Olympism and Phenomenology of Play


If we bear in mind Coubertin’s insisting on the will, which refers to subjectivity, it could be concluded that his Olympic doctrine does not have much in common with Gadamer’s phenomenological conception. However, if we remember that, for Coubertin, man is not the subject of history but a means with which fatal “progress” removes the obstacles on its road, then we can conclude that Coubertin’s conception is close to Gadamer’s aspiration to consider play as the “guiding line of ontological explication” starting from the methodological postulate: “Not to examine what we do, nor what we are to do, but what happens to us beyond our will and action”. In that context, Gadamer tries to “separate the notion of play from a subjective meaning, which it has in Kant and Schiller and which dominates the whole recent aesthetics and anthropology”, (66) for play “does not enter the conscious of the one who plays and is thus more than a kind of subjective behaviour”. (67) “Therefore, our question on the essence of play cannot be answered if we expect to get it from the subjective reflexion of the player. Instead of that, we ask about the mode of being of play as such. (…) For play has its own essence, independent of the conscious of those who play.” (68) From that Gadamer draws the following conclusion: “The subject of play are not the players, it is through players that play occurs.” (69) Gadamer deprives man of his playing (human) subjectivity only to proclaim play the subject of play. It is not man who plays, but play plays by way of man as its plaything. Since everything is at the level of the given and the phenomenal play is possible without players, and man’s appearing in play does not give it any specific character, since man is something through which play is carried out (play-plays-play) and thus is ranked along with waves, ballots and mosquitoes.

In Huizinga, play is an escape from reality to illusion, while in Gadamer play is the fullest and most authentic form of the occurrence of life. Unlike Huizinga, in whom play is a spider’s web spun from the dominant values of the aristocratic order, in Gadamer, play is the reflexion of the being (Dasein), which acts in people directly since “play has its own essence, independent of the conscious of those who play”. (70) In Huizinga the essence of play are the given rules which have the divine legitimacy, while in Gadamer the essence of play are the ruling relations which acquire their playing expression in the form of “to and fro motion”, while the rules of play are the reflexion of the being and are thus a datum which cannot be questioned. “Spontaneity” reflects the relation of the being to man, and not the relation of man to play: “spontaneity” in play appears as a mindless behaviour which blindly follows the spirit of play expressed in the form of the given rules. Man does not play spontaneously, but play spontaneously springs from life, which means that life spontaneously plays with man. Play is not based on the imitation of “significant gestures”, which presupposes the existence of the aesthetical pattern embodied in the aristocracy and the capability of imitation – as is the case in Nietzsche – but on a “spontaneous” behaviour which is a direct phenomenal expression of the being. Huizinga’s aesthetics is a culturological critique of the existing world; Gadamer’s aesthetics has neither a critical nor a culturological, but a phenomenological character: play is not a mode of man’s specific existence, but the existence of the being – which is independent of man. By playing, man does not affirm his humanity, but his hopeless submission to the existing world from which the rules of play – which according to Huizinga must not, while according to Gadamer cannot be questioned – originate. For Gadamer, play is not a phenomenon sui generis, but is “life in its highest seriousness” (Šarčević), which means that play is a form in which life lives itself, that is to say, the playing form of the occurrence of life. Man is not only submitted to the normative mould of play, as is the case with Huizinga’s homo ludens, but to the phenomenon of play springing from the very structure of the world which is beyond man’s critical-changing practice. Man is stuck between the being and play which is its normative reflexion and is thus an indestructible spiritual firmament: the conscious of play becomes a form of selfreflexion of the being. Gadamer seeks to preserve the “ontological dignity of play” at the expense of its socio-historical dignity, which means to abolish play as a concrete historical phenomenon and to reduce it to an abstract superhistorical phenomenon. Instead of the notion of true play, which opens the possibility of demystifying the existing plays, Gadamer introduces the notion of a “complete play” which “is not connected with seriousness which comes from play, but only with seriousness in playing. The one who does not take play seriously, spoils it. The mode of being of play does not allow the player to treat play as a kind of object.” (71) Gadamer reduces play to a datum which is independent of man and he rejects subjectivity, while at the same time proclaims “seriousness in playing”, which means man’s subjective relation to play, the criterion for differentiating a “complete” from an incomplete play. Consistently following his conception, man cannot treat play carelessly since it is not he who plays, but play plays with him. Also, since play is a form in which life itself occurs, man cannot question the existing plays, let alone step out of them: they appear as a fatal phenomenological firmament of the existing world to which man is hopelessly submitted.

For Coubertin, sport has the same meaning as play has for Gadamer: it is a mode of man’s being a slave of the existing world. In sport, life, which is based on Social Darwinist and progressistic principle, plays with man. Sport does not belong to the sphere of aesthetics, but to the sphere of “pure” existence: it symbolizes a qualitative leap in the evolution of the living world which came with capitalism and its principle of “progress”. Accordingly, sport has its own essence which is independent of man and his subjective experience of sport, but springs from the essence of the ruling order. Hence man is not included in sport by way of normative conscious, but by living a life reduced to a struggle for survival and domination. Sport does not offer an illusory “escape to freedom”; it is a foreplay of a cruel life play. However, in Coubertin, just like in Gadamer, what is essential for the survival of sport (play) is man’s subjective relation to it, which means his obedient acceptance of the ruling order and fanatical submission to the principles of natural selection and “greater effort”. Hence Coubertin attaches such importance to the principle of “control in heads” with which he seeks to abolish the normative firmament that prevents the realization of the “will to power” of the rich “elite” and thus the capitalist expansion based on the principle “right is might” and natural selection. He is not “burdened” with the questions on freedom, equality, justice… Coubertin’s “utilitarian pedagogy” deals with man’s subjective libertarian-creative practice, while “progress” is separated from man and its results become a means of the “trustees of the Olympic idea” for creating a positive man and positive society.

Gadamer discards Marx’s methodological principle according to which “the anatomy of man is a key to understanding the anatomy of the monkey”, but also Coubertin’s evolutionism, and departs from the lowest forms in man’s evolution (”savage”) in order to explain play as a phenomenon. (72) All between nature and man that offers a possibility of making play a cultural phenomenon through which man’s specific libertarian-creative nature is affirmed, is abolished. Instead in the play of an emancipated man, Gadamer looks for conclusive evidence in the play of Huizinga’s “savage” in order to support his assertions and makes the same mistake as Huizinga. In a “savage”, play has a ritual character and a strict form which by no means must be disturbed lest the fury of the spirits be aroused. Every play has a specific meaning and specific rules and equipment, as well as appropriate masks and body drawings which are a preparation for play, and it also includes casting roles among the members of a tribe, particularly between the sexes and different age groups. Therefore, the symbolic forms of bodily expression have special importance, and even Nietzsche attached primary importance to such forms of expression in his attempt to abolish a normative mediation in the education of the aristocratic youth and turn the aristocracy into an exclusive organic community. At the same time, play involves a playing skill by way of which man’s playing being is manifested and play is performed. As far as the play of animals is concerned, Gadamer, like Huizinga, establishes a relation between children and animals according to formalized behaviours and disregards the crucial thing: by playing, a child becomes a man (individual); a young animal, on the other hand, becomes an animal (a member of its species). It is interesting that, unlike Huizinga who places the plays of animals and man at the same level, ascribing priority and originality to the play of animals, Gadamer places at the same level natural phenomena and the behaviour of animals and man. Instead of the highest form of play being the starting point for attaining the notion of play, it is attained from the analises of the “play” of natural phenomena and machines. From there follows that play is not only “older” then culture, as it is in Huizinga, but that it is older then the living world. Following the evolutionary and progressistic conception, Coubertin does not depart from inorganic or most primitive forms of life, but from the highest level in evolution embodied in capitalist “progress” and its “new man” as opposed to Gadamer’s “savage”. Hence Gadamer’s phenomenology of play, based on an anti-evolutionary “to and fro motion”, is for Coubertin basically unacceptable. In Coubertin, man, with his “lazy animal nature”, has a need to fight for domination and survival, but nor for “progress”. In that sense, sport, as the embodiment of the spirit of “progress”, has an essentially different nature from animal plays, as well as from those human plays which do not have a “progres- sive” character. By way of sport, as the “cult of intensive physical exercises” which is “not in human nature”, a new quality in the evolution of the living beings is achieved, which corresponds to the expansive and “progressive” nature of monopolistic capitalism. The absolutized principle of performance, on which “progress” is based, is a new “quality” in the development of the animal world and civilization. Sport corresponds to the ontological structure of the capitalist world, which is based on the instrumentalization of natural forces: man is not the subject of play nor is the plaything of the being, but is the tool of “progress”.

