Showing posts with label restraint. Show all posts
Showing posts with label restraint. Show all posts

10 Apr 2018

Ian Bogost: Play Anything (2016) - A Review (Part 3: Chapters 5-7)

Dr. Ian Bogost: 

I have to admit, four chapters and 120 pages in, I'm a bit bored with this book by Bogost. The assertiveness and the repetitiveness I can deal with, but I have real trouble with the folksy Americanism of the writing style and the overly-familiar - overly-familial - character of the book. It's certainly not philosophy as I conceive of it. However, as Magnus Magnusson used to say, I've started so I'll finish ... 

Ch. 5: From Restraint to Constraint

Is abstaining from a material modern lifestyle really the answer to the paradox of choice?

It's an interesting question. But as much as I approve of a certain degree of asceticism, I don't think the answer is yes. And neither does Bogost, for whom restraint is a type of fashionable narcissism that only leads to irony - and irony, as we have seen, is Bogost's great bugbear.

Further, as a strategy for living better, restraint also connects to the Judeo-Christian moral tradition and the values that lie at the foundations of the global economy (Bogost seems to take it as a given that both these things are highly suspect). Ultimately, he says, the feeling of any restraint results in "a terrible sensation" [130] and can even prove fatal (don't tell that to my friends in the BDSM community for whom orgasm denial is so delightful). 

What then? The answer, says Bogost, is to accept the world's constraints, rather than attempt to impose your own restraint upon it. Embracing constraint doesn't mean embracing asceticism (which is an expression of anxiety): "Rather, it means inventing or adopting a given situation as a playground in which further exploration is possible." [143]

In other words, for Bogost, there's a very real and important connection between constraint and creativity. He writes:

"Artists and designers have long known that creativity does not arise from pure, unfettered freedom. Little is more paralyzing than the blank canvas or the blank page. At the same time, the creative process is not driven by restraint either; one does not paint a painting or write a novel or form a sculpture or code an app by resisting the temptation to do something else. Rather, one does so by embracing the particularity of a form and working within its boundaries, within its constraints." [146]

But it's important to realise that Bogost is using the term creativity in a rather special (philosophical) sense derived from Whitehead. For Whitehead, creativity refers to a process (inherent to the universe) of generating novelty or newness; i.e. it's a fundamental feature of existence and not something unfolding exclusively within the sphere of human subjectivity and experience.

To mistakenly think man is central to the process of creativity, rather than peripheral, is what Bogost calls the fallacy of creativity. In the end, we don't speak, write, or sing the world - it speaks, writes, and sings us. Art emerges from a negotiation between the artist and a set of material conditions that impose certain limits. Graham Harman regards this as the culminating insight of Bogost's book and he might well be right; though, to be fair, it's found in Whitehead - as Bogost acknowledges - and we also find it in Heidegger, who famously declared Die Sprache spricht and that man is the poem of being (not the author).

The artist's job, then, is not to express his own desires, ideas, or fantasies. It is rather to allow the gods and demons to enter from behind and below; Not I, not I, but the wind that blows through me!, as Lawrence puts it.

Ch. 6: The Pleasure of Limits

Bogost picks up on this idea of inspiration in the context of ancient Greek poetry and the Muses. For the Greeks, of course, poetry was a worldly rather than a personal activity; one that was tied to a long cultural tradition, to myth, and to the divine. What he really wants to stress, however, is how structured it was - almost unimaginably so, for those raised into the idea of free verse in which almost any text "with unusual white space and line breaks" [158] qualifies as poetry. Bogost notes:

"A sonnet is not a poem even though it has to spill language across fourteen lines of iambic pentameter, but because it does. It takes the surplus of language and offers a rationale for structuring a portion of it in a particular way." [161]

I suppose that's true. But I'd still rather read one of the great modernist poets than Shakespeare. And besides, free verse - if it's any good - isn't really free in the way implied by Bogost. Other than idealists who believe in an individual's right to total freedom of expression and the dissolution of all form, all structure, all rule, etc. no one in their right mind thinks art is anything other than a discipline.

There might be pleasure in transgressing limits - be they aesthetic, moral, or physical in nature - but this is still, of course, a pleasure reliant upon limits. This isn't to say we should therefore fetishise limitations and constraints or regard rules as written in stone (though some do), it's simply to acknowledge that they're necessary.

Indeed, they're not only necessary, but ontologically crucial. For as Bogost points out: "A thing is not only what it appears to be, but it is also the conditions and situations [i.e. the constraints] that make it possible for it to be what it is." [174]

Or, put another way: "Limits aren't limitations, not absolute ones. They're just the stuff out of which stuff is made." [203]     

Ch. 7: The Opposite of Happiness

"Fun is the opposite of happiness" [216], says Bogost. For fun "doesn't produce joy as its emotional output, but tenderness instead" [217].

And so we arrive at a quasi-Lawrentian conclusion; playful encounters with another being - whether it's human, animal, vegetable, or artificial in nature - result in affection and warmth and sympathy. The German's have a word for this: Mitleid.

Thus, OOO - as an ethic or art of living - rests on the presumption that the essence of morality can be defined in terms of purely selfless actions that ask for and expect nothing in return. Nietzsche, of course, was highly critical of this; he'd regard it as laughably naïve, lacking as it does any appreciation of man's ethical complexity and the fact that there are multiple forces at work within every urge and every action.

Ultimately, if Bogost wishes to save his work from falling into warm soft fuzziness, then he needs to spend a little less time watching babies sleep and either subject it himself to a little coldness and cruelty, or find an editor who will read it with steely intelligence and a sharp pencil.   


Ian Bogost, Play Anything, (Basic Books, 2016). All page numbers given in square brackets refer to this hardback edition. 

D. H. Lawrence, 'Song of a Man Who Has Come Through', The Poems, ed. Christopher Pollnitz, (Cambridge University Press, 2013). 

To read Part 1 of this review - Notes on a Preface - click here.

To read Part 2 of this review - Chapters 1-4 - click here