Monday, January 14, 2008

Aristotle Was Wrong

The idea of the microcosm is also connected to the Aristotelian concept of mimesis. Mimesis means "representation" in Greek. Aristotle believed that in order for art to touch us we must be able to recognize the reality behind the representation:

"Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, ‘Ah, that is he.'"

I actually think Aristotle is wrong here. There’s ample evidence that non-mimetic art forms – abstract painting, classical music – have the power to move us. Aristotle was limited by the fact that he lived at a time and a place with very particular tastes in art and he didn’t have the advantage of being able to draw on 2000 years of global culture while developing his aesthetic theories.

Some play microcosms are clearly mimetic. A group of kids running around in the backyard pretending to be cowboys have constructed an imaginary landscape that recapitulates certain aspects of the real world in a simplified and idealized form. A lot of the fun of make-believe derives from the feeling that you’re walking around in another person’s skin and seeing the world through his eyes.

But other microcosms are clearly not mimetic. Consider a game like Go. It’s theoretically possible to view it a game of Go as a metaphor for warfare, but virtually no one who plays Go approaches it that way. The fun of Go emerges from the interesting interactions generated by its abstract rule set, not because it recapitulates a real-world experience.

Most play involves a mix of mimetic and non-mimetic activities. There is a fantasy element that derives its power from its connection to the real world (as per Aristotle) and a "flow" element that derives its power from rule-based interactions.

(The term "flow" comes from Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s work on cognitive states.)

One problem we run up against when we try to talk about play is that western critical tradition is firmly rooted in Aristotle. We have an elaborate set of tools that can be used to take apart a piece of art and understand how it functions in relation to the real world. Terms like suspension of disbelief, characterization, catharsis, and authenticity all exist within a mimetic critical system where the value of a work is related to how well it approximates reality and illuminates the human condition.

Once we start talking about forms of play that are heavily non-mimetic – sports, board games, videogames, music – we run up against a wall. We lack the critical apparatus to get at the core experience of these activities. How do we talk intelligibly about the surge of emotion that flows from Ralph Vaughn William’s Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis, or the kinesthetic rush of hitting a perfect trick combo in Tony Hawk? Instead the analysis is compelled to focus on the periphery of such works – the relationship between the Fantasia and Elizabethan music, for example, or the graphical quality of Tony Hawk.

When the only tool you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail. And Aristotle is a very big hammer.

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