Eugen Fink: Play as a «Symbol of the World»


Fink considers play the basic existential phenomenon that exists independently of man, who has but one possibility, that of «everyday acquaintance with play». (1) The world is not the playing space of man as a libertarian being and the creator of this world, it is the playing space of a man alienated from the world, which means that man is reduced to the playing thing of the ruling order, which is the given and on which he does not and cannot have any influence whatsoever. Play has the characteristics of a cosmic phenomenon and proceeds in the form of strife between the heavens (mundus intelligibilis) and earth (mundus sensibilis) and is projected into man – who is reduced to the object of play and as such is the battlefield. This conflict does not change man’s position in the existing world: it is given and unchangeable. When giving to the existing world a cosmic dimension, Fink does not depart from cosmic laws, like Nietzsche, but elevates the principles underlying the existing world to a super worldly, which means a super historical, level. Man is abolished as a historical and social being and reduced to the «in worldly» dimension, while the world is reduced to an abstraction. In Fink’s world, there is no struggle between freedom and non-freedom, good and bad, old and new: play abolishes the dialectic of history and provides a framework for changes, which means that there is no historical development of mankind and, in that context, crucial social changes. Everything proceeds at the same (un) historical level, which gives the impression that the existing plays have always existed. Fink excludes from history man’s fight for survival and freedom, but does not question the existing world as a product of that fight, and consequently, he does not question plays, which he proclaims the phenomenon sui generis. Play is not the realization of man’s playing being and the creation of new spiritual space, but is a form by which the ruling order plays with man. Instead of man being a (specific) cosmic being, play, which incarnates the ruling relations, becomes a cosmic phenomenon. When Fink speaks of cosmos, he does not have in mind the cosmic space nor man’s limitless creative capabilities, but the capitalist world. By proclaiming play a cosmic phenomenon, Fink puts an end to all man’s endeavours to step out of the existing world and create a new one. To be in play means to be completely integrated into the existing world. Play becomes a playing form of the world proceedings and a form of its (self) reflexion.

Fink does conceive of play departing from man’s playing being, that is, from his potential creative capabilities, but reaches the concept of play by listing the features of the existing plays, which are a condensed ideological incarnation of the ruling relations and values. Hence play is not determined according to man’s playing being, but according to play being a normative cage with phenomenological foundation and ethical and esthetic justification. As such, it becomes an abstract phenomenon by way of which the nature of man and society is determined. Fink: «Every man knows of play from his own life, he gained with it and about it experience, he knows the behaviour of his fellow men in play, he knows the countless forms of play, he knows the public plays, circus mass plays, play for fun, children’s play and adults’ play, somewhat more strenuous, less easy and less attractive – everybody also knows the elements of play in the field of labour and politics, in the relation between genders, the elements of play in almost all fields of culture.» (2) Without a critical relation to the existing plays and without distinguishing between false and genuine play, Fink proclaims all social phenomena which are denoted by the term «play» a «symbol of the world». The existing plays become an unchanging form of the existence of play as a «symbol of the world» – in which man exists and on which he cannot exert any influence. Play is not a concrete historical phenomenon, it is a suprahistorical given; it does not involve man’s relation to the existing world, but is a «free» way of blending into that world – play becomes playing of the existing life; it is not the ideal of a human world that should be striven for, the projection of man’s unrealized playing being and the basis for a critical relation to the non-playing world; it is a «symbol» of an inhuman world, where man’s playing nature is being suppressed and degenerated. It is not surprising that Fink discards every attempt at reaching the concept of play through the relation to labour: «Every time when play is interpreted in opposition to labour or generally a serious realization of life, we are dealing with the most superficial conception of play which nevertheless is predominant in our everyday life.» (3) According to Fink, Habermas’s and Plessner’s criticism of sport as the «duplication of the world of labour», is not acceptable, since in labour Fink also finds «elements of play», which means that labour does not deprive sport of its playing content. The relation of Fink’s phenomenological conception to play corresponds to the relation of the philosophy of play to sport: sport is not a concrete historical phenomenon, but is a phenomenon sui generis and as such is a «symbol of the (existing) world».

