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You Ate Us; We Thought We Are You

He eats us; we think we eat him

—Hadewijch[1]

Between 1999 and 2022, I spent every summer in a series of children’s fantasy camps in rural Hungary—first as a camping child and later as a counsellor. Founded in the 1930s as a clandestine pedagogical experiment, these camps house fictional countries where kids create worlds and creatures that inhabit them through a big role-playing game that lasts many weeks each summer.[2] In 2018, I published The Critical Escape, an essay engaging with the political possibilities of role-playing as approached through my artistic practice and my life intertwined with fantasy camps.[3] Many things have changed since then; my practice, my politics, the way I think about my childhood experiences. It became clear that I could not write any more about my time at the camps, but rather along with them. The following text is an attempt at this along-with: writings beside each other, upon each other, as wayward bodies at play. Alongside, I hope to re-encounter some themes from the initial essay.

The main garden of the children’s kingdom of Hegyhon, where I spent every summer between 1999 and 2008. Photo taken in the summer of 2023.

1

The southern end of the village culminates in a hill that continues far beyond the last house into a forest with gullies snaking up to a vast clearing. In this house, within this forest, through these gullies, atop of this clearing is where we met—once twice thrice fourth. On our last day together, a small brass ring, a little life I could have, cold as spring water, was lifted from the thin black string holding it hanging around my neck. You stayed curled up on my chest—warm and light. I was out of you; you were never really out of me.

The greatest thing we ever did is allow you, so you may allow us in turn. Surrendering time to receive you has put time in your hands so you may move it through us, and through it move into us. In, within, through, atop. I could feel you helix through my skin. You snatched our inmost and poured it to eclipse the Sun. In the dark, we could no longer tell ourselves apart from you. It made us seek you wilder, give more to you, sweat to flood. Night dripping from your hair. The smell of summer.

2

How can we conceive of a playing that is not a doing but a mutual being-done-to? This does not mean delegating players to mere passive subjects to the event of play, but rather thinking of playing as a fellow creature who events us by the sake of its creatureliness. This creatureliness is a life-force that negatively prehends the creature, tracing the shape of its aspect as it matters the matter it moves through, and bodies the bodies that move through it.

Prehending this creature is what playing could be. This would make playing closer to a kind of sensitivity, rather than an activity. Here, sensitivity is best understood as a middle voice between active and passive. A vital passivity similar to the mystic’s ecstasy that gives two-way flight to bodies, at the wayward velocity of sense perception.[4] Sensitivity extends the playing body’s reach and mobilises its depths by rendering boundaries permeable. In this sensitivity are we to prehend the aspect of play as it writes its body onto ours. However, this prehension, while bearing a certain intellectuality, is a prehension that ultimately cannot land on certainty. The sensitivity of play moves bodies and matter in a dynamic of remembering-forgetting, knowing-unknowing, noticing-overlooking. The time of the creature is a creeping time. Creeping upon, a creeping within, a creeping through. We can never truly know the exact moment and the exact extent the creature enters us, yet we are compelled to reckon with our bodies in its wake. Us compelling play to move into us compels us to move into play in turn.

3

Is play to the player what magic is to the magician? Magic plays a foundational role in the world of role-playing, as a design model (through the Magic Circle) and as a master metaphor to imagine role-playing’s politics as a way of seizing the means of imagination.[5] And there is indeed something to it when you hear it first: playing is a kind of magic and magic is a kind of playing. Likewise, the player is sort of a magician, and the magician is sort of a player. This feels “right”, which is somewhat funny to say considering how “magic” and “playing” are both terms whose hospitality rests exactly in eluding any concrete definition as to what they mean. How can two terms resist definition individually yet hold a mutually prehendable relation?

“This world is a corpse-eater. All the things eaten in it themselves die also.

Truth is a life-eater. Therefore no one nourished by truth will die.”[6]

Is playing always constructive action, a world-building? From this approach, all bodies present are contained within the grasp of the player (or game master)—a master agent—similar to how the magician is often depicted wielding power over the world through their practice and paraphernalia. How much of the player as a world-builder mirrors the magician’s demiurgic participation in a divine craftsman’s work—as it occupies, regulates and governs territories deemed too opaque, fluid, tehomic by the teleology of a single-truth?[7]

The Magician as drawn by Pamela Colman Smith for the RWS tarot deck (1910).

