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  • Writer's pictureKarey Pohn

Mission Impossible?

When I think of the task of defining play, the song “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” from The Sound of Music (Wise, 1965) comes to mind:


How do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? / How do you find a word that means Maria? / A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown!


Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her / Many a thing she ought to understand / But how do you make her stay / And listen to all you say / How do you keep a wave upon the sand?



Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?


When I'm with her I'm confused / Out of focus and bemused / And I never know exactly where I am / Unpredictable as weather / She's as flighty as a feather,


She's a darling! She's a demon! She's a lamb!

She'd outpester any pest / Drive a hornet from its nest / She could throw a whirling dervish out of whirl / She is gentle! She is wild! / She's a riddle! She's a child! / She's a headache! She's an angel! / She's a girl! (Wise, 1965)


One thing that most play researchers agree on is that play is hard to define. Play is elusive, hard to pin down, defies definition, and ultimately cannot be confined to categories. To capture play's indefinable nature, I wrote my own little song, with apologies to Nat King Cole (1994) and his synchronistic 1964 song "Unforgettable":


Undefinable, that's what you are

Undefinable though near or far Like a siren song that sings to me How the thought of you does things to me Never before has something been more


Undefinable in every way And forever more, that's how you'll stay That's why, dear play, it's so believable That something so undefinable Could be so unconfinable, too


<instrumental interlude>


Allusive in every way And forever more, that's how you'll stay That's why, dear play, though this is profusive, you could remain so very elusive not to mention inconclusive, too.


Although play eludes definition, we seem to know play when we see it. Stephen Miller (1973), in an article entitled “Means, Ends, and Galumphing: Some Leitmotifs of Play,” discusses this elusiveness. According to S. Miller, in describing people watching animals play, three things stood out:


First, individuals feel very definite about whether and when an animal is playing. Second, there is remarkable unanimity in the crowd about recognizing play . . . third, when the same people are pressed to define what they mean by “play;” they often first say “it didn’t look like it was for real” or “they looked like they were enjoying themselves, like children,” but then retract and say it was very complicated but they couldn’t pin it down or give any criteria. (p. 88)


Given this inability to define play, what are we to do? How do we approach this slippery subject, that is intuitively grasped but not easily articulated? I propose to do what S. Miller did and look for patterns. First though, we need to know about galumphing, a term that S. Miller uses to describe one of the motifs of play. He first uses the term in articulating the “often exaggerated or ‘uneconomic’” baboon play, which “involve[s] much flailing, and bobbing, exaggeration, and indirect ineffective action” (p. 89). Galumphing seems to be present in much human play as well, where a “deliberate complication” (Piaget) of activity occurs, with a lack of streamlined or task oriented efficiency. Galumphing is S. Miller’s shorthand for “patterned, voluntary, elaboration or complication of process, where the pattern is not under the dominant control of goals” (p. 92). S. Miller says that play is a galumphant activity, where the means are not directly tied to the ends; in play the means rule, they are given greater sway, than in non-play activity. Yet, S. Miller notes “play is not a means without the end; it is a crooked line to the end; it circumnavigates obstacles put there by the player, or voluntarily acceded to by him (p. 93). S. Miller further explains:


Play is a context, or what Bateson (1956) calls a “frame.” It is a mode of organization of behavior—one way of fitting pieces of activity together . . . . Play can be distinguished by the way ends and means are handled, and by who handles them. Play involves a relative autonomy of means. Ends are not obliterated, but they don’t, as in some other modes of organization, determine the means. Furthermore this state of affairs implies a degree of autonomy of the actor who manipulates the process at his disposal, which makes for freedom to assume roles otherwise unreal. Finally, means are elaborated by a psychological process that we have thus far referred to as “galumphing”—in general, the voluntary placing of obstacles in ones path. (p. 92)


Because my dissertation is about play it is fitting that the dissertation itself would share some of these characteristics. As we will see along the way, it is definitely galumphant, it is uneconomical and indirect; a crooked line to the end, or as Peter Falk, playing Vince in the Inlaws (Hiller, 1979) would say “Serpentine, Sheldon, Serpentine.” The dissertation involves “deliberate complication” in its attempt to show the process and patterns of cosmic play, and it keeps circling around the central death-rebirth theme.


Since I have decided to look at cosmic play, lila— how the universe plays, which is play at its most archetypal level, I am not going to play the game of other play researchers. Like Stephen Miller, I will be focusing on different patterns of this cosmic play. By looking at Big “P” play, along the way we can possibly learn things about little “p” play that others have so scrupulously studied. In exploring the Cosmic Game, we will be looking at cosmic play’s patterns, the leitmotifs of play if you will.





(2005, online) notes that in Wagner, Fafner the dragon, is conveyed almost entirely through music. Thus "leitmotifs can infuse unseen entities with actuality” (Downie & Lefford, 2005).


So now that we know what we are going to be looking at—lila or cosmic play—we need to be clear on what the mission of this dissertation is: who it is meant for and why it is being written. As you can tell already, this is not your usual dissertation, so I need to mention a few things about the way the dissertation is written, before we go on to actually discuss the “cosmic setup”—the organization of the dissertation as web site itself.


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