Huizinga, Homo Ludens: cultural analysis

Huizinga, Johan. Homo Ludens: A study of the play-element in culture.

(Boston: Beacon Paperback, 1955 edition, text copyright 1950 by Roy Publishers by arrangement with Routledge & Kegan Paul Ltd. (1949).

(This is post 2 of 2 examining this book.)

Play Within Culture

The second main claim of the first chapter is that play has two primary cultural aspects: representation of something or contest for something. (13) The remainder of the first chapter deals with the representation; most of the remainder of the book deals with contest. Both of these functions are meaning-laden, and it is within these functions that play is meaningful: there is some sense to it, something transcending the immediate needs of life and imparting meaning to activity. (1) “In culture we find play as a given magnitude existing before culture itself existed…” (4)


Huizinga never explains with specificity how the play-element of humanity becomes culture. Through what he terms comparative religion (or cultural parallels) he explains the centrality of shared play phenomena found in ritual. His foundational assumption is that all ritual originates in representing seasonal changes: “The rite, or “ritual act” represents a cosmic happening, an event in the natural process.” (14-15) And again: “Al these forms of contest betray their connection with ritual over and over again by the constant belief that they are indispensable for the smooth running of the seasons, the ripening of crops, the prosperity of the whole year.” (56)


These rituals allow worshipers to symbolically experience the re-presentation of the event while at the same time mystically participate in the event itself. This symbolic participatory mystical ritualization “brings an order of things higher than that in which they customarily live.” (14)


Huizinga does not cite this influence, but he seems to be building on the work of Emile Durkheim. Durkheim, Weber, and Marx are credited together as the founders of social science; as a progenitor, Durkheim’s work is similar to both sociology and anthropology. One of Durkheim’s foundational claims is that ritual is a divine magical invocation bringing balance to the cosmos. Huizinga’s sense of ritual appears to be replicating the thought of Durkheim; for example, “Every ceremony well performed, every game or contest duly won, every act of sacrifice auspiciously concluded, fervently convinces archaic man (sic) that a boon and blessing have thereby been procured for the community.” (54)


Returning to his characteristics of play, Huizinga writes

{Ritual} is played or performed within a playground that is literally “staked out”, and played moreover as a feast, i.e. in mirth and freedom. A sacred space, a temporarily real world of its own, has been expressly hedged off for it. But with the end of the play its effect is not lost; rather it continues to shed its radiance on the ordinary world outside, a wholesome influence working security, order and prosperity for the whole community until the sacred play-season comes round again. (14)


These rituals generate a shared sense of time, and as the rituals are repeated they represent a sacred cosmic order to be maintained. The maintenance of this order requires rules; enforcing rules creates government, and governance produces social order. “It is through playing that society expresses its interpretation of life and the world.” (46)


For me, Huizinga overemphasizes the importance of rules in play. Play represents cosmic order which requires humans to follow rules. Play is expressed through following rules. The essence of culture is shared rules. It is Huizinga’s insistence on the inter-relatedness of play and rule-making that leads me to characterize his work as a game theory, because I understand the fundamental character of game is shared rules related to identified goals. I characterize play with what Victor Turner names anti-structure, especially in liminal periods and spaces; in Turner’s vocabulary, Huizinga is identifying his social structure is maintained through ritual play which minimizes the liminal. (It is noteworthy that the rituals Huizinga names are sacrificial, while Turner’s theory was developed observing rites of passage.)


That aside, Huizinga claims ritual as wordless poetic play in form and function, embeds human consciousness in a sacred order – “its first, highest, and holiest expression.” (17) In exploring the mood of ritual, Huizinga describes a wide range of emotions: “genuine and spontaneous play can also be profoundly serious”; complete abandon; inextricable joy; elation. (20-21) “Frivolity and ecstasy are the twin poles between which play moves.” (21) Because festivals require ordinary life to be at a standstill, Huizinga asserts the


play mood is labile {emotionally quick-changing and unstable} in its very nature. At any moment “ordinary life” may reassert its rights either by an impact from without, which interrupts the game, or by an offence against the rules, or else from within by a collapse fo the play spirit, a sobering, a disenchantment. (21)


It is through the joyful mood of playing that belief is espoused, because it is through play and belief that mystical unity with cosmic order is attained. In a word play, Huizinga is suggesting that when we make belief we make beliefs, and if we are unable to make believe then we are unable to believe the sacred. The concepts of play and holiness merge. (25)


Cultural Expressions of Play

The greater portion of Huizinga’s work explores agonistic play – play as contests to be won over against other players. Huizinga explores numerous expressions of contest in multiple cultures: legal codes; rules of warfare (in which Huizinga’s pre-World War 2 historic context is evident); play as the contest of in philosophical ideas (Huizinga portrays theology as a subset of philosophy); poetry, particularly the playful seriousness of mythic cosmology; and art (performance, visual, and plastic) as a cultural competitions of form. Before entering into these playing fields, Huizinga declares


During the growth of a civilization the agonistic function attains its most beautiful form, as well as its most conspicuous, in the archaic phase. As a civilization becomes more complex, more variegated and more overladen, and as the technique of production and social life itself become more finely organized, the old cultural soil is gradually smothered under a rank layer of ideas, systems of thought and knowledge, doctrines, rules and regulations, moralities and conventions which have all lost touch with play. Civilization, we then say, has grown more serious; it assigns only a secondary place to playing. The heroic period is over, and the agonistic phase, too, seems a thing of the past. (75)


Overlooking the implicit arrogance of colonial-industrial superiority, Huizinga is criticizing early twentieth-century European culture as having lost playfulness. Despite play being an inherent quality of human interaction Huizinga laments European culture, because of its sophistication and complexity, has lost the essential identity of cultural play.


