Surrealism and the Sociology of Play

The Dada urban fieldtrip to the small church of Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre in 1921 was an exercise in creating unusual conditions for collective engagement; as such, it serves as an instructive precursor to contemporary art’s urban play experiments. Breton vigorously asserts Dada as a form of applied experimentation. He claims that “[b]y conjoining thought with gesture, Dada has left the realm of shadows to venture onto solid ground. It is absurd that poetic or philosophical ideas should not be amenable to immediate application like scientific ideas” (2003, 139). And in this regard, “immediate application” and “solid ground” become synonymous with new urban practices. Breton explains the excursion as follows: “[w]e imagined guiding our public to places in which we could hold their attention better than in a theatre, because the very fact of going there entails a certain goodwill on their part” (140). Audience members could experience the force of the Dada event in an even more immediate way by virtue of their increased participation and enhanced connection to the activity. Further, art could access and benefit from the creation of an artistic space that produces “goodwill”, which is to say sociability and attentiveness, where experimenting with the conditions of experiencing the city changes the experience of the city itself. The new ground for aesthetic disruption is no longer inside but outside; it is not the theatre but the city itself. As Breton implores in his address at the church, “ ‘[s]imply turn your heads. We are in the middle of Paris. [...] [Y]ou are in the world’ ” (140).

This urban exercise is inseparable from the urban practices of early Surrealism, where the city becomes an important site for experimentation with both action and the unconscious. Aragon’s Le Paysan de Paris (1970) and Breton’s Nadja (1960) are distinctly urban, rooted in the exploration and the apprehension of the city through unlikely activities, methods, and images. Susan Laxton’s (2003, 2004) analysis of Surrealism’s play practices over the course of the movement’s history positions “Paris as gameboard” (2004). However, as Laxton argues, and as the image of a game board imposed on the city implies, Surrealism’s play shifted from aimlessness and unpredictability to a focussed concentration on objective chance. Later, games such as cadavre exquis switched the spontaneous for the art object so, while still looking to the subversions of chance, the role and process of performance were minimized. Thus, what becomes lost in later activities such as cadavre exquis is the experiential, performative, and urban aspect of Surrealist play. That is, early Surrealism provides a glimpse of the urban play experiment as a creative practice but ultimately withdraws from the city. And yet, Surrealism is one origin point for a sociology derived from play that Caillois—a former Surrealist member— later develops in Man, Play, and Games (1958). Caillois’ sociology of play, in turn, becomes a way to reframe contemporary art’s play experiments in the present.

Caillois’ text argues in favour of play’s relevance to sociological study, but his association with the Surrealists (from 1932 to 1934)3 was severed because of their differing interpretations of play and his disappointment with the Surrealist game’s inability to study the mechanisms of the imagination.4 He claimed that this intellectual division was, “the real cause of my break with Surrealism” (2003, 62). In this sense, his later work strives to study play more systematically but with a resistance to the more subversive dimensions of play that Surrealism valorised. Caillois defines play as free, separate, uncertain, unproductive, governed by rules as well as make-believe (1958, 9-10). His typology organizes activities according to characteristics such as agon (competition), mimicry (simulation), alea (chance), and ilinx (vertigo), citing the latter two as most destructive to social custom. From these distinctions, Caillois discerns a play continuum in society that spans from paidia (spontaneity) to ludus (regulation) (36).5

In order to dismantle the tautological formation whereby life structures play and play structures life, Caillois argues that these two realms are not mutually exclusive but rather complementary (64). The “marginal and abstract world of play” (65) productively contrasts the “unprotected realm of social life”. Importantly, play “occupies a unique domain the content of which is variable and sometimes even interchangeable with that of modern life” (67). Although he relies on a fairly rigid sense of how games attest to “the character, pattern, and values of every society”

  • (66) , and he argues for the need to isolate its more risky and destructive components, play as an intense social site worthy of scrutiny moves towards the tentative foundations of “a sociology derived from games”
  • (67) . Distinct from the sociology of games, of categorizing types and forms, he points to a shift in method that play opens up. A sociology derived from games requires methodological innovation because it refuses a clear division between life and play and instead stresses on reciprocity. For Caillois, play is deeply contradictory; play’s potential for spontaneity and free expression is met by its recourse to restraint and regulation. Appropriately, whether or not play is open-ended for Caillois (Frank 2003), or ultimately a reinforcement of ideology and conventions (Laxton 2003, 2004), remains ambiguous.

Caillois’ play continuum is useful for classifying the different characteristics of art’s play-based urban experimentations, and it accounts for how the latter can be more or less free, more or less disruptive, in addition to stressing the reciprocity between the world of play and that of the every day. Furthermore, we are reminded that play can be used to provocatively reframe methodological approaches and attend to the blurring of boundaries and rules that play activates. Despite this, Caillois is more inclined to emphasize play’s potential to disrupt the social order, rather than rethink it, and whether or not its ability to irritate the balance of urban life is a virtue remains an ongoing question. While Surrealism influenced Huizinga’s approach to understanding play’s capacity for sociological insight, it represents a somewhat stunted seed of urban experimentation. If we turn to the SI, we are able to make another connection between art and play as an urban social form. And, in the following example, Huizinga’s theory of the significance of play to culture connects to radical urban artistic practices.

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