Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Taking the intoxication out: late capitalism, what a drag


Walter Benjamin was convinced that gambling – and the gambler – was the temporal coordinate of the stroll, and the flaneur.  The gambler was an intrusion, he thought, into the bourgeois sphere of a custom determined, originally, by the economic conditions of feudalism.  This was in keeping with the Marxist nearsightedness about the function of credit and finance in high capitalism. But within those myopic limits, Benjamin’s theory of the “intoxication” of gambling is interesting.

“With the briefness of the game it [the time factor]  has in fact its own condition. The briefer the play, the rawer emerges the  element of chance, the smaller or the briefer the suite of combinations, that in the course of the party are brought out. In other words: the greater the component of chance in a game, the quicker it happens.   This circumstance becomes decisive when it comes to determining what, exactly, constitutes the intoxication of the gambler. It rests on the property of the game of chance, to provoke the intellectual actuality that brings the constellations forward in quick succession, which – each one quite independently from the others – calls on a completely new, original reaction of the player.”

Benjamin’s model for gambling was cards, and the casino. The very depressing article in Bloomberg about the gambler, Bill Benter, who “cracked” the horseracing code is about taking the joy, the intoxication,  out of addiction – a very 21st century approach to the problem of killing time. Horse racing was, in the 19th and 20th century, presented as the relic of feudal times – the province of aristocrats and Bourbon kings from Kentucky. Bill Benter, as it were, stormed the Bastille with his computer, and has made, according to the article, billions from his algorithmically massaged bets. Never has money seemed a bigger drag.

My first encounter with gambling was at the horse track in Bossier City, to which I was taken by my boss, H. At that time, I was going to college and working part time at a hardware store in Shreveport. H. was the assistant manager of the store, and he wanted to teach me how to bet on a sure thing. The sure things had four legs and jockeys on top of them.  As it turned out, they were not so sure – which H., to his sorrow, discovered. H. covered his debts by “borrowing” from the store, and so the downward spiral goes.


My own young self thought gambling, as well as drugs and the rock n roll lifestyle, was romantic. My older self thinks the ultimate gambler was the shooter in Las Vegas, taking a private bet with himself that he could take out x number of lives in a certain time frame and even get away with it. From killing time to killing – freedom’s just another word for nothing much to lose.

As Ferenzi and Turner (2012) point out, problem gambling was late to be medicalized. About the time my friend H. was quietly cleaning out the till and spending it on what he hoped would be a winning trifecta, the DSM-III was putting this kind of gambling on its list of addictions, along with alcohol and other ingested stuff.  There is a lot of  controversy about the addiction model for “deviant” behavior – and this controversy definitely reflects a class bias. A winner – whether a wall street firm making money on derivatives and currency trading or a man who uses algorithms to win horse races – is considered less a deviant than a genius. A loser – my friend H., or my roommate in New Orleans, later on, who lost everything at the horse races including the rent money – is not given such a friendly lens.  H.’s gains were, on the addictive model, pathological. Benter’s gains, on the other hand, are “returns”.


“Their returns kept growing. Woods made $10 million in the 1994-95 season and bought a Rolls-Royce that he never drove. Benter purchased a stake in a French vineyard. It was impossible to keep their success secret, and they both attracted employees and hangers-on, some of whom switched back and forth between the Benter and Woods teams. One was Bob Moore, a manic New Zealander whose passions were cocaine and video analysis. He’d watch footage of past races to identify horses that should have won but were bumped or blocked and prevented from doing so. It worked as a kind of bad-luck adjuster and made the algorithms more effective.

As we all know, chaos is a kind of determinate dynamical system. There are rules here, dude. But why, oh why, does it have to be so fucking joyless?

Tuesday, May 11, 2021

Running out of experience


The pre-modern form of askesis was all about giving up desires. The Greek stoic, the Tuscan saint, and the Chinese Confucian sage all agreed on this point. Epictetus wrote a manual on the “exercise of not exercising desire”. Epictetus would have seen viagra as evidence of the negative path of our civilization. Is this what we use our wills – our voluntas – for?

