edge of madness


not really a review of the last two paragraphs of page 132
of chapter VII 'Play and Poetry' of Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga


Alan Dix
Lancaster University

Full reference:
A. Dix (2004). Edge of Madness. Interfaces, 61 pp. 14-15. Winter 2004.
http://www.hcibook.com/alan/papers/ edge-of-madness-2004/
Download site for full issue of interfaces in PDF.
Alan's essays on imagination and rationality, etc.

I've been reading two books The Eternal Child by Clive Bromhall and Homo Ludens by Johan Huizinga. Some of you will have heard me talk at recent conferences or read my articles about the seriousness of play and childlikeness (as opposed to childishness!) in creativity and intellectual life. So, my interest in these two books is I guess fairly obvious. In addition, Homo Ludens is the intellectual reference point for Bill Gaver's creative and playful domestic designs that focus on the ludic aspects of life.

However, for now, not a full review of these two books (not least because I have 5 chapters of Homo Ludens still to read) but instead, like one of those stomach churning camera sequences that zoom from the city to the street, down to a single house, then to the heroine gazing through the window, the city skyscrapers reflected in her eye, let's focus on a few sentences from Homo Ludens. By chance, or choice perhaps, the last I have read and so significant, if for no other reason than that.

In Huizinga's opening chapter he discusses various paradoxical aspects of play including its irrationality and purposelessness (the latter because of its inner completeness, finding its purpose in itself), its freedom and also its need for rules, its link to sexual display and to social ordering, and, perhaps most importantly, its separation from the necessities of everyday life, which makes it such a civilising and ultimately humanising aspect of culture. Indeed Huizinga sees those nations (and he was referring I guess to the rise of Nazism) that see their own ideas of right above the (playful) rules of international law as the harbingers of descent to the barbaric. Written first in 1933 this seems to have had messages for 2003.

"... As soon as one member or more of a community of States virtually denies the binding character in international law and, either in practice or in theory, proclaims the interests and power of its own group – be it nation, party, church or whatsoever else – as the sole norm of its political behaviour, not only does the last vestige of the immemorial play-spirit vanish but with it any claim to civilisation at all. Society then sinks down to the level of the barbaric, and original violence retakes its ancient rights."
Homo Ludens, page 101
"... To call poetry, as Paul Veléry has done, a playing with words and language is no metaphor: it is the precise and literal truth.
The affinity between poetry and play is not external only; it is also apparent in the structure of creative imagination itself. In the turning of a poetic phrase, the development of a motif, the expression of a mood, there is always a play-element at work. Whether in myth or the lyric, drama or epic, the legends of a remote past or a modern novel, the writer's aim, conscious or unconscious, is to create a tension that will "enchant" the reader and hold him spellbound. ..."
Homo Ludens, page 132

Of all the various facets of play, perhaps the one that drives most strongly through succeeding chapters is the agonistic element – that is the idea of competition, games, challenge. However, in my own explorations of the seriousness of play and imagination it is less the back-lane football game and more the solitary child fingering coloured wool, that speaks to me of the playful imaginings of intellectual life.

Even in the chapter on play and poetry the emphasis is on poetic challenges and riddles giving the cultural grounding of sophistic and Socratic discourse and philosophy. I am reminded of Taliesin silencing the assembled bards of Maelgwn with his wit, cleverness and just a little magic. I guess not so different from an academic conference.

However, on page 132, down at the end of the 3rd paragraph (and yes we have eventually got there), Huizinga turns to the words of Paul Valéry, a poet and writer about poetry, "To call poetry, ... a playing with words and language is no metaphor ...". In the next paragraph he describes affinity between poetry, play and the "creative imagination", "In the turning of a poetic phrase ... there is always a play element". However, almost at once he shifts back to the social "in myth ... or modern novel, the writer's aim ... is to 'enchant' the reader".

Now, this is certainly true, and enchantment is one of the themes that John McCarthy and Peter Wright have picked up in their explorations of user experience, however, I felt dissatisfied and in the piece of paper I keep as both notes and bookmark I wrote "play in poetry is as much individual as social seeing new connections, duality between assonance and ..." and there my pen stopped; I pondered.

I was trying to pick up on that old feeling for the link between sounds and meanings, that assumption that words that sound similar somehow mean something similar. I recalled myself as a small child in my parents bedroom one sunny morning wondering whether "night" was a contraction (although I wouldn't have known that word!) of "no light"; tiptoeing in the footprints of Plato's ideals and modern etymology. I recalled too my excitement as earlier in reading this book I noticed the similarity between agwn and agony and traced this back in dictionaries to the martyrdom of early Christians in Nero's 'games'.

So perhaps "assonance and semantic connections" ... no ... then I wrote carefully and with joy "assonance and association" and suddenly I laughed out loud, watching myself sitting there playing childlike with the coloured threads of words, seeking alliteration even in a scribbled note.

This joy in association is that same shear delight felt by a baby noticing that those feelings and actions in her limbs make those strange chubby pink things move in front of her eyes. To a baby the world is a jumble of apparently meaningless sensations and each step towards order as significant for that child as those grainy black and white images of Neil Armstrong stepping on the moon. The adult knows things and treads well worn paths, whilst the child glories in unknowledge and revels at the edge of the epistemological void.
Happily, as Broomhill's book explores in great detail, humans do not lose completely this childlike glee and this is the source of our technological and artistic triumphs. In teaching techniques for technical creativity I am always seeking to help people tread that edge between knowledge and novelty. Sometimes this is a steering of rampant imagination from bright ideas towards novel solutions, but more commonly it is the staid adultishness that we need to combat, untethering the playful and encouraging the exploratory.

We are pattern-seeking creatures, seeing faces in clouds and formulae in nuclear data. Knowing a little about language I both know that there are real links, like that between agonistic and agony, and also know that many things are purely random. In autism there is no gestalt, no naturally emerging pattern to the endless succession of dissociated sounds and images. In schizophrenia deep meaning is seen in the accidental associations of the world. And in HCI studying unruly people it is easy to attribute meanings and patterns that are purely our own creation, or alternatively, in the phenomenological purity of the extreme ethnographer, eschew entirely the imposition of preordained patterns.

Our success as academics relies on seeing the universals, the patterns just outside normal adultish ignorance of the unusual. And yet this is a hard path to tread, not surprising that there is a tradition of madness in artists, poets and the odd academic! If you watch sunlight sharpened ripples on the water's edge, or individual sand grains shift and flow across a windswept beach, sometimes there seems to be, just beyond our ken, a significance to these chaotic flows and random patterns. The early astrologers felt the same as they mapped the shapes of animals across the stars and laid the planets in harmonic spheres, seeing patterns in the random, yet of course the same impulse led to Kepler's elliptical orbits and modern classes and tables of stars. Perhaps academic life is not so far from the augury of tea leaves.

Strangely with poetry and also in academic studies it is the random associations that are in themselves meaningless, which in some way bring to light or foreground other true things that otherwise would be missed. I sometimes encourage people to create bad designs or bad ideas in order to explore more widely the design space and understand better the domains they are dealing with. Aesthetically and academically it is the odd sidelong glances that are most revealing.

"Do you believe in the prophetic powers of porridge?"
Duncan, Monarch of the Glen,
BBC1, Sunday 3rd Oct 2004

Generally, our greatest danger as researchers is blinkered following round our discipline's closed tracks. So it is worth occasionally digging into the details of the apparently arbitrary, take time to watch the sand grains shift, or pay attention to the importance of the paperclip in the office ecology; even though in the study of the minutiae we also tread at the edge of madness.


Alan Dix 26/1/2005