Fall 2005

Rolling the Dice: An Interview with Jackson Lears

Luck in America

David Serlin and Jackson Lears

­In late spring 2005, the online gaming empi­re known as PartyGaming—home of the wildly lucrative website PartyPoker.com—announced that it would take its company public on the London stock market. Speculators predicted that, on the open market, PartyGaming would be valued at over $10 billion, just a few poker chips less than the value attributed to the venerable British department store chain Marks & Spencer. Despite historic attempts to control or marginalize games of chance as a socially disreputable practice, the multibillion-dollar gambling industry in both its virtual and physical incarnations—from online poker websites to lottery tickets and off-track betting parlors to suburban casinos and the emergence of Las Vegas as a cultural capital—seems to have never been stronger or more resilient.

In his recent book Something for Nothing: Luck in America (2003), Jackson Lears, the Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and the editor-in-chief of Raritan, asserts that gambling is a central component of contemporary culture. Lears argues that this is not because Americans are a nation of gamblers per se, but because gambling is a modern distillation of what can best be described as a “culture of chance.” For Lears, the concept of chance and its various metaphysical siblings Luck, Fortune, and Grace have profoundly influenced American life in everything from personal expression to social policy. With the rise of the market economy in the early nineteenth century, Lears argues, the culture of chance has fought tooth and nail for survival against the rational appeals of a “culture of control.”

The divinatory dimensions of chance through which Americans experienced the world, as embodied in games of luck and skill and as practiced by the confidence man and gambler, were transmuted into rational systems of forecasting and speculation practiced by the stockbroker and day trader. Trying to predict the future while trying to maintain control, Lears suggests, remains a ritualized component of both religious and secular cultures. The gambler’s dice, the soothsayer’s bones, the fortune-teller’s tea leaves, and the financier’s econometric charts are more closely aligned than we’ve been led to believe. David Serlin spoke with Lears by phone in June 2005.

Cabinet: How did you become interested in the study of chance or, as you call it in your book, the “culture of chance”?

Jackson Lears: There were a lot of different streams that came together in this book. Since my first book, No Place of Grace, I have thought seriously about the cultural longing for transcendence that survived the economic rationality of the nineteenth century. I perceived that there was some kind of longing for grace that animated the impulse to gamble, and once I had hit on that hunch I began to find evidence of it everywhere. I began to see that there were connections between the gambler’s dice and the soothsayer’s bones. The gambler and the diviner were brothers under the skin. This led me to situate gambling in the midst of what I call a culture of chance, which includes all sorts of rituals and practices that use chance as a way of knowing or a way of trying to discern the will of the cosmos, the meaning of the universe, or even—in the case of Calvinist casting of lots—the will of God. The notion of luck is always communicated as an unearned gift, a free gift. Luck, like grace, is something that happens to you. You don’t earn it. To me, this represented a very deep realization at some fundamental level of the futility of striving and trying to control all outcomes, which seems to me at the heart of our dominant culture, whether in religious or secular forms. I began to see gambling and the culture of chance as a kind of counterpoint to this.

The other stream that fed my interest in chance came about while I was on a subway platform in Manhattan. I was waiting in a short line to buy a subway token and noticed that there was a much longer line next to mine, snaking all the way around the platform, for the lottery machine. This was 1994. Newt Gingrich and his buddies had just won a huge victory in Congress, the “Contract with America” was in the air, and there were all sorts of messages directed at Americans to take responsibility for their own economic fate, pull themselves up by their bootstraps, and refuse welfare and other “handouts” that they didn’t deserve. The rhetoric of the self-made man was making a comeback. I looked around at these people waiting in line for the lottery ticket and I thought, these people work hard, but the fact that they’re in this lottery line suggests that they realize, at their core, that hard work is not the whole story. Sometimes you just have to catch a break. And catching a break is basically the secular American version of grace.

