Seven Short Essays on Postmodernism and Play

Philosophical explorations

2001 ir. Hajo Schilperoort, architect

The tired, critical, negative philosophy of postmodernism (Apocalyps) can be inverted in order to find it's vital, creative positive alter ego, being pleasure and play (Eden). This essay describes seven inversions by theme.


As far as postmodernism is not just a romantic contra-force, but rather a therapeutical Self investigation of (classic) modernism, it seems to be leaning very much onto the relatively young tradition of [CRITICAL PARANOID THINKING], starting at Nietzsche's Genealogy of Moral and continued in Freud's psychoanalysis, Dalí's surrealism and Derrida's deconstruction. While Nietzsche and Freud still talk about a project of unmasking, deconstructivism assumes there is nothing to be unmasked and therefore it focuses on liberating oppressed interpretations and meanings of 'text'. Deconstruction breaks open presupposed 'actual' meanings and weakens dominant interpretations to emancipate those interpretations that are 'written' in the marges and between the lines. In that way Derrida radicalizes ambiguity and starts a search for the meaning that has been oppressed, hidden and forgotten in the manifestation and presentation of text. Not for claiming this then is 'the real essence', but just to liberate these interpretations from the centering kind of thinking that has been unrightfully installing a hegemony of univocal meaning, a claim on the 'one and only real face' of things. Therefore deconstruction is not so much a matter of unmasking, but rather of enriching text, language and thinking. And it goes further than that: the 'medium' between intellect and reality is now not just the medium or way, but the very paradigm of deconstructivist philosophy: it is now language itSelf (Derrida), the medium itSelf (McLuhan) and the "simulacrum" itSelf (Baudrillard) that philosophy is all about and in. This major shift from either metaphysical or ideological content to medium generally offers two possibilities: the first being the play of pure form, the "appearance as appearance" (Nietzsche). The other is the rapture of the formless, a mystic, sacral and dionysian formula of the sublime. Univocal meaning has been transformed into the ambiguous meaning, the center has been weakened in favor of what is out there in periphery. This is rightfully described as the "metropolitan condition" (Koolhaas) in which we can no longer reduce things to a central identity of 'pure Self'. The solemn play is in contrary a self-organizing 'architectural' activity that principally facilitates the exploration of every potential and every possibility, meaning everything and nothing at the same time.


Lyotard explains postmodernity "to our children" as "the [LOST BELIEF] in Big Narratives" and Derrida's philosophy is rightfully compared to Jewish mysticism, in which each text is only a supplement filling up the void of a lost 'ArchiText'. So we can easily state postmodernism has great difficulty in recognizing authenticity and originality. It studies narratives, texts and -isms to conclude that they have never represented Full Truth, nor can possibly ever represent it. Derrida concludes therefore that we are "locked up in the everlasting echo of radical supplement". He stresses the question must be preserved: "every answer corrupts the question". But where Derrida apparently feels obliged to identify any answer as a corrupting and perverting degradation of Truth, the philosophy of play 'knows' the answer is just articulating and expressing one - not all - views on it from one specific perspective and with one specific horizon. Because the play does not take Truth to be a platonic homogenous unity (Idealism), but rather as a heideggerian integral notion of "Einfalt", it feels no urge whatsoever to decline answers. In a philosophy of play the answer is a differentiated articulation of Truth, whereas the latter is taken as an implicit and integral unity: each 'mask' then explores and 'realizes' a specific capacity and potential of Truth exactly by ex-pressing it. Answers and narratives relate to each other as alter ego's (Derrida), and in that trait they are not at all adequately described as misleading degraded masks that hold us away from finding originality and authenticity. On the other hand we must regard 'nature', for just like naivety also nature is authentic and original by definition. If we regard nature as to be the alter ego of culture - rather than the opposition of it (idealism) - the result is a dionysian vitalism, a sacral, sublime and solemn combination of fatalism and faith. The pleasurable alter ego of this is the play. It is the simulacrum that is not presenting a misleading mask, but treats the appearance as appearance, and therefore it is true. The post-metaphysical and post-humanist metropolitan condition is simultaneously organized as formless "natural culture" - a vital spontaneous organ-ism - and the pure form of 'simulating' play.


Postmodernism breaks open and deconstructs [SYSTEMS] by confronting them with sublimated mystical Ideas like the "Other" (Baudrillard, Derrida), the "Rest" (Lyotard) and the "Nothing" (Bataille). Since World War II everything that could be recognized as a System is suspected of (latent) totalitarism, fundamentalism and fascism, and a critical-paranoid approach seems to be justified to break open the implicit dogmatism of systematics. A System is never neutral, but represents and ideologizes exclusively it's dominant values with neglect of everything else, it is signed by a normative and moralistic "Will of Power" (Nietzsche). Deconstructivism has radicalized this (left wing) politically inspired criticism and extends it to an existential narrative by criticizing every (philosophical) system. It interprets idealistic metaphysics as a "discourse of the Self" (Derrida) that is reductively set up for 'true essence' and 'pure identity', and confronts it with the Idea of the Other. In this way, the 'negative' philosophy of the Other permanently reminds the 'positive' philosophy of the Self that in it's speaking and writing there is always something oppressed and forgotten. But when deconstructivism engages in emancipating the Other, this is not just for reasons of compassion and solidarity, but rather for the sake of liberating the Self out of a too reductive, "all too human" (Nietzsche) image of itSelf. Deconstruction heads for escaping the prisons of a too narrow and too canny secrecy in which "everything is up to the Same" and in which we are "confined to the fatal and fascinating trap of the mirror" (Derrida). Derrida therefore starts to deconstruct the apparent opposition of the Self and the Other, he partially interiorizes the Other by presenting him as 'the same different': the alter ego. Transcending the opposition of the Self and the Other means we are in a condition of either pleasurable play - the unidentifiable persona of the (metaphorical) "child" 'lacks' a steady Self - or loosing ourSelves in the complicity of sacral mysticism (Derrida) and solemn vitalism (Nietzsche). Both the formal play and the formless metamorphosis transcend the sense of the System.


Postmodern discourse heads for [(IRONIC) INVERSIONS] since Nietzsche's Inversion of Values, Bataille's Philosophy of Evil, Baudrillard's Ironic Strategies and Foucault's History of Madness. These paranoid critiques show 'other' interpretations of the 'same' and in doing so they have led us to the ironical point where in every text we can recognize the weak in the strong, the transient in the durable, the servile in the autonomous, the absent in the present, etceteras. The emancipation of the Other has as such resulted in problematical dualistic thinking: "the oppositions function no longer" (Derrida). For leaving or-or thinking, Derrida re-installs the mystical formula 'X is neither this, nor that', but as remarked before, this mysticism fails in positively esteeming anything that might be called 'X'. But by departing from a notion of play, we can as well invert this and handle the formula 'X is both this and that', in which 'this' and 'that' are articulated alter ego's of the singular integral and implicit thing called 'X'. But by departing from a notion of play, we can as well invert this and handle the formula 'X is this and that', in which 'this' and 'that' are articulated alter ego's of the singular integral and implicit thing called 'X'. The rediscovered synthetic and organic values of the ambivalent, the hybrid and the rizomatic have always been inherent values of play, which has never recognized the (analytical) oppositions as mutually excluding contradictions, but has rather been the transcendent third term of these. It is the coincidentia oppositorum (Derrida) of (common) sense and lunacy, autonomy and fatality, Self and Other, inside and outside, sacral and profane, and therefore it is the exalted "Jenseits of Gut und Böse" (Nietzsche). The play does not acknowledge any preset hierarchy nor center, but organizes the differences in an "efficiency-without-a-goal" (Kant). Indeed "the oppositions function no longer", neither in solemn mysticism (Derrida), nor in vitalism (Nietzsche), nor in pleasurable play (Baudrillard). None of these acknowledges "human, all too human" (Nietzsche) divorcing lines between meaning and frenzy, comfort and cruelty, peace and violence. All of these are exalted, transgressive philosophies of the sublime that finally have nothing to invert. "Play must be serious to be a game, and playful to be taken seriously." (Huizinga). We must rather speak of simultaneity than of 'ambivalence', we must rather speak of solemn pleasure, than the 'ironic' pleasure of the solemn, or the 'ironic' solemnity of the play.


Postmodern discourse seems to be quite much defined by Freud's [SEXUAL READINGS] as well as the feminist, sexual and androgen 'revolutions'. Deleuze states plainly that "contemporary philosophy has difficulties with words because it has become sexual". Sexuality in philosophical sense means the (radicalized and polarized) oppositions are fighting and seducing eachother as alter ego's, and they know it. The notion of sexuality re-introduces both nature and play in an idealistic discourse of sterile civilization and control. This discourse of official thought has traditionally always been produced by men and targeted on male values: it quantifies, intellectualizes, calculates nature in order to turn it into an object of rational and intellectual order. Nature is thought of as being opposed to this male monopoly on civilization, and this 'opposing' otherness or 'rest' has therefore simultaneously been projected on and ascribed to femininity. In this meta-sexual way the oppositions are a-symmetrical because they are not only designed as to be opposed to each other, but the dominant pole has also put itSelf (male) above the Other (female). Where (classic) modernity radically idealizes 'male' values however, it simultaneously seems to activate it's alter ego in the format of (mystical) romanticism: the other, opposing view that sublimates 'female' values and puts nature above civilization. Postmodernism for instance fights and seduces modernism for a great deal with the proven romantic recipes of sublimity, aesthetized vanity, mysticism, apocalyptic fall, dionysian rapture and fatality: "postmodernism is neo-romanticism with better special effects" (Keuss). If theoretical discourse however has become lucidly conscious of it's sexuality, nor the (classical) modern, nor the (mystical) romantic primate is sufficient any longer, because then both hegemonies manifest themselves exaltedly at the same time and in the same space. As a consequence of this ecstatic schizophrenia the discourse indeed 'has difficulties with words', and therefore a third theoretical term must be installed to escape the malfunctioning opposition of 'male' and 'female' thinking. 'Childlike thinking' - alias Play! - would be such a third term that is not just a collecting generalization nor an androgen compromise, but the transcendence of the malfunctioning opposition. The traditionally masculine discourse that has deconstructed itself for the emancipation of feminine thinking, the discourse in which both modernity and romanticism are losing themSelves by recognizing the other as an alter ego, it might have less 'difficulties with words' when understanding itself as a philosophy of play.


While [APOCALYPTICALLY] announcing and affirming the decease of God, the end of history, the end of civilization, the end of dialectics, the end of metaphysics, etceteras, postmodernism (specifically post-idealism) seems to be obsessed by death, end and mortality. And although the capital letters may have us suspect differently, this hegemony of finality is not at all challenged by the mystical non-perspective of the Other, the Rest and the Nothing. For these are only 'negative' Ideas to which we can and may not attach any positive statute, and therefore they rather function as sublimated concepts of finality, they are inspired by death. The discourse of the Self (inside) and the philosophy of the Other (outside) are inseparable alter ego's that are connected to each other by the notion of border and end, they are connected by the thinking that is designed by finality, it is a thought that is concerning death. If the concept of border or end is grounded in a notion of death, there is however at least one instance that is not depending on it: we can learn from childrens' minds. The playful persona of the child does not yet recognize it's own death, and in that trait it's 'immortal' thinking transcends each border, end and finality. Except for accepted yet changing and always arbitrary rules, play inhabits a world without borders or ends. "The postmodern West knows civilizations are mortal. Exactly that insight has put her above civilization and makes her in a certain way immortal, timeless and universal" (Lyotard).


The quest for the [MORALITY] of this philosophy of play is not immediately answered, for the play does not serve any external goal, does not recognize any idealism and is not intentionally 'good' for anything else than itself. As a sovereign "efficiency-without-a-goal" (Kant) it is 'only' activating and organizing the powers and potentials of it's participants. But exactly in doing so in an efficient and successful way, sovereign freedom is 'guaranteed' and pleasure as a lust-for-playing is facilitated. Play and freedom do not relate as means and end, but as inherent values that do not exist without eachother. For freedom can by definition not be commanded and unfreedom cannot be forbidden, the play gains no benefit in an enforced morality of obligation whatsoever. Nonetheless the player honors the rules in either faith or fatalism. In optima forma the play is immoral or transmoral precisely because it can appeal to the interiorized positive ethics of sovereignty, challenge and chance. This specific morality however exists exclusively by the grace of the existential luxury of freedom as a naive and native exemption or as an exalted acquisition. Only in this transcendent condition of Fair play and "sovereign luxury" (Bataille) the categorizing judgement of good and bad disappears. The ultimate play is "Jenseits von Gut und Böse" (Nietzsche), it is the utopian "phantasm" (Baudrillard) that we lucidly consult by taking credit on it in advance.