The Concept of the Game in American Literature

True Freedom and a Mistaken Idea of Freedom

by Sandra Schenk (Author)
©2022 Thesis 450 Pages


The concept of the game illustrates a collectively recognized representation of existence in American literature. This investigation explores the concealment of the function of division beneath the function of communication. The philosophical cornerstones of this investigation are Marshall McLuhan, Guy Debord, and Michel Pêcheux. Inspired by Henry Miller, an innovative methodology is established that focuses on patterns of experience (symbol/sign), patterns of structure (myth), and patterns of language (metaphor). The concept of the game renders an essential social relation tangible (interpellation), and it epitomizes a commitment to the restoration of American spiritual values. It is a rejection of “a mistaken idea of freedom” and an advocate of “true freedom.”

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Preface
  • Contents
  • 1 Introduction. A Release from the Monopolistic Tyranny of the Social Machine
  • 1.1 That Make-Believe Is the Only Reality
  • 1.2 The True Reality of Things and Events
  • 1.3 You May Dream, If You Dream Alike
  • 1.4 Derivatory Effects of Class Struggle
  • 1.5 Make the Circle a Spiral
  • 2 The Three Phases of Disfigurement
  • 2.1 SY/SI: A Reflection of Reality
  • 2.1.1 A Manipulation of Our Code of Values
  • 2.1.2 Nature/Convention Dichotomy
  • 2.1.3. Healing the Split
  • 2.1.4 The Dream of Absolute Power
  • 2.2 MY: A Selection of Reality
  • 2.2.1 Arrivals Are Departures
  • 2.2.2 A Dialectic between Ideology/Utopia
  • 2.2.3 Bundles of Events
  • 2.2.4 The Revolutionary Task of Writing
  • 2.3 ME: A Deflection of Reality
  • 2.3.1 The Power of Redescribing Reality
  • 2.3.2 A Departure from the Tradition of Rhetoric
  • 2.3.3 Metamorphosis of Reality
  • 2.3.4 The Conflict between Sameness/Difference
  • 3 Illusion Only Is Sacred: Chicago (1927)
  • 3.1 Capitulation to a Culture Unwilling to Relinquish What It No Longer Believes In
  • 3.2 An Attack on Unreality
  • 3.3 Razzle Dazzle ‘em
  • 3.4 Weapon of Liberation
  • 4 The Visible Negation of Life: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (1935)
  • 4.1 Dark Realities
  • 4.2 In Search of a Non-Alienated Existence
  • 4.3 The Illusion of Reality
  • 4.3.1 There Is No New Experience in Life
  • 4.3.2 Always Tomorrow …
  • 4.3.3 This Motion Picture Business Is a Lousy Business
  • 4.3.4 The Goal Is Nothing, Development Everything
  • 4.4 A Subjection That Never Reaches Its Limit
  • 5 All Individual Reality Has Become Social Reality: Nightmare Alley (1946)
  • 5.1 The End of American Innocence
  • 5.2 Darkly Luminous Spirals and Zigzags
  • 5.3 I Want to Die
  • 5.3.1 … Just Until We Get a Real Geek
  • 5.3.2 Who Could Change the Hearts of Men?
  • 5.3.3 The Illusion of Equal Opportunity
  • 5.3.4 A Hell of a World
  • 5.4 Consumer of Illusions
  • 6 A Lie Which Is No Longer Challenged Becomes Lunacy: One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1962)
  • 6.1 A World of Limits
  • 6.2 Conflicting Points of View
  • 6.3 Never Again
  • 6.3.1 An Adjustment Machine
  • 6.3.2 No More Fog Any Place
  • 6.3.3 A Moving Target Is Hard to Hit
  • 6.3.4 It Was Us
  • 6.4 All Social Life Becomes Insane
  • 7 All It Says Is All There Is: Roller Ball Murder (1973)
  • 7.1 A Single, Dramatic Piece of a Mosaic Becomes in the Minds of Millions the Entire Picture
  • 7.2 When Cultures Change, So Do Games
  • 7.3 A Fundamental Mutation in the Ecology of the Human Species
  • 7.3.1 Hollow Spaces
  • 7.3.2 A Yearning for High, Lost, Important Thoughts
  • 7.3.3 If I Can Remember Us, I Can Recollect Meaning and Time
  • 7.3.4 In Favor of the Greater Crowd-Pleasing Carnage
  • 7.4 The Promised Land of Total Consumption
  • 8 The Power of the Spectacle: Farragut North (2009)
  • 8.1 The Politics of Personal Destruction
  • 8.2 The Absence of Catharsis
  • 8.3 I’m Nothing Without This Job
  • 8.4 A Deformed Consciousness of Realities
  • 9 Conclusions. A Crisis of the American Spirit
  • 9.1 First Phase of Disfigurement: Being on the Margin of Existence
  • 9.2 Second Phase of Disfigurement: Should the World Be Changed?
  • 9.3 Third Phase of Disfigurement: Welcome to the Theatre of Interpellation
  • 9.4 … It Is More a Structural Consciousness than a Semantic One
  • List of Figures and Tables
  • Glossary
  • Bibliographical Reference
  • Index

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1 Introduction. A Release from the Monopolistic Tyranny of the Social Machine

Abstract: The research topic and the research strategy are introduced and Marshall McLuhan’s view of the concept of the game in connection with a short story by Philip K. Dick is explored. The subchapter 1.1 That Make-Believe Is the Only Reality delves into the importance of Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967) for this investigation, 1.2 The True Reality of Things and Events establishes the different layers of the methodology that centers around the solidification/ densification of the concept of the game throughout American literature, 1.3 You May Dream, If You Dream Alike explores Marxist criticism and establishes a connection between the concept of the game, ideology critique, and Henry Miller. Then, 1.4 Derivatory Effects of Class Struggle delves into poststructuralist theory with focus on Michel Pêcheux and Roland Barthes before 1.5 Make the Circle a Spiral reflects on the relevance of the hermeneutical circle.

Keywords: spectacle, Marxist criticism, poststructuralism, ideology critique, hermeneutical circle.

Figure 2:Merry-Go-Round (1916) by Mark Gertler

The painting Merry-Go-Round (1916) by British painter Mark Gertler is used in order to convey an idea of the research topic and to exemplify the research question of this investigation. Figure 2 illustrates how the painting blends two different patterns of experience that are similar/dissimilar: game and war. The game as concept is illustrated by the merry-go-round and war as concept is illustrated by soldiers riding the merry-go-round. The combination of these two concepts establishes a meaningful connection that highlights the notion of useless spinning in circles in the particular socio-historical context of WWI. Thus, the merry-go-round comes to symbolize the social machine and it makes Mark Gertler’s critique of war tangible. The painting illustrates how the concept of the game can be used in order to express ideology critique and what kind of alliances the concept of the game forms. Literature also employs the concept of the game as ideology critique and an understanding of this kind of critique can be achieved by taking into account the underlying pattern of experience, the structure of the narrative, and the language itself. This investigation analyzes how the concept of the game in American literature between 1927 and 2009 portrays American socio-historical conditions. A close study of critical visions of society can further an understanding of underlying ideological implications. The Merry-Go-Round’s composition illustrates the research strategy of this investigation which is an expansion of French philosopher Roland Barthes’s essay Imagination of the Sign. According to Barthes, every sign implies three relations: an interior relation (symbolic consciousness) and two exterior relations (paradigmatic and syntagmatic consciousness). Each consciousness of the sign ←17 | 18→coincides with a certain moment of reflection, either individual or collective. The symbolic relation brings together a signifier (cross) with its signified (Christianity). The symbol once had a mythical prestige and because of its “richness” it could not be reduced to a simple sign, the symbolic consciousness suggests an “imagination of depth.” For Barthes, “the symbol is much less a (codified) form of communication than an (affective) instrument of participation.” But the term symbol has become obsolete and it has been substituted by the term sign. Barthes outlines: “This terminological shift expresses a certain crumbling of the symbolic consciousness, notably with regard to the analogical character of signifier and signified.”17 ←18 | 19→Now, Barthes and the painting Merry-Go-Round are brought together on the level of the symbolic consciousness. There are six case studies and each case study explores the concept of the game as the expression of an individual/a collective pattern of experience within a respective text. The signifier (the concept of the game) remains the same but the signified is vague. Each key text renders different valences of the concept of the game tangible, each text represents a new departure and establishes a unique interior relation (the concept of the game symbolizes oppression, subjection, conformity, change, liberation, and so forth). The symbolic consciousness is explored in every text in order to gain insight into the moment of reflection (time)/the socio-historical matrix (space) that generated the concept of the game. Every case study resembles a horse on the merry-go-round and each horse consists of three levels which correspond to the three different phases of text analysis (symbol/sign, myth and metaphor).

