What is dominant theory in literary criticism

Literary theory as game theory

On the occasion of more recent books on the subject by Stefan Matuschek, Johannes Merkel and Ruth Sonderegger

By Thomas Anz

Discussed books / references

Postmodern games

The cultural career of “postmodernism” was over for about a decade, but the boom of one of their favorite terms seems to be holding up.

In philosophy, aesthetics, art and literature from the area of ​​postmodernism, the word "game" was used with an almost inflationary frequency, both in programmatic texts of postmodernism and in attempts to describe or define what the term "postmodernism" was. say.

In a conversation, the copy of which is attached to the first German edition (1982) of Jean-François Lyotard's important work “The postmodern knowledge”, Lyotard postulated: “Let us play ... and let us play in peace”. Lyotard's "report" presented in France in 1978 refers explicitly to Wittgenstein's concept of the "language game". The term and various metaphors of the game run through the entire book. At one point it explicitly calls for a “theory of games”. The instability of the positions in which linguistic actors interact in uninterrupted movements corresponds to the pragmatics of research in contemporary, “postmodern” science, which has brought the “invention of new 'moves' and even new rules of language games to the fore. "

A lecture by Jacques Derrida from the sixties, the printed version of which strongly inspired poststructuralism and postmodernism, had the word “game” in the title: “The structure, the sign and the game in the discourse of the science of man”. Nietzsche is here the role model for "the happy affirmation of the game of the world", a game without origin, aim and truth. Later, in “La dissémination” (1972), Derrida took a closer look at Plato's concept of play. And in Mallarmé's works he illustrates what literary play in the sense of his own concept of the différanceGame: a subversion of metaphysical claims about meaning, truth and reality.

"The whole of reality has passed over to the game of reality", stated Jean Baudrillard ("The symbolic exchange and death", German 1982). It has thus become an aesthetic phenomenon. "The simulation principle overcomes the reality principle". Whereas in the past the enjoyment of literature and art consisted in recognizing something real in what was artificial and imitated, now there is an aesthetic fascination "where the real and the imaginary are fused into a common operational totality". The subliminally perceived trick, the montage, the scenario of reality constructed in the media presents itself as "an inextricable game with which an aesthetic pleasure is connected, the pleasure of reading and the rules of the game".

Significantly, with a (excellent) play on words, a combination of “play” and “plagiarism”, the American writer Raymond Federman characterized another play aspect of postmodern aesthetics: “Playgiarism” means the playful reference to other texts and touches on one of the central terms of postmodernism Literary theory, that of "intertextuality". Literary texts refer more or less excessively to other “pretexts” that preceded them, quote, imitate, plagiarize, ironize them or enter into a dialogue with them. The word "allusion" or "allusion" probably most clearly refers to the game character of such intertextuality phenomena.

The postmodern boom of the game term was an international phenomenon. It also left unmistakable traces in German-speaking countries. In keeping with the programmatic pluralism of postmodernism, Hans Magnus Enzensberger introduced “one hundred and sixty-four varieties” of literary writing in 1984 in the volume “Das Wasserzeichen der Poesie” (under the pseudonym Andreas Thalmayr). According to the preface, it is “never a simple game, it has always been a highly complex game played by poets and their readers. Was it all meant seriously? Or was it just a parade of tricks, a performance of brilliant tricks, strange emotions, breathtaking skills? And if it was a game, what rules was it played by? ”The plurality of rules according to which literary play is played corresponds to the plurality of possible readings of a text. “There is no one right way to read a poem. She is just an educational phantom. So many heads, so many readings, one more correct than the other. "

A newspaper article by Hanns-Josef Ortheil in 1987 with the title “What is postmodern literature?” Recalls that writing and reading are subject to certain “rules of the game”. Ortheil referred to Italo Calvino and cited his explanation: “We will be able to play the novel, how to play chess, with absolute fairness, and re-establishing a relationship between the writer who is fully aware of the mechanisms he uses and the reader who plays the game because he knows its rules and knows you are can no longer lead him by the nose. "

Farewell to postmodernism and the game

How closely the term “postmodernism” was associated with that of the “game” is also shown by the distancing and farewell to postmodernism in the course of the nineties. In 1993 the media aesthetician Florian Rötzer declared as co-editor of a catalog entitled “Artificial Games” (for an exhibition with “Interactive Installations”): “We no longer want to accept that art, information, education, science or work are in opposition to playfulness should be. [...] We no longer believe that an order is unique and inviolable. We are in the age of constructivism and experimentation, no longer that of reality, objectivity and truth. ”In the same catalog, however, there is also the skeptical voice of Vilém Flusser who stated that“ it would be premature to avoid the suppression of the To want to infer a more cheerful cultural mood through a ludic way of thinking and acting sociologically: game theories can be mathematically formulated more precisely than sociological ones, they are 'harder'. And gamers aren't necessarily cheerful people. And the idea that the cultural landscape is about to be transformed into a nursery is not necessarily a good thing ”.