The basic purpose of Fink’s philosophy of play is to obtain a playing character for the existing world, which means to prove that in the existing world man can realize his playing being and be happy. Hence Fink does not seek to explain the nature of the existing plays as concrete social phenomena, but seeks to make a convincing picture of play as the «oasis of happiness». The concept of play appears in an idealized normative sphere, but Fink’s «oasis of happiness» is not an illusory world, like Schiller’s «esthetic state»; it is rather a playing manifestation of a non-playing world. The «oasis of happiness» becomes an apparent escape from reality into an illusory world where in another (spectacular) form appear relations and values on which the «world of concern» is based. It is not a product of man’s creative practice, but is a space where man, fleeing from the world of misery and pursuing freedom and meaning of life, unreservedly surrenders to the basic principles of capitalist society shaped in «play». In Fink’s words, play «resembles an ‘oasis’ of happiness which had come to the desert of our pursuit of happiness and our Tantalian quest. Play carries us away. When playing, we are, for a while, relieved of life’s pandemonium – as if transferred to another star where life appears to be easier, livelier, happier.» (4) Play is a «symbol» of the existing world of misery, and not an expression of aspirations to a happier world, especially not the symbol of a happier world. What at first sight looks like a criticism of the ruling order is actually an apparent criticism, once you realize that it is meant to protect the established world and that the offered «play» is but a condensed form of the dominant spirit and, in that sense, the given. The active powers, alienated from man through play, become an independent force which (apparently) pulls man out of the existing world of «concern» in order to take him to the «oasis of happiness». The picture of play as the «oasis of happiness» becomes convincing as against the existing world of misery. It is a sphere parallel to life and man, wishing to leave the increasingly gloomy «world of concern», only has to step into the «oasis of happiness», where everything he strives for is conserved: happiness, beauty, freedom… Play «plays with the serious», and thus just lets off the steam of unreadiness to face the ruling order.

The bourgeois theory itself unwillingly discloses the true nature of play, by disclosing the true nature of capitalism: it is a hopeless world of misery. It is precisely this world that is raison d’ être of play as the «oasis of happiness»: «free play» is the reflexion of the world of non-freedom and as such is a «reward» to an oppressed man for his stoical endurance of misery to which he is constantly exposed – and reinforcement of the bulwark of the world of misery. Fink does not aspire to a happy man, but seeks to subdue the discontent of an unhappy man by offering him an illusory space of happiness. «Play carries us away», «life appears to be easier»: play becomes a spiritual drug. Fink does not speak of the nature of play, but of the nature of man’s relation to play, which is but a projection of man’s relation to the world. The purpose of his theory is to turn «play» into an appealing illusory world that is to draw man away from the fight for abolishing the existing world of misery, which is but a playing form in which the ruling values and relations appear. The attempts to institutionalize play as the world of «freedom» and «happiness» correspond to the attempts to institutionalize the existing world of non-freedom and unhappiness. Play becomes a «spontaneous» form of man’s blending into the existing world and thus is the highest form of servitude to the existing order. Play as the «oasis of happiness» indicates the true nature of the capitalist world: it is a desert of unhappiness. Fink’s «oasis of happiness» in the desert of everyday misery is but a mirage.

One of the most fatal intentions of Fink’s philosophy is his dealing with faith in a better (new) world and visionary imagination. Instead of developing on the basis of a critical and change-oriented conscious, imagination develops on the basis of a positivist conscious and becomes an instrument for creating the illusion of the ruling forms of play as the «oasis of happiness». Fink replaces the visionary conscious with daydreaming: «But for adults, play is a magical oasis, a dreamy place of peace on a restless road and continuous escapism.» (5) Instead of freedom, Fink offers man an escape. Jean Cocteau says on that: «Was it not our epoch that invented the word escape. However, the only way to escape from oneself is precisely to let ourselves be conquered.» (6) Fink does not speak of man’s concrete position in society and, in that context, of his relation to play and position in it. Freedom in play appears as «free» escape from a world where space for man is decreasing. To «free» man by way of play means to free man from freedom. Basically, play is not a manifestation of freedom, but hopeless cry of a desperate man. The main characteristic of «freedom» becomes a possibility of choosing an (apparent) escape from reality into one of the ever richer forms of the «world of happiness» created by the entertainment industry. Capitalist «democracy» abolished the Christian «paradise» and created an illusory world where the basic values of the present world are being reproduced and critical and change-oriented conscious is being destroyed. The city, that ghetto of capitalism, has become the main place for organizing spectacular «entertaining» manifestations, which are supposed to draw people out of their solitary dens and offer them an opportunity for «socializing». It is interesting that Fink is not concerned about the fact that in sport one is «entitled» to inflict physical injuries and kill; that there exist sex segregation and institutionalized degradation of women to «lower beings»; that there is an increasing and monstrous abuse of children, characterized by the principle of «early selection» which involves physical and mental mutilation of children – and corresponds to the existing division of labour and the creation of specialty-idiots… Sport is a (spectacular) symbol of the existing world and the most authentic manifestation of its being. It is the playing of the capitalist way of life and, in that sense, a voluntary «playing» with forces that determine man’s destiny. Hence murder becomes a legal and legitimate element of sports play.

