The sections from the book called Finite and Infinite Games by James P. Carse which I felt I had something to add to. Most of them are critical, but that does not mean that I did not find most of the book expressive & well-formed, and its metatheory useful.

Chapter I - There are at least two kinds of games


Knowing the above, how do infinite players contend with power? Infinite play is always dramatic, its outcome is endlessly open. What good way could there be to look back to make a definitive assessment of the power or weakness of past play? Infinite players look toward an ongoing play in which the past will require constant reinterpretation.

We need a term that will stand in contrast to power as it acquires meaning in finite play. Let us say that where the finite player plays to be powerful the infinite player plays with strength. A powerful person brings the past to an outcome, a strong person carries the past into the future. Strength, as it unfolds only in the future, cannot be measured like power, which is finite. Power will always be restricted to a select few persons, but anyone can be strong.

“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.”

While Carse admits that he redefines strength, it's more positive than the meaning it usually carries. For many, strength implies at least the potential for power, and that won't just go away. I think this is a good example of Carse trying to borrow from and to build upon known language, but ending up held back by the total meaning that language carries. In this instance, I think strength, as used here, is only used as a subset of a less comforting meaning that strength is already burdened with.

Going back to this note, it feels like the definition of power and strength here hold up well enough. My problem with this is that it's easy to agree with Carse when you've already accepted his language. My point is that this language may not be congruent with the complicated and burdened language we use in the reality we inhabit together (the map and territory becoming more weakly related, if you prefer). It certainly felt incongruent when I first read it, and it may feel the same way to someone who you would try to explain strength to, as it appears here.

Chapter II - No one can play a game alone


Societal thinkers don’t overlook the importance of poiesis (creative activity), they also see it as dangerous, for the poietai are the most likely to remember what has been forgotten - that society is a species of culture. Weirdly enough, the governing bodies of the Soviet Union believed that since it is always possible to find true art that is compatible with socialist realism, those artists whose works do not conform to it may be punished without affecting the integrity of art as such. Plato did not expect his artists to compromise their art, but he did say that there must be “general lines which the poietai must follow in their stories. These lines they will not be able to cross.”

“The deepest and most consequent struggle of each society is therefore not with other societies, but with the culture that exists within itself - the culture that is itself. Conflict with other societies is, in fact, an effective way for a society to restrain its own culture.”

Societies do not silence their poietai in order that they may go to war, it’s the opposite. This is trying to encourage original thinkers through subsidy and flattery to praise the society’s heroes, saving the society the nuisance of repression.

To me, it seems that only artists who have no other choice play along with this subsidization. Perhaps even those who think they can keep up a facade for the oppressors. Original thinkers, in this parapgraph, for Carse, seems to conform not to its genuine, face-value interpretation, but to a broader, more lenient archetype he does not elaborate on (as he defined artists to be "any original thinkers whatsoever"). I'm not sure anyone would call a subsidized artist producing less obvious forms of societal propaganda an original thinker.

Another successful defense of society against the culture within itself is to regard artists as the producers of property meant to be consumed. Note that the largest collections of art in the world are the work of the very rich or of societies in the times of strongly nationalistic periods. Such museums are not designed to protect the art from people, but to protect the people from art.


Poets who have no metaphysics (and therefore no political line) make war impossible because they have the irresistible ability to show the guardians that what seems necessary is only possible. For Plato, poets were dangerous for their ability to imitate so well that it could make it difficult to see what is true and what is merely invented. Since reality cannot be invented, only discovered through reason, Plato would put them into the service of reason, to surround citizens of the Republic with such art as will “lead them unawares from childhood to love of, resemblance to, and harmony with, the beauty of reason.”

Plato’s intention to keep the metaphysical veil intact is shown by the use of the word “unawares”. Those who are being led to reason cannot be aware of it, they couldn’t have chosen it. Plato asks his poets not to create, but to deceive. True poets lead no one unawares. Awareness is exactly what they and other sorts of creators seek - they do not display their art to make it appear real, they display the real in a way that reveals it to be art.

We must not forget that Plato was still an artist, a poietes, and his Republic was an invention, just like the theory of forms and his idea of the Good. Since all veiling is self-veiling, we can’t help but think that behind the rational metaphysician stood a poet, fully aware that the entire opus was an act of play, an invitation to readers not to reproduce the truth but to take his inventions into their own play and to change them, continuing his art.

That is a very generous interpretation of someone's character who probably thought that slavery was not only okay, but even natural. Especially weird to read this when Carse admits that Plato's Republic was clearly authoritarian.

Searching for the topic shows that since the description of The Republic contained no explicit mention of slavery, it is still highly debated whether it did contain them. However, even if it had no explicit slaves, the consensus seems to be that Plato treats everyone except the rulers (the elite) to be slaves to the state. But I guess we should let Plato speak for himself here.

"...nature herself intimates that it is just for the better to have more than the worse, the more powerful than the weaker; and in many ways she shows, among men as well as among animals, and indeed among whole cities and races, that justice consists in the superior ruling over and having more than the inferior."

Chapter III - I am the genius of myself


“I am the genius of myself, the poietes who composes the sentences I speak and the actions I take. It is I, not the mind, that thinks. It is I, not the will, that acts. It is I, not the nervous system, that feels.”

When I speak as the genius I am, I speak these words for the first time. To repeat words is to speak them as though another were saying them. To be the genius of my speech is to be the origin of my words, to say them for the first, and last, time. Even repeating my own words feels as if I were another person in another time and place.

When I forsake my genius and speak to you as though I were another, I also speak to you as someone you are not. I address you as audience, and do not expect you to respond as the genius you are.

When we perform actions we don’t act, when we entertain thoughts we don’t think. A dog taught the action of shaking hands does not shake your hand.

Since being your own genius is dramatic; it has all the paradox of infinite play: you can have what you have only by releasing it to others. If you never relinquish the sounds of the words on your lips to a listener, they never become words, and you say nothing at all. The words die with the sound.

Spoken to me, your words become mine to do with as I please, you lose authority over them, so too with thoughts. However you consider them your own, you cannot think the thoughts themselves, only what they are about. You cannot think thoughts any more than you can act actions.

“If you do not truly speak the words that reside entirely in their own sound, neither can you think that which remains thought or can be translated back into thought.”

This does not mean that speech has come to nothing, it has become speech that invites speech. When the genius of speech is abandoned, words are said not originally but repetitively.

To speak, or act, or think originally is to erase the boundary of the self, to leave behind the territorial personality. A genius is the center of a field of vision, which is only recognized as such when we see that it includes within itself the original centers of other fields of vision.

“This does not mean that I can see what you see. On the contrary, it is because I cannot see what you see that I can see at all. The discovery that you are the unrepeatable center of your own vision is simultaneous with the discovery that I am the center of my own.”

In simpler terms, I think Carse is saying here that you can know that you are centered and limited in your vision because you know you cannot see something that someone else can see.


The character of touching can be seen quite clearly in the way infinite players understand both healing and sexuality. To be touched is to respond from one’s center, and therefore a whole person. Whoever is whole is healthy, so whoever is touched is healed.

The finite player’s interest is not in being healed, but in being cured, or made functional, being restored into play and competition. Physicians who cure must abstract persons into functions, treating their illnesses and not them. To be ill is to be dysfunctional, and unable to compete in one’s preferred contests. The ill suffer a kind of death (either as a competitor or as a person) and become invisible. The dread of illness is the dread of losing.

One is never ill in general, but always in relation to some bounded activity. The loss of function itself cannot destroy my health. I am too heavy to fly by flapping my arms, yet I do not complain of being sick with weight. If I was a fashion model, a dancer, or jockey, I would consider excess weight to be a kind of disease, and would consult someone to be cured of it.

To be healed is to be restored in a way that my personal freedom is not compromised by my loss of functions, which means that the illness need not be eliminated before I can be healed. I am not free to overcome my infirmities, but I may still remain in play with them. I am cured of my illness; I am healed with my illness.

A touching sentiment probably meant for those whose illnesses do not cripple functions such as breathing, circulation and digestion, etc. If someone is brought into a near vegetative state by a pulmonary disease, cancer, or stroke, could you honestly tell them that they are "only ill in relation to some bounded activity"?

Chapter IV - A finite game occurs within a world


“Occurring before a world, theatrically, a finite game occurs within time”. A finite game does not have its own time, it exists within the temporal limits of a world (an audience allows players only so much time to win their titles).

Early in a game, time seems abundant to use for developing future strategies. Late in a game, time runs out rapidly. As choices become more limited, they become more important. Errors are more disastrous.

Carse did not include this quote (as it dates eight years after his book), but I found it apt to do so here. I also find it beautifully melancholic.

"Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting." (Haruki Murakami)

Youth is seen as a “time of life” rich with possibility because there still seem to remain so many paths open to a successful outcome. However, each passing year increases the competitive value of making strategically correct decisions (the errors of childhood are more easily amended than those of adulthood).

“For the finite player in us, freedom is a function of time.”

The passage of time is relative to that which does not pass, the timeless. The points of reference for all finite history are signal triumphs meant never to be forgotten: establishments of throne, births of religious figures, bloody battles and revolutions.

The time between the beginning and end of an era is theatrical, a scene between curtains not to be lived, but to be viewed - by both players and audience. “The periodization of time presupposes a viewer existing outside the boundaries of play, able to see the beginning and the end simultaneously.”

