Jean-Paul Sartre: Play as the Road to Being


Sartre: «Play, like Kierkegaard’s irony, releases subjectivity. What indeed is play if not an activity whose real purpose is man, for which man sets the rules and which can have consequences only according to the existing rules? Once a man realizes he is free and once he wants to use this freedom, whatever his accompanying anxiety might be, his activity is play: he is indeed its first principle; through it, he dodges his naturalized nature; he himself sets the value and rules for his acts and agrees to play only according to the rules he himself set and determined. Hence, in one sense, there is ‘little reality’ in the world. That is why it looks as if the man who plays, who tends to show himself as being free in his action, can by no means be interested in owning a being in the world. The end he strives for, through sports or miming or plays in the real sense of that word, is to attain himself as one certain being, precisely the being that is in question in his being.» (18)

For Sartre, play is not the expression of the concrete totality of an epoch, but is the expression of the free choice of an individual, who «freely» makes the rules. The question of freedom is reduced to man’s immediate relation to himself and to the world – without the mediation of all those things that make him a social being and condition not only his concrete (non) freedom in the world, but also his conception of freedom and thus his conception of himself as the being of freedom. Man acquires «freedom» by ceasing to be a concrete historical and social being. Freedom in conscious (conscious freedom) as a concrete possibility of real freedom (liberation) of man involves conscious of the nature of non-freedom, which means conscious of (genuine) freedom. The question of freedom is always a concrete historical question. Libertarian self-conscious of the ancient man is essentially different from modern man’s libertarian self-conscious. The nature of capitalism (tendency of its development) conditions the nature of the question of freedom. Today, to pose the question of freedom means to pose the question of the survival of mankind, the latter question being based on the objective possibilities of the creation of a new world and man’s capabilities to create this new world based on these possibilities. Sartre also does not realize that the question of freedom has become the existential question par excellence.

Sartre points out that play «releases subjectivity», but he does not ask himself of the nature of «subjectivity»: is it an apparent or authentic human subjectivity. In a world of non-freedom, where man is exposed to oppression from an early age, which systematically mutilates his playing being, he cannot realize his human personality in a human way. Sport, as the most authentic capitalist play, is a typical example. It does not offer a possibility of «releasing subjectivity»; it is part of reality and as such a repressive «objectivity». In sport, man not only does not «attain himself as one certain being», he becomes completely alienated from himself as a natural, social and cultural being. In it, “subjectivity” is «released» by depriving man of subjectivity and reducing him to the reproduction of the ruling relations and values. In Sartre, man’s playing being is an abstraction and as such is something that is independent of the existing world where man came and where he lives. However, the playing being is a product of concrete social conditions. Man is born in a diseased world and has a mutilated and degenerated playing being, and this is precisely what prevents him from freely opting for and creating play. How spontaneously can man, who lives, from an early age, in the conditions where only victory by achieving an ever better result offers a possibility of gaining respect, relate to other people when play is created in opposition to the principle of elimination? Why is the «subjectivity» of men dominated by aversion to women and directs them to plays dominated by fight and not by cooperation and tolerance? With his «spontaneous» choice of play, man actually chooses the existing plays which are a «free» expression of the ruling values and relations and which, under the cover of «freedom», draw man into the world from which he is trying to escape. In Sartre, there is neither genuine, nor libertarian play, since there is no conflict between man’s original playing being that strives for freedom and the existing playing forms. He proclaims the existing plays, in which he includes sport, a playing challenge sought by man’s original playing being, «overlooking» the fact that the prevailing plays are a manifest form of the ruling relations and values and as such an imposed pattern of behaviour – which has become the most efficient way of man’s integration into the order of non-freedom. In his discussion of play, he does not criticize the existing plays, which derive from the existing world and are opposed to freedom, but legitimizes them as «freedom».

