This deliberately playful article explores the work of cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in particular the anecdote he shares in his 1933 essay on play and the development of the child, in which two sisters play at being sisters. Vygotsky uses the anecdote to reflect on the role of rules—and their absence—in playful becoming and conditioned social behaviour. Here, I revisit Vygotsky’s anecdote to re-cast it into the research and creative practice context in the contemporary university setting. How might we think about the play of rules and their absence in relation to doing and/or becoming research and creative practice academics? In this article I complement the Vygotsky anecodote with a consideration of the Glasgow series of paintings of two sisters by British artist Joan Eardley. I unearth what we know about Eardley’s creative process in the production of her series of portraits of the Sampson children during the 1940s, and explore the ways in which that process or practice can be said to reveal something about the importance of immersive repetition, playful re-working, and the constant casting off (and on again) of rules. The article also draws on some recent qualitative research by the author on the role of play in contemporary Australian research practice.
Keywords: play—research—new knowledge—Lev Vygotsky—Joan Eardley
This deliberately playful article explores the work of cognitive psychologist Lev Vygotsky, in particular the anecdote he shares in his 1933 essay on play and the development of the child, in which two sisters play at being sisters. Vygotsky uses the anecdote to reflect on the role of rules—and their absence—in playful becoming and conditioned social behaviour. Here, I revisit Vygotsky’s anecdote to re-cast it into the research and creative practice context in the contemporary university setting. In this article, I ask how we might think about the play of rules and their absence in relation to doing and/or becoming research and creative practice academics.
By way of an answer, I complement Vygotsky’s two sisters’ anecdote with a consideration of the Glasgow series of paintings of two sisters by British artist Joan Eardley. I look at what we know about Eardley’s creative process in the production of her series of portraits of the Sampson children during the 1940s, and explore the ways in which that process or practice can be said to reveal something about the importance of immersive repetition, playful re-working, and the constant casting off (and on again) of rules.
This paper forms part of a broader research project I am undertaking that seeks to investigate the role of play in fostering innovation, experimentation and new knowledge in Australian higher education, and in pan-disciplinary research practice.[i] Accordingly, the article will draw on some of the interview material from that broader research project, citing the example of an oceanographer whose discovery of a new way of understanding ocean temperatures can be read as a playful form of research practice that comes into being from somewhere beyond rule-bound scholarship.
Lev Vygotsky was a research fellow at the Psychological Institute in Moscow during the 1920s and is best known for developing a sociocultural approach to cognitive development (Hansen-Reid 2001). While Vygotsky was never a qualified psychologist, his interest in the human subject and in the development of reason and higher-order thinking led him to write extensively on the topic of child development. He was interested in language and in thinking, but also in the psychology of play. Vygotsky’s essay titled ‘Play and its Role in the Mental Development of the Child’ was first published in 1933 and is the primary focus of this article. In the essay, Vygotsky reports on an instance of childhood ‘freeplay’ observed between two sisters, and in his analysis of their game he focuses on the centrality of sociocultural ‘rules’:
One day two sisters, aged five and seven, said to each other: “Let’s play sisters.” ... In life the child behaves without thinking that she is her sister’s sister. She never behaves with respect to the other just because she is her sister… In the game of sisters playing at “sisters,” however, they are both concerned with displaying their sisterhood; the fact that two sisters decided to play sisters makes them both acquire rules of behavior. (I must always be a sister in relation to the other sister in the whole play situation.) Only actions that fit these rules are acceptable. (Vygotsky 2002 : n.pag.)
Vygotsky’s analysis of the girls in play emphasises the way in which their behaviour is necessarily marked by the socio-cultural rules in which they, even as children, are already heavily immersed. His point is not only that such rules enable and regulate their play, but that they will go on shaping the girls’ thinking and behavior long after this particular game of freeplay has concluded. For Vygotsky the so-called freedom of play is always illusory. What is left of play, he asks, if we take away the ‘rules’? His answer is nothing: without rules there can be no freedom and no imagination. In fact, he writes, ‘There is no such thing as play without rules.’