Sheet Music for the “The Gambling Man,” 1902. Courtesy Sam DeVincent Collection of Illustrated American Sheet Music, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithonian Institution.

Was this epiphany—seeing working people spending their hard-earned money on lottery tickets—the origin of the distinction that you draw throughout your book between the “culture of chance” and the “culture of control”?

What I wanted to show in this book is that there was, and continues to be, a huge overlap between the culture of control, which relies on some predictability and systematic direction of fate, and the culture of chance, which is much less certain that diligence is the only path to success and is willing sometimes to roll the dice. These two cultures not only overlap, but they interpenetrate each other. One finds some combination of chance and control working together, whether you’re talking about sports or investment or religious faith. Some imagine life as a series of calculated risks, more like a poker game than a lottery, in which people realize that they can’t control all outcomes; but some also want to be able to use their skills to their best advantage, as one does in poker. Yet, at the same time, people recognize that they cannot control all outcomes and that, in the end, luck will play a role as well, and we have to acknowledge its power.

We find this invariable coexistence of chance and control on Wall Street and in the history of speculation. People debate whether or not speculation is mere gambling or whether it’s an investment. Huge sums of money are spent by investment banking firms and brokerage houses to persuade people that, in fact, they aren’t taking a risk when they invest and that they can put their portfolios together in various ways that can minimize if not eliminate risk altogether. Of course, anyone who claims they can eliminate risk ought to be brought up immediately on charges before the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission.

Your book describes how the culture of control secularized some of the religious or spiritual elements of chance. So is the oxymoronic concept of the “safe risk” or “safe beta” part of that process of secularization? There’s an unspoken sense that a “safe beta” is not a bet at all; it’s almost a guarantee, such as when aspiring students identify a college as their “safety school.”

That’s one of the paradoxes that we look at every day in the culture of capitalism. On the one hand, there has to be this promise of a magical reward of wealth without work; at the same time, this magic has to be stabilized and rationalized and made to seem predictable in order to cancel out, or threaten to cancel out, the elements of luck and risk. Since the turn of the last century, folks like J.P. Morgan have attempted to make speculative capitalism seem safe and predictable. Of course, this falls apart completely in the Great Depression and only begins to emerge again in the long bull market of the 1980s and 1990s. But there is something quite misleading about the attempt to be reassuring on the subject of risk, to say that what is genuinely a risk is not a risk but is, in fact, a safe option. I’m reminded of the celebrity cowboy Roy Rogers’s farewell to his faithful TV viewers in the 1950s, and it seems to me to be the signature advice of that era: “Be brave, but don’t take chances.” This is a perfectly self-canceling sentence. It says, in effect, “Experience the frisson of bravery, the excitement, the pleasure of feeling like you are doing something heroic. But never bet on anything less than a sure thing.”

Human beings want the excitement of risk, but they also want the safety that comes with containing its worst possibilities. I think that, in some ways, these paired desires capture the dialectic I was trying to get at in my book. The culture of control is not just rooted in a desire to dominate other people and the environment. It is rooted in a desire that is just as natural, I think, and as universal and timeless as the desire for risk and uncertainty and luck, and that’s the desire for stability and predictability.

I was taken by your account of Robert Bailey, the incorrigible early nineteenth-century gambler who is sent to prison and, while there, vomits up something the size of an egg, has a spiritual awakening, and disavows his lifelong gambling habits. He seems to exist, both historically and psychologically, at the crossroads between the culture of chance and the culture of control.

Robert Bailey is a good example of a gambler who lived between different worlds. He came of age in late-eighteenth-century Virginia, a slave-holding, socially hierarchical world where gambling was a mark of masculine honor. The gambler was the big man, the big spender as described in the gift economies studied by anthropologists. The way that you became a big shot in southern society under slavery, and the way that you demonstrated that you had become a big shot, was by spending money to the point of wasting it with a kind of careless insouciance.

Do you mean like lighting a cigar with a hundred-dollar bill?

