22 October 2021

Stephenson, PTMC—Work and Play and Work

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)
The child at play, Freud writes, is like a poet; both "rearrange things" in their worlds "to suit them better." Both child and poet distinguish between the real world of painful emotions, frustrations, hurts, and obduracies, and the play world, where these real-world fears and hurts are transmuted into humor, pleasure, and delightful wish-fulfillment. Play is escape from what goes on painfully in the real world. That something of the kind occurs is certain. But Freud overlooked the other half of fantasy, which "rearranges" not only things but the self to suit itself better. The self may grow, develop, and restructure itself in daydreaming and fantasy. The emotions that we did not realize we were capable of, the very things that Freud set out to explain, are an intimation of a growing self, of rearranging within oneself, rather than transmogrifications of painful experiences. Freud saw only mental sickness in daydreaming. The child wants to feel "grown-up," and thus plays. The adult gives up such playing, he thinks, but may daydream instead. We all create fantasies, as long as we live; but, for Freud, the more "normal" we are the less daydreaming we do. I would rather say that the more we work and live by work, in Freud's inner-directed world, the less we have time for daydreams. But by the same token the development of self is likely to have stopped when we lose ourselves in work.
(pp. 200-201)
This is an odd turn near the end of the book. Suddenly Stephenson has performed the same historically-specific pigeonholing of
from which he has been seeking the whole time to liberate
Would it not be better put to say that truly
losing oneself
affords one much the same potential for
development of the self
as does the ideal of
subjective play
And by way of much the same process?

It seems to me that the anti-ideal of work to which Stephenson appeals here, to work as pure necessity imposed on the self from without by the dark forces of social control, this anti-ideal need not be accepted ipso facto, and indeed is not accepted now nearly as readily as it was in 1967. Work-as-pure-necessity sounds terrible, sometimes it is actually terrible, but it is still possible to lose yourself in it, to be constructively "rearranged" in and through work, whether or not the overall experience is pleasant or even tolerable. This, at least, has been one of my enduring takeaways from several stints in the security industry, and from inumerable musical engagements which had me pining for my old TSA job by the time they were through. I can't really manage pure play-escape either, though I suppose it's time to accept that I'm in the minority (while nonetheless holding out stubborn hope that this reflects a culturebound rather than an essential condition of humanity). The maintenance lady at the Resort who enviously tells us we're "working at playing" is not all wrong; and it is precisely this rare opportunity for balanced playwork which I so value about the job from which I've been furloughed for the past year and a half, much to the incomprehension of both co-workers and outside acquaintances who know just how individualistic and self-regarding I am.

Stephenson again:
No doubt all this can be projected upon the poem [Alexander Pope's The Rape of the Lock], metaphysical, Freudian, Marxian, and the rest. But I would agree instead...that the poem is largely unadulterated fun. ... The incident is trivial, but the human delight is enormous. ...

Instead of dull Marx, nasty Freud, or ponderous metaphysician, all dealing with problems in the real world, Pope gives us a poem to play with in the mind, with joy, wit, fun, delight, freedom...all in step in unalloyed fantasy.

This is subjective play, regarded as pure communication-pleasure. Pope wrote with no thought of hurt or gain...he was having fun, as a child has when it plays. If we are so minded, and so open to joy, reading the poem gives us the selfsame satisfactions. And this is the core of our theory.
(pp. 199-200)
So the poet was merely
having fun, as a child has when it plays
This commits precisely the fallacy Sennett warned against in his Debussy anecdote. It is as if the obvious speciousness of so many accreted interpretations has cowed the author into an equally severe overeaction in the other direction.

One can only hope that somewhere between the too-knowing interpreter and the blissfully ignorant child there is a whole world of what can only be called adult self-development, conspicuous by its absence here just as it is in most academic/educational settings.

From Sutton-Smith's introduction (1987):
We live in a world in which the economic distinction between play and work exercises its own evaluational coercion; where the scientific distinction between object and subject also exercises its epistemological coercion over the way we come to think about play. But, to the contrary, the movement of players in and out of play is often much more indistinct...
(p. xiii)

[Stephenson] would find little disagreement if he stated that the individual purpose in all of this is self-enhancement. There is not much power to the "explanation," however, since little is known about self enhancement. Stephenson does stress the importance of the player's freedom of choice in self-enhancement and that concept has become a salient twentieth-century way of defining a person at play: Play is something one does with freedom, or when one is moved by intrinsic motivation. This was also a major point made by Huizenga.

The problem with this stress on freedom of choice, however, is that it is also a culturally-relative reflex to our traditional distinction between work and play—assigning pain to the former and pleasure to the latter. ... Since the event of philosophical, political and poetic romanticism at the turn of the Nineteenth century, Western culture has idealized the freedom supposedly found in art and play... The contrary case would seek to show that although modern play is not usually seen as an obligation, its players are often coerced by their own addictions to the excitements of gambling and contests of a physical or intellectual nature. Inner compulsions may still exact what society may not longer require. None of this need deny that subjective play is what mass communication is about, though it does suggest that we need to modify Stephenson's defense of his position.
(pp. xiv-xv)

The most serious recent critique of Stephenson's work is simply a reiteration of the view that he overlooks the great extent to which the public is manipulated through the mass media, something of which he is quite aware. He does not suggest that this does not occur only that, even if it does, the populace is also engaged in mass communications for the purposes of its own play. It is a fact that those who are addicted to certain kinds of play are made vulnerable by their own enthusiasm... They are exploited...but they are still at play. Once we divorce play from the romanticism of free choice and idealistic notions of value, there is less need to see any contradiction between a player's addictions to his or her own excitements and the efforts of others to manipulate those needs for their own profit.
(p. xvi)

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