It is the paradigmatic consciousness which permitted Lévi-Strauss to reconceive the problem of totemism: whereas the symbolic consciousness vainly seeks the “dimensional,” more or less analogical characters which unite a signifier (the totem) to a signified (the clan), the paradigmatic consciousness establishes a homology (as Lévi-Strauss calls it) between the relation of two totems and that of two clans.

According to Barthes, the paradigmatic relation perceives meaning more as a “modulation of co-existence” than a simple encounter of signifier and signified. Barthes points out that the paradigmatic relation defines the structuralist threshold through the work of Lévi-Strauss and it represents a formal imagination which perceives the sign no longer in its depth but in its perspective. The paradigmatic consciousness involves an attention to the variation of several recurrent elements and thus accommodates oneiric narratives.18 Now we can perceive the Merry-Go-Round as strategy with regard to the paradigmatic level. With the progression of this investigation, comparisons can be made between different concepts of the game in several key texts in order to detect recurrent elements and to establish a pattern of application of the concept of the game. The focus on recurrent elements allows a division into groups and thus makes tendencies visible. This method is of utmost importance as only a series of texts can reveal basic themes regarding American society. The operating principles of different horses are put into relation with each other. And last but not least, the syntagmatic level is explored. For Barthes, the syntagmatic relation unites the sign to other signs on the level of discourse and it renders the sign’s associations tangible. He states: “The syntagmatic imagination no longer sees the sign in its ←19 | 20→perspective, it foresees it in its extension: its antecedent or consequent links, the bridges it extends to other signs.” Barthes also points out that the syntagmatic consciousness represents a “stemmatous” imagination of the chain/the network. Among the three consciousnesses, it is the syntagmatic consciousness that turns its back on the signified. The syntagmatic consciousness allows the perception of operational groups or complex classifications, “it is more a structural consciousness than a semantic one.”19 The Merry-Go-Round as strategy can now unfold on the syntagmatic level. Following the completion of the six case studies, a network of the concept of the game can be established. The syntagmatic consciousness allows the classification of different kinds of behavior with regard to a formative pattern of experience, it allows the classification of narrative structures, and it allows the perception of different variations of the concept of the game. It also enables the perception of an antecedent link that left symbolic traces in the key texts which are disclosed by the creation of operational groups. Et voilà, the merry-go-round is perceived as a whole. The symbolic consciousness (consideration of one text), the paradigmatic consciousness (comparison of several texts), and the syntagmatic consciousness (complex classifications from all texts) as research strategy enable a nuanced analysis of the concept of the game in the key texts and each consciousness involves a “certain moment of reflection.” This kind of research strategy comprises three different stages of perception that enable an understanding of American literature in a socio-historical context. Ultimately, the aim is to identify the patterns that the structural consciousness produces because these patterns reveal the motivation behind the ideology critique.

The three philosophical cornerstones of this investigation are Marshall McLuhan’s Under-standing Media (1964), Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle (1967), and Michel Pêcheux’s Language, Semantics and Ideology (1982). McLuhan’s understanding of games as extensions of social man and as media of communication are used to generate a basic understanding of the concept of the game, McLuhan is tied to the symbol. Debord’s exploration of spectacular society is put into relation with myth as a social imagination and a rationale for social customs, Debord is tied to myth. Pêcheux’s analysis of language in connection to interpellation is vital with regard to the language of the spectacle/the terminology of the game, Pêcheux is tied to metaphor. These three philosophers shape the way the concept of the game is perceived within the framework of this investigation, their philosophy finds a practical application in the analysis of literary texts. The common thread running through the works of McLuhan, ←20 | 21→Debord and Pêcheux is their focus on social psychology. First, the concept of the game is explored with regard to McLuhan’s understanding of games as extensions of social man. According to Sing-Nan Fen, McLuhan’s interest in the so-called media is not only historical/intellectual but it is also focused on “the cause of the contemporary change of psychological mood. His fundamental thesis is that change of the media is the cause of change of mood.”

