Saturday, March 8, 2014

David Graeber on Fun at the Heart of Being

David Graeber, most widely known as the author of Debt: The First 5000 Years and a theorist of the Occupy movement, as an article in The Baffler arguing that freedom and play inherent in the nature of things. After a certain amount of opening throat clearing about play among inchworms and lobsters he gets around to the modern economic view of things, according to which all animal behavior (including that of us featherless bipeds) is to be accounted for by appeals to rational self-interest, a view that embraces (if only metaphorically) genes, which are just (odd) components of certain molecules.

For various reasons, which he explains, Graeber's not buying it. This is what he ends up proposing, via self-organization:
Let us imagine a principle. Call it a principle of freedom—or, since Latinate constructions tend to carry more weight in such matters, call it a principle of ludic freedom. Let us imagine it to hold that the free exercise of an entity’s most complex powers or capacities will, under certain circumstances at least, tend to become an end in itself. It would obviously not be the only principle active in nature. Others pull other ways. But if nothing else, it would help explain what we actually observe, such as why, despite the second law of thermodynamics, the universe seems to be getting more, rather than less, complex. Evolutionary psychologists claim they can explain—as the title of one recent book has it—“why sex is fun.” What they can’t explain is why fun is fun. This could.
I'm sympathetic, both with his reservations about economic rationalism, and with his advocacy of ludic freedom. 

And yet I can't help but thinking that he's just pushing words around. But then, that's what I think of Dan Dennett too (in, for example, his recent informal remarks about cultural evolution The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change), whom Graeber singles out as a chief philosophical exponent of economic rationalism in understanding human behavior. For that matter, I wonder if my more metaphysical thoughts – such as my run on pluralism – aren't like that as well. Just word games.

I suppose one might go so far as to assert that all thinking is just word games, or word AND math games. In a sense, I suppose, that is true. But only in a sense.

But when our word games no longer have effective purchase on the world, then we've got to come up with new word games. That's what's going on all over the place these days, and THAT's been going on for several decades.  Coming up with new word games is tough, not the least because it takes awhile to see whether or not the new games make contact with the world.

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Addendum (5 July 2014): Let me note that Graeber is not alone in (something like) what he calls the principle of ludic freedom. My impression is that a number of thinkers these days believe something like it, more or less, though not necessarily in the same terms. My own piece, The Living Cosmos, seems much the same thing and, while the words are mine, the idea isn't. Though I cite no precedents in that post – it's not that sort of beast – I wrote that out of my encounter with object-oriented ontology and Latour. 


  1. Interesting that you put "abundance" rather than "play" or "word games" or "fun" or "pleasure principle" or "Humo ludens collaborans" as the word next to "philosophy". I've come to distrust "philosophy" because the words gamed with are abstractions of earlier abstracts. Whereas Graeber's play for play's sake and fun for the fun of it does explain why I've sent Born To Groove off to Wheatmark for on demand publication. Sooner or later the demand for play, fun, pleasure, the joys of simply living, will put an end to corpstate's unilateral, preemptive, perpetual wars of domination. Sooner the better for the diversity of species and cultures.

  2. Really, CK? Graeber's words did that? It's not like there's a new idea there, just an old idea you like. Do you really think we can make it through the next century if we just stop thinking and play play play?

  3. Just so you know, CK, I was wondering where you got "abundance" next to "philosophy" from in your comment. Then I looked up at the bottom of my post and saw them next to "labels." I case you don't know what's going on there, I stick one or more labels on to every post (they're called tags at TnT, which uses a different blogging platform). If you click on one of those labels you get all the posts I've tagged with that label. The idea is to help readers to find posts on some given topic.

    So, you click on "philosophy" and you get all the posts I've tagged with that label. The same with "abundance."

    Why not "play" or "fun" or any of your other suggestions? Obviously I've not used them as labels. Why not? Obviously because I didn't think those were particularly useful labels. Why not? you might ask. Well, look over there to the right and scroll down 'till you find a bunch of words and phrases headed by the title "All tags/labels alphabetically." There's a lot of them. I suppose that I could add "play" to that pile, but do I really want to created more labels? Would that be helpful?

    Don't know. It's not a particularly good system. But it's what I've got.

    If I add "play" – which might in fact be useful – do I go back and retrospectively add that to appropriate posts. Well, I could do that, but I've got almost 2500 posts already. Do I want to search through all of them? No.

    I suppose that most of the posts I've labeled jamming would qualify, and jazz too, then there's dance, and creativity, what about literature? film, cartoon – is that the same as cartoons? I don't know. It seems silly to have both of those labels. One should suffice, don't you think?

    Heck, I don't even know what I've got here. 2500 posts! Yikes! And a fourth to a third of them are mostly photos.

    And you know what I discovered while writing this comment? I've already got a fun label. It's a rather odd set of posts, six of them now that I've added this one to the list. Totally forgot I had that label when I originally wrote this particular post.

    And then there's funny.