Wednesday, June 11, 2008

PPP (2): Intersubjective performance

Here’s the second in the PPP series (the link goes to the first post in the series).

The provisional definition of “performative play practice,” again:

A PPP is an intersubjective performance that takes place in a cultural zone demarcated for play (that is, as not having an effect on material circumstances, although that demarcation does not mean in actual reality that material circumstances are unaffected). Within that zone conventions may be and usually are determined by rules analogous to the rules for the setting up of conventions in the misunderstood-as-unzoned Symbolic Order (you can call that reality; I’ll unpack it much further in subsequent posts).
So what do I mean by “intersubjective performance”? Let’s start with a less compressed version: an intersubjective performance is a meaningful act that crosses the boundary between a person’s self and what lies outside the self. As we define the PPP, we’re going to be limiting it to a certain type of such intersubjective performance, but all by itself, you can see that “intersubjective performance” covers everything from playing Halo to playing Boom Blox to reading the newspaper to stopping at a red light: in each of these cases, a person does something meaningful in relation to what we might call a system of meaning that exists outside that person. In the cases of Halo and Boom Blox, those systems of meaning are the games themselves, as written in algorithms, and encoded on the digital media; in the case of the newspaper, the system is contained in the individual stories and their symbolic relationships to the events they record; in the case of the red light, the system is contained in the laws that govern driving, as mediated by the individual traffic controls that monitor the patterns according to which lights change.

The most obvious meaning of “intersubjective,” though, is something like “between two or more people,” and it’s worth spending a little time unpacking why it makes more sense to talk about crossing the boundary of the self instead. Obviously, crossing the boundary of the self is a description that encompasses the kind of intersubjectivity we’re more used to (the thing about being between multiple people), because in order to communicate or even identify with another person, the first person has to make a connection from inside him or herself to outside him or herself, from the self to the other.

It makes all the sense in the world, a great deal of the time, to think of a peformance like a game or a newspaper in terms of communication and identification between two or more people. But it’s truer, I believe, to think of the intermediate step of crossing the self’s boundary as more fundamental. The examples of a (mostly) single-player game like Boom Blox, and of solitaire, and of the red light, are all better understandable this way. We certainly can imagine the “other people” who designed the games, and who set the traffic patterns, but in the moment of the practice, of playing the game or stopping at the light, what really matters for the person enacting the performance is that the game and the red light lie outside the self, as parts of a system of meaning within which the performance (the playing or the stopping) has valid meaning.

As we move deeper into the definition, we’ll be dealing next with the idea of the “cultural zone demarcated for play.” Of the four examples in the last paragraph, only the games fit this criterion.

The series continues in The zone of play.