Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Just pretend!

There are many people from many fields now exploring the roots of the common (it appears biological) compulsion to play, and speculating on the adaptive advantages it may confer in the broad evolutionary sense and in the individual life. A coherent but inclusive definition of "play" is difficult to pin down, but I want to focus for now on play that includes an element of pretend, the magical "as if" that spreads a safety net under behavior that would otherwise be intolerably risky. Alexandra Horowitz, a cognitive scientist and author of Inside of a Dog, has spent hundreds (thousands?) of hours viewing and reviewing video of dogs at play, seeking to determine among other things how dogs effectively contract with each other to "fight" for fun.

The play bow-- head dipped and front legs outstretched while butt and tail are raised-- appears to be dog Esperanto for "I didn't mean that, and I don't mean this either! Ha!" An exchange of bows, deep or hieroglyphically sketched, typically initiates a friendly bout of wrestling or chasing, and the socially hep dog will repeat the gesture anytime the play contract seems to be fraying. As is the case with people, some dogs have a harder time than others remembering the rules of the game and honoring the agreed-upon distinction between "real" and "pretend." Indeed, play wouldn't be so compelling if that line were perfectly clear, if the safety net weren't a little patchy and the thrill of risk were entirely banished. But that's cold philosophical comfort when you're taking one dog to the vet because another never really got the hang of bite inhibition. (More on the scary side of Kili in a later post.)

One of the reasons I finally decided that I could not hack being a theatre scholar is that I could never quite take theatre seriously, and I honestly didn't think I should. The scholars I most admire-- many of whom are commonly judged to be either hopelessly old-fashioned or lightweight-- are playing in earnest. They recognize the essential frivolity of their occupation (in both senses of the word), its glorious extraneity to "real" life, but this is not a barrier to their investing their work with passion, wit, imagination. On the contrary, the magical "as if" liberates their brilliance as it has that of the artists whose work they study. Unfortunately, they appear vastly outnumbered today by scholars with extremely poor bite inhibition, maddened by their own irrelevance and deeply resistant to the pleasures of play.

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