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New Left Review 66, November-December 2010


sven lütticken

PLAYTIMES

In modern culture, the element of play has long constituted a problem. [1] A version of this text was given as a lecture at the University of Groningen, on the invitation of Eric de Bruyn, to whom I am indebted for many stimulating exchanges. Associated with either the past or a possible future, it often appeared as an anachronism. The 19th-century bourgeoisie, for example, relegated play to the past by identifying it almost exclusively with children, in a sphere increasingly separated from ‘proper’ social life. Ernst Haeckel’s famous 1866 law, ‘ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny’, was but one manifestation of a tendency in that period to construct parallels between the lives of individuals and those of the species; to relegate play and games to the sphere of the child was perhaps also to suggest a parallel in human history, to associate them with an earlier stage in the development of civilization. When the 19th-century German educator Friedrich Fröbel stated that ‘play at this time is not trivial, it is highly serious and of deep significance’, the implication was that at other times—in life after childhood—it is indeed trivial. [2] Quoted in Maaike Lauwaert, The Place of Play: Toys and Digital Circles, Amsterdam 2009, p. 46. Its only function was as preparation for adulthood. Play and games had to be educational and constructive, readying boys and girls for their later respective roles, necessitating clearly distinct toys for each gender.

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