A game where the goal is to “earn liberties,” and where building a space of one’s own is more useful than seeking confrontation with the adversary, had to appeal to libertarians of every stripe. But beyond the metaphors, the story of the arrival of Go in the libertarian world reveals unsuspected connections between some of the great intellectual figures of the twentieth century.
When the British Go Association proposed to fund a strategy to promote the game and comissioned a study on its image, the result was surprising: Go was described in the responses as too “difficult,” too “intellectual,” or simply “outside of reach” of the respondents. Part of this image problem could be due to the fact that its introduction in Europe and the US was led by mathematicians, physicists and engineers linked to the scientific vanguard and elite universities. Perhaps it also has something to do with how Go has ben portrayed by North American cinema: a game which even geniuses like John Nash are incapable of mastering, overwhelmed by the “chaotic nature of the universe” that the game supposedly reflects.
What’s interesting is that there’s some truth to that. Ultimately, the main precursor of the game in England was none other than Alan Turing. While directing the famous team that would decipher the Enigma machine and create Colossus, the first computer in history, he was playing almost daily. The scene of Turing studying the goban [board], or inviting others to play, became so common that today, in Bletchley Park, his old office is decorated with a board and two baskets of stones. That was where he taught a young mathematician from Oxford to play: I. J. Good, who would continue working — and playing — with Turing after the war in the famous studio in Manchester where The Baby and Mark 1, the first civilian computers, would be born.
He is considered the successor to Turing’s work, and we owe Good things as important as the Fast Fourier transform, surely the most used algorithm in history. Beyond informatics and Baysian statistics, the truth is that he had an interesting life, including milestones like the first theorization of the “technological singularity” and having advised Kubrick on HAL and the information systems in “2001: A Space Odyssey.”
But in reality, Good had already become popular among restless young students years before the movie, when, in his column in the New Scientist of January 21, 1965, he published an article called “The mystery of Go.” Today, the British Go Association recognizes that article as the true beginning of the spread of the game in the islands, and a whole generation of players remembers it as the starting point of their attraction to the game.
The curiosity awakened by the article materialized in dozens of clubs, almost all linked to university environments in which the student movements of ’68 were brewing. The famous Arabist Robert Irwin tells in his memoir how “the craze for the Japanese game of Go was at its height,” and his alter ego, Harvey, star of the moment in the “Oxford Anarchist Society” teaches him to play and use shi, the logic of encircling, as a way of approaching discussions of all kinds.
Go in May of ’68
Go is jumping from the science faculties to the social faculties, and from the islands to the continent. In 1965, a mathematics professor, Chevalley, that began playing the game because of Good’s article, teaches Jacques Roubaud to play. Roubard is one of the founders of the Oulipo group, and, though he will go down in history as a writer, a mathematician by training. Soon two more members join the group: Pierre Lusson and the great Georges Perec. Perec is captivated by the game, and in the middle of 1968, writes “The Disparition,” which uses more than a few metaphors that begin in situations on the board, and in 1969, with Lusson and Roubaud, the famous “Petit traité invitant à la découverte of l’art subtil du go.”
Although manuals had already been published in French, the book unleashes the interest of the young French intellectuals of the times, who take Go as symbolic of otherness, of the opposite of thought of traditional power symbolized by chess.
Go becomes something alternative and cool. Even a young North American science fiction writer, Ursula K. Leguin, includes it in her latest novel, “The left hand of darkness,” winner of the Hugo award that year (and the Nebula the following year, 1970).
Years later, Deleuze and Guattari, who had seen a goban for the first time at Perec’s home, will pick up this Perecian and spirit-of-’68 idea of the otherness of Go, in one of the most important books of libertarian European thought at the end of the century, “A Thousand Plateaus” (1980):
Chess is a game of State, or court; the Emperor of China practiced it. Chess pieces are codified, they have an internal nature or intrinsic properties, from which their movements, their positions, their confrontations are derived. They are qualified, the horse is always a horse, the bishop a bishop, the pawn a pawn. Each one is like a subject of enunciation, gifted with a relative power; and those relative powers combine in a subject of enunciation, the chess player, or the form of inner self of the game.
The pawns in Go, on the contrary, are balls, cards, simple arithmetic units, whose sole function is anonymous, collective or third-person: “It” advances — it could be man, a woman, a flea, or an elephant. The pawns in Go are the elements of a non-subjectivized mechanical agency, without intrinsic properties, but only situational. The relationships are also very different in the two cases. In their means of inwardness, the chess pieces maintain two-way relationships with each other, and with the adversary : their functions are structural. A pawn in Go, on the contrary, only has means of outwardness, or extrinsic relationships with cloudy consteallations, according to which it carries out functions of insertion or situation, like bordering, surrounding, breaking. A single pawn in Go can synchronously annihilate a whole constellation, while one chess piece cannot (or can only do it diachronically).