For Fink, children’s play represents the model of play that is to be sought. Fink: «Children’s happiness, the blessedness of their play is short-lived, during one period of our time when we have time, as we do not know anything about time yet, we do not see in now what has already been, what is no-more and not-yet, when we live in an unconsciously deep presence, carried away by life’s torrents, when we do not recognize the current rushing to our end. Pure presence of childhood is the time of play. Is it only a child that plays genuinely and in the right way?» (7) What age are we talking about here? Starting from Fink’s conception, we can conclude that the younger the child, the closer he is to a genuine play. However, what about Fink’s view that «as long as one plays and understands the meaning of play, one remains bound by the rules» – which is a conditio sine qua non of play? Man must be aware of what play is and is not – if he is to voluntarily choose play. In that context, it is necessary for man to be aware of himself as a playing being, which means to have a libertarian self-conscious and a developed esthetic sense. A child is not aware of himself as a playing being; he is not aware of the meaning of play and its rules and thus does not choose play as a free man. Instead of freedom, we deal with «spontaneity» which reproduces the existing life, its symbols and value models. The play of girls and boys is an immediate expression of sex segregation established in society. At the same time, children’s play is the projection of the desired and in that context a compensational mechanism. Play is reduced to miming the «idols» that are the incarnation of the ruling values. Sports play is a typical example. In his imagination, a child becomes that what he is deprived of in life, but children’s imagination does not offer a possibility of creating a new world, it is reduced to daydreaming. In children’s play the governing spirit is repeatedly manifested and children absorb it uncritically; in play, children are «spontaneously» and completely integrated into the existing world.

Instead of considering the play of «adults» in a philosophical and sociological context, Fink considers it in a psychological context. Fink: «It appears that life of adults does not have too much enthusiasm; their plays are too often merely routine techniques of having fun and result from boredom. Adults are rarely capable of playing spontaneously.» (8) Fink refers to the plays of adults as to «routine techniques of having fun» – which suggests that play is not a phenomenon sui generis and that the nature of play is directly conditioned by the nature of «technical civilization», which is but another expression for contemporary capitalism. In that context, Fink shows that the possibility of play is conditioned by the «general human condition» and man’s «ability» of «playing spontaneously». Unfortunately, he does not come to the obvious conclusions. A non-playing man cannot play: there is no genuine play without a genuine playing motive and without man’s «ability» to «play spontaneously». A «subjective» experience of play presupposes man’s critical relation to play which appears under the illusory veil of the «oasis of happiness», «freedom», and the like. The normative and the real are blended in order to prevent the establishment of a critical distance to the existing plays and attain the concept of genuine play in the context of the development of critical, change-oriented conscious. Fink, like Gadamer, departs from man who is deprived of everything that enables him to be a free libertarian being. That is why he attaches such importance to children’s play. Man is pushed into «play», which is the given space of illusory «happiness», and as such is a projected way of letting off the steam of non-freedom that does not allow man to attain his creative-libertarian being and question the ruling order. Play does not create the possibility of realizing man’s (suppressed) playing being (Eros, the creative, imagination…), but represents the «relief» of the burden of life.

