Universal play at home and beyond

Ejgil Jespersen
Independent scholar

Henning Eichberg
Questioning Play: What play can tell us about social life
275 pages, hardcover, ill.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2016
ISBN 978-1-138-68247-4

Play is not a problem to be solved, so why questioning play? Why questioning something, to which there is no answer? Henning Eichberg seems to be dealing with a mystery when questioning play in his latest book.

He asks in the introduction: What is play? And why do human beings play? These questions are, however, teasing ones, because his main agenda is to exceed the traditional question of what play is, which, he claims, is “derived from the modern myth of industrial life. (…) by seeing play either as training for productive life or as a counter-world to production.” (pp. 1-2). Furthermore, in introducing his next question of what play can tell us about human life, he is, simply, arguing that “it is impossible to define play” (p. 2), so what is he (really) questioning and writing about? Nothing less than Being?


On the one hand, Eichberg writes that play enlightens us on phenomenology, on the diversity of language, on normality; and in the field of society, play reveals something about productivity, folk, social identity, self-determination, and alienation. On the other hand, he highlights, as the core of his book, that: “Play enlightens us about the practice of questioning itself” (p. 2).

In this way, he wants to practice what he calls “bottom-up way of philosophy” in terms of narratives of concrete cases, i.e.  by referring to “empirical material from the life world, in the historical and anthropological basis of human doing” (p. 2), as though philosophy and social science is one and the same.

At the bottom, he finds the bare “bodily material life” (p. 2) and associates bottom-up activity with

  • laughter and popular carnival culture (p. 146-47);
  • questioning life, as is the idea in Folk High Schools unlike questioning in other educational contexts, where answering is the only name of the game for examination and ranking purposes (p. 176); and
  • theater thunder in some parts of soccer stadiums by masking, songs, drums, waves and other bottom-up activities (p. 236).

No doubt, Eichberg is preferring all kinds of uprising and rebellion, while looking around for the slightest signs of his mainly preferred revolution, that of body culture, and he demonstrates, in addition, his so-called bottom-up thinking in several instances in his book.


Eichberg is arguing

  1. for a cultural-relativistic perspective of play involving anti-colonial and cultural-critical standpoints against universal values, for example, human rights;
  2. for discontinuities in the anthropology of play instead of obvious continuities in bodily practices like going up and down, back and forth, round and round, due to the upright posture and our innate capacities
  3. for self-determination (Rousseau and Kant) bottom-up in terms of bodily democracy, against management top-down;
  4. for open questions in playing (paidia) instead of closed questions in gaming (ludus), which is, partly, challenging his favorite labyrinthine movement: from open swing of play to the closed point in the center. However, he is defending his preference for “freeplay”, i.e. games without rules, by associating the center of the labyrinth with a prison and a playful swing as an outbreak of the prison;
  5. for the child’s questions and wondering bottom-up against the top-down approach in the educational system, where the teacher, knowing the answer to the question in advance, deprives the students of all responsibility for thinking;
  6. for (basic) research as playful questioning rather than directed towards finding or constructing truth; and finally,
  7. for play as chances of peace education contra better-knowing violence and dictatorship, where he, at the same time, is reviving his “third way” thinking: “There is a rhythm in play, which goes beyond the “one” and the “other” side and may unite them” (p. 184).

However, before we are going to celebrate Play United instead of Manchester United, Eichberg is stressing that he is not at all reissuing the naive pedagogical idealism which sees play as “just good”:

Creating risk and danger for oneself and others, mobbing, torturing animals, and even some aspects of war must be taken seriously as phenomena within human play, which is not least “playing with fire” (p. 185)

or, by the way, “thinking dangerously”:

Who are we as human beings – in the light of dangerous play? Who is the human being in the light of dangerous philosophical questions? (p. 257).

Henning Eichberg is, certainly, a friendly and open-minded soul, but he is also coping with much intellectual distress due to a “fascist temptation” in his younger days.[1]

Furious productivity

Now, when we know a bit about Eichberg’s reasons for questioning play or, maybe rather, for putting play itself on a self-questioning pedestal (who is the subject?), we can have a look at the structure and organization of his materials. He suggests reading the chapters criss-cross, and is almost regretting that the volume also has a structure as a whole, as if the structure is an obstacle for playing questions.

