Things and Toys

On Children, silent-calls and riddles: in search of the playground

Niels Wilde

This paper examines the notion of play, toy and child in order to trace down the pathmarks of a topology of play – to set the sail for the place withdrawn from any atlas. The paper argues that play might be a loophole into the unknown1, the mystery by which we are called upon. It examines the notion of imperfection in terms of indeterminability and withdrawal. Hence the paper is itself imperfect. It is a boiler of unfinished ideas, notes and remarks sent into orbit around something (or nothing) I know not what.


“If a modern poet maintains that for each individual there exists an image that engulfs the world, how often does that image not arise out of an old toy chest?”

(Benjamin, Toys and Games)


“ʼWhat are we looking for, Jennifer?ʼ ʼWe’re on the mystery!ʼ she exclaimed.”

(Keller, On)



The enigma of the world clatters! The specter of things radiates! The secret of the event is whispered! It spooks in the house of Being! In the middle a child is playing with dolls.

The playground is no ordinary place. It is the place of secrets, an enigmatic spot where no clock can tick and no map can point. Like Collodi’s playland in Pinocchio (1881), an infantile utopian republic where the calendar has been destroyed (Agamben 2007: 75f) or J.M. Barries Neverland in Peter Pan (1904), the imaginary place where time is truly frozen, the playground exceeds the calendrical duration and any notion of mere location. The playground is the hunting ground for the child chasing the souls of things. Play is occupied not with mere objects, tools or artifacts but with toys.


The enigma

Recalling Baudelaire’s essay on toys, Morale du joujou (1853) the child’s desire to discover the ”soul of the toy”2 turns out to be rather destructive. The child rips it apart to get at the very heart of the toy itself, but it finds nothing. The toy-soul is nowhere. According to Baudelaire this is the first metaphysical experience and the birth of melancholia. Heidegger makes the exact same point about a rock in Der Ursprung des Kunstwerkes (1936). To smash it, to tear the stone-material into pieces will not get you anywhere nearer the essence of the rock. It withdraws! In the lecture course Das Ding (1949) Heidegger develops this notion of withdrawal at the heart of things. Things are thought through the guiding concepts not of matter and form, nor objects and representation but of place and event. Both these terms can be found in the notion of Ereignis (the leitmotif of the late Heidegger). The thing, Heidegger uses a jug as his example, gathers the fourfold [Geviert] of earth, sky, gods and mortals in a single mirror-play [Spiegel-Spiel] or a round-dance of the appropriating event [der Reigen des Ereignens] opening up the world (Heidegger 2000a: 181). The Roman word causa, the root of the french word la chose, ”thing”, originally refers to ”case” and not ”cause” as in ”that which is the case” (ibid. 177). Things matter! They call upon us as the riddle [Rätsel] i.e. as an enigma. The placeless place of secrets is to be found in the tension of revealing and concealing of things.

Is it possible then to get anywhere near this dark rugged realm of the enigma? We are on the mystery, in the search for that which does not add up in any logical systematic framework or rather the very place of the withdrawal [Entzug] itself. There is a long tradition concerning the notion of a remainder, a lack, a blind spot, also in topographical terms e.g. the abyss [Abgrund] (Kierkegaard, Heidegger) or the non-ground [Ungrund] (Böhme, Schelling). What is the lack? Is it a gap, a rift or a fracture in Being itself – something that cannot be explained, but perhaps expressed?


The play of Being

If we return to Heidegger we find a very interesting notion of play i.e. not a play of a being but of Being itself. The play of Being cannot be rationalized, explained or reduced to something else. There is no script or purpose, no rules or causes: ”Das Spiel ist ohne »Warum« (Heidegger 1997: 169).” The play is a secret or a mystery [Geheimnis] (ibid. 167). There is a counter-play between the way Being sends itself [zuzchicken] and its withdrawal [entziehen] i.e. the dynamics of revealing and concealing within Being itself (see Caputo 1978: 83). We on the other hand are drawn [gezogen] into it. Our whole Being is placed upon it. The role of Dasein is then to ”play along with [mitspielen]” the play of Being (Heidegger 1997: 169). This entering into the play of Being is the same play as mentioned above – the mirror-play of the fourfold where we as mortals dwell on the earth under the sky before the gods. This gathering of the thing cannot be explained either. The thing is ”without why” which is only affirmed by releasement or letting-be [Gelassenheit] i.e. a releasement toward things and an ”openness for the secret” (Heidegger 2000b: 528). This is a dangerous game, at worst an ontological funny game. We are the stakes. But that also entails that the play of Being is not some sort of desolate void. Rather it is a riddle that draws and calls upon us, demanding a response without promises.

When Heidegger talks about the thing without ”why” he talks about a particular thing – the rose of the mystic poet Angelus Silesius: ”Das Ungesagte des Spruches – und darauf kommt alles an – sagt vielmehr, daß der Mensch im verborgensten Grunde seines Wesens erst dann wahrhaft ist, wenn er auf seine Weise so ist wie die Rose – ohne Warum (Heidegger 1997: 58).” For Heidegger there is a twofold model of the rose because it is the model of both Being and Dasein. When living ”without why” like the rose, Dasein is appropriated by the region [Ver-gegnis] and the thing is conditioned as a thing [Be-Dingnis] i.e. Being, thing and Dasein are released into their own [eigen] (see Caputo 1978: 189, 191). Living ”without why” i.e. ”being released into ones own” is not a process of isolation but indicates an attempt to set free the facticity of Dasein i.e. to call forth3 a re-orientation at the spot, the place to which we already belong, the Da [t/here] of Dasein. The social aspect survives in the term ”mortals” (in plural) gathered by the fourfold which itself consists of a reciprocal structure of four poles.

Now two more points must be made from the heideggerian perspective – the notion of the call and the message. The idea is to outline Heidegger’s thoughts on this matter and bring his insight ”into play” with a postmodern world of ordinary objects or rather the child’s engagement with the thing-world. By rethinking the child-toy relation in terms of ”play” instead of a subject-object relation in terms of ”representation” or ”use” we open up an affirmative way of letting-be by being-let towards the place of the unknown, the enigmatic borderland i.e. the playground.


The call and the message

In Bauen, Wohnen, Denken (1951) the notion of ”the call” is linked to the concept of divinities in the fourfold as ”hinting messengers of godhood” (Heidegger 2000a: 151f). The german noun der Wink as derived from the verb winken (hinting) refers to ”the movement of the eyelids, to gesture, to let come […] to call something here, bring it forth, to wave as a gesture that can beckon, or invite (Mitchell 2015: 166).” Hints don’t represent, they call:Der Zuruf ist Anfall und Ausbleib im Geheimnis der Ereignung (Heidegger 1989: 408).” It is the secret of Ereignis that calls upon us.

In Vom Wesen der Wahrheit (1930) Heidegger links the secret to the very ”preserving power of concealment” or the secret is that concealment needs revealing. A secret not known in its unvealing power is not a secret at all (Mitchell 2015: 237, 239). The secret cannot be totally concealed, but reveals its unvealing power through hints. The secret announces the concealment of Being through what Heidegger calls the ”last god” as the most extreme hint. The last god is not something to arrive though. The lastness does not refer to a position at the end of a chronological sequence of gods, yet the last god does arrive but in the mode of not yet arriving or by only ever arriving (ibid. 170f). The hint is a message [Botschaft] delivered in the open space of the clearing, the radiance of Being: ”The Spruch of the Anspruch/Zuspruch names the hook by which the message catches us […] The message is radiance itself (ibid. 186).” The message is that even in unholy times, the gleam of godhood is still to be found in things (ibid. 207). Dwelling on the other hand means to let things display their secrets radiantly, the shining mark of their withdrawal and await the divinites by opening up a relation to the beyond, where the unhoped for might come (ibid. 203, 251ff). According to Julian Wolfreys, the open place, the ”runway” for that which is to come is a haunted locus. We are haunted by that which might arrive, which remains to come. Haunting always takes place at borders between present and absent, visible, invisible. These pairings serve to map out a sort of spectro-t(r)opology, the spaces in-between in Heidegger’s thinking (Wolfreys 2010: 196).

So we are talking about a silent affirmation of a weak hint of a call from an absent god (n/ever) to come delivered through the gathering play of things? Somehow there is a toxic fume emanating from this bubbling cauldron of contradictions! What are we brewing in this lab of silent-calls, absent-presences and weak gods if not a drunken alchemy? A cocktail of what seems to be a mixture of neo-pagan sneers and mad voices shaken and served on the boundary of the boundless will easily make us cough and choke. But of course, this is not the case. As we have seen, we have arrived at the heart of Being itself, the secrecy of the event. Now we have to play along but how?


