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American Quarterly 52.2 (2000) 364-370

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Performing Imaginary Rhetoric

Jay Mechling

The Ambiguity of Play. By Brian Sutton-Smith. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1997. 276 + x pp. Bibliography, index. $39.95 (cloth).

Is there a word used in the American studies community more often and with less shared meaning than "interdisciplinary"? Here is a topic--"play"--that demands an interdisciplinary approach, and for that reason alone the American studies audience ought to be intrigued by its study. Once we can get beyond what Sutton-Smith (in another setting) has called "the triviality barrier" in scholarly attitudes toward play, especially toward children's play, we see what an awful lot of disciplines converge on the subject, from anthropologists and psychologists (naturally), to folklorists, sociologists, historians, literary critics, philosophers, artists, art and performance historians, and more. Ethologists (those who study animal behavior) have found play to be an evolutionary puzzle for over a hundred years, and they still are trying to understand animal play. Some scholars see play as fundamental to our social lives as humans. In his classic book, Homo Ludens (1950), the Dutch historian Johann Huizinga argued that all of human history must be understood as driven by the "play element" in culture, and although Huizinga's overly romanticized view of play seems naïve to our own sense of the role of power inequalities and deceit in social relations (thanks to Erving Goffman and other decidedly unromantic social scientists), the social interactionist, dramaturgical or dramatistic paradigm in culture studies [End Page 364] still favors this more cynical view of play as the most apt metaphor for our construction of everyday reality. "The play's the thing."

Sutton-Smith is the godfather of play studies in the United States, and he probably has done more than any other person in the world to make play studies a legitimate field of scholarly inquiry. Although he was trained as a developmental psychologist, Sutton-Smith never fit very well into such disciplinary categories, and over his long academic career in the United States (he was born and educated in New Zealand and wrote his dissertation on the history of play there) he has moved comfortably among the fields of psychology, folklore, history, anthropology, and education. Before retiring a few years ago from the University of Pennsylvania, he split his time between education and folklore. His legacy is having created the first Ph.D. program in play. He comes to the writing of this book with impressive credentials, and he delivers here what he means to be his most comprehensive, synthetic statement on the study of play. It is his Homo Ludens.

The book's title makes Sutton-Smith's central point, namely, that play has a slipperiness and silliness that makes it almost impossible to define the phenomenon, much less to understand play's nuances. So instead of trying to define play at the outset, Sutton-Smith asks the reader to live with this ambiguity while the author gets at the topic through seven "rhetorics" that he sees in all of the play research he reviews here. These are the rhetorics or persuasive discourses of play as progress, as fate, as power, as identity, as the imaginary, as self, and as frivolous. In other words, Sutton-Smith tries to bring order to the chaotic nature of the play phenomenon by bringing order to our reading of the discourses about play. Sutton-Smith is satisfied with none of these rhetorics as the "best" approach to understanding play, but at the same time he notes that each rhetoric tells some truths about play. He aims to uncover the ideological assumptions each of these rhetorics tries to smuggle into its discussions of play, not so much to discredit the rhetoric altogether as to make the reader aware of the ideological package that accompanies it.

In a move that should inform more of what we do in American culture studies, Sutton-Smith turns first to the biological research underlying the rhetoric of "play as progress." Indeed, the research on animal play informs several of the rhetorics, including the rhetorics of progress, power...


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