About the cause of the change of our psychological mood, McLuhan's foremost concern is to deemphasize the importance traditionally attached to the message. By message McLuhan means the 'content' for which the media serve as the vehicles to carry and deliver. In contrast to the traditional emphasis on content and message, McLuhan maintains the thesis that the medium is the message …

Fen points out that McLuhan departed from the academic discipline in order to discover, not to justify. He states that other intellectuals criticize McLuhan’s use of a vague terminology/ambiguous phraseology like the term “medium” itself.20 McLuhan’s focus on the reciprocity between a change of media and a change of mood is crucial because it illustrates the profound impact of media. This investigation also deemphasizes the importance traditionally attached to the message. The question is not what does the term ‘game’ mean but how does the concept of the ‘game’ affect man’s psychological mood. McLuhan emphasizes that any extension of consciousness affects the whole psychic/social complex: “Examination of the origin and development of the individual extensions of man should be preceded by a look at some general aspects of the media, or extensions of man, beginning with the never-explained numbness that each extension brings about in the individual and society.” McLuhan describes games as extensions of social man, they are media of interpersonal communication in society, they are a popular art and they are collective reactions to the main drive of a culture. Western man perceives adjustment to society as a personal surrender to collective demands and games are supposed to help man with this kind of adjustment: “Do not our favorite games provide a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine?”

Both games and technologies are counter-irritants or ways of adjusting to the stress of the specialized actions that occur in any social group. As extensions of the popular response ←21 | 22→to the workday stress, games become faithful models of a culture. They incorporate both the action and the reaction of whole populations in a single dynamic image.21

It is significant that McLuhan describes games as counter-irritants which evokes the notion of a social malaise in the present context. The concept of the game is perceived as a “medium of communication” as well as an “instrument of participation” and it is the leitmotif at the center of the key texts. The concept of the game as an “extension of social man” allows to draw conclusions about social man. Key terms are “adjustment to society” and “surrender to collective demands” because they illustrate the predicament of social man. Games are supposed to “provide a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine” but most of the games encountered throughout this investigation represent “the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine.” What does the inversion of the social concept of a game reveal about American society? American author Henry Miller provides not only an insight into American society but he is also part of the theoretical structure of this investigation. For him, man can only recover his innocence by regaining his freedom. Miller states: “Freedom here meaning the death of the automaton.”22 A comparison must be made between Miller and McLuhan who describes games as crucial for the prevention of the zombie trance of automation.23 Games are supposed to represent a free space, an escape from the social machine. Automaton/automation are considered to be an equivalent to the social machine, an unfree space. Miller even goes as far as to state that freedom and the automaton/social machine are mutually exclusive which is indicative of the pressure exerted by the social machine. McLuhan’s description “monopolistic tyranny of the social machine” is also indicative of a lack of freedom as the word “tyranny” suggests. This investigation explores the inversion of the concept of the game and the damage the illusion of a free space can cause.

McLuhan makes a distinction between true games/untrue games and he stresses that war, stock market/business do not qualify as true games because the rules are not fully known/accepted by all the players. Everybody is participating in war/business but like in a native society there is no true art as everybody is engaged in making art. Art/games need rules/conventions/spectators and the notion of play implies interplay or dialogue.24 Rules/conventions/spectators and dialogue/interplay are considered as essential features of games and a close ←22 | 23→consideration of these features can facilitate the distinction between “true games/untrue games.” McLuhan draws our attention towards the shape of games which is of major importance for this investigation: “For as it is the pattern of a game that gives it relevance to our inner lives, and not who is playing nor the outcome of the game, …”25 This investigation focuses on the recognition of patterns of games because patterns are considered to be the key to an understanding of the difference between “true games/untrue games.” An important feature of games is identified as consent which is tied to the pattern of conformity. McLuhan states that the reason of the wide appeal of games is that they are an outer model of inner psychological life. They are collective dramatizations of inner life and they have meaning only as extensions of inner lives. He uses the example of taking a tennis racket in hand in order to demonstrate that the consent to be part of a dynamic mechanism in an artificially contrived situation is mandatory. The consent of the players to become puppets is a requirement for the beginning of a game. For McLuhan, there is a contradiction in professional sport because games should open a door into free life. In the case of professional sport, they open a door into a specialist job which evokes a sense of incongruity. Games reveal a lot about a community, they can be an Utopian vision where man can interpret the meaning of daily lives.26 The notion that games are collective dramatizations of inner psychological life is crucial here. Consent is also a key aspect of the concept of the game within the range of this investigation because a person has to consent to use a particular language involving the concept of a game which is also a consent to the concept it represents (consciously/unconsciously). A connection to Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser is essential here:

In the ordinary use of the term, subject in fact means: (1) a free subjectivity, a center of initiatives, author of and responsible for its actions; (2) a subjected being, who submits to a higher authority, and is therefore stripped of all freedom except that of freely accepting his submission. This last note gives us the meaning of this ambiguity, which is merely a reflection of the effect which produces it: the individual is interpellated as (free) subject in order that he shall submit freely to the commandments of the Subject, i.e. in order that he shall make the gestures and actions of his subjection 'all by himself'.27

Games as faithful models of a culture are based on consent and the process of subjection is also based on consent. Games as an extension of social man are able to translate the concept of interpellation and they can make the lack of interplay visible (“all by himself”). The concept of a game as an expression of interpellation ←23 | 24→reveals an “untrue game,” it has come to represent an unfree space. This investigation focuses mostly on the concept of a game as a means of interpellation but it also analyses the concept of a game as a rejection of interpellation.

