Finite players win titles; infinite players have nothing but their names. — James Carse
James Carse, a philosopher of religion ‘by profession’ and an extraordinarily creative thinker at large, died on September 25 last year. He was 87 years old.
Carse was as far removed from celebrity culture as one can imagine. That, along with the radical nature of his thought—radical, as will become clear, not even remotely in the conventional way in which ‘radical’ is commonly understood, especially by the dim-witted Republicans who have been fulminating about the alleged take-over of America by the left and the Marxists—might explain why his death went entirely unnoticed, and why it did not come to my attention until some days ago. The New York Times fancies itself as some kind of purveyor of intellectual culture, as the publisher of “all the news that’s fit to print”, but it did not carry an obituary of Carse. A quick glance at the internet shows only one obituary, published in The Greenfield Recorder on October 10, 2020. Carse, the obituary states, “passed away peacefully in his home in Rowe, Massachusetts”, and Google informs us that the distance from Greenfield to Rowe is but 26.5 miles.
Whether Carse was born in Rowe, or Greenfield, or indeed somewhere else, is not clear, but at least the locals in whose midst Carse perhaps lived out the last few years of his life, appear to have known what escaped the illustrious newspapers—to the extent that the country has any, considering how tame the New York Times is—of America’s major cities. The obituary in the Greenfield Recorder surprises the reader, pleasantly so, with its generous tribute to Carse, beginning on more than a warm note with the observation that “the world has lost a giant.” Describing him as a “thinker, doer, contributor and innovator”, the unsigned obituary—written very much in the spirit of Carse with the author choosing to remain unknown and keen on having the attention remain resolutely focused on the obituary’s subject—states that Carse had “inspired thousands of students and hundreds of colleagues”, and that his most famous book, Finite and Infinite Games, was translated into “over a dozen languages.” The exceedingly parsimonious Wikipedia entry, all of practically four lines—lines, indeed, not pages, though we can see how many pages in contrast have been lavished on various influencers and social butterflies—also states, without elaboration, that his “book Finite and Infinite Games was widely influential.”
If Finite and Infinite Games was “influential”, unfortunately there is nothing to show for it. In my nearly forty-five some years of academic life, commencing from my undergraduate days, I cannot recall ever having heard of Carse in a classroom, in a scholarly text, or in any other university setting. I never met an academic who knew of the book. But then, strange as it may sound to some, most academics should not be confused with readers of books: they read, to be sure, but they often read from the standpoint of doing something called “research” (which is often very silly, and not less often boring and tedious), and many do not partake of the pleasures of reading. The person who directed my attention to Carse, as he has to many other singularly interesting books, is an Indian cultural critic and political psychologist whom I shall leave unnamed. The book’s subtitle is amply suggestive and permits me to segue briefly into Carse’s lifelong concern with how to live one’s life and the ethical practices of living before taking up the book itself. One might say that Carse had a humbling if splendid gift for understanding the extraordinariness that lurks within the ordinary: detecting a small mouse on his shoe one day, Carse found therein an occasion to ponder on forms of knowledge that are embodied within the animal world. Where there is a mouse, there must also be a cat; but Carse is not interested in the familiar cat-and-mouse game. He comes to the awareness that he can learn something about the power of silence, and thereby become proximate to his own silence, by looking intently into the “all seeing, unfiltered gaze” of his cat Charlie. These are but some of the meditations that unfold in Breakfast at the Victory, Carse’s set of explorations about the mystical insight that is to be gained not from a marketing executive masquerading as a spiritual guru or a planned “spiritual retreat” where aromatherapy and the soothing hands of a masseuse come with a $1000 invoice for each night, but rather from the wondrous intensity of everyday encounters. The Victory of the title is the Victory Luncheonette, a nondescript diner in Manhattan’s East Village, an easy walk from New York University where Carse was Director of Religious Studies for a good many years before taking retirement. He was a frequent visitor to the diner, and there he watched the one-legged owner seamlessly working the counter. “How can we know the dancer from the dance?”, Yeats said. Or, as Carse puts it, “if we are looking for the mystical, we need go no further . . . than the most ordinary of our ordinary experiences.
It is “a vision of life as play and possibility” that Carse puts forward in Finite and Infinite Games. Nearly all of us are, nearly all the time, players of finite games, but we have it within us to turn ourselves into players of infinite games. Contrary to the impression that the book might convey to many from the mere title, Finite and Infinite Games is not about sports—though, given that the commercial brick-and-mortar bookstore of the Barnes & Noble variety is run as just another commercial enterprise, scarcely from any knowledge much less love of books, it is likely to be found in the sports section of the bookstore. For a crude understanding of the argument, we may nevertheless turn to the example of sports, and the American culture of sports in particular. Americans are loath to play any sport where the game does not end in a decisive finish. Thus, a NBA [National Basketball Association] game that is drawn at the end of regulation time must go into overtime to produce a decisive winner; if the first overtime produces a draw, the game must go into a second overtime, and so on. The same, of course, holds true for (American) football, hockey, or baseball. It may be that every culture likes winners and despises losers—even allowing for the fact that a faux culture of “sportsmanship” requires the commentator to congratulate the loser for putting up a gallant fight, and that viewers are as if on cue expected to commiserate with the loser who may be shedding copious tears—but America especially has little tolerance for losers. I suspect that no sociologist of sport will quite agree with this observation, but that is indubitably one reason why football—or what Americans call soccer—has, historically speaking, not had much traction in the United States. Far too many football games at the league stage end in a tie. Even more intolerable to Americans is the culture of cricket: imagine a test match lasting for five days only to end in a draw! Indeed, from the American standpoint, even winners in cricket are disguised losers. What could be possibly more non-productive than a test match that can linger on for five days? One would have to be a loser to play cricket at all. America perforce had to run far ahead of England in history, and baseball does what cricket, a game moreover that is punctuated by tea breaks, often cannot: produce winners. The game must have an end.
I am, to anticipate the most obvious criticism, mindful of the fact that the culture of cricket has changed for the worse as progressively shorter versions of the game have been introduced to produce decisive outcomes and transform it into a revenue-generating machine. But that is another story. Finite and Infinite Games (The Free Press, 1986) is not about sports at all: it is an invitation to think about sexuality but not sex, ponder on why the seeker of power can never be an infinite player, and the desirability of recognizing that the interpretation of the past must never be a closed affair. The most daring finite player is capable of rearranging the elements within the frame but will never step outside the frame; in the language of Carse, “finite players play within boundaries; infinite players play with boundaries.” Carse may appear to be playing with nuances, as when he writes that “where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength”, but the creativeness of his thinking should become apparent as he elaborates on the difference: “Power will always be restricted to a relatively small number of selected persons. Anyone can be strong.” Imagine what the world might look like, or how politics, instead of being the cesspool of stench, chicanery, and unadulterated greed that it is today, might make us mindful of a conception of the human that lies dormant within us all if we reflected on the propositions that Carse places before us: “Strength is paradoxical. I am not strong because I can force others to do what I wish as a result of my play with them, but because I can allow them to do what they wish in the course of my play with them” (italics in original).
On a personal note, I had the great food fortune of spending an entire afternoon over lunch with James Carse in Los Angeles a decade ago at the home of a common friend. I had founded the Dissenting Knowledges Pamphlet Series, an initiative of the now-defunct Penang-based Multiversity of which I am also a founding member, in 2002 and I invited Carse to contribute a pamphlet to the series. It took only a letter from me to gain his assent and in no time he produced a scintillating little work that goes by the name of “Ignorance and the Durability of Religion” (2009). I will not attempt to recapitulate his argument here, except to share with readers his startling, some would say idiosyncratic conclusion, namely that “understanding each others’ ignorance is a condition of peace, for irenic co-existence.”
Note: Readers who are intrigued by Carse may find of some interest my discussion of Finite and Infinite Games in my newly launched series of informal book talks. They can access the talk at my YouTube channel.
Translated into Georgian by Ana Mirilashvili and available here.
A Spanish translation of this article by Laura Mancini can be accessed here.