Ludic – the Cure for the Ironic©

I’ve been doing some reading lately that’s been intersecting in some interesting ways, and will probably be the basis for an essay to be published later this year in ArtMemo. It has to do with the idea of gesture (of course) in relation to cinema, a topic I plan to take up with more regularity. I’m currently putting together a course for a Motion Picture History: the science fiction film class and it’s really got me reinvigorated to study and do work in the moving image. In any event, the idea springs from Agamben’s idea that the basic unit of cinema is the gesture, not the image (from “Notes on Gesture”in Means Without End: Notes on Politics). I want to explore the links between this idea and Massumi’s idea of “Animal Politics” and then link it all back to the (outdated) idea of a “cinema language” a la Metz, taking up in the account (really, beginning the account with) a recitation and examination of his “On the Impression of Reality in the Cinema”

One of the aspects of the idea of the ludic gesture – the playful gesture of animals – that struck me early on is the aspect of it that it is not what it outwardly seems to be (“this is not a bite”),and that this aspect of the ludic gesture constitutes an abstraction, and is thus metacommunicative, though it may fall short of language itself. In the play of animals, we can see the beginnings of the human capacity for language (also something I’ll take up again on the blog). This same kind of negation happens in the construction of ironies. One example that jumps to mind is Banksy’s Dismaland. In its irony, it’s a negation of the capitalist enterprise that is Disneyland, but in a way it only recapitulates the conditions for Disneyland to exist. The only thing it produces is a feeling of superiority. It’s good for a chortle, and maybe for a moment of authentic self-reflection, but what after that? Negation only leads to two things – a dead end or a return to the original.

A ludic gesture, on the other hand, creates an excess. It is not a negation, but a divergence from. Not a pull against, but a step around. The ludic act is one that surpasses the given needs of a situation, it is a something extra. This excess is sometimes discarded, vanishing just as it comes into being, and sometimes proves useful. I find the kind of genetic mutations that evolution hinges on to be instructive on this point. Mutations do not happen for any specific reason, except that if there is reason for their existence they become part of the given. This given, this base state then becomes that from which the ludic diverges.  Massumi downplays the importance of the dialectic between play and combat (it really isn’t useful in terms of politics – of course there is no extolment of violence), instead focusing on the reciprocity between the “autonomy of expression” or “lived abstraction” (metaphorical “play”, meaning that it should be as free of consequence, stakes, and other mitigating factors as possible) and the “dependence on the already-expressed” or “lived importance” (combat, in the analogy, where stakes, consequences, utility, and so forth do matter).

Art that simply calls out problems with the given, with society, is cynical art. Art does not need to be discursive or prescriptive in giving society cures for what ails it, but it can open the possibilities for new avenues of discourse. Art certainly need not be optimistic, but it does society a disservice when it engages in irony simply for the sake of negation. I remind myself every time  I am tempted to use the the worn-out art trope that something “calls attention to” something could use a hint of the ludic in order to recall that there should be a purpose to a calling out.

And that’s why we say Ludic – the cure for the Ironic.©


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