“Living (Playful) Process” by Eileen Joy


“No, David Graeber, You Did Not Invent a New Law of Reality, and Yes, Barbara Ehrenreich, That Science Does Exist.”

By Eileen Joy*

1024px-Haeckel_AmphorideaThe Baffler has dedicated their current issue (no. 24) to the subject of play, and in their online blurb of the contents they announce that, in David Graeber’s contribution, “What’s the Point If We Can’t Have Fun?”, Graeber “hopscotches over the robotic universe of contemporary science and winds up inventing a new law of reality” (that would be the “principle of ludic freedom”), and they also tell us that Barbara Ehrenreich’s piece, “A Thing or Two about a Thing or Two, a.k.a. Science,” a sort of companion to Graeber’s essay, “calls for a science that can explain why fun is fun.” The (admittedly) overly-simplified gist of both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces is that anti-ludic rationalism has gripped the halls of Science (and more largely, the Academy) for too long and that a new appreciation of the role of creative (and non-utilitarian) volition and play, in not only human but also nonhuman life, is long overdue in the sciences and social sciences. Their more detailed arguments are intellectually supple and compelling, especially with regard to the point, with which I am in hearty agreement, that play and creative agency need to be taken more seriously, and may even be the reason that the universe exists (or, as a friend of mine Nicola Masciandaro once remarked, “whim may be the reason for anything happening at all”). But Graeber and Ehrenreich also somewhat misrepresent (and under-report) the past and present state of research and inquiry into play, which has been quite vigorous (if not always welcomed by everyone) across multiple disciplines, and therefore they also reinscribe some unfortunate barriers between different fields not only within the sciences (such as, between evolutionary biology and theoretical physics) but also between science and other disciplines (such as, between theoretical physics and philosophy of mind, or between cybernetics and poetry, and so on). They also do not seem to be aware of how many researchers in the humanities, partly under the influence of scientific theories having to do with subjects such as autopoeisis and emergence and plasticity, are quite keen on the question of play and new (not always human) forms of agential realism — the videogame theory and alien phenomenology of Ian Bogost being only one prominent recent example (and I mention him because he shares space with Graeber and Ehrenreich in this issue of The Baffler).


It goes without saying, of course, that different fields may hew to certain founding principles and methodologies that make sharp disagreements between fields about how the world works unavoidable and we should welcome such dissensus as critical to moving knowledge forward. Real beliefs and material outcomes are at stake, and I can well understand why David Graeber, an anarchist activist and one of the founding members of the Occupy movement (for which I admire him greatly, I might add), would care about the fight between neo-Darwinists who believe the universe is driven by mechanistically-determined competition and the other (more radical) evolutionary biologists who see the world as emerging from various forms of cooperation and not always self-serving altruism. But as the University, and especially its more speculative disciplines — such as those found within the humanities, but also in the more theoretical sciences — have come under severe renewed threats in recent years, it may be that the time has also come for uncovering and also fostering unlikely disciplinary collaborations and alliances that would be aimed at enabling more of that play of ideas so critical as well to moving knowledge forward. It is thus somewhat dismaying that the depictions of different academic fields in both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces, although motivated by an admirable desire to promote the role of play in human and other existence, devolve into clichéd caricature. So, for example, for Graeber, scientists can only ever be “rationalists” who subject all of their observations to means-end calculations, and for Ehrenreich, Western science has traditionally “been on a mission to crush all forms of agency” due to its faith in “deterministic mechanisms.” While both Graeber and Ehrenreich allow that there have been cracks in this edifice of Science (with a capital “S”), the edifice somehow remains.

This subject is somewhat personal for me, as what I will call the problematic of play, enjoyment and affective intellectual life (and also the ways in which many in the Academy are unfortunately intent on drawing hard lines between so-called “intellect” and “emotion,” between “thinking” and “feeling,” between “serious” and “not-as-serious” research) has long concerned me and those who work alongside me in the BABEL Working Group (ww.babelworkinggroup.org), a collective of humanists and others interested in collaborative play and experimentation across disciplines. We believe that the University serves as one of the last refuges and agoras of truly free modes of inquiry (and feeling), with a special emphasis on that “freedom” that Graeber also believes may be rooted in play and which is of no little consequence for understanding and enacting aliveness, self-consciousness, and ethical life. In general, as both Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s pieces indicate, various forms of anti-ludic “rationalism” have long dominated scientific thinking and research, and I would add that they have even dominated more humanistic-artistic fields, such as literary and cultural studies, that you would think would be more open to playful approaches (and we can probably blame that on the various ways in which the American university initially shaped itself on some bad misunderstandings of 19th-century German Wissenschaft).

