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The Germanic Review, 87: 261278, 2012

Copyright
c
Taylor & Francis Group, LLC
ISSN: 0016-8890 print / 1930-6962 online
DOI: 10.1080/00168890.2012.704344
Benjamins Wager on Modernity: Gambling
and the Arcades Project
Michael A. Rosenthal
Walter Benjamin wrote about gambling during his youth and the topic remained important
through his project on the Parisian arcades that dominated the last decade of his life.
In the Arcades, Benjamin analyzes gambling in relation to capitalism, religion, and
psychoanalysis, and to our experience of time. Like prostitution, with which it is paired
in Convolute O, gambling is a kind of ritual or game with a long history that has taken on
a new guise in the exchange economy of capitalism. Benjamin believes that a genealogy
of the practice can uncover aspects of its former, transformative meaning, expressed in
bodily innervation. I claim that gambling is related to Benjamins idiosyncratic idea of
prophecy, in which looking toward the past opens up new possibilities of meaningful
experience. It signals a possible rupture in capitalistic society, one that has revolutionary
political potential, precisely because the practice is so ubiquitous.
W
hat is at stake in modernity? For Walter Benjamin, one key to the answer can be found
quite literally in his analysis of gambling. Apparently he was an occasional gambler,
1
and it was an intellectual preoccupation through his life. He wrote about it during his youth
and it remained important right through his project on the Parisian arcades that dominated
the last decade of his life.
2
Although it only takes up one relatively slim convolute of his
notes on the arcadeswhere it is paired with reections on prostitutionwe know from
The original work on this essay was supported by the NEH Summer Seminar on Walter Benjamins
Later Writings: The Arcades Project, Commodity Culture, Historiography at the University of Cali-
fornia, Irvine, in 2011. I would like to thank the director of the seminar, Prof. Alexander Gelley, and the
other participants for their helpful discussion. The anonymous reviewers for this journal also provided
very useful comments.
1
While on a trip to the south of France he gambled and won money in Monaco. See David S. Ferris,
The Cambridge Introduction to Walter Benjamin (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 13.
2
References to Benjamin will be made to: Walter Benjamin, Selected Writings, ed. Michael W. Jen-
nings, Marcus Bullock, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, 4 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of
Harvard University Press, 19962003), indicated by SW with volume and page number; and also to
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correspondence that it was among the rst passages read out loud to Adorno and Horkheimer
in late 1929 in K onigstein imTaunus froman early draft of the project.
3
It appears throughout
this period and is central to several texts related to the Arcades project, including the two
expos es (1935 and 1939), and his exchanges with Adorno related to them.
The central reason for this interest was that gambling and the gure of the gambler
represent a set of practices that are at once ancient and quintessentially modern. In his work
on Baudelaire, which was a central part of the Arcades and also published independently of
it, Benjamin notes the poets own preoccupation with the gambling gure in just this manner.
He cites a poem, Le Jeu, which presents the gambler as the characteristically modern
counterpart to the archaic image of the fencer; both are heroic gures to him (SW 4: 330).
Others also saw in the gambler something characteristically modern. Georg Simmels essay
The Adventure, rst published in 1911, lists the gambler, along with artist and lover, as part
of a type of individuals (adventurers) who seek an experience that stands outside the ordinary
chain of events in a life.
4
The search for transcendence is hardly new, but its association with
gambling brings it into a tension with the mundane and even morally suspect mechanisms of
everyday life.
The idea of appealing to the logic and experience of gambling as a modern phenomenon
to investigate and justify forms of life and belief that stand opposed to this view of modernity
perhaps has its origin in the famous section of Blaise Pascals Pens ees on The Wager.
5
There Pascal appeals to the libertines own logic to convince him that belief in the Christian
God is justied. In a certain sense the wager stands as an emblem of the work itself. Pascal
intends to convince his readers through rational argument that they should see its limitations
and accept through faith that revelation ought to be their primary guide. But there is a further
feature of Pascals argument that should be noted. It is not just that he uses reason against
itself. In the Wager section he uses a form of reasoning that is peculiarly modern and that
is deeply related to gambling: probability theory.
6
Pascal argues that a rational person must
bet on the existence of God because the stakes of disbelief are so high: The disbeliever gives
up the possibility of innite goods in the afterlife for the sake of nite goods in this world.
Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA:
Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), with reference to the convolute and citation system.
On occasion, references to the German edition, in Walter Benjamin, Gesammelte Schriften, ed. Rolf
Tiedeman and Herman Schweppenh auser, 7 vols. (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 19741991), cited
as GS with volume and page number.
3
See Letter 7 to Wiesengrund-Adorno, dated March 31, 1932. Theodor W. Adorno and Walter Ben-
jamin, The Complete Correspondence: 19281940, trans. Nicholas Walker, ed. Henri Lonitz (Cam-
bridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999), 15. Incidentally, K onigstein is not far fromBad Homburg,
whose famous casino was frequented by Dostoyevsky and is the setting of the opening scene of George
Eliots Daniel Deronda.
4
Georg Simmel, Simmel on Culture: Selected Writings, ed. David Frisby and Mike Featherstone
(London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1997). The editors discuss the essay in their
introduction (16).
5
Blaise Pascal, Pens ees, trans. A. J. Krailsheimer (London: Penguin Books, 1966), Series II, 14955.
6
For a profound study of this topic, see Ian Hacking, The Emergence of Probability (London: Cambridge
University Press, 1975).
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 263
What gambler in their right mind would do that?
7
It would seem that gambling is a pastime
devoted to the here and now, a perfect pastime that uses the endless calculations of prot and
gain that dene a life of negotium in the dawn of the new capitalist era. Yet what Pascal does
is turn our expectations inside out, by using the gamblers calculations to justify faith. It is
not that Christian belief stands against modernity, but rather that it has been transformed in
its encounter with it.
Benjamins discussion of gambling likewise places it within the context of the transfor-
mation of ancient practices into modern ones. Eric Downing has pointed out how gambling
is part of a larger set of conceptual relations around the practice of divination and magic.
8
Miriam Hansen has shown how signicant the idea of gambling is to the essay on The Work
of Art in the Age of Technical Reproducibility and to Benjamins understanding of cinema.