The Guardian, a legendary wizard from the children’s fantasy camp of Hegyhon (ca. 2006).

The resonance of play may very well be ringing in the inter-modulating chords between artifice-d and the emergent as they amplify and suffocate one another. Between its initial technicity from rules and practices and the chaotic energies it moves and they, in turn, move through it. The body of the creature is just as much of a “structural affair, as a natural offspring”.[8]

The problem with approaching play from a purely constructive and structural perspective is that it quickly brings in a design mindset that overpowers bodies at play, and the body of the creature by subjecting them to its single-truth standards. It silences the violence of a body’s inherent unruliness by reigning down the slow and sustained violence of superstructure hierarchies. Such a conception of play will always render certain bodies too fidgety, too needy, too weak. It trades the hospitality of mystery to the yoke of teleology. It wants to find answers and solutions and realise utopias rather than mobilise bodies into new unknowns. This is not very far from a magician hoping to subvert transcendental forces, only to get caught up in their game of power, unable to exit. We cannot design ourselves out of this game of power, as the teleology of design-language will ultimately halt any-body that puts its models at risk.

4

A page from Demonic grimoire written by the author in the children’s fantasy camp of Hegyhon (ca. 2004).

A transcription of a page from a grimoire I wrote as a teenager:


The Magic of Demon-Worshippers
The Fountain of Power: The mage who wishes to find their order must make a pact with a ghost or demon from the Umbra. They will in turn grant the mage and their order with power and might.
The Mages: The head-mage must have 2 important objects. First, the pact they made with a demon, sealed with the magician’s blood, is carried in a pouch around the magician’s neck. This is the seal of their power. Second, that magician’s staff: its tip forming a unicorn’s horn, its base adorned with the demon’s sigil (more on this later).
A Theory of Magic: Every night, the magician and their apprentices feed the demon with a ritual, who, if pleased, shall grant further powers to the order. During the ritual, the magician and their apprentices sacrifice their own life-force (quintessence) to their own detriment. In some cases, the head-mage may choose to sacrifice someone’s life completely. All life-force travels to the demon.
The Pact: The pact, which the magician makes with the demon, must be written on a piece of skin with runic script and sealed with six drops of blood.

5

In the role-playing universe of World of Darkness (developed by White Wolf Entertainment), the race of Werewolves has three primal forces that move the created world, known as the Triat.[9] The Wyld, representing a force that breathes life and stirs everything akin to a primordial chaotic body; the Weaver, who moves the world as a great tapestry with an ordering, constructing principle; and the Wyrm, whose all-devouring mouth is destruction, decay, entropy. Only one out of three could be considered as a “builder”. In the mythology of the Werewolves, the origin of all problems is that the Weaver prevented the Wyrm from eating its creations and the Wyld from stirring up its structures.

Can we conceive of a way of worlding outside of ordo ab chao? Can we conceive a body-of-play that is not a product of design, but whose structure emerges in the eyes and on the hands of the player, as they prehend the creature’s creatureliness?[10] A body with a pulse, with a weather. The worldling power of play can be then seen as a form of sensitivity. Literally, as sensitivity’s formative force. An oscillation of remembering-forgetting, knowing-unknowing, noticing-overlooking, glimmering in and out of the dark. A rhythm whose tempo rises and drops as you run your fingers down the creature’s spine.

Could this lead to ways of playing that are just as close to the Wyld’s stirring, immolating, liquifying; to the Wyrm’s negating, eating and being eaten? It would create a field of intimacy with the creature akin to erotics without sexuality: a dance of mutual attraction, repellence and whirling. “Through me into you, and through you from me.”[11] This dance does not zap us out of this world, or lead to a union with it without any difference. Rather, this dance midwifes us into the multiplicity of a world enfleshed. Players become conspirators in giving birth to a clandestine body that flowers from the depths of a nameless amongst.

6

Order must find; pact must make; demon must grant; mage must receive; blood must seal; satch must carry; neck must hold; staff must grow; horn must unicorn; sigil must adorn; ritual must feed; sacrifice must please; life must travel; skin must ink; rune must scribe; six must drop. Something’s gotta give.

