ENG 730: Illuminati and the Play-Sphere

Huizinga’s notion of play often connected to four main elements as he traced it through its various spheres: the notion of the agonistic contest,  the role of rules, and way it took place outside of everyday life. As he defines it:

a free activity standing quite consciously outside “ordinary” life as being “not serious”, but at the same time absorbing the player intensely and utterly.  It is an activity connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it. It proceeds within its own proper boundaries of time and space according to fixed rules and in an orderly manner. It promotes the formation of social groupings which tend to surround themselves with secrecy and to stress their difference from the common world by disguise or other means (13).

As the definition shows, “play” extends beyond games, including the grounds for the ritual of religion, the structure of law, the agonsitic structure of “warfare,” and the playful riddling at the root of philosophy. Of these parts, the break from “ordinary life” and the role of internal rules–a structure outside of the rules of everyday life–seem to be particularly significant.

To transition to Illuminati, I think one can see some of the tensions and manifestations of this definition. In particular, I want to focus on the role of cheating and deceit in the game.

Last week, we talked a bit about the “spoiled sport,” “dedicated player,” and the “cheat,” player personas that center on questions of rules. The spoiled sport ignores the whole magic circle, including its rules, breaking down the spirit of play. The dedicated player may follow the rules, but could use strategies that take advantage of loopholes or “degenerate strategies” to win. The cheat retains the facade of a proper player, but secretly breaks the rules.

In Illuminati, due to its approach to cheating, these roles became blurry. For example, was it still “cheating” to quietly pilfer the bank if the rules allowed it? Did it become cheating when you pilfered the bank in the income phase, as the rules critiqued this? Where does lying fit into the game–maybe being a dedicated player? In a sense, the magic circle of Illuminati presupposes that cheating is part of play, something that we normally look down upon, and that a gamesome breaking of the rules constitutes play. Here, competition supersedes rules.

I think this points out the arbitrary nature of the magic circle, how it breaks away from everyday life to create its own situation. Normally, lying and cheating are negative traits in traditional morality–I guess because of Socrates and Odyssian virtues–but in the magic circle shaped by Illuminati, these are positive traits from an agonistic point of view. They are effective strategies.

I could see, then, the emphasis that Huizinga places on the Sophists, like Gorgias, or the rhetoric teachers like Quintillian. For these early rhetors, rhetoric is often seen as situational, with a speaker deciding which approaches work best for a particular audience, purpose, and context. Quintillian, for example, describes in exhausting detail how one should wear their toga based on the event. Like a rhetorical situation, play is also contextual, based on the audiences and purposes proscribed by the magic circle.

In this way, I wonder whether the spoiled sport would be the sort of person, in this context, who didn’t cheat and made humorless attacks on those who did, the Socratic gadflies and buzzkills of the Illuminati magic circle.

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