Recognition of otherness: On Henning Eichberg (1942-2017) as another nosey

Ejgil Jespersen
Akademia Wychowania Fizycznega Jozefa Pilsudskiego w Warszawie
Filia w Bialej Podlaskiej


Henning Eichberg & Signe Højbjerre Larsen (ed.)
Play in Philosophy and Social Thought
246 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2018
ISBN 978-1-138-32236-3

The German-Danish historian, cultural sociologist and political publicist Henning Eichberg died in April last year. He had almost finished the second book of his planned trilogy of play before he had to submit to the will of his own body (corpus meum). The working title was ‘What plays us?Play between Craftsmanship and Religion’. It is now published with the title Play in Philosophy and Social Thought, edited by Signe Højbjerre Larsen, a colleague from University of Southern Denmark.

Eichberg’s last book fits nicely with his scholar life-project of recognizing otherness[1]. When asking what plays us, he is – temporarily – setting the single player as subject aside and celebrating play as subject just as much as he earlier put people as subject on the pedestal. He observes his grandson playing with a ball and writes:

Alfred, two years old, throws a rubber ball on the ground, and the ball jumps up and down. From Alfred’s face, joy, and gesticulation, it is visible, that it is not only the boy, as an individual subject, who plays with the ball. It is also – or foremost? – the ball, which plays with him. The ball makes the game. The ball plays him, Alfred (p. 1).

Eichberg depicts – with the philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer – ‘the game which plays us’ as an existential phenomenon. That is, play is not action – neither in purely, causal, mechanical terms (‘empiricist’ views), nor as brute bodily movement, controlled by thought (‘intellectual’ accounts).

Play is a movement of passion rather than action – a movement without goals, a self-transcendence constantly renewing and repeating itself, a venturing into the unknown, an experience of the unfamiliar, in short – a questioning enterprise, a way of making things indeterminate. Being receptive and responsive in relation to what occurs to us is what is required of us in search of knowledge and – politically – the lost subject.

The book on Play in Philosophy and Social Thought contains an introduction, ‘If the game plays the player’, and a conclusion, ‘The playful human being, a challenge to philosophical anthropology’. In between there are 12 chapters divided into five parts: (1) Play and identity, (2) Play and un-normal normality, (3) Play and craft, (4) Critical method: the study of play and the play of study and (5) … and play down here. All chapters have been published in previous versions going back to 1987 and onwards except the last chapter on The Nose– considered as a playground in the middle of the human face.

Play and identity

As a questioning being, Eichberg demonstrated and fulfilled a basic mode of human existence. When somebody is making sense of sports, he thought he had to make non-sense of sports. Therefore, he tells us about the laughter of the Pygmies on the racetrack during the Anthropology Daysor Tribal Gamesprior to the Olympic Gamesof 1904 in St. Louis. He is also contrasting the gliding body with the sitting body in comparisons between Norwegian skiing and Indian yoga, where the common ground is described as modern nation-building with religious undertones.

In addition, in the section on play and identity, Eichberg is writing a short story of the mass plays (Massenspiele) or festival plays (Festspiele) as they were displayed in Germany mainly during the interwar years among the socialists, the Nazis and the Catholics. With quasi-religious undertones, they were also called celebration play or sacral play (Weihespiele). By analyzing their configurations in comparison of time and space, energy and voicing, relations and objectification and, finally, the superstructure above the basic elements of bodily practice, he is bringing his study closer to the political corporeality of human beings.

If the question now is raised about the playing subject in all these bodily practices, then Eichberg’s answer is that identity is the overarching player whether it is related to ethnic identity across class distinctions or inside ‘folk’, where it can be the social identity or class consciousness among people. Thus, Eichberg is both playing with a Right-wing approach to the people in terms of the totality of citizenry of ethnic (or national) origin and a Left-wing approach to the less wealthy part of people, the plebeians.

At the same time, Eichberg is stressing that ‘identity is not a given “thing” and has no reified and normative character’ (p. 238). Therefore, he is not promoting hard core identity politics. He is, rather, bowing to an overarching identity-player as a bodily-affective figure, which serves as the joker in his scholar game. With the decease of Eichberg some noble communities of research have certainly lost a wild card.

Play and unnormal normality

By addressing the bodily-affective level of human existence, Eichberg runs a risk of being accused of valuing irrationality, but as usual he is resourceful in opposing his opponents by arguing that he is rather testing the limits of rationality and, thereby, extending them.

In the section on play and un-normal normality he is playing the role of a crooked character between the Western rationality and the Eastern energeticism. While it is possible to measure space and time, he thinks it may be more difficult to measure human energy – ‘or it may even be impossible to measure it at all’ (p. 124).

Eichberg unfolds this cultural difference in a study of historical dancing manias and demonstrates how Western medical and religious explanations fails to capture the full story.