9
Both authors connect gambling to the larger theme of play [Spiel]. Indeed, others have
tied the playful activity of gambling to Benjamins enduring interest in childhood toys and
education.
10
Here I would like to relate the practice of gambling [Spiel] to Benjamins brief,
but intriguing, discussions of prophecy. Peter Fenves has examined the notion of prophecy in
Benjamins Trauerspiel book and related it to his interpretation of tragedy.
11
I will connect
this discussion to the Arcades project and the late works on Kafka and history. I think that
the analysis of gambling can shed some light on how we can nd meaning in the shards of
the immediate past of the modern world. In any case, what I share with these authors is the
awareness of how the investigation of past practices is itself constitutive of the modern world
and its possibilities. As Hansen puts it in her essay Room-for-Play:
This strategy arrests the dynamic of Benjamins distinctiveand distinctively
productivemode of thinking in which concepts are hardly ever stable or self-
identical; rather, they tend to overlap, blend, and interact with other concepts,
just as their meanings oscillate depending on the particular constellations in
which they are deployed. (5)
7
The question is whether God exists or not. If God exists, then while the disbeliever may enjoy nite
goods in this world, he will pay the price of his disbelief with innite punishment in the afterlife. If
God exists, the believer may have to give up nite goods in this world, but he will be innitely repaid
in the afterlife. If, however, God does not exist, the believer will lose the nite goods of this world
and enjoy nothing on his death. The disbeliever will enjoy his nite goods and likewise perish without
further consequences. But compare the stakes: The disbeliever is making a bet in which nite goods are
compared with innite goods. The rational man, Pascal argues, ought to always bet on the basis of the
expected payout. It would be a great mistake to give up the possibility of innite goods for the sake of
nite ones. So, he ought to bet on the existence of God.
8
Eric Downing, Divining Benjamin: Reading Fate, Graphology, Gambling, MLN 126 (2011): 51680.
9
Miriam Bratu Hansen, Room-for-Play: Benjamins Gamble with Cinema, October, 109 (2004):
345.
10
Heinz Br uggemann, Walter Benjamin

Uber Spiel, Farbe Und Phantasie (W urzburg: K onigshausen &
Neumann, 2007).
11
Peter Fenves, Tragedy and Prophecy in Benjamins Origin of the German Mourning Play, in
Benjamins Ghosts: Interventions in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, ed. Gerhard Richter
(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 23759.
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In other words, I draw on their insight that Benjamins argument does not work through the
dialectical opposition of binaries but rather juxtaposes them to produce new meanings.
In what follows I want to argue that gambling (and by implication the experience of the
gambler) has a double structure. On the one hand, it is the transformation of the old practice
of divination by modern means into something that represents a central feature of modern
capitalism and life in capitalism. On the other hand, since the modern practice of gambling
contains within it the ruins of a prior, even ancient experience, it is possible to transform
it again through making explicit the genealogy of the practice. It becomes the emblem of a
possible rupture in capitalistic society, one that has revolutionary political potential, precisely
because the untransformed practice is so ubiquitous.
GAMBLING BEFORE THE ARCADES PROJECT
Benjamins ideas on gambling seem to have come to him at an early stage in his thinking
around the time that he was dreaming about and planning for the Arcades Projectand he
does not change them as much as expand them in relation to other ideas that he had. So it
will pay off to take a look at a couple of texts about gambling that were written earlier.
But let me digress for a moment. The rst two texts that I think are most
relevantalthough they only obliquely mention gambling, if at allare two sections found
in One-Way Street, written from 192326 and published in 1928. The rst, Betting Ofce,
foreshadows the coupling of gambling with prostitution in Convolute O of the Arcades. Here
the connection is harder to see, for the only reference to gambling is in the section title itself.
The rest of the section discusses the privatization of the erotic in the institution of bourgeois
marriage. In the proletarian and the feudal type of wooing, the mans relation is less to the
object of his desire than to his competitors. There is a shift of erotic emphasis to the public
sphere (SW 1: 485). In contrast, bourgeois courtship is a silent, deadly serious transaction
between two persons alone, and is severed from all responsibility. The paradoxical result
is that all the erotic energy is not focused on the woman but displaced onto children and other
rivalries. In order to understand this passage I thought about the famous scenes in Luis
Bu nuels lm, The Discrete Charmof the Bourgeoisie (1972), in which people are shown into
private booths to eat while they sit on the toilet in public. This humorous and shocking image
suggests that the truth of our ordinary situationthe rigid bourgeois system of moresis in
fact the reverse of what it seems. Benjamins view seems to be that the attempt to privatize
the erotic connection only serves to produce a pathological public erotic energy.
12
The bet on
bourgeois marriage only serves to displace the erotic impulse. This insight is relevant to our
topic because gambling, as we shall see in the Arcades, also involves a profound squandering
of energy.
The other text fromOne-Way Street, Madame Ariane: Second Courtyard on the Left,
also announces a thematic that will have crucial importance later. The explicit theme of the
12
Benjamin makes the connection a bit more explicit in Arcades, O10a, 3, in which he comments on
the privacy of lottery shops with private booths: Even a husband and wife could be next to each other
and not even know.
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 265
passage is fortune-telling and, again, it involves displacement. The person looking to have
his fortune told unwittingly forfeits an inner intimation of coming events that is a thousand
times more exact than anything they may say, Benjamin writes (SW 1: 482). The entry is
complex and full of interesting details. But the main point is that omens, presentiments,
signals pass day and night through our organism like wave impulses and that the attempt to
mediate these feelings through language and any system of signs and meanings inevitably
distract us from what we already know in other, less articulate forms. Indeed, the knowledge
that we are seeking is not really knowledge of the future but what we know now. He writes,
[I]t is not with impunity that these intentions are exchanged, that unlived life
is handed over to cards, spirits, stars, to be in an instant squandered, misused,
and returned to us disgured; we do not go unpunished for cheating the body
of its power to meet the fates on its own ground and triumph . . . To turn the
threatening future into a fullled now . . . is a work of bodily presence of
mind. (SW 1: 483)
The term presence of mind [Geistesgegenwart] leads us to some of the most difcult
theoretical passages in the central Convolute N, On the Theory of Knowledge, Theory of
Progress, such as the promissory note in N7, 2 on its relation to the method of dialectical
materialism.