The outcome of a finite game is the past waiting to happen, because whoever plays towards a certain outcome desires a particular past. By competing for a future prize, finite players compete for a prized past.

Chapter V - Nature is the realm of the unspeakable


The irony is that there is no such thing as an unnatural act. Nothing can be done outside of nature. We cannot have an unclouded observation of nature if we are a part of it. “We have to remember that what we observe is not nature in itself but nature exposed to our method of questioning” (Heisenberg).

The previous paragraph is all that I am willing to transcribe from section 71. I think Carse is either ahead of his time or out of his depth when it comes to metatheories, no offense intended. He is arguing something that's worth arguing, just slightly ineffectively and with too much poetic flair for me to be able to make any sense out of it.

Chapter VI - We control nature for societal reasons


Such contradiction is obvious in the matter of machinery, which we make use of to increase our power, and therefore our control, over natural phenomena. While the machine greatly aids the operator in such tasks, it also disciplines its operator.

Just as the machine can be considered the arms and legs of the worker, the reverse can also be true. All machines, especially complicated ones, require operators to perform functions mechanically adapted to the functions of the machine. To use the machine for control is to be controlled by the machine. To operate a machine one must operate like a machine.

Of course, machines do not make us into machines when we operate them; we make ourselves into machinery in order to do so. We set aside our own spontaneity ourselves.

There is no style in operating a machine.

If only Carse could see someone play a modular synthesizer the size of a smaller room... it seems we have arrived at another part of the book that has not aged gracefully since 1986. In the three decades since then, things have gotten a lot weirder.

The more efficient the machine, the more it either limits or absorbs our uniqueness into its operation. Indeed, we may come to think that the style of operation does not belong to the operator at all, but is inherent in the machine. Buying a “styled” artifact (one that standardizes the activity or taste of the consumer), we are asked to express our genius by giving it up.

“Because we make use of machinery in the belief we can increase the range of our freedom, and instead only decrease it, we use machines against ourselves.”


If indifference to nature leads to the machine, the indifference of nature leads to the garden. All culture has the form of gardening: the encouragement of spontaneity in others by way of one’s own, the respect for source, and the refusal to convert it into resource.

Gardeners slaughter no animals. Plants and growths are collected when they are ripened, and when doing so is in the interest of the garden’s heightened and continued vitality. Harvesting respects a resource, leaves it unexploited.

Animals cannot be harvested (fine, let’s ignore the shearing of sheep). They mature, but they do not “ripen”. They are killed at the peak of their vitality, not when they have completed the cycle of their life.

Finite gardeners “produce” animals - or meat products - as though by machine. Animal husbandry assumes that animals belong to us. What is source to them is resource to us. Cattle are confined to pens to prevent such movement as would “toughen” their flesh. Geese, their feet nailed to the floor, are force fed like machines until they can be butchered for their fattened livers.

While machinery is meant to effect changes without affecting its operators, gardening transforms its workers.

An excellent euphemism for the callousing and burning of skin, and the stunting of spines that laboring in a large garden implies to some degree.

Gardening is not outcome-oriented. A successful harvest is not the end of a garden’s existence, but only a phase of it. Gardens do not “die” in the winter but quietly prepare for another season.

Gardeners understand that an abundance of variety is in the interest of vitality. The more complex the organic content of the soil, the more vigorous its liveliness.

So it is in culture. Infinite players understand that the vigor of a culture has to do with the variety of its sources, the differences within itself. The unique and surprising are not suppressed in some persons for the strength of others.


Since machinery requires force from without, its use always requires a search for consumable power. When we think of nature as a resource, it is a resource for power. As we preoccupy ourselves with machinery, nature is increasingly thought of as a reservoir of needed substances. It is a quantity of materials that exist to be consumed - chiefly in our machines.

Society regards its waste as an unfortunate, but necessary consequence of its activities. But waste is not the result of what we have made. It is what we have made. Waste plutonium is not an indirect consequence of the nuclear industry; it is a product of that industry.

Carse argues here that we do not consume or exhaust nature, that our waste is not unnatural per se. Nevertheless, waste is waste - material in a form society is no longer able to exploit for its own ends, and one that makes the natural environment unlivable to us. See also: the purpose of a system is what it does.

Chapter VII - Myth provokes explanation but accepts none of it


Myths of irrepressible resonance have lost all trace of an author. Even when sacred texts are written down by an identifiable prophet or evangelist, it is invariably thought that these words were first spoken to their recorders, not by them.

Moses received the law and did not compose it. Muhammad heard the Quran and did not dictate it. Christians do not read Mark but the gospel according to Mark. Hindus understand their most authoritative texts, the Vedas, to be heard, and the literature that derives from the Vedas to be composed.

Myths do not exist by themselves, neither do they have a discoverable origin (who could we name as the first New Yorker?). Even when it is a deity that is heard by the prophet, it is one who speaks in the language and idiom of the prophet, and not in locutions restricted to divine utterance.

“Indeed, myth is the highest form of our listening to each other, of offering a silence that makes the speech of the other possible.”

There is an additional conclusion Carse draws here: "This is why listening is far more valued by religion than speaking. Fides ex auditu. Faith comes by listening, Paul said".

However, I would say that the reason why religion values listening more is far less flowery. Religion needs people to spread. According to the principle of "you can't make coffee if you're dead", not being questioned, invalidated and forgotten is an immediate subgoal of spreading. It's in the interest of religion to not be questioned by speaking, or reinterpreted in a way that could change it, once it has reached a form where it proliferates the most effectively.

Sometimes I feel that the meta-reasoning of Carse takes much longer and precarious routes to lead to a conclusion that you could have arrived at in a shorter, more stable route by just looking at how something works in base reality. Therefore, my counter to his conclusion "faith comes by listening" would be that "faith comes by not speaking".


If it is true that myth provokes explanation, then it is also true that explanation’s ultimate design is to eliminate myth. Bells do not simply make it possible to forge cannons, but cannons are forged to silence the bells. The highest contradiction of finite play is that it is played in such a way that all need for play is eliminated.

When a loudspeaker mutes all other voices, making conversation impossible, it loses its own voice and becomes mere noise. Julius Caesar originally sought power in Rome because he loved to play the dangerous style of politics common to the Republic; but he played the game so well that he destroyed all his opponents, becoming unable to keep doing what he sought power for. His word was now irresistible, and he could speak to no one, his isolation was complete. “We might almost say this man was looking for an assassination” (Syme).

If we say that explanation is meant to silence myth, it follows that whenever we find people deeply committed to explanation and ideology, whenever play takes on the seriousness of warfare, we will find persons troubled by myths they cannot forget they have forgotten.

“The myths that cannot be forgotten are those so resonant with the paradox of silence they become the source of our thinking, even our culture, and our civilization. These are the myths we can easily discover and name, but whose meanings continually elude us, myths whose conversion to truth never quite fills the bells of their resonance with the sand of metaphysical interpretation.”

Abraham is an example of such a simple story. Altough only two children were born to Abraham (one of them illegitimate), he was promised that his descendants would be as numberless as the stars of the heavens. All three of the West’s major religions consider themselves children of Abraham, though each has often understood itself to be the only and final family of the patriarch, an understanding threatened by the resounding phrase: numbered as the stars of the heavens. This is a myth that always has a future, there is no closure in it.

The myth of the Buddha’s enlightenment has the same paradox; a provocation to explanation, but with little possibility of settling the matter. It is the story of a mere mortal, completely without divine aid, successfully undertaking a spiritual quest for release from all forms of bondage, including the need to report this release to others. The unspeakability of this event has given rise to an immense flow of literature that shows no signs of abating.

Perhaps the Christian myth is the most disturbing to the ideological mind. It is a tale of a god who listens by becoming one of us, a god “emptied” of divinity, who gave up all privilege of commending speech and “dwelt among us”, coming “not to be served, but to serve”. But the worlds to which he came received him not. They preferred a god of magisterial utterance, a commanding idol, a theatrical likeness of their own finite designs.

“Those Christians who deafened themselves to the resonance of their own myth have driven their killing machines through the garden of history, but they did not kill the myth. The emptied divinity whom they have made into an Instrument of Vengeance continues to return as the Man of Sorrows bringing with him his unfinished story, and restoring the voices of the silenced.”

Carse, I think, is being very generous with the myth behind Christianity. Maybe it would be more enlightening here to look at how the Instrument of Vengeance just keeps manifesting itself in base reality, and how the Christian religion is a colonising one.


None of the above, nor any myth is necessary, even if they are exemplary. There is no story that must be told. Stories do not have truths that someone needs to reveal, or someone needs to hear.

The myth of Jesus makes itself unnecessary; it is a narrative of the word becoming flesh (of language entering history); a narrative of the word becoming flesh and dying (of history entering language). Who listens to this myth cannot rise above history to utter timeless truths about it.

It is not necessary for infinite players to be Christians; indeed it is not possible for them to be Christians (or Buddhists, or Muslims, or atheists, or New Yorkers) - serously. All such titles can only be playful abstractions, mere performances for the sake of laughter.

And wars of holy bloodshed.

Infinite players are not serious actors in any story, but the joyful poets of a story that continues to originate what they cannot finish.