Constructing the Ethical Limits of Play in Policy Debates
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Constructing the Ethical Limits of Play in Policy Debates

We are segmented from all around and in every direction. The human being is a segmentary animal. Segmentarity is inherent to all the strata composing us. Dwelling, getting around, working, playing: life is spatially and socially segmented.

Games are significantly dependent on the rules and conventions which define the available options to their participants. However, the abilities of games to become liberating spaces of play which exceed the limitations of their specified play-options are equally dependent on the ability of participants to negotiate and challenge the rules within the competitive or creative telos of the particular game. In this essay, I will examine the way in which two different understandings of norms govern the activity of policy debate, a competitive speech activity which makes use of philosophical concepts to continuously re-frame the possibilities of its participants. The first set of rules will be presented as intrinsic to the play of the game itself, capable of affirmation or negation by the immediate participants whose success at limiting the space of play is always situated within in the hands (or mouths) of the debaters arguing for their legitimacy. The second set of rules will be presented as a universal notion of ethical practice, understood as external to the space of play and outside of the participants agency to negotiate or define.

This essay will seek to elucidate an understanding of rules-governed play in policy debate which is always able to overcome the immediacy of its segmentarity by re-establishing the criteria of relevance, in which the assertion of universalized norms serves to put an end to play and sterilize the game of critical inquiry and experimentation. In attempting to understand play as a potentially infinite process of experimentation enabled by a limited space, we may understand the rules not as sterile components of governance which merely regulate or repress certain types of activity, but rather as always productive of a contoured play. This co-production of participant [End Page 181] subjectivity and rules-process may tend towards experimentation and variance or alternately uncritical repetition of appropriately authorized behavior. Insofar as creative production and adaptation is a valuable pedagogical and desirable trait for game designers to pursue, hopefully this essay may offer some insight into the characteristics of rule-sets and their framing which either enable or preclude such critical growth and mutation.

Limits as the Space of Play

We may choose to understand the entirety of social existence as play. Insofar as we choose to operate such a concept, we have already acknowledged a distinction between play and games, between rules and limits. Play is a how; game is a what; rules are defined and ephemeral, as the cliché goes, made to be broken; limits inhere within the very space of play that is simultaneously its enabling condition and the insistence of its finitude. Johan Huizinga, the Dutch historian of play, went to great pains to characterize homo ludens as not essentially a player, but rather embodying the fluid characteristics of playfulness in its movements, writing it was not my object to define the place of play among all other manifestations of culture, but rather to ascertain how far culture itself bears the character of play” (1950, ix). However, while Huizinga’s theory and historical analysis of play may have centered primarily on the homo, we speculative humanists concerned for our own animalisms, our tendencies to vegetate or mineralize, or for any material to spontaneously humanize without warning may attend to play as a contouring process without the compulsion of adhering to the metaphysical presumption of our socially defined humanistic identity roles. As Jane Bennet writes

Our habit of parsing the world into passive matter (it) and vibrant life (us) is what Jacques Rancière (in another context) called a ‘partition of the sensible’. In other words, it limits what we are able to sense; it places below the threshold of note the active powers of material formations, such as the way landfills are, as we speak, generating lively streams of chemicals and volatile winds of methane....

(2009, 95)

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