Fink takes play out of the concrete historical (social) context and it becomes a phenomenon sui generis which determines its own rules. Fink: «Furthermore, play is characterized by the observance of rules. What restrains man’s selfwilledness in play is not nature or its resistance to human endeavours, it is not the opposition of his fellow player as in the field of governing; play sets its own obstacles and restraints – it complies with the rules it sets itself. Players are tied to the rules of play, whether it is a match, cards or children’s play. «Rules» can be abolished, new ones can be introduced; but as long as play and playing are understood reasonably, one remains bound by the rules.» (9) Fink does not make from the normative projection of play the starting point for criticizing the existing «plays», but an ideological mask which is to obtain a «playing» legitimacy for the social relations which are proclaimed «play». Play is not a repressive normative vault that is to keep the «aggressive animal nature» under control, as it is in Caillois, it makes «life easier», «forms a transient, only earthly solution», «salvation from the hard burden of survival». (10) Fink turns man’s concrete discontent with the existing world into an abstract discontent with an abstract world. The expression «hard burden of survival» serves to Fink as a means for concealing the inhuman and destructive character of capitalist civilization and sterilizing a critical and change-oriented relation to it. In addition, the «salvation from the hard burden of survival» can be a motivation for play only for those who carry the burden of life, and not for those who transferred their burden onto the back of the oppressed working class. It is obvious that Fink’s play is not of a libertarian, but of a compensatory and pacifying (depolitizing) character, which means of a manipulative (instrumental) and class nature. In Fink’s philosophy, play does not appear as against the world of injustice and non-freedom, but as against the «world of concern»: master and slave are placed at the same «playing» level. Play becomes a «supraclass» phenomenon and as such a means for man’s integration into the ruling (class) order. It is no accident that one of the main tasks of the philosophy of play is to convince man of the possibility of freedom in a world of non-freedom. Play becomes a synonym of freedom, while the need for freedom becomes the need for play. Instead of striving for a world of freedom, man is to «willingly» opt for play which is a «pure» incarnation of the ruling relations and values on which the world of misery and non-freedom is based. Hence the largest part of the discussion about play comes down to obtaining the playing legitimacy for the relations which, essentially, have nothing in common with freedom, and to creating the illusion of play as «happiness» and «freedom», relying on the ever deeper hopelessness of man and his «need» to escape from it. «Uncertainty» as the basis of free play and freedom in play is but an illusion, as it is based on a certainty that cannot be questioned: man is the playing thing of the ruling order. It is most obvious in sport. Man can (apparently) win or lose, but he remains pinned down to the existing world of non-freedom: the order always wins – man is always the loser. In play as «illusion» is expressed not only the real world but also the real man to whom play is the compensation for his unrealized humanity. This is something Fink could have realized in analysing the rules of play, especially the rules of sport which is dominated by the Social Darwinist principle bellum omnim contra omnes and the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance expressed in the maxim citius, altius, fortius. Fink is right in the most important thing: the ruling playing forms are the authentic symbols of the existing world. They do not offer a possibility of a libertarian or of a genuine (free) human play. It is no accident that the stadium has become the most important cult venue of contemporary world, and that sport has become the concrete essence of a concrete world.

In spite of arguing that man is to relate to sport without the mediation of science and technique, Fink unreservedly accepts even those plays that represent the triumph of «technical civilization» over man and deal with his playing being. Fink criticizes «technicization» which, as a result of the «industrial expansion», will more and more penetrate the domain of individual disposition and will produce the «industrially made patterns of life»; (11) he strongly argues against the world «dominated by clock, chronometers, time-machines which are technically precise» and where «the human race has less and less time for real festivities», which means for play. (12) It is precisely sport, based on the absolutized principle citius, altius, fortius, which is the incarnation of «technical civilization». This is, indeed, the starting point of Habermas and Plessner in their criticism of sport as «duplication of the world of labour». It is most expressed in the field in which phenomenology has a prominent role: in language. Sports language most directly expresses the essence of sport: it expresses not only man’s dehumanization, but also his technicization (robotization). In a broader sense, sports language covers also the theory of sport, with indisputable domination of a technocratic mind. Sport, as the incarnation of the positive philosophy and the cult of the existing world, perfectly fits into Fink’s cosmos. Since «Fink’s entire philosophy relies on the identity of world and play», (13) sport, as the incarnation of the ruling relations and values in a pure form, represents the most authentic play, more precisely, the most authentic playing form in which the existing world appears. If we bear in mind the basic intention of Fink’s philosophy, it is not surprising that Fink does not distinguish between «circences peformances», as he calls mass sports manifestations, and «theatrical performances». (14) In this way Fink gives “cultural” legitimacy to sport. According to Fink’s view of sport, the stadium which, considering its looks and purpose, is one of the most authentic spaces of «technical civilization», corresponds to the theatre. Unlike phenomenology, which is concerned with (philosophical) description of the phenomena of pure conscious, in sport a dehumanised science and technique become the basis for the relation to reality. Sport belongs to the sphere of a technocratic way of thinking, mythological conscious, instrumentalized phanaticism and mysticism produced in a technical way. Man’s relation to the existing world based on reason is abolished as well as the possibility of creating the reasonable projection of a new world. There is an activism guided by the idea of «progress» that is of a destructive and fatalistic character. In sport, the given is not thought: subjective «relation» to the world is reduced to its being experienced through mutilated senses that enable us to register only those impressions which can arouse «negative» responses in man to the ruling order. Coubertin’s maxim “the old Greeks were little given to contemplation, even less bookish» is dominant, and it becomes a cover-up for the oppressive and conquering activism of the ruling class and for the submissive behaviour of the oppressed. Sport is the «overcoming» of Comte’s positivism: instead of a positive conscious, there is an explosive physical (muscular) strength and ruthless combative character (mens fervida in corpore lacertoso/Coubertin) on which the corresponding positive conscious is perched. Between reality and man there is no conscious mediation; instead, man behaves «spontaneously» and lives a life based on the principles bellum omnium contra omnes and citius, altius, fortius. Instead of aspiring to values (ideas) that create a possibility of overcoming the existing world, man blends into the existing world by way of an unreasonable agonal physical activism. The stadium, as the space completely dominated by positivist one-mindedness, is the most authentic playing space of the existing world: it represents the modern pagan temple where man’s libertarian dignity is being destroyed and man is being inseminated by the ruling Social Darwinist and progressistic spirit.