13
But more directly for our purposes it appears again in two crucial passages in
Convolute O. The rst is connected to the temporal dimension of gambling, and Benjamin
remarks that the speed of the game is dependent on the degree to which it depends on chance
and that this speed leads to a kind of intoxication [Rausch] of the gambler which is nothing
other than presence of mind (O12a, 2). The second cryptically develops this theme by
suggesting that the lowly activity of gambling ironically makes manifest a natural gift of
humanity, which is in fact presence of mind (O13, 3). We will have occasion below to
return to these passages.
If we turn to more direct mentions of gambling in the period 1928 to 1930 we nd two
texts. The rst, The Path to Success, in Thirteen Theses, deals explicitly with gambling in
thesis 11. (SW 2: 146; published 1928). There Benjamin writes,
The structure of all success is basically the structure of gambling [Hasard]. To
reject ones own name has always been the most thorough way to rid oneself of
ones inhibitions and feelings of inferiority. And gambling [Spiel] is precisely a
sort of steeplechase over the hurdles of ones own ego. The gambler [Spieler]
is nameless; he has no name of his own and requires no one elses. For he is
represented by the chips he places on specic numbers on the table . . . And
what intoxication it is in this city of opportunity [Chance], in this network of
good fortune [Gl uck], to multiply oneself, to make oneself ubiquitous and be on
the lookout for the approach of Lady Luck [Fortuna] at any one of ten different
street corners. (SW 2: 146; GS IV: 34952)
13
In N10a, 2 Benjamin appears to specify that presence of mind serves to defend materialism against
the constellation of dangers to the burden of tradition.
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Again, we see the paradoxical structure implicit in gambling: It is a solitary pleasure but
involves overcoming oneself through a process that leads to intoxication. These remarks are
in turned based on a more general theory of chance. Chance [Gl uck], Benjamin writes,
plays the same role that irregular verbs do in ordinary grammar. It is the surviving trace
of primeval energy (SW 2: 146). So, chance leads to intoxication, which unleashes some
vestige of energy that becomes part of the present, though it does not originate in it.
14
The second text, Notes on a Theory of Gambling [Notizen zu Einer Theorie Des
Spiels], was written in 1929 or 1930 and remained unpublished. However, like the other text
that I just briey examined, several of its key ideas and phrases are inserted directly into text
of Convolute O in the Arcades. It picks up and develops several themes that we have already
seen in nuce. Most importantly, I think, Benjamin expands the theme in Madame Ariane
of the physical dimension of divination. He interprets the gestures of gamblers in terms of
a broader theory of stimulation: What is decisive is the level of motor innervations, and
the more emancipated it is from optical perception, the more decisive it is. From this stems
a principal commandment for gamblers: they must use their hands sparingly, in order to
respond to the slightest innervations (SW 2: 297). Miriam Hansen, drawing partly on Susan
Buck-Morsss discussion, offers the most helpful gloss on this difcult term, innervation:
It functions as an antidoteand counterconceptto the technologically multiplied shock
and its anaesthetizing economy (50).
15
Although Freud also used it, it is less a term
of psychoanalysis as much as a bio-mechanical principle that grounds resistance of the
individual to rampant commodity culture.
16
The motions of the gambler are not based on
reason or on the eye but on tactile responses that bear the traces of past experience yet are
not determined by them. Benjamin then moves to a related point about time, noting that the
best that has been written about gambling focuses on the factor of acceleration, acceleration
and danger (SW 2: 298). Each motion of the gambler becomes faster in order to obliterate
the repetitive structure of its activity. Hence, gambling generates by way of experiment the
lightning quick process of stimulation at the moment of danger, the marginal case in which
presence of mind becomes divinationthat is to say, one of the highest, rarest moments in
life (SW 2: 298). All this nds a way back into Convolute O of the Arcades.
GAMBLING IN THE ARCADES PROJECT: THE FOUR ASPECTS
The Arcades Project is notorious for its rough-hewn form. It is compiled of quotations and
comments without any transitions or signposts that you would nd in a traditional book or
essay. However, that does not mean that we cannot discern a clear structure in the work, at
14
See Arcades, O13a, 5.
15
MiriamHansen, Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street, in Benjamins Ghosts: Interventions
in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Theory, ed. Gerhard Richter (Stanford, CA: Stanford University
Press, 2002), 4173.
16
See also the section on Gambling in Short Shadows (II), in which Benjamin talks about the
spark that leaps within the body from one point to the next, imparting movement now to this organ,
now to that one, concentrating the whole of existence and delimiting it (SW 2: 700).
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 267
least in the case of Convolute O on prostitution and gambling [Spiel]. Because Benjamin has
assembled many of his earlier, and often aphoristic, reections on the subject in these notes,
this folio is the most sustained and systematic treatment of the subject. The central theme
is that gambling (and by extension prostitution) has a double nature: It is both symptomatic
of modern capitalism and its economy of commodity exchange and bears latent within it a
primal power that can disrupt that very order. This theme is explored in four subsections,
each of which provides a distinct conceptual and genealogical analysis of the practice.
However, before we begin, we must make another important digression: Something
must be said about prostitution. The rst passage in the Convolute establishes the essential
link. Benjamin understands prostitution as entwined with gambling. The vagabond who
enters the arcade rst transforms it into a casino and then turns his gaze to women. Women
are described as mute objects, just like the numbers on the cloth of the gaming table. To
conclude the evening, the gambler leaves with bulging pockets, calls to a whore, and once
more celebrates in her arms the communion with number (O1, 1). Both in the gambling hall
and in the bordello, it is the same sinful delight: to challenge fate in pleasure (O1, 1). Only
in a few passages does Benjamin consider the point of view of the prostitute as an embodied
agent, and even then as part of a kind of utopian view of the future in which women would be
free of pregnancy, and perhaps even more available to men.
17
But there are two themes in the
passages on prostitution that both deepen our understanding of the practice of prostitution
and also its relation to gambling.
