This week is the first part of a two-part blog entry. Through the domains of play and art, we will consider the relationship of videogames to the collapse of the sacred and the profane in our everyday lives.
Today’s discussion will provide the conceptual outline for the second part, to follow in the next blog entry, in which I will look more closely at the current domain shared by video games and art: the GameArt movement. At that time, I will also examine criticisms laid against the video game industry in some detail.
For now, in this entry, I will try and clarify the question I have asked in the title. I am interested in the intersection of play and the sacred in contemporary art, whether or not we can even speak of the sacred in this connection.
There is no clear definition of the sacred today, implying a general profanation of Western culture. That which is sacred to you may not be for me, and may not even be religious in character. Ritual sacrifices in ancient cultures, for example, implied a set of theological beliefs that were coupled with complicated acts of consecration, embedded in a network of axiomatic concepts that reserved access to the sacred for an elite social class.
At the center of the sacrifice is simply a determinate action that, as such, is separated and marked by exclusion; in this way it becomes sacer [Latin] and is invested with a series of prohibitions and ritual precepts. Forbidden action, marked by sacredness, is not, however, simply excluded; rather it is now only accessible for certain people and according to determinate rules. In this way, it furnishes society and its ungrounded legislation with the fiction of a beginning: that which is excluded from the community is, in reality, that on which the entire life of the community is founded. (Giorgio Agamben. Language and Death 131)
Ancient cultures closely paired the dualities «religion = sacred / secular = profane» with one another. Nowadays, however, many informal rites are secular but are also considered highly sacred – though the ‘disciples’ of these traditions may not understand or express their understanding in these terms. The profanation of the world, we might say, has not eradicated the sacred but has rendered it invisible so that it operates in a tacit manner.
Take, for example, the celebration of birthdays. This last weekend, it was my father-in-law’s 70th birthday. Though there was nothing religious about it, the celebration carried a sense of the sacred with it. The event was considered sacrosanct by the family, the date reserved well in advance, each invited guest performing the pilgrimage in accordance to the ordained schedule. There were the requisite rites and traditions, the offering of gifts; but there was also a sense of privilege and exclusivity («one doesn’t turn 70 every day»), as if our private ceremony had invoked a higher eminence, though only briefly, for us alone.
The Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben argues that play is a key domain in which profanation takes place. “The majority of our games,» he argues, «derive from ancient and sacred ceremonies, from rituals and divinatory practices that had belonged for a time to the religious sphere” (Profanations 85–86). «Ball games [were once understood to] reproduce the gods’ struggles to possess the sun, and such objects as the spinning top and the chess board were initially ‘divinatory instruments'» (Leland de la Durantaye. Homo Profanus,39). The passage of these activities from the private temples into the hands of popular culture has also meant a proliferation, an unleashing of the sacred. “[T]his signifies that the game liberates and diverts humanity from the sphere of the sacred, but without simply abolishing it” (Profanations 86).
The classic and highly influential work of Johan Huizinga, Homo Ludens (1938), tries to capture the concept of play in its social function, its primordial essence.
This intensity of, and absorption in, play finds no explanation in biological analysis. Yet in this intensity, this absorption, this power of maddening, lies the very essence, the primordial quality of play. (Homo Ludens 1)
The more we try to mark off the form we call «play» from other forms apparently related to it, the more the absolute independence of the play-concept stands out. And the segregation of play from the domain of the great categorical antitheses does not stop there. Play lies outside the antithesis of wisdom and folly, and equally outside those of truth and falsehood, good and evil. Although it is a non-material activity it has no moral function. The valuations of vice and virtue do not apply here… The play-concept must always remain distinct from all the other forms of thought in which we express the structure of mental and social life. (ibid 6-7)
Play cannot be reduced to any other category. Play may be good for you, but it is not a biological function; it may help relieve stress, but it is not a psychological reflex; it may be of socio-cultural value, but it is not reducible to moral terms. It is a manifestation of our very being.
But, I ask, is it also sacred?
To return to the example of the birthday party, that family gathering gave rise to many happy encounters between relatives who do not see each other very often. Brothers and sisters sat together for the first time in ages, cousins romped in the basement, grandparents spent quality time with their grandchildren. And what did everyone choose to do when assembled together in this way? Why, play of course! In this way, the spirit of the birthday celebration infused the ludic spontaneity of our activities. The games we played were not just fun for everyone but «bonding experiences,» the forging of a true kinship.
These moments – birthdays, holidays, celebrations – when the family get together and the grandparents can sit down and play with their grandchildren – are these not the private but sacred ceremonies of our time?
What disturbed me about our bonding experience was that it took place playing the Wii videogame console. What they say about the New Super Mario Bros. video game is true: it is fun for the whole family. I have never seen a game bridge the generation gap so successfully, or be so immediately intuitive and fun in the hands of obvious video game novices. I have also never felt more like I was in a television commercial in my life.