In the same year, the Berlin writer Bodo Morshäuser, author of the story “The Berlin Simulation” published ten years earlier, distanced himself from the culture of simulations and games that prevailed in the eighties under the title “The 1980s fun and the seriousness of the 90s” had set the tone: “Discussions on content were regarded as repulsive, opinions were regarded as exchangeable self-portrayals. Questions of meaning spread a stench that could only be dispelled with amusement. With game. With simulation. With pretend. Let's see what happens when I do the now say. It's not me. I am just saying it. And so on. The eighties were the decade of the players. “With the fall of the wall, with the breakdown of the stabilizing borders between west and east, with the destabilization of the rigid post-war order, according to Morshäuser, problems and conflicts in Europe increased in the 90s whose playful ease of the 80s has given way to bitter seriousness. In November 1996, a programmatic article was published in “Die Zeit” under the telling title “The fun generation played itself tired” in which Sigrid Löffler, who was then appointed head of the feature section, stated: “There were games and fun, experience and enjoyment the central concepts of every cultural sociology of the eighties. ”In the meantime, however, there are indications of a collective change in mood. Authors such as W.G. Sebald, Christoph Ransmayr and Raoul Schrott announced that they “played tiredly”, from the “end of the game time”, from the end of the “fun ideology”. In the travel report “Rub‘ Al-Khali - Empty Quarter ”by the ethnologist, game researcher and novelist Michael Roes with the subtitle“ Invention about the game ”, the fragmentary remarks and fragments of game theory reflections merged into the“ melancholy of a desolate void of meaning ”. Under the heading “The game is over: The crises of capitalism are driving postmodern thinking on the defensive”, “Die Zeit” continued a series of articles on the debate on postmodernism on August 13, 1998.

The postmodern game culture has long been spoken of in the grammatical form of the past; it has become a historical phenomenon. And meanwhile, in literary and cultural studies, too, the former authorities of postmodernism are treated with corresponding disrespect. In her dissertation “For an Aesthetics of Play” published by Suhrkamp, ​​the philosopher Ruth Sonderegger, who teaches in Berlin, writes of a “jargon of authenticity” with regard to Derrida's concept of play, of a “knowledge of the essence of characters” that incorporates the concept of play Serving a “ultimate” philosophical truth, namely, “that the speech of truth, meaning and understanding is based on a necessary transcendental appearance.” The readable habilitation thesis “Literary Game Theory” by the literary scholar Stefan Matuschek shows up against the deconstructivist game concept more reserved: The theorem of the “game of the signifiers” that emerged with the “claim to radical reorientation” is now little more than a “commonplace”. Deconstructivism and postmodernism have passed here, but not the concept of the game. For Sonderegger as for Matuschek, it retains its attractiveness. The comparisons and equations of literature and play are older than postmodernism and will outlast them. Postmodern programs and theories have provided diverse suggestions for a literary theory of the game - even if they lagged far behind what was already achieved by game theorists and aesthetes at the end of the last century. The literary theoretical stimulus potential inherent in the game concept has only been exhausted in vague approaches.

From the seductive power of the word

Matuschek's distance from deconstructivism has nothing in common with the attacks of the physicists Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont against the “elegant nonsense” of postmodern thinkers, which target the constructivist tendencies of cultural studies in general (cf. literaturkritik.de No. 12, 1999). The refreshing disrespect of the book is also directed against natural scientists who have made the game term a commonplace in a similarly diffuse way as Derrida and his followers. While Johan Huizinga brought the whole culture to the game concept in 1938 under the title “Homo ludens”, now only natural scientists dare to dare such ambitious and comprehensive theoretical drafts, Matuschek states with reference to the successful book by Manfred Eigen and Ruth Winkler (“Game. Natural Laws Control coincidence ”. 1974, 9th edition 1990). That still sounds respectable, but then comes the nasty, apt aside: “But their dilettantism in the humanities is usually received with much more benevolence by the experts than the other way round, because they are happy that such recognized bright minds are also responsible for their subjects interested. "

Under the abstract definition “dichotomy of chance and law”, Eigen / Winkler turns the game concept into a kind of universal formula. He was, however, already in a fragment from Heraclitus, enthusiastically quoted by, among others, early Romanticism and Nietzsche: "Time is a child who plays, places the game pieces back and forth." Plato's dictum of man as "God's toy" found similar dissemination. . In the early modern period and in the baroque era, all social life was equated with a drama. This tradition lives on in sociological theories of action and roles. The German title of a book by sociologist Erving Goffman, which has already become classic, testifies to this: “We all play theater”.

