Alan N. Shapiro, Autonomy in the Digital Society

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Donald Trump Casino Owner: seduced to losing by the lure of winning, by Alan N. Shapiro

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I originally published this essay in February 2016. I deleted it about a year ago out of fear of threats from the cult. I have now decided to reinstate it.

Easy Money

Many of my readers know that I wrote two sociology doctoral dissertation manuscripts in my life (but never submitted them to my university!… what??). One was a media sociology and “literary sociology” work on Star Trek. This project became the 350-page published book Star Trek: Technologies of Disappearance, praised by the academic journal Science Fiction Studies in a long review-essay in 2005 as the leading work in the field of “science fiction theory.”

My other doctoral dissertation project was a sociological study of the casino industry in Atlantic City which I undertook in the mid-1980s.

This was around the same time that Donald Trump became the owner of Atlantic City casinos.

I have never before published any excerpts from my “sociology of casino gambling” manuscript. But now seems like an appropriate moment to do so. It strikes me that there is nearly an exact parallel between those who gamble in a casino and the current supporters of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. The gamblers are seduced into the casino by the promise and lure of winning easy money. They are told that they have a good chance to become winners. In reality, the casino only cares about itself. Nearly 100% of the players end up as losers. They get fleeced and come away with less than nothing.

During the current Presidential campaign in 2016, a lot of journalists and commentators keep pointing out again and again that Trump is a liar, etc. That may all be true, but it doesn’t make a dent in the number of  his supporters.

This reminds me of Jean Baudrillard’s comments throughout his work (for example, in Fatal Strategies) on the difference between critical theory discourse and what Baudrillard called “fatal theory”: in other words, the ineffectiveness of critical theory discourse. Since Trump is the candidate of Reality TV (what Baudrillard in his last works called Telemorphosis), of the celebrity culture, of media hyper-reality entertainment, in other words simulation… invoking the “truth” against him doesn’t work as a strategy! (we are in hyper-reality where, in a sense, there is no more truth)

Because Trump is already more “advanced” than the discourse of truth. The only way to bring him down would be to, in some way, out-Trump Trump. More hyper-real than the hyper-real. More simulation than simulation. That is our motto. (to paraphrase Tyrell in Blade Runner)

Some written material on the sociology of Atlantic City casino gambling will serve as my modest contribution to this effort.

In 1982, Donald Trump acquires an Atlantic City, New Jersey casino license.

In 1984, Harrah’s at Trump Plaza opens, a $210 million dollar and 39 story hotel-casino.

In 1985, Trump’s Castle hotel-casino opens.

In 1986, Harrah’s is renamed to Trump Plaza.

1990 – the Trump Taj Mahal hotel-casino opens in Atlantic City. It is the largest casino in the world and the tallest building in the state of New Jersey. 17 acres, $1 billion.

1996 – Trump’s World’s Fair casino opens next to the Trump Plaza.

In 1976, voters in the state of New Jersey passed a referendum approving the legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City. Resorts International Casino – the first legal casino in the eastern half of the United States – opened in 1978. The legalization of casino gambling in Atlantic City was but one example of the sudden explosion of gambling social institutions in American society in the 1970s. In addition to traditional gambling like thoroughbred and harness racetracks, dog tracks, wagering on sports events, illegal numbers games, sports pools and cards, bingo, jai alai, and off-track betting, America now was inundated with State-run lotteries and numbers games, private-sector sweepstakes, contests, lucky number drawings, gas station games, raffles, corporate giveaway, free vacation drawings, bottle-cap prizes, and newspaper contests. This was the new “gambling society.”

Most of the sociological literature on gambling (Jay Livingston, Compulsive Gamblers and Henry Lesieur, The Chase, for example) approached gambling as pathology or deviant behavior. These studies posited a strict dichotomy between so-called compulsive gambling (people who ruin their lives) and “normal” gambling (an allegedly harmless passion, pastime or leisure activity). There is some validity to this approach. My perspective was that of placing the sociology of casino gambling within the context of the study of consumer culture (Boorstin, Barthes, Baudrillard, Simondon, McLuhan, Umberto Eco, etc.)

The Consumer Society

Until the 1970s, social science research concerning consumption took its cue from classical economics: the rational consumer appropriated real objects in pursuit of the satisfaction of needs. Consumption was even regarded as secondary to the more pressing issues of expansion, growth, and the workplace. It was assumed that consumption would attain its own functional equilibrium: the consumer would respond spontaneously and rationally to the increased availability of goods in the marketplace.

This view started to change with works like Fred Hirsch, The Social Limits to Growth, William Leiss, The Limits of Satisfaction, and Tibor Scitovsky, The Joyless Economy. In the commodity-intensive situation of late capitalism, the ‘naturalistic’ assumption of a rational consumer seeking to optimize the satisfation of her needs seems more than a little naive. We live now in a culture where experience is mediated through forms, and where images, signs, messages, designed environments, and controlled leisure constitute our social relations and life-world.

In the 1970s, seminal anthropologists studying our contemporary society such as Marshall Sahlins and Mary Douglas intimated that consumer activity is the locus of symbolic proceses and the generation of a universe of values. After subsistence has been reached, material possessions become purveyors of social meaning in the collective classification system of objects and the structuring of design patterns of social life.

The neo-Marxist Frankfurt School of Critical Theory provided the classic statement on “the culture industry” in the book Dialectic of Enlightenment by Horkheimer and Adorno. The Critical Theory approach grappled with concepts such as alienation, reification (Lukacs), commodity fetishism, instrumental reason, false consciousness, and the administered society. Guy Debord’s “society of the spectacle” and Jean Baudrillard’s “simulation” are cultural theory concepts which also derive from the tradition of analysis of the concept of commodification. In works such as The Authoritarian Personality, Adorno and colleagues also provided guidelines for empirical sociological research, undertaking concrete studies of how the dominating social structures are present in people’s experiences in detailed ways. Some have criticized the Frankfurt School of sociology for being pessimistic about the possibilities for social change, and perhaps for being too elitist.

On the other hand, those sociologists who did not engage seriously with the perspective of the Frankfurt School ended up with guileless celebrations of consumerism and advertising (such as The Society of Mass Consumption by George Katona or Advertising and Social Change by Ronald Berman), neo-conservative yearnings for religious revival to save us from the hedonistic culture of postmodernism (such as The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism by Daniel Bell), or Maxist-populist declarations of faith in the imminent emergence of the democratic socialist potential of television, the mass media and so-called “useful” commodities (such as The Consciousness Industry by Hans-Magnus Enzensberger).

What was needed instead were studies which began to dissect particular phenomena of consumer culture, inspired perhaps by cultural histories of the department store or international tourism, for example, or by a thinker such as Michel de Certeau, who, in The Invention of Everyday Life, outlined a semiotics of the micro-structures of everyday life, discussing tactics of ‘diversion’ in individuals’ living out of consumer experiences.

The Whitewashing of Consumer Gambling

The sociological literature on gambling has mainly reflected the debate in American society about gambling’s morality and legalization, centered around the question of whether the availability of legal gambling facilities leads to greater incidence of excessive and self-destructive gambling. “Compulsive gambling” is measured by the amount of money lost on gambling over a given period of time, or by certain negative social outcomes associated with heavy gambling, such as destruction of family life, job failure, suicide, bankruptcy, unpayable debts, etc.

Yet gambling, in places like Las Vegas and Atlantic City, is also a consumer activity and a form of entertainment.

In 1979, a Congressional Committee on National Gambling Policy commissioned a prominent group of social researchers to undertake a massive study which produced a 600-page report on gambling activities and behavior in the United States. The researchers distributed an extensive questionnaire. When asked what their major reasons were for gambling in casinos, most people answered “to have a good time” or “for excitement.” Very few respondents claimed that they gambled “in order to make money” or because it was a chance “to get rich quick.” The Congressional Committee researchers concluded that: “gambling is essentially a consumer commodity which people purchase because they enjoy it, rather than because they expect to make money.” (A Survey of American Gambling Attitudes and Behavior, University of Michigan Institute for Social Research, 1979; p.87)

In my view, the 1979 Congressional Committee national gambling policy social researchers made a fundamental conceptual mistake. They seem to have been hastily searching for an argument to justify and legitimate the activity of the ordinary “consumer” gambler. They posited an analytic dualism between normality and deviance. Gambling was perfectly OK so long as one was not “addicted.” To label something a consumer commodity is to render it harmless. Illegal gambling with bookies: bad. Legal gambling in casinos: good.

According to the University of Michigan Report, those who engage in illegal gambling with bookies are much more motivated by the desire to make money. The overall finding of the study, as announced by the Congressional Committee, was that legalized gambling would be a healthy sanitization of gambling activity.

Was lobbying of Congress by the casino industry involved here? No, definiitely not, I never suggested such a thing. I am against such an interpretation. You said it, not me.

The Report did note that the presence of legal gambling facilities would also stimulate the growth of illegal gambling.

The Paradox of Gambling

In my view, gambling in the “postmodern” or “hypermodern” context is neither purely an entertainment activity nor an activity pursued with the hope of making money without effort. It is both.

Gambling is a paradox. It is an entertainment activity which has as one of its key elements of attraction the possibility of makeing money without work. Its appeal to the player consists precisely in the tension between these two aspects. The strategy of the casino management is to immerse the player in a highly controlled semantic and semiotic environment. The player would never consent to gamble if he knew that the exchange consisted of the purchasing, for a certain sum of money, of a temporal unit of participation in this semantic-semiotic environment.

On the other hand, the player never really believes that he frequents the casino in order to make money. If he or she did, he or she would not pass through the ritual of persuading him/herself that his/her expenditure was the price of a legitimate consumer activity in which he or she had the right to periodically indulge. The paradox of gambling lies in the (quantum physics sociologically paradoxical) complementarity between the packaging of an entertainment experience and the desperate illusion of instant monetary gain.

One can consider the “doublethink” (see George Orwell’s 1984) of the cognitive processes of the player. Orwell defines “doublethink” as the mental operation of holding two contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time, and managing to reconcile them “without batting an eyelash.”

In casino gambling, the player is, on the one hand, aware of the objective reality of the casino situation: the house advantage, the management’s profit calculation, the laws of probability. But, on the other hand, he or she is not deterred from playing because he or she believes in an ideology of “personal exemption” and “beating the odds.” He or she rationalizes that the sequence of wagers and outcomes will move along a different level of causality than that of probability. Each player believes that he or she will be the one to evade the objective determinations and inexorable reality of profit calculation.

Perhaps this “doublethink” is analogous to people’s attitudes in general towards social structure and economic and cultural determinations in their lives. Although we are aware that a society with definite organizational patterns exist, we tend to detach ourselves from this awareness and to emphasize our autonomy as individuals, our decontextualized self.

Casino Gambling and Postmodern Society

Casino gambling as an embodied metaphor for our situation in postmodern society. The semantics of the casino environment: the management’s project of designing a total, controlled environment and selling a packaged consumer experience to the players. The semiotics of the transformation of the value of money inside the casino. Money becomes chips. The player is deprived to some extent of the awareness that he or she is playing with real money.

Four aspects of the design of the casino environment: the exclusion of time and outside rituals; architecture; the panoply of symbols of affluence; and the audiovisual or multimedia display of winning.

Inside the casino, there is an elimination of the difference between day and night. The same activity (gambling) continues uninterrupted twenty-four hours a day. There are no clocks visible anywhere in the casino. There are no windows.

There is an architectural impression of limitlessness. The casino may consist of one enormously large room, perhaps the size of a football or soccer field. You cannot see the other end of the room upon entering. Abundant mirrors create the effect of an infinite refraction. There is a structural minimization of columns, giving the impression of an entirely suspended ceiling.

For the gambler who stays at the adjoining hotel, the manufactured design environment is even more encompassing. Everywhere there are shops, comfort facilities and services. The gambler does not need to seek the “satisfaction” of his “needs” anywhere else. The valuation of the consumer experience of losing money at blackjack or roulette is enhanced by its presence in the total design ambience where other commodities and symbols of “the good life” are on prominent display.

The simulacrum (semiotic signs and semantic design environment) of “the good life” substitutes for the good life itself. The simulacrum replaces the real. The semiotics of ancient Rome replace the real historical Rome. The replica St. Mark’s Bell Tower and the replica Rialto Bridge at the Las Vegas Venetian Resort Hotel Casino replace the real Tower, Bridge, and the city of Venice. The Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas replaces the one in France and the city of Paris. Donald Trump’s simulacral Taj Mahal replaces the ivory white marble masoleum in the Indian City of Agra.