The volume is composed of ten chapters fenced by an introduction and a conclusion as well as indexes of names, play and games and structural subjects, 275 pages in total. All chapters except two are re-use of previously published texts, revised or just republished. Most of them are from the later years, but three of them were published (much) earlier:

  • Soccer, crisis, and graze: how round is the Danish ball? (1992)
  • Wandering, winding, wondering: what is happening in the labyrinth? (2005)
  • Colonial and relativistic approaches to the cultural anthropology of play: do we need a definition of play? (2005, previous version 1982)
  • Unproductive play? What is productivity? (2015)
  • Play, learning, and progress: but what about the elderly in play? (2016)
  • Innocent play, war games, playing with fire: what about dark play? (2016)
  • Play, game, display, sport: how does language differentiate the understanding of concepts? (2012)
  • Play and curiousness: what is the question? (new)
  • Folk sports, popular games: who is the folk, who are the people? (2012)
  • Play and acceleration: play as an opposite to alienation? (new)

In addition, some of the studies of the volume refer to chapters in his book Bodily Democracy from 2010,[2] namely

  • Traditional games: play, people, and identity (ch. 9)
  • Laughter in sport and popular games (ch. 10)
  • Pull and tug: I, It and You in play (ch. 11)
  • Interethnic football in the Balkans as play and peace culture (ch. 13)
  • Danish-Tanzanian exchange of play: recognition and bodily democracy (ch. 14).

Besides, he has recently published studies about play which are not included in the new volume:

  • Dance as joy and as mania: what is human energy in play?[3]
  • Mass play and the festivity of social movements: how do people play their social identity?[4]
  • Differential phenomenology of play[5]
  • Configurational analysis of popular games and modern sport: how to study the historical change of play?[6]
  • Disabled people in play: Towards an existential and differential phenomenology of moving with dis-ease[7]

Play is, certainly, along with questions of identity and body culture, a key theme in his thorough studies[8]. Indeed, as early as in 1973 he discussed both sport as play and sport and play as cult in Der Weg des Sports in die industrielle Zivilisation.[9]

Resistance to globalization

If there is a continuous guidewire in Eichberg’s furious productivity, I guess it is his resistance to globalization (and universalism). This resistance is demonstrated in numerous instances in his book on Questioning play in terms of other – rhetorical – questions: “Is globalization the alienating acceleration by which in a few seconds large sums of money are sent around the world, from the stock exchange of Wall Street to the bankers of Tokyo? Or is the global the round globe, the ball, which connects the people and makes them feel at home in their own world?” (p. 234). Is homelessness, then, the problem?

Eichberg thunders against

  • the project of universal classification in the framework of the American Human Relations Area Files from 1937, which was invented to deliver a global pattern in which to place all cultural phenomena within “a universal cultural pattern” useful for collecting, organizing, classifying, and scientifically interpreting ethnographic material. Playful, recreational activities should also be put into an overall matrix of terminology (pp. 69-70);
  • the alleged homogenization of global modern sport while stressing that games can be played on other fields than those standardized by global Olympic sport. Among Danish initiatives he mentions Gerlev Playground with traditional games, Great Play-Days, Open Fun Football Schools and a particular profile of Danish sport as a popular movement culture (not to be confused with disciplinary practices derived from the exercise tradition of gymnastics and fitness-oriented training activities, so what is left – with some backing in the people – in practice?) as well as the Danish Foundation for Culture and Sports Facilities and the Danish-based International Sport and Culture Association at the cultural policy level;
  • the Olympic discourse about play referring in a universalizing way to the ritual games of Ancient Greece, to children’s games, to old folk games, and to the games of indigenous people: “It may fit festivity tales and solemn self-celebration, which can be ornamented by references to Friedrich Schiller, Johan Huizinga, and Hans-Georg Gadamer, but cannot be used for deeper analysis” (p. 151). Eichberg knows better in swearing to diversity instead of unity, based upon the assumption that the chasm between the universal and the particular is unbridgeable. Such statement is the same as saying that the universal is no more than a particular that has become dominant – that there is no way of reaching a reconciled world community;
  • the mega-events of sport, which “tend to fall into the hands of large enterprises, and of fascist or other dictatorships. (…) Or sport may turn itself into an imperial multinational concern, as can be found in the International Olympic Committee” (p. 161).

While “the death of the subject” was succeeded by a new and widespread interest in the multiple identities, Eichberg is now – with good reason – reviving the questions of subject and democratic self-determination: “Who plays? Who makes the game? Who is in control of sport?” (p. 161).

However, his political answer is just bridging an understanding of demos and ethnos as found in the philosophical approaches to “folk” by Herder, Grundtvig, and Buber as well as in his own modern concept of the nation. What, then, about universality? Just an old-fashioned totalitarian dream of a universal body or a new God? And if play is neither training for competitive globalization nor a counter-world to globalization, what then? Just play at home – to secure a possible home advantage – rather than being a citizen of the world?

Play as an opposite to alienation?

In the last chapter Eichberg discusses the open question of play as an opposite to alienation or – in Nietzsche’s viewpoint – to the homelessness of the modern human being. The problems seem to be related to globalization and all kinds of manipulation of things, leaving no chance for dwelling upon and wondering about them, and therefore fostering a feeling of homelessness if not simply nihilism. Eichberg is especially focusing on a link of alienation and acceleration in line with Hartmut Rosa, a German sociologist of the Frankfurter School with a post-Habermas twist.

However, he thinks Rosas answers in contrast to alienation and acceleration in terms of experiences of nature, art, and religion sound rather idealistic and offers an alternative account: “Play is a bodily-practical way to answer the world. But primarily, it is a way of asking the world” (p. 232). Now play is also, though secondarily, becoming the answer and, thereby, threatening the openness of the question: “At the level of time, play has strong elements of repetition and rhythm, which are both in contrast to acceleration. (…) In the situation of play, players do not feel alienated. Especially under the temporal aspect of societal acceleration, play seems to constitute time-out in a world of stress” (232).

In this way, Eichberg is positively affirming the modern myth of play as a counter-world and leaving play out of question. He even continues, undaunted, “Play is (…) not only an opposite in temporal alienation, to acceleration. It constitutes also places of identity in contrast to spatial alienation” (p. 234) in referring to children’s play in concentration camps and parkour in the ruins of Gaza, and in addition linking festivity to a phenomenon of playful behavior, “which counters alienation both on the temporal and the spatial level” (p. 234).

However, after these discharges, Eichberg is coming back on track: “Play and games themselves underlie social changes, and in this context, alienation also enters into the world of play. This is especially visible in the transformation from play to sport, which happened during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries” (p. 236). Besides sportization, he is also criticizing folklorization and pedagogization of traditional games, ludomania, toy production, play as a tool of social technology entering into enterprises, the industry of advertisement using play to direct the consumer’s attention towards certain products, and finally the adoption of play by military and war for purposes of alienating people by discipline and preparing them for violence. All those efforts are associated with a productive instrumentalization of play at the expense of play for the sake of play itself. Again, we are put back into a ubiquitous need for a time-out.

What is really needed is, according to Eichberg, “a differential and dialectic phenomenology of play”. Does he, then, in this way save the question of play or who is the questioner? Eichberg himself is interested in play as a bodily practice of good life and asks: “Can it be a subversive reality? Can play in the midst of “bad life” be a source of change, of liberation, and of revolution?” (p. 240). Such questions are, however, nothing more than choosing the instrumental way of using play for other purposes he just criticized so much and leaving the reader with open mouth.

What is missing in Eichberg’s magnum opus? I think it is a philosophy of interrogation, which he, in his overarching commando raid, is only passing by when referring to, among others, the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer. Eichberg thinks play questions all, especially the well-established order of normality, whilst Gadamer is stressing that it is not the empirical “subject that makes the play, but the play that makes the human being a player. Play is (…) the master: “All play is being played” (p. 167). That is why play is without why, and why play is the question of Being.

Regrettably, Eichberg is not interested in contributing to the revelation of Being as corresponding to the question of play, whether it is a Heideggerian question of truth in the world, which in case of an answer will terminate the questioning, or, in Deleuze’s viewpoint, the distribution of Being itself in beings in an errant manner. Indeed, it is errancy itself for Deleuze that keeps the question open. However, perhaps Eichberg will agree with this notion, remembering his special interest for “dark play”. In any case, when we are dealing with errancy or imperfection in our quest for truth, the last question of Being in terms of play is certainly far out.

Not, yet, over the hill

In one perspective, Eichberg’s project may look like a self-defeating enterprise when excluding a universal (and scientific) perspective. A universal body is, of course, not an Endlösung, and the battle for the body should continue in sport and elsewhere. However, a pure particularism should in my viewpoint be kept away from our thinking, as we need moving stars both at home and beyond.[10] Therefore, indulging in universal play at home and beyond is welcome.

In another perspective, Eichberg has done an extremely important job in keeping the identity questioning going around and around – not too fast – in his preferred “unüberschaubar” or unmanageable labyrinth. He is not, naively, singing “We are the world”, but still going strong by sticking to his subversive endeavor “leaving power no place to hide”.[11]

Questioning play is questioning a phenomenon, which is a question itself and as such prone for doing philosophy of interrogation. Eichberg is practicing his own “bottom-up way of philosophy” and succeeds in demonstrating an immense empirical knowledge of play and games put together in a peculiar, differential, “phenomenological” way. Thereby, he leaves a legacy of far-reaching significance for further critical socio-cultural studies, as well as personal imprints of a curious character with much vitality (despite a ailing physical body in later years) and an adventurous courage resembling the zeal and daring of mountain climbers. Luckily, Eichberg is not, yet, over the hill.

Copyright © Ejgil Jespersen 2017

[1] Eichberg suffered, allegedly, Berufsverbot as professor in West Germany due to his political activities in the 1960’s judged Rechtsextremismus or – in his own words – a “fascist temptation”, when speaking favorably of fascism as a “revolutionary movement”. cf. Über Habitus, Ideologie and Praxis: Im Gespräch mit Henning Eichberg, ENDSTATION RECHTS 2010-06-05. Eichberg was also strongly advocating Ethnopluralismus in the 1970’s and arrived in exile in Denmark in 1982 after being awarded the Gerlev Award of Gerlev Sports Academy in 1981.  He wrote in 1990 about ”Gefährlich denken”: Über Rationalität und Angst in der Sportwissenschaft (in STADION XVI (2), 223-255, in a response to a highly critical thesis by Frank Teichmann: Henning Eichberg – nationalrevolutionäre Perspektiven in der Sportwissenschaft. Wie politisch ist die Sportwissenschaft?, delivered at Hamburg University in 1989 and published in 1991 (Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang). After more study visits to Libya in the 1980’s he was in 1989 also awarded the Fatah order of the Socialist Libyan People’s Jamahiriya by colonel Muammar Gaddafi and, recently, in 2015 a more peaceful Play Award of Gerlev Sports Academy.
[2] Henning Eichberg (2010). Bodily Democracy: Towards a Philosophy of Sport for All. London and New York: Routledge.
[3] Henning Eichberg (2010). Dancing manias. About human energy. Body Culture 15: 1-23.
[4] Henning Eichberg (2013). Das Fest der Bewegung. Arbeitermassenspiel und NS-Thingspiel. SportZeiten 13.1: 7-44.
[5] Henning Eichberg (2014). Differential phenomenology of play in: Mindegaard, P. S. et al. (eds.). Bevægelser og kropskulturelle mønstre. Konfigurationsanalysen i teori og praksis. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 147-55.
[6] Henning Eichberg (2014). Configurational analysis of popular games and modern sport: how to study the historical change of play? In: Mindegaard, P. S. et al. (eds.). Bevægelser og kropskulturelle mønstre. Konfigurationsanalysen i teori og praksis. Odense: Syddansk Universitetsforlag, 133-46.
[7] Henning Eichberg (2015). Disabled people in play: Towards an existential and differential phenomenology of moving with dis-ease. Physical Culture and Sport: Studies and Research 65: 14-23.
[8] Henning Eichberg with Jerzy Kosiewicz (2016). Body Culture, Play, and Identity. Physical Culture and Sport: Studies and Research 72, 66-77.
[9] Henning Eichberg (1973). Der Weg des Sports in die industrielle Zivilisation. Baden-Baden: Nomos.
[10] Consider, for example, the anecdote about the laughter of the Thracian woman as found in Plato’s Theatetus dialogue, wherein the early astronomer and proto-philosopher Thales of Miletus observes the stars while walking one night, until, failing to see a well in front of him, he tumbles down – perhaps to his death. A Thracian servant-girl laughs at how he tried to see what was above him without noticing what was right in front of his nose. Another interpretation of the event stresses, however, the servant-girl’s stupidity, since she, alleged, had not understood, that the astronomer’s well just served as a kind of telescope, from where he could better observe the stars flash of light, cf. Hans Blumenberg (1987). Das Lachen der Thrakerin. Eine Urgeschichte der Theorie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.
[11] The anthropologist Susan Brownell is finishing an admiring essay about Eichberg’s so-called “thinking dangerously” by saying: “Eichberg’s work is temporally, spatially, and directional unbounded. So long as other scholars are creating structures, Eichberg will be exploring the places between them with the goal, as he puts it, of ‘leaving power no place to hide’, cf. Susan Brownell (1998). Thinking dangerously: The person and his ideas. In: Henning Eichberg. Body Cultures. Essays on Sport, Space and Identity. Edited by John Bale and Chris Philo. London and New York: Routledge, p. 42.
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