In addition to sociological and psychological, there are mathematical, economic, educational, language-philosophical or aesthetic game theories - and hardly any social or natural process that cannot be described with its categories. The same goes for dealing with literature.

The history of the use of the concept of play in literary theory is as old as the tradition of literature itself. Aristotle's “poetics” anthropologically legitimizes the concept of “mimesis” with the memory of children's play: “Imitation itself is innate in man - it shows itself from childhood. ”When Plato devalues ​​the fictionality of poetry as a lie, he also refers to the term:“ imitation ”is“ just a game ”and“ not serious ”. In this usage, "game" is associated with untruth, frivolity and unreason. The current criticism of the “non-binding nature” of postmodern play is part of this line of tradition.

In view of the current wildly circulating speculations about the affinities of literature and games, however, as Matuschek notes, the historical reconsideration usually only extends to Kant and Schiller. In Kant's definition of the beautiful as "the free play of the powers of knowledge" in which imagination and understanding harmonize, and in Schiller's famous dictum that the human being is "only completely human where he plays“, The term received the highest dignity. Understood as a game, art and literature become the paradigm of alienated activity that opposes the rationalization and differentiation processes of social modernization, which is neither dictated by sensual nature nor by that of rationality and morality. The significant feature of freedom associated with play is particularly emphasized here.

This is part of a literary tradition of game theory approaches which, relatively unheeded by research and now 'rediscovered' by Matuschek, emerged as early as the Renaissance and humanism (including Petrarch, Erasmus, Rabelais) and in the course of growing autonomy claims of the subject and the Art went far beyond classical aesthetics.

A look at the history of the game concept in literary theory and aesthetics reveals something truly astonishing - and is as stimulating as it is disillusioning: The concept has room for a wide variety of ideas and positions, and while these were all transitory, it has always outlived them so far. The romantic criticism of Schiller's concept of play turns into a new triumph for this very concept. If the standard work of philosophical hermeneutics, Gadamer's "Truth and Method", declared the "game" to be its "guide", Jurij Lotman's standard work on structuralism devoted a separate chapter to it. The post-structuralist criticism of hermeneutical understanding of meaning and structuralism even moved it into its center. And while Ruth Sonderegger or Stefan Matuschek, each from a slightly related position, criticize the deconstructivist concept of play, they do not want to forego the theoretical stimulus potential inherent in the concept. They share their preference for the early romantic game theory of Friedrich Schlegel, but deal with it very differently.

The term “game” was and remains a kind of wild card that can be used universally in the dispute between opponents of literary theory. Last but not least, one of the merits of Matuschek's book is that it pursues the astonishing seductive power of the term game with a linguistic and scientific-analytical distance and thus sets in motion a conceptual meta-reflection in addition to the historical, which the literary and aesthetic game theories largely lacked until now.

The unprecedented success of the game concept includes its "oversupply of semantic features", the diverse visual material of concrete phenomena in the world to which it refers, and at the same time the synthetic abstraction from it. Last but not least, it is short and echoes an anthropological promise: "that of being human being filled with happiness in free activity".

In its historical reconstructions of literary theoretical game terms and in its often illuminating explanations of their success, the book is undoubtedly a valuable contribution to the topic.But it does relatively little to a more systematic explication of the term and a more precise elaboration of its literary theoretical possibilities. Matuschek quotes the relevant definition of the term given by Huizinga, but shows no further interest in it. What is more astonishing, however, is the ignorance of Wittgenstein, who has already reflected in detail on the seductive power of the term and has also made specific suggestions for analyzing its ways of using it. What is regrettable in Matuschek's book becomes a nuisance in Ruth Sonderegger's.

“Back and forth” - a polemical excursus on Sonderegger's aesthetic of autonomy in the game

Ruth Sonderegger's brief finding on the more recent “conjunctural history of the term game” is (despite the wrong syntax) quite apt: “First via the detour of various cultural theories of the game, especially those of Huizinga and Caillois, on the one hand, and the structuralistic and deconstructive theories of signs on the other The concept of play, if not at the center, then at least moved to the most interesting fringes of contemporary theories of the aesthetic. From here it was possible to rediscover the concept of play in the aesthetic theories of Kant and Schiller, as well as the critically related concept of play in the early romantics. " their game concept remains diffuse and abstract. It should enable nothing less than a “new beginning” of aesthetic theory if it is to become the center of an aesthetic that is for the first time entirely appropriate to the autonomy of art. But this center remains empty.