This sense of uneasiness was heightened by the fact that I have been reading Empire@Play, an essay by Nick Dyer-Witheford assigned as part of the reading for the UOC course on art, culture and innovation. This text is a vehement critique of the global socio-political distribution of economic and political power – what he calls Empire – required to sustain the video game industry.
The issue is not a simple one. I will examine Dyer-Witheford’s critique of videogame Empire in detail in part two of this blog entry. For now, however, it is enough to note that Dyer-Witheford’s observations are both revealing and unsettling. They were enough to make me consider ending the sacred family gathering then and there: «Not with that box!»
«The modern Occidental experiences a certain uneasiness before many manifestations of the sacred,» writes Mircea Eliade (The Sacred and the Profane, 1957. 11-12). «He finds it difficult to accept the fact that, for many human beings, the sacred can be manifested in stones or trees, for example.» I don’t find that disturbing at all; but the idea of a sacred Wii or PS3 probably never occurred to Eliade, either. Can playing a commercially sold video game really become something sacred?
Eliade continues: «By manifesting the sacred, any object becomes something else yet it continues to remain itself, for it continues to participate in its surrounding milieu» (ibid). But can the sanctity and autonomy of this sacred play insulate it from socio-political critique? The sacred object does, after all, continue to participate in its surrounding milieu. Is there any moment so sacred that we dare not allow critique from the milieu to disturb it? Or, in fact, is there nothing so sacred anymore?
Not all play is sacred in and of itself, of course. Though (video) games are everywhere in today’s culture, what we are discussing here requires an extra level of solemnity.
The game as means of profanation has fallen into disuse… That modern man no longer knows how to play is to be seen precisely in the vertiginous multiplication of old and new games… a desperate and obstinate attempt to return to the lost festival, a return to the sacred and its rites. (Profanations 87).
Traces of this more complete form of profanised play is found in the play of faculties set in motion when we appreciate a work of art. Play
seems to lie to such a large extent in the field of aesthetics. Play has a tendency to be beautiful. It may be that this aesthetic factor is identical with the impulse to create orderly form, which animates play in all its aspects. The words we use to denote the elements of play belong for the most part to aesthetics, terms with which we try to describe the effects of beauty: tension, poise, balance, contrast, variation, solution, resolution, etc. Play casts a spell over us ; it is «enchanting,» «captivating.» It is invested with the noblest qualities we are capable of perceiving in things: rhythm and harmony. (Homo Ludens 11).
For this reason, many contemporary thinkers see the emergence of GameArt as nearly eschatological. This emergent form of artistic expression uses the medium of video games to combine the blatant characteristic of play with the more refined exercise of critical faculties required to appreciate the aesthetic. By making artistic games, artists are putting the profanising power of play into the hands and the aesthetic mindsets of the population at large.
I consider game art an anti-institutional form of art. That is the challenge and the interest. It can profane the sacred aura of the institutions, it can reverse their structures. That’s the power of play and in an institutional context that is what is being tested. This is why I get angry when I see games being exposed as objets d’ art that should not be touched. Games can shake things a bit. They can bring questions and check the institutional limits and interests. I remember the opening of Gameworld … when a big crowd invaded the space and started playing like mad with the games. We had to re-fix half of them the next morning but I guess it was worth it all! (Daphne Dragona, interview with GameScenes, 02/08/2011).
We can see the influence of authors like Huizinga and Agamben in this emphasis on the transformative power of play in today’s world. The profanation tears the object from the hands of clerical elites (read: art historians and museum directors) and beyond the hallowed walls of the exclusive temple/museum; the piece is no longer an objet d’art but a toy to be played with and possibly even broken. Rather than losing the sacred in the flux of a profane technological world, play in an art museum is supposed to re-find it, while also shaking the very foundations of the social structure from which it emerges.
The problem is that everything said concerning play at the birthday could also be said here, of play in a museum. Even if there is something sacred and noble in the tradition of the museum visit, can it remain insulated to the socio-political ramifications implicit in its embracing of video game technology? Once we recognise the profanation of our culture, does the museum forfeit its right to its own privileged domain?
If activists are putting art in museums, why aren’t activists also inside them, protesting the art with picket signs?
Or to use the words of Hamlet, is it true that «the dram of evil doth all the noble substance oft, a doubt, to its own scandal» (Hamlet I, IV, 36-8)? If anti-globalisation accusations against the video game industry turn out to be well-founded, does the inclusion of that technological element – that dram of evil – corrupt the entire substance of the museum exhibition? Perhaps even the silent dignity of the museum is no longer sacred, either, and must give way to the loud voices of the profane.
In the next instalment of Interconnections I will look more closely at the criticisms of Nick Dyer-Witheford against what he calls «videogame Empire,» examining the evidence available to me. I will also look at examples of GameArt – from the exhibitons at LABoral as well as elsewhere – in order to trace the socio-political tensions that run through this budding domain of artistic expression.