When I first read this line by Vgostky, I was in some ways appalled by it. I had, perhaps, subscribed to a romantic notion of freeplay as a space beyond rules. And yet, as I read on, I became more and more convinced by Vgostky’s argument. Perhaps, I thought, we could turn this notion on its head, and also posit that there is no such thing as rules without play.
I was intrigued to discover, later in the same essay, Vgotksy’s concession that rules in play do not operate in quite the same manner as they might operate elsewhere. In play, he writes, ‘a rule has become an affect’ (2002 : n.pag.). The kind of freeplay displayed by the game of the two sisters, he argues, operates within the realm of spontaneity and freedom. Here, Vygotsky quotes Spinoza, who describes a situation in which ‘an idea… has become an affect, a concept has turned into a passion’ (2002 : n.pag.) To carry out the rules in freeplay such as that exhibited by the two sisters, then, ‘the rule is a source of pleasure’ (1933: n.pag.) In this way, Vgostky links freeplay with desire, and goes on to argue that it is precisely because of the way in which self-restraint and self-deterimination—‘internal rules’—link to the desiring subject that ‘a child’s greatest achievements are possible in play’ (2002 : n.pag.).
While contemplating Vygotsky’s essay and the example of the two sisters, I came across a painting with the title ‘Two Sisters’ by Joan Eardley. Eardley was a Scottish painter active from the 1940s through to the early 1960s. She is known for painting and repainting two particular subjects or sites, one being the coast at Catterline, the other being lower-working class children playing on the post-war backstreets of Glasgow (Chilvers 2014: 230). In the Glasgow paintings, she often represented siblings, in this case two sisters, from a family who lived close by to her studio. Very often children were painted at freeplay; very often there are two of them in the frame, as is the case here with ‘Children and Chalked Wall #3.’
Eardley is an artist for whom repetition and the reworking of a particular theme is central. This is interesting to think about when we place her practice alongside Vygotsky’s thinking on freeplay. For Vygotsky, looking through the lens of child development, the role of creative imagination in human learning is very much caught up with repeated experience, that is, the playing out of scenarios such as that provided by two sisters is in some form a repetition of thinking that has already occurred in the imagination. More recent research in educational psychology has gone on to demonstrate, via Vygotsky, that children trained in pretend play are more divergent in their thinking, a skill thought to be linked to enhanced creativity (Smoulcha 2009: 71).
But Eardley’s work in the studio in Glasgow also serves to demonstrate another aspect of Vgotksy’s theory, and this is the way in which playful/imaginative/artistic practice is a form of immersion in collective social activity. Of the various families local to Eardley’s studio, for example, there was one particular group of siblings who paid her regular visits, and it is these children whose faces occur most regularly in her drawings and paintings. They are all children of the Sampson family. In one of the few interviews recorded with Eardley, she spoke of the portraits she did of the Sampson children, as follows:
I have been painting them for seven years ... there are a large number of them, twelve, so I've always had a certain number of children from this family of any age I choose ... some children I don't like ... some interest me more as characters ... these ones I encourage ... they don't need much ... they don't pose – they come up and say will you paint me? (qtd. in McKenzie 2008: n.pag.)
It is in this way that the opportunity for play between Eardley and her regular subjects arises, and it arises frequently, until it enables, supports and sustains the work itself.
In contemplating rules and the absence of rules and a game between two sisters and Vygostky, I am interested in playing my own game of substitutes. I wish to return to the passages I have quoted from directly and to substitute the phrase two sisters with other phrases familiar to those of us working in research and creative production in the academy.
Vygotsky has noted the way in which, in speaking of a child’s development, we tend to focus our interests on his or her intellectual development. But in addition to, or rather within and alongside intellectual development, Vygotsky argues, we need to consider the child’s ‘needs, inclinations, incentives and motives to act’ (2002 : n.pag.).
Below, in my first game of substitution, I am similarly interested in a fuller and more rounded approach to the research process and its relationship with the development or discovery of new knowledge. My game of substitution is not without its parody, because while researchers in the academy are constantly called upon to speculate about the way in which their (often still embryonic) research projects may constitute a new contribution to knowledge, such researchers would rarely go so far as to describe themselves as either potential or bona fide knowledge-makers. I use the term here both deliberately and playfully, because in linking knowledge to an embodied subject, and placing it in Vygotsky’s ‘game’, it reveals something to us about the game of knowledge: who is permitted to contribute to it, how, and on what terms.
