Sunday, March 26, 2006


What is Homo Ludens?

Snowball, in his very kind plug for this blog, asked this very question. Culture vulture that he is, he correctly identified Huizinga's Homo Ludens as the source of the title. So what did Huizinga identify in his analysis that is so appealing and / or important?

The very same thing that Henri Lefebvre identified in his re-routing of Marx. Lefebvre was originally a fairly orthodox Marxist critic, and one of the ideologists in the French Communist Party during the 1940s. But, attracted to the attempts of Guy Debord and the Situationist International (see here for superb web coverage of the SI) to focus on Marx's analysis of commodity fetishism rather than exploitation of labour as the locus of alienation, Lefebvre re-routed his analysis.


Greil Marcus, in Lipstick Traces: a secret history of the Twentieth Century (the greatest work of non-fiction I have ever yes ever read), takes up the story:


In 1967, a year before French students and workers reenacted the Paris Commune in the uprising of May '68, situationist notions about revolution were patent nonsense. "The situationists," Henri Lefebvre wrote then,

propose not a concrete utopia, but an abstraction. Do they really believe that one fine day, or one decisive evening, people will look at each other and say, "Enough! To hell with work, to hell with boredom! Let's put an end to it!" - and that everyone will then step into the eternal Festival and the creation of situations? If this happened once, at the dawn of 18 March 1871, this combination of circumstances will not occur again.

The agreement, between an eminent sixty-six-year-old sociologist and young extremists drunk on their own theories, was as complete as the breach: the agreement that the Commune had been a rejection of "boredom" in favour of "festival". Those words were not part of conventional critical discourse; they were part of a discourse that, once, Lefebvre and the situationists had invented together.

In the aftermath of the Second World War, Lefebvre was the chief theorist of the French Communist Party, which many thought was on the verge of taking power. Perhaps the leading Marxist philosopher in France, he was a scientist with a tenure more valuable than any university could guarantee. But over the next decade he turned away from Marxist scientism, arguing that to change the world one had to think about changing life. Instead of examining institutions and classes, structures of economic production and social control, one had to think about "moments" - moments of love, hate, poetry, frustration, action, surrender, delight, humiliation, justice, cruelty, resignation, surprise, disgust, resentment, self-loathing, pity, fury, peace of mind - those tiny epiphanies, Lefebvre said, in which the absolute possibilities and temporal limits of anyone's existence were revealed. The richness or poverty of any social formation could be judged only in the terms of these evanescences; they passed out of consciousness as if they had never been, but in their instants they contained the whole of life. Once, perhaps in the Middle Ages, every moment had been part of a visible totality, just as the language of religion was part of the language of work. In the modern world, where God was dead and the division of labour divided every sector of life from every other, each moment was separate, and none had a language. Still - what if one took a moment as a passageway to totality? What if one based one's life on the wish to affirm the moment of love, or negate the moment of resignation?


Blogger Snowball said...

Your blog gets more and more intriguing.

So did Huizinga know Lefebvre?

2:09 PM  
Blogger paddington said...

Not as far as I know. Huizinga died in 1945, which I think was a little before Lefebvre became influential in France, so I think it's unlikely they would have had the opportunity to meet.

But Guy Debord (grand fromage of the SI) saw both of them as influential: in fact, he said the latter Lefebvre was a combination of Huizinga and Marx.

10:23 PM  

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