McLuhan further argues that games as media of information are an extension of the individual/the group. Art/games exist because they affect observers and they have the power to impose their assumptions by setting the human community into novel relationships. He concludes that art as well as games are translators of experience. He describes games as controlled situations and extensions of group awareness that allow a respite from customary patterns.28 Control is an important aspect of the concept of a game which can be an expression of power relations. The concept of the game as a “translator of experience” illustrates either the voluntary acceptance of interpellation or the rejection of interpellation. The importance of the pattern of games stresses the importance of the underlying pattern of experience and the creation of novel relationships is connected to the creation of a new reality. The short story War Games (1959) by American science fiction author Philip K. Dick serves as an example for the importance of a pattern of a game and for the novel relationship that this pattern creates. The Terran Import Bureau of Standards tests Ganymedean toys and decides if they can be sold to children without harm. Three games are tested and the first two games raise suspicion. The third game is called Syndrome and does not receive much attention because of its similarity to Monopoly. Ultimately, only Syndrome is cleared and a sales manager takes the game home in order to play it with his kids. Then the sales manager discovers that Syndrome is the exact opposite of Monopoly. His daughter explains to him that “the person who winds up with the most stock loses.” The sales manager does not understand the concept of the winner having nothing at all:

Anyhow, the important thing was that the kids enjoyed playing Syndrome; evidently it would sell, and that was what mattered. Already the two youngsters were learning the naturalness of surrendering their holdings. They gave up their stocks and money avidly, with a kind of trembling abandon. Glancing up, her eyes bright, Lora said, 'It's the best educational toy you ever brought home, Dad!'29

It is concluded that the other games serve as a distraction and that the similarity with Monopoly is an additional distraction to hide the actual intentions behind the game. The similarity is considered to be an allusion to Monopoly that effortlessly builds up an illusion. Syndrome creates a controlled situation that leads to ←24 | 25→novel relationships, it teaches children the “naturalness of surrendering” with “trembling abandon” which is supposed to make them weak adversaries to the Ganymedeans. Syndrome naturalizes the intentions of the game and thus makes the children susceptible to manipulation. The short story stresses the importance of the pattern of a game and how the concept of a game can be used as a tool for hidden agendas. Games as “translators of experience” expose the symbolic dimension of the concept of a game and the process of translation results in the game becoming a guiding principle in itself.

That games are extensions, not of our private but of our social selves, and that they are media of communication, should now be plain. If, finally, we ask, “Are games mass media?” the answer has to be “Yes.” Games are situations contrived to permit simultaneous participation of many people in some significant pattern of their corporate lives.30

Dick’s short story exemplifies that the concept of a game as an extension of social man/as mass media influences patterns of thought/behavior. Syndrome as a contrived situation enables the participation of the children in the Ganymedeans desired pattern of corporate life which equals a total submission to their domination. Dick’s short story demonstrates McLuhan’s thesis that a change of a medium causes a change of psychological mood. The short story also illustrates McLuhan’s maxim: “The medium is the message.”31 Dick’s title War Games as well as the pattern of the game Syndrome itself give away that this is not a “true game.” Syndrome does not provide “a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine” but it paves the way for a “surrender to collective demands.” Dick and the artists within the range of this investigation have the ability to perceive submerged patterns of experience within American society and they translate them into the concept of the game. Games are supposed to “provide a release from the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine” but they can also be abused to represent “the monopolistic tyranny of the social machine.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2022 (May)
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2022. 450 pp., 24 fig. col., 10 fig. b/w, 1 table.

Biographical notes

Sandra Schenk (Author)

Sandra Schenk holds a diploma in Translation Studies from TH Köln – University of Applied Sciences and an MA degree in North American Studies as well as a PhD degree in North American Studies from the University of Cologne. Her research focuses on Marxist literary criticism, poststructuralism, and ideology critique.


Title: The Concept of the Game in American Literature