Excerpts from 'A Theory of Play and Fantasy'

By Gregory Bateson



That human verbal communication can operate and always does operate at many contrasting levels of abstraction. These range in two directions from the seemingly simple denotative level ("The cat is on the mat") to more abstract levels, including those explicit or implicit messages where the subject of discourse is the language. We will call these metalinguistic (for example, "The verbal sound can stands for any member of such and such class of objects," or "The word, 'cat,' has no fur and cannot scratch"). The other set of levels of abstraction we will call metacommunicative (e.g., "My telling you where to find the cat was friendly," or "This is play"). In these, the subject of discourse is the relationship between the speakers.

It will be noted that the vast majority of both metalinguistic and metacommunicative messages remain implicit.

If we speculate about the evolution of communication, it is evident that a very important stage in this evolution occurs when the organism gradually ceases to respond quite "automatically" to the mood-signs (the outwardly perceptible events which are part of physiological processes) and becomes able to recognize the sign as a 'signal': that is to say, an animal recognizes that its individual signals and the signals of others are only that, but mean what can be trusted, distrusted, falsified, denied, amplified, corrected, and so forth.

Clearly this realization tis by no means complete even among the human species. We all too often respond automatically to newspaper headlines as though these stimuli were direct object-indications of events in our environment (instead of signals concocted and transmitted by creatures as complexly motivated as ourselves).

The first definite step in the formulation of the hypothesis guiding this research occurred in January, 1952, when I went to the Fleishhacker Zoo in San Francisco. What I encountered there was a phenomenon well known to everybody: I saw two young monkeys playing (I was still not aware that this simple encounter would require an almost total revision of my thinking). Now, this phenomenon, play, could only occur if the participant organisms were capable of some degree of metacommunication, i.e., of exchanging signals which would carry the message "this is play" and the realization that this message contains those elements which necessarily generate a paradox-a negative statement containing an implicit negative meta-statement.

A related problem iconcerns the origin of what Korzybski has called the map-territory relation: Language bears to the objects which it denotes a relationship comparable to that which a map bears to a territory.

Denotative communication as it occurs at the human level is only possible after the evolution of a complex set of metalinguistic (but not verbalized) rules which govern how words and sentences shall be related to objects and events.

A further extension of this thinking leads us to include ritual within this general field in which the discrimination is drawn, but not completely realised.

This paradox leads us to recognition of a more complex form of play; the game which is constructed not upon the premise "This is play" but rather around the question "Is this play?" And this type of interaction also has its ritual forms, For example, in the 'hazing' of initiation.

Paradox is doubly present then when a metaframe is in operation. It is present in the signals which are exchanged within the context of play, fantasy, threat, etc.

Bateson, G. (1987) 'A Theory of Play and Fantasy', In G. Bateson, Steps to an Ecology of Mind: Collected Essays in Anthropology, Psychiatry, Evolution, And Epistemology. Northvale: Jason Aronson, pp. 138-48 - LINK to the unedited essay sashabarab.com/syllabi/games_learning/bateson.pdf

Back to The Kubrick Site