Place your best!

“Place your bets!” Words that can be articulated in virtually any language. The art of the wager is among our oldest cultural inventions. The fun and excitement of gambling notwithstanding, wagering is an affirmation of chance, recognition of a different kind of logic: one that is random, brutish, and sometimes profoundly sweet. “Yes!” We wager to get a shot at the action, to get where the action is. To get where discourse among people travels through actions not words, where meaning is right there in the cards, on the table, in the numbers, on the dice. The action is fast because it shouldn’t take much time to wager; wagering is not a figuring out, a thoughtfulness, or a reasoning. It’s a fast gamble, a quick bet; it’s gut and instinct and drive.

In wagering we not only reverse the principles of communication (seeking understanding based on reasoning and agreement with reasons provided). We switch our mode and means of communication. Wagering, we use our hands, not our mouths. We use numbers and tokens, not words and meanings. We enter a world where results are either for us or against us. There’s no in between a loss and a win. This binary logic not only sneers at the efforts of the reasoning mind to control or stem the losses and get the hell out of there before it’s all gone totally wrong. Its lose or win, black and white, in or out, cancel the ambiguity that once made us human and now makes us no better than the one-armed bandit we’ve been dropping quarters into all night long. The world of the wager shuts off the world of reason. It revels in its cynicism toward the work, the blood, sweat, and tears invested in all that money, which saved, it now takes the pleasure in wasting. Thus destroying not only the money but the contract that produced it the first place: my life (work) for your money (pay).

It should come as no surprise that in any culture we could probably find examples of waste and destruction aimed directly at a society’s core values. The Romans did it in their infamous festivals. Europeans during the middle ages did it in their carnivals. Native Americans have had their potlatch. From ceremonial burnings and sacrifices to modern-day Vegas, the logic of waste runs with strength and consistency.

But while ritual sacrifices comprise a coherent and intrinsic role within a society’s reproduction, contemporary gambling looks like something different. Gambling is game; each move is wager. No matter what the game is, as long as it sorts winners from losers it is played by wagering on the future. Certainly this kind of game coordinates action. But unlike the action that results from discursive activity (conversation), this kind of action offers no reasons. Nothing to debate, to test, to consider, or to change. Only compliance with the rules of the game or not. Gaming action, each wager, is just a repetition. A reproduction of the game. For the only way to change a game is to change its rules. So we see that the wagerer has no access to the game he plays, no opportunity to do anything but repeat it endlessly. Now the wager, which is a bet on the future, shows its tragedy: the rules will never change as long as the bettors place their bets. The game’s binding power obtains from its rules and not from the gaming. The gambler is like the pathetic Mr. K in Kafka’s “Trial,” unwittingly reproducing the very thing that traps him only because he fails to see that what he wants is outside the rules of the game.

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