I thus admire Graeber’s and Ehrenreich’s calls for a reconsideration of the idea that the will to play might form the basis of our physical world (from electrons all the way to worms and elephants and beyond), and that play might also be the very non-mechanistic and pleasurably (if also chaotically) volitional means by which anything is possible at all. I also applaud Graeber’s insistence, especially, that ludic complexity can be extended to all levels of matter, including the atoms that make up the tables upon which we write, the ants that form colonies, the squirrels that wrestle with each other, and so on. But while Graeber and Ehrenreich credit and praise the physicists (and a few naturalists and philosophers) for being the most “receptive” to an understanding of the universe, in all of its human and non-human aspects, as inherently playful, they also lament the fact (as noted above) that researchers in scientific and social-scientific fields have for the most part been overly wedded to means-end (and other rational-mechanistic) explanations of how the universe works and therefore fail to notice other volitional and random creative forces at work in the world. As a result, they do not paint the most accurate (or fair) picture of what has been going on, with regard to what Graeber calls the “principle of ludic freedom,” in lots of fields, from evolutionary biology to ethology to psychology to theory of mind to political philosophy to cultural studies and beyond (and for much longer than just the past ten or so years).


As far back as 1891, the naturalist and biologist Alfred Russel Wallace, a contemporary of Darwin’s who contributed important insights to evolutionary theories developing at that time, argued against the more grim “struggle for existence” picture of evolution, insisting instead that the primary impetus behind most species’ will to survive was to maximize their enjoyment of simply being alive. In the 1960s the pioneering microbiologist Lynn Margulis began formulating her endosymbiotic theories which argued for the existence of symbiotic and mutually cooperative (non-competitive) relationships at the non-cognitive cellular level, and this is also when psychologist Abraham Maslow was developing his theory of “peak experiences” in order to show how random and unpredictable moments of delirious (and non-rational) joy are conducive to (and also outcomes of) creativity and well-being. The French sociologist and surrealist Roger Caillois wrote multiple books in the 1960s exploring useless play and creativity not only in animal species but also in stones, and many ethologists from the 1970s onwards — such as David P. Barash, Barbara J. King, and Frans de Waal, among others — have explored the deep (non-calculable) emotional and creative life of animals. We have also had since the 1960s and 1970s figures such as psychobiologist and neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and biochemist Jesper Hoffmeyer who have helped to develop whole new fields — affective neurosciences and biosemiotics, respectively — that have shown the ways in which expressive, artistic, and appetitive (non-survival-driven) impulses, emotions and modes of communication shape much of human, animal and other life.

More recently, as Graeber hints at (but does not elaborate upon), there has also been a serious revival of interest in what the political philosopher Jane Bennett calls the “vibrant” and creative materialism of things, and many humanities and social science disciplines have recently been energized (with no little help from science disciplines) by a turn to the nonhuman and to critical examinations of the aliveness and agency of animals, objects, environments, and other nonhuman forces and propensities, all enmeshed with humans in what the philosopher of science Bruno Latour calls actor-networks and what philosopher of mind Andy Clark terms distributed cognition. That life may be a pleasure whose only end is more pleasure (and more life for its own sake!), and that this pleasure and the agencies that seek it might extend way beyond the human, and the important insights this state of affairs may bring to matters of ethical life, general well-being, improvements in healthcare, progressive political progress and social change, environmental stewardship, and the like have been well explored in many fields and for a long time, although with Graeber I’ll admit that there are many in the University today for whom this is an “intellectual scandal.” But it isn’t so much the faculty-researchers who are resistant to these important insights anymore, in either the humanities, social sciences, or the sciences, as it is the frighteningly increasing ranks of managerial-technocrat university administrators who increasingly want specialized fields within the University to justify their existence according to business-inspired protocols of efficiency and “strategic outcomes,” thus dangerously undermining the speculative inquiry and experimental play that has been so fundamental, historically, to the mission of the University.

It is unfortunate, then, that Graeber and Ehrenreich do not take note of much recent cross-disciplinary work that affirms and exemplifies in great detail a world that is anything but mechanistic, over-determined, and robotic, nor of work in areas such as robotics and artificial intelligence that ascribes to these entities more freedom and creativity than has previously been imagined by many. Again, the key here is not to inscribe too hard of a line between disciplines traditionally understood to not “play well” together (e.g., between computing and poetics), so that different and more progressive modes of knowing and being might become possible. The idea would be to not demand that the sciences get more humanistic or that the humanities get more scientistic, but that we somehow better recognize all of the ways in which both the sciences and the humanities have always been exemplifying each other’s insights, albeit in different landscapes and under different lights. Or to put it more poetically by way of Yeats, “There is another world, but it is in this one.” This, too, is a matter of “play” (how the humanities and sciences might better play with each other while also allowing that the other discipline has its own particular, and valuable, ways of understanding and representing a shared world), and I believe that one recent book, from which I culled much of my survey of multi-disciplinary work on play and creativity sketched above, L.O. Aranye Fradenburg’s Staying Alive: A Survival Manual for the Liberal Arts, points one important way forward in this regard (full disclosure: I am the editor and publisher of Staying Alive).