First, in a very telling fragment that explores the dialectical function of money
in prostitution (O1a, 4), Benjamin distinguishes between the conscious and unconscious
motives of prostitution, which in turn reect two functions of money. On the face of it,
prostitution involves an exchange of money for a service. If this were all there was to the
transaction, the prostitute could not count on making a living. The price is too low and the
expectation of a tip too uncertain. But the prostitute in fact earns far more than the stipulated
price. How then, Benjamin asks, in her unconscious understanding of men, does she
calculate? This, he answers, we cannot comprehend, so long as money is thought of here
as only a means of payment or a gift. The prostitutes service is sold, but the real price is
paid in service of hiding the clients shame of the act. Citing Casanova, Benjamin writes,
Impudence throws the rst coin on the table, and shame pays out a hundred more to cover
it. This physical gesture, as we shall see, is just like that of a gambler who places a bet on
the roulette wheel. The social meaning of the transaction is revealed not in the conscious
analysis of the odds of a pay-out but in unconscious expression of a different economy, that
of pleasure and shame.
Second, Benjamin conceives of prostitution as a kind of theater. He mentions a par-
ticular kind of brothel that specialized in offering cocottes . . . whose job it was to play the
part of girls that appeared to be from good families (O2, 1).
In fact, they were not disposed to let down their masks too quickly, prefer-
ring instead to wrap themselves in endless layers of respectability and family
17
See O2, 3 and O11a, 2.
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connection; to strip these away entailed an elaborate game of intrigues that ulti-
mately served to raise the womens price. What is expressed in these relations,
it goes without saying, is less the periods pruderie than its fanatical love of
masquerade. (O2, 1)
Benjamin catalogues the various lures of the prostitutehats, ribbonsas well as its dis-
guises (O6a, 1), and offers a digression on the economic history of shawls, which are essential
to the glittering captivity of city life (O8a, 2). It is no accident that prostitutes like to wear
them, along with a feathered hat, as they enter a house of debauchery, which they later
leave wearing only a gray gown or rustic weeds (O6a, 2). Like goods on display in store
windows, prostitutes are part of the constantly changing visage of the city, yet they also em-
body its libidinous economy. As Benjamin notes, Love for the prostitute is the apotheosis
of empathy with the commodity (O11a, 4). Gambling also presents itselfin the form of
the stock marketas a respectable part of bourgeois public life, but then reveals itself as
a practice that satises rather different urges. But neither gambling nor prostitution can be
dened simply in terms of the hidden truth of the vice, for the practice is constituted through
the playful relation of the surface to the interior. The shawl denes the prostitute just as
much as what is underneath. It is the imposition and the unveiling of masks that makes the
prostitute alluring. Both prostitution and gambling are forms of play in which unconscious
forces are revealed in a ritualistic game that possesses a double value, one expressed in terms
of the exchange values in a capitalistic economy, the other in terms of unleashing a hidden
and vestigial energy.
The various fragments on prostitution complement and pregure the more systematic
analysis that we nd on gambling. The rst category of analysis is the history of gambling
itself. Gambling and prostitution are signicant because they serve an index of the develop-
ment of capitalism and also of its decay. Above all, gambling is not just a symbol of the stock
market but essential to its very mechanism. Benjamin quotes Paul Lafargues book at length
on the subject in O4, 1. The process of winning and losing in the stock market resembles
gambling and one even calls it playing the market. But it is more than mere resemblance, for
modern economic development transforms capitalism into a giant international gambling
house, in which the capitalist is a professional gambler (O4, 1).
In the essay On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, which grew directly out of his work
on the Arcades project, Benjamin takes us out of the realms of high nance and compares
the gambler to a factory laborer. Both kinds of motion are marked by drudgery and lack of
substance, and both are constituted by repeated gestures, each one cut off from the other (SW
4: 32930). This leads him to reect that The process of continually starting all over again
is the regulative idea of gambling, as it is of work for wages (SW 4: 331). The focus is not
on the concepts involved in the system of labor and exchange but directly on the body and
its mechanics.
Buried within this development, however, are the ruins of an earlier age of these
practices, which might inform us now. Benjamin compares the contemporary erotic eld of
action with that of the mid-nineteenth century. The utopian dream of free love is again
invoked as a kind of countercurrent to the present state of affairs. Indeed, the games of
masquerade played by the cocottes belong to a time long gone. Once we have unearthed the
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 269
practices of the past we will not be able to imitate themfor the material conditions have
irrevocably changedbut we might be able to incorporate them in gestures, because, in a
sense, aspects of them are already present in us.
18
The second category is the relation of gambling to religion. We have already heard
Lafargues analysis of capitalism as a giant casino. But we stopped right before he reached
the conclusion, which was that, despite his apparent sophistication, the modern capitalist, due
to his ignorance, is unable to fathom all the complexities of the market and hence he is prone
to superstition (O4, 1). Those who habituate casinos always possess magic formulas to
conjure the Fates, whether prayers to saints, rabbit feet, or some other superstitious practice.
Benjamin cites Anatole France, who also points out the ways in which gambling has taken
on all the trappings and even the structure of religion. It gives and it takes away; its logic is
not our logic. It is dumb and blind and deaf. It is almighty. It is a God. . . . It has its votaries
and its saints (O4a).
Lafargue and France both appear to analyze this phenomenon in standard Enlighten-
ment terms. Men are ignorant, even in an age of a modern capitalist economy, which makes
them prone to superstition. They not only pray to God to deliver them from the fears and
uncertainties of their lives, but they transform the central practices of modern capitalism
itself into cult objects. The antidote would be to dispel this superstitious mysticism through
a strong dose of reason, and thereby free ourselves from it.
Although Benjamin recognizes these dynamics in modern society, he does not prescribe
this cure. Or, to put it more carefully, he does not rest satised with dispelling superstition.
First of all, we are truly in the thrall of them and we cannot so easily destroy them. But even
more importantly, there is something potentially valuable in this experience, something that
is not identical with its superstitious elements. The genealogical description of gambling and
prostitution is supposed to identify some key elements of them that can be redeemed without
destroying them.