One day two knowledge-makers said to each other: “Let’s play knowledge-makers.” …In the game of knowledge-makers playing at “knowledge-makers”… both [are] concerned with displaying their knowledge-makerhood; the fact that two knowledge-makers decided to play knowledge-makers makes them both acquire rules of behavior. (I must always be a knowledge-maker in relation to the other knowledge-maker in the whole play situation.) Only actions that fit these rules are acceptable…. What passes unnoticed… in real life becomes a rule of behavior in play. (Vygotsky 2002 : n.pag., words in italics are my substitutes.)
If you are a research-active academic or practitioner, and you have ever had to justify or overtly consider the way in which your work contributes to knowledge, I ask you to imagine yourself for a moment, immersed in such a game. Which rules might be revealed in such a role play? And which aspects of the role of the imagination in knowledge production? Could you play this game? How would you play it? Or else, who might you imagine from within your own circle of peers who would play it ‘well’? Further, what might such freeplay show us about the way a researcher’s needs, inclination, incentives and motives influence and contribute to their attempts to contribute to and form the kind of ‘thing’ that passes as or is likely to be accepted as a new contribution to knowledge?
As I am particularly interested in creative practice as knowledge (and incidentally as partial-knowledge or non-knowledge), here is another version of the substitution game I would like to consider in relation to Vygotsky’s essay:
One day two creative-practice academics… said to each other: “Let’s play creative-practice academics.” …In the game of creative-practice-academics playing at “creative-practice-academics”… both [are] concerned with displaying their creative-practitioner-hood… (Vygotsky 2002 : n.pag., words in italics are my substitutes.)
Again, I ask you to imagine yourself for a moment, immersed in such a game. How is this game different to the other one, in which you (or someone you know) are playing knowledge maker(s)? What are the rules of the game for creative-practice academics playing creative practice academics? What is it that creative practice academics might emphasise among and between themselves that differentiates them from knowledge makers? Should they/(we) differentiate themselves/(ourselves) in this way? And could an ordinary knowledge maker also do it? (Or vice-versa?)
In fact, one of the key reasons that my first game of substitution—swapping knowledge makers for sisters—with Vygotsky’s original essay becomes so quickly parodic is that it is difficult, if not impossible, for us to imagine what a knowledge maker might even look like. Who would dare identify themselves at all as a knowledge maker in so many words? Suppose a couple of people did. Would we picture the two of them as senior white males, for example? Would we put them in lab coats that mark them as scientists? Are those the rules?
Perhaps this is why a picture of knowledge makers playing at knowledge makers is such a source of amusement to us: such a game, through making visible the ‘rules’, works to expose the fiction of a player’s imagined self-importance very quickly. And yet, part of the game of academic working life is, indeed, about presenting oneself as someone who is knowledgeable, as someone who has a useful contribution to make to knowledge in one’s discipline area. In fact, we can’t get projects funded without making some claims to knowledge. And so we researchers are always, already, some way on the route to declaring ourselves contributors to knowledge, whether or not it is every going to be true.
Significantly, the sisters in Vygotsky’s illustrative example of children at play are actually sisters. They were born into their sisterhood. At the same time they are also, already, becoming sisters in and through the shared socio-linguistic understanding of what that role and relationship to one another ought to mean in the context in which they have emerged. A role related to one’s identity in the workplace, a marker of career such as ‘knowledge maker’—and it is the same with the term ‘creative-practice academic’—is already significantly different to the role of siblings. It is, I would argue, more actively and deliberately self-fashioned in and through the practices and genres of adult working life.
In educational psychology, the discipline within which Vygotsky’s work on the role of play in the development of the child has been most influential, supporters of his work still struggle to make clear to curriculum developers and educational policy makers the importance of the relationship between play—especially make-believe and extended freeplay—and childhood development. In an era focused on the measurement of isolated skills, educational researchers Bodrova, Germeroth and Leong (2013), whose early-childhood curriculum is founded on Vgostkian principles, argue that make-believe play has declined in both quality and quantity in children between the ages of five and seven, compared to previous generations. This, they argue, has negative implications for the development of self-regulated behaviour in children.