The toy-soul

The solution is definitely not a re-marriage of the subject-object. We might instead find a potential in the relation between the toy and the child. Toy is linked to play in terms of Spiel-zeug and in the verbal form ”to toy” i.e. ”to play”. A toy is literary a thing to play-with, a plaything.

How then do we distinguish toys from other objects? According to Agamben a toy can only be grasped in the temporal dimension of ”once upon a time” and a ”no more” i.e. what belonged – once, no longer – to the realm of the sacred or of the practical-economic (Agamben 2007: 79f). Yet toys are not categorized as a specific kind of objects. Rather the world of toys shows that children, ”humanity’s little scrap-dealers”, will play with whatever junk comes their way independent of its sacred origin (ibid.). For Agamben, the ”soul of the toy”, as Baudelaire talked about, is the historical in its pure state, human temporality in the differential margin between the ʻonceʼ and the ʻno longerʼ (ibid. 80).

In his essay Dolls: On the Wax Dolls of Lotte Pritzel (1921), Rilke talks about the doll-soul – the emblem of the lyric object par excellence. The soul is destroyed because we mistakenly seeks to care for the material doll. The dolls are for Rilke defined as larvae that eats the doll-soul away. Yet the doll-soul is described as a cadaverous and vital substance eaten by maggots. The riddle of the doll’s materiality is invoked by the trope of the cadaver. The german Puppe (puppet) means both doll and pupa (the cacoon of an insect). The doll-soul undergoes a transformation or a metamorphosis as pupa (chrysalis). But the doll-larvae are themselves ghosts as derived from the latin larva, ”ghosts” or ”masks”. The metamorphosis consists in a material ghost (the doll-larvae) consuming an immaterial corpse (the doll-soul) (see Tiffany 2000: 78). Rilke then puts the place of the doll-soul into question: ”Only of you, doll-soul, could one never quite say where you really were; whether you were at that moment in us or in that drowsy creature to whom we were constantly assigning you (Rilke 1994: 36)?” The dialectic of the material and the immaterial, the visible and the invisible is broken in this lyric automaton. The doll-soul becomes a relic of inscrutable loss and turns into an uncertain trauma on their human counterparts (Tiffany 2000: 80). Unlike Baudelaire, Rilke is more concerned about the fate of the toy when it is no longer played with.

If we follow Agamben, the child belongs to a threshold as well. Drawing on the study of the Fox Indians from Lévi-Strauss and the trace of play back to a sacred origin of rites and games, Agamben describes an opposition of synchrony and diachrony, between the world of the dead and the world of the living. This opposition is both shattered by death and birth i.e. by unstable signifiers. The ghost is a living-dead, the baby a dead-living: ”…children and ghosts, as unstable signifiers represent the discontinuity and difference between the two worlds (Agamben 2007: 92).” This signifying opposition constitute the very potential of a social system i.e. they are the signifiers of the signifying function without which there would be neither human time nor history: ”Playland and the land of ghosts set out a utopian topology of historyland, which has no site except in a signifying difference between diachrony and synchrony, between aiōn and chrónos, between living and dead… (ibid. 93).”

The child-play is no longer identified with aiōn, like in the fragment 52 of Heraclitus: ”Aiōn is a child playing draughts” but as a place between aiōn and chrónos. We are on the mystery, on the track of the play-ground as an in-between.


The child-play and the play-ground

The dramaturgy of the child-play cannot be fixed in any script no less than the choreography of Heidegger’s dancing things can be reduced to a certain waltz or a cha-cha-cha although he would be fond of the hyphens. In The Duino Elegies Rilke talks about the very topos of the child: ”…we stood in the place between the world and our toys, a place that, from the beginning, was made for a pure event (Rilke 2008: 25)” The quote is followed up by the question: ”who can show us a child as he really is?” This borderland [Zwischenraume] could be the kingdom of the playground as well. It is impossible to approach directly, because the inhabitant of this mysterious place is itself a riddle. In Berliner Kindheit from the chapter called ”hiding places” Benjamin says:


”The child who stands behind the doorway curtain himself becomes something white that flutters, a ghost [Gespenst]. […] And behind a door, he is himself the door, is decked out in it like a wighty mask and, as sorcerer will cast a spell on all who enter unawares. (Benjamin 2002: 375).”


