This is Play

This is the title of an article (Stephen Nachmanovitch, New Literary History, Vol. 40, No. 1, Winter, 2009), pp. 1-24.) about play in general, but specifically about Gregory Bateson’s theoretical approach to it – involving studies with dolphins and monkeys and dogs and people, as well as logical types.  A dog who nips someone in “fun,” with no intention of actually harming the person, is delivering a fairly complex message. Within the message “I am biting you” is another message that changes, without deleting, the first one: “This is play.” It is biting, but not exactly.  It says something about biting.  Not biting.

Nachmanovitch follows the idea through many aspects of Bateson’s work – information theory, evolutionary theory, language theory among them.  I was particularly drawn to his challenge to all the efforts to define play by what it is not, e.g., it is not serious, or not work.    They tend to collapse under pressure.  But suppose, he asks, that play is the opposite of stasis, of rigidity?

Author: Nancy Roth