Playing with Nietzsche: Play, Nihilism, and Value Creation
Nietzsche finds nihilism to be a central concern for human life. Nietzsche describes nihilism as a crisis of meaning, in which humanity fails to find purpose. He describes a condition of boredom and disgust, where these feelings are not general worries about the human condition but rather an orientation directed towards each individual’s own existence. Nietzsche suggests nihilism can be avoided through what he calls value creation, but this project proves one of Nietzsche’s most elusive tasks. In this paper I use the philosophy of sport and play to make sense of the project, and I argue that play functions as a solution to nihilism. I conclude by sketching the nature of a Nietzschean play that informs the nature of both play and fandom.
Nietzsche promotes the importance of experimentation, which is also a defining feature of play. Play is understood by many as a suspension of the ordinary; the play-world breaks down ordinary limits, procedures, and relationships for the players and the audience, allowing the individuals to explore her own interest, identity, and agency. Whereas some argue that play requires illusion, I draw on the work of Kenneth Schmitz to argue that play creates genuine meaning. That is, I argue that play creates significance and does not depend on fantasy or make-believe. The importance of play is not limited to the play-world. However, not all forms of play provide such significance. Some instances of play provoke boredom, or provide an escape from the world, and these only compound the problem nihilism. Therefore, I argue that the decision to play is inadequate to create the purpose humans need. Instead, using the work of Randolph Feezell, I distinguish play that involves identification or investment from other forms of play. Investment provides a solution to the problem Nietzsche outlines because nihilism, as he understands it, denies the possibility of valuing or investment.
If we accept Nietzsche’s depiction of play, we find that play is Nietzsche views play as a stance or orientation, but a distinct kind of orientation that fosters the creation of value. Against common views of play, he denies that play is a suspension of the ordinary; it is the ordinary. The idea that there could be anything else is simply a confusion, or perhaps a desire to find objective meaning where none exists. This conclusion raises an intriguing contrast with Feezell’s connection of play to irony and the absurd. Feezell suggests that play must be the fundamental attitude of life as it helps us avoid despair. For Nietzsche, play is fundamental to life because the attitude of play and interplay with others reveals the only kind of meaning we can create.