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Tuesday, May 29, 2012

“Homo Ludens” and the Event


From my research notes on “Trauma & Event”

It may surprise my readers that in addressing as sombre and serious a question as trauma, I should refer to Johan Huizinga’s great work, Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture, described by Martin Buber as “one of the few works informed about the problem of man.”

But it is almost impossible in fact to think about what trauma displaces, interrupts, closes down without considering the possibility that one of the characteristics that we may suspect is opposed to trauma is play. And as a corollary that Event would by definition be “in play” and open to play. Play is at the heart of the Event, as that which resists authority and which opens up discourse through a breaking, even a shattering at times, of rationality, order, logic. In any imaginable “logic of worlds,” to reference Badiou’s last great work, there must also be play …

In his chapter on “play-forms in philosophy,” Huizinga in fact traces play to the Greek sophists but eventually we encounter “at the centre of the circle” also Socrates and Plato. Who can forget the performative, playful, simultaneously mocking and deeply engaged dialogue of Socrates with  Lysias in Platos’s Phaedra? That rich, playful dialogue, the shelves of which have already stocked both Plato’s pharmacy and Derrida’s deconstruction.

From the theory of the riddle, especially the griphos, a joking “question-game” played for “rewards or forfeits” to the “pompous perorations of the sophist” to the Socratic dialogue, Huizinga holds (p. 148) that “the transition is always fluid.”

This is what interests us here—the elaboration of the dialogue as a form of play in the hands of Socrates and his scribe Plato. Describing the sophists, Huizinga says: “The argument goes back and forth like a shuttle and, in its flyings, epistemology takes on the appearance of a noble game.” Huizinga concludes: “It is not only the sophists that play—Socrates and Plato do likewise.” (p. 149)

Plato is supposed to have followed Sophron when composing his dialogues.
Aristotle declares the dialogue a form of mimos, which is an offshoot of comedy. It is not surprising then that Aristotle reckons Socrates and Plato among the jugglers and thaumaturges, along with the sophists (Huizinga, p. 150; Aristotle, Poetica 1147B; H. Reich, Der Mimus, 1903, p. 354).

Huizinga argues that the “dialogue is art-form, a fiction” and that no matter how polished “real conversation” was among the Greeks, “it could never have had the gloss of literary dialogue” (p. 150).

After taking us on a tour of the development of agonistic debates among the schoolmen (or Scholastics) in the Middle Ages with the invention of the University and the public debate as a form of intellectual jousting, with agonistic and playful elements, Huizinga introduces Erasmas, the great humanist who wielded humour, satire and play as deftly as a surgeon’s scalpel. And it is here that Huizinga, speaking through Erasmus, takes us on breathtaking leap from the origins of the dialogue among the sophists and in Socrates, through Aristotle and the Middle Ages, to arrive at this critical insight: that without play, there will not be novelty (what Badiou calls novation in French), there will not be the possibility of the Event …

Erasmus complains in “a letter to his stiff-necked opponent Noel Bédier, of the narrowness of the Schools which only deal with material handed down by their predecessors and, in a controversy, ban any point of view that does not conform to their own particular tenets.”

In my opinion, it is quite unnecessary to act in the Schools as you act when playing cards or dice, where any infringement of the rules spoils the game. In a learned discussion, however, there should be nothing outrageous or risky in putting forward a novel idea.
—Erasmus (cited in Huizinga, p. 156; Erasmi opus epist., ed. Allen, vi, No. 1581, 621 sq.)

Huizinga, Johan (1955). Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

Vincenzo Di Nicola

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