The book exhausts itself in playing off “Gadamer's Hermeneutics of the Game” (a 50-page chapter) and “Derrida's Game of Deconstruction” (another chapter), the contrast between hermeneutics and antihermeneutics in terms of “Schlegel's aesthetics of the game”. (the main chapter) and thus to outbid both. In the end, "the hermeneutic thesis, according to which the work of art is readable sense, is just as correct as the deconstructive one, according to which the work of art is not sense, but material and formal nonsense." Following Schlegel, Sonderegger creates a concept of aesthetic experience that consists of the “back and forth” of two “dissolving movements”: Understanding dissolves the incomprehensible, the incomprehensible in turn the understandable meaning. The concept of play should make it possible to understand both as belonging together: "Understanding is not countered by a lack of understanding, but rather both are discarded in the game mode and restored again."

But what does “game” or “mode of the game” mean here? Sonderegger shows little effort to clarify the meanings with which the term is used or with which it can be used in aesthetic theories. The great importance and the excellent suitability of the term game for dealing with hermeneutics and deconstruction is asserted or assumed, but never questioned. It seems as if the term should be legitimized by using it as often as possible. If Matuschek refers skeptically to Grimm's dictionary, which lists a total of 132 possible uses among 23 possible meanings, Sonderegger leaves no doubt as to the suitability of the term. They ignore Huizinga's game definition or Caillois' game typology because, according to the incidental reasoning, "transfers of cultural theories of the game to the field of aesthetics [...] remain external", are based on "anthropological assumptions that are difficult to prove" and at best have aspects of “non-aesthetic games in works of art” in mind. The author is suspicious of cultural studies anyway. With the verdict “marginalization of the aesthetic”, their contributions to game research are explained to marginality, which can be ignored. There is little objection to the assertion that the aesthetic is “an autonomous discourse” “that is not before or after the other discourses that have been differentiated in modern times”. Not even against the associated, constantly repeated core thesis, directed against both hermeneutics and anti-hermeneutics, that art is not primarily there to convey moral or theoretical knowledge. But the fact that the appeal to the autonomy of art as an aesthetic game also serves to protect the hermetic terminology of philosophical aesthetics from encroachments on 'non-objective' disciplines is a relapse behind the more recent achievements of interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary border crossings. In the end, this “aesthetics of the game” in its criticism of and dialectical mediation of hermeneutics and deconstruction beyond their horizons reaches only a few astute nuances. That is the kind of traditional philosophy and art theory that remains primarily concerned with itself: with the interpretation and discussion of canonized texts of one's own discipline. She does not tolerate anything strange next to her.

The own nuances are insignificant, but are presented all the more decisively with the claim to a "new beginning". The style of this book is not the deliberate doubt, but the self-assured decree, not the effort of a concrete examination of art (apart from the brief excursus on Christoph Marthaler's stagings), but the bold abstraction, not the cautious justification, but the apodictic thesis or rapid processing . Recurring expressions such as “one must”, “must not” or “the only way one can” are symptomatic of this: “If one wants to defend an autonomous aesthetic experience of art, you have to fundamentally different from the tradition of philosophical aesthetics. ”A typical sentence. It is particularly annoying because the tradition that has been dealt with in this way is significantly distorted for the sake of its own profile. In the new discipline of aesthetics, Sonderegger claims in passing, the “concept of understanding [...] has come to the fore from the start”. With Kant, whom Schiller followed in this, it is well known that understanding was not the basis of all aesthetic experiences and judgments, but rather “pleasure” or “pleasure”. In the 1970s Derrida wrote with some justification about the “Critique of Judgment”: “The riddle of pleasure moves the whole book.” It is the “starting point of the third critique”.

Incidentally, even then, lust or pleasure was also considered a constitutive characteristic and motive of play. But Sonderegger is initially not interested in him. Rather, it decreed: "The attractive thing about the concept of play in relation to aesthetics is that it promises a way out of the deadlocked debate that is associated with the opposing pairs of hermeneutics-antihermeneutics, hermeneutics-deconstruction." Towards the end of the book is a small one However, this section is dedicated to “aesthetic pleasure”. And at a later point the author even explains that it is this pleasure “that is what the aesthetic experience really and exclusively is about.” Sonderegger again clearly distinguishes her “play-aesthetic conception of pleasure” from “common ideas of aesthetic pleasure”: “ from a sudden, sublime or other emotional shudder ”, from the“ pleasure in knowledge ”, from the pleasure in discovering a formal order or from the“ pleasure in the destruction of meaning or form ”. All of this can be a legitimate part of the aesthetic experience, but it doesn't the aesthetic pleasure. Far removed from the postmodern program of a variety of games and pleasures that one is tempted to wish for when reading this book, the dogmatism of this game aesthetic defines what the Aesthetic pleasure is: "This is a pleasure in the infinity of the aesthetic game."