In continuation of this way of thinking, it feels naturally for him to ask what is normal: ‘Is there any “normal” human being at all? Or are all human beings in some way “deviant” or “special?”’ (p. 129).

While being an expert in the study of historical and cultural relativities, he is now making a hint to a possible universal trait of human beings: ‘Disability’ as a human condition as figured out by WHO, the World Health Organization.[2]We are all sort of cripples in the perspective of ableism, which is based on a long-standing, continuous idea of improving deficiencies going back to Greek antiquity.

Equal opportunities can only be established by compensating for a kind of deficiency related to a standard of normality.

Johann Gottfried Herder (1744-1803), one of Eichberg’s heroes, is in fact playing a key role in the deficiency story by highlighting the otherness of animals compared to human beings. He thought that the human stands behind the animal in terms of force and certainty of instinct, and, therefore, humans created culture – albeit in different forms – as a compensation for this general deficiency (Mangel). Friedrich Nietzsche picked up this idea later by considering the human as the ‘undetermined animal’.

Individuals with disabilities demonstrate obvious shortcomings and, thereby, the paradox of equality in welfare society. Equal opportunities can only be established by compensating for a kind of deficiency related to a standard of normality. However, if the search for the normal in disease treatment and prevention is given up in favor of a quest for health within an open and unlimited horizon, then everyone is expected to make a special difference in life.

The quest for health creates a dilemma of difference in terms of stigmatization. By emphasizing the differences among people, we run the risk of stigmatizing and hindering people on that basis. If, on the other hand, we are treating people the same, we become insensitive to their difference and are likely to stigmatize them on that basis.

Sport competitions (‘First among equals’) are doing both and, therefore, the sport organizations can be criticized for promoting stigmatization in double potency.

Without recognition of otherness, there is no equality of meeting the other. (…) The result is a more and more refined system of definitions and classifications, which separates the differently abled or disabled groups(p. 131).

But, then, when reflecting upon equality and comparative recognition in sport, he asserts that there is no equality as such,

no “objective” equality between human beings – it is equality in relation to something, what matters(p. 135).

That might be institutionalized human rights in law contexts, but also in the civil society of sport, where the practice of sport is associated with a human right in accordance with one of the fundamental principles of Olympism.[3]

That was, however, far from Eichberg’s field of interest. On the contrary, he preferred sticking to the Nordic world of deities through their disablement as characterized by the Danish painter and situationist Asger Jorn:

Odin who has only one eye. Thor with broken toes, Tyr who sacrificed his one arm, etc. – the gods of the North are a strange flock of invalids and cripples. (p. 137).

But if the baseline is deficiencies, then all people are mimicking the gods of the North – also in the world of sport mania.

Play and craft

In the current cognitive knowledge society there are not much prestige associated with vocational education and crafts as trade. However, when it comes to handicraft and hipster activities, then it is possible for ‘body workers’ to obtain some academic interest. If you as a researcher have, for instance, personal experiences with an activity such as parkour, then the way may be paved for an interesting study beyond the usual.

Thus, the editor of the book, Signe Højbjerre Larsen, writes with Eichberg on parkour as a tricky relation between craftmanship and playfulness. She leads Eichberg out on – for him – untouched paths like expertise and skilled movement, theory of craftmanship, the value of repetition and the resistance of the sensible world. Even apprenticeship learning, which was rehabilitated in the ’90s in educational psychology and social anthropology, gets some attention in their critique of ‘educational snobbery’. The brilliant chapter on parkour is, however, a lonely swallow. In the following section on critical method we are back on well-known trails.

Critical method

Eichberg repeats his viewpoint from his book on Questioning play, that we don’t need any definitions of neither play nor philosophy. It looks like ‘anything goes’. He is certainly not a fan of Bernard Suits’s so called cult-book on Grasshopperdealing with games, life, and utopia,[4]which he thinks falls in a trap, namely ‘the tradition of Hegel, Heidegger, and Habermas, of positivism and rationalism’ (p. 167). Eichberg apparently preferred ‘studying living cases and questioning them with curiosity’ (p. 167) – but if he really did this, then it is peculiar that he never produced any sound qualitative research studies.

I should also like to add, that, in my opinion, Eichberg did not feel able to properly embrace the way of thinking within neither the phenomenological movement nor critical theory (the Frankfurt school). Therefore, his critiques could easily appear as unfair, and they were also mostly met by silence[5]. In any case, he remained a stranger outside the borders of these fields.

Nevertheless, he tried inventing a comparative phenomenology of play – without spelling out a common ground for comparison (tertium comparationis). This is simply not convincing, and it doesn’t help much to invoke Marx’s materialist philosophy dictum, ‘the social being determines human consciousness’ in a base-superstructure model, because this implies a relapse to an object-body completely out of touch with his phenomenology ambitions. All in all, it is just play with words, as he himself is talking about in another methodology chapter, where he is contrasting words with numbers in academic games.

