“it is totally white and gold” – Memes, attention policing and play

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/27/2015

#TheDress and the Rise of Attention-Policing

This is a line of logic that will be familiar from most any Meme Event—the logic that says, basically, “don’t look at that; that is unimportant.” It’s attention-policing, and it’s reminiscent of so many other strains of rhetorical legislation that play out in online conversations: You can’t say that. You can’t talk about that. GUYS, the attention-policer usually begins. How can you be talking about a dress/a leg/a pair of llamas/a dancing neoprene shark when climate change/net neutrality/marriage equality/ISIS/China/North Korea is going on?

The world, to be sure, is a complicated and often tragic and often deeply unfair place. It contains famines and genocides and war, births and deaths, Katy Perry and Björk, Big Macs and kale and Bloomin’ Onions, privilege and the lack of it, llamas that are caged and llamas that are free. And we humans—animals who are striving to be so much more—have a big say in the balance between the good and the bad. We should not be glib about any of that. Nor should we lose sight of the fact that, if you find yourself with the ability to use the most transformational communications platform the world has ever known to engage in debates about the color of a dress being sold on Amazon dot com, you are, fundamentally, extremely privileged. And thus in a better position than most to make the world better. Attention is a valuable thing; we have an obligation be selective about where we direct it.

And yet. The problem with attention-policing—besides the fact that it tends to be accompanied by humorlessness and marmery, and besides the other fact that it serves mostly to amplify the ego of the person doing the policing—is that it undermines the value of Internet memes themselves. Those memes, whether they involve #thedress or #llamadrama or #leftshark or #whathaveyou, are culturally lubricating. They create, and reinforce, the imagined community. Last night, we needed each other—not just to share and joke and laugh, but also to prove to ourselves that we weren’t going completely crazy. “TELL ME WHAT COLOR THIS DRESS IS,” I texted a friend. “OKAY, PHEW,” I texted again, when he saw it as white-and-gold. I also, on the other hand, mock-disowned a significant percentage of the people I love in a haze of #whiteandgold partisanship—but even that kind of faux-fighting has its value. Theorists of play, from Huizinga to Piaget, have pointed out how powerful the infrastructures of games can be. They allow us to explore ideas and bond in a mutually-agreed-upon environment. Jane McGonigal, the game designer and theorist, suggests that the alternate universes provided by video games allow us to think in terms of collaboration and problem-solving. Games’ constraints, she argues, are actually empowering.

And what are memes if not games? They are small; they are low-stakes; they are often silly. (Sorry, #llamadrama.) But they are also communal. They invite us to participate, to adapt, to joke, to create something together, under the auspices of the same basic rules. That is not a small thing. That is, in fact, a huge thing—particularly when it comes to the very concerns the attention police like to remind us of. If we have any hope of solving the world’s most systemic and sweeping problems, we will have to come together. Inequality, climate change, injustices both enormous and less so … these will require cooperative action. They will require us to collaborate and compromise and value diversity. The dress makes a pretty good metaphor for all that. Also, it is totally white and gold.

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Scott Stroud’s “John Dewey and the Artful Life: Pragmatism, Aesthetics, and Morality” – Chapter Six

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/04/2015

…how can we render more of life’s experiences aesthetic or artful?

[Dewey]”Habit does not preclude the use of thought, but it determines the channels in which it operates. Thinking is secreted in the interstices of habits. The sailor, miner, fisherman and farmer think, but their thoughts fall within the framework of accustomed occupations and relationships…Thinking itself becomes habitual along certain lines.”

…certain orientations that a subject can take may be better than others in terms of their adaptive value to the environment (including social environments) and their value in terms of the quality of a subject’s experience, and second, individuals can work to improve their experience by changing their orientations toward the world, self, and others.

…the orientation that harms the pleasure and effectiveness of present action is that of **attachment** to and **fixation** on the (remote) object’s of one’s desire…happiness always occupies a present…

[Dewey] “We have insisted that happiness, reasonableness, virtue, perfecting, are on the contrary parts of the present significance of present action. Memory of the past, observation of the present, foresight of the future are indispensable. But they are indispensable **to** a present liberation, an enriching growth of action. Happiness is fundamental in morals only because happiness is not something to be sought for, but is something now attained, even in the midst of pain and trouble, whenever recognition of our ties with nature and with fellow-men releases and informs our action…”

[Dewey] “…to be playful and serious at the same time is possible, and it defines the ideal mental condition. Absence of dogmatism and prejudice, presence of intellectual curiosity and flexibility, are manifest in the free play of mind upon a topic. To give the mind this free play is not to encourage toying with a subject, but is to be interested in the unfolding of a subject on its own account, apart from its subservience to a preconceived belief or habitual aim. Mental play is open-mindedness, faith in the power of thought to preserve its own integrity without external supports and arbitrary restrictions. Hence free mental play involves seriousness, the earnest following of the development of the subject-matter. It is incompatible with carelessness or flippancy, for it exacts accurate noting of every result reached in order that every conclusion may be put to further use.”

