A historically panoramic examination of human playfulness as a naturally healthy and politically subversive force.
According to debut author Siegel, the predilection to play is universally distributed throughout the animal kingdom, humans being no exception. Our original experience of play is both animated by wonder and love, a deeply spiritual act not reducible to a rational formula or sense of purposeful utility. However, a child’s unencumbered sense of play is exchanged for a more culturally conditioned version, which encourages a child to rehearse adult roles in anticipation of a life of work and productivity. While that societally governed sense of play is both salutary and necessary, so is the primordial iteration that gets lost. In fact, that first, elementary sense of play promotes social harmony, accepts and appreciates the irrational nature of the world, is inherently uncompetitive and anti-war, and serves as the impetus for authentic artistic expression. The author raises two connected questions about the human inclination to playfulness: Is there a way its primary permutation can be effectively renewed? And if so, can a reformation of society, a mass movement of sorts, be based upon it? In order to answer these queries—both in the affirmative—Siegel furnishes a sweeping and eclectic history of play, focusing on its artistic manifestations. He assesses the birth of impressionism and its passage through Dadaism to surrealism, pranksters like Andy Kaufman and Abbie Hoffman, Beat generation writers and hippie activists, as well as the role of the fool in Shakespeare’s King Lear and the critique of capitalism performed by Banksy.
Siegel’s thesis is philosophically provocative and original. He makes a somewhat paradoxical case for the serious uses of playfulness, especially the political value of its “disruptive” varieties. He’s well-aware that the analytical treatment of playfulness is inherently limited and even potentially counterproductive given its subrational character. Siegel combines intellectual rigor with a bracing optimism—he believes the history of disruptive playfulness provides empirical reasons to believe in its sociopolitical power: “This idea of embracing irrationality through play, of reevaluating the spiritual contribution and the political implications of childhood is neither far-fetched nor without precedent.” However, Siegel’s historical analysis can also be idiosyncratic and insufficiently demonstrated; it’s not at all obvious, nor a matter of scholarly consensus, that Dadaism ultimately withered under the weight of capitalist opposition. In fact, it’s just as possible if not more so that Dadaism perished from its own incoherence. Still, the central difficulty of the work is its insistence on an unyielding separation between genuine artistic creativity and commerce: “The energies of art/play and capitalism ultimately cannot coexist.” The author provides numerous examples to the contrary—many of his artistic revolutionaries were also wildly successful financially. Furthermore, he cites the Burning Man festival as a model for the societal spread of playfulness, but that seems more suitable as a model for the corporate co-optation of it.
A fascinating though ultimately unpersuasive argument for deep societal reform.