7

In the world of larp (fka LARP, or Live Action Role-Playing), the main theory engaging with the body-at-play is bleed.[12] Described as the two-way spillover between player and character, bleed has been revered as the Holy Grail of role-playing theory and practice. It originates from the Nordic Larp subculture, taking notes from psychoanalytic concepts that hold in special regard a certain interiority of experience. Bleed locates the transformative event of play exclusively within a segmented human body—a vessel for a discreetly defined dual selfhood of player and character. It recognises an internal porous boundary between these segments and the body-at-play who, just like all bodies, desire to pour over the discrete. However, it still locates this pouring-over as merely a two-way interaction between clearly defined domains of selfhood, rather than something that spills over the category of selfhood as a whole. It situates the word “role” in role-playing as synonymous with “character” or “function”. This role is a virtual entity that functions in the power (in-virtue-of) of the player as their augmentation of selfhood.

Bleed can definitely (i.e. through definition) help articulate role-playing’s potential for human-to-human empowerment in the realms of selfhood and identity. Growing up in an almost-century-old role-playing camp that brushed against fascist, communist and now Orbánist regimes, as well as the countless international examples in which larp has contributed to emancipating marginalised groups, should be enough to convince.[13] With that said, bleed has also been under criticism from voices that hope to think through the politics and somatics of role-playing from a non-identitarian perspective, or at least perspectives that treat identity and selfhood as merely one force amongst many.[14] Moreover, looked upon from a relational perspective that considers a more-than-human, a less-than-human, an a-human and an otherwise-human world, it is clear that the kind of role-playing bleed signifies can easily become a means to perpetuate domains of sovereignty, power and human exceptionalism. It fails to recognise the creature of play as a creature without selfhood, without identity, but with a life-force prehendable, sensible, intelligible to intimacy. Play is an emergent middle voice that will always retain its far-nearness as a fellow another. The life-force of the creature and the unruly bodies blooming in its wake (including the bodies we deem as our own) are insurmountably abundant in their aspect, extent and age—and in their numbers will always remain beyond one’s counting. This is a challenge for the discreet and sacred interiority of a body that players can choose to augment and segment as they wish and exactly as many times as they wish.

How can we recognise the unruliness of the creature without fizzling out to a kind of “rhizomatic smugness”?[15] That is, not to end up in a place where grand claims about non-linearity, emergence and entanglement are stated in a utopian bravado, but without the responsibility to show up for the consequences these actions and states bring. This does not mean claiming ownership over the emergent, but rather acknowledging its unyielding materiality and corporeality which cannot be negated and from which we cannot exclude ourselves, cannot declare ourselves separate. In a space of bodies and matter there is an overabundance of possibility, but it is not an anything-goes. There is a specific way bodies and matter event one another upon encountering, and in their wake give rise to new bodies and matter that must be reckoned with. We cannot deny something has happened. Someone is with us.

8

The Troll-Gully of Hegyhon photographed in the summer of 2023.

You are nesting on our laps as we walk through the forest back towards the campsite. Your frail body turned towards us. You hung on to everything we did. That is all we did: having you hanging, gnawing, ready to pull. Come on now! We did, so you may take. We thought you knew something about us, something we knew not. What a scam! You never knew anything about us. Us to you can never be an about, but a towards, a beneath, an around. Just as we could never put words on you, only to you. A breeze pulled the branches and we saw your teeth.

9

Over the past years, my practice has confronted me with the urgency of bodies that play and the play that bodies. The bodies play moves, the bodies moving through play, the bodies that move play. To me, the most mysterious of them all is the play that bodies. This calls towards a playing that events all other nouns into verb, annihilating subjectivity as selfhood and mobilising subjectivity as event-relation. This event-relation is an emergent sentience, whose verbal middle voice in turn gives rise to bodies that matter.