In effect, yes. A disdain for “mere” money. The code of the gentleman is all about indifference to money and indulging in reckless generosity. One of the things that Bailey did in trying to justify his own career as a professional gambler was to say there’s a big difference between the true gambler, who is a sportsman, and the cheating gambler, who wants to control outcomes. Bailey upheld the traditional idea of the gambler as a liberal cultured gentleman; liberal in the largest sense with respect to money and material goods. Yet, at the same time, even though he was participating in this world and coming out of it, by the early nineteenth century he was living in a very different realm that was openly hostile to gambling. Evangelical morality was sweeping across Virginia at this time, as it was across a lot of other southern states. By the time he wrote his autobiography in 1822, Bailey had to justify what he’d done in evangelical rhetoric and not just in the language of the sportsman and the high-minded gentleman. The gambler was no longer the big man; he was a slave to his appetite, little better than the drunkard or the masturbator. He was a man who had no control, and self-control had become the new key to manhood.

Another example of how the culture of chance and the culture of control coexisted and intermingled is in a late-nineteenth-century figure like Washington Gladden, a social gospel minister, who was very much concerned with managing chance generally. He was against gambling not for exclusively religious reasons but because, to him, it was the most distilled expression of what’s wrong with the capitalist economy; and what’s wrong with the capitalist economy is that people don’t get what they deserve. Their merits and rewards don’t match and, in fact, there are many morally-deserving people who lose their arms in industrial accidents or lose the bread-giver in their family due to illness or injury. They end up suffering through no fault of their own. People like Gladden influenced figures like Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson, who said, “Look, the world of industrial capitalism is governed by accident, and that’s a terrible thing. We have to respect the power of chance. We can’t say that everyone is getting what he or she deserves through hard work or the lack of it” Roosevelt and others helped to create mechanisms to soothe the abrasions of chance, such as unemployment compensation, workmen’s compensation for injuries or disabilities sustained on the job, and, by the 1930s with the collapse of the economy in the Great Depression, Aid to Families with Dependent Children.

So are you arguing that the welfare state is basically rooted in the culture of chance, or an acknowledgement of the limits of the culture of control that can only be understood through the culture of chance?

The welfare state wants to manage chance for humane purposes, and that’s how twentieth-century liberalism became wedded to the welfare state. It’s an attempt not to eliminate chance, because nobody pretends they can do that, but instead to manage chance and keep its worst effects at bay. It seems to me there are certain historical moments in which policymakers believe in their own power to control outcomes, such as the immediate aftermath of World War II. We had just won an enormous worldwide struggle, largely through our technological superiority, and almost as soon as we had won it there was, at the same time, the increasing influence of Keynesian economics to create full employment and to manage chance so that workers would not be chronically troubled by the accidents and insecurities of unregulated capitalism. It is a triumph of management that the culture of control could be in the ascendant and that gambling could still persist in various forms, such as in Saturday night poker games around the kitchen table as well as more ambitious and exotic forms in places like Havana and Las Vegas. In the 1950s, gambling was at a low-ebb as a legally sanctioned and widely practiced activity, even though it was a golden age for horse racing in certain regions. But it also was an era when Americans learned to accept certain types of collective constraints on their behavior, and even corporate business accepted higher tax rates, unions, and other sorts of regulations on their activity.

Illegal slot machines being destroyed by Chicago law enforcement, ca. 1930.

Your description of the interplay between the cultures of chance and control in the period after World War II makes me think of the emergence of chance-oriented aesthetic or philosophical moves among postwar artists like John Cage, Merce Cunningham, and Jackson Pollock. Do you think there’s a connection there?

