This semester, I have been teaching an anthropology course on multispecies ethnographies. One of the texts we read, a piece cowritten by Natasha Myers and Carla Hustak, offered a critique of Charles Darwin’s obsession with purpose, and his reading of purpose into the theory of evolution. In Darwinian terms, the fit survive, because they act with purpose. In fact, individuals of a species are only as fit as they are purposeful, particularly when it comes to propagating themselves. Purposeless activity is useless to evolution, and by inference, individuals that indulge in play rather than purpose might not survive. Neo-Darwinian approaches take the emphasis on purpose to extreme proportions. Richard Dawkins, for one, reads purposefulness into our very genes. Even our genes act with intention. It seems nothing happens by chance. Nothing is playful. It is a dreary world.
Of course, at the heart of all this emphasis on purpose is sexuality. Evolution is about a species carrying on – propagating, having progeny. For this, the individuals of the species must reproduce. And if reproduction is to be framed as a purposeful act, then sexuality also, by corollary, must serve the purpose of reproduction. And within this neo-Darwinian framework only cis/heteronormativity will make sense. All other expressions of sexuality are without purpose, you see. (It is somewhat ironic that the most conservative churches, while also laying an emphasis on these very same frameworks, feel the need to oppose evolutionary theory.)
Do not get me wrong. I am not saying that Darwin is wrong in theorising that humans evolved from and with other animals. I am all for our relatedness with other hairy primates. I am merely saying that over this semester, it has been wonderful to critique the theory of evolution through a queer lens, and ask what happens if instead of purpose, we opened ourselves to observe, and even enjoy, the playfulness that is all around us – the playful invitations to interact within our species or across species. What if we said, it is okay to be doing nothing “productive,” and just decided to spend an afternoon indulging in something playful? How you imagine this afternoon, I leave to you.
And let’s say, we liked the play so much that we decided not to make our lives about sexual expressions that served the purpose of evolution at all. That we decided we are not interested in carrying on lineages, procreating for family, for country, for species. Do we still not have pleasurable lives to talk about? Won’t this pleasure alone generate other legacies?
I mean, I bet shayari – and why stop at translating this into poetry, and why not think of this as a more capacious poetics – was born during such an afternoon.
Orchids: A Sexual Affair
The article by Carla Hustak and Natasha Myers that I read with my students invites us to take a closer look at Darwin’s experiments – his data, rather than theory. Darwin loved orchids. He was obsessed with their anatomies –their long, tubular bodies which seemed to invite pollinators to either develop a long proboscis or to crawl into the body of the flower in order to get to the nectar. As Myers and Hustak note, “Darwin focused intensely on zones of interaction where bees and orchids got involved in one another’s lives. He avidly watched insects sucking nectar, noting how some would lap at the nectary for upward of two to three minutes.” Darwin, according to the authors, was observing the play between two species, and was indulging in playfulness himself, attempting in his laboratory to mimic these flowers and pollinators. Although he explicitly read “purpose” into the bodies of the flowers and pollinators and saw his own experiments as purposeful acts, what Myers and Hustak find while reading notes from his “arduous experiments,” is a lot of room for play. So, what might have happened if Darwin had not been as influenced by emerging theories of capitalism and population, and had been reading other books at the time of his experiments? Erotica, perhaps? Would he have noticed the play between an orchid and its pollinator? Would his successors today, read something other than purpose into an orchid’s capacity to release chemicals that attract pollinators, chemicals that sexually excite these pollinators – yup, sometimes plural – make them want to touch the orchids, roll along their bodies, have orgasms? Something more playful? Erotica for the sake of erotica, where reproduction is possibly just a side effect, not the central purpose?
How would we see the world really, if we were open to the idea that it is not purpose but play that drives us to seek companionship, be it an orchid seeking a pollinator or a human seeking another?
Cats and Fishes: When Children Play
Studio Ghibli’s Ponyo (2008), which you can watch on Netflix, is a journey that I recommend for your soul, if you’ve not already taken it. It is the heart-warming story of a magical young fish, Ponyo – a fish born to a human father who chooses to live under the sea and an ancient sea goddess – who falls in love with a little boy who finds her and takes care of her. To be with him, Ponyo decides to take on human form and become a little girl. That may sound a little like Hans Christian Anderson’s Little Mermaid, or like the Disney adaptation of the same, but it is not. For one, it is not a fairy tale with more-than-human creatures that just weirdly mimics heteronormative human worlds, only to end tragically in female sacrifice or death. It is instead a story about children and desire and play – a story that shows children can be desiring subjects, and that there are healthy ways in which they can express themselves through play. Running around with each other, playing tag, sharing a meal, feeling the pleasure of the other’s company, opening one’s heart to love without necessarily foreclosing what that love can or ought to be – that is the stuff that Ponyo is made of.
As fantasy, it does well in not only reimagining the playfulness between children, but also in reimagining parents as guides who are also open to healthy play between their children, rather than as disciplinarians who read the worst into children’s desire, and put all their efforts into nipping something they hardly understand in the bud!
