Roger Caillois: Play as an Escape


In the bourgeois theory, play can be only that behaviour which reflects the structure of the existing world and does not question that world. Caillois’s view that «play has no purpose other that itself» (22) is almost equivalent in meaning with the famous maxim «sport has nothing to do with politics». Play is taken out of history; it becomes the phenomenon sui generis and obtains meaning independently of society and human existence in it. Hence Caillois is not interested in how play appears and how its rules are formed, what they express and what possibilities they offer to man: «There is no reason whatsoever for them to be just as they are and not different», says Caillois. (23) By reducing play to the given which cannot be questioned, Caillois has made from play a suprahistorical concept to which all historical forms of play, expressing the concrete totality of the epoch in which they appeared, are submitted. In that way he abolished them as concrete historical phenomena, but he also abolished the possibility of making a difference between an apparent play and genuine play. Caillois, like Huizinga, tries to obtain for play the legitimacy of the cultural and ensure eternity to all he proclaims play: play is determined by the behaviour proclaimed play. In addition, in Caillois’s classification of plays every human behaviour defined as «play» has some of the elements which constitute the concept of play. Thus war becomes «play» in spite of the fact that, apart from conflicts and rules, it contradicts all other characteristics of play. Caillois’s «purposeless» play is not just a «pure» expression of the ruling relations and values; it is a means for creating an illusory vault that is to prevent man from creating the idea of a just world and fighting for its realization: it deals with utopia.

For Caillois, play is an area that is to enable man an (illusory) escape from the «world of concern» to the «world of happiness». The development of the existing plays in the existing world becomes the creation of a «parallel» world creating an illusory freedom. «Happiness» becomes possible – in the existing world of unhappiness. Play becomes a playing form of escape from the world and letting off the steam of non-freedom – and man’s reconciliation to the existing world of non-freedom. Basically, it is about preventing the discontent with an uncertain and humiliating life from being directed towards the struggle against the causes of misery, which means against the ruling order: play becomes a way of preserving the world of misery. It is only an apparent duplication of the world: in it, as an «oasis of happiness», the ruling relations appear in the playing form – under the aureole of «happiness», «freedom», «spontaneity»… Play becomes the earthly substitute of “paradise”, while the philosophy of play (sport) becomes modern theology: instead of argumenats, we are dealing with an illusory, «humanistic» empty talk. Basically, it is not man who plays, but the ruling spirit plays with man. In antiquity and Christianity man is the “Gods’ toy”; today, man is the toy of capital, while the world is its (global) playing ground. Man «willingly» opts for play and hides behind the ruling values which are the basis of his devaluation. A typical example is gambling, or “lottery” – as it is called in a «more civilized way». It is the authentic picture of a world where the production of social goods is separated from their appropriation and where man’s life is in the hands of a power alienated from man and incarnated in money.

The existing plays, which are a condensed incarnation of the spirit of capitalism, become the starting point for determining the essence of play, and this becomes the starting point for determining man’s (playing) nature. At the same time, by way of play man does not express his human dignity as an independent individual, he strives to become «someone» and thus acquire social affirmation. Instead of striving to change the existing world of misery and create a world in his own human image, the only one in which he can be happy, man seeks happiness in play which is but a form incarnating the ruling relations and values of a world from which man strives to escape. Under the cover of «escape» from the «world of concern» man’s need for freedom and happiness is directed to the area which is the incarnation of the fundamental principles of the existing world – which bring about the everyday misery. Instead of changing the world, man is to change himself; instead of adapting the world to himself, man is to adapt to the existing world. Sport also is a place ruled by «democratic non-freedom» (Marcuse) which is characteristic of technical (capitalist) «progress». (24)

For Caillois, play is not a way of developing interpersonal relations and creating a community of emancipated and creative individuals; it is rather a means for intensifying the institutional repression over man which is to protect society (the ruling order) from the «evil» human nature. Caillois: «If the principles of plays really correspond to strong instincts (competition, pursuit of happiness, disguise, dizziness), then it is quite understandable that they can be satisfied only in ideal and limited conditions, those proposed by the rules of play. If they were left to themselves, unrestrained and destructive like all instincts are, those elementary impulses would only have fatal consequences. Plays discipline instincts and impose on them institutional existence. At the moment they can offer them an explicit and limited satisfaction, they educate them, fertilize them, and immunize their soul from their contagiousness. At the same time, they enable them to contribute to a noble enrichment and establishment of cultural styles.» (25) And he continues: «Outside the arena, after the final gong, begins the true distortion of agon, which is most widespread of all. It appears in every resistance which is not  restrained any more by the strict spirit of play. So, free competition is but one of the laws of nature. It finds in society its original brutality the moment it finds a free pass through the web of moral, social and legal obstacles, which, as in play, represent restrictions and conventions. It is precisely the reason why a furious, ruthless ambition, whatever its manifestation may be, which does not respect the rules of play, and it means fair-play, is to be disclosed as a fatal distortion which thus in certain cases leads to the starting position. Nothing, indeed, better shows the civilizatory role of play than the obstacles it usually puts before the natural greed. It is accepted that a good player is the one who can accept, with indifference and at least apparent cold bloodedness, a bad outcome even of the most persistent endeavours or loss of the incredibly high stakes. The decision of the referee, even unjust, is in principle accepted. The distortion of agon begins when the referee and his decision are no longer recognized.» (26) In order to justify the repressive institutions of capitalist society, Caillois reduces man to the beast to which he ascribes «greed», proclaiming the «limitless competition», which is «one of the laws of nature», the spiritus movens of social life. The ruling laws of capitalism become the laws of nature, while the pathological psychological prophile of the members of parasitic classes becomes the «nature» of the animal. Caillois does not differentiate between man’s aggression which springs from his active, impulse-based relation to the environment that enables him to survive – and man’s apparent «need» for violence over other men and for killings. At the same time, man is repeatedly reduced to a bloodthirsty beast, in spite of the fact that man’s animal ancestor is not the wolf, but chimpanzee. Blinded by the endeavour to deal with libertarian aspirations of the oppressed at all costs and preserve the class order, Caillois «overlooks» what every village boy knows: wolf does not have a need to kill sheep, but to satisfy its hunger. If a wolf were provided with sufficient quantity of fresh meat at the edge of the forest, it would never come to the village to kill sheep. A beast kills its victim to feed itself; man does not kill another man to satisfy his hunger but to realize certain interests: killing is an instrumental and not an immediate existential (instinctive) activity. War does not stem from man’s need to kill; it is a means for realizing political and economic ends of those who do not take an active part in it, but pull strings from the shadow. Thyssen, Krupp, Hitler, Ribbentrop, Himmler – they did not kill anyone. The same applies to anthropologists who argue that man is by his nature a «killer»: it is always «someone else», above all «working masses», who the ruling exploiting classes turn into «cannon fodder» (Bloch) in order to fulfil their interests. In boxing, man does not have a need to hurt and kill another man: «fame» (escape from anonymity) and money are the driving forces that induce man to storm at his opponent. Likewise, the animal does not have an instrumental and utilitarian relation to its body. It does not reduce its body to the tool for achieving a «record» – at the cost of its own destruction. In addition, the animal is not «greedy» as is the case with man degenerated in the capitalist way. It does not strive to seize and accumulate wealth that would be used for accumulating even more wealth (which in class society gives you the ruling power), as is the case with the bourgeois, on which Coubertin’s «utilitarian pedagogy» is based. Caillois «forgets» that the animal world has been in existence much longer than mankind in spite of the animalistic «greed», in spite of the effects of the law of «limitless competition» and without any repressive institutions. Furthermore, animals also «play», and they are not restricted by the given norms, but by their instinctive nature which stops them from hurting one another, the fact pointed also by Huizinga. Animals do not have «destructive instincts»; they tend to satisfy their primary needs in a way that does not threaten the survival of the living world. Speaking of man’s «animal» nature, Caillois, like Huizinga, does not say that the primary animal drive is the drive for freedom. A need for freedom is the most important drive which man «inherited» from his animal ancestors. Caillois’s theory, in contrast to its basic political intention, indicates that man is by his nature a libertarian being and that he opts for play because he has a need to get rid of everyday bonds: a need for play is a need for freedom from the capitalist world. Caillois does not associate play with the manifestation of man’s erotic, especially not creative, nature, which involves closeness between people. Man «inherited» from his animal ancestors (biological) life-creation ability (procreation) – on which an animal’s need of another animal and its motion towards another animal is founded and which is the basis of their «playing» impulse. It is manifested in the «need for pretending», for calling etc., which is all a «love call», or love (fore) play preceding mating, and this suggests that the animal is far more noble then a petty bourgeois, whose erotic nature was degenerated by capitalism and who reduces his «partner» to the object of sexual abuse and incubator. Man’s vital need of another man, which is of a creative character and by which the animal life-creation ability (procreation) is overcome, is the basis of sociability, which means of man’s motion towards another man. It is the basis of human «goodness» that involves freedom, life-creation and sociability.