In an era in which the university, too, has become fixated on metric measurement—most recently in Australia on the impact and commercial significance of knowledge—it is perhaps a good time to listen to calls such as that made by Marina Warner in her article on the recent disfigurement of higher education (2015). ‘Not everything that is valuable can be measured,’ writes Warner. In her defence of teaching in the humanities, she cites the poet Seamus Heaney, who has said that ‘we go to poetry to be forwarded within ourselves’; literature, Heaney says, gives ‘an experience that is like foreknowledge of certain things which we already seem to be remembering.’
This forwards and back movement is itself a form of play between absence and presence, and is not unlike the repetition, reworking and return of Joan Eardley to her key subjects, the Sampson children.
As a creative-practice academic, I find the second substitution game I have played with Vygotsky paragraphs on the two sisters slightly more disturbing than the first. I can picture the creative-practice academics playing creative-practice academics because I am one and because I know many others, and I recognise in the imagined exercise the language many of us speak. Is this why, in my own mind, the picture of the creative-practice academics at play seems slightly less parodic, tinged instead with the spectre of cruelty? I fear we self-titled creative-practice academics tend to exaggerate our creativity, our adaptability, our playfulness compared to others. This influences our haircuts, the way we dress, the way we move our bodies through space, even before we present the work we are going to posit as new. Why have we come to do what we do in this manner? Is what we do (as it must be with the knowledge makers) a performance to keep others from qualifying as one of us?
The answer to the latter of these questions must in some sense be affirmative. In light of this, I find myself checking again my reticence to perform at being a knowledge maker, a role in which I am far less able to place or imagine my embodied self. Why? Have the knowledge makers locked me out? Has my behaviour already been marked, as Vygotsky has noted of the sisters, by the socio-cultural rules in which, after three decades at university, I must by now be rather heavily immersed?
In a letter to a friend, Joan Eardley reflected on the joy she found in the process of the sketch or the study.
I hope you are still happily drawing. It is a most satisfying joyful thing. The contact which you get because you are still, and quiet in one place; the things that move, and carry on their daily happenings because they are unconscious of your existence—little mice and bird, and even the sun and wind too become part of you. And then there is the drawing, and the happiness of the occupied mind. Painting is different—at least I mean studio painting—the joy of work is there of course, but it is balanced by the other more desperate times of depression, and doubt and desolation. (qtd. in McKenzie 2008: n.pag.)
Here, Eardley’s emphasis on the serendipitous aspect of drawing emphasises the immersive, non-teleological element of the process, or what we might think of as the playful or imaginative. Sketching and drawing is here a form of play that satisfies and sustains and has no definitive outcome. It is associated with immediate awareness. It is something with which to occupy oneself. Painting, on the other hand, must be perfected. It moves towards a point in the future in and through which it will be deemed complete. It could be said that it moves towards displaying its contribution to the discipline, and hence towards knowledge.
Are knowledge and creative practice sisters? Could they be sisters? If so, I wonder, how might one go about displaying their sisterhood?
Currently, I am conducting a series of interviews with leading Australian researchers across a range of disciplines, seeking, in a way, to find out more about the same two questions that intrigued Vygotsky in 1933. At the time he wrote the essay ‘Play and its role in the mental development of the child’ Vygotsky wanted to know how play arises in development. I am interested to know how it arises in research and creative practice. The second key question for Vygotsky was the role of this developmental activity—play—in that development. For my own research project, I too am interested in play’s role, but in my case, it is its role in the discovery of new creative work and/or new knowledge that interests me.