Gadamer locates play in the structure of the being by way of the “to and fro motion”. Gadamer: “The motion which is play does not have an aim where it ends, but is renewed in constant repetition. This to and fro motion is, obviously, so central to determening the essence of play that it is irrelevant who or what performs it. The motion of play is at the same time without a substrate. It is a play which is played or proceeds – there is no a solid subject who plays. Play is the process of motion as such.” (73) Gadamer gives to “the to and fro motion” a metaphysical character and proclaims it the first cause on which the ontological structure of the being is based. It is a projection of a fateful power which, like a “pendulum of horror”, constantly hinders every attempt at questioning the existing world even in thoughts and taking a new path. Unlike labour and other purposeful activities which have the beginning and end, “the to and fro motion” is purposeless and timeless. Play manifests the unchangeable structure of the world in a “pure” form by which man completely fuses into the (given) being. The purpose of a “purposeless” play is to completely integrate man into the existing world. At the level of a non-historical (abstract) “the to and fro motion” disappears quality, which means the human. This suits Coubertin: sport is not a form of the world’s duplication and a way of escape from it; a mode of creating an illusory world, as is the case in Schiller and Huizinga, but is a field in which the ruling relations appear in a “pure” form and thus is the cult of capitalism. Gadamer’s play rejects both the dialectic of nature and the dialectic of history. “The to and fro motion” does not proceed through opposites; it has a mechanical character and deals with the historical motion. It reflects the logic of the capitalist motion, and not of motion as such: it is a way in which life throws man from one corner to another according to the principle to gain – to lose. Gadamer’s “to and fro motion” comes down to an eternal repetition of the same, which means that it is an apparent movement which does not offer a possibility of stepping out of the existing world – whose play is but a reflexion. Ultimately, all forms of “the to and fro motion” are the forms of the being’s motion within itself. Instead of a timeless “to and fro motion”, the dominant motion in sport is the motion “forward”, which is conditioned by the “progressive” spirit of capitalism involving quantitative shifts without qualitative changes. It is a progression without progress, which means that in sport we deal with an illusory (non-historical) motion.

Speaking of the relation between play and conscious Gadamer concludes: “Here, basically, the primacy of play is recognized relative to the conscious of the one who plays, and indeed on the experiences of playing which should be described by a psychologist and anthropologist, a new and illuminated light is shed, if we depart from the mediatory sense of play. Play, obviously, represents an order in which the motion of play to and fro starts by itself. Play also means that motion is not only without purpose and intention but also without effort. It proceeds by itself. The easiness of play, which of course, should not mean a real lack of effort, but should only phenomenologically think a lack of exertion, is subjectively experienced as a relief.”(74) Gadamer sees in play a behaviour which is nothing but a “pure” form in which a life alienated from man occurs. In this context Gadamer departs from the artistic play which can be “objectivized” by being deprived of the subject: play does not involve the aesthetic sense and discovering the aesthetic in phenomena. Gadamer does not treat play as an aesthetic phenomenon, but as an abstract form without a “substrate”, in which the quality of human play as a concrete historical phenomenon is lost, which becomes the foundation of an ontological determination of play. Speaking of the play of animals, Gadamer refers to Huizinga, but overlooks the fact that Huizinga has in mind their playing together, which means that a playing community is the basic presupposition of play. This is what gives sense to the rules of play: they should regulate the relations between the participants in play. Since according to Gadamer play is possible without people, a playing community is not indispensable for play. That Gadamer is well aware of the limitations of his conception is seen from the fact that he gives the examples of the “play” of waves, machines and mosquitoes, but does not mention the play of the human spirit, the play of imagination, love play, namely, a specific human play which exceeds the framework of an impersonal “to and fro motion”.