[Dewey] “To live in the present is compatible with condensation of far-reaching meanings in the present. Such enrichment of the present for its own sake is the just heritage of childhood and the best insurer of future growth.”

…the rendering of life as the “supreme art.”…this artistic approach to life requiring [Dewey]”fineness of touch; skill and thoroughness of workmanship; susceptible response and delicate adjustment to a situation apart from reflective analysis; instinctive perception of the proper harmonies of act and act, of man and man.” Life, when done right and with the sort of approach that would best result in that quality of experience called “growth,” would be done with this artistry of touch and attention to the very material that make up our desire and our interactions with others.

[Dewey] “…we have the attitude typical of the artist, an attitude that may be displayed in all activities, even though they are not conventionally designated ‘arts'”

“no bread without bakeries and no sex without brothels” – more on why art “workers” have it so wrong

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 10/20/2014

Smokestack Lightning – Bob Black

…Steele says I am “out of my depth” in economics, oblivious to my vantage point exterior and ( if all goes well) posterior to the dismal science of scarcity. I never dip into that malarial pool, not at any depth– I drain it. I am not playing Steele’s capitalist game, I am proposing a new game. I am not a bad economist, for I am not an economist at all. Freedom ends where economics begins. Human life was originally pre-economic; I have tried to explore whether it could become post-economic, that is to say, free. The greatest obstacle, it seems to me — and Steele never does overtly disagree — is the institution of work. Especially, I think, in its industrial mode. Like most libertarians, Steele so far prefers industry to liberty that even to pose the problem of work as a problem of liberty throws a scare into him.

Elsewhere in the title essay I offer an abbreviated definition of work as “forced labor,” as “compulsory production.” Predictably a libertarian like Steele contends that the economic carrot is not coercive as is the political stick. I didn’t argue against this unreasonable opinion there because only libertarians and economists hold it and there are not enough of them to justify cluttering up the majestic breadth and sweep of my argument with too many asides…A libertarian or anybody else who can’t understand what I’m saying is either playing dumb or he really is…Only miseducated intellectuals ever have any trouble puzzling out what’s wrong with work.

Work is by definition productive and by definition compulsory (in my sense, which embraces toil without which one is denied the means of survival, in our society most often but not always wage labor). Play is by definition intrinsically gratifying and by definition voluntary. Play is not by definition either productive or unproductive, although it has been wrongly defined by Huizinga and de Kovens among others as necessarily inconsequential. It does not have to be. Whether play has consequences (something that continues when the play is over) depends on what is at stake. Does poker cease to be play if you bet on the outcome? Maybe yes — but maybe no.

My proposal is to combine the best part (in fact, the only good part) of work — the production of use-values — with the best of play, which I take to be every aspect of play, its freedom and its fun, its voluntariness and its intrinsic gratification, shorn of the Calvinist connotations of frivolity and “self-indulgence” which the masters of work, echoed by the likes of Johan Huizinga and David Ramsey Steele, have labored to attach to free play. Is this so hard to understand? If productive play is possible, so too is the abolition of work.

A job, any job — an exclusive productive assignment — is, as “Abolition” makes clear, an aggravated condition of work; almost always it stultifies the plurality of our potential powers. Even activities with some inherent satisfaction as freely chosen pastimes lose much of their ludic kick when reduced to jobs, to supervised, timed, exclusive occupations worked in return for enough money to live on. Jobs are the worst kind of work and the first which must be deranged

I have never denied the need for what the economists call production, I have called for its ruthless auditing (how much of this production is worth suffering to produce?) and for the transformation of what seems needful into productive play,…Productive play. Plenty of unproductive play, too, I hope — in fact ideally an arrangement in which there is no point in keeping track of which is which — but play as paradigmatic. Productive play. Activities which are, for the time and the circumstances and the individuals engaged in them, intrinsically gratifying play yet which, in their totality, produce the means of life for all. The most necessary functions such as those of the “primary sector” (food production) already have their ludic counterparts in hunting and gardening, in _hobbies_. Not only are my categories coherent, they are already operative in every society. Happily not so may people are so economically sophisticated they cannot understand me.