The results of my own applied research are still being assessed and considered—the interviews themselves are ongoing—but for the purposes of this article, I’d like to draw on the example of a discussion I had with a particular interviewee in the science discipline. The interviewee in question was an oceanographer whose groundbreaking work on ocean temperatures has had a significant impact on his discipline. Let us call the oceanographer Professor O. Early in the interview, I asked him to define for me, in his own words, a few key terms. One of them was play. ‘It’s an unusual word to use in the work context,’ he told me, and his definition of the word was given by way of example. The example was the sort of periphery roleplay humour that people who work together engage in after hours. It was not an example integrated with the practice of his research.
I went on to ask Professor O to think back to a time when he had stumbled upon a moment of discovery, and to describe it to me, including how he came to understand or recognise it for what it was: something novel, something new, something that may, in time, contribute to knowledge.
To think differently to the rest of the field is what pays off for me,’ he said. ‘I don't really know where those ideas come from, but they generally come when I’m not pressured with time. I’ve been lucky to have five sabbaticals now over the course of my career when I’ve taken the whole family away for six months at a time. Somehow being away gave me some more time to—I just dwell on outlandish ideas a bit longer.
Professor O had already, at this stage, described to me a philosophy about knowledge and innovation that struck me as unusual amongst others I had interviewed. That is, he had emphasised the importance of failure and rejection. He said that a good way of tracking whether an idea might become significant is to look at how often it gets rejected by experts in the field. His opinion, based on his own experience, and on several examples from the history of science, was that new knowledge is often conspicuous for its failure to fit the prevailing paradigm. Further, he said that plans of any kind, in research terms, should be treated with caution.
You start out saying, “This is what the project’s going to be” and a year in you’re doing something quite different. I think every day you should allow yourself that freedom to work on something that occurred to you as you were getting up in the morning. You’ve got to have the ability to think of something brand new and throw the rest away, and that’s risky because the new thing is probably rubbish. Two-thirds of the time it’ll amount to nothing.. and it might take you a day or three or a week to figure [that] out.
Professor O’s example of a moment of discovery took place during one of his sabbaticals:
We lived on this freshwater pond and I didn't have a shower or bath for three months, it was just every morning a bit of soap and then in the pond. So I was swimming along there and it came to me, try this idea. I guess by morning tea that day I knew it was going to work. It took years actually to figure out how to explain it to people in a way that they wanted to hear. I had one way of understanding it which was a gesture—a hand waving—which is perfectly satisfactory but it only took up half a page of text and these people wanted to have it all explained mathematically. But it eventually has become now the new definition of temperature in the ocean.
I am intrigued by Professor O’s example coming to him during a moment of leisure, his body immersed in the substance—water—he has spent his research career thinking about. And then, as with the sisters, that he is able to explain the new knowledge to himself in the form of a simple gesture. The gesture – the hand waving– has a poeticism to it. It embodies both the rules and their absence. And then it takes years to work backwards from this poeticism towards a set of rules that can adequately articulate that movement as knowledge.
I am reminded here of another line from Vygotsky’s essay:
It seems to me that from the point of view of development, play is not the dominant form of activity, but is, in a certain sense, the leading source of development in pre-schoolers. (2002 : n.pag.)
Allow me a game of substitutes, again, thus:
It seems to me that from the point of view of research practice, play is not the dominant form of activity, but is, in a certain sense, the leading source of discovery or new knowledge. (Vygotsky 2002 : n.pag., words in italics are my substitutes.)
True? I want to say yes. But then there are rules about how to launch an argument in an academic article, and I feel I may have broken or disregarded them here. I’m merely playing a game of substitutes, right? It’s not the way a knowledge maker performs knowledge makerhood.
Joan Eardley died of breast cancer in 1963, aged forty-two. As is often the case with some of our most interesting artists and thinkers, her work is far better known posthumously. Her paintings now sell for hundreds of thousands of pounds and even a pastel drawing of the Sampson children can now fetch an extraordinary price at auction.
