Sarah Atkinson – On the Very Serious Power of Play

Demetrius, the grammarian, finding in the Temple of Delphi a knot of philosophers chattering together, said to them: “Either I am much deceived, or, by your cheerful and pleasant countenances, you are engaged in no very deep discourse.”

(Montaigne, “The Education of Children”)

sarahFinals week can be a tough time for English majors like me. While other students are burrowed in Perkins study rooms, holed up in their nests of practice sets and note cards, I’m reading novels and musing over my next thesis. I can be seen wandering the campus alone, sometimes taking an hour or two to sit among the frantic textbook readers in the library and stare absentmindedly into space before getting up again and changing locations. Just yesterday I spent an hour lying on my back in the gardens (it was sixty degrees out, and the sun was beckoning). I met some library-frazzled friends for dinner after and was quickly banned from conversation for ruining their study break with a Marxist sermon. “Lighten up,” they say. Later—in the library when I’m giggling at a YouTube video—it’s, “Get serious.” Like Demetrius in the epigraph from Montaigne’s “The Education of Children”, most of us can’t imagine a student giggling in the library to be accomplishing anything important. Nor do we accept philosophical theories for lighthearted conversation at the dinner table. When I break these conventions, I’m like an obnoxious child, tugging on my friends’ skirts and interrupting their very serious studies, pleading, “Play with me, play with me! Play with my absurd Marxist theory, play with me!” But with no one available to play, I take a seat in the library amongst the anxious hordes and go to work pretending to be as serious as the others.

Edward Said claims, in his book Representations of the Intellectual, that an intellectual is necessarily a figure in exile; although they are essential to social and political life, they must be publicly “embarrassing, contrary, even unpleasant.” (12) Like Mr. Ramsay from Virginia Woolf’s novel To the Lighthouse, we tend to think an intellectual is a dry, awkward person (usually a man) who is yes, very well respected in his field, but altogether tedious at parties when they insist on philosophically debating points of triviality. Like Mr. Ramsay, they don’t make for good parents, or good spouses, or even good friends. Poor Mrs. Ramsay laments her husband’s “astonishing lack of consideration for other people’s feelings” when his ruthless intellectualism “rends the thin veils of civilization so wantonly, so brutally.” (32) The intellectual personality seems to inherently undermine community.

Duke’s university-wide rhetoric echoes the lonely, antagonistic intellectual persona described by Woolf and Said. The university mission statement declares its commitment “to advance the frontiers of knowledge and contribute boldly to the international community of scholarship.” This mission is militant in its linearity. It conj
ures up an image of Duke students as arrogant loud-mouthed know-it-alls sent marching along like soldiers, stomping down and knocking over everything in their periphery. (A characterization of Duke students held by most of the nation, who love to hate us, and for good reason—just ask UNC.)

When I asked a group of my friends for their opinion of Duke’s student community, their responses reflected a sense of disjunction on campus. A true “work hard, play hard” school, the underlying expectation is that the two activities remain separate. One friend’s comment that Duke often feels “hyper-intellectualized” was met all around with passionate nods of agreement. She spoke about the pressure on campus to land jobs in high paying, high profile careers. “It seems all about intellect and success in the economy and when it all gets to be too much students just crumble because there’s not enough support in ways other than academic. It’s nice to sit and talk to someone about something intellectual, but I also think it needs to be addressed that students have so many more thoughts in their minds aside from intellectual that they’re too scared to bring up.” Helen Small warns against such methods of education: “Too much critical reflexivity may suggest ‘possibilities of paralysis through excess of self-consciousness and infinite regress’. To which one can add that other people can easily become exasperated (one may oneself become bored) with critique as a default mode of operation.” (The Value of the Humanities, 39) Obsessed, like Mr. Ramsay, with progressing relentlessly forward in their studies, students unravel. Relationships fail, mental illnesses fester, and some students are even forced to leave campus, to put their studies on hold for a semester while they regain their footing. Because the university promotes the separation of work and pleasure, Duke effectively stunts many students’ intellectual growth.

