the larger biological systems on which their life and livelihood depended. In the particular "game of trance" out of which historical power arose, this contact was broken: having shaped the environment (with cities, roads, irrigation systems), human play no longer adapted to nature directly, but to nature’s human transformations, to a fantasy of play that had been materialized by technology. The smaller system (the body) now adapted to the materialized consequences of its own play, rather than to the larger system itself, a tendency that has increased exponentially from the time of the first Mesopotamian city states (a mere 5000 years ago) until our own globalized, post-European, smartphone-totin’, technologically integrated age.



The range of adaptive variation among the original human societies (the ice-age societies human beings inhabited for some 120,000 years of our 130,000-year history) must have been vast: from the war-like to the mystical, from harmonious adaptation to self-destructive dysfunction, from anarchic individualism to mechanical solidarity, from regimented moralism to lax lasciviousness. Any of these playful aberrations might eventually have invented a historization of power in its own unique terms, with quite different characteristics from those we take for granted. But we are trapped within the materializations of a particular fantasy of power, from which we cannot escape, since they have expanded to envelop the entire biosphere.





1       The idea of play that is here explored bears little resemblance to such concepts as games theory or Wittgensteinian language games, the first of which relies heavily on an idea of action as governed by normative or pragmatic "rules", the fulfillment of which may be considered the theory's utilitarian function; the second approach renounces formalism, but replaces it with cognitive relativity, while the idea here is to anchor meaning in the body. On the other hand, the "approach-withdrawal" movement I describe here and in the following has a formal similarity to Freud's fort-da principle (cf. Wilden 1972, chapter IV); but again, the functionality of this principle as used by Freud and others runs counter to my argument.

2      These themes will be more fully treated in later chapters. In the mean time, the reader is invited to contemplate the differences between this argument and the ideas I previously presented (in Nielsen 1987, Chapter 1). At that time, I imagined that Giddens’ formulation was compatible with an idea of action as rhythm.

3      Pictographic languages like Chinese or Egyptian resisted this trend by emphasizing the visual image of the text, as did the Mediaeval European scribes. Various traditions of artistic literary expression may also be seen as attempts to strengthen the simulation function of language. Nevertheless, over the long term, the decline of simulation is noticeable. This development is poorly understood by many anthropologists: with characteristic classical bias, Goody and Watt (1968, p.35) thus describe non-phonetic scripts as more "clumsy and complicated" than phonetic alphabets, because their indexical function is less exact.