Significantly, the forthright playfulness of the Sampson children extended beyond the frame of Eardley’s canvasses. In 2010, The Scotsman published an article titled ‘How One Million Pounds of Joan Eardley artworks went up in Smoke!’ In it, one of the Sampson sisters, now an adult, recalls of Eardley:
We modelled for her all year round for several years into the 1960s. We loved her studio. It was like a treasure trove with nooks and crannies everywhere to play in. We'd sit or stand for what seemed like hours, then when we became fidgety she'd let us draw or play, and she'd sketch. Then, she'd give us the sketches to take home. We'd take them home and make paper aeroplanes. Then mum would throw them on the fire or roll them up tightly to light the next morning's fire. When you see how much money Joan's paintings fetch now, it does make you wonder how much we sent up in smoke. It must have been hundreds of thousands of pounds, maybe a million. (The Scotsman 2010: n.pag.)
The Eardley children—like Vygotsky’s sisters—launched into playing at playing without the need for detailed instruction. One wonders, of course, how the presence of Joan, and the particular environment she had established in her studio, not just influenced but actually made possible their particular form of play. The beauty of the interview material published in 2010, fifty years after Eardley produced her Glasgow series, is that it emphasises, in my view, the unmaking of knowledge that goes on, crucially, even as new knowledge is being produced.
Consider Professor O, who is just getting up in the morning, about to consider an idea he will spend the next week ruminating on before throwing it away.
Rules emerge from critique, and, as Rosi Braidotti has noted, critique and creativity tend to occupy different temporal frameworks. Critique emerges out of what has already been, and the same might be said of knowledge. Creativity, argues Braidotti, ‘projects you into where we’re going next’ (2013: n.pag.). What is interesting about the two sisters example cited by Vygotsky is the extent to which knowledge and the imagination are made in and through one another in that experiment. The sisters gain knowledge in and through a playful practice or doing in the present. The fact that they are so joyfully occupied by the game prevents them from declaring or fixing any of the knowledge that arises. They are experimenting with knowledge as practice—whether consciously or not—and it is not a class of knowledge separate enough from affect or from creativity so as enable it to unequivocally rule over the imagination.
What is left of play when the rules are taken away? Vygotsky has posited that the answer to this question is nothing. Perhaps this is true. But one might also ask of Vygotsky: what is left of the rules, when we take away immersive, imaginative practice? I would argue for the same answer: nothing. In this sense, one cannot be without the other.
I offer this article and the resources that inform it as a kind of sounding—a preliminary step—towards seriously considering the value and importance of play as a means for shifting our understandings of how we might approach new knowledge and/or new creative work in an academic context. Of course we should allow our sketches and studies to be made into paper aeroplanes and burned in the neighbour’s fireplace. Of course we should, eventually, set certain ideas down as full or partial failures. But we should not discount the importance of this phase of doing.
We have something to gain, I think, in insisting both on rules and their absence. In so doing, we can admire the poetry of a wave of the hand that has not yet come into being/knowledge because it is not yet ready to be articulated and recognised by our peers. Perhaps we can even permit ourselves to have it hover there a while – outside of recognition.
But we creative-practice academics, in particular, would also benefit from seeing that there are rules that we both adhere to and enact upon ourselves and others. They need not be fixed. They need not be unhelpful. But they should be acknowledged and interrogated. Further, we need to trespass more frequently as players into those knowledge makers’ studios we imagine to be run by others: the offices of Professor O, for example. Here, we might have a regular go at forming sentences with the other knowledge makers’ language. And we should also invite Professor O more regularly over to ours.
We can go forwards and back, forwards and back. We can be sisters. Like Bodrova, Germeroth and Leong (2013) in their recent study of school-aged children, we research-active academics need to put up a better argument for freeplay as crucial and integral to the development not only of new creative work, but of any work that is capable of making a worthwhile contribution to one’s discipline. Play really shouldn’t be so unusual a word to use in the context of the work we do in the university. Indeed, I think researchers across the higher education sector would all benefit from working to demonstrate how crucial so-called freeplay is to the making of any form of discovery.
[i] ‘The Play of Research’ is an applied research project funded by RMIT University, in which I am the sole investigator. The project seeks to elucidate how play is understood by leading Australian researchers and to investigate the role of play in research practice, particularly its relation to discovery and new knowledge. At the time of writing, interviews for ‘The Play of Research’ are underway with fifteen leading Australian researchers representing a range of disciplines. Further analysis, discussion and findings will be disseminated in the form of a series of academic articles over the 2016-2018 period.
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