Chess is clearly a war, but an insitutionalized, regulated, codified war, with a front, a rearguard, and battles. What is unique about Go, on the other hand, is that it is a war without battlelines, without confrontation and rearguard, and in the ultimate extreme, without battle: pure strategy, while chess is semiotics. Finally, it is not about space itself: in the case of the chess, it is a game of distributing a closed space, hence, of going from one point to another, of occupying a maximum of squares with a minimum of pieces. Go is a game of being distributed in a open space, of occupying the space, of conserving the possibility of emerging at any point: movement no longer goes from one point to another, but rather becomes perpetual, without goal or destination, without departure or arrival.
Smooth space of Go versus striated space of chess. Nomos of Go versus State of chess, nomos versus polis. Because chess codifies and decodifies space, while Go proceeds in another way, territorializing and desterritorializing it (turning the exterior into a territory in space, consolidating that territory through the construction of a second adjacent territory, deterritorializing the enemy through the internal rupture of their territory, deterritorializing oneself by retreating, going somewhere else…). Another justice, another movement, another space-time.
The Internet era
In the ’80s and ’90s, in Europe and the US, Go no longer depended on concrete people to develop. It was a minority cultural element within a minority. But that excentric and often erudite minority, almost always university-associated and technophile, was fermenting in something new: hacker culture, which, in turn, was going to shape a good part of the new world that would come with the Internet. When, in the second half of the ’90s, HTML and the newborn World Wide Web opened the tap of massive socialization of the new medium, Go gained a sudden visibility simply because the percentage of Internet users who are players is far above the average in the population.
Richard Bozulich, author of some of the best-known books on the game in the West, is a good example of that environment and that evolution. He studied at UCLA and graduated in mathematics from Berkeley in ’66. In ’68, he went to Japan, where he created his first publishing house — in English — specializing in Go, Ishi Press, which will be succeeded, in the ’90s, by Kiseido. In 2000, when the first game servers had appeared, he absorved through Kiseido, one of the pioneers go servers -Igoweb- transforming it in KGS the exchange and gaming space for Go most used by Western players. A resident of Japan, he became a go-to person in the world of online libertarian activism, in which he became involved to the point of standing as a candidate for several testimonial formations, the latest being the Personal Freedom Party. He is not the only one. By 2003, it was already relatively common to find voices that called for a “Go strategy at the libertarian fringes of Republicanism. One discussion permeated those surroundings to the point of normalizing references to the game among electoral strategists.
The go’ing insurrection
In the insurrectionist and collectivist side of anarchism, a similar phenomenon was taking place, though with constant references to the idea of Go given by Deleuze and Guattari. In the second half of the nineties, the first groups that begin to think about Go as a metaphor to theorize libertarian alternatives that incorporate the Internet and free software into their design were already appearing. But it will be with the crisis, starting in 2010, that the strategic metaphors based on Go begin to multiply.
And thus, in November 2013, The Go’ing Insurrection appears, the little book that is fashionable among afficionados right now. Anonymously written, its title is an homage to The Arriving Insurrection (or The Coming Insurrection, depending on the translation), the famous and polemic post-Tiqqun text attributed to Joulien Coupat, to whom, however, it owes little beyond a few quotes: the idea that in politics, as in Go, territory is a relational concept, not spatial or scenic, does not begin with Coupat, but is, rather, commonplace in non-nationalist European thought since Walter Benjamin. In any case, the result is forty very suggestive pages, and recommended for anyone regardless of their ideology.
Go and the interesting life
The idea of Go as a school, or at least as a strategic language to think in terms of liberties and conflict resolution, surely has won more people over to Go than to libertarian ideas.
What’s true is that the game of Go is a terrain on which new situations and problems are constantly presented in an intellectually elegant manner. To solve them, to learn, to create knowledge for the pleasure of knowing, is doubtlessly more than enough motivation in itself. According to Desmond Morris, to learn, to discover, is the pleasure that evolution taught us to enjoy so that we would be able to adapt to the medium without having to wait millions of years to see if mutations responded better or not.
The libertarian ethos of all times has intuited that it is in that pleasure where the meaning of existence resides. So have totalitarian and paternalistic regimes of all times, of course, but they reject the frivolity of that “empty knowledge” that disperses society from the dream — their dream — of a one and only objective.
Surely that is the truth underneath the old Chinese saying that “no Go player is a bad person.” A game so abstract generates a kind of knowledge that is so hard to instrumentalize, that it necessarily raises a contradiction between the political will to impose on others, and the personal pleasure of an interesting life. You have to be a bit of an anarchist to be able to incorporate Go into your life. And if you like it because you’ve turned the desire to learn into the engine of your actions, it’s more than likely that you also have a minimalist in you, and you’re not very interested in fighting over resources or wealth with anyone.
Certainly, that pleasure in serial learning and discovery is what Desmond Morris called happiness.