Sartre claims that once man realizes his freedom and wants to use it, «his activity is play»: opting for play means opting for freedom and thus is the matter of personal decision (Kierkegaard’s «either-or»). First of all, the very opting for play presupposes non-freedom: in a world of freedom, man does not opt for freedom, but spontaneously manifests it and experiences it. Sport is not the expression of a rational intentionality (freedom), as is play in Sartre; it is the expression of an irrational capitalist intentionality. This is the context in which we should differentiate between the result as a human achievement and record which is the market value of a result and is the measure of man’s alienation from himself as well as the measure of his (self) destruction. In sport, there is no intentionality that strives for what is not yet – without which, according to Sartre, there is no freedom. He pins man down to the existing world and blends him into the being in itself (l’être en soi), which abolishes the possibility of man’s relation to the existing world and thus the attainment of the being for itself (l’être pour soi). The true intentionality is the pursuit of freedom. This is dominant in Schiller’s «playing impulse»: it is an impulse for freedom. Libertarian intentionality involves freedom from the existing world and the creation of a new world, which means a libertarian play that suggests that man is «more» than that to which he is reduced in the existing world – and this is possible only in the context of a political practice aimed at the creation of a new world. Without that, play disappears in the nothingness of everyday life and becomes opposed to the basic human intention: to be free. It is all about plays based on the motion of man towards another man, on the development of creative powers, man’s esthetic being, with which the playing skill (not playing technique) is developed, as well as visionary imagination, etc.

While in Sartre liberation is man’s individual act, in libertarian play liberation is a social (class) act, which means that it is about the elimination of relations which force man to behave like a slave, or deprive him of libertarian self-conscious. Liberation of man as an individual and as a social (class) being go hand in hand. At the same time, Sartre does not distinguish between free opting for play, which is a conscious intentional act, and free play. Free play involves the affirmation of human freedom in a concrete life, and not an escape from it into a (apparent) personal freedom. There is no «free play» in the world of non-freedom: it is but a playing form of letting off the steam of non-freedom and thus is an illusion of play. Sartre claims: «The end he strives for, through sports or miming or plays in the real sense of that word, is to attain himself as one certain being, the being that is in question in his being.» (19) Man strives «through sports» to «attain himself as one certain being, the being that is in question in his being», but through sport, as the capitalistically degenerated play, he becomes alienated from himself and «freely» blends into the ruling order – from which he is trying to escape. Being-in-itself becomes being-for-itself by way of the ruling order, which obtains its expression in sport. «Self» is conditioned by the ruling order, which means that it is the self of the order, and only apparently the self of man. Man in sport is already appropriated by the ruling order. The way in which man «is to attain himself as one certain being» is reduced to the conflict with one’s own human individuality, and thus with freedom. Sport is not a road leading man to being; it leads him to the nothingness of everyday existence. Coubertin is clear: Olympism is the «cult of the existing world», which means that sport is a means of its deification. Sport is a form of capitalist totalizing of the world and thus deals not only with the emancipatory heritage of civil society, but also with the traditional forms of physical culture. Thus, martial arts, which are part of feudal physical culture in the Far East (karate, judo, etc.), are deprived of their cultural (religious) essence and are reduced to a dehumanized technique of fight. Sport is not based on humanism, but on a «technical civilization». It does not develop man’s creative powers and does not cultivate human relations; it is rather that people, in the form of «sportsmen», become instrumentalized for the purpose of achieving inhuman ends in an inhuman (capitalist) way, which leads to man being degenerated as a biological and human being.

If Sartre’s relation to play is viewed as determination of formal conditions of play, it is of a reductionist character. If man is to be able to play he must have: conscious of himself as a playing being and of play as a free activity; a developed esthetic being; he must have playing skill and an appropriate playing body; he must be able to organize himself in a playing community of emancipated individuals and create rules observed by all… Since Sartre distinguishes between being-in-itself and being-for-itself, according to his conception, spontaneous opting for play involves freedom which does not come spontaneously from man’s playing being, but presupposes conscious of oneself as a free being and free opting (decision) for play.