19
This is the signicance of the section on rites de passage (O2, 1). In
the modern world the transitions involved in key events, birth, marriage, puberty, and death,
have been lost to experience. That is, we no longer have a meaningful language that can mark
them. But we still have experiences that can remind us of their signicance and so it might
be possible to revive our sense of appropriate language. It is no accident that here Benjamin
refers to the surrealist Louis Aragon and his book Paysan de Paris. When we are in the throes
of sexual love we can be powerfully reminded of these threshold [Schwelle] experiences.
It brings us back to the zone between dreaming and awakening. Thus the prostitute serves an
important role, for her power is to create these zones of transition, perhaps through the art
of masquerade that marked the previous form of the practice, which is now only present in
ruins.
This is not just a simple matter of reinstituting religious rites (or something that
resembles them) in the modern world. Benjamin sometimes seems to complain that traditions
have been profoundly disrupted. An important passage in this regard is K1, 1, a complicated
18
See W8, 3, to which I will return later.
19
For a survey of the concept of redemption in Benjamins work, see Heinrich Kaulen, Rettung, in
Benjamins Begriffe, ed. Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla, vol. 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp,
2000), 61963. It has only a relatively brief discussion of the concept in the Arcades.
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VOLUME 87, NUMBER 3 / 2012
section that discusses awakenings, dreams, and the problem of remembering tradition. In
the past, Benjamin explains, people had a side turned toward dreams and the education
of earlier generations explained these dreams for them in terms of tradition, of religious
doctrine. In the present day, by contrast, education simply amounts to the distraction of
children (K1, 1). But Benjamin is not simply suggesting that we return to tradition, as if
that were even possible. The challenge is to nd ways that can reawaken our sense of the
past without creating a new pathology. One crucial feature of the threshold experience, as
Benjamin sees it, is that it must hold in the same hand two discontinuous kinds of experience,
including, as we shall see later, two distinct conceptions of time, one archaic, rooted in the
body, the other modern and discontinuous, expressed in the exchange economy of capitalism.
Interestingly enough, the gambler or prostitute might be able to serve that function in some
way through reminding us of the phenomenology of the threshold experience and its double
function.
The third category is the psychoanalytical explanation of gambling. Here, too,
Benjamin remains rather equivocal, citing some texts without offering us too much com-
mentary to guide our interpretation of them. Nonetheless, the same pattern emerges. Psy-
choanalysis diagnoses a pathology in gambling, but it also, perhaps unwittingly, discloses a
potentially redeeming factor. The rst thing to notice is that Edmund Berglers psychoana-
lytic interpretation of gambling cited by Benjamin includes a religious aspect, in which one
of the traditional attributes of God is internalized. The gambler, he writes, is driven by
essentially narcissistic and aggressive desires for omnipotence, and this exceeds a similar
desire in the desire for coitus in two respects: First, there are no natural reasons why it might
lead to dissatisfaction over time, as in the case of the dwindling desire for coitus; and second,
the suffering involved in games of chance does not lead to the release, however temporary,
of this desire (O11, 1). The gambler feels himself a godlike gure, who apparently can seek
endless, if ultimately fruitless, occasions for conrmation of his power. On the other hand,
Bergler argues, The game of chance represents the only occasion on which the pleasure
principle, and the omnipotence of its thoughts and desires, need not be renounced. Games
of chance are an occasion for the pleasure principle to get its revenge on an authority gure
for having imposed a reality principle on it (O11, 2). The only problem is that the reality
principle tends to reassert itself: The passion for gambling thus serves an autoerotic satis-
faction, wherein betting is foreplay, winning is orgasm, and losing is ejaculation, defecation,
and castration (O11a, 1).
20
Benjamin does not need to follow any particular doctrine in
20
This ambivalence of gambling pleasure is illustrated in the following passage: The peculiar feeling of
happiness in the one who wins is marked by the fact that money and riches, otherwise the most massive
and burdensome things in the world, come to him from the fates like a joyous embrace returned to the
full. They can be compared to words of love from a woman altogether satised by her man. Gamblers
are types to whom it is not given to satisfy the woman. Isnt Don Juan a gambler? (O13, 4). Winning
leads to an overwhelming moment of pleasure in which fate is found to be on our side. But the next
moment the gambler may lose and he is back to a state of suffering and dissatisfaction that, unlike the
sexual urge, is never diminished and only leads to more of the same. The reality principle eventually
reasserts itself. The ideas of the joyous embrace and the challenge that pleasure gives to fate are also
found in the key O1, 1 passage.
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 271
this matter. Although psychoanalysts tend to classify gambling as a pathology, Benjamin
takes care to point out the deep role that the pleasure principle plays in it, and that suggests
some other possibilities, which he explores either in terms of bio-mechanics or in terms of
philosophical analysis.
The fourth subtheme devoted to gambling develops closely out of the analysis of its
religious genealogy. Benjamin, like many of his time, was deeply inuenced by various forms
of the phenomenological analysis of experience. He does not practice phenomenology as
Husserl did, that is, as an attempt to bracket empirical experience in order to discover the a
priori grounds of our intuition of that experience. Rather, he develops a richer language that
mixes philosophical insight with empirical observation that borrows from history, literature,
and psychology.
We have already seen some of the negative observations about gambling in this vein.
The gambler resembles the factory laborer in his repetitive, apparently mindless motions.
Benjamin provides a more detailed description of this aspect of gambling in the essay on
Baudelaire:
Even the workers gesture produced by the automated work process appears in
gambling, for there can be no game without the quick movement of the hand by
which the stake is put down or a card is picked up. The jolt in the movement of
the machine is like the so-called coup in a game of chance. The hand movement
of the worker at the machine has no connection with the preceding gesture for
the very reason that it repeats the gesture exactly. Since each operation at the
machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game
of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the laborer is, in its
own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. Both types of work are
equally devoid of substance. (SW 4: 330)
These gures are only able to act through reex actions. They live their lives as automatons
and resemble Bergsons ctitious characters who have completely liquidated their memories
(SW 4: 330). Time has been broken down into endless unfullled moments, each of which
has no more value to us than the other.
Benjamin counterbalances these pessimistic descriptions with a different reading of
the phenomena, one that picks out and emphasizes different aspects of the experience. We
have already seen the role that the idea of innervation plays. Benjamin inserts this concept
without naming it explicitly in O12a, 2, where he notes the reexive behavior on the part of
the gambler . . . [which] is more like that of the knee to the hammer in the patellar reex.