If Steele really believes that there can be no bread without bakeries and no sex without brothels, I pity him.

What I espouse is something that money cannot buy, a new way of life. The abolition of work is beyond bargaining since it implies the abolition of bosses to bargain with.

…”The Abolition of Breathing” (what a sense of humor this guy has!) is, its hamhandedness aside, an especially maladroit move by a libertarian. I am in favor of breathing; as Ed Lawrence has written of me, “His favorite weapon is the penknife, and when he goes for the throat, breathe easy, the usual result is a tracheotomy of inspiration.”

As it happens there is light to be shed on the libertarian position on breathing. Ayn Rand is always inspirational and often oracular for libertarians. A strident atheist and vehement rationalist — she felt in fact that she and three or four of her disciples were the only really rational people there were — Rand remarked that she worshipped smokestacks. For her, as for Lyndon LaRouche, they not only stood for, they were the epitome of human accomplishment. She must have meant it since she was something of a human smokestack herself; she was a chain smoker, as were the other rationals in her entourage. In the end she abolished her own breathing: she died of lung cancer. Now if Sir David Ramsey-Steele is concerned about breathing he should remonstrate, not with me but with the owners of the smokestacks I’d like to shut down. Like Rand I’m an atheist (albeit with pagan tendencies) but I worship nothing –and I’d even rather worship God than smokestacks.

“Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’? Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either?”

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/25/2013

Work Avoidance: The Everyday Life of Marcel Duchamp’s Readymades – Helen Molesworth

[There are a host of problems with this piece –

A sloppy conflation of work, labor, and effort which leads to an incomplete analysis (isn’t the representation of work as work that Molesworth describes generating from Taylorism part of what she herself engages in with regard to so called domestic labor/maintenance work? Isn’t she ceding too much to the object of her critique (by accepting the very basis of its representation)?

A little more fleshing out of laziness, leisure, and idleness would be nice and perhaps adding in slacking which has, to my mind, even more relevance with regard to a cultural point of view.

Duchamp, of course, serves her ends a little too neatly with regard to the impossibility of doing nothing. In order to validate Barthes she preordains failure at a “complete cessation of artistic activity,” but this might have been true for Duchamp, it needn’t be true for everyone (this could simply be a misreading of what she is claiming of course). There are less tidy examples of quitting art if Molesworth cared to look…

And why is being “romantic” so terrible?

Despite some of these problems, this piece is still “useful.” Nice “work,”]

These photographs provide us with a context to view the readymades, but one characterized by blurred boundaries. The home, traditionally conceived of as a space of rest, is here crossed with the studio, historically understood as the primary site of artistic work. Adding to this confusion is yet another smudged edge, because work (making art in the studio) and leisure (not working, which takes place at home, or art making as a form of leisure) are brought into extreme proximity. The lack of a hard-and-fast divide between work and leisure is emphasized by these images of functional maintenance objects-objects designed to aid in the cleaning and tidying up of places and people-rendered deliberately dysfunctional. Duchamp’s ambivalence toward work did not only relate to artistic production, but he resisted the labor of housework as well.

In his critique of the everyday, Lefebvre sought not simply “entertainment” or “relaxation” but the articulation of different forms of knowledge, knowledge that could aid in the potential and/or intermittent process of “disalienation.” It is not in leisure as such where a critique of capitalism is to be found. Rather, a critique may emerge in those moments when the relations between elements of the everyday are made evident or challenged. Duchamp’s presentation and arrangement of the readymades exhibit a desire to foil the functionality of these objects, whose usefulness resides in their ability to aid domestic and maintenance labor. Yet in foiling work, the readymades do not offer leisure as work’s simple antithesis (nor do they offer art as pure leisure). Instead, their placement in the home/studio tangles the categories of both work and leisure. This presentation of nonwork and leisure has a social and historical context larger than Duchamp’s studio, for Duchamp’s refusal of work (both maintenance and traditional means of artistic labor) happened alongside one of the most profound shifts in twentieth-century conceptions of work: Taylorism. Just as the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio have not been adequately theorized, the sociohistorical conditions within which the readymades came into being in New York are absent from much Duchamp literature.8 As Duchamp’s work of this period appears concerned with the terms of work, an examination of the contemporaneous shift in the practice, conception, and representation of work seems necessary.9

In Bodies and Machines, the literary critic Mark Seltzer argues that Taylorism not only altered the work process (by making it more “efficient”) but also invented new forms of work. He contends that “the real innovation of Taylorization becomes visible in the incorporation of the representation of the work process into the work process itself–or, better, the incorporation of the representation of the work process as the work process itself.”20 The representation of labor–graphs, flow charts–became a form of labor in and of itself, with manual laborers represented by their newly established managers. We can see clearly the irony of a Taylorized household, as women were asked to represent, manage, and alter their own manual labor.