Sartre contributes to the creation of the illusion that sport is a phenomenon sui generis and as such is a value-neutral phenomenon; that opting for sport is a free choice; and that sport offers a possibility of realizing freedom. In sport, it is not man who determines the playing rules; it is rather that sport represents an institutionalized normative (value) model which incarnates the principles on which capitalism is based – and which must be unconditionally accepted if sporting play is to proceed. Sport is the authentic capitalist play, which means the playing form of a life based on Social Darwinism and the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance. «Free opting for sport» is not free, nor is it opting for freedom. What man actually strives for, what he sees in sport and expects from it is one thing, and it is quite another thing what sport is as a concrete social phenomenon and, in that context, how real the possibility it offers for satisfying genuine human needs is and what social consequences it has. Man’s «subjective relation» to sport is based on the illusion that sport is «freedom» – the illusion imposed by the ruling ideology. Man «voluntarily» goes to the stadium and sees it as the place of «freedom». Unlike concentration camps, where man is aware of his being a slave and pursues freedom, at the stadium, man thinks that he is «executing freedom», while he is actually letting off the steam of non-freedom in a space which is the contemporary concentration camp. One of the basic tasks of sport is to prevent people from becoming aware of their slavery status and of the possibility of a free world – if they fight for it. Sport is the appropriation of (potentially) free time by the ruling order and degeneration of man’s (potentially) libertarian spirit. The stadium symbolizes man’s complete and final enclosure in the spiritual horizon of capitalism and thus is a modern pagan temple where, in the form of «sports competitions», man offers as a sacrifice his libertarian dignity and faith in a just world. By way of sport, potentially free physical activism turns into man’s submission to the ruling order and the production of the ruling relations according to the principles bellum omnium contra omnes and citius, altius, fortius. Sartre does not speak of running, jumping, skiing, as man’s freely chosen activities, but of «sports» in which the original physical activism is degenerated through institutional physical activism, which is the incarnation of the ruling relations and values. Sport is running, jumping, swimming, skiing degenerated in the capitalist way, just as the sporting body is the human body degenerated in the capitalist way. Sports pedagogy is not dominated by humanization, but by disciplining and mutilation of the body (character). Instead of enjoying the physical as a spiritual (creative) movement, sport deals with the body. Sport does not develop man’s esthetic being, but creates sado-masochistic character. The so called «thumping condition» is a masochistic ritual which, ultimately, comes down to man’s (self) destruction: sport is not based on the principle of the «optimal», but on the principle of the «greater effort». In sport, the most important thing is to «master» the nausea that comes from over fatigue and pain – which is a normal reaction of the body struggling to keep its vital functions. Victory over one’s opponent involves «victory» over one’s own body.

Sports space is a manifest form of the capitalist totalizing of the world. It has no historical, cultural, esthetic or ecological dimension, but is reduced to a «competitive» space and as such is an object that is to be mastered, used and destroyed. Sports spaces have become the fields of death where everything is in the service of the absolutized principle of performance (profit). In antiquity, people struggled for victory, but they did not struggle against nature. The same applies to the Renaissance, the aristocratic physical culture, as well as to the Enlightenment and philanthropic doctrines. Unlike antiquity, where man as physis is part of the cosmic whole, in modern times man, by way of instrumentalized science and technique, appears as the «master and owner of nature» (maître et possesseur de la nature/ Descartes). The increasingly faster motion through space, based on technological advances as mastered and (ab) used powers of nature, is becoming the capitalist way of achieving «victory over nature», which above all means victory over the body as man’s immediate nature. The “sportivization” of the natural environment is one of the most radical forms of the capitalist degeneration of nature. Man’s relation to nature is mediated by the principle of competition and the absolutized principle of performance, which have turned into the principles of domination and destruction. In his relation to nature, the sportsman seeks to cover in the shortest possible time the largest possible space which is already «appropriated» by being reduced to the «sports track», which means that natural space is degraded to a technical (capitalistically objectivized) space. There are no symbols which express the quality that enables a human «appropriation» of space. Running, jumping and swimming are reduced to a technical relation to nature as a «competitive» space. Moving through nature becomes a technical moving, while body becomes the machine. Measuring instruments «replace» man’s esthetic being. In ski jumping, the jump is not a libertarian and esthetic challenge, which means the expression of man’s true powers, but is reduced to the technique of jumping and flying the purpose of which is the longest possible jump and record. On ski slopes we see the movements of a technicized body by way of technicized tools and technicized skill in a technicized space. Bodily movement becomes a targeted and rational activity in which man does not recognize himself as a natural and human being, but as a (self-destructive) mechanism. As far as «mountaineering feats» are concerned, climbing a mountain is becoming its «conquering», while reaching the summit is the «victory over the mountain». To «stick the victorious flag» represents the ritual branding of nature which symbolizes its appropriation and submission. The logic of submission through «victory» becomes the totalizing capitalist principle of the relation towards man and nature and it is fully expressed in sport. In «consumer society», capitalism robs man of natural space and turns it into a consumer space, reducing man’s «free» physical activism to a consumer activism.