Contained within the repetitive motions of the gambler is a different kind of stimulation,
one that moves his body to act without rational direction. Indeed, in an earlier convolute,
Benjamin makes reference to Prousts conception of the involuntary memory [m emoire
involuntaire] and the possibility of using it over and against the rational ordering of things
(K8a, 1). According to Proust, the voluntary memory, which is tied to the intellect, preserves
nothing of the past itself. And so the past is hidden somewhere outside the realm, beyond the
reach, of intellect . . . in some material object (K8a,1). It then depends on chance whether
someone encounters the object or not and activates the hidden memory. Is not this exactly
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VOLUME 87, NUMBER 3 / 2012
the structure of a game of chance? In his descriptions of gambling Benjamin highlights the
activity of objects on the gambler: What, on the baize cloth, looks out at the gambler from
every number . . . winks at him is nothing but luck itself as it is hidden in the objects of the
game (O1, 1).
The most signicant aspect of Benjamins redescription of gambling is found in his
discussion of the experience of time within it. He cites Anatole Frances denition with
apparent approbation:
Well, what is gambling . . . but the art of producing in a second the changes that
Destiny ordinarily effects only in the course of many hours or even many years,
the art of collecting into a single instant the emotions dispersed throughout the
slow-moving existence of ordinary men, the secret of living a whole lifetime in
a few minutesin a word, the genies ball of thread? Gambling is a hand-to-
hand encounter with Fate . . . The stake is moneyin other words, immediate,
innite possibilities. (O4a, 1)
The gambler concentrates a lifetime of experience into a single roll of dice or turn of the
cards. For France, as we have seen, this makes the gambler particularly prone to superstition.
Since so much is at stake and so little is known about what will occur in the future, the
gambler turns to votaries for succor. But for Benjamin, the concentration of experience
into this vital moment can have a different effect, one that disrupts the ordinary perception
of time.
Benjamin interprets the hidden possibility of the game in terms of his distinction
between two kinds of experience, which rely on two conceptions of time. On the one
hand, there is experience dened by the continuum of events. Its continuity is determined,
psychologically speaking, by the voluntary memory, which links events together under the
purview of rationality. On the other hand, there is the singular experience that somehow
breaks loose from this continuum. It is the involuntary memory dened by a reex or gesture
that is not rational but a passion. Gambling (i.e., the gamblers reexive reaction to chance
in the game) functions as the shock that loosens the experience from its context: The
wager is a means of conferring shock value on events [Ereignissen], of loosing them from the
contexts of experience [Erfahrungszusammenh angen] (O13, 5). In Convolute O, Benjamin
tends to use the German term Erfahrung to denote the rst kind of experience and the term
Erlebnis to denote the second.
21
In citation O13a, 4, Benjamin cites J. Joubert to distinguish
the two kinds of time that are at the basis of each kind of experience. A persons Erfahrung
is the basis of terrestrial or worldly time, while the gamblers time, which is nothing other
than the moment of wish-fulllment, is time even in eternity. In the late Baudelaire essay,
21
Erlebnis is used in O12a, 1The lack of consequences that denes the character of the isolated
experience [Erlebnis] found drastic expression in gamblingand in O14, 4, where it is coupled with
Chock as it is J53a, 4 in the Convolute on Baudelaire. Benjamin does not seem to always be consistent
on this score. In On Some Motifs in Baudelaire, he seems to talk about Erfahrung in the same way
that he talks in O about Erlebnis: But it is experience [Erfahrung] that accompanies one to the far
reaches of time (SW 4: 331).
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 273
there is a further comment on this distinction: whereas worldly time destroys, eternal time
completes (SW 4: 331). Benjamin further complicates this idea when, in the last citation
of Convolute O, he writes: The ideal of the shock-engendered experience [Chockf ormigen
Erlebnisses] is the catastrophe. This becomes very clear in gambling: by constantly raising
the stakes, in hopes of getting back what is lost, the gambler steers toward absolute ruin
(O14, 4). Whereas Erfahrung links a person with others in a continuity of past with present,
Erlebnis disrupts these connections and isolates. The gambler seeks through his reexive
experience the annihilation not just of his money but of time itself in the moment of eternity.
GAMBLING AND PROPHECY
Benajmin cites descriptions of gambling in terms that are clearly reminiscent of prophecy.
This passage is especially suggestive: The passion for gambling is the is the noblest of all
passions . . . These joys, vivid and scorching as lightening [ eclairs] . . . If it is a voyage,
it is like that of an electric spark [ etincelle electrique] . . . I have spiritual pleasures, and I
want no others (O2a, 5). In the Jewish tradition, at least, it is a commonplace to describe
prophecy with the accompanying gure of a lightning bolt.
22
Although Benjamin does
not discuss prophecy directly in the Arcades, he did elsewhere. In the book Origin of the
German Mourning Play, Benjamin writes that Tragedy is a preliminary stage of prophecy
(119).
23
In this work, however, Benjamin does not have an idea of prophecy that is clearly
distinct from other practices of divination. He discusses prophetic ability quite generally
and links it to the activity of divination through the common origin of melancholy (147).
In 1929 Benjamin published Short Shadows (I) [Kurze Schatten (I)], which devotes one
section to On Belief in Things That Have Been Prophesied [weissagt]. Here again we see
the characteristic mixture of divination and prediction, which is expressed not only in the
corrupt practices of fortune-tellers, but also in the neon lights of modern capitalism. What is
distinctive in this discussion is the idea that the prophet is someone who approaches us with
a whole boxful of exotic masks, and it is the fascination of looking out through these masks
that attracts us to them (SW 2: 271). This theme ties the prophet to the prostitute, as we saw
earlier. It is precisely the illusory appeal of living life differently than it has been given to
us by fate that makes it so seductive. In the complement to this piece, Short Shadows (II),
published four years later, Benjamin links gambling [Das Spiel] to the spark of prophesy:
Gambling [Spiel], like every other passion, can be recognized by the way in which the spark
[der Funke] leaps within the body from one point to the next, imparting movement now to
22
This is true in the Bible (see Ezekial 1:14), and certainly among the mystics (who used the idea of the
chariot journey as described in Ezekial as the trope of their visionMaaseh Merkavahand drew on
other images in this key passage), as well as the philosophers, such as Moses Maimonides, who in the
Introduction to the Guide for the Perplexed explicitly uses lightning ashes to describe the nature
of prophetic knowledge.