Equally engaging is the Japanese Anime A Whisker Away (2020) on Netflix, where a young teenage girl who feels caught in parental drama and feels unloved starts to develop a crush on a fellow classmate. He is shy, and does not really know how to respond to her. So, she turns herself into a cat in order to be near him, to snuggle, to feel him stroke her skin, to watch him smile, to hear him laugh, to know what it feels like to be loved. Animal and human slip into each other, as the story explores two teenagers, each struggling with the idea of love and sexuality, desire and body. It is a complicated story about being comfortable in one’s body, about learning to play with oneself in order to learn to play with the other. Again, a movie that fantasizes a space where parents do not play repressors, but are actually asked to question how their own behaviour weighs on and plays on their children’s minds.
Tango: It Takes Two, at least
Play is partnered, I suppose. You often play “with.” A companion is involved, even if that companion is yourself. In a world with machines, that companion can be a toy. A bot. Or, many bots. Play is a body doing a tango – leading, following – responding within consensual spaces to the whims of another body, even itself.
Play is also perhaps a body wanting to know itself in relation to another body, figure out its comfort zones, get close, snuggle, ask, give consent, submit, dominate. A little kink hurt no one, really.
Subtext: Play, Power, Pleasure
There is something to be said about the freedom to portray sex visually, in a movie, in a photograph, in porn. But there is also something whimsical and playful about that which is not said. The subtext can be a playful, erotic form of expression, creating space for forms of pleasure that open admission cannot.
Take old Hindi movies. Of course, on the one hand they are shaped by the political gaze of an emergent country, trying at the same time to place one foot in tradition and one foot in the modern – an attempt to figure out its past, and its future at the same time. Most countries emerging from European colonization were taught to see pasts and futures as completely discontinuous entities, and are only learning now that these temporalities, however fractured, are never fully disjointed. Yet, in a disorienting time such as the 1950s and the 1960s, dizzy with newfound freedom and also working on creating national orders that could lead one into the best possible future, finding the right form of entertainment was quite complicated.
Sex on screen would not have been kosher within this context. And yet, sexuality isn’t completely missing from these movies. Although there is very little space for the expression of anything that isn’t heteronormative – because it leads to marriage and children, and not because it is merely between a man and a woman – it is still an expression of adult desire. Yearning flows through the songs, through the scripts, and through time, asking us even as we listen today to a song like Mere Samnewaale Khidki Mein or Khoya Khoya Chand to stop and playfully feel our own desires, be it in relationship with that crush in the neighbourhood or the moon.
Play: An Oboe and A Flute
Liz and the Blue Bird (2018), another anime that popped up on my Prime because I watch one too many animated movies, is about two young women, friends and perhaps something more, trying to figure out what happens to their complicated relationship when they graduate from school and go their own way. They are listed by the school’s orchestra to play a piece called “Liz and the Blue Bird,” and as the chief oboe and flute players, they must play without the others in the orchestra, and with each other alone. But how do you play an instrument, when all these feelings of potential bereavement and separation are tugging at your heartstrings?
The movie never tells you what they are to each other. The movie is not trying to repress homosexual love. Instead by not forcing the characters to fit their desires into particular grammars of sexuality, it creates a lot of space for homoerotic play. What you see is a fierce desire for companionship, whatever that companionship may mean. Even as they declare to each other the passion they feel for being with the other, the desire to support each other, the feelings of mutual love – yes, the love – they do not draw boundaries between where friendship ends and another form of love begins. Instead, as they begin to understand their feelings for each other, the better they learn to enjoy the playfulness of companionship, the better they play as musical partners. And playing never stops… the sexual play reaches no particular destination, the music does not stop. When the movie ends, you feel hope, because here is a love that won’t end, even if it may change shape. What really happens, we are not told. But as we see the two young women walk off hand in hand, we can only imagine what a lifetime of companionship and play might look like.
Yes, so birds and bees… subtext for sex talk, a play on words, on animal behaviour, on human desire… is an invitation to recognise the play that is all around us. In the wings of a bee alighting on the lip of an orchid, in a piece of music that tugs at our heart, in a dance that asks us to respond playfully to whim, in the laughter of young people learning to discover their own desiring hearts and bodies. Decoupling sexuality from purpose and from what “ought” to be – giving ourselves the permission to have ‘useless’ fun – is an art. If only we can allow ourselves to set aside the guilt that is part of the economic calculus within which our lives unfold, even for a second, we will find that purposelessness is a way of playing with power structures that seek to take over our sexual and reproductive lives. There is more than joy in this; there is something revolutionary about it.
So yes, imagine that afternoon of play and then imagine many more afternoons like that one. We may still leave a legacy behind, something different from an endless genetic trace – something better.
 Hustak and Myers. 2013. “Involutionary Momentum: Affective Ecologies and the Sciences of
Plant/Insect Encounters.” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 23(3):74–113
Cover Image: Youtube