If Caillois’s theory were true, the main task of trainers would be to suppress the aggression in their players. Instead, the main problem of trainers, especially in periods of competition, is how to keep their players motivated for competition (combat). In order to make players assault the opponents, trainers use the most perfidious forms of manipulation that question the player’s dignity as a «man». At the same time, the player who is not capable of «charging at his opponent», will not only be called a «coward», «woman» or «gay», he will, in the eyes of his trainer, become a «traitor», as he is not willing to fulfil the requirement set by sport, which is a victory at all costs. It should be noted here that in sport man does not experience other players as people, but as «opponents», «struggling for a place under the sun». Just as killing an «enemy» in a war is a legal and legitimate means for achieving victory, so is the killing and hurting one’s «opponent» in sport a legal and legitimate means for achieving the ultimate end. Instead of a love of freedom and man, in sport, just as in war, we are dealing with a ruthless «victorious spirit» of the sportsman who has become a robotized (capitalistically mutated) beast – whose aggressiveness is not his inherent quality, but is an instrument for realizing inhuman ends. The instrumentalization of aggression by the sportsman presupposes the instrumentalization of man by the ruling order. The same applies to man’s relation to his own body: man’s (self) destruction in sport corresponds to the destruction of man (living world) by capital. Sport is dominated by the spirit of capitalist destruction based on the absolutized principle of performance – which is unknown in the animal world, or in «primitive» peoples who live in unity with nature. The absurdity of anthropology (whose «best minds» regularly come from Christian churches), which reduces man to the beast, can be seen when its arguments about human nature are confronted with the Christian doctrine of the nature of man. Where does man’s «animal nature» come from when it is «created by God» and «in God’s image»? How come that bourgeois anthropologists, as the leading figures of Christian churches, do not recommend prayers to people in order to suppress their «aggressiveness», but offer them instead bloody gladiator’s spectacles the cruelty of which exceeds everything that can be found in the animal world? To make the hypocrisy even bigger, they proclaim bloody sports spectacles (as well as killing animals for fun, chivalrous tournaments and war) «play», which means an area where man is supposed to experience «happiness»! Horkheimer also justifies boxing by man’s need to vent his aggression. Why does that have to be achieved through physical injuries inflicted on the «opponent» and killings? Why cannot man express his «aggression» by hitting a sack, through physical exercises, work and the activities that can help him develop his creative powers? There is also the question of why boxing fights are performed publicly and turned into a spectacle, which means that murderous violence is being glorified? Why is boxing proclaimed, by bourgeois theorists of sport, «noble skill», and war has become the «best test of a man’s maturity» – if murderous aggression is condemned?

Sport does not suppress but contributes to the development of aggressive behaviour and its glorification, which only confirms the truth that sport is the incarnation of the ruling relations and creation of a man suited to the ruling order. Violence is not inherent to human nature; it has an instrumental character and serves for achieving inhuman needs. To hit one’s opponent is not a human need; it is a means for achieving victory, which means to ensure existence and affirmation by way of the ruling value model. Victory is achieved through ever more «efficient» blows at the opponent, which means through ever more efficient bodily injuries. Hence the main intention of boxers is to «knock out» the opponent, meaning to cause brain damage which blocks consciousness and bodily reactions and frequently has fatal consequences. If a boxer evades blows, and tries not to strike his opponent, the referee stops the fight and asks them to strike blows. If the boxer who has been reprimanded continues to avoid blows, he will be disqualified. Boxing is an example which illustrates that sport is the incarnation of the spirit of ruling relations in a «pure» sense, and that fight for victory by eliminating the opponent is the governing life principle of capitalism which is of a totalitarian character.

If man is by his nature an «aggressive being», why does he look for «entertainment» in play with its repressive normative vault that deals with man’s original (aggressive) nature? If we consistently follow Caillois’s anthropological conception and his view that play is a way of keeping man’s animal nature under institutional control, opting for play cannot be «voluntary», let alone «spontaneous», but is rather repressive. However, even according to Caillois’s theory, man is not discontented because he cannot realize his destructive instincts and greed, but because of the imposed obligations, wherefrom follows constant anxiety, uncertainty, fear, need to «forget» about his everyday life and escape from obligations. Strivings for play become man’s psychological reaction to everyday life pervaded with «concern». Hence Caillois does not offer man play as a space where he will be able to give vent to his «aggressive» nature, but creates an illusion that play is a space where man can realize his suppressed humanity and thus experience «happiness». Speaking of play, Caillois concludes: «It exists only where players want to play and where they do play, even if it is the most tiring and highly exhausting play, wishing to have fun and forget about their worries and get away from everyday life.» (27) Play is not a means for eliminating the causes of discontent; it is a spiritual drug which is to block pain created in man by everyday life – which does not enable him to realize his human potentials. It is an illusory escape since in the «world of play» the ruling relations and principles of the established world of «unhappiness» appear in a playing form. An unfree man is offered «happiness» in the form of a new cage which is regarded as the place of «happiness».

