Featured Post


This essay is a very belated response to a " part 1 " published in February 2015. The gist of that essay was a response to a corre...

Thursday, October 5, 2017


In this review from my movie-blog I touched on the dialectic of work and play indirectly. An otherwise average episode of the teleseries KUNG FU, "The Hoots," brings the hero Kwai Chang Caine into prolonged contact with a group of Hutterite sheepherders. The "hoots" are defined in terms of their extreme pacifism and abstemiousness, and while Caine lives a life that is arguably no less disciplined, he does not define discipline in terms of self-denial. Indeed, Master Po tells Young Caine that, "The purpose of discipline is to live more fully, not less."

The scene evolves as follows: while Caine stays with the sheepherders, he pays for his keep with work. He begins cutting wood, singing a work-song as he does so. Schultz, the de facto leader of the group, objects to Caine's singing because he feels that work must be identical with "suffering." Caine expresses the opinion that singing makes the work go more easily, so why not do it? Nevertheless, the Shaolin accedes to his host's wishes but the overall trajectory of the episode is that Caine is right about the practicality of using play to lighten one's work-load, and that Schultz's desire for public suffering-- both his own, and that of his community-- stems from pride: the pride to show off how well he can wear the hair-shirt.

My first comments about the dialectic of "work and play" appears in the two-essay series THE DIVIDING LINE, starting here. I said back then:

In any case other play-acting creatures, just like humans, begin as entities with no ability to work, even if other animals aren't helpless for as long a period as humans. Both animals and humans can, however, play even if they can't work, at least in the most exploratory and unstructured manner. And though humans have a longer development period than other animals, humans don't remain isolated from the concept of work all that much longer than our fellow beasts: if their "vacation" ends with the onset of adulthood in about a year or so, the human freedom to do nothing but play ends not with adulthood but with a protracted period of learning which, because it has a discrete purpose, must be considered as "work."
So human children become intimately acquainted with the dialectic of work and play early on. But because most adults prioritize the need for play in children's development, one may symbolically identify juveniles with the activity of play.

Conversely, though adults too exist within a continuum in which they balance work and play, the essence of being adult is that an adult must work to make it possible for children to grow, develop, and play-- at least until said adult is old enough to retire from work (at least in theory) and to devote the remainder of his life to "play," if he so wishes.

I spoke of how an adult builds on his childhood experience to achieve a "balance" between the elements of work, activity that must be done, and play, activity one is pleased to do. However, I didn't comment upon the basic idea that elements of play are sometimes used to make work more pleasurable, though in FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PT. 2 I mentioned that the two activities were interdependent:

 I mention this to emphasize that both "work" and "play" are interdependent necessities, not opposed in the conventional sense that people oppose, say, "right choice" and "wrong choice."

The activities are interdependent in part because of the way humans, and many other higher animals, have evolved to explore the world in a playful context before settling down to the business of sustaining oneself, i.e., "work." The observations that a creature makes, or does not make, in its developmental phases may well determine the creature's fitness to survive in its adult form.

Whether or not non-human animals practice any activities comparable with "work-songs," or even Disney's take of "whistling while you work," I cannot say. I think it inarguable that human beings have been pursuing this strategy for centuries. One might choose to judge it purely as an evolutionary adaptive practice, though I believe this would be too simple. At the conclusion of FREEDOM VS. FREEDOM PART 2, I said:

Can one meaningfully draw parallels, then, between the freedom to make moral choices and the ability to change one's phenomenological perspective within fictional narratives? I obviously think so, even with my knowledge that most people are not conscious of those differing perspectives. 

I chose to focus in that context upon "phenomenological perspective" because in that essay I started out contrasting "discursive thinking" and "mythical thinking." However, play need not involve phenomenology as such. Freud suggested that a baby who threw his toys out of their cribs over and over were in the grip of a "repetition-compulsion." But this overlooks the possibility that the baby, learning that his parent will pick up the toy and put it back in the crib, may simply be indulging in a rudimentary form of "play," one oriented on controlling the somewhat unpredictable parental unit.

Play can be a way of sussing out the way the normal world works, if only by contrasting normal behavior with abnormal behavior. To the Hutterite Schultz, the "normal" was defined by labor, suffering, and avoidance of conflict, while Kwai Chang Caine was concerned by the interaction of work and play, the (seemingly) normal and the (seemingly) abnormal, the peaceful mind and the need to fight to defend the body. To be sure, Schultz's over-emphasis on "work" may have come about in reaction to others who played too much: "the house of mirth" to his "house of mourning." But both of the houses include "many mansions," and it would seem that an ability to spend some time in both houses is intrinsic to learning how to live-- and love-- more fully.

No comments: