The South Bank of the Thames has a festival feel during summer. Pubs and bars swarm with sunshine drinkers. Sounds of laughter and clapping are carried upstream from the open-air Globe Theatre. Little crowds gather around buskers on the footpath. A lively food market does brisk trade. A guy makes giant bubbles which are chased along the riverside by gangs of little kids. A breakdancing troupe work their audience up to raucous cheers. A seasonal marquee hosts music and comedy, and the revelers pour out to buy beer in plastic pints from plywood bars. A temporary sandpit is packed full of families sculpting sand with buckets and spades. Some rows of fountains nearby shoot out cold water in a periodic sequence, from left to right and back again. People play in the water, hopping between the sprays and trying not to get drenched.
This stretch of the river was a post-industrial wasteland. Then, the cobbled side streets exuded an unsanitized Dickensian decay. The footpath was dominated by empty warehouses and empty scrubland. It was watched over by the foreboding old Bankside Power Station, which generated electricity from 1891 to 1981. This once-mighty coal burning cathedral was then left derelict, surrounded by a jungle of shrubs encircled by a decaying fence.
The tipping point for the area’s change was somewhere in the Blair years. The Power Station was renovated and reopened as the Tate Modern in the year 2000. Next door, an old scrap of land had the faux-Elizabethan reconstruction of the Globe Theatre erected on it 1997. The Millennium Footbridge obviously dates from this period too, and once opened it funneled leisure seeking tourists over the river from St Paul’s Cathedral. Blair himself had opened the London Eye on 31st December 1999. The South Bank was, by then, established as a place for fun and games.
Today, it epitomizes those years, not least in that it is eminently well-presented. Heavy industry stands aside in favor of the smart monochrome office blocks of the service sector. Images of playful corporate sponsorship cunningly employ nudge theory to manipulate behavior. Big attractions function as the new factories of the cultural industries. Leisure is subordinated to a network of global capital buried under vague expressions of social responsibility. Theatre programs and exhibition posters have delicate, flowery big-business logos, combined with aphoristic captions about human equality or human empowerment. Yet the only human habitations which are visible by the river are mostly uninhabited, being multi-million pound apartment blocks used for investment purposes. The old power station has been redressed as Tate Modern, and this is now the mighty cathedral. The old Turbine Hall houses novel and playful installations, making it a vast playground of industrialized fun.
All this urban redevelopment was downstream from the policy-making at upriver Westminster. But politics is downstream from culture, itself downstream from economics. A tributary to the era of millennial promise had sprung up on the very same South Bank in the summer of 1989, when a series of parties took place in some old Victorian buildings on Clink Street, named after the ancient Clink Prison. Word spread about the riverside fun and games on offer that summer, and huge numbers came down to enjoy the carnivalesque scene. For the dour Anglo-mindset, the experience was overwhelming: hundreds packed into an old warehouse, cheering and blowing whistles to the sound of deafening Chicago house, dressed in fluorescent clothes emblazoned with huge smiley faces and heart symbols. A secret garden of untrammeled playfulness seemed to have been unlocked. It prefigured what was to come: a world of limitless fun, intoxication, and play.
Almost 10-years later another underground party took place along the river, in a maze of brutalist subterranean walkways constructed in the 1950s. These had become a subsurface underworld palace. The concrete ziggurats were painted in graffiti and colonized by skateboarders. The main clearing down there had become a shanty town: Cardboard City. When the millennial transformation got underway, the authorities announced they were clearing the inhabitants out to make way for a new IMAX cinema. Some local reprobates came down and set up a sound system amongst the campfires on the concrete. A few hundred people partied by the river again, but the optimism of 1989 had gone. The soundtrack was not upbeat house music, but a dark subgenre sequenced on old Atari 500s. The colorful clothes had been exchanged for oversized black hoodies and LA Raiders caps. The preferred means of intoxication were harder, darker, and faster, matching the music and the volatile vibe.
The parties of Clink Street and Cardboard City looked and sounded very different. One elated and hopeful, the other battle-worn and doom-laden. But while some might assume only the first was about pleasure-seeking and playfulness, this is actually true of both events. Any promise of limitless pleasure inevitably spins out into a darkened void. Pleasure without boundaries is no longer pleasurable. Play without end closely resembles torment, and the players forget that they are playing. It seems to be sustained by the ongoing escalation of thrill-seeking, but this works only to accelerate the inverted ascent into emptiness.
The original gatherings of Clink Street are upstream from the festival feel down by the river today, and more generally in the culture. The smiley face has become an established means of communication. People learn to place their center of gravity in leisure: in playing games or watching sport, conversing or dancing with ever more complex cocktails and chemicals, immersion-binging in the make-believe of gaming or Netflix, modes of instant messaging that make genuine sincerity unattainable. Just like the riverside apartments are barely noticeable while silently accruing value for unseen people, today’s relentless tapping on touchscreens surreptitiously aids the quiet commodification of even the most private spaces. The imaginary becomes real. A parallel world of perpetual pleasure is no longer reserved for the avant-garde. The bugman is the new bourgeois, and the old avant-garde the new aristocracy. He can gaze at his masters’ work in the Tate Modern, like a Lost Boy who’s forgotten he’s in Neverland, a semi-automated citizen in a world of play.
Some have seen the post-2016 political gravitas of the pseudonymous Twitter handle as emblematic of a crisis of sincerity. Pseudonymity seems the height of a playfulness, and something deeply sinister too. In Kill All Normies, Angela Nagle set out to “untangle the real from the performance” and “ironic from the faux-ironic,” and argues that online anonymity “fostered an environment where the users went to air their darkest thoughts.” In her charting of the transposition of 68’s ‘it is forbidden to forbid’ onto the discourse of the right, she claims to see a sub-culture of endless irreverence moving into the mainstream. Either way, it isn’t long before the players forget there were once rules.
The playful also usurps the serious through industrialized leisure. Social theorists have long-since pointed to the fragmentation of structured community that came with industrialization. Before the disruption of the old and settled ways of living, much of what we would today term “leisure” was just integrated organically into life. But playful activities were stripped-out when traditional bonds of social organization were broken apart, before eventually being recognized as commodities in themselves. Then they resurfaced, subordinate to the machine, in mock-factories of play: casinos, music halls, and ballrooms.
The phenomenon of play might seem important as a human activity which seems not to be based on achieving a primary purpose, like Nagle’s interpretation of a “meme culture in which enormous human effort is exerted with no obvious personal benefit.” To enter into play is to suspend the everyday business of achieving specific objectives. A moment of play distracts simply on its own merits as “fun,” with no obvious end-product as the attraction. As something not centred on a specific end, it might speak subtly of the eternal; of a heavenly home in a world without end. Industrialized leisure then emerges as yet another candidate for the title of the surrogate religion in a secular age.
Michael Bakhtin saw things differently in approaching play through his concept of the carnivalesque. He envisaged the carnival as a riot of play; embodying equality, freedom, and abundance. During the carnival, traditional hierarchies and roles are inverted. The jester takes the throne of the king. Established norms of conduct are replaced with the spontaneous and the grotesque, and almost nothing is off-limits in the name of self-expression. Bodily desires are unleashed on plentiful food and drink. The carnival can then be seen as a vehicle for a newly imagined society, something galvanizing the populace toward a new world of equality, freedom, and abundance.
But the medieval carnival was the precursor to Lent, a moment of release with a clearly defined end-point. A game which would be over, and not restarted again at will. As the carnival was not meant to replace day-to-day life, neither should play usurp the serious. The world turns upside down for a day during a carnival, but if stays that way after midnight it becomes The Upside Down. If Mardi Gras exists for the sake of Ash Wednesday, we could say the realm of play exists for the sake of the serious. Excess was never meant to preclude exit, and leave the player to shout ever louder in the hope of making his voice heard. Bakhtin’s “equality, freedom, and abundance” can then be seen as one-side of a coin which needs complementary values to hold reality in balance. Otherwise, with no end in sight, the players forget they are playing, and the people consider their jesters to be kings. The heights of profundity are then defined by the jokers. An intoxicated Bill Hicks proclaims the new Gospel: “the world is like a ride in an amusement park, it’s just a game.”
The world of the carnival proclaims the former king to have ruled only over fools. The religion which instigated the two sides to the Mardi-Gras/Ash Wednesday coin is the ultimate affront for those who deny that midnight could ever fall on the carnival scene. This religion is predicated on human limitedness, a limitedness so sublimely bittersweet that even its God himself accepted it and shared its fate. And yet theologians try to ascribe Bakhtin’s carnivalesque to the hierarchical Church, and enshrine human dignity in some variant of empowered freedom. Taking this alone as the central element, the limits and boundaries of life can then be played with. The point of life’s beginning and end can be viewed in soft-focus, and made ethically ambiguous at will.
Play as the elimination of limit and not its servant ushers in a perpetual Neverland of unending possibility. Scratch the bugman and you’ll see his veins pulse with the assumption he’s destined for greatness. He’ll land on the world-changing business idea, or wake-up one day as a global celebrity. Wishes becoming the real inadvertently feeds the great millennial depression, the fantastical bargaining of OCD, and the unreality of body dysmorphia. Techniques for dealing with these things threaten to make them worse, like looking at one’s reflection and saying, “you’re amazing.” The fairy-tale hero looks into his magic mirror in order to make things real.
Mass adolescentization is obvious to the point of platitude. It was well-articulated by n+1 co-founder Mark Greif, who stated in his book Against Everything that, “youth has become permanent.” He cites MTV as the most “aggressive promoter of one version of youth as a wholesale replacement of adult life.” It is no coincidence that Greif also articulates an intoxication fixation equally well, saying drink and drugs cause a person to enter “a realm of free experience” and so “point to a world a lot looser and more liberal than this one.” He is also right to link what he calls the “lure of a permanent childhood” as “a vain pursuit of absolute freedom,” with a sinister, sexual infatuation with youthfulness. The word “play” is today itself sexualized, as with the “play party,” or when preceded by the prefix fore-. But what about the after? The one asking this seems morbid and glum for those trying to live forever on the promise of a never-arriving petit mort. Wishes and reality synchronize in the viewing of pornography, when images of real (for the most part) people are invited to inhabit the internal space of imagined fantasy. The one who has forgotten he is playing cannot even play with just himself.
When Greif tries to articulate ways of healing infantilized adults and sexualized children, however, it becomes clear that he too is playing a game for which he can’t find an exit. He claims the “de-emphasis of sex and the denigration of youth will have to start with an act of willful revaluation.” We’ll have to choose to reprogram ourselves, he says, to prefer ‘the values of adulthood: intellect over enthusiasm, autonomy over adventure, elegance over vitality, sophistication over innocence’. This is someone who believes limits can be transcended by yet another act of will, a concerted desire to make the unending Mardi Gras more humane and palatable. Then people might distinguish between some grotesque acts as liberating, while holding that others are strictly off-limits. “Love is the law,” they’ll say, but this is still “love under will” – or rather, under “willful revaluation.” It is a revaluation of the best tone of voice.
The task is rather to realize that we are playing. Then the question is how best to play. The answer is to find the exit. This can ensure both an end and a proper beginning. This realization lies long after the Clink Street comedown, and on the other side of even Cardboard City. The job is to tell people who think they’re partying on Clink Street that they’re actually down in Cardboard City. The millennial promise is broken. What is required is the recognition of limit, the absolute opposite to the vague captions under the socially responsible corporate logo.
The exit is to be found within the game. It might, like an innere Emigration, involve staying put and working cleverly within the existing strictures of speech, yet envisaging the institutions of the future and carefully attending to the downfall of the present. A standing aside to work with the inevitable decay, perhaps, and accompanying the acceleration until the cliff-edge emerges on the horizon. Contrary to popular conception, the pseudonymous Twitter handle then promises not to be not merely symptomatic of the crisis of sincerity. After identity is politicized, the post-political is unidentifiable. Pseudonymity is then the first showings of the exit, because the one playing with it knows that he is playing. He thereby circumscribes the boundaries of the pitch, re-establishes rules by remembering that it’s a game. Exit will then mark the spot on which the cruciform ashes are to be drawn.
Jacob Phillips is an academic living in London. He tweets at @Counteredlogos.