Fink’s theory does not give a possibility of attaining the notion of genuine play and confronting the dominant plays either from the aspect of transcendental values or from those created in modern society, the values which enable man to step out from the existing world and realize his playing (libertarian-creative) being. In modern society, man made such possibilities of creating a new world that make his life essentially different from that of his ancestors. The same goes for play: from being a privilege of the ruling classes, play has become man’s right and potentially the most authentic form of human (self) assertion. Fink’s approach to play, labour, love, prevents us from realizing their emancipatory possibilities that make the basis for establishing a critical and change-oriented relation to the existing world. Play, according to Fink, «is separate from all futuristic proceedings of life. It cannot fit into the complex architecture of purpose, it does not proceed for the ‘ultimate end’, it is not, as our activity usually is, disturbed and confused by a deep uncertainty in our account of happiness.» (15) He continues: «Play is not for a future blessing, it is already «happiness» in its own right, it is extracted from the otherwise general «futurism», it is a happy presence, an unintended fulfilment. It does not mean, however, that it has, within itself, moments of tension as, for example, in all competitive games, but play does not transcend itself, it remains within itself with all its thrill, with a whole scale of its excitements, with the scheme of play’s workings.» (16) In the end Fink concludes: «Play does not have any «purpose», it does not serve to anything. (…) A true player plays only for the purpose of playing.» (17) The purpose of Fink’s «purposeless» play, which is not oriented towards the «future», is to strengthen the ramparts of the existing world and tear down the idea of a future world where man will realize his playing being. Fink, under a different rhetoric banner, has the same standpoint as the ideologues of sport: Coubertin, Diem, Krockow, Lasch, Lenk, Guttmann, Dunning … The existing plays are an instrument for stopping the objective possibilities of freedom from becoming real possibilities of man’s liberation – by destroying the critical conscious and changing practice of the oppressed.

Phenomenology’s call for displacing the focus from the objective scientific knowledge to the subjective of the conscious (Husserl’s «radical intuitionism», «transcendental pure conscious» and the like) cannot be separated from the psychological sphere. Hence the method of phenomenological description of pure conscious uses verbal joggling that is close to the Christian and Nietzsche’s «art of seduction». If we add to this Heidegger’s view that «language is the home of being», it is clear that phenomenology opens a possibility of building a «house neither on heaven nor on earth»: «pure conscious» becomes an abstract, which means an empty, conscious. Instead of striving to reach the truth, expressions are being coined full with arbitrary concepts. We deal with a conservation of the world by way of the absolutized given which appears in the form of phenomena that become the content of transcendental «pure» conscious. Basically, the ruling relations and values are projected into certain ideas that acquire a cosmic dimension. «Labour», «play», «love» – acquire the status of superhuman (suprahistorical) entities and become a new firmament which deifies the ruling order. Play, as the «oasis of happiness», takes the role of the Christian «paradise» and becomes a way of dealing with the idea of future and man’s belief that he can create a humane world. Just as the empty theological verbalism is a form of sterilizing man’s spiritual being, so phenomenology is a philosophical form of destroying the critical and change-oriented mind. The alleged «profusion of language», which is the mirror in which being is to see its reflexion, is but an ideological curtain that hides not only the existing world of injustice, but also the road leading to new worlds. Man’s critical, change-oriented activism is being abolished, and thinking becomes an instrument by which the abstract being, through empty linguistic expressions, attains itself: the description of being by means of language becomes a form of its self reflexion. A discourse of play becomes part of a big play of conquering the human spirit and preventing man from directing his discontent to eradicating the causes of non-freedom. Fink’s play as the «symbol of the world» expresses an endeavour to create a new superhuman structure of the world, a new Olympus with new gods: phenomenology becomes theology. The fatal character of Fink’s philosophy becomes obvious when we have in mind that it gives a playing legitimacy to a world ruled by destruction. Becoming and perishing of the world does not proceed any more at an indisputable existential level. The world faces its final disappearance. Play is nearing the end.

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