Once again, the game term seems to be little more than an empty phrase. In the previous chapter on Schlegel, however, Sonderegger had cited an explication of the term, and a footnote here even refers to “more recent lexicon articles” (which, with their emphasis on games of chance and role-playing games, however, prove to be unsuitable for Sonderegger's argumentation) as well as Grimm's Dictionary. Gadamer is quoted with the following sentences: “When do we talk about play, and what does it mean? Certainly first of all the back and forth of a movement that is constantly repeated - just think of certain idioms, such as 'the play of lights' or 'the play of waves', where such a constant coming and going, a back and forth is present, ie a movement that is not tied to a movement goal. This is obviously what characterizes the back and forth in such a way that neither one nor the other end is the goal of the movement in which it comes to rest. "

This vague explication of the term game, which reveals only a fraction of its possible meaning, is obviously tailored to illustrate certain ideas of art and aesthetic experience: of regularity, aimlessness or infinity. Sonderegger makes it his own: In its concept, “aesthetic experience” means a “constant”, infinite “back and forth” of two movements, the hermeneutic construction and the antihermeneutic destruction of meaning, whereby the respective end of each movement is not the goal of Total movement is. This does not “come to rest” and cannot be assigned to any goal

One may doubt whether the term game in this very general meaning deserves to be placed at the center of an aesthetic theory. Of course, it has more to offer. If you want to exhaust your possibilities for an art or literary theory, you should treat him differently than Sonderegger.

Literature as a game

The definition of “game” in Johan Huizinga's cultural theory is certainly inadequate, but at least it makes it possible to examine a whole series of aspects of meaning under which literature can be called a “game”: “Game is”, according to Huizinga, “ a voluntary act or activity that is carried out within certain fixed limits of space and time according to voluntarily accepted but absolutely binding rules, has its goal in itself and is accompanied by a feeling of tension and joy and a consciousness of `` being different '' than the 'ordinary life'. "According to Roger Caillois, who tried to modify this expression of the term, but does not differ very much in the result from Huizinga, play is an activity with the following characteristics: 1. voluntary, 2. separated from space within fixed limits and time, 3. uncertain in process and result, 4. unproductive, 5. regulated, 6. fictitious.

After all, literature partially corresponds to such determinations. Understanding them in the sense of these definitions as playful “occupation”, “activity” or “action” has the advantage that not only literary texts but also the social activities associated with them come into focus, especially writing and that Read.

Applied to literature, the fact that the game is a “voluntary act or occupation” denotes the activity of professional authors, professional readers or pupils in literary classes, but the “normal” reading of literary texts certainly does. This is reserved for the free spaces and times delimited from the work and leads into imaginary worlds whose time and space are clearly different from the real world of the authors or readers. Literary reading is also not subject to the objectives and productivity obligations of work, it is detached from ordinary life, and at least pleasure and tension are sought. One of the elements of tension is that the process and result of the texts or their actions remain partially uncertain. We know that literature is not always, but often fictional. The rules that writing and reading follow are not "necessarily binding", especially since the aesthetics of genius, but there is no such thing as literature without all the rules. In the 18th century, the “original genius” is not defined by the negation of all rules, but by the fact that it gives itself its own rules.

Definitions of the game as given by Huizinga or Caillois are at least of limited use with regard to literature. She finds her limits, also for a plausible equation of literature and play, in the diversity of both playful and literary activities.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, whose concept of “language games” significantly inspired the philosophy of postmodernism, especially that of Jean-François Lyotard and Richard Rorty, has emphatically warned against definitions that prematurely abstract from the variety of concrete games. The desire for a clear concept of the game succumbs to the seductions of our language. There are no common features for all games, at most similarities between individual groups of games. "It is as if someone was declaring:" Playing consists in moving things around on a surface according to certain rules ... ‘- and we answer him: You seem to be thinking of board games; but these are not all games. You can correct your explanation by expressly restricting it to these games. ”Wittgenstein has given a plausible and practicable instruction on the expression of the term. It can be summarized in one sentence: `` Consider and compare a large number of specific gaming practices for similarities and differences! '' In Wittgenstein's words: `` For example, consider the processes that we call 'games'. I mean board games, card games, ball games, fighting games, etc. What do they all have in common? - Don't say, 'It got to be something in common for them, otherwise they weren't called 'games' - they were look whether they all have something in common. - Because if you look at them, you won't see anything all would be in common, but you will see similarities, relationships, and quite a number of them. As I said: don't think, just look! - Take a look at the board games, for example, with their manifold relationships. Now move on to the card games: here you will find many equivalents with that first class, but many common moves disappear, others appear. If we now move on to the ball games, many things in common are retained, but much is lost. - They are all 'Entertaining'? Compare chess with driving the mill. Or is there winning and losing everywhere, or competition between the players? Think of the patience. In the ball games there is winning and losing; but if a child throws the ball against the wall and catches it again, that pull is gone. See what role skill and luck play. And how different is skill in chess and skill in tennis. Now think of the round table games: here is the element of entertainment, but like many of the other traits have disappeared! And so we can go through the many, many other sets of games. See similarities appear and disappear. / And the result of this observation is now: We see a complicated network of similarities that overlap and intersect one another. Similarities on a large and small scale. "