What is the link between man and play without the subjective, or, how can play play with man? In Nietzsche, the cosmic powers affect man through his Dionysian nature which is developed by art. Coubertin “solved” that problem by means of “circumstances”: from his early childhood man should be in such life circumstances in which he has to fight for domination and survival. “A voluntary” option for sport becomes a “voluntary” option for life. For Coubertin, sport is not possible as a subjective behaviour since man is not a subject but a “lazy animal” and thus is the material from which, by way of sport as the incarnation of the “progressive” spirit of capitalism, a tool for realizing the strategic interests of the ruling order should be made. Technically, Coubertin is here close to the Christian doctrine: the Olympic Games should inseminate man with the spirit of capitalism and create a positive man. Sport  becomes a way of creating the character and conscious of a “civilized” beast and a field in which the basic principles of capitalist society appear in a “pure” form. What, according to Gadamer, are the “charms” of play? Gadamer: “Indeed, play itself presents a risk for the player. You can play only with serious possibilities. (…) The charms of play lie in this very risk. Thus we can enjoy a freedom of choice which is nevertheless limited and at the same time irrevocably restricted.” (75) In his discussions on play Gadamer actually elaborates a logic of life. “The to and fro motion” becomes the pulsation of the life pulse of capitalism, while play becomes its manifest form. What makes play attractive and dramatic is that it is a play with “destiny”, which means with the ruling spirit of life to which man is subordinated. The risk on which Gadamer insists is the expression of the logic to gain – to lose, which is the reflection of the logic to be – not to be. Gadamer gives a psychological prophile of the (petty)bourgeois who is “fascinated” by play, which corresponds to the world ruled by irrational laws of the market, where the creation of values is separated from their acquisition: play becomes the paradigm of a life which plays with man. It is precisely because of this that man is attracted by play: by playing man seeks to cope with life following the rules dictated by life itself – which is always the winner. What attracts man is a need to “enjoy a freedom of choice” – “which is nevertheless  limited and at the same time irrevocably restricted”. Here it is clear that, according to Gadamer, play is a peculiar play of life which has a compensational character: in play man plays with life by tempting it. Certainly, everything occurs within the strict limitations of play which do not allow any questioning of the rules that are only a normative expression of the ruling relations. Man is “free” to join play and leave it at will – and this is impossible when it comes to everyday life. A “free” fusion into life is the highest form of sumbission to the ruling relations. Coubertin’s play has a ritual character and it belongs to “the to and fro motion” only by its form. “The uncertainty” of play does not indicate man’s freedom, but the bars of a cage in which he is hopelessly closed. It is a lure which repeatedly creates the illusion of the possibilities of overcoming the fateful powers that control man and that are always winning – as long as man plays by their rules. Just as ancient Olimpia was a holy playground where gods played with people, so is a sports stadium the holy playground where the ruling spirit of the present world plays with people.

Gadamer’s conception is particularly problematic when it comes to the terms which are but an ideological mask for the phenomena whose nature is essentially different from the one denoted by those terms. The theory of sport and Olympism abounds in such terms: boxing is called a “noble skill”; the Olympic competitions are regularly accompanied by the terms such as: “peaceful cooperation”, “internationalism”, “love between the young people of the world” etc. Gadamer’s phenomenological conception reduces the ancient Olympic Games to the modern “Olympic Games” in spite of the fact that they are an essentially different (historical) phenomenon. Also, if language reflects the unambiguous ontological structure of the being, then there cannot exist contrary language expressions concerning play, which only suggest different (subjective) forms of the conception of play and a different relation to play. If it is not possible to establish how adequately certain expressions denote a phenomenon, then the question of truthfulness of the being which is “spontaneously” reflected in language expressions, cannot be asked. At the same time, the capitalist ideology gives a distorted picture of capitalism: the selfreflexion of the being occurs in a “curved mirror” in which the monstrous face of a witch acquires the form of a virgin.

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