Play as the «Respite from Work»


Aristotle’s view that play is the «respite from labour» is the most widely accepted starting point in determining the relation between labour and play. In ancient Greece, it was not physical labour, which was the «privilege» of slaves and as such unworthy of a free man (Hellene), it was the execution of civil duties which were the precondition for the survival of polis. In his work «Culture and Society», Marcuse claims that play as a whole is necessarily connected with something else, from which it derives and at which it aims – and this something else has also been previously mentioned as labour in the characteristics of composure, tension, worry etc. (2) Marcuse concludes that in one single “throw out” of a ball by a man who plays lies an endlessly larger triumph of the freedom of man’s being over objectivization than in the highest achievement of the technical world. (3) According to Marcuse, in this disregard of objectiveness man comes precisely to himself in the dimension of the freedom he is deprived of in work. (4) A need for play as «amusement» is possible only in the relation to labour as a coercive one-sided activity: without labour there is no play. A lack of freedom in labour becomes the basis for the «freedom in play», whose main characteristics are «voluntariness» and a «lack of effort», which becomes a synonym for «pleasure». Man is not a unified creative being; he is reduced to the «worker» and «player», depending on the sphere he is in. In this context, man’s playing being is not the authentic source of his humanity and the basis of his totalizing (liberating-creative) practice, the starting point is rather play as a specific phenomenon which is a compensation for the unrealized (suppressed) humanity. Play is not the realization of man’s liberating-creative nature; it is a psycho-physical response to a work reduced to repression. Marcuse points this out indirectly when he insists not on passing the ball but on “throwing out” the ball, which is not the expression of freedom but serves to give vent to a suppressed being and its discontent. The nature of work determines the nature of the respite from labour, which means the nature of play. Alienated labour cannot result in a free play, but only in a play as a form of letting off the steam of non-freedom: play as the respite from alienated labour is not de-alienation; it is an alienated form of de-alienation. At the same time, the nature of play is determined by man’s physical and playing abilities. Alienated labour produces a mutilated man who can realize his mutilated playing being in a mutilated way. Man who is de-eroticized through labour and who is deformed by a one-sided and excessive physical exertion cannot manifest his erotic nature in play, which becomes a respite but, at the same time, a preparation for work. As far as the ball is concerned, it is a historical product and so is the skill of “throwing out” the ball and the playing body. The ball is “objectivized” and man must have appropriate physical abilities and playing sensibility, which involves the playing skill, in order to play with the ball. At the same time, “throwing out” the ball does not only express man’s relation to work, it symbolically expresses man’s relation towards another man, which means to the value-related model embodied in play. The purpose of “throwing out” the ball is not to liberate man from the chains of the capitalist civilization and to develop human powers; it is the sterilization of his critical conscious and change-aspiring will («pacification»), as well as the renewal of his working powers. «Readiness to work» represents, according to Adorno, «one of the hidden tasks of sport». (5)

Sport has been formed as an institution at the time of the most intensive industrial development and therefore industrial labour represents the form of labour with the most profound influence on sport. Unlike slave-owning society and feudalism, where physical culture was a privilege of the ruling class and where work and the working body represent the negative basis of physical culture relative to which the «beautiful» is determined (slave work and slave body in antiquity, peasant work and body in the Middle Ages), in capitalism, the industrial way of production conditions the nature of the sports movement and body, as well as of the bourgeois «physical culture» (bodily drill). At the same time, there is an aggressive muscularity which is a physical manifestation of the ruthless combative spirit in a society marked with the bellum omnium contra omnes. It is about the conflict between the original spirit of liberal capitalism, which insists on an atomized society based on the Social Darwinist principle (which obtains legitimacy of being «humane» through the slogans such as “Equal chances!”, «Personal initiative!» and the like) and the ruling spirit of the monopolistic capitalism ruled by the principle «Big fish devours small fish!» and the absolutized principle of quantitatively measurable performance expressed in the Olympic maxim citius, altius, fortius.

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