In "Disruptive Play," the Seattle-based musician, writer and educator examines the trickster-like characters of the modern world.
“Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture,” the new book from Seattle-based musician, writer and educator Shepherd Siegel, is part cultural history, part polemic. It opens with a rough introduction to mythological figures (Loki, Èsù-Elegba) known for their efforts to ruffle the feathers of gods and nature alike. It closes with a call to bring about a “Play Society … based on art and play instead of commerce” and “challenge the hegemony where we rank people’s worth according to their competence.”
Siegel brings up examples ranging from the Dadaist art of the early 20th century to Bugs Bunny to the famed street artist Banksy. All, he argues, offer visions of a future where silliness and culture-jamming help level the playing field, toppling the power structures of our stodgy modern society.
It’s not a bad message by any means. But it’s one that deserves more clarity, depth and inclusiveness than Siegel brings to it here. “Disruptive Play” reads like a first draft, with plenty of fine ideas and fascinating stories that simply need to be polished, supported by richer examples and brought into sharper focus.
An early chapter on the short life and work of late 19th-century symbolist writer Alfred Jarry darts around its chronology with a confusing logic. Juicy tidbits about “chemical experiments” are mentioned offhand with no further elaboration, and only a tiny scrap of Jarry’s work appears to demonstrate how radical a writer and thinker he was. Instead, the chapter is padded with sizable chunks from “The Banquet Years,” Roger Shattuck’s 1955 book on the French writer, and a long list of modern comedians that, Siegel writes, also “made high art of adolescence.”
As Siegel reaches the modern age, things get even muddier. Naturally, he turns to the hacktivist group Anonymous that has engaged in various cyberattacks on, among many other targets, the Church of Scientology and several government agencies. Their work, Siegel writes, “incorporates the Trickster archetype, a character who is in it for the laughs and whose pranks can fall on either side of the moral equation. It is as likely to be mean or stupid as it is to be just.” What doesn’t warrant a discussion is how 4chan, the online community that birthed Anonymous, has taken their “amoral playground” (Siegel’s coinage) to dangerous places — like doxxing and threatening the lives of women they disagree with.
But the most frustrating element of “Disruptive Play” is that it falls into the same trap of countless other books of its ilk by maintaining a narrow perspective throughout. All of the nonanimated people that Siegel points to as examples are white men: Jarry, Marcel Duchamp, The Beatles, Abbie Hoffman, Andy Kaufman, Julian Assange. The only woman who manages to fit Siegel’s thesis is Lisa Simpson, who is a cartoon character. All of the above also happen to fall under a Eurocentric umbrella.
I don’t think this was intentional on Siegel’s part. Many other writers and historians like him have fallen prey to the same unconscious cultural biases. But there’s also no denying how much richer and stronger his argument would have been had he looked to the Afro-futurist movement or the equally provocative and playful efforts of artists Meret Oppenheim and Yayoi Kusama, author Kathy Acker, and the punk-inspired Russian activist collective Pussy Riot.
Siegel’s philosophy of play comes alive most when he gets personal. The meat of this tome is sandwiched between a fascinating section about his time in the Bay Area, helping developmentally disabled teens transition from school to the working world, and a chapter dedicated to the annual celebration of weirdness and wonder that is Seattle’s Fremont Solstice Parade. In these chapters, Siegel’s writing bursts with color and life, revealing how things like getting lost in the merry spirit of a street-art party and watching the young men in his care inject an often-rigid world with new anarchic energy. They bring the sparks for this book-length smolder.
“Disruptive Play: The Trickster in Politics and Culture” by Shepherd Siegel, Wakdjunkaga Press, 358 pp., $21.95