I chose to study English because I find an irresistible joy in language. Writing an essay feels the same to me as choreographing a dance or painting a picture; I do the job with the same flourishes of imagination. (Sometimes I find my writing becoming almost outright ridiculous. While hammering out ten pages on The Picture of Dorian Gray under the pressure of a fast-approaching deadline, I find my language becoming increasingly absurd in its metonymy. I start whipping out phrases like “diaphanous blooms,” which just doesn’t make sense—diaphaneity being a property of a mineral, not applicable to flowers at all. But whatever. It’s poetic. And it might even make sense. Maybe not logically, but in a tonal sense. It has the right flavor.) But even in the study of language, work is divorced from pleasure at most universities. Books that were once read for fun are transformed into instruments of evaluation and politicization in the classroom. Students are discouraged from dwelling too long in the metaphor, from reading, as Michael Warner says, “like Quixote, like Emma Bovary, like Ginny Weasley.” (“Uncritical Reading, 14) From mistaking the metaphors for reality. They are encouraged instead to decode the language, to dissect the metaphors for their practical implications.
But despite universities’ best efforts, language itself is a form of play. It plays a game with knowledge, with truth. Nietzsche, in his essay “On Truth and Lies in a Nonmoral Sense”, says this of language: “We believe that we know something about the things themselves when we speak of trees, colors, snow, and flowers; and yet we possess nothing but metaphors for things–metaphors which correspond in no way to the original entities…What then is truth? A movable host of metaphors, metonymies, and; anthropomorphisms: in short, a sum of human relations which have been poetically and rhetorically intensified, transferred, and embellished.” Some might consider this analysis discouraging in its dismissal of objective meaning. I find it liberating—we hold the tools for meaning making, we possess the power to literally call things into being, to change the face of an idea according the words we use to describe it. I imagine myself like Lord Henry from The Picture of Dorian Gray, who charms his dinner guests with his spectacular mastery of language: “He played with the idea and grew wilful; tossed it into the air and transformed it; let it escape and recaptured it; made it iridescent with fancy and winged it with paradox. The praise of folly, as he went on, soared into a philosophy, and philosophy herself became young, and catching the mad music of pleasure…” This is no Mr. Ramsay, no dull intellectual. This is ten times more fun, and ten times more powerful.

Nick Sousanis also revolutionizes our assumptions of the higher-education intellectual in his Columbia dissertation for a Doctorate of Education. As a comic book, Unflattening transfers highbrow theory and philosophy into the more ostensibly accessible realm of play and pleasure. His arguments lose none of their complexity in the comic book form. In fact, Sousanis argues that the communication of multi-dimensional concepts necessitates multi-dimensional media. Like Nietzsche, Sousanis recognizes that our understanding of truth is actually contingent on many layers of perception. We make sense of our environment through a combination of sensory stimuli—sights, sounds, tastes, textures, smells, everything in which we find pleasure. In comic book form, Sousanis attempts to recreate this abundance of sensory stimuli in order to more fully communicate his ideas. He describes—beautifully, through illustrations—proper education as a prism whose many facets refract what we perceive to be white light into a rainbow of color. The education we find most often simply reflects or absorbs our perception like any flat surface. We’re taught a thing, and that thing either reflects a truth we’ve already perceived to be true or is absorbed into our understanding as new truth. But a prism-like education, one that presents information from multiple angles, opens our perception to an array of possibilities. Only through this dance of light reflecting, refracting off of, and absorbing into our surroundings can we perceive depth, motion, or beauty.

(Unflattening, 65)

(Unflattening, 65)

(Unflattening, 66)

(Unflattening, 66)

Our vision of the world relies upon a very dynamic relationship of our bodies and the environment—we’re processing a hundred different sensations every second we’re alive, making sense of a million different forms of stimuli. This is a process of understanding that is exciting, inciting, stimulating, scintillating, titillating. The system of education in which we learn now subjects us to blinders, repudiating ideas on side roads, in the spaces beside us, behind us, so that we might “advance boldly” as Duke asks. But the world, as we know, is not so linear, is not even flat—we live on a sphere tumbling through the heavens; the very roads we travel are always imperceptibly curved, everything we perceive as flat being merely an optical illusion of distance (light playing games with our eyes).

If, as a university, we spent more time playing, challenging one another to take on other viewpoints (however fantastical, however absurd) with circumspect critique rather than critical conceit—perhaps we might also discover there is greater dimension to our intellectual studies than the singularly linear. If we mixed some of our work with play, injecting some of our play with the ideas from work, we might begin to see each in a new light—a light at once more entertaining and more intellectually prescient. So turn language on itself, mix your metaphors, relish in your supernatural ability to make meaning. Let ideas bounce around campus as rampantly as the electromagnetic rays bouncing off every object in this room. Send them radiating joyfully to highlight hidden dimensions and illuminate shadowy corners. Bounce them off of the boy you’ve been studying next to in the library for three days now but to whom you haven’t yet ever said a word. Take pride in the beauty of your perception, but know how to manipulate your point of view. Train, very seriously, your mind to dance. Go play!

Works Cited

Montaigne, Michel De. The Education of Children. New York: D. Appleton, 1899. Print.

Said, Edward W. Representations of the Intellectual: The 1993 Reith Lectures. New York: Pantheon, 1994. Print.

Small, Helen. The Value of the Humanities. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013. Print.

Sousanis, Nick. Unflattening. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2015. Print.

Warner, Michael and Jane Gallop. “Uncritical Reading.” Polemic: Critical or Uncritical. New York: Routledge, 2004. Print.

Wilde, Oscar, and Michael Patrick. Gillespie. The Picture of Dorian Gray: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W. W. Norton, 2006. Print.

Woolf, Virginia. To the Lighthouse. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1989. Print.