… By stymieing the “work” of looking at art, Duchamp transformed the gallery into a version of his mazelike studio, a place where humor and play were encouraged-work discouraged. In both instances Duchamp represented forms of labor (or alternately leisure), be they making or looking at art, but he did so by disallowing such labors and/or leisures to take place.

We have already seen the confusion between the spaces of work and leisure in the photographs of the readymades in Duchamp’s studio. We can also see that the arrangements of the readymades interject an element of play among a set of otherwise fairly banal functional objects. Additionally, the objects blur the boundaries between home and work (typewriter cover, comb, shovel) in that their functions are all bound to the labor of maintenance, a stratum of labor structural both to the space of the home and more traditionally conceived work spaces. Not only has Duchamp blurred the traditional boundaries of work and leisure in the studio, but the readymades are functional objects rendered playful through their humorous appeal to slapstick.

While Marxism offers us the most sophisticated theoretical account of labor, it has also concerned itself with work’s dialectical other, play or leisure. For many Marxist thinkers play has an idealistic, almost utopian dimension, in that it is posited to exist outside the rules and regulations of everyday life. Herbert Marcuse has focused more of his philosophical energies on play than his Marxist contemporaries. He writes that play is a dimension of freedom, a “self-distraction, relaxing oneself, forgetting oneself and recuperating oneself.”27 If for Marcuse play is a dimension of freedom, then he enables play to serve as a critique of society, because of its position outside the conventions of the everyday. One hesitates to instrumentalize play in this way, turning it into a philosophical lever in the service of some utopian vision, but in Duchamp’s slapstick-infused readymades, the idea and the actuality of play offer possibilities for examining the tangled knot of work and leisure in everyday life.

In 1913 Duchamp jotted a note to himself: “Can one make works which are not works of ‘art’?” Can one make something that has no function, that performs no work, that is not beholden to a purpose, even that of art? Something not beholden to leisure either? In such a formulation, art and play exist in an analogously tenuous realm of (im)possibility. Marcuse states it thus: “On the whole play is necessarily related to an Other which is its source and goal, and this Other is already preconceived as labor.”28 But, if play can only be seen in relation to work, and it is seen as the lesser component of this dialectic in that play is enabled or made possible by work (“its source and goal”), then play, in its officially sanctioned role as nonwork, becomes a form of work. (One need only think of the regimentation of “the weekend” or each summer’s obligatory Disney movie.) Lefebvre argues that one ramification of this interdependence between labor and play is that “there can be alienation in leisure just as in work.”29 Duchamp attempted to use play, in the form of slapstick, not as a reprieve from work but as a means to stop work. This is where play’s potential utopian or critical dimension (a utopia free from labor and a critique of capitalism’s dependence on alienated labor for profit) can be seen most fully.

Lefebvre observes that “there is a certain obscurity in the very concept of everyday life.” He asks, “Where is it to be found? In work or in leisure? In family life and in moments ‘lived’ outside of culture?”35 He suggests that family life has become separate from productive life and that leisure has become as fragmented as labor. Ultimately, he concludes that the three constitutive elements of the everyday-work, private life, and leisure-have become discrete, alienated from one another. Yet Duchamp attempts, through humor and slapstick, to hold these three elements together. The readymades show that these categories are not discrete in experience but rather in ideology, for Duchamp’s practice presents domestic or private life as neither outside nor separate from the category of work. He uses leisure, in the form of slapstick and play, to expose domestic space as filled with work (be it maintenance work or art work) and in turn transforms that work into leisure or play. In the end, the readymades propose a space filled with neither work nor leisure; instead, they offer a kind of laziness. Characteristic of the readymades’ complex relation to both work and leisure, laziness operates as a third term, triangulating work and leisure, offering a criticism of both.

Duchamp’s laziness was the subject of many of his contemporaries’ responses to visiting his studio. Robert Lebel described Duchamp’s studio as “a large room with a bathtub in the center which Duchamp used for his frequent ablutions, and a rope an arm’s length away which allowed him to open the door without getting up.”36 Georgia O’Keeffe, reminiscing about meeting Duchamp in his New York studio, recalled one of his domestic work stoppages: “it seems there was a lot of something else in the middle of the room and the dust everywhere was so thick that it was hard to believe. I was so upset over the dusty place that the next day I wanted to go over and clean it up.”37 This refusal to clean was memorialized in Dust Breeding (1920), a section of the Large Glass photographed by Man Ray after it had accumulated several months’ worth of dust. But nowhere is Duchamp’s laziness more evident than in the readymades, where he produced art with the least effort possible–buying it already made. For Taylor, Duchamp’s dabblings with play and laziness- his experiments with not working-had a name: Duchamp was soldiering.

Taylor described soldiering as “under working, that is, deliberately working slowly so as to avoid doing a full day’s work.”38 For Taylor soldiering had two causes: first, the “natural instinct and tendency of men to take it easy”; and second (considered to be more dangerous), “intricate second thought and reasoning caused by their relations with other men.” Taylor called this “systematic soldiering.”39 Workers have two modes of foiling the factory: laziness exhibited in the form of individual soldiering and organized resistance in the form of strikes. Taylorism proposed to eliminate both. Striking and soldiering are extremely different critiques of work, one organized, systematic, and social; the other a private rebellion (refusing to dust). But in maintenance work in the home there can be no strike. Duchamp’s readymades operate more closely to the second form of soldiering; they are not a strike per se, so much as they are a work slowdown. They temporarily stop or stall activities such as cleaning and tidying by turning housework into slapstick. Likewise, the studio as a place where art is made is suffused with a kind of laziness.

Laziness is mostly figured as a parasitical form of work avoidance. It runs the risk of being aristocratic (not working because others work for you) or primitivist (native peoples as unfettered by the work ethic). There are two theoretical accounts of laziness as a philosophical position, and both maintain a similar utopian dimension to the previous discussion of the function or structure of play. Paul Lafargue and Roland Barthes argue that laziness is an attempt to completely escape the logic of work. They do not offer leisure as the antidote to work, but laziness as the refusal of work.

Lafargue, a Cuban-born ex-medical student, wrote the radical pamphlet “The Right to Be Lazy” in i88o-a tirade against work that infuriated his father-in law, Karl Marx.40 Originally printed in French, the tract was translated into English and published in the United States in 1917 (the same year Duchamp purchased the urinal that would become Fountain). Lafargue’s polemic against “progress” belongs to the primitivist side of laziness, extolling unindustrialized native peoples who do not toil for a capitalist exploiter. Lafargue writes: “It [the proletariat] must return to its natural instincts, it must proclaim the Rights of Laziness, a thousand times more noble and sacred than the anemic Rights of Man concocted by the metaphysical lawyers of the bourgeois revolution.”41 Lafargue sees the advent of industrial production as enabling time for leisure, as opposed to the increased profits envisioned by Taylorism. But he never posits that “free time” should be used for “productive” or “creative” forms of leisure. Instead, he insists on feasting and sleeping as the “Rights of Man.”42 The most indelible image from the tract remains a quotation that perversely describes Duchamp’s infamous decision to give up art for chess, his relinquishing of a working life as an artist for the life of a game player: “Jehovah, the bearded and angry god, gave his worshippers the supreme example of ideal laziness; after six days of work, he rests for eternity.”43

In fact, Duchamp never stopped making art. He designed magazine covers, made the Boîte-en-valise, and, ultimately, worked for twenty years on Étant Donnés (1946-66). The problem exposed by the “untruth” of the abandonment is how terribly difficult it is not to work. Roland Barthes addresses this point in a short interview entitled “Dare to Be Lazy.” Barthes describes two forms of laziness, one born of the struggle to get something done, laziness as procrastination from work, or “marinating” in order to work. Barthes says: “Obviously, this shameful laziness doesn’t take the form of ‘not doing anything,’ which is the glorious and philosophical form of laziness.”44 The philosophical form is precisely what is at issue. Barthes asks, “Have you ever noticed that everyone always talks about the right to leisure activities but never about a right to idleness? I even wonder if there is such a thing as doing nothing in the modern Western world.”45 Yet Barthes realized the potential nihilism in the concept of doing nothing. For laziness, he notes, is a problem for the subject: “In a situation of idleness the subject is almost dispossessed of his consistency as a subject. He is decentered, unable even to say ‘I.’ That would be true idleness. To be able, at certain moments, to no longer have to say ‘I.'”46

