Monday, December 3, 2007

Space, time and gambling in Benjamin

I'm looking into gambling in Benjamin and its relation to touch and shock, and from there to the eye and the image, as a way to see how the field of action of the gambler--space--becomes linked up with the time of an image.

If this line of thought seems odd, it's because we are less likely to think of the image within the sphere of fate and chance than in terms of time and history. But Benjamin thinks the second terms primarily in relationship to the first ones. Gambling is one site where this happens in his work. It becomes a sort of way he can pursue all the complicated relationships of man to fate that he articulated in the early essays "Character and Fate" and the "Critique of Violence" as they interact with technology and modernity in his later work.

Other figures like the flâneur serve this purpose too in Benjamin. But the gambler retains a link to touch that is perhaps more pronounced, and thus a link to space that is very different.

The gambler uses his hands for Benjamin. In his little fragment "Notes on a Theory of Gambling" he says that a gambler has more discernment in his approach to the table "the more emancipated" his motor skills are "from optical perception," that is, the more his hands and not his eyes are at the ready. In this, Benjamin sees not a sort of simple resistance to the forms of the visuality of modern day, however, but a process that has its capabilities for a "renewal of mankind" ("Work of Art...") because it is imbricated in this modern, optical development. For the resistance to the visual does not make the gambler have a clearer relationship to the future, to time (whether his number will come up or not), but one that is more dispersed and distracted.

This is due to the repetitive nature of gambling. The gambler is always ready to begin again with his hands, to take up the space around him, his room for action, and put it in service of yet another spin of the roulette, and to await the appearance of the time of his fortune. Thus Benjamin sees the gambler in "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire" as similar to the worker on the assembly line featured in Capital, whose labor, as Marx describes it, always takes up anew the fragmented labor of another and performs his own "partial task" on it (Capital, 464).

This is because the repetition of the worker and the appearance of the future in the present (that is, the appearance of time) on the gambling table that the hands anticipate manifests itself in a shock. Touch and the actions of the hands in space becomes the infinite anticipation of a blow to one's self from another point in space. Gambling is what happens when experience has already become shock, or in other words, when the experience of time has, due to changes in how movements in space by hands anticipate themselves, become a non-experience.

Benjamin describes this shock experience in the gambler in the following formula: "gambling converts [verwandelt sich] time into a narcotic" ("Paris, Capital of the Nineteenth Century;" Cf. also a footnote to "On Some Motifs in Baudelaire"). It is a narcotic because it attempts to "alleviate" ("On Some Motifs") the lack of a harmony of space and time that is introduced by the anticipation of shock.

If the time of the image also manifests itself in a non-experience, as we (I am writing this for my class with Eduardo Cadava) have been saying, if the experience of history in the photo is a non-experience, we can now see that this is not because the image simply foregoes any relationship to history or time, but because its experience is the experience of the gambler. The image is penetrated with touch and space, the touch in the repetitive motion of a gambling hand that awaits time as its fate.


Vidya said...

Interesting.I had heard of Klee's painting only Time/Changes / Beginnings and had not read the Notes on a Theory of Gambling.

Mike said...

It's a real trip. Though I'm finding more that gambling is everywhere in Benjamin if you look for it... he actually writes on it quite a bunch. Still though, you're never really sure what to make of it--it's significant and totally typical that the "theory of gambling" paper doesn't actually outline definitive at all. You have to trace it through all of his writings.