Casinos as Paradigmatic Sites of Modern Capitalism in Walter Benjamin’s Das Passagen-Werk
In the incomplete oeuvre of Walter Benjamin known as The Arcades Project1 or in the original German Das Passagen-Werk, modern casinos are enumerated in the series of architectural structures coeval with industrial capitalism that comprise railway stations, universal expositions and theatre and industrial buildings.
A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.
In the excerpt from Maurice Talmeyr’s La cité du sang2 that this work features, an intertextual discussion on steel construction as an emblem of the technological age serves as a context for this passage.3 As gambling houses, casinos are, thus, not only sites of risk-taking play and social games surrounded by related activities, such as prostitution in the nineteenth-century Paris, but also locations, where social forces have historically been at play.
As the aristocratic and imperