Against All Odds
“Are ya feeling lucky today, punk? Well, are ya?”
Dirty Harry (Clint Eastwood)
With a legacy son in the White House and the rewards of hard work a crapshoot (thanks to corporate grifters like Enron), these days more attention is turning to the place of luck in American culture. In the past couple of years popular accounts of gambling have proliferated, from the saga of Donald Barthelme’s less fortunate brothers Frederick and Steven to the current bestseller Positively Fifth Street by James McManus. Rutgers historian Jackson Lears offers an academic perspective in Something for Nothing: Luck in America. The book is well researched and straightforward, its style anything but pokerfaced. Lears makes no bones about wanting to show that a deep-seated belief in luck is the other side of the Protestant work ethic upon which the nation was supposedly built.
Something for Nothing is an apt follow-up to Lears’s groundbreaking history of advertising, Fables of Abundance (Basic, 1994). In that book, Lears asserts that rather than promote a hedonistic culture based on unbridled consumer desire, advertising from the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth century recast Victorian repression in terms of personal efficiency, encouraging obedience to then emerging routines of the mass market. In Something for Nothing, Lears holds that, even with considerable resources at its command, what he terms “the culture of control” has never completely won out. But it’s not for lack of trying.
The culture of control’s run is a long one. It begins with what Lears calls the “evangelical rationalism” of the Puritans, who sought to stamp out any trace of magic in the New World. Underlying this mission were the twin ideas of the soul as separate from the physical body and of Christian faith as the only true means of salvation. Banishing the supernatural from the Earth and casting grace as a kind of Divine trickle-down are at the root of the modern struggle for individual mastery over the world and of the self.
The culture of control has also hedged its bets in the secular domain. When Charles Darwin’s theories challenged evangelical rationalism in the mid-1800s (replacing almighty Providence with the dumb luck of natural selection), positivism appeared to tie evolution to the concept of progress. Progressivism also found its way into broader social and political movements that sought to bring the unruly masses of mongrel America under bureaucratic authority. Perhaps the greatest expression of the culture of control was managerial capitalism, the cookie-cutter utopia of Henry Ford and Frederick Winslow Taylor, whose techniques Lears examines in Fables of Abundance.
At the same time, Americans have been drawn to the allures of fortune. They have celebrated risk-taking from the earliest days of the pioneer wilderness right up to the next new thing of Silicon Valley. They have also sought protection from the caprices of bad luck. Against the culture of control, Lears poses the notion of mana, belief in the uncanny powers of certain objects and practices.
For Lears, mana is a mélange of Native American, African and European Catholic ingredients tossed into the American melting pot. Mana was present in the sacred bundles carried by the occupants of the American continent who predated the landing at Plymouth Rock. It persisted in the talismans, potions and spells of various folk cultures. It exists today in such things as the risk-management strategies of Wall Street hedge-fund traders. (Even the Puritans held onto superstition despite the exhortations of their clergy.)
In the popular imagination, gambling has long been a way to test one’s power against chance and to conquer fear of the unknown. Lears notes that the true gambler, the “sportsman,” triumphs over money, win or lose, by defying the rationality of exchange in the capitalist market economy. (The confidence man may win, but by seeking financial gain above all does so without honor.) Courting Fortuna, the Goddess of Chance, has permitted classes and races to more or less compete as equals, another slap in the face of the ordering compulsions of the culture of control. However, in America the sporting life does appear to be structured along gendered lines.
According to Lears, men traditionally pursue “agonistic” games, that is, games of calculation, such as poker, betting on horse races and fights, and blackjack, whereas women play “aleatory” games, that is, games of pure chance, such as slot machines, roulette and faro. (A visit to a modern-day casino bears this out in large measure.) In the spirit of revisionism, though, one wishes more attention had been paid to the place of women within the cult of Fortuna. In a discussion of late nineteenth-century novels dealing with Victorian attitudes toward chance, for example, Lears considers only male authors and passes over the obvious example of Edith Wharton’s House of Mirth, whose main character, Lily Bart, is sent on a downward spiral to her ultimate suicide as a result of debts incurred gambling at cards.
Resistance to the culture of control has also been expressed in the practices of avant-garde art. Exemplary (and making a repeat appearance from Fables of Abundance) is the Master of Utopia Parkway, Joseph Cornell, whose truly enchanting collaged boxes are made of “lucky finds” collected from second-hand stores. Also important are the techniques of composer John Cage, who used the I Ching and other chance operations to relinquish control over his musical production. As with the sporting life, avant-garde art is a kind of “holy waste,” a potlatch for conjuring mana against the culture of control.
Some might criticize Lears for playing with loaded dice against the culture of control, allowing chance to win too easily against evangelical rationality and its offspring. But as he notes in his conclusion, vested social and political interests have bankrolled the culture of control from the very beginning. Those interests now promote catch-as-catch-can economics while being securely protected against its risks, offering casinos and lotteries instead of sound fiscal policy, threatening to turn the nation into a clip joint where only poor suckers pay.
By giving the back story of how the “system” works, Something for Nothing comes up a winner. And you can take that to the bank.
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