Cross-Cultural Misconceptions

Cross-cultural misconceptions were a key ingredient to imperialism.  To the conquered these misconceptions led to a gross underestimating of those doing the conquering, as for the conquerors misconceptions led to an undervaluing of foreign cultures and thus leading to the need to trivialize and eradicate them.  Caillois’s analysis of primitive society’s religious rituals as forms of “play” or games is a perfect example of these pervasive misconceptions.  While to the outsider these rituals may seem like games, because in their own society such undertakings would be considered pursuits of madmen or possibly carnies, to the people performing the religious rituals were an extremely serious and important part of their society and they themselves would most likely not use play or games when describing them.  The theory of games in cultural progress is a fascinating one, which can be basically described as the relationship between the level of games played and the level of civilization achieved.  Complexity of the games played by a culture thus correlates to overall societal complexity.  Caillois’ assumption is heavily based in westernized ideas of civilization, and is written by a citizen of the nation that championed the ideas of the civilizing mission. Complexity of game play and rules do reflect a certain human progression, but more so in the acquisition of knowledge and the application there of.  Complex games and play were developed in the western world as distractions from the monotony and solitude of modern life. “Play”, Caillois states, “presupposes not solitude, but company,” and “is an escape from responsibility and routine” (p. 40, 6).  To plaster the western view of games onto a foreign culture, does nothing but make a fool of the observer.  While religious rituals do promote togetherness, like western games, they are in no way free of responsibility and routine, they are the very essence of both. While the religious rituals do fit Caillois’ game categories of simulation (mimicry) and vertigo (ilinx), they only do so to an outsider.  Were there not actual games practiced by such peoples? Ones where a limited number of players, respecting a certain set of rules, “played” for a limited amount of time, as an escape from the normal comings and goings of life.  Caillois describes the religious festival as follows:

“In order to yield themselves to spirits that exist only in their minds and to suddenly experience the brutal transport, the performers must evoke and excite them, must push their selves to the final debacle that permits the rare intrusion. To this end they employ thousands of artifices, any one of which may suspect — fasting, drugs, hypnosis, monotonous or strident music, clatter, paroxysms, of noise and movement, intoxication, shouting, and spasms” (p. 88).

Caillois is arguing for a universal adult definition of play, since historically games and play have been equated to be nonsensical pursuits of children, thus leading to its subservient role in academia.  Since his only example of adult play in non-westernized, “savage” cultures is their religious rituals then his argument is invalid.  The rituals he cites do not fit into the realm of games that he has proposed, due to the very important fact that these religious rituals were not separate from their normal life, it was their life.  While to the outsider a separation from reality through masks and erratic behavior, or what Caillois describes as vertigo, might be seen as a performance, to the followers of the faith they are participating in something that gives their life meaning and a higher purpose.  Christians could be viewed in the same way, even those of today. Christians in church get wrapped up in their faith, shout, they claim, uncontrollably, and sing and dance to their god. Is this then play?



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