Matthew Kaiser


On his book The World in Play: Portraits of a Victorian Concept

Cover Interview of April 30, 2012


Admittedly, The World in Play is a counterintuitive book.  It advances a controversial new theory—an upstart theory—of nineteenth-century modernity.  Some readers will be resistant.  The book questions many longstanding assumptions about Victorian culture. Sacred cows were undoubtedly injured along the way.

But there is one sacred cow that deserves to be, if not killed, at least roughed up.  The World in Play is a warning to those who would protect this creature.  What is it?  We literary critics, we academic children of Schiller, Derrida and Bakhtin, tend to associate play with all things good and worthy: with epistemological subtlety, with political freedom and subversion, with psychological complexity and aesthetic novelty, indeed, with culture itself.  We recoil instinctively from the notion that play might be politically suffocating or emotionally constricting.  The thought depresses us.  Play, after all, has become inextricably linked over the last two centuries with the logic of art.  Let’s not idealize play.  We must resist the temptation.  In this book, I cast myself—as I do in all my work—as Devil’s Advocate.  I provide an alternative, less utopian vision of play.  I expose its dark side.