Fradenburg’s book goes to great lengths to provide a sweeping picture of the ways in which multiple disciplines in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences have long been affirming (from different routes) that it is play, and not necessity, that is the mother of invention. Fradenburg, a medievalist, psychologist, and public university advocate who teaches at the University of California-Santa Barbara (where the institution of higher education has been under concerted assault for some time now), makes a compelling case in her book for new humanistic-scientific paradigms based on holistic and ecological approaches to knowledge-making rooted in the idea (exemplified in much scientific research) that “Nature always exceeds itself in its expressivity,” and therefore creative (and not always utilitarian nor self-serving) artfulness is necessary for adaptation and innovation, for forging rich and varied relationships with other minds, bodies and things, and thus for, not just surviving, but thriving in this world. Fradenuburg’s entire oeuvre, in fact, whether she is writing about medieval literature or neuroplasticity, has long been concerned with exemplifying what Graeber believes has been the overlooked insight of early naturalists such as Peter Kropotkin — that a chief aim of human and other life would appear to be engaging in excessive acts of creative expression designed to maximize sociability with others, even in the face of one’s own possible destruction for doing so.

Staying Alive is extraordinary for the ways in which it brings together evolutionary biology, ethology, psychology, neuroscience, cultural anthropology, medicine, cognitive studies, and literary-historical studies in order to map a profound paradigm shift that, in Fradenburg’s words, “affirms the creativity inherent in matter, for which chaos, drift, causal parity and contingency are just as significant as codes, templates and five-year-plans.”  Demonstrating how the inextricable knot of life, space, time (experience/memory), and creative self-expression — “the tight bond between living process and the arts” — is equally vital and present in cells, snails, honeybees, birds, persons, and so on, Fradenburg’s book makes a brilliant case for new and mutually sustaining relationships between the sciences, social sciences, and the humanities at a time when many university administrators would like to jettison the humanities and more speculative sciences in favor of curricula focused on engineering, math (computing), technology and the management of everything, as a result of which many universities are currently divided against themselves and free inquiry (and thus, the free range of the play of all ideas in and across all fields) is currently under attack. Fradenburg’s book offers a powerful polemic against the current managerial structure of the university, where faculty ranks are shrinking and posts for administrators are on the rise, and it also provides a rich variety of humanistic and social-scientific tools and strategies for conducting more mindfully (and pleasurably) artful lives under (or in spite of) the dark aegis of “the profound deprivation and constraint that putatively laissez-faire capitalism of the twenty-first century sort has in mind for us and our fellow creatures” — a point with which I feel certain Graeber, as the author of Debt: The First 5,000 Years, would be in hearty agreement.

And thus it turns out that play is somewhat of a deadly serious matter in our present moment, and it requires all of the University’s disciplines working together to make the case that we can’t live, nor thrive, without it. This has something to do as well with crafting new forms of resistance to the transnational, neoliberal, capitalist regimes which seem hellbent on turning our dreams and other forms of creative volition into commodities in the space of a nanosecond, and where our every move is surveyed, digitized, and sold as data to whoever wants to purchase the information necessary to plot our moves in advance of our arrival at desires we no longer own. Play, for all of its pleasures and enjoyments, therefore treads in dangerous territories — we can be made slaves to play (cast as addictions) we do not invent nor own, but we can also use play as a tactical (and even hacktivist) maneuver to fight the status quo of what social theorists such as Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck, and Anthony Giddens have termed our liquid, runaway, risk modernity, where the individual, in Bauman’s words, is “reshaped after the pattern of the electronic mole . . . a plug on castors, scuffling around in a desperate search for electrical sockets to plug into.” And if we don’t take up this challenge, we might just end up in the futuristic New York City of Jennifer Egan’s brilliant novel A Visit from the Goon Squad, in which babies drive the leading edge of consumer culture with specially-fitted handsets and touchscreens and audiences at rock concerts have their musical tastes and enjoyment manipulated by persons hired to pretend to be “enthusiasts” on Twitter and other social media. Or maybe that’s the world we live in now.

*Eileen A. Joy, Director
BABEL Working Group

Director, punctum books