Adorno’s analysis of running throws light on the nature of play and of man’s need to get away from capitalist nothingness from another angle: «Running through streets looks like horror. It is an already imitated collapse of the victim in its attempt to avoid disaster… (…) The habit of the body to walk as if it is something normal comes from good old times. It was the bourgeois way of not moving away from one spot: physical demythologization, free from the constraints of hierarchical walking, from traveling without roof over one’s head, escape without the soul. Man’s dignity lay in the right to walk, to a rhythm which was not imposed on the body by commands or intimidation. Walking, roaming, were ways of spending your private time, a heritage of feudal strolls in the nineteenth century. With the liberal century, walking died, even there where there were no cars. The youth movement which felt those tendencies with a doubtless mechanism, declared war to parental Sunday excursions and replaced them with voluntary enforced marches and called them the medieval journey, while the model of Ford was already awaiting it. Maybe in the cult of technical speed, just as in sport, the impulse is hiding to master the horror of running, by diverting it from one’s own body and at the same time by overcoming it independently and masterly: the triumph of the mile counter ritually abates the fear of the chased. But, if you shout to a man: «run», be it a child who should fetch to his mother the purse she had left on the first floor, or a prisoner who is ordered to run by the escorts as an excuse to kill him, then the archaic violence, which otherwise quietly steers every step, becomes loud. » (28) The «horror of running» springs from the fear that one will lag behind, in a muddy pond beside the road. In capitalism, the worst of curses is to be a «loser». Everyone strives to capture the rhythm of life, conditioned by the ever growing speed of capital reproduction. No one knows anyone else. No one speaks to anyone else. You can either run or disappear. Just as a well-trained dog follows its master, so a mentally retarded (petty) bourgeois strives in his jogging-trance to follow the increasing rhythm of pulsing of capitalist reproduction which mercilessly rejects all those who cannot follow its dynamic. Running becomes one of the («spontaneous») manifestations of the struggle for survival, a way of gaining confidence which becomes indispensable in the increasingly ruthless «life game». At the same time, «sports» running is the rationalization of one’s fear of disappearing through the mechanism of quantification which is the landmark in the desert of hopelessness, and which creates the impression that escape is actually just a movement forward and thus an «achievement» that gives meaning to life.

«Mass sport» has become a form of mass escape from social reality, a way of taking advantage of the new (consumer) possibilities (in petty bourgeois, it is the confirmation of his «status») which enable man an escape to nature. By «freely engaging in sport» man buys the illusion of «freedom», which is to enable him to endure life in which he is deprived of the possibility of being human. It is all about finding the «island of salvation», escaping beyond the real life. «Mass sport» far more successfully sterilizes man’s critical and change-oriented conscious than passive enjoyment in sports spectacles. When watching sport, man is just a passive participant in a show (reduced to a roaring mass), while in «mass sport» he becomes the bearer of sports activity. It is about a concrete challenge (fight with nature, mastering space, fatigue, one’s own body, etc), and meeting the challenge is experienced by man as the confirmation of his own values. With fewer and fewer possibilities of realizing his true human powers in his everyday life, man is becoming more and more tempted by this challenge. In addition, the illusion of freedom is experienced in the open more strongly then on the stadiums, where man is surrounded by a fence, «security guards» on horsebacks, police dogs… Equally important is the fact that gaining freedom by «conquering nature» is one of the most important motifs used by the ideologues of capitalism in building myths of their «heroes», as if human freedom was threatened by nature and not by capitalism which destroys man and nature. The symbol of the «free man» becomes a bold lone runner, who «bravely» pushes his way through wilderness. The freedom gained is measured in kilometers of the covered space, obstacles that have been overcome, and at the same time man is reduced in society to the labour-consumer tool of capital. Potential libertarian-creative energy is directed to a pseudo-activity which cannot cause a change in social relations and man’s position in society. Obviously, it is one more form of compensatory activism that enables man an (illusory) escape from responsibility for the survival of mankind, as well as for the risks carried by the fight against the suicidal capitalist tyranny.

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