If one wants to conceive literary theories as game theories, this results in a demanding and productive research program. Systematic continuations of the comparisons between different types of literature and different types of (non-literary) games, which have so far mostly only been indicated metaphorically, quickly lead to the centers of literary theoretical questions. And if one is ready to take note of the game research of other scientific disciplines and to compare them with one another, then one will find that the problems of literary theory often coincide with those of other game theories, that other disciplines deal with these problems in some cases more precisely and differentiated have - or, in some cases, inadequate and could therefore benefit from insights from literary theory.

Comparing the “back and forth” in the “game of waves” with the back and forth between construction of meaning and destruction, as Sonderegger does after Gadamer, is only an all too vague beginning. A comparison with children's games in the sand, for example, as suggested by Nietzsche when, in view of the constant alternation between “building and destroying”, equated children's games with that of the artist would lead a little further here. Or the comparison of literature and chess, which was not made by Calvino. Note, however, the difference between "game" as a system of rules (game) and play as an activity (play) or, based on linguistic terms, between competence (mastering the rules of the game) and performance (executing the rules). Another Gretchen question of recent literary theories would have to be reflected: 'How do you feel about the subject?' Gadamer had already asked it when he used the term game and with his answer some of the post-structuralist speech about the 'death of the author' anticipated: "The real subject of the game [...] is not the player, but the game itself. The game is what keeps the player under control, what entangles him in the game, keeps him in the game." Or: "The subject of The game is not the player, but the game is only represented by the players. ”On the other hand, one might object, an author voluntarily submits to literary rules of the game, for example those of the sonnet, and leaves him, like the chess player, freedom to design the given rules individually or even, unlike in the game of chess, to deviate from them.

In game research, game typologies have a similar status and are faced with similar problems as genre typologies in literary studies. The game of chess, for example, as a 'rule game' can be distinguished from unregulated or 'free' games. Are such distinctions also appropriate with regard to literature? Which kind of literary activity is more like the unregulated sandpit game of the child, which is the regular chess or card game? In contrast to the sandpit game, the chess game can also be assigned to the type of “competition” or “prize game”. But in the case of literature, who is playing with whom or against whom? Is the reader a fellow player with the author? Or does he have more the status of a spectator or a juror who observes the competition between authors? Is there a winner in this contest like in chess? Or is the author more like a soloist or a skill player and the reader like the viewer who waits eagerly to see whether the feat will succeed?

The series of such questions, which are certainly not insignificant from a literary-theoretical point of view, which are encouraged to ask by comparisons or equations of literature and play, will only be expanded here by a few. If one follows, for example, Caillois ‘differentiating between competition games, games of chance, dressing-up or imitation games and intoxication games, literature probably has least in common with games of chance, but has a lot in common with competitive games (literature competitions) and a lot with games in disguise and intoxication. But isn't the hermeneutic search for how the parts of a text fit into a meaningful whole, or the structuralist analysis of equivalence, opposition or contiguity relationships between text elements, more like a puzzle? Or is the decoding of hermetically darkened texts not more like a puzzle game that authors have staged for their readers?

A question constantly posed by anthropological and psychological game theories, which is undoubtedly of eminent, but seldom taken on, importance for literary theory is: Why do we play? The answers that have been given now have their own story. It shows once again how closely literary theory and game theory are linked. They are subject to very similar argumentation patterns and changes. There were warnings against pathological reading addiction as against gambling addiction. Conversely, therapeutic potencies and other usefulness have been ascribed to play as well as literary writing or reading. The preferences for certain reading materials such as varieties were examined from a developmental point of view. Both games and literature were subordinated to “valuable” educational purposes or declared autonomous.

