Being trashed: the gendered politics of academic play


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I’ve been thinking quite a lot about play recently, particularly whether play can help us reimagine and refashion what statehood could mean within progressive polities.

Typically, left engagements with the state gravitate towards critique or reform – both carry an attitude of instrumental, goal-oriented, serious action. Play, from this perspective, seems a ludicrous way of responding to concentrated political power and government.  And yet, as an activity that foregrounds stimulation, creativity, interaction, and open-ended uncertain outcomes, play may be a way of practicing the imagination and putting our imaginations into practice – going beyond the limits of what appears possible if we restrict ourselves to the realm of “real” change. While play can bring into being new practices, such as local currencies, it can also provide a way of representing what could be. Chiara de Cesari makes this point in relation to the “anticipatory representation” of a Palestinian state through Palestinian participation in European biennales, such as Venice, and in the creation of a national Palestinian museum. A different example might be the recent creation of a People’s Constitution, Constitution UK, led by the LSE Institute of Public Affairs. The LSE didn’t wait for parliament to act, but took upon itself the task of creating, through crowd-sourcing, a new modern secular constitution for Britain.

Prefiguring progressive statehood through play opens a number of challenging questions – not least the risks of romanticising play. The question of who plays, and how, came home very sharply recently giving an evening talk about state and market play at a workshop with a mostly non-academic crowd. Afterwards, seated around a table, drinking wine, with a group of non-academics who meet regularly to discuss philosophy, a chap asked the others (to my surprise as it’s rare to solicit feedback on a talk when the speaker is sitting right there): “what did you think of it?”

45 minutes of criticism later I felt as if a necessary layer of skin had been chiselled and scraped off. But the micro-abrasions their remarks caused are not what I want to write about. Reflecting afterwards on what was said, the exchange seemed to illuminate the challenges of play as a gendered political practice.

Let me briefly set out their critique.

  1. The talk lacked a sense of play

Academic play is a difficult issue. To call engaging with ideas play suggests a mode of engagement not intended to be serious, weighty or thoughtful. And yet, if play is about attentiveness, interaction, creativity, and openness, much academic work involves play. But this play can be invisible to others and so a talk, which might have been meant as playful in this creative sense, can be experienced by others as excessively serious. According to one man the talk was like a “monologue”. What he and others wanted was something far more active. In other words, they didn’t want a talk about play but an opportunity to play. This performativity wasn’t offered, and so it was taken. Echoing the abrasively combative sites of places such as Speakers’ Corner, which I’d discussed in the talk, the men performed their play in the bar afterwards. If, as Miguel Sicart suggests, “Playing is a fragile, tense activity, prone to breakdowns”, a way of acting that also plays with the very boundary between play and not play, here an invitation to play with ideas was displaced for a more bruising play about content as these men established the kind of play they wished to enter.

  1. The talk was incoherent; suggesting the speaker had spent far too much time playing and far too little preparing

At the same time, the men around the table suggested the talk wasn’t serious enough. One young guy commented it was woolly and incoherent; it sounded, he said, like a bad first year undergraduate essay. Another said it would have been better, although much harder, to have involved the audience. I didn’t disagree with the latter suggestion. But what his comments and those of the group suggested was that the talk had been put together with little effort. The huge amount of work and thought that goes into preparing a talk and thinking through ideas was either not apparent or else heavily discounted.

  1. The talk was too playful

To talk about prefiguring states through play generated a further response, that such an approach was too playful. This criticism was a criticism of the language, described as too flowery and ornate; it was also a criticism of the topic – linking states to play was fanciful and trivialising. It failed to engage with the fundamental problems states face.

Whether playful forms of representation open up spaces for experimenting with what could be in ways that are impossible in other forms is, I think, an interesting one. But I want to stay here with our colliding practices of play that evening.

I asked the group whether play might prove a useful register for doing conflict in intimate relationships (in part to get them off their corrosive critique). Could play diffuse or defuse tension, particularly where couples have the same argument over and over again? Can play enact such conflicts in a different key, for instance through deliberately exaggerating, parodying or over-dramatising the stakes?

Listening to the conversation, a woman sitting opposite me made an interesting point. She said, the trouble was couples didn’t necessarily agree about when they were playing or about when they wanted to play. So one member’s attempt to shift a fight into a more playful register could simply exacerbate the tensions, particularly if her partner interpreted the move as ridiculing or as trivialising what was going on.

Given the conversation around the table, her words left me wondering: what are the conditions for people to play together where some are asked to enter and participate as players (or as active observers) in play spaces others create?

This question is becoming increasingly important for academics as a range of pressures push researchers to become more attentive to potential interest in their work outside the academy. But academics are not only responding to funding constraints and university levers. Many recognise the importance of making their ideas and research more readily available, as they also appreciate the theoretical thinking people outside the academy do. Academics don’t have a monopoly on theoretical ideas, and many of the ideas that progressive academics develop come from social movements – feminist, socialist, anarchist, anti-racist, and queer among others.

At the same time, conversations between academic and non-academic movement participants often diverge, and challenges then emerge. Should new broad spaces be developed where academics and non-academics can play meaningfully together? Can more be done to help people enter other people’s play spaces? Is it better to have multiple spaces, with different normative cultures, rather than new all-encompassing homogenous ones – even as these diverse play spaces change through the newcomers who enter?

Academics and non-academics are working on these challenges – the time, styles, discursive repertoires, resources, and confidence that participation in different spaces requires.

In relation to the academy, the qualities that traditionally made many such spaces alienating are well-known. But academic spaces are also, I think, changing, including from demographic shifts. Feminist academics’ emphasis on embodied spaces, attentive to the fact that people have feelings and can be hurt, and feminist political commitments to more collaborative, less overtly competitive spaces, may be uneven but it has imprinted on academic cultures.

But let me return to my story of the table and the refusal to play.

Play studies scholars routinely remark that the cheat is preferred to the spoil-sport, and certainly what took place around the table could be seen as a kind of spoiling – whether for a fight or the implosive destruction many forms of play entail. By refusing to discuss the talk’s content, and by focusing instead on their critique of its delivery, the men around the table rebuffed the invitation to play – to share their thoughts about markets, states and play.

Instead, they set up a counter-form of play.

Would the men have responded differently if a man had been giving the lecture? Would a different kind of competitive play have then taken place – taking on, challenging and seeking to “better” the speaker or alternatively to gain his approval; would we have seen an agonistic or collaborative form of play rather than an exercise in spoiling?

The gendered politics of play is important.

Feminists frequently comment on the playground activities of male politicians; the difficulties women face entering male dominated play-spaces; the sexual harassment women face playing online with men and the withdrawal from playing that often follows; men’s aggressive responses to virtual games that try to minimise their sexism as a result of protests; and the perception that women are spoil-sports and over-sensitive bad losers, ruining men’s games because they don’t like them.

But there is also a form of gendered play which may currently get less attention than it’s due. Pervasive cultures of male misogyny on the internet may be disinhibiting some men in other spaces also so that it becomes easier to dismiss, patronise and be rude to women – belittling their labour and contribution. One form this takes is ruining the play spaces women establish, rebuffing invitations to enter. Perhaps some men don’t like the play on offer; perhaps they misinterpret it as a competitive game which they fear they will lose.

Traditionally identified as play’s initiators, cultural norms leave many men uneasy taking up a woman’s invitation to play when the game is not sexual. Just like many men find it hard to laugh at women’s jokes.



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