23
Walter Benjamin, The Origin of German Tragic Drama, trans. John Osborne (London: Verso, 1998).
For discussion, see Fenves, Tragedy and Prophecy in Benjamins Origin of the German Mourning
Play.
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this organ, now to that one, concentrating the whole of existence and delimiting it (SW 2:
700). He describes gambling as something done not for any gain or manipulative purpose, as
he does fortune-telling, but as a pure game of the senses in which the gambler is attuned in
nervous expectation to fortune itself. The gamblers goal is not to escape Lady Luck but to
become her Knight [Kavalier]. Benjamin is obviously not interested in or able to comment
on the particular nature of prophesy within the Jewish tradition. But he uses the traditional
language of prophetic illumination in relation to the apparently mundane vice of gambling
for a quite specic reason: He thinks that gambling, as a modern form of divination, can
serve as a modern mode of prophesy.
We might think of the special epistemic status of prophecy as based on a hierarchy
of levels of knowledge. There is the ordinary knowledge found in created nature, which we
can discover through sense experience and reason; and there is the supernatural knowledge
that comes from above the natural world and interrupts the ordinary course of events. The
former is science; the latter is revelation, which is received directly or indirectly through
those endowed with a special gift, the prophet.
In the modern world, however, this hierarchy of knowledge and the special status
reserved for revelation has come under attack. The problem of religion in the modern world
is, as Weber suggested, the problem of disenchantment. This process has been driven by the
capitalist systemin which the value of everything is leveled into a single currency of exchange
value. In this analysis, disenchantment involves the collapsing of the different registers of
knowledgealong with their corresponding experiencesinto a single one. There is a
mystication of this exchange value, which is presented in the idea of phantasmagoria,
which involves the illusion or distortion of value precisely in the obfuscation of its history as
an object produced in time through labor. But this is just an ersatz religion.
24
Superstition
perseveres in the modern world, and it becomes entrenched as an ideological appendage of
the capitalist order. More specically, the problem of prophecy or revelation in the modern
world is that the disenchantment of the world through capitalism has made it difcult to
see how revelation could be meaningfully asserted. Revelation depends on the possibility of
a transcendent meaning, that is, something that has a fundamentally different and superior
register than that of ordinary experience. Is it possible to restore the idea of revelation in the
modern world?
Benjamin believed that it was necessary to re-enchant the world in the sense that
the hegemony of capitalist experience, which reduced all things to commodities, had to be
disrupted and that other registers of experience needed to be brought into play. He rejected
attempts to revive religious life directly. As Martin Jay has argued, Benjamin and his friend
Kracauer were highly critical of Martin Bubers and Franz Rosenzweigs attempt to provide a
newtranslation of the HebrewBible in German, one that would through the German language
24
For a good, succinct discussion of this concept and its relation to Benjamin, see Edward S. Cutler,
Recovering the New: Transatlantic Roots of Modernism (Hanover, NH, and London: University of New
Hampshire/University Press of New England, 2003), 5859.
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 275
reinvigorate the ancient text in the modern world.
25
This is naive. In the end Benjamin also
seems to have rejected his friend Gershom Scholems attempt to revive Jewish mysticism in
service of a new counternarrative of Judaism that would combat the dominant and ossifying
rationalism. Instead, Benjamin tries to pry open the capitalist order from within through
discovering the hidden and latent resources of the modern world.
This is the purpose of his historical materialist account of gambling. We see this quite
clearly in this passage from the Arcades:
The proscription of gambling could have its deepest roots in the fact that a natu-
ral gift of humanity, one which, directed toward the highest objects, elevates the
human being beyond himself, only drags him down when applied to one of the
meanest objects: money. The gift in question is presence of mind [Geistesge-
genwart]. Its highest manifestation is the reading [das Lesen] that in each case
is divinatory [divinatorisch]. (O13, 2)
26
Revelation can only be reasserted in the modern world through the discovery of a transcen-
dent experience and meaningthat is, something that has a fundamentally different and
superior register than that of ordinary experiencewithin the mundane world. The analysis
of gambling shows us how what appears to be an ordinary experience is in effect full of the
possibility of something else that can disrupt the world entirely.
As we have seen, Benjamin intends to defend the essential epistemological status of
prophecy against its erosion in the modern world. Gambling is an example of howa mundane
object of the modern capitalist form of life can be redeemed through an analysis of its hidden
history, which in turn reveals the latent possibilities it holds within its experience. But it is
also a crucial element of prophecy or divination that it is communicated from those who
experience it directly to those who do not. How does this happen on a mass scale? I shall
return to this problem in the next, concluding section. Here I only want to point out that
Benjamin is quite aware of this in the context of other contemporary debates about the status
of prophecy. More specically, there is a question of how prophetic knowledge can serve as
an example that others can follow. In the following passage, Benjamin provides an answer:
In connection with Fourierist pedagogy, one should perhaps investigate the
dialectic of the example: although the example as model [Musterbeispiel] (in the
moralists sense) is pedagogically worthless, if not disastrous, the gestic example
[gestisches Beispiel] can become the object of a controllable and progressively
assimilable imitation, one that possesses the greatest signicance. (W8, 3)
25
Martin Jay, Politics of Translation: Siegfried Kracauer and Walter Benjamin on the Buber-
Rosenzweig Bible, in Permanent Exiles: Essays on the Intellectual Migration fromGermany to America
(New York: Continuum, 1985), 198216.
26
For other mentions of Geistesgegenwart see the essay on Karl Kraus (GS II: 339), the essay on
Proust (GS II: 320), and The Work of Art in the Age of its Reproducibility (GS VII: 379, note 16).
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Obviously gambling is not the kind of experience that can serve as a moral example.
In fact, the gambler is morally problematic for a good reason. But the shocking innervation
that is central to the experience of gambling can communicate to us on a different register. It
communicates the possibility of eternal time, in which fate has made pleasure rule supreme,
in the gesture of a person throwing the dice.