While becoming depressed reading and commenting on these chapters, I am enlivened again by reading an excellent chapter on modern sport entitled ‘Play, games, sport, production: The study of configurations’. This chapter is a phenomenal summary of Eichberg’s historical-cultural sport studies since the 70s, in which we are led from courtly riding to horse races with a stopwatch and told about the relativity of sport and its shifting configurations, the trialectics of modern sport and, finally, coming back to the horses as otherness. I only miss here a qualified consideration of the ‘longue durée’ of the Annales school and possible residuals of, for example, the ‘Agon’ motifs in modern sport, and, of course, athletes’ first-person points of view.

Eichberg’s unique, obstinate position

Eichberg asks in the last chapter on ‘The Nose’: ‘Can functionalist positivism see forward as far as to its own tip of the nose?’ (p. 236). In his opinion we should not only be occupied with the nose as an organ of smelling, but also with the nose in the popular culture of laughter, e.g. the clown with the long red nose, and with ascriptions of the nose related to individual types of character like hochnäsig and aspects of ‘race’. Thus, the eugenicist professor Hans F. K. Günther (Rassengünther) in 1922 confronted the ‘noble’ nose of Greek statues with the prominent nose of the ‘Jewish race’.

Eichberg is somehow also writing about himself as another nosey or Spürnase, a trickster with a critical stance, unceasingly mingling with identity and otherness.

I encountered Eichberg in the literature in the ’70s when reading his first two books on sport, history and society[6]and got in touch with him in 1980 while translating his article ‘Von den Exercitien zum Sport. “Leistung” im historischen Bild’ into Danish.[7]In 1981, I invited him as a keynote speaker at a summer-course at Gerlev folk high school of sport dealing with ‘Sport in new perspective’, and, thereafter, he was awarded the culturally radical Gerlev Award in December 1981.

In August 1982 Eichberg found a new home with his first wife Greta and their three small boys at Gerlev folk high school of sport induced by his engagement as guest professor at Odense University (now University of Southern Denmark) financed by the Danish Ministry of Culture. A new home – or was it rather a political asylum?

Eichberg was, thus, inclined to become a troll with his own agenda, opposing established ways of categorial thinking.

One day in 1984 when I came back with Greta from a visit in Marburg we discussed that matter – both were quite cunning. Henning started talking about Rübezahl as a secret friend, but I didn’t take much notice of it back then. Some years later he wrote several articles about Rübezahl, and I thought he was crazy when he compared himself – a native Silesian – with guardian Rübezahl, a folklore spirit (woodwose) of the giant mountains along the border between the historical lands of Bohemia and Silesia.

Later I understood what he wanted to tell me, namely that he is (was) a person crossing borders and never feeling quite at home anywhere, although he learned to appreciate Denmark as his homeland. Apart from all qualities, which Rübezahldemonstrated fully – a demonic figure, a jester and in the Enlightenment an incalculable wanderer and wizard with some sort of storm-like laughter, ‘Rübezahl never became part of a Silesian culture of laughter, as the nisse did in Denmark(p. 220).

That is why he is writing with love about nisser – the playful small people of Denmark – in the penultimate chapter. He was called to Denmark as a highly qualified researcher with interests in both the Grundtvigianfolk high school tradition and the scholarly return of the body in human and cultural studies, but he became mostly fascinated by nisserwith eyes behind the hole in the wall and – in contrast – by disturbing voices in the Bedouin desert.[8]

This was, maybe, his way of healing his wounds from being relegated two times in his life – first in 1945 from German Schweidnitz (now Polish Swidnica) and then, again, in 1982 from a small town outside Stuttgart due to Berufsverbot because of his crossing border viewpoints associated with new Right-radical/extreme attitudes.

We only keep in mind what hurts us, as Nietzsche put it, and in our immediate memory we are more inclined to follow our desires than our will. Eichberg was, thus, inclined to become a troll with his own agenda, opposing established ways of categorial thinking. But sometimes it was hard for him to protect his unique, obstinate position in institutional and political settings of power play, for example, when he was asked to contribute to rationalizing Danish sports policy.[9]

A macabre joke?

With his two published books on play – the one on What plays us reviewed here, and the other on Questioning play. What play can tell us about social life from 2016 (reviewed in idrottsforum.org[10]) – Eichberg has bestowed upon us excellent examples of how to play with studies of play without knowing who is the playing subject. While being a master in recognizing otherness, in his own research studies of literature he was, rather than taking his own bodily experiences and ‘undetermined’ selfhood into account, inclined to ask ‘who are we?’.

The missing third book in his play trilogy had the working title Play and power, since his research mission was mainly to question and deconstruct powerful establishments on behalf of oppressed and endangered people as well as looking for ‘a third way’ beyond all kinds of dualisms.

While the trilogy on play should draw a line towards people, democracy and revolution in terms ofKulturkampf, he had yet another, more obviously political book in his mind. That book would be a follow-up study to his groundbreaking Nationale Identität. Entfremdung und nationale Frage in der Industrigesellschaftfrom 1978 and deal with the national question that has returned as a burning platform question in the current period of immigration in Europe.

Eichberg tried to connect those two strands in his oeuvre in a late article on the modern division of the political field into a Right and a Left, and he left us with a question related to the Right answer to the questioning Left – mixing epistemic and political issues in a bizarre way:

Just as […] play as a counter to alienation received its specifically modern industrial-cultural significance, so did the questioning and questioning Left versus the productive Right. So, is the Left a joke? At a time when the self-destruction of humanity through productive work and global capitalism seems a real possibility, perhaps the question itself is a macabre joke – with depth?[11]

Eichberg was certainly concerned with signs of the self-destruction of humanity and ‘the end of the world’, but is the question itself in terms of play a macabre joke – with depth? Perhaps although I would, rather, remember our common vision of emancipatory body-cultural studies in the 80s, when we found a musician to animate our dance of life – the hare depicted on the fresco with dancers in Ørslev Church and used as the symbol of the research unit at Gerlev folk high school of sport.

I honor Henning Eichberg’s memory with the playing hare, and I am left behind, alone, with the riddle of the body and the flesh as otherness.

The fresco of dance (14thcentury), Oerslev church, Western Zealand

Copyright © Ejgil Jespersen 2018


[1] Otherness is the recurrent theme in Henning Eichberg’s oeuvre-article written with Jerzy Kosiewicz (2016). Body Culture, Play and Identity. Physical Culture and Sport. Studies and Research 72(1): 66-77.
[2] ‘Disability is part of the human condition’ in World Health Organization and The World Bank (2011). World Report on Disability. Geneva: WHO, p. 3. Eichberg was partly involved in Centre for Adapted Physical Activity Participation Studies (CAPAPS) at the University of Southern Denmark, which from 2011-2014 was devoted to the study of ‘Disability as a human condition’; see also Jerome E. Bickenbach (2014): Universally design social policy: when disability disappears? Disability and Rehabilitation36(16): 1320-27.
[3] His Excellency, the Count Jacques Rogge, Honorary President of the International Olympic Committee, received the degree of Doctor Honoris Causaat the University of Southern Denmark in October 2013.
[4] B. Suits (2014). The Grasshopper. Games, life, and utopia. Third edition. Peterborough: Broadview Press.
[5] An exemption is I. Martínková & J. Parry (2013). Eichberg’s “phenomenology” of sport: A phenomenal confusion. Sport, Ethics and Philosophy, 7: 331-41.
[6] Henning Eichberg (1973). Der Weg des Sports in die industrielle Zivilisation. Baden-Baden: Nomos Vergsgesellschaft. 2. Aufl. mit e. Nachw. (1979); Henning Eichberg (1978). Leistung, Spannung, Geschwindigkeit. Sport und Tanz im gesellschaflichen Wandel des 18./19. Jahrhunderts.Stuttgart: Klett-Cotta.
[7] Henning Eichberg (1980). Fra eksercitier til sport. ”Præstation” i historiske billeder. Centring – krop & sport1(4): 180-190.
[8] Henning Eichberg (1983). Sport i Libyen. Om kropskultur som indikator på samfundsmæssige modsigelser. Centring – krop & sport 4(2): 87-99; Anonymous (1983). Kampf für deutsche Einheit und Sozialismus. Interview mit dem libyschen Revolutionsführer Muammar al-Kadhafi. Wir Selbst, August/September: 4-7; Henning Eichberg (1986). Die Revolution, die aus der Wüste kommt. Über das libysche Phänomen und den Weg des Sufi. Wir Selbst, November 1986: 20-29.
[9] Claus Bøje & Henning Eichberg (1994). Idrættens tredje vej. Om idrætten i kulturpolitikken. Aarhus: Klim og Bjarne Ibsen & Henning Eichberg (2006). Dansk idrætspolitik – mellem frivillighed og statslig styring. Center for forskning i Idræt, Sundhed og Civilsamfund, Syddansk Universitet, for Idrættens Analyseinstitut. København: IDAN.
[10] https://idrottsforum.org/jesejg_eichberg170113/
[11] Henning Eichberg (2016). Die Rechte und die Linke unter dem Aspekt von Fragen und Spielen. GlobKult Magazin26. Juli 2016.
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