Agency, Don Ihde’s postphenomenology and the emotions of playing

EDIT: Unfortunately I was not able to travel to London to attend the conference and give this presentation, for personal/family reasons. However I will try to write it up and post it on here in the end!


I was notified today that my abstract for a paper for the 2011 (Aug-Sep) RGS-IBG annual conference has been accepted. I’m really pleased. My paper is for a session entitled “Researching and (re)imagining children’s emotions in geography” (CFP), and my title is: Conceptualising the emotions of play as voluntary partial concession of control, a terrible title, which I hope to change.

My take on this is that the intense emotions that playing can produce are made possible by the player’s voluntary and partial relinquishment of agency (or control) to the topology of the play space.

My full 250-word abstract is here:

One of the characteristics of playing, which gives rise to the consuming and transformative emotions of surprise, joy and exhilaration, is the sense of the player being “in control of being out of control” (Gordon & Esbjörn-Hargens, 2007:216). Similarly, Špinka, Newberry & Bekoff (2001:143) propose that “a major ancestral function of play is to rehearse behavioural sequences in which animals lose full control over their locomotion, position, or sensory/spatial input and need to regain these faculties quickly.”

This can be seen in children playing with structurally volatile equipment, testing the limits of their capacities and nerve, creating dizziness, nausea or vertigo, and provoking affective responses in themselves and others. Playing is integral to children’s lives, and provides for the experience and display of a range of emotions within the relative safety of the play space. For geographers, then, places where children are playing are inescapably sites of emotion.

Using Don Ihde’s postphenomenology as a ‘minimally humanist’ framework for exploring the relativities between players and the topology of the play space, I suggest that the notion of the cognitively lucid, in-control agent is displaced in playing by a hybrid conception of agency distributed between player(s) and the environment. Špinka et al. (2001:156) claim that “self-handicapping – in the sense that animals deliberately do not exert full control over their movements … – is omnipresent in play”; similarly, I will argue that the emotions generated through playing can be most usefully and accurately conceptualised as the result of the voluntary partial concession of control to the unpredictable quirks and hidden potentials of the environment.

Gordon, G. & Esbjörn-Hargens, S. (2007) Are we having fun yet? An exploration of the transformative power of play, Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47 (2): 198-222

Ihde, D. (2003) If Phenomenology Is an Albatross, Is Post-phenomenology Possible?, In: Ihde, D. & Selinger, E. eds. Chasing Technoscience: Matrix for Materiality, Bloomington & Indianapolis, Indiana University Press, pp131-44

Špinka, M., Newberry, R. & Bekoff, M. (2001) Mammalian Play: Training for the Unexpected, The Quarterly Review of Biology, 76 (2): pp141-168


One thought on “Agency, Don Ihde’s postphenomenology and the emotions of playing

  1. hi F, Happy New Year.

    only found this by accident in an unread email box just now.

    please forgive the rushed scrappy ungrammatical unproofreadness of it.

    “the cognitively lucid, in-control agent >> hybrid conception of agency distributed between player(s) and the environment”

    some observations:

    the fiction of the ‘cognitively lucid, in-control agent’ is prevalent in academic circles, in which humans fondly imagine that if they think it, it must be true. so as a professor drives his car down the motorway, he can imagine he is in control. perhaps a starling in a flock, or the duck at the front of the flock [taking his turn to be at the front] fondly imagines he is the leader and in control.

    chief execs often imagine they lead.

    mubarak thought that.

    the police, wisely know that policing only happens with the consent of the policed community.

    coming back to child’s play /——————–REDACTED—————————- like you, when we were talking about why you want to do a phd, I am reluctant to share some aspects of my ideas here ‘in public’.

    it’s a small percentage – 10% ish.

    so I have cut it and pasted it into an email for you.


    if you are as lax as I am about picking up on blog comments, you might never see this, so I will send it to you via email.

    thanks again for provoking my thinking.


Add your comments:

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s