Since the 19th century, concepts of usefulness and progress from the Enlightenment tradition, with 'exercise theories', some of which are based on evolutionary biology, have declared the need for exploration on which the game is based to be the driving force behind civilizational development. In this perspective, literature and play are preschool intellectual and emotional behavior for the seriousness of everyday life, simulative test treatment in fantasy and protected rooms with artificially reduced risk (as with Karl Groos, Jurij Lotman, DE Berlyne or Dieter Wellershoff), fictitious concretizations of imagined possibilities (as with Wolfgang Iser).

However, even from this utilitarian perspective, usefulness of this kind is not regarded as the dominant motivation to play. Insofar as playing (like reading) is a voluntary activity which, in contrast to work, is not subject to the constraints of life support and is not primarily oriented towards any beneficial effects, it has also been labeled "autotelisch" or in the definition of Huizinga: It has its "goal in itself". Transferred to art and literature, this corresponds to the positions of the aesthetics of autonomy. The autonomy asserted for art in aesthetic theories is claimed for every game in game theories. So it is by no means a peculiarity of art, but of art as one of many games. In the terminology of recent psychological research, games and art are “intrinsically” motivated. You play primarily for the sake of playing, at most secondarily for “extrinsic” motives, which are caused from the outside by any gratuity offers or threats of sanctions. The gratification that gaming itself offers is the pleasure associated with it.

Games, literature and pleasure

"There is only a game", as it is said in the game theory book by Roger Caillois, "when the players feel like playing, even if it is the most strenuous and exhausting game [...]. But above all, people have to be able to stop when they like it, have to be able to say: I'm not playing anymore. “Anyone who understands literature as a kind of game can hardly overlook the connections between literature and pleasure. The American psychologist Victor Nell chose the appropriate term “ludic reading” for this. The lexical meaning of the Latin word "ludus" is both "game" and "fun". “Ludic reading is a reminder that the roots of enjoyable reading lie in the game. And in fact, the joy of text comes into focus particularly on those reflections on literature that emphasize its playful character.

Psychological game theories have contributed more to answering the question of the types and reasons for this pleasure than literary theories. Your information about the sources of pleasure in playful activity turns out to be different: pleasure in play goes hand in hand with abreactions of excess energies (Herbert Spencer), with recovery from the exhaustion of one-sided overstrained forces (Moritz Lazarus), with satisfaction about the functioning of the challenged abilities (das meant Karl Bühler's term of “functional pleasure”), with pride in overcoming difficulties (Dietrich Dörner) or with the liberation or distraction from various worries in the trance-like state of narcotic remoteness (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

A symptomatic example of a psychological theory under the dominant aspect of pleasure that conceived literature as a game, was by no means singular at the time, but was Sigmund Freud's 1907 lecture “The Poet and Fantasizing”. Inspired by the resonant writings of the game theorist Karl Groos at the time, the lecture tries to “gain an initial explanation of the poet's work” and believes that it can be found in a comparison of the poetic activity with the play of the child: “We should be the first Not looking for traces of poetic activity in the child? The child's favorite and most intense activity is play. Perhaps we can say: Every playing child behaves like a poet, in whom it creates its own world or, more correctly, puts the things of its world into a new order that it pleases. "And vice versa:" The poet now does the same like the playing child; he creates a fantasy world that he takes very seriously, i.e. equips it with large amounts of affect, while sharply separating it from reality. "Like the daydream, the poem is" continuation and replacement of the former childish play ". According to Freud, adults do not want to forego the gain in pleasure that they gained from playing as a child. He fantasizes, also literarily. And, like the child at play, he fulfills in his fantasies those desires that he cannot satisfy in reality.

Playing, fantasizing, telling

Freud's remark that the child “puts the things of his world into a new order that is pleasing to him” is perhaps in need of explanation. The child turns things that he finds in his environment into his play material, uses a stool as a horse, a pot as a hat, builds a tower out of books or feeds a piece of wood with grass that functions as a hamster.

A number of game typologies declare frequently used objects or materials that are played with as the dominant criterion for their distinctions. If some games are played with balls or in others with cards, what does literature play with? The obvious answer is: with the materials of language. Similar to how children convert various everyday objects into toys, authors can detach found language material from its usual functional context and integrate it into a different order. The poet “plays with words like building blocks”, Alfred Liede explained in his extensive monograph “Literature as a Game” in 1963, and he also referred to Freud. However, literature goes far beyond the mere play with words, sounds or letters that Liede had in mind in his investigations into “nonsense poetry”. Since the materials of language belong to a highly developed symbol system of signs that can represent all kinds of things and also ideas, literature in the medium of language has the whole world at its disposal as play material.

