Interview: Pat Kane
On The Play Ethic, Kane's attempt to unshackle humanity from the work ethic
I met up with Pat Kane in a bourgeois-bohemian cafe on Glasgow’s Byres Road. His press photos show him as either slick and suited or earnest and sombrely dressed, so when an amiable figure in jeans approached I almost didn’t recognize him. He is short—about my height—with a round head, a round body and rounded fingers. This quality of roundness was all the more noticeable during the interview because his mind is sharp, even to the point of prickliness when pushed.
Kane is still perhaps best known for being the singer in Hue and Cry, a plastic jazz band who had a run of hits in the Eighties. Indeed, when we met in November, Kane was in the process of rehearsing and writing, having rekindled interest in the band via ITV’s Hit Me Baby One More Time (a naff post-pop idol show. They finished runners-up to Shakin’ Stevens). But it is as an author and theorist that he interests me, particularly The Play Ethic (2004), his ambitious attempt to unshackle humanity from the work ethic.
NS: I wanted to begin by talking about The Play Ethic. It’s long (450 large pages), deep (moderately abstruse, peppered with jargon), and wide-ranging (covering everything from Lego to Leary), yet it’s subtitled “a manifesto for a different way of living”. I wonder whether you’d be willing to write a manifesto in the traditional sense: that is, a pared down version of the book in order to rouse the masses from their slumber?
PK: To me that would be wrong. We have to be allowed to be utterly subjective. We have a right to express every aspect of our subjectivity. The book is a loose baggy monster and that is how I’d like to leave it. Play is about excess and it dramatizes itself. The paradox of play is in the word itself, in that it’s about agency and indeterminacy at the same time. It’s about both making the world as I wish it to be and also creating a structure that is inherently dynamic so I cannot make it how I want it to be. It’s the power – the semantics – of the word itself, that make it such a beautiful paradox: there’s an etymology of engagement, there’s an ontology behind the semantics. Ahem, sorry.
NS: It is an incredibly positive book.
PK: It’s energetic, but I don’t know if it’s positive.
NS: I mean, in a way it’s about redefining work as an enjoyable thing. By calling yourself a player, rather than a worker, you are converting your experiences into something positive.
PK: One of the things that annoys people is that I take work – as a legitimate concept – to task. I think it’s freighted with a Christian puritan bureaucratic command-and-control set of meanings which, in a post-scarcity age, are not necessary. The play ethic gets very annoyed with people equating play with a more fulfilled version of work. Play is actually a way to cope with human excess and fecundity, and a play ethic is a way for us to cope without destroying ourselves. I absolutely reject the notion that play is the new work. Not at all. Play is a much bigger activity. I’m saying to people: ‘you have all this time, space, energy and technology–what are you going to do with it?’
NS: Will Hutton (chief executive of The Work Foundation) reviewed The Play Ethic alongside Tom Hodgkinson’s How to be Idle and Carl Honore’s In Praise of Slow, books which offer some pragmatic solutions to dealing with the pressures of modern life, something that you have explicitly rejected.1 How do you relate to people who live creative, autonomous lives but who aren’t interested in calling themselves players?
PK: You reap what you sow. Play is about activity, it is about being utterly self-possessed about what you choose those activities to be. Its attitude to idleness and slowness is that they are resources to action. The work ethic says that when people stop working they turn to vice. If you understand how play shapes the human condition, you don’t have to go with that. I find it interesting to see how Tom Hodgkinson is received by the media and I think that the fact his book appears in the humour slots at bookstores contains a certain element of failure. We literally don’t want to engage with the political questions of how we create structures that support play, rather than support extremes of idleness and furious activity. Idleness is too close to leisure for me, a compensation for not being autonomous is to be completely autonomous.
The book started from a real disillusionment with the people who started New Labour, who were all semioticians. They went from being semioticians to being propagandists for Gordon Brown’s work ethic. I saw the shift happening and when I saw it happening I was furious. I wanted to keep alive a certain optimism and idealism about people’s lives in a post-scarcity society within a labour environment that was very judgemental and authoritarian. It’s a mixed story: Blair is a kind of a warmonger now, but he was very creative at the time putting money in NESTA and the Millennium dome. At first he was represtentative of the play ethic but it seems to have all gone horribly wrong! The theology student won over the Ugly Rumours guitarist. You can see the battle happening and who won.
NS: During my research for this interview I chanced upon an incredibly vicious article you wrote for the The Guardian in 1995. In it you attacked Brian Eno for composing the intro music to Windows 95, cautioning us against ‘slick management gurus’. A few years later you were employed by Microsoft to edit a webzine, later still you acted as a ‘play consultant’ for Microsoft’s Xbox commercials. Have you not turned into everything he despised?
PK: To be a polemicist in The Guardian is different to being an ideas merchant. There’s a lot of things I wrote in The Guardian that I regret. I regret the Brian Eno piece because I think that’s a classic example of being jealous of someone who is secure and confident enough in their aesthetic. I was wrong. I think much more netologically now. I think in terms of networks rather than being that sort of oppositional intellectual. Critique is important, but if it blinds you to process of change, then . . . For example, at the time I wrote that, I wasn’t aware of open source. Microsoft was important, it was like a monolith. My attitude was resistance; any collaboration with what seemed like a totalitarian infrastructure was too much for me at the time. I thought he was a creative person surrendering themselves. Now I’m much more pragmatic. There are a lot of people in executive positions who are looking for a bit of cognitive and imaginative liberty. As a consultant, I try to provide that. Now, The reason I’m not a very successful consultant is that I can’t disconnect what happens within an organization and what happens with it.
NS: Why do you think you’re not successful as a consultant?
PK: Well, I call myself a deconsultant, basicallly I come in there, unravel logic and never get hired again.
NS: Is that a 100% record.
PK: Yeah. People think the Play Ethic is a different type of working within existing boundaries, as soon as I get in there I have to deal with 300 year perspectives backward and forward. I have to globalise the argument and philosophize existing conditions. It’s a very frustrating experience because there’s a limit beyond which I’m not prepared to commodify the book. It’s too political: it talks about 25 hour weeks, social wages, the visionary state.
NS: It all sounds hopelessly optimistic.
PK: There is an optimism, but it is a strange optimism. I think it’ll take a great leap in logic to be able to devise societies of autonomy. It’s difficult to imagine: the optimism of being a player is tempered by the difficulties of the political question. I dream of a social order that allows creativity to be the defining characteristic, to nurture that creative identity and trust in the human condition. My favourite thing to watch as a wee boy was adverts, meta-communication. The first thing I ever remember was a cartoon of Roadrunner holding up a sign saying ‘this is going to be painful’ then a rock falls on him. It’s a species requirement that we create a meta element to get ready for the complex realities ahead.
NS: There’s a theory called the Flynn Effect, which challenges the idea that society has dumbed down by pointing out that IQs have risen consistently over the last thirty years. My problem with this complex reality is that we become like rats in an increasingly complex maze. Sure, the rat gets smarter, but the cheese (in our case, meaning) stays the same. Indeed, after spending so long in the maze, the cheese might rot and become inedible. Isn’t the swirl of contemporary cultural choice a distraction from—and a hurdle to—meaning?
PK: One of the resources for the play ethic are the new sciences, which have a place for corruption, a place for indeterminacy, electing process over outcome. I think that rotting cheese at the end of the maze is a really false metaphor. It’s like that situationist slogan ‘longer chains, bigger cages’. I reject your metaphor, it’s more like a jungle or an ecosystem. There is nothing outside. It’s fascinating that The Matrix is so Calvinist. I’m a network ontologist: I believe the network, not the matrix, is reality. There’s a profound shift in human perception from enlightenment to what comes after if you think reality is a network, a process of interconnections. I reject your metaphor, the complexity is a healthy fertility. From the bomb at the middle of the twentieth century to the net at the end–I can’t believe that that’s not a moment of progress. If I didn’t, I’d be really really really despairing. If you think about twentieth century from the machine gun to the atom bomb to the web, we’ve made some progress.
NS: The internet that I see is overflowing with pornography, violence, idiocy, and all the kinds of nasty things. How do you deal with those malignant properties of the unconscious? How do you avoid the kind of playful societies you get in J.G. Ballard novels that have an undercurrent of psychotic violence running through them?
PK: I don’t have a direct answer to that question. When you look at the elective affinity between MTV’s Jackass and Lyndie England trailing an Iraqi captive on a rope, you’re looking at two forms of transgressive play. I’m perfectly aware of this. The horror of the work ethic is arbeit macht frei over the gates of a concentration camp. The horror of the play ethic is the Marquis de Sade or Aleister Crowley. The power of play has to be reckoned with, but I have imperfect answers. This is the question to which my Buddhist friends say that they are the future, because they accept that the interior realm is full of demons and dark forces and that we need to painstakingly release ourselves from pain and desire. Maybe our savannah nature, our evolutionary inheritance, means that we have to deprogram these things out of ourselves. There are things that we might have to do to the amygdala and the neocortex, which may soon be possible. I can imagine a regime which says ‘let’s collectively agree to get rid of all these destructive urges.’ Things like liberal eugenics, playing with the genome–there are a whole set of topics that a play perspective compel one to start thinking about. We are in the position of playing God with ourselves. We are in the position of putting evolutionary forces to bear on humanity.
NS: But isn’t the problem with this is that the people who program the minds are themselves inherently flawed: all of our previous attempts to play God have been fairly catastrophic.
PK: True. Nazism, Stalinism: all the great isms that have had ideal images of humanity in mind. Absolutely. I’ve a very technical answer to this question, derived from Habermas’s writing on Bataille. For Bataille, the social consensus is riven with demons, diversities, excesses. What is the use of Bataille? What is the use of avant-garde transgressive art? It is to ensure that the system never become ossified. The point of Jake and Dinos Chapman, treating children as they do, is to tell society that there are problems. They’re the canary in a coal mine, that’s how Habermas treats transgressive art and the role of that is to help to tell us that human nature is not bucolic. It is full of perversities and darkness that come about are evolved from our limited natures and the way the basic survival urge impinges upon us? The question is, what systems can you construct which cope with the systems destructiveness? To that extent Play is not play world, play happily. It’s about how do we cope with our excess. I think that’s an endlessly subtle and necessary question. There’s a necessity to come to terms with our creative excesses, play technology can expand the imagination or be used to control the populace.
NS: There’s a contemporary paradox with the concept of authenticity where the more a product advertises itself as organic or natural or ethical, the more people get annoyed when it turns out to be synthetic or unnatural. I was wondering whether same thing applies to you: if someone caught you not playing and being strictly routined?
PK: I try to address that in the book by saying at what point does one not play. It is either to restore one’s own capacity to play or to turn to those who are not playing through fatigue or exhaustion or failure which is a fate you will eventually be involved in. The difference between a finite player and an infinite player is that the infinite player accepts that it is the participation in the game which matters, not just the winning.If you have that wisdom you will be in need of care and have to give care. This expanding contribution rather than a win-lose mentality. My routines tap into that. I use routines to restore my ability to play.
NS: Is your life in Glasgow different to your life in London?
PK: My children are in Glasgow but my partner lives in London. Basically, my life in Glasgow is geared towards the care side of things and my life in London towards the play side of things. Here in Glasgow I exercise, sort out finances, take care of business. That’s why I constructed the model in terms of play/care, because I don’t want it to be bound by ludological correctness. I don’t want to be a ludofascist saying spiel macht frei: that’s not position at all.
NS: One last thing. Why did you walk out on The Cut magazine when it serialised Grant Morrison’s comic The New Adventures of Hitler?
PK: I had this thing about fascism, that to represent this stuff was somehow colluding. That it was dangerous to indulge in it because it was so fascinating. I still have discomfort with things like The Producers and appropriation of Nazi symbolism, I still have a problem because it was an extraordinary, scary moment in modernity. All the apparatus of modernity were developed under Nazism, we still haven’t reckoned with this.
“When the work ethic crumbles [ …] an intellectual vacuum will open up at the heart of contemporary capitalism, and we’ll need a Big Idea. Over the last decade, we’ve already seen a procession of not-big-enough ideas– ‘downshifting’, ‘work-life balance’, all those slackers and idlers. None of them with much success or distinction [ …] Don’t take ‘play’ to mean anything idle, wasteful or frivolous.”