Review of Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play by Susanna Paasonen

Miguel Sicart
Associate Professor
IT University of Copenhagen

Susanna Paasonen: Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play (2018). Goldsmiths Press: London.

Susanna Paasonen’s Many Splendored Things: Thinking Sex and Play is one of the most important books on play. Not just recent books on play, of which there have been many recently, all dully cited by Paasonen, but in general considering all books on play. Many Splendored Things is a fundamental book to understand the multifaceted connections between play, pleasure, and sexuality; a unique, insightful, provoking and rewarding book. Paasonen’s book fundamental contribution is the development of a mode of analysis of pleasure and sexuality from the perspective of play. As the author manifests: “The key rationale for this book is to make use of play in unravelling the dynamics of sexual fantasy, normativity and pleasure by pushing them beyond any given or clear divisions of straight and queer, yet to do it in such a way that does not erode complexities in how these categories have come about, or in how they continue to be lived and operationalised” (p. 4).

The concept of play allows the author to provide insights on the very convent of pleasure that break down heteronormative assumptions, and situate both play and pleasure as key concepts to explore the elements human expression and subjectivity present in sexual relations. To achieve this goal, Paasonen provides readers with both a strong theoretical foundation that draws on play theory, media studies, game studies, and philosophy, but also with a variety of case studies that illustrates the book’s main points.

It is difficult to choose a main contribution in a book such as this, packed with arguments that should be discussed in and across many different fields. In my opinion, however, there are two ideas that are the richest and most productive: first, the call for a play theory that moves away from the western heteronormative paradigm so many of us take for granted. In the first chapter of this book, Paasonen draws a critical take on many old and new theories of play, arguing that the way they have overlooked and/or misplaced the importance of sex as play reveals the dominance of a discourse that needs to be overcome. While this critique of Huizinga and Caillois is not new (see for example Lugones’ take on “playfulness”), Paasonen uses the perspective of sex, and thus of embodiment, to add another critical layer to her evaluation of the dominant theories of play. She does so not only in her reading of the venerable classics, but also of contemporary works. As an academic author, it is always rewarding to see one’s work discussed, critiqued, and corrected like Paasonen does with my own work. Paasonen is right in her critique, and my own theory of play suffers of a heteronormative take on pleasure and the body. Paasonen’s perspective and arguments are a better, more inclusive, and more productive take on pleasure and play.

It is precisely this take on play that I would consider the second main contribution of this book. Many Splendored Things is not a book about sex and play: it is a book that uses sex as a way to complicate and enrich our understandings of bodies and pleasure in the fundamentally ambiguous activity of play. This book is crucial for play scholars because it makes it evident that we cannot write about play -and that means also games- without considering the concept of (embodied) pleasure. This is not to say that there hasn’t been research on play and embodiment – what Paasonen does is place that history of reflecting on the role of bodies in play under the light of pleasure, using sex as an example that opens up normative discourses and assumptions, and forces play scholars interesting in thinking about bodies to also consider the nature of pleasure in the network of bodies, institutions, power and technologies.

While the book is rich in theoretical contributions, I would personally single out the second chapter, “Magic Circles and Magical Circuits of Play”. The topic of the magic circle in game studies might seem to be trite, but Paasonen manages to provide a new critical angle to it thanks to the focus on embodiment and the materiality of play, as in the discussion about props on page 22. The chapter critiques “vanilla play theories”, like mine, and provides a phenomenal analysis of the normativities lurking in many play theories, and how this book proposes an alternative: “ […] playfulness cuts across all kinds of sexual arragements. To separate play and playfulness from other moods and intensities that animate bodies ultimately means operating with a partial and normative understanding of sexuality that frames out a broad range of practices, routines, and experiences – or, alternatives, supports hierarchies of value and normality between them” (p. 33).

Many splendored things is an outstanding book, but not one without minor flaws. While I appreciated the width of scope and the rigor of the academic work, I found that the chapter dedicated to the analysis of Jan Soldat’s films was a dissonant note in the overall book. It is a high quality chapter, but in my opinion it breaks the flow of the argument because it is too much a media studies reading of cinematic texts. While the other chapters are more kaleidoscopic and varied in their approach to their subjects of study, Chapter 5 (“Slaves, Prisoners and the Edge of Play”) is perhaps too dependent on its own methodological tributes to media studies.

The only other flaw I’d like to mention in this review concerns the references regarding the study of sex and play, particularly from the perspective of power and politics. Paasonen’s review and reading of these theories is excellent, and yet I was thinking that there is a small body of work that focuses on sex as play, and its related to power. Some contemporary anarchist theory has looked at sex as play, and at play in general, as a way of framing alternatives to the power structures of developed societies (see for example Organise!’s “Anarchism and Sex” or Simon’s “Seven Thesis on Play” . In their search for arguments for the anarchist alternative, some theorists have looked at play as an instrument to analyze the importance of freedom, choice, and emergent social arrangements.

Not mentioning and engaging with these works is not a fault, for Paasonen’s project is not one defined by being completist in its literature review, but critical of dominant paradigms. However, I cannot but wonder what reflections on power, sex, and play would have been added to this book if Paasonen had discussed, with her claritity and vision, this body of work. It is then not a flaw in the book, but more an unfulfilled wish.

Many Splendored Things is a much needed book. While the celebration of play as liberator, as a field for pure expression and joy seems to be taken hold of many segments of academia and society, we seldom discuss what do we mean by joy and pleasure, and we tend to forget that sex, a fundamental form of human expression and being in the world, is also play. This book gives us the vocabulary, the ideas, and the will to consider sex as play, in all its enriching and multiple variances. This books puts pleasure at the center of the experience of play, and opens up the very concept of pleasure beyond normative discourses. This is, then, a political book about pleasure – non-conforming pleasure as play, and thus as a way of affirming ourselves in the world. Many Splendored Things gives us alternatives, challenges our assumptions, and reminds us of the complicated and yet central importance of pleasure in human experience.