Sunday, January 30, 2005

On play, public space, mobility and the challenge of communicating everything I think is interesting and important

After a cold and windy Boston, I was happy to return home to a merely cool Ottawa, and am now looking forward to a downright balmy London where wearing my parka would be silly. I've also been thinking about the feedback I got on my Floating Points presentation (slides here) and how difficult it is to find the right amount, and kind, of information to share with a cross-disciplinary audience of students and faculty - a challenge that will be compounded by the even greater diversity I will experience at PLAN:ICA in a few days.

At Emerson I got some very good feedback on the way I characterised play. Feeling (uncharacteristically) optimistic about life-in-general of late, I find it very easy to believe in the critical potential of play and, I think, inadvertently made play sound much less constricted or restricted than it can actually be. As one faculty member pointed out, if play is indeed world-building, can it not just as easily create horrible worlds as it can help build wonderful worlds? And the answer, of course, is yes. And yet, I don't find this tension or potential to be particularly problematic. (Mythologically, women have been equally associated with creation and destruction. And I really do believe that nothing is all good or all bad.) In the end, I think I responded with a bit of a cop-out, even though I believe it to be true: I said that I was looking for tools that would help us navigate the tensions we face, not means for (re)solving the world's problems.

I'm more than willing to admit that, for example, global capitalism can be (and too often is) oppressive, but I don't see that as a reason to assume the oppression is total or to predict what form that oppression will take. So, like another faculty member commented, I think it's crucial to recognise what we're up against in these games, to understand the fields in which we are playing. (For example, I understand the problems and dangers of co-option, and none hit me more than, say, the type of anti-feminism seen on The Man Show, where openly admitting one's chauvinism seems to preclude any criticism of it. In that case, I object to the rules of play, and my hope comes not from winning according to those rules, but from the potential to change the very field of play.) In any case, what I think I'm trying to say is that I'm not afraid of losing but I am afraid of giving up. I know the game is serious; I know it's difficult. But considering even a rule-bound game as flexible, as mobile, gives me hope - and hope can be a very powerful tool for critique.

As much as I appreciated the excellent questions on play, I had hoped to get more feedback on my characterisation of public space. I drew on Sennett's history, and Simmel's critique, but didn't go into how I understand public and private to be sliding together in ways beyond the privatisation of public space. In any case, I did focus on public space as a space for negotiating diversity, multiplicity and complexity - the places where many of our social and cultural tensions play out. It is in these spaces, I argued, that play can be most valuable as a critical endeavour because it helps us in these negotiations. However, I would have liked to go into more about how this sense of play need not be considered functional or productive. In fact, I think the kinds of play that have the greatest potential for negotiating multiplicity and/in public spaces are, in Baudrillard's sense, more seductive. But I guess my dissertation is where I get to really unfold the connections I see between publics, mobilities and play...

And like I said, it's pretty much impossible to get in everything you think is important, or everything you think everyone will find interesting and valuable. And since the mandate of the PLAN event is to introduce ourselves and our work in order to make connections, I will end up being kind of vague, but totally excited, and all the while hoping that people will want to talk more with me.

Next report from London!

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