Duchamp came closer to doing nothing than most artists. But he was lucky. Generously supported by his patrons Louise and Walter Arensberg, who paid his rent and living expenses in exchange for artworks, and hired by the wealthy Stettheimer sisters as their French tutor-although since they had been raised in France, all three sisters were completely fluent and obviously needed no tutor-Duchamp largely managed to avoid working.47 He lived an aristocratic leisurely life, his idleness made possible through the wealth of others and a frugal life-style. Yet while Duchamp may have courted laziness, and let laziness infuse his art practice, ultimately the complete cessation of artistic activity was impossible. Impossible, as Barthes suggests, for it would mean an abandonment of the first person pronoun.

Duchamp’s readymades are an attempt to think outside the logic of work, a logic in which “the goal of labor is the full reality of human existence.”48 Not to work-to be lazy-is then to deny the full reality of human existence, to deny the category of “I,” at least the form familiar to bourgeois capitalism. Duchamp experimented with this idea by evoking the involuntary laughter within which the “I” is no longer central, and by transforming his studio, a place of work, into a site of play. The studio became a place where he could be, in Bergson’s term, “absentminded” or, in Marcuse’s, “self-distracted.” This questioning of the “I” runs throughout Duchamp’s work. After all, this is an oeuvre marked by a proliferation of aliases; a deliberate use of linguistic shifters; an emphasis on language and the self as both shared and constructed49), and a dismantling of perspectival vision (with its creation of a fixed subject), all concerns that point toward a consistent questioning of the category of “I.” Duchamp toyed and played with the possibility of nonwork-the right to laziness-the ability not to say “I.” That this position is impossible (or worse yet, romantic) should not deter serious thinking about laziness. Duchamp, by saying that he abandoned art making without really doing so, was perhaps pretending to be lazy, acting at not working. Lefebvre suggests that when “acting explores what is possible” it adds “something real: the knowledge of a situation, an action, a result to be obtained.”50 If what is to be obtained through such play is knowledge (and disalienation), then what knowledge is potentially garnered through laziness? Is it the suggestion that there can be no alienation in laziness, for there is no “I” to separate from or be identical with?51 Or is laziness a conduit to bring us back to the most fundamental of Marx’s demands, a demand designed to alter the terms of alienated life under capital: “The reduction of the working day is the basic prerequisite.”52

Duchamp’s challenge to the primacy of the category of work largely took the form of a protest against maintenance labor, pointing toward the changing historical conditions of housewifery, domestic space, and work in the early twentieth century.53 Duchamp used the readymades to foil maintenance labor, which resulted in a limited artistic production, for maintenance labor permits all other work. The readymades stymie a subject whose identity would be bound up with, and structured by, the phenomenon of work. Instead, they offer humor and laziness, slapstick and play, modes of experience that gesture toward a different set of possibilities for how we might conceive of the everyday and how we might inhabit it.

“School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.” – The culture of “achievement” agreed upon by do-gooder liberal bureaucrats and conservative economic zealots

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/20/2013

The play deficit – Peter Gray

When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark. We played all weekend and all summer long. We had time to explore in all sorts of ways, and also time to become bored and figure out how to overcome boredom, time to get into trouble and find our way out of it, time to daydream, time to immerse ourselves in hobbies, and time to read comics and whatever else we wanted to read rather than the books assigned to us. What I learnt in my hunter-gatherer education has been far more valuable to my adult life than what I learnt in school, and I think others in my age group would say the same if they took time to think about it.

The decline in opportunity to play has also been accompanied by a decline in empathy and a rise in narcissism, both of which have been assessed since the late 1970s with standard questionnaires given to normative samples of college students. Empathy refers to the ability and tendency to see from another person’s point of view and experience what that person experiences. Narcissism refers to inflated self-regard, coupled with a lack of concern for others and an inability to connect emotionally with others. A decline of empathy and a rise in narcissism are exactly what we would expect to see in children who have little opportunity to play socially. Children can’t learn these social skills and values in school, because school is an authoritarian, not a democratic setting. School fosters competition, not co-operation; and children there are not free to quit when others fail to respect their needs and wishes.

In my book, Free to Learn (2013), I document these changes, and argue that the rise in mental disorders among children is largely the result of the decline in children’s freedom. If we love our children and want them to thrive, we must allow them more time and opportunity to play, not less. Yet policymakers and powerful philanthropists are continuing to push us in the opposite direction — toward more schooling, more testing, more adult direction of children, and less opportunity for free play.

Learning versus playing. That dichotomy seems natural to people such as my radio host, my debate opponent, my President, my Education Secretary — and maybe you. Learning, according to that almost automatic view, is what children do in school and, maybe, in other adult-directed activities. Playing is, at best, a refreshing break from learning. From that view, summer vacation is just a long recess, perhaps longer than necessary. But here’s an alternative view, which should be obvious but apparently is not: playing is learning. At play, children learn the most important of life’s lessons, the ones that cannot be taught in school. To learn these lessons well, children need lots of play — lots and lots of it, without interference from adults.

Hunter-gatherers have nothing akin to school. Adults believe that children learn by observing, exploring, and playing, and so they afford them unlimited time to do that. In response to my survey question, ‘How much time did children in the culture you observed have for play?’, the anthropologists unanimously said that the children were free to play nearly all of their waking hours, from the age of about four (when they were deemed responsible enough to go off, away from adults, with an age-mixed group of children) into their mid- or even late-teenage years (when they would begin, on their own initiatives, to take on some adult responsibilities). For example, Karen Endicott, who studied the Batek hunter-gatherers of Malaysia, reported: ‘Children were free to play nearly all the time; no one expected children to do serious work until they were in their late teens.’

This is very much in line with Groos’s theory about play as practice. The boys played endlessly at tracking and hunting, and both boys and girls played at finding and digging up edible roots. They played at tree climbing, cooking, building huts, and building other artefacts crucial to their culture, such as dugout canoes. They played at arguing and debating, sometimes mimicking their elders or trying to see if they could reason things out better than the adults had the night before around the fire. They playfully danced the traditional dances of their culture and sang the traditional songs, but they also made up new ones. They made and played musical instruments similar to those that adults in their group made. Even little children played with dangerous things, such as knives and fire, and the adults let them do it, because ‘How else will they learn to use these things?’ They did all this, and more, not because any adult required or even encouraged them to, but because they wanted to. They did it because it was fun and because something deep inside them, the result of aeons of natural selection, urged them to play at culturally appropriate activities so they would become skilled and knowledgeable adults.

In another branch of my research I’ve studied how children learn at a radically alternative school, the Sudbury Valley School, not far from my home in Massachusetts. It’s called a school, but is as different from what we normally think of as ‘school’ as you can imagine. The students — who range in age from four to about 19 — are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. The rules have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order.

To most people, this sounds crazy. How can they learn anything? Yet, the school has been in existence for 45 years now and has many hundreds of graduates, who are doing just fine in the real world, not because their school taught them anything, but because it allowed them to learn whatever they wanted. And, in line with Groos’s theory, what children in our culture want to learn when they are free turns out to be skills that are valued in our culture and that lead to good jobs and satisfying lives. When they play, these students learn to read, calculate, and use computers with the same playful passion with which hunter-gatherer kids learn to hunt and gather. They don’t necessarily think of themselves as learning. They think of themselves as just playing, or ‘doing things’, but in the process they are learning.

Even more important than specific skills are the attitudes that they learn. They learn to take responsibility for themselves and their community, and they learn that life is fun, even (maybe especially) when it involves doing things that are difficult. I should add that this is not an expensive school; it operates on less than half as much, per student, as the local state schools and far less than most private schools.

President Obama and his Education Secretary, Arne Duncan, along with other campaigners for more conventional schooling and more tests, want children to be better prepared for today’s and tomorrow’s world. But what preparation is needed? Do we need more people who are good at memorising answers to questions and feeding them back? Who dutifully do what they are told, no questions asked? Schools were designed to teach people to do those things, and they are pretty good at it. Or do we need more people who ask new questions and find new answers, think critically and creatively, innovate and take initiative, and know how to learn on the job, under their own steam? I bet Obama and Duncan would agree that all children need these skills today more than in the past. But schools are terrible at teaching these skills.

You can’t teach creativity; all you can do is let it blossom. Little children, before they start school, are naturally creative. Our greatest innovators, the ones we call geniuses, are those who somehow retain that childhood capacity, and build on it, right through adulthood. Albert Einstein, who apparently hated school, referred to his achievements in theoretical physics and mathematics as ‘combinatorial play’. A great deal of research has shown that people are most creative when infused by the spirit of play, when they see themselves as engaged in a task just for fun. As the psychologist Teresa Amabile, professor at Harvard Business School, has shown in her book Creativity in Context (1996) and in many experiments, the attempt to increase creativity by rewarding people for it or by putting them into contests to see who is most creative has the opposite effect. It’s hard to be creative when you are worried about other people’s judgments. In school, children’s activities are constantly being judged. School is a good place for learning to do just what someone else wants you to do; it’s a terrible place for practising creativity.

None of these people would have discovered their passions in a standard school, where extensive, free play does not occur. In a standard school, everyone has to do the same things as everyone else. Even those who do develop an interest in something taught in school learn to tame it because, when the bell rings, they have to move on to something else. The curriculum and timetable constrain them from pursuing any interest in a creative and personally meaningful way. Years ago, children had time outside of school to pursue interests, but today they are so busy with schoolwork and other adult-directed activities that they rarely have time and opportunity to discover and immerse themselves deeply in activities they truly enjoy.

To have a happy marriage, or good friends, or helpful work partners, we need to know how to get along with other people: perhaps the most essential skill all children must learn for a satisfying life. In hunter-gatherer bands, at Sudbury Valley School, and everywhere that children have regular access to other children, most play is social play. Social play is the academy for learning social skills.

The reason why play is such a powerful way to impart social skills is that it is voluntary. Players are always free to quit, and if they are unhappy they will quit. Every player knows that, and so the goal, for every player who wants to keep the game going, is to satisfy his or her own needs and desires while also satisfying those of the other players, so they don’t quit. Social play involves lots of negotiation and compromise. If bossy Betty tries to make all the rules and tell her playmates what to do without paying attention to their wishes, her playmates will quit and leave her alone, starting their own game elsewhere. That’s a powerful incentive for her to pay more attention to them next time. The playmates who quit might have learnt a lesson, too. If they want to play with Betty, who has some qualities they like, they will have to speak up more clearly next time, to make their desires plain, so she won’t try to run the show and ruin their fun. To have fun in social play you have to be assertive but not domineering; that’s true for all of social life.

The golden rule of social play is not ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.’ Rather, it’s something much more difficult: ‘Do unto others as they would have you do unto them.’ To do that, you have to get into other people’s minds and see from their points of view. Children practise that all the time in social play. The equality of play is not the equality of sameness. Rather, it is the equality that comes from respecting individual differences and treating each person’s needs and wishes as equally important. That’s also, I think, the best interpretation of Thomas Jefferson’s line that all men are created equal. We’re not all equally strong, equally quick-witted, equally healthy; but we are all equally worthy of respect and of having our needs met.

In school, and in other settings where adults are in charge, they make decisions for children and solve children’s problems. In play, children make their own decisions and solve their own problems. In adult-directed settings, children are weak and vulnerable. In play, they are strong and powerful. The play world is the child’s practice world for being an adult. We think of play as childish, but to the child, play is the experience of being like an adult: being self-controlled and responsible. To the degree that we take away play, we deprive children of the ability to practise adulthood, and we create people who will go through life with a sense of dependence and victimisation, a sense that there is some authority out there who is supposed to tell them what to do and solve their problems. That is not a healthy way to live.

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Work vs. Play – Fewer Art Workers and More Art Players

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 02/08/2013

Tennis with Plato – Mark Rowlands

…A life that is taken up with work and nothing else is a life where everything is done for the sake of something else. Value is never found in the here and now. The things that have value lie always just a little further down the road…

…If our lives are to mean anything, there must be something that’s valuable for what it is in itself and not for anything else it might get you. This, in the parlance of philosophers, is called intrinsic value. Most obviously, we should be able to find intrinsic value in the other people in our lives. If we focus just on our activities — on what we do — then it is clear that it will not be found in work (in my sense above, of things we do for something else) but only in play. It is play, and not work, that gives value to our lives.

…Far from belonging to another world of non-physical forms, intrinsic value belongs to this world. It is part of the fabric of things. And in certain forms of play, we are able to experience it directly, rather than to merely theorise about it. It is felt rather than cerebral. Play, in its purest form, is the embodied apprehension of intrinsic value — the form of the good — as it makes itself known in a person’s life.

…Children understand that the really important things in life are the things that are worth doing for their own sake. And all those other things: they are just unfortunate — inconveniences thrust upon us by an intransigent world. We all knew this once, but we forgot it because we chose to play a demanding game — the great game of growing up. It is a good game, one of the best. But it is also a jealous and dissembling one: dissembling because it refuses to recognise that it is a game, and jealous because it allows no other games. The ‘return to a second childhood’ is a way of rediscovering this thing that we once knew but had to forget.

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