We’re Winners

Since the probability of winning in the casino is small, every surprising instance of winning is highlighted and underscored through bells, lights, jackpots, video displays, computer animation, and the cheering that one sometimes hears from another roulette or craps table. When someone wins a large jackpot at a slot machine, the event is loudly proclaimed through all sorts of media everywhere in the casino. I don’t lose. I win. I’m a winner. We’re winners.

The casino presents a certain version of populist “democracy.” You belong to this imaginary shared democracy — as long as you can affort the $15 minimum stake to place a wager at a table, as long as you’re not registered in the database of potential criminals who threaten our democracy. You can sit there until your stack of chips runs out. Your right to be there, your simulated equality, is never questioned during the game. Regardless of your “net worth” on the outside of the casino, here you play against the same mathematical odds. I can sit down at the same table with the CEO of a company or a Wall Street stockbroker. But as soon as I am out of chips, I no longer exist. The casino is done with me. I can go to an automated teller machine in the lobby and get more instant cash from/on/with my credit card. I can retire to the casino periphery of the twenty-five cent slot machines.

Of course there is much more sociability in poker. At a poker table, the player squares off directly against his opponents. The strategy is the social art of making impressions. The player’s gain or loss is directly linked to the outcome for one or more of the other players. But in most forms of casino gambling, the player is confronted either with a machine or with a highly trained representative of the casino organization. He or she is almost always playing against “the house.” There is generally an atmosphere of subtle hostility among players, often an avoidance of social interaction. Disruption of the game’s small rituals  (hand gesturing in blackjack when to “hit ” or “stick”, the appropriate moment to maneuver one’s chips) is greeted with disapproval.

Money Loses Its Value

“I’ve got lots and lots of money.” — Donald J. Trump

The German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in Philosophy of Money of the attraction of money as being its pure potentiality that has not been actualized, the anticipation of ownership which comes to have its own seduction as an abstract form. Money gambled in casino games becomes a “sign value” in this sense (a unit of a self-referential semiotic system) and no longer an exchange-value (a direct stand-in for the goods and services) or use-value that one could purchase with it. As sign-value, money has no direct utility. It is self-referential and self-absorbed, involved in a network of relations separate from outside circulation.

Casino money is only distantly related to actual goods and services. Once it enters this relay-system, it can only be with great difficulty re-extracted into the wider circulation. Players who win tend to direct their winnings right back into the game or other games, or to immediately spend them. Very few will use won money to improve their overall economic situation. Money lost does not seem “real” either — at least while one is in the process of losing it — it seems like “play money.”

Most players ambivalently or paradoxically regard their losses as the price of the entertainment. The mental suspension of all usual associations of the value of money outside the casino is practically a prerequisite to participation in the game. The player must forget what he or she could buy or enjoy with the sum of money invested. Even when he or she is winning, the player often experiences the sense of a “trance” or gripped intoxication which prevents him or her from pulling him/herself away from the tables. It is much more difficult to be a winner than the mathematical odds would seem to indicate.

Just as gambling is a case of chimerically believing oneself to be master of one’s own fate, so money in general is often regarded as a panacea and the quintessence of freedom and autonomy. In gambling as in money, one enters into a regulatory system of definite social arrangements. The casino chips “belong” to me only in the dimmest of ways. I am allowed to temporarily hold onto them so that I may play out my time, watch them gravitate away, and rid myself of my illusions of instant wealth. In a similar way, capitalist society effectively “lends” us money so that we may purchase its goods and messages, follow its dictates, and live out our illusions of self-determination. The credit card buyer never touches the money used in an exchange. The transaction takes place internally between the computer systems of two or more institutions. I can monitor the transactions among those machines by monitoring my monthly statements.

Casino Capitalism

In the 1989 science fiction time travel film Back to the Future, Part Two, Marty McFly, played by Michael J. Fox, returns from the year 2015 to Hill Valley in 1985 to discover that all of American society has essentially been transformed into a casino, as emblematized by Biff Tannen’s gaudy Pleasure Paradise Casino & Hotel. Tannen (played by Thomas F. Wilson), a local bully and McFly’s arch-enemy, has time-traveled from 2015 to 1955 and given a copy of a Sports Almanac from the future to his younger self, thus enabling himself to win endlessly at gambling and become the richest man in America.

