14 October 2021

Sutton-Smith—Intro to Stephenson, PTMC

William Stephenson
The Play Theory of Mass Communication
(1987 edition)
(orig. 1967)

from the introduction by Brian Sutton-Smith (1987):
The difficulty with the notion of subjective play is that there is very little systematic scholarship on how to think about it. Most modern play theory is about observable behavior, and even that which deals with subjective play...is largely about the way in which the possession of these competencies is of functional value in school or real life adaptation. It is not particularly concerned with their internal analysis; adequate description of subjective play is simply lacking.
(p. ix)

Is this perhaps
we describe only
what can be described


subjective play

is simply

not so accessible


On the one hand Huizenga's historical analyses show the multiplicity of play concepts throughout history and in language, but on the other hand, in his own criteria for play, he used the simplistic categorizations that are characteristic of modern approaches to play. ...

While [his] view is culturally relative and can be applied to watching television or reading a paper it would probably not have been so applied by Huizenga who saw contests as the major civilizing play form throughout history and was rather scathing about the world-wide "bastardization" of play forms in modern mass society. Presumably subjective play, with its vicarious and its apparently passive character (perhaps just its sedentary character), would not have appealed to Huizenga. He would certainly have had misgivings about calling the typical television watcher's interpolated activity a form of play. ...

[Conversely] For [Helen] Schwartzman [Transformations, 1978] play is a context of activity rather than a structure (with fixed spaces, times, rules and fixed emotions of voluntariness, joy, tension, differentness). It can occur anywhere, even during attendance on the mass media, and typically some transformation takes place in the receiver's mind within those media events.
(pp. ix-xi)

In hashing out a parochial academic issue, I think BSS has incidentally hit upon something with much broader implications, for which the specific issue of


is a fine proxy but hardly the only one.

Regarding my own pet issue of extrinsic and intrinsic benefits in music education, like-minded readers will recognize immediately that

observable behavior


functional value

have asserted a comparable tyranny over our efforts as well.

The final sentence above hones in on the corrective


some transformation takes place

clearly the involvement has not been merely



only where
no transformation is


is the interpretation
true passivity


Leaving aside the devil's advocate question as to whether

some transformation

necessarily equates to the very specific positive


which have been ascribed to arts education,

it nonetheless follows that:

in absence of *any*


in the student,

such (any?) benefits have not been reaped

or at bare minimum,
if no one can prove they have been reaped then we may well be permitted our skepticism in those specific cases

especially since laboratory researchers seem to have no trouble whatsoever overcoming the limits of


while at work in their (literal or proverbial) laboratories

and especially if the presence or absence
(and unfortunately it is most often the latter)
of even small


of any kind

not quite so opaque to the context-dependent


skills of
Practice-Led Researchers

(e.g. music teachers who also Can Play)

as perhaps it has been to non-practitioner social scientists
(and to music teachers whose Practice-Led Research involved little Practice and even less Research, and subsequently didn't Lead much of anywhere).

Oddly enough, I find myself in somewhat the opposite situation as BSS relates: the research is copious and effusive in its insistence that Music Makes Kids Smart, whereas upon embarking upon my most recent foray into small-group teaching I was warned only half-humorously by the band director who had engaged my services (and who incidentally was known to send mass emails linking to the most recent breathless study on the topic) that,

You're going to learn why teachers drink.

One candidate explanation for this inversion: perhaps social science and laboratory psychology have finally improved their methods to where it really is possible, now, to break through the wall of

observable behavior

and to finally access the glorious reality that music indeed engenders


in everything and everyone it touches

(and that these


are indeed of the positive variety).

This reality had already been, just by coincidence of course, loudly proclaimed for the previous 200 years by people lacking the slightest shred of scientifically-gathered evidence. But these days, anyone skeptical enough to dwell on that unfortunate history must be either a purblind empiric or a money-worshipping neocon.

I happen to think there is a simpler, classically conservative explanation

you get out of it what you put into it

and unfortunately no music teacher, social scientist, or play theorist, nor indeed any parent or guardian, has the one-hundred percent reliable magic formula to ensure that students put in anything at all. We do our Progressive best, because it's the right thing to do (I do believe that), but there is no full end run around the paradox of Individual Initiative.

What I find most striking about Stephenson's tack is that he proposes a broad, pragmatic typology of the self along precisely the lines that music teachers (among myriad others) are led to consider such questions of initiative. Instead of sorting individuals by their susceptibility to media influence, he instead proposes (I am stating this very crudely) that

everyone has

a part of themselves

that is



a part

that is



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