Sports time, dominated by strivings for the highest performance (record) in the shortest possible time, expresses the rule of capitalist timing over man. The ever faster movement involves the ever more intense deprivation of humanity and man’s being turned into a capitalistically instrumentalized machine: life time of capitalism becomes death time of man. Sports activity is not an authentic physical (human) need; it is a destructive repression over the body according to the ruling value and existential pattern of movement which is conditioned by the rhythm of life imposing the ever faster cycles of capitalist reproduction. Speed is not important as the expression of the development of human powers, but as a symbolic indication of the developing power of the ruling order. Records, measured in seconds, the tenths and hundredths of seconds, have an abstract value for man. At the same time, a record is not only the measure of man’s alienation from himself; it is the measure of man’s alienation from nature and the measure of the destruction of his own natural being. As far as «playing» sports are concerned, the meaning of one of the most important principles, «attack is the best defence», is to reduce the moving space of the opponent by a dynamic motion, so that he makes a mistake, that is, to stop him from successfully realizing the attack. Space is «diminished» by the speed of movement and dynamic actions by which it is «covered». A war strategy is in place here: the meaning of «diminishing» space is to make the «opponents» squat in a small «maneuvering space», which means to reduce their freedom of action. It can be seen in the example of basketball: from the given playing space of the opponent teams, we have come to «total pressing», ruled by the principle «attack is the best defence». The dynamic of motion leads to the «diminishing» of the «playing» space, not only as the diminishing of the space of freedom and imagination, but also as the diminishing of the existential space, which means the mutilation of the natural being and playing capacities. Instead of increasing the possibilities of individual expression and the development of play as the development of playing skills and interpersonal relations, we deal with our own playing possibilities and capacities, which leads to the domination of an aggressive and mutilated body and sado-(self) destructive character. The libertarian-creative playing skill is being replaced by the playing technique reduced to the destruction of man’s playing being. The final result is the «development of play» with the ever smaller room for personal initiative, esthetics, personality and playing originality. As play becomes more «developed», the sports collective is less and less a community of people and more a group of robotized gladiators and circus performers.

