Games of Late Modernity
Johan Huizinga’s Homo Ludens: 75 Years Later
(Leusden, NL: January 15-17 2014)
Organizing partners: Huizinga Research Institute, Tilburg University, International School for Philosophy (ISVW), Utrecht University, Netherlands Research School for Literary Studies, and De Buren.
The end of this year will be marked by the 75th anniversary of Johan Huizinga’s classic study of the Homo Ludens , possibly the single most important Dutch contribution to the international scholarly field of the twentieth century. As the subtitle – A Study of the Play Element in Culture – indicates, Huizinga inquires into a fundamental characteristic of human culture and society: the element of play is present and can be observed in all different aspects of culture, ranging from seemingly innocuous leisure activities to the uttermost serious and advanced systems such as legal or political institutions.
To play, according to Huizinga, means to shape the playing ground by certain structures and rules to be taken seriously, to guarantee a safe haven where enjoyment is possible for the players. This perspective implies a specific understanding of the project of modernity. Ever since the beginning of the nineteenth century western man appeared to be ill equipped for the future. A tension arose between the requirements of a rapidly modernizing society and the adaptive capacities of each individual human being. Industrialization, rationalization, mechanization, urbanization, and dynamization in a variety of fields demanded a dedication and flexibility that the individual citizen could hardly muster. The crisis of modernity manifested itself not merely in negative expressions of estrangement. Intellectuals, artists and artisans responded creatively to the civilization offensive, designing the contours of a human culture better equipped for the new world. The starting-point for many of such designs for future man was the thought that culture and society must be understood in terms of play and that man is a symbolizing creature par excellence. Quite a few of these new visions of man and future-oriented types of design of physical and spiritual experience were meant as scenarios for interventions in the public sphere.
However, three quarters of a century after its first publication, the question arises if Huizinga’s historical, philosophical and anthropological idea of game and play is adequate enough to understand the stage of modernity that can be described as ‘Late Modernity’, ‘High Modernity’ or ‘Liquid Modernity’ (Zygmunt Bauman). When Huizinga’s book was published, the worst nightmare of the twentieth century, the Holocaust, was yet to come. Other events and developments that have occurred since the Holocaust seem to undermine the basic assumptions of Huizinga’s notion of play ‘as a moment of elegant and pleasant sublimation’, as Umberto Eco has phrased it. One could think of the tremendous growth of the culture industry, the power of the media, mass-consumerism, globalization, capitalism impinging upon the cultural space et cetera. According to Huizinga, to play means to have fun, even in the harshest game situations. But on the other hand playing, in the sense of a cultural activity, implies a certain element of seriousness. The biggest challenge for any cultural system is to maintain a balance between fun and seriousness. The predominance of seriousness over fun will ultimately lead to cultural decay or even the breakdown of culture.
Is it still appropriate to speak of culture as being played, when the game is extremely violent and the outcome has been manipulated? This question raises issues that go far beyond the coincidental occasion of the commemoration of the publication of this celebrated book: they go straight to the very heart of the debate on modernity’s culture. Time and again the Homo Ludens has led important cultural critics and historians to reassess Huizinga’s ideas. The work of scholars such as Jacques Ehrmann, Umberto Eco, Wendy Doniger and many others sounded the call for an international interdisciplinary congress on Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens: 75 Years Later. Based upon their critiques the idea has arisen for a re-evaluation of Huizinga’s study along the lines of four paradigmatic issues:
1. Playing after Auschwitz : is it possible to formulate a theory of play that is able to deal with culture, not only in its elegant and innocuous appearances, but in its most cruel and tragic forms as well? Could the disastrous experience of the Holocaust be integrated into the concept of play?
2. To play or being played with : is the freedom of play being threatened by the upsurge of the culture industry, which, since Huizinga published his book, seems to have gained power and control over all spheres of life? Or does the play of culture create its own freedom, precisely in opposition to the driving force of the culture industry?
3. From cultural history to structuralism and sociology : it seems that Huizinga in his inquiry into the idea of play only focused on cultural activity, but is it perhaps possible to translate and apply his ideas to human society and its manifestations as a whole? Are there indeed rules of play which make the existence of a society possible (Lévi-Strauss)? If so, would it be feasible to investigate and decode the matrix of play, thereby uncovering the multiple connections between play and society?
4. The ethos of play : to play means to play by the rules. But isn’t the disappearance of any rules whatsoever precisely late modernity’s main characteristic? How to deal with those who cheat?
The purpose of this three-day conference is to bring together experts in various disciplines, ranging from the social sciences, the arts, religious studies, philosophy, history, anthropology, psychology, economy, to media studies and gaming. All scholars are invited to shed their light on Huizinga’s thesis, while paying special attention to the post-Second World War and present-day situation. The four issues raised above function as focal points around which the experts from various disciplines come together. The idea is, following the wish expressed by Huizinga himself, to create not only a multi-disciplinary but also a truly interdisciplinary scholarly exchange on one of the most important ideas for the understanding of contemporary society.