As gambling became less visible and reputable an activity, it acquired greater power as a governing metaphor for the arts. The aesthetics of accident is central to modernism and postmodernism, and twentieth-century art defines itself explicitly in contrast to an over-organized society. That’s partly because during World War I the dream of reason bred monsters, technological rationality was harnessed to horrific ends, and the process was repeated even more dramatically in the familiar but inescapable litany of Auschwitz and Hiroshima. Whether you are talking about surrealism in Paris in the 1920s, or the experiments at Black Mountain College in the 1940s and 1950s, or the work of Cage and Cunningham in the 1960s, all of them look back at this fascination with spontaneity and unpredictability among the Surrealists. And they break new ground as well. I would argue, though, that Abstract Expressionist painting is very much based on a notion of inner spontaneity rather than opening one’s self up to the chance occurrences in the outside world. I’m thinking of someone like Cage, or Robert Rauschenberg’s junk sculpture assemblages or, for Joseph Cornell, the tradition of the lucky find. All of these artistic movements are in reaction to a kind of Weberian modernity or technocratic regime that expressed itself most horrifically in the Nazi state, but was certainly present in other totalitarian societies, namely the Soviet Union, and in the softer form, from these artists’ point of view, in American consumer culture.

So I think there is a direct relationship between the sense that life has become over-organized and the fascination with an aesthetic of accident, the desire to open up the prospect of creativity and release the artist from the burden of controlling outcomes. Of course, this is connected with the reshuffling and reorganization of space and time that occurred in the early twentieth century. Figures like William James and Henri Bergson challenged the idea of an easily organized and predictable universe just as time was standardized in time zones and mechanically measured through clocks and railroad schedules. I think this tension between what can be measured and what is possible is a constant shadow behind the aesthetics of accident, and I think it helps explain why it remains fascinating in so many forms to artists in so many different disciplines.

In a postmodern worldview that either thrives on or surrenders to contingency and irony, chance can either be something full of possibility or something horrifying. It’s either, let a thousand flowers bloom, or be careful where you step because any chance that you take might lead to certain doom.

People on the Left often have been suspicious of postmodernism because they’re suspicious of anything that allows too much to chance. I think there’s a desire to believe that you can control outcomes through systematic effort and planning in order to create an alternative politics. I would not deny that. My book is not an uncritical brief for the culture of chance; rather, it’s an attempt to renovate chance, to resurrect it, to acknowledge its power. Of course, you don’t want to celebrate dumb luck; you want to celebrate smart luck, the coexistence of an interpenetration of skill and grace. I think that’s a puzzle to try and figure out.

There’s another reason for the Left to acknowledge the power of chance, and it’s because the officially sanctioned forces in our society devalue chance and even dismiss it all together. Certainly the kind of secular understanding of Providence that has come to dominate—George W. Bush’s assertion, for example, that not only history but God is “on our side,” and that remaking the world, or hurrying along the inevitable process of turning the world into a version of America, is part of God’s plan—is another instance of the victory of the culture of control over the culture of chance. To claim that God’s purposes are working themselves out in individual lives and in the world of nations is to commit the ultimate sin of secular arrogance. Yet this seems to me a very seductive formulation for many Americans, and especially for American policymakers: “We, the United States, have been divinely ordained to carry on this struggle against the forces of evil.”

The tradition of Providentialist thinking that is ultimately more humane and powerful is the one embodied by people like Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther King, Jr. They acknowledged that we don’t always know how Providence works itself out in every day life, but what it should instruct us in, if it instructs us in anything at all, is humility. We see the denial of chance operating everywhere in contemporary life: people and nations are regarded as successful because they deserve to be, whereas people and nations are regarded as failures because they had it coming to them. So part of my agenda is to revalue chance as a counterpoint to these officially sanctioned values.

Jackson Lears is Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers University and editor-in-chief of Raritan. His books include Fables of Abundance: a Cultural History of Advertising in America (Basic Books, 1994) and Something for Nothing: Luck in America (Viking Penguin, 2003).

David Serlin is an assistant professor of communication and science studies at the University of California at San Diego and the author of Replaceable You: Engineering the Body in Postwar America (University of Chicago Press, 2004). He is an editor-at-large at Cabinet.

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