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

Play, playfulness and the notion of technology

An evolving explanatory post about the title and themes of this site.

This site is intended to explore philosophical themes relating to play (and what I might mean by that is a topic in itself) and the idea from Heidegger via others, including Bruno Latour, Graham Harman and Don Ihde, of what technologies are.

I am also fascinated by the non-representational theory approach of Nigel Thrift and others within human geography and anthropology (Tim Ingold, Jon Murdoch) and how this might illuminate how play and space are related.

My hunch is that these two thingies are related. Thrift after all writes on technology, and the influence of Bruno Latour is huge on Thrift and Harman alike.

Another common thread is Alphonso Lingis, whom I have not yet read. Both Harman and Thrift have cited Lingis in their work.

My own tendencies are towards the posthumanist, including cyborg theory, and the eliminativist (I spent the majority of my three years as an undergrad at Sheffield reading Daniel Dennett, and he remains a favourite writer: a writer I find endlessly entertaining, but even more importantly a writer I trust).

I think a huge proportion of what is written about play is very “romantic,” and I acknowledge that play represents, for adults as well as for children, important time/space for the experience of exultation, joy and restoration. I don’t want to knock those things at all (if I’m honest I am usually a hedonist myself) but I do expect that I will be rather sceptical of glowing assumptions about the humanist, liberal and developmentalist virtues and functions of play. It has been good to read the work of Tara Woodyer recently, whose take on play I wholly concur with. So I will blog here about play as children’s activity in the world and how it is mediated by technologies (in the broad discursive sense rather than primarily the electronic sense).