Not positive about being positive.


I want to write about two things:

  • Friedrich von Schiller’s notion of play here, and
  • the notion that being positive — e. g., making people feel good about themselves — is necessarily a good thing.

I am reminded of Schiller’s version of play by Gill’s (quite good) explication here.  And I am, almost simultaneously, exposed to a more common and, unfortunately, superficial version of play and games as (seemingly indistinguishable) popular activities — championed in this instance by Kelly here.

Briefly, Schiller’s notion of play claims that play originates from a natural (we might today say “biological”)  “play-impluse,” mediating a relationship between the sensual and the formal.  We needn’t spend much time on Schiller’s definition of the sensual and the formal (which may well be dated); the important thing to note is that, for Schiller, these two are fundamental, dialectical, and combinatorial components of human experience.  We might, in blunt terms, think of these two as mind and body (or, perhaps, theory and practice); and we might think of play as the proper (i. e., the only available) means of their reconciliation.  This reconciliation — impartial and paradoxical, due to the fundamentally dialectical nature of these two — is, for Schiller, “beauty.”  “Graceful” beauty tends towards the formal; “energetic” beauty tends towards the sensual.  In between is the “beau-ideal” towards which, in play, we as humans strive.

For example, the intellectual man has the idea of virtue, of truth, and of happiness; but the active man will only practise virtues, will only grasp truths, and enjoy happy days. The business of physical and moral education is to bring back this multiplicity to unity, to put morality in the place of manners, science in the place of knowledge; the business of aesthetic education is to make out of beauties the beautiful.

Not an easy task, however.  And the difficulty associated with achieving the beautiful arises, in large part, from how we represent beauty, in a semblance of beauty, which we might take for something other than what it is:  a reference made possible through play.

It is self-evident that I am speaking of aesthetical evidence different from reality and truth, and not of logical appearance identical with them. Therefore if it is liked it is because it is an appearance, and not because it is held to be something better than it is: the first principle alone is a play whilst the second is a deception.

This task of achieving the beautiful is made much easier by adopting the point of view of Kelly, wherein beauty from Schiller’s p.o.v. is defined as popularity from Kelly’s p.o.v. (or, perhaps, if put more crudely in commercial terms, profitability from a game designer’s p.o.v.).

Kelly — in reaction to Bogost’s claim that ‘gamifiction is bullshit‘ (a view antithetical to his own) — objects to ‘rage’ specifically (and discord more generally) as a means of achieving aesthetic value.  I interpret this objection as assuming that a practical and successful consequence of (seemingly indistinguishable) play and games is achieved not, as Schiller would claim, through any sort of synthesis of thesis and antithesis, but rather through the elimination of all but thesis:  that thesis being whatever is most pleasant and popular.  For instance, Kelly touts Jane McGonigal’s games’ aesthetic value as emanating from her being “positive” enough to have a best-selling book, and he criticizes academic “memes” as lacking in value when they fail to gain popular support (most likely due to, one can only assume, “positivity” deficiencies).

In brief, Kelly’s position is that aesthetic value is determined by the popularity of that value.  And, unlike Schiller, Kelly sees no contradiction or conflict between more than one sort of “popularity.”  The justification for Kelly’s position is much underdeveloped in comparison to Schiller’s, of course, though Kelly does make oblique reference to “memetic evolution” as a mechanism for determining aesthetic value:  a survival of the fittest idea within an “audience.”


My reaction.

  • I am unsympathetic to positions that, like Kelly’s, assign an unquestioning and indefatigable wisdom to crowds.  Regardless of whatever evolutionary principle causes this or that idea to be “popular,” it is wholly uncertain whether this principle works equally well in contemporary as evolutionary contexts.  Insofar as humans still tend to elect political leaders better suited to leading small tribes of bipedal mammals across savannas than setting bond rates according to the second derivative of their price function, I am little convinced that a “best-selling book” is necessarily a more valuable “meme” than Schiller’s On the Aesthetic Education of Man.
  • I am very concerned by the elevation of “being positive” as a means of assigning and/or producing aesthetic value.  I find this claim, at best, unsophisticated and, at worse, self-serving and deceptive.  It is self-serving as a form of cultural bullyism, akin to “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all” and/or “Love it or leave it.”   And it is deceptive in that it fails to elevate, as Schiller’s position does, the semiotic function of play in the production of a unique (and otherwise unobtainable) representation of beauty; if so, then claims such as Kelly’s ultimately misrepresent beauty, associating beauty and play less with art and the values of aesthetics than with artifice and the politics of popularity.