Modernity said goodbye to all that training. It was training more appropriate for the era of the Malthusian trap than for the era of continuous growth. The wheel of fortuna was a much better image of prosperity and poverty than any upward trending curve on a graph in pre-industrial societies.  The revolution of capitalism +  industry has had a spiritual result: Epictetus has been replaced by the invisible hand.

Desire is a good entry point into experience, that wild country. When we are children, our experience always tastes a little new. The bicycle we learn to ride, division, oysters – all these new things we learn to like or not like, do or not do. The background is filled in with clumsy giants, adults, who hector and coax. As we grow into cars, trig, and sex, we become clumsy giants ourselves, but not exactly adults. Who knows when the fatal equator is passed? For each it is a different age. And then, on the downside, we remember, we eat our oysters, we forget, we wonder how we constructed that geometrical proof, and we take vacations. Desire remains, but experience, that wild country, sometimes seems to empty out. The great headlining experiences of our twenties, where our nervous system was always writing headlines in lightning strokes (COME BACK!  I LOVE YOU! I’M A FAILURE! I’M A WINNER!), seems somehow diminished (RAINED TODAY!).

Writers have a peculiarly intimate relationship with experience, since their own experience often provides the content for what they do. This is not so different from doctors, or teachers, but whereas the latter are all about extracting a techne from experience that they can apply in the future, the writer is about rendering experience itself – in a poem, a story, an essay, a novel. Of course, this rendering comes in various degrees of abstraction and projection, but its first tottering trials often use direct experience – the parents, the girl and boyfriends, the classroom, the road.

My own sense of the writer’s task is not wedded to the rendering of my own experience – far from it. I like writing as a sort of voyage into the Other. Of course, like any other adventure, that voyage has a colonialist subtext – my ego is continually colonizing any Other that I find. On the other hand, I didn’t make that ego myself – it is pre-eminently a shifting product of this body’s commerce with the world, a body as neuronally charged by the sensuround as a vacuum cleaner is to a power source. I is an Other is sound science. Still, my experience is always going to companion even my wildest leaps of empathy.

I’ve been wondering, lately, at my own current “paucity of experience”. That phrase emerged, entire, early in the Victorian era, and has been used, according to my own internet search on the Internet Archive, hundreds of times to describe a low level of experiencing. This gets us to a paradox endemic to categorial terms: experience, it would seem, always has the same level. Whether it is filled with violent sensation or filled with drowsiness shouldn’t make a quantitative difference: a thermometer is not more of a thermometer when it records a higher temperature. Yet one does feel that an experience that is perpetually drowsy is not “used” to the extent it could be – is, in fact, wasted. One wants to shake the drowsy experience and say, let’s see what this baby can do! I often felt like that in my twenties and thirties. I liked the phrase of Blanchot’s: the experience-limit. I wanted to test experience. In the literature of the 20s, and of the 60s and 70s, there is a sense of this urge to test. That testing is not so different from the Stoic askesis, which sought to find the point of maximum alienation from the normal pleasures. In Carlos Ginzburg’s essay on the genealogy of the literary device of estrangement, he quotes Marcus Aurelius’s example of stoic mental discipline as a sort of alienation cure, a way of dissecting experience to get to the delusions of desire:

“Surely it is an excellent plan, when you are seated before delicacies and choice foods, to impress upon your imagination [phantasia] that this is the dead body of a fish, that the dead body of a bird or a pig; and again, that the Falernian wine is grape juice and that robe of purple a lamb's fleece dipped in a shell-fish's blood; and in matters of sex intercourse) that it is attrition of an entrail and a convulsive expulsion of mere mucus. Surely these are excellent imaginations [phantasiai], going to the heart of actual facts and penetrating them so as to see what kind of things they really are. You should adopt this practice all through your life, and where things make an impression which is very plausible, uncover their nakedness, see into their cheapness, strip off the profession on which they vaunt themselves.”

