[xmca] Sense and Meaning in Play

From: David Kellogg <vaughndogblack who-is-at yahoo.com>
Date: Fri Jul 11 2008 - 12:25:19 PDT

First of all, congratulations to Ana and her co-author, Ljubika Bejanski-Rustic on their  untangling article "From Play to Art".
To tell you the truth, I was initially a little irritated by the theoretical section. I always think that the distinction between Subject-Object and Subject-Subject substitutes the distinction between (e.g.) a block of wood and a live human being (which is easy to grasp) for the distinction between a tool and a symbol (which is not so easy to grasp and which a number of people simply reject).
Subsituting the environment/human distinction for the tool/symbol one also does nothing to capture the key point that interested LSV, which was that the relationships we call "Subject-Subject" relations (notably semiotic ones) are reversible.
This reversibility is not at all inert; it makes semiotic acts (but not tool-using acts) potentially reflexive. It is possible to turn the imagined result of an utterance into a reason for modulating it.
(Of course, we do this when we modify a tool before using it as well, but while in the case of the tool an act of imagination is involved, no active empathy is really required. When you choose a chisel instead of a screwdriver to sculpt a block of wood, you can do it quite without thinking like a block of wood, but when you carve that block of wood into a bust you need to think like a human being.)
I was also a little put off by the reference to Hasan, because I think that her formulation is very dualistic: "what is imparted is material force" vs. "what is imparted is semiotic force". Halliday too often talks in these dualistic terms (e.g. when he says that there are two kinds of substances in the universe, matter and information), and it never fails to get up my nose and make me sneeze.
I think that the article itself refutes this very quickly: the "red hands" game is an almost pure (!) example of material force which is also semiotic (in the actual game action) and also of semiotic force which is also material (in the "casting" of predator and prey).
But I am sounding a little like one of those "questioners" at a conference who is really just disagreeing with the speaker. In fact, I AGREE with both writers (though I have my doubts about their backing theoreticians). I really DO have a question, and here it is:
On p. 120, the authors say that play is really meaning based. I think the reason they say this is that they are opposing something called "meaning" (Halliday and Hasan's "semiotic force") to action (H & H's "material force").
But of course Pentti Hakarainnen (in the San Diego-Helsinki joint seminar of November last and elsewhere) has made an argument that play is not meaning based at all, but rather based on "sense". I think what he means is that it is local, negotiable and the boundaries of it (the "frame" of sense) are not well defined. We see this when, for example, children extend a character in a role play to include their own characteristics (a wolf who is mysteriously fond of durian fruit, a giraffe with a knowledge of Hellboy 3). 
I find myself inclined towards Ana and her co-author's view, but for a different reason than Halliday and Hasan's distinction between material force and semiotic force. The reason is that inner link that LSV suggests between play and schoolwork (viz, obligatory conduct based on rules). That seems to me to be based on meaning making rather than sense making.
But despite this inclination, I find myself wondering: in what sense is play based on sense? And what do we mean when we say that it is based on meaning?
David Kellogg
Seoul National University of Education
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Received on Fri Jul 11 12:27 PDT 2008

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