This all leads to the central question of the final chapter titled “The Play-Element in Contemporary Civilization”: “To what extent does the civilization we live in still develop in play-forms? How far does the play spirit dominate the lives of those who share that civilization?” (195) Again, it is important to note Huizinga’s biases: “civilization” is industrialized European culture, his time is immediately preceding World War 2, and his primary demonstration of cultural play is contests.


Huizinga then runs through a series of how play-as-contest are manifested in European society. Play becomes game which becomes athletic sports. Huizinga bemoans that these athletics were becoming business: “The spirit of the professional is no longer the true play-spirit; it is lacking in spontaneity and carelessness. This affects the amateur too, who begins to suffer from an inferiority complex. Between them they push sport further and further away from the play-sphere proper until it becomes a thing sui generis: neither play nor earnest.” (197) Huizinga then examines how business embodies play insofar as it embodies commercial competition. This, too, is a distortion of the holiness of play as commerce is not an end unto itself but rather the means to the end of acquiring wealth.


Artists in the modern, post-romantic period are intrinsically tied to their communities, and thus free to express their most intimate selves. Nevertheless, this “de-functionalizing” of art also isolates the artist from the community, especially as some uniquely skilled individual. This reduces art to status of diversionary distraction rather than fulfilling its role as cultural expression. (201-202) Similarly science (Huizinga would claim all scholarship as scientific effort): since science is shaped by two foundational principles (rules that govern the patterns of investigation and perpetually seeking application) it functions as a game but is not free to become play. Likewise, because applicability is co-opted by business, science eliminates the play-element. (203-204)


Finally, Huizinga examines the play-element within politics. By politics, Huizinga means neither governance or legal sanction, but rather the broader “work of the polis” what we might now call “social movement,” thereby offering his most poignant social critiques.

“Modern social life is being dominated to an ever-increasing extent by a quality that has something in common with play and yields the illusion of a strongly developed play-factor. This quality I have ventured to call by the name of Puerilism, as being the most appropriate appellation for that blend of adolescence and barbarity which has been rampant all of the world for the past two or three decades.

“It would seem as if the mentality and conduct of the adolescent now reigned supreme over large areas of civilized life which had formerly been the province of responsible adults. … yells or other sings of greeting, the wearing of badges and sundry items of political haberdashery, walking in marching order or at a special pace and … the insatiable thirst for trivial recreation and crude sensationalism, the delight in mass-meetings, mass-demonstrations, parades, etc. {Organizations seeming to promote} the precious qualities of friendship and loyalty, are also hotbeds of sectarianism, intolerance, suspicion, superciliousness, and quick to defend any illusion that flatters self-love or group consciousness. We have seen great nations losing every shred of honour,(sic) all sense of humour, (sic) the very idea of decency and fair play.” (205)


Initially I thought Huizinga was critiquing the rise of the Nazi Party, particularly its instrument of Hitler Youth. I realized that this was also a criticism of Stalinist Russia. His critique is two-pronged. First, immature adolescent play, rather than culturally-constructive healthy adult play, is promoted as normative. Second, the inherent playfulness of children expressed through acquisitions of skills to explore the world, has been exploited for politicized agendas. He explicitly states that Baden-Powell’s scouting movement is an expression of healthy playful games, while “rapidly goose-stepping into helotry” is destroying civilization. (206)


Huizinga laments that politics (as governance) has lost a sense of fair-play: once accepted rules of acceptable interaction allowed political play to sustain contested rivalries. “The elasticity of human relationships underlying the political machine permits it to “play”, thus easing tensions which would otherwise be unendurable or dangerous – for it is the decay of humor that kills.” (207) He points to American politics as a kind of national sport: while more emotional than European politics, it represents a more emotional culture “true to the rough and tumble of pioneer life.” (207)


Huizinga warns international politics has lost its sense of playful honor. The system’s integrity rests on willingness to keep established rules.

… real civilization cannot exist in the absence of a certain play-element, for civilization presupposes limitation and mastery of the self, the ability to not confuse its own tendencies with the ultimate and highest goal, but to understand that it is enclosed within certain boundaries freely accepted. (211)

When nations break these rules – especially in the conduct of war – the civilization as an international endeavor is threatened. “Civilization” he intreats “is supposed to have carried us beyond this stage” of mechanical relationships cultivating enmity and antagonizing differences by promoting the “friend-foe principle” … Any other group is always either your friend or your enemy.” (209) The work concludes with a plea for civility:

“The observance of play-rules is nowhere more imperative than in the relations between countries and States. … In contemporary politics, based as they are on the utmost preparedness if not the actual preparation for war, there would seem to be hardly any trace of the old play-attitude. The code of honor us flouted, the rules of the game are set aside, international law is broken, and all the ancient associations of war with ritual and religion are gone. …

“Only through an ethos that transcends the friend-foe relationship, and recognizes a higher goal than the gratification of the self, the group, or the nation will a political society pass beyond the “play” of war to true seriousness.” (211)


“For it is not war that is serious, but peace.” (209)

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