The Game of Late Capitalism: Gambling and Ideology in the Music of Chance

Article excerpt

Examining Paul Auster's The Music of Chance alongside Jean Baudrillard's theory of chance and seduction, this essay suggests that rapid growth of the gaming industry is a symptom of late capitalism. The codependence of capitalism and its preferred game is seen here as a confrontation between two antagonistic orders of satisfaction and exchange.

Gambling is not a new phenomenon in the history of humankind, nor is the belief in luck or the power of chance. Yet, only with the arrival of capitalism did fortune games reach the dimensions of a "social epidemic," constantly in the center of fervent public debates. While in the past three hundred years, gambling has been repeatedly prohibited in different countries throughout the world, since the sixties many Western countries have begun a process of legalization that has been accompanied by an unprecedented increase in the gambling industry. The International Gaming & Wagering Business magazine writes that the 1996 gross revenue from commercial games in the United States (my main concern here) reached $586.5 billion. In comparison, the total sum in 1983 was only $163 billion and in 1974 the sum was a mere $17.3 billion (Abt et al. 224, 241). One out of every ten dollars that consumers spend on leisure now goes to commercial games. Gaming-entertainment is now legal in 48 states, and in 1995 there were appro ximately 154 million visits to casinos. Gaming can currently be found anywhere from the most remote Indian reservations, through luxurious Las Vegas hotels, to casino boats sailing along the Mississippi.

One cannot simply dismiss the relation between the rapid growth of the gaming industry and late capitalism as mere coincidence, yet there is a need to elaborate their specific relation. One possible framework for exploring this relation is provided by the view of the gaming industry as a "symptom" of late capitalism: does the socio-economic matrix of late capitalism provide fertile ground for the flourishing of fortune games? As with every symptom, we could reverse the dependency question: how does the economical regime of late capitalism depend on an entertainment industry based in chance? In order to grapple with this question I offer a reading of Jean Baudrillard's theory of seduction and chance along with Paul Auster's celebrated novel The Music of Chance (1990), the story of four poker players who gather one fatal evening for a game. The relevance of Baudrillard to our question lies in his concept of capital and late capitalism in general, as modeled on games of chance. Baudrillard's concept resonates w ith Auster's novel in a way that suggests one possible analysis of the symptomatic phenomenon of gambling. The analysis also suggests a link (however hostile) between Baudrillard's account of late capitalism and contemporary Marxist thought. This essay uses The Music of Chance as a "playground" in which this hostile encounter between the two theories is re-examined and made concrete.

The Music of Chance tells the story of the last year and a half of the life of Nashe, a Boston fireman who decides to leave his family, work and friends after his father bequeaths him a huge amount of money acquired through speculation on the stock exchange. Nashe buys a new red Saab and embarks upon a frantic trip throughout the States, spending all of his inheritance on hotels, gasoline, food, and gambling of all kinds. Finally, he is left with a mere $14,000. All seems lost, and then, on a desolate side road he decides to give a lift to a young man, named Pozzi. Pozzi is a professional poker player on his way to a poker game with two eccentric millionaires. The chances are that Pozzi will win fifty thousand dollars off the two millionaires, if only he can find an initial sum to enter the game. In hope of sharing the profits, Nashe decides to give Pozzi the rest of his money. The two millionaires, Flower and Stone, are former hard day laborers who used to buy a lottery ticket every week. …

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