Sartre’s view of functionality of a sports team is interesting. Sartre: « … the fundamental characteristic of an organized group is that all of them (functions) are mutually conditioned and mutually guaranteed by the mediation of the common praxis in progress. Starting from this point, each function becomes the meaning of another function if it is itself marked by praxis and each of them contains another one in its practical activity. It is particularly clear in coherent and narrow small groups, such as a sports team, in which every movement of a player, taken in its functional differentiation, is decoded in the very movement it provokes in another co-player, as a differentiated function, through a practical field determined by the action of the group and depending on all other movements. (Here, in the footnote, Sartre adds: «In fact, in one football game, due to the presence of the opponent team, everything is even more complex. The positive mutuality between co-players is closely related to the negative and antagonistic mutuality. However, this complexity by no means changes our problem.») For this particular goal keeper, or this particular center-forward player, mediation is but a playing ground if the common praxis has made it one common and practical reality that is to be occupied, run across, with a variable coefficient of usability and resistance. Every actual reorganisation of a team on the playground constitutes a certain player through the very playground as functionally situated (in relation to the ball, to the opponent in front of him, etc.) However, the moment he accepts this space-time situation and overcomes it by way of his praxis (according to his function), the common situation of the whole team is thereby mutually changed. For a spectator, to understand a match is precisely to understand, as a constant totalization, based on the known aim, the functional and singularized specifications of mediated mutuality.» (20) Sartre sees the functionality of a sports group and proceedings on the sports field as an autonomous phenomenon and in a technical way. A sport does not have an autonomous functionality and the meaning of sport exceeds the functionality given by Sartre. The specific character of sport, as the incarnation of the spirit of capitalism and as the paramount political tool of the bourgeoisie for ensuring the strategic interests of capitalism, conditions its specific functionality. This is what determines man’s relation to his own body (doping, suicidal training), and to the opponent (instrumentalized violence). Sport, as a war waged with the players’ bodies, is the manifestation of a life based on Social Darwinism. In it, killings, infliction of physical injuries, abuse of children, etc., are legalized. A sports group is an institutionalized violent group: it uses violence as the legal means of combat. Hence the militaristic structure of a sports group. At the same time, functionality in sport is conditioned by the rules of play dictated by the needs of show-business. Sportsmen are tools of show-business for producing a sports spectacle (sports commodity). This determines their appearance and behaviour. The relations between players are mediated by the logic of show-business, and they are inconspicuous for an «ordinary» viewer who is blinded by the need to vent the accumulated discontent and find a compensation for his futile life. From a means for promoting the «progressive» nature of capitalism, sport has turned into a gladiator-circus spectacle. Everything serves to the creation of a glamorous spectacle which becomes a spiritual drug that is to enable man to «escape» from the ever gloomier social reality. Sport is a spectacular form in which the ruling relations are turned into commodities on the market of show-business, and in which the essence of capitalism appears without its «democratic» and «humanistic» mask. Sportsmen produce the ruling relations and ruling values, which means the existing world and a (mutilated) man suitable to that world. A sports team is the institution of a repressive character and it is only apparently based on voluntariness. It is a tool for achieving inhuman needs, a peculiar (ideological) police unit of the ruling regime with a special assignment: to destroy the critical mind of those deprived of their rights and create a mass idiocy. A sports team has a working functionality which is typical of the production site: everyone does his part of the job, the common task being the production of a sports spectacle. The real job of a sportsman is to attract the audience, to provide TV commercials and TV programmes – and thus to realize profit for the owners. Sports group is a surrogate of a social group. It is not pervaded by brotherhood, but by ruthless rivalry. To fight for a place on the team means to fight for survival on the labour market in sports show-business. For a sportsman, the success of his team is important only in so long as it provides an opportunity for making money. The relations on the team develop on invisible threads based on private interests of the players, on the relation between players and coach, between players and owner of the club, etc. Thanks to the fact that man in sport is not only the labour force, but also the labour tool and the object of processing; that victory is achieved by eliminating the «opponent»; that the dominant principle is not that of the optimal but the principle of «greater effort» (citius, altius, fortius) – instead of the working ethics, we deal with the (self) destructive fanaticism which corresponds to the absolutized principle of the ever bigger profit. The club is a legal and economic entity, an institutionalized form realizing the functioning of the team, regulating the ownership and realizing profit. It is a sports enterprise, and thus the working plant, whereas the main activity of the club is to turn the playing of the team into the gain of the owner. As far as «supporters» are concerned, they have become the tool for producing the «spectacle» and as such are moving props which create the «atmosphere» that is to obtain for the match a «fatal» dimension, and to the owners a successful sale of billboards and TV broadcasts.

Sport is not based on reason nor does it offer a possibility for people to assert themselves as human beings, which is but another obstacle that stops being-in-itself from becoming being-for-itself. The «audience» does not relate to the game rationally, nor does it ask for rational explanations. The fanaticism of «supporters» comes from their hopeless social position. They are people without illusions and visions. A sports spectacle is an institutionalized deception which pushes the oppressed into an ever deeper nothingness. It opens the Pandora’s box of the subconscious only to pour out the discontent accumulated in everyday life. Hence sport is dominated by an increasingly ruthless violence: it serves to compensate the «spectator» for his increasingly ruthless life and acquires an anthropological image and character. The discontent of the oppressed is directed to the «opponent»: a sportsman is thrown into the arena and becomes a scapegoat. A typical example of this replacement of opponents occurs in boxing and other «combative» (bloody) sports: the true opponent (owner/capitalist) places before one oppressed another oppressed so that they can fight between themselves – and turns that into a spectacle which enables him to earn money and ensure the stability of the ruling order. The basic task of the media before a match is to create the impression that we are directly threatened by the «opponent team». «They have come to take our points!» – What a provocation for those who have been deprived of everything: of work, healthy life, happiness, future… «They have come to beat us!» – What a nightmare for those who experience nothing but defeat in their everyday life…

In spite of his misconceptions, in his «Critique of the Dialectical Mind», speaking of Kierkegaard and Kafka, Sartre comes to the conclusion that indicates the essence of the problem: «It was already Kierkegaard who thought that every victory is suspicious as it diverts man from himself. Kafka takes over this Christian theme, in his Diary, in which some truth can be found, as in the world of alienation a winner does not recognize himself in his victory and becomes its slave.» (21) The same is true of sport, which represents one of the most radical forms of human alienation in capitalism, whereas victory here appears in the form of record as the «supreme» form of man’s dehu- manization (denaturalization). The bigger «star» a sportsman is, the less human he is.

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