Unlike Rilke, who keeps an aggressive and disappointed tone against the fat mute dolls who never really become present, we sense a great amount of potential in Benjamin’s notion of the child-play.  ”Behind a door he is himself the door” does not refer though to a transitional moment in a cloud of pixie dust where the flesh of the body suddenly turns into a wooden object. But in play the child is in fact a door i.e. a step into the interplay of things. For Heidegger, every appearing is also an inevitable concealing i.e. no appearing can exhaust all of the possible modes of appearing that are proper to what appears (Malpas 2008: 245). In the constant play of revealing and concealing, the thing is disclosed not as one mode but also always as the possibility for other modes being constantly opened up (ibid. 249). The child steps into this play of revealing (the household) and concealing (the hiding place), the visible (the door-object) and the invisible (the child-door). In Einbahnstraße we read from the passage ”Untidy child”: ”Scarcely has he entered life than he is a hunter. He hunts the spirits whose trace he scents in things (Benjamin 2016: 57).” Between the spirits and the things lies a ”field of vision” [Gesichtfeld]. The child is a hunter, the playground a hunting ground. The spectre of things radiates through the vision of the child playing. It has a sense for things that has been forgotten and no longer subscribes into an order of use and consumption. For Benjamin there is a revolutionary and emancipatory potential in child-play due to the radical openness hidden in the child’s fascination of the objects themselves (Mellamphy & Mellamphy 2009: 163f).

What then is childhood? It is not merely a chronological period in life or a psychological state. In The poetics of reverie, Bachelard writes: ”like a forgotten fire, a childhood can always flare up again within us (Bachelard 1971: 104).” In this context, Bachelard draws on a poem from Vincent Huidobro:


”In my childhood is born a childhood burning like alcohol

I would sit down in the paths of the night

I would listen to the discourse of the stars

And that of the tree.

Now indifference snows in the evening of my soul”


The child is open towards the objects, the discourse of stars and trees. The resonate openness is paired with the art of seeing: ”When we are children, people show us so many things that we lose the profound sense of seeing […] And just how could adults show us the world they have lost! (ibid. 127).” Bachelard defines childhood as a ”region”. The poets call us towards this region as a middle-ground. It lies below being but above nothingness, yet it is impossible to map out its coordinate because it has the character of an aquatic limbo: ”Childhood is a human water, a water which comes out of the shadows […] this life in the slowness of limbo gives us a certain layer of births (ibid. 111f).” Childhood is a latent region, an aquatic limbo of possible births, springs and paths.

What I have called the playground, the topos of play is obviously not an area occupied with sandpits, swings and seasaws. It is rather something like a ”borderland” (Rilke), a ”hiding place” (Benjamin) or an ”aquatic limbo” (Bachelard). It is the (a)topos of the mystery ”without why” calling forth a response by playing along. The playground could indeed be a term for the common-ground of mitspielen where the address from the advent of the indeterminable play of Being and the possibility of a response found in the child-toy relation through play resonates. The child is (the) one who can smell the scents of objects, catch the whiff of them, hear the stars, sense their presence, hunting the souls of things like soap bubbles.


Towards a topology of play

   What is the potential then, the possibilities hidden in the depth of things? What kind of force lurks in this tension of revealing and concealing of (play)things? It is the possibility of an event, of something to ”take place”, but it is fragile, weak and wrapped in riddles.

For John Caputo the event is itself like a ”ghost”. It is the specter of a possibility (Caputo 2006: 8). The event haunts ontology – it spooks! We are haunted by the possibilities harboured in events, by a fragile perhaps in things (Caputo 2007: 51). What is the event then? ”The event (événement) is the advent of what is coming, the coming (venir) of what we cannot see coming (voir venir), the coming of the future (l’avenir), which always comes as a surprise and includes the best and the worst (Caputo 2013: 5).” It might be a weak call from the past harboured in the mute doll-face smiling with its pale eyes – a genie ready to be released! Although neither things nor toys are exhausted by our engagement, the term ”toy” do indeed signal that we take the playing of the thing serious in a radicalization of its potential. The playground is ”where the wild things are”.