In his book "Playing, Telling, Fantasizing", the social pedagogue Johannes Merkel continued Freud's approaches to conceiving literary theory as game theory. It is true that he refers less to Freud than to C.G. Jung back, and these recursions are certainly not the best thing about this book, but Freud's still brief and vague ideas of analyzing literature as a further developed form of children's play are considerably extended here, taking into account developmental research on games and narrative from the 20th century.

The book offers literary scholars a number of surprises. It confronts them with phenomena and investigations that directly affect one of their ancestral areas, narrative research, but which they hardly pay attention to. As a literary scholar, one often rubs one's eyes in amazement while reading and wonders how it came about that different disciplines deal intensively with the same subject, narration, and obviously hardly notice one another. A major reason for this, however, is quickly found when reading it. It concerns a traditional and therefore all too naturally valid prerequisite for literary work. Despite all recent media-historical reflections on the relationship between written and oral communication in literary communication, the definition of “literature” as “written texts” has largely blocked the literary scholarly view of the diversity of oral narration, which is by no means just in the distant past, but rather the very present. Literary studies are not interested in the fact that and how story telling is a natural part of everyday communication between adults. Better for adults to tell stories or read aloud to children. Conversely, however, the fact that children are also constantly telling adults something and that there is relevant research is completely beyond the scope of literary studies. Johannes Merkel's book can open our eyes there. You can recognize your own familiar object, but suddenly seen with a stranger's gaze.

In the instructive examination of developmental psychological game and narrative research, within which Jean Piaget's book "Imitation, Game and Dream" is now a good half-century old, Merkel explores the question of when, why and how children play, begin to tell and fantasize about how these activities are intertwined and how they evolve with age.

Certainly, the book cannot be recommended unreservedly: The often seamless change from one topic and chapter to the next suggests that the author has collected various essays in this book, although he did not succeed in linking them to a coherent book . Even more problematic is that wherever deficits are found in research, C.G. Jung and his ideas of collectively unconscious archetypes can be cited as suitable candidates for their elimination.

The central thesis of the book, formulated in repeated reference to the young student Erich Neumann, says that in the creative processes of fantasizing, playing and narrating the restoration of a “whole life” takes place, a temporary elimination of the existential conflict “between inner experience and the perception of the external objective and social world ”. Solemn words such as “world expansiveness of the psyche”, “the soul of the world” or “world soul” are then cited with approval. Fortunately, however, they are not representative of the style of this book.

Whoever plays with the material of the outside world, so it is said in a somewhat more sober place, “seeks to bring the outside world into harmony with the internal circumstances” and to make one's own inner world communicable to others. This is not far from Freud's remark that the playing child “puts the things of his world into a new order that is pleasing to him”. What, however, is little more than a speculative thesis for Freud, is shown here on the basis of rich empirical observations: storytelling is a further developed form of early childhood play. The connection between playing and storytelling is the staging of role-playing games. If the first childish stories are still embedded in dialogues with adult partners, they will develop considerably later in the game with lifeless characters. In contrast to a lively fellow player, the lifeless figure remains mute, the answers must be put into its mouth by the child independently. Here a narrative attitude is challenged in the child. Without the help of other actors, it approaches the position of a narrator who can freely dispose of his characters and actions, as it were as a director and actor at the same time. Childlike role-playing games can thus be understood as staged storytelling, and storytelling, in turn, as linguistic role-play. As with other games, the place and the other players are determined by predetermined rules or new agreements, so at the beginning narrators usually name the place, time and characters of the narrated event. This is delimited from the present situation of the narrator and his audience in a similar way as, according to Huizinga's definition, every game from everyday life.

Oral storytelling is even more closely related to role-playing than written storytelling. What Merkel explains about the meaning of gestures with his own clarity and vividness makes the literary scholars, who are fixated on written texts, once again aware of the closeness of storytelling to play. The book also contains many illuminating observations and insights into the use and function of certain patterns of action, about narrated night or day dreams or about the affinities of narration and film. Because what is already familiar to literary scholars is related to playful activities, the book gives them a wealth of suggestions if they conceive of literary theory as game theory.

The attempts to do so are almost as old as the literature itself, and have occasionally obscured rather than clarified the theory. What the concept of the game can do for literary theory does not seem to have been exhausted by any means.

The article is based in part on the more comprehensive chapter "Literature as a game" (pp. 33-76) in Thomas Anz: Literatur und Lust. Happiness and unhappiness in reading. Munich 1998.



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Suhrkamp Verlag, Frankfurt a. M. 2000.
300 pages, 11.70 EUR.
ISBN-10: 3518290932

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Stefan Matuschek: literary game theory.
University Press Winter, Heidelberg 2000.
269 ​​pages, 45.00 EUR.
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Publisher Antje Kunstmann, Munich 2000.
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