“From Play to Carnival” by Umberto Eco: Capitalizing on Play

Sofonisba Anguissola

Sofonisba Anguissola

This essay is included in the book Turning Back the Clock: Hot Wars and Media Populism. It explores how society has taken the basic human need for play and twisted it into a commercialized commodity in a process that Eco refers to as “Carnivalization.”

Eco mentions Homo Ludens early in this essay, which is a book by Johan Huizinga and something I actually read in college. The book is critical in game studies and explores the role of play in society. In his book, Huizinga lists five characteristics that play must have:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom.

  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life.

  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration.

  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme.

  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it.

(Source: Wikipedia)

For those of you who are interested, here is a link to a free PDF version of Huizinga’s book:


When we consider these qualities that define play and then consider our society’s distorted sense of entertainment and the marketing machine behind the entertainment industry, it is evident that we are losing our playfulness as a species. What parent does not secretly lament the loss of freedom that their children have to go out unsupervised to engage in spontaneous and unstructured play? We placate ourselves by saying how we are keeping them safe and that the world is more dangerous now than when we were younger. But is that really true? There were dangers when we were young. We are just more afraid now, which is a result of media hype.

Eco talks about the various ways that play has been destroyed through capitalization. Television is the obvious one, but he also discusses the tourism industry, the ability to incorporate play into work hours, mobile phones which blend function with entertainment, shopping as entertainment, and religion. I completely agree with all his assertions regarding these carnivalizations, but the two that he discusses that really rang most true for me are sports and politics:

Sport has been Carnivalized. How? Sport is play par excellence: how can play be Carnivalized? By becoming not the interlude it was meant to be (one soccer match a week, and the Olympics only every so often) but an all-pervasive presence; by becoming not an activity for its own ends but a commercial enterprise. The game played doesn’t matter anymore (a game, moreover, that has been transformed into an immensely difficult task that requires the taking of performance-enhancing drugs) but the grand Carnival of the before, during, and after, in which the viewers, not the players themselves, play all week long.

Politics has been Carnivalized, and so we now commonly use the expression “the politics of spectacle.” As parliament is steadily deprived of power, politics is conducted on television, like gladiatorial games…

(Turning Back the Clock: pp. 74 – 75)

I personally hate watching televised sports, particularly because of all the commentary. I would much rather participate in a sport than watch others play. It almost feels like voyeurism to me. And as far as politics go, one of my main reasons for cancelling cable television is I just can’t stand the constant assault of political pundits who have turned politics into a spectator sport where it is our team against theirs.

The other day I went with my youngest daughter to a local game store to purchase a new board game. This store has a gaming area upstairs where people can gather and play games. I was encouraged by the fact that the parking lot was full and the place was crowded with people who were playing games for the sheer fun of doing so. I hope this is an omen of a shift away from media-controlled profit-driven entertainment and back to an emphasis on play for the sake of play.



Filed under Literature, Non-fiction

15 responses to ““From Play to Carnival” by Umberto Eco: Capitalizing on Play

  1. Hi Jeff,

    Great post!

    Although I do watch some college sports (Duke basketball! My niece is a Grad school student there) and have always loved baseball, I do agree that our culture is rapidly narrowing the idea of play, whether in sports, childhood activities, music, art or politics, into an elite commercialism or professionalism.

    I also agree that participating trumps watching of any kind. That’s probably why we enjoy writing as much as reading, yes?

    Politics in particular has really been ruined, hi-jacked by a phony polarization that the media feeds to us, while all politicians support the monopolized corporatization of everything from education to war.

    Eco’s book sounds wonderful. I have always enjoyed his works.


    • Hi Debra. Thanks for your response. You are right on about everything. And truth be told, I used to like watching sports, especially Olympics, but now it sucks. When the Olympics are on, they show five minutes of an event and follow it with twenty minutes of commentary, usually drivel about the athlete’s hometown or something like that. And the constant talking and talking while the event is going on. It drives me insane! And one last rant… stop with the women’s beach volleyball! You would think that is the primary summer Olympic sport. They just want to exploit women in bikinis to boost commercial time.

      Tonight, I play a board game with my daughter!! 😉


  2. Unstructured fantasy play in which children create their own worlds and roles and rules is so different from entering a video game in which all the imagining and structuring has been done for them. Thanks for sharing this.

    • Hi Amber! You’re absolutely right. Also, I’m a big fan of board games. I think any kind of spontaneous play or games for fun is a good thing.

      Hope you are doing well, and have a wonderful day!

  3. I also lament the loss of kid’s freedom to roam. While this began in the 80s with Reaganism (including its pervasive influence deep into the Left), it is ironic that many who worried about their kids’ micro-safety slept through the macro-dangers of climate and the growing economic divide.
    I see the enormous popularity of The Hunger Games as young people under 18 voting with their library cards and allowances for a book that critiques their parent’s generation for this preparation for their combat in the economic marketplace instead of looking for larger social solutions. I looked on Amazon ~3 years ago and was surprised that it was a bestseller in the French, Spanish, Chinese and other stores.

  4. I am still trying to get thru “The Name of the Rose” but find it’s a bit too po-mo for me. By that I mean there’s this kind of intellectual, slightly elitist approach that is too purely conceptual for my liking. I’m also interested in the numinous, which many po-mo’s seem to not really appreciate.

    As for spectator sports on TV, I’m actually glad that, for the first time, Canada is not going to blank out the US Super Bowl ads. Formerly the big US ads were mostly replaced with local Canadian ones. I think that’s a travesty. Part of the Super Bowl IS the ads! And I want to see them! (my cultural studies side talking here…).

    Give ’em bread and circuses, as Julius Caesar once said…

    • Eco is challenging, no doubt, and Foucault’s Pendulum is way more challenging than Name of the Rose, so you may want to avoid that one. Two that you may want to look at, though, are Baudolino (about a journey to find the fabled Prester John) and Mysterious Flame of Queen Loana (about a person reading comics to recapture memories of his youth).


      • I don’t know Jeff. Sometimes things resonate and other times they don’t. The other Foucault, Michel Foucault, however, I adore. And he doesn’t really get into the numinous. He talks about dreams and such. But more from an historical perspective.

        Btw, I didn’t watch the Super Bowl after all, except for the final minute. But I do like to have the choice. Up in Canada it’s a strange relation with US media culture.

        Keep up the great and thought-provoking work!

      • Hi. I totally agree with you about the resonance. I think that is true with any work of artistic expression, regardless of medium. Music is a great example. Some people connect with musical styles and others do not. As far as Super Bowl, well, I cancelled my cable service so I do not even have the option, unless I went to a friend’s house. I’m glad you had the choice, though. Choice is good. Cheers!

  5. Yes, it’s funny how things resonate. Not just the arts but certain intellectuals too. Anyhow, I will give that book by Eco a chance. I’ve only browsed through it in bookstores. I think part of my disdain for some pomos results from my experience of studying sociology at the grad. level. It was a bad fit, and I dropped out of that program and entered Religious Studies, where I could still study postmodernism but within another context. 🙂

    • Hey Michael. Well, you could always grab a cup of coffee and read one or two essays before deciding whether to purchase the book. I’d hate for you to buy a book and end up hating it 🙂

      Have a great weekend!!

  6. Not to worry. It’s in our library… electronic and conventional formats! 🙂

  7. Pingback: A Tragic Day for Literature: Umberto Eco and Harper Lee | Stuff Jeff Reads