27
Finally, although we usually think of prophecy as the divination or prediction of a
future time, Benjamin turned our gaze backward into history. The prophetic gesture enacted
by Benjamins study of the gambler is to reveal a latent possibility in the past. In this way, his
method is consistent with his important letter to Scholem about Kafka, where he writes: He
was not far-sighted, and had no visionary gift [translated by Zohn as prophetic vision].
Kafka listened attentively to traditionand he who strains to listen does not see (SW 3:
326). Many would like to read Kafka as a visionary, someone who predicted the future. But
Benjamin points out that Kafka is prophetic in another sense: he has looked attentively at the
past and his literature serves as a gestic example, from which we can learn about ourselves
now.
CONCLUSION: GAMBLING AND THE POSSIBILITY OF A REVOLUTIONARY
POLITICS
It seems hard to imagine that what might be a transcendent or transformative experience
for the individual in either gambling or, by analogy, prostitution, could serve as the basis
of political program of any kind, one that involves collective action toward a specic set of
ends. Benjamin, of course, challenges us to rethink what we mean by political action. One
thing that the denition of political action that I just posited assumes is the idea of action
toward an end. Benjamin makes the claim, which is central to his critique of historicism, that
he is trying to break the spell of natural teleology (W7, 4). How to conceive of action that has
no natural end is a difcult problem for a practical reason. If we put the emphasis on natural,
then the claim could be construed as follows: that the rst step in discovering a new set of
ends is to overcome the present view that our ends are natural and not artices. If we put the
emphasis on end, then the problem is perhaps more difcult, for it requires Benjamin to give
an account of actionand political action in particularthat does not even implicitly depend
on this concept. Perhaps his phenomenological account of gambling as disrupting linear time
is supposed to be a start in this direction. Be that as it may, the more immediate question
would be why the account of gamblingcomposed of historical, religious, psychoanalytical,
and philosophical levelsis more than anything but an inquiry into a relatively uncommon
experience. Benjamin has argued that gambling reveals certain central features of modern
27
The concept of fate [Schicksal] is discussed by Downing, especially as it relates to the early works,
and also in Lorenz J ager, Schicksal, in Benjamins Begriffe, ed. Michael Opitz and Erdmut Wizisla,
vol. 2 (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2000), 72539. J ager notes the connection between Schicksal
and Vorhersagung in a relatively early (1920) set of theses (737). Benjamin suggests there that the
two concepts are united in a moment in which the past, present, and future are rendered simultaneous
(gleichzeitig) (GS VI: 91).
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BENJAMINS WAGER ON MODERNITY 277
experience itself. But that alone is not enough to ground political action. It would require
many people (the masses) somehow to become aware that the experience of a small number
of people relates to their own as a kind of metonym. It cannot be, as Miriam Hansen reminds
us, that innervations ought to be interpreted primarily as practices of reading or writing,
even if we add a psychoanalytical aspect to them.
28
That would be an unwarranted reduction
of the scope of the project. In her view, if we read innervations as psycho-social processes
that are expressed between the lines in our sensory experience, then cinema can become the
tool of transformation (70).
29
This is a nice solution to the problem, since it brings a mass
technology into play. But it is itself limited, because it suggests that for Benjamin political
transformation must be mediated through the aesthetic sphere. And the question arises of why
those who are not already committed to the avant-garde would engage with its problematic.
Of course, the state might require this engagement through control of the media, but that
begs the question. If the goal is, in part, to transform the state, then how could we use it to
make that transformation possible? Another approach to this problem has been suggested by
Susan Buck-Morss
30
:
If the aneur has disappeared as a specic gure, it is because the perceptive
attitude which he embodied saturates modern existence, specically, the society
of mass consumption (and is the source of its illusions). The same can be
argued for all of Benjamins historical gures. In commodity society all of us
are prostitutes, selling ourselves to strangers; all of us are collectors of things.
(104)
We are all gamblers due to our intimate and ever-expanding involvement in the capitalist
economy as speculators and consumers.
31
If that is true, then the excavation of the experience
of gambling may indeed have collective meaning. It is not clear how this process would work
on a large scale and how it would escape the fate either of applying to only a small minority
or of requiring the intervention of media, which, as just noted, has its own problems. One
does not know if and how it will work exactly, but you have to place your bet to nd out what
happens. In a sense this brings us back full circle to Pascal, who suggested that, given the
28
Hansen, Benjamin and Cinema: Not a One-Way Street, 70.
29
Benjamins use of the German word Funke to denote the spark of innervations in gambling (see Kurz
Schatten (II); SW2: 700; GS IV: 426) resonates both with the traditional idea of the prophetic lightening
strike and with the modern technology of radio [Rundfunk] as a tool of mass communication.
30
Susan Buck-Morss, The Flaneur, the Sandwichman and the Whore: The Politics of Loitering, New
German Critique 39, Special Issue on Walter Benjamin (1986): 99140.
31
In his notes on the making of the lm 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), Jean-Luc Godard
makes a similar point about prostitution: To return to this lm about the housing complexes, the thing
that most excited me was that the anecdote it tells coincides basically with one of my most deep-rooted
theories. The idea that, in order to live in Parisian society today, at whatever level or on whatever plane,
one is forced to prostitute oneself one way or another, or else to live according to conditions resembling
those of prostitution. Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, trans. TomMilne, ed. TomMilne (London:
Da Capo Press, 1986), 239.
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stakes involved, the libertine ought to act as if he were a Christian. If reason, in the form of
the wager, cannot persuade him to change his mind, then he can behave just as if they did
believe, taking holy water, having masses said, and so on. That will make you believe quite
naturally (Pens ees, 152).
Benjamin is thus making a double wager with modernity. He is betting that the situation
of the gambler is not only an illuminating liminal experience but has become constitutive of
the modern world itself. We are all gamblers in a sense. If that is right, then the second bet is
that we can nd a way to discover the hidden treasure of that experience, one that will disrupt
the hegemony of capitalist commodity culture. It is a paradoxical feature of this modernity
that it requires that we look not toward the future but back to the past, both of the individual
and of the collective.
University of Washington
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