Translating as Play

Long ago — 1968, to be exact — Vilém Flusser proposed a model of human communication based on games (yes, Wittgenstein IS in the background).  It may sound like trivialization, but it isn’t. The idea of “game” stands, in this context, for the most general possible structure we use, regularly, to send and receive messages. Infinitely variable in every way — scope, complexity, durability — ranging from familiar structures like chess or checkers to languages, disciplinary structures, institutional frameworks and more, games can be playful or serious, fun or fatal.  Still, there is a basic continuity: in order to generate meaning at all, participants must share understandings, especially about the way the pieces of the game, whether these are sounds, marks or actions, can be put together.

In this short essay, Flusser set out to distinguish between ordinary, predictable (read: dull) communication of the sort devices can achieve — and genuinely human communication. For where devices only repeat, humans can invent. Here, the English word “play” emerges as a very subtle stroke of genius. It actually spans the gap between  mechanical and human. We can play a game by the rules; we can play an instrument (in the understanding that we’s surely use another word to suggest playing it inventively). And we can also just play, both alone, and with whatever is available, including games themselves. This is the capacity that enables us to discover new combinations, redefine problems and find new solutions.

Within the universe of communication as an infinity of games, Flusser lists just three ways of creating meaning: by subverting games (breaking the rules), inventing new games altogether, or — crucially — by translating from one into another.

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