In Stanzas (1977) Agamben already emphasized the link between toy, play and place. Drawing on the work of Winnicott invoking themes from both Heidegger, Baudelaire and Rilke, Agamben states that play is neither within nor outside the individual but in a ”third area” (Agamben 1993: 59). Things are not outside of us either, but open to us the original place, the topos outopos (placeless place) in which our Being-in-the-world is situated (ibid.). Like toys, the place of things is found in this zone that is neither objective nor subjective, material or immaterial, but such a topology of the ”third area”, from which the science of man should begin, has already been known for children and poets (ibid.). Toys reveal to us this original status of the thing as a mediator opening up the world. Toys invite play and incite worldmaking (Grøtta 2015: 123ff). It is clear that Heidegger too thought the place of Being as a task for poetry or rather poetical thinking: ”Aber das denkende Dichten ist in der Wahrheit die Topologie des Seyns (Heidegger 1996: 23).”

Of course we have to be careful when we mix the mystical and poetical aspects of Heidegger’s thinking with the writings of for instance Rilke and Benjamin. In my reading, to be sure, the playground is neither the play of Being nor the child-play but the placeless place in-between or the very area where they meet in a reciprocal openness of being-let i.e. being called forth by the secret adress and letting-be i.e. letting the (play)things shine by playing along. In this sense the playground is a loop- or a wormhole into the unknown, but as a latent might-be for an affirmation of the mystery as mystery marking the possibility of the impossible: ”In Wonderland all things are possible!” (Kelly 2011: 15). Yet like the heideggerian ”secret”, this puzzling place down the rabbit hole is not completely strange: ”The chaos that rules in Wonderland is not unfamiliar to us. It is evident in the behaviour of children who have not yet been restrained by the rules of decorum (ibid.).”

What we need to extract from this endless recital is that play, toy and child belongs to an in-between realm, what I have called ”the playground”, and that it is impossible exactly to determine what or rather where this is. It is barely even touched upon by the thinkers mentioned so far, never explored in a full blown scale, yet it seems to be of the greatest importance. And if this is true, that (play)things open to us the place of our very existence i.e. the secret place to which we already belong, we should pay more attention to this collusive dance of trees and rocking horses, carousels and sardine cans.

Though it is impossible to approach this zone of the unknown or nonknowledge directly, this area of may-being, what would we find there if we could take a look? Agamben asks this question and present a beautiful suggestion of what it might be: ”…if one could look inside of it, one would only glimpse – though this is not certain – an old and abandoned sled, only glimpse – though this is not clear – the petulant hinting of a little girl inviting us to play (Agamben 2011: 114).”


Concluding remarks

Heidegger’s notion of the jug gathering the fourfold opening up the world is almost like Combray arising from the tea cup guiding Marcel down memory lane. So too, the mystery arises in the midst of things between revealment and concealment as the shining mark of the withdrawal, visible for children and poets. This is not a question of regaining a lost paradise. The child-toy relation is not (as it might seem) a privlieged kind of access to the world. On the contrary, it is an affirmation of the non-accessibility i.e. the  inexhaustibility of the mystery of the world. The child functions as a certain mode of experience or relation to the world that affirms the inexhaustible and indeterminable omni-possibilizing modes of existence through a radical openness towards the world of ordinary objects. It is the possibility of opening, to unleash a weak transformative force, to reorient and discover the power of seeing and hearing, to behold and affirm the silent calls, absent presences and weak gods arising from jugs and dolls. In her collection of essays entitled Hemmelighedstilstanden, the Danish poet Inger Christensen talks about the in-between of world and language. This in-between is the ”state of secrets”, the mystery of the real. It is an inaccessible space. Yet it is the task of poetry exactly to enter this very space. Language and world are connected, not as a static two-pole relation but as organic labyrinths within the labyrinth. In these curled gardens it is only the children who are at home: ”…de ophæver nemlig fortryllelsen ved at gøre den til virkelighed [they break the spell by making it real] (Christensen 1982: 62, 2000: 39f, my translation).”


Niels Wilde is in Philosophy, Aarhus University.



[1]    There seems to be an agreement across different theories of play that it is a supreme mediator and characterizes the experience of ”entering into a relationship with something unknown” (Grøtta  2015: 123). Yet, the character and significance of this unknown is still in need of some explanation.

[2]    The notion of the toy-soul is already invoked by Kleist in his essay On the Marionette Theatre (1810).

[3]    It is evident that the word Ereignis, the appropriating event that calls forth this re-turn contains this notion of eigen and hence the echo of Eigenlichkeit.


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