Donald Trump loves America. The emergence of “the gambling society” in the 1980s in which he was a major participant as the founding owner of three Atlantic City casinos is related to larger social and historical developments in America. The universalizing and abstracting forces of money; an increasingly homogenized consumer culture; national mass media; network, cable and satellite television; and organizational forces of rationalization and bureaucracy tended to erode social difference and local and particularistic diversity. Distinctions of status, religion, ethnicity and community affiliation tended to get bulldozed over.

The gambling game is the cathexis of hidden fears and anxieties. In the uncertain society in which we are living, getting used to living on the edge is a crucially valuable skill. The casino capitalists have succeeded in rationally exploiting a not so surprising psychological and emotional reaction to a hyper-rationalized society.

Instant winning. Instant wealth. Match two halves of the coupon and win five hundred dollars. Anyone can become an instant millionaire or billionaire by winning the lottery or hitting the big jackpot. Anyone can play on Wall Street. Traditional sources of social solidarity disappear. Forms of speculation like the stock market and gambling assume center stage in the hypermodern society. It is a culture which knows no sense of limits, and which provides endless simulations of the absent social space.

Gambling is Auto-Erotic

Each deal of the cards, each incident of the game, is purely independent of all others. The outcomes of incidents which have already taken place have no influence on the incident at hand. The chances of winning, before the cards are dealt, are exactly the same each time. I assume here the ideal conditions of a fresh deck. The cards that have already been used in a partially played deck cause some alteration of the odds. Streaks, both lucky and unlucky, only exist retrospectively. There is no way for the player to know, when in the midst of a streak, when it is going to end. The fascination of the game is its paradoxical, quantum duality, the complementarity of it being both a ritual and a unique event. The “bad faith” (Sartre) of the player is his imaginary unification of the isolated instances of the hands of cards or spins of the roulette wheel.  

There is a sexuality put on display in the (Atlantic City) casinos which complements their international airport architecture and their futuristic interior motif. It is the functionalized sexuality of wholesome cocktail waitresses and well-groomed female croupiers in mini-togas. It is the same simulation of sexuality promoted by the contemporary commercialized erotic system, with its hetero-normative male/female binary opposition and its stylization of the feminine.

Here in the casino, functionalized eroticism is an ingredient of the simulacrum of opulence and hedonistic polymorphous paradise with which the gambling management seeks to surround the player. The originary fascination of the game is the systematic perfection of an utterly pointless activity. We are able to temporarily escape the tensions of daily life and enter into a realm of play with its rules and ideal conditions marked off from the real. The element of fantasy and imagination is intensified by the risk involved when there is a wager. Then there is a movement from play to its simulacrum in the semiotics of postmodern consumer culture design.

The eroticism of the non-commodified dimension of gambling can be compared to the striptease artist’s evocation of desire (see Roland Barthes, Mythologies) The audience is captivated by auto-erotic gestures which radically exclude the observer: self-caressing and a style of dancing that appears to be only for self-satisfaction. The girl is inaccessible, her gaze is intended for no one, and this is her attraction. In gambling there is a similar self-exclusion. The number of decisions that I have to make is quite limited, the silver ball spinning around the roulette wheel plays itself, the cards at blackjack or baccarat seem to play themselves. I am intoxicated by the logic of their permutations, the unfolding of the finite number combinations. Like a smooth body refracted to infinity in front of one mirror and behind another mirror, one can reduce the house advantage to a minimum by sticking to the monotonous perfection of a mathematical formula. There is a method of play where one repeats exactly the same gesture of drawing a card or standing pat in each possible situation according to rules which repeat themselves forever.

The auto-eroticism of a space age slot machine is, on the other hand, the solipsism of the machine iterating through all of its permutations, observed in a detached way by the voyeuristic human repeatedly pulling the electro-mechanical arm, or pressing the same spin button over and over, like the rat in the lab experiment who presses the same lever again and again to get more pleasure stimulation sent directly to his brain until he finally expires.

Through semiotic mise-en-scene, the casino reconstitutes sexual desire.

You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win! You’re gonna win!


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