“There is a stranger incarnating in our touch that is neither you and I, but a being of relation. Anyone who is friends with a couple knows that implicitly. The relation is a being that has its own ‘personality’, irreducible to the personalities of the individuals in love.”[16]

What if we treat the relational force between players not as creation but as poiesis? A way in which players practice sensitivity toward the creaturely body of play via the space between the lines. In this case, the player’s labour comes closer to the mystic’s negative work: it’s a making-available that is more of a “wanting than a waiting”.[17] Waiting is a form of attraction that need not have an object of attraction, nor a why. It implies a certain incompleteness, a call with no response. Understood through a mystical sensitivity, waiting creates a vacancy within the bodies at play into whom the creature is compelled to move. There, the body of the creature inter-carnates as a being-of-relation.[18] This being-of-relation is not of a transcendent without or an immanent within but of a haptic amongst. It is entangled with the bodies it moves with—making the players hold distinction but not separation through the poiesis of their role. Just as with mysticism, playing does not happen in domains of pure internality or exteriority, nor the interactions between sovereign bodies. Likewise, the mystical event cannot be reduced to isolated encounters. Rather, encounters are points of iteration, induction, immolation to the relationship—as it arches over, slithers beneath and blooms through, bringing each encounter beyond itself.

10

Years later, we meet in bars. Our lives are very different now, and so is the way we move, walk, talk and move in the world, inviting the world to move into us. We sing songs we used to, debate magical systems we created, recall jokes we cracked. As we say goodbye for the night, each of us gives a bit of ourselves to the creature. Its bite carves the aspect of our whole. Its teeth: just like ours. We were no body before we met. Our bodies are but an answer. Just like with inside jokes: it is the joke that creates the inside, not the other way around.

11

Etettél hogy megölhess
Lettem ételed
Vérem véredben kering
Mire kell neked
Közös vér ha elcsorog
mondd: az áldozat mit ér
Vagyunk evők és ölők
Vérrel virágzik a vér

You fed me to kill me
Your food I became
Now my blood runs in your blood
What are you to gain
Tell me, when our shared blood dries
Was it worth the lot
Eaters and killers, we be
Blood blooms with blood

I would like to thank Gabriel Widing and Andrea Nordwall for letting me read drafts of their upcoming essay Again Design for the Solmukohta 2024 book. All photos and illustrations used, except for the RWS tarot card, are the property of the artist, with all rights reserved. The final poem is originally by Margit Szécsi (1928–1990), translated from Hungarian by Áron Birtalan in 2023.

  • 1

    From her 13th-century mystical poem “Love’s Seven Names” (HADEWIJCH, The Complete Works, New York: Paulist Press, 1980, p. 353).

  • 2

    To learn more about the history of these children’s camps, visit the online publication Counterculture by the Lake, curated by Zsofia Frazon for the Museum of Etnography, Budapest, 2017, available at https://ellenpedagogia.neprajz.hu/english.00.html.

  • 3

    BIRTALAN, Áron, The Critical Escape (MA Thesis), Amsterdam University of Arts, 2018.

  • 4

    KOTVA, Simone, “Ecologies of Ecstasy: Mysticism, Agency and the More-than-Human”, YouTube, 26/09/2023, https://youtu.be/vXCAbrVRBXE?si=xE3LTABIgH7bhO2g.

  • 5

    It is beyond the scope of this writing to problematise the concept of the Magic Circle, its origins in 20th-century anthropology/ethnography (as in the works of Arnold van Gennep, Johan Huizinga and Victor Turner) and the tectonic influence it had in the world of larp. More on this in a future text.

  • 6

    From the 3rd-century Gnostic text The Gospel according to Philip (ⲡⲉⲩⲁⲅⲅⲉⲗⲓⲟⲛ ⲡⲕⲁⲧⲁ ⲫⲓⲗⲓⲡⲡⲟⲥ), translation from Coptic by Wesley W. Isenberg. (ROBINSON, James McConkey & INSTITUTE FOR ANTIQUITY AND CHRISTIANITY (eds.), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, 1990, p. 153)

  • 7

    Originating the Biblical Hebrew word “tehom” (תְּהוֹם), meaning “the deep”, tehomic is a term coined by theologian Catherine Keller alluding to the primordial waters of Genesis 1. It refers to a chaotic and unruly God and the theology of becoming flowing from them. Tehomic challenges the conception of divinity as a creator ex nihilo (out-of-nothing) and instead hopes to understand God as an emergent force moving ex profundis (out-of-depths). (KELLER, Catherine, Face of the Deep: A Theology of Becoming, Routledge, 2003)

  • 8

    Paraphrasing Ricardo M. Villa’s writing on Henry James’s concept of the “Imaginal”. (VILLA, Riccardo M., Imaginal, in: AN, Mihye, HOVESTADT, Ludger & BÜHLMANN, Vera (eds.), Architecture and Naturing Affairs, De Gruyter, 2020, pp. 145–146)

  • 9

    BRIDGES, Bill, REIN-HAGEN, Mark, HATCH, Robert & BROOKS, Deirdre, Werewolf: The Apocalypse : A Storytelling Game of Savage Horror, White Wolf, 2000, pp. 34–35.

  • 10

    My resistance to completely abandoning structures and structuring principles comes from keeping a body’s desire for definition, identity and integrity. We can take these desires still present as dynamic vectors in the threefold dance of Wyld, Weaver and Wyrm. Who we are might perish in the wake of our leaps, but our desires do not. They keep on living us, re-membering us. Another approach could be how these desires are key for an enfleshed and differentiated world and one that prevents defaulting to what Jo Freeman calls The Tyranny of Structurelessness. (FREEMAN, Jo, “The Tyranny of Structurelessness”, in: WSQ: Women’s Studies Quarterly, 41(3–4), 2013, pp. 231–46)

  • 11

    MECHTHILD OF MAGDEBURG, The Flowing Light of the Godhead (TOBIN, Frank J., trans.), Paulist Press, 1998, p. 59.

  • 12

    BOWMAN, Sarah Lynne, “Bleed: The Spillover Between Player and Character”, Nordiclarp.Org, 02/03/2015, https://nordiclarp.org/2015/03/02/bleed-the-spillover-between-player-and-character/.

  • 13

    KEMPER, Jonaya, “The Battle of Primrose Park: Playing for Emancipatory Bleed in Fortune & Felicity”, Nordiclarp.Org, 21/06/2017, https://nordiclarp.org/2017/06/21/the-battle-of-primrose-park-playing-for-emancipatory-bleed-in-fortune-felicity/.

  • 14

    Examples include: WIDING, Gabriel, “Another Body Is Possible/There Is No Body B”, gwid.se, 07/05/2017, https://www.gwid.se/2017/another-body-is-possible-there-is-no-body-b/; ERMAN, Carina, “Exquisite Corpse”, 0ct0p0s, 2021, https://0ct0p0s.net/EXQUISITE-CORPSE.

  • 15

    The term “rhizomatic smugness” comes from an Instagram webcomic by the user avocado_ibuprofen, posted on the 9 July, 2023, available at https://www.instagram.com/p/Cuem0I7Iy9h/?img_index=1.

  • 16

    BIRTALAN, Áron, The Abyss Between Our Hands (Edition 0), Stockholm University of the Arts, 2023. The quote paraphrases Brian Massumi in Immediation Unlimited, original version in: MASSUMI, Brian, “Immediation Unlimited”, in: MANNING, Erin, MUNSTER, Anna & THOMSEN, Bodil Marie (eds.), Immediation II, Open Humanities Press, 2019, pp. 501–543.

  • 17

    KOTVA, Simone, Effort and Grace: On the Spiritual Exercise of Philosophy, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020.

  • 18

    Another term from Catherine Keller (written as a single word in her 2017 book Intercarnations), the concept of inter-carnation is probably better understood as intra-carnation—a play on Karen Barad’s intra-action and theological incarnation. From The Future of Indeterminacy project at the University of Dundee: “Intra-action is the mutual constitution of entangled agencies, that, in contrast to ‘interaction’—which assumes the existence of separate individual agencies—recognises that distinct agencies do not precede, but rather emerge through their intra-action. Intra-action also means that the agencies we perceive as distinct and belonging to specific things or beings are distinct only in a relational rather than absolute sense as the individuality of things and beings is ‘carved out’ of indeterminacy.” (https://indeterminacy.ac.uk/dictionary/intra-action/)

Áron Birtalan

is an artist, musician and student of theology, whose work explores languages of pleasure and anguish between angel, creature and computer. Working with relationships and sense perception as artistic material, Áron creates guided games, mystical practices, musical releases, unruly thoughts and hybrid publications. They received their education at the Royal Conservatory of The Hague, the DAS Graduate School in Amsterdam, and now pursue doctoral studies at the Stockholm University of the Arts’ Institute for Dance. Their artistic dissertation, Your Bones Hold the Shape of What’s to Come, is due in 2026.