Ginzburg remarks that this passage reads strangely to a modern reader. Perhaps it does, but I think the strangeness is not in the stripping down of the cooked to the raw – this is the central modernist impulse – but the idea that this will give us some kind of contact with the truth. Aurelius’s distant descendent, Leopold Bloom, is introduced to the reader in Ulysses like this:

“Mr Leopold Bloom ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls. He liked thick giblet soup, nutty gizzards, a stuffed roast heart, liverslices fried with crustcrumbs, fried hencods’ roes. Most of all he liked grilled mutton kidneys which gave to his palate a fine tang of faintly scented urine.

The fine tang of faintly scented urine is not presented as a downer, a rebarbative,  a way of breaking the hold of phantasia, but, on the contrary, a property to be relished, a coming attraction, an entertainment.  Bloom, that inner organ eater, is a modern man, to whom experience is not an alien servitude. The tragedy for such a man is a “paucity of experience”.  Or perhaps the idea of tragedy here is archaic. The horror at the end for such a man is flatness. What is at stake is the heightening or flattening of experience. And that is where I shake hands with Bloom, in my tentatively post-covid crouch, wanting a little heightening to shake up my ... sixty some inertia.

Experience with relish, the relish of experience – that’s what I want.


Monday, May 10, 2021

The Corbyn effect

 1. Lets start out with the obvious: Starmer is a crap politician and his weaknesses just become more evident as he goes on. Labour should replace him. But: 2. There is something to the idea that Corbyn was to "blame" for Labour's loss. 3. This is not because Corbyn turned off potential Labour voters. It is because Corbyn had a profound effect on the Tories. 4. The Tories were stuck with Cameron-Osborn austerity. As Corbyn's success in 2017 made clear, austerity had the potential to sink the Conservatives. 5. What happened? Austerity talk died on the Tory side. This was, to an extent, muted by Brexit. Corbyn was uniquely mismatched to the Brexit moment. He simply didn't have the flexibility. 6. But the bubble energy for the right created by Brexit was not going to solve the austerity problem. So the Conservatives, using cultural issues as a smokescreen, made a turn to big spending and big government. The Corbyn effect on the Tories was profound. 7. Labour's center-right establishment petrified in the year 1999, and they have been in a time capsule ever since. Thus, the bizarre spectacle of Labour running against a #Corbynite Tory party without even realizing it. This is a sign of deep deep decay. 8. In the going through the post-election entrails, it is evident that #Labour still doesn't even know who its enemy is. Hence, the clinging to Johnson's wallpaper. And the voter reaction: who gives a fuck? History is a joker: who knew that #Corbyn would be good for the #Tories?

Sunday, May 09, 2021

The Centrists can never be beaten, especially when they are beaten and other journalistic chestnuts

 Well, I must say, Starmer is surprising me. The task of the Labour leader, Starmer said to himself, is to be even more laughable than the leader of the Tories. And he's done a bangup job! I loved the Labour campaign. The Tories were talking about spending more on Northern England. Well, Labour saw through that and saw that what the people in the British rust belt really wanted was: more respect for the flag! Its the cultural issues that count! Starmer's proposal that the state build a royal yacht for the Union Jack and let it cruise around the sceptered ile, where lucky yokels on the shore who spotted it could kowtow, hit the sweet spot. Unfortunately, the peeps of England didn't seem to get the message, and Starmer came through again, promising to take responsibility for the itsey bitsy loss of 88 council seats and then fired the woman who he'd thrust aside in the campaign anyway, Angela Rayner, in the hopes of hiring a guy - you know, on the guy's rule! rule, which has really brought a nostalgic tear to the eyes of the Westminister crowd - who wouild echo Starmer's thoughts.

In the clown v. clown election that Labour is obviously preparing for, Starmer has shown Johnson just how far he is willing to go. Now, onto very very clever remarks in the House of Commons which will get Guardian coliumnists all in a twist! Delicious, and I am sure it will win Labour some wink wink at the club even from those tough Telegraph columnists! Oh, and remember, the losses for the next decade are: on Corbyn! or Rayner, one or the other. Never on the obsolete Eton club that is running Labour into the ground.

Southern California Death Trip

    “He was kind but he changed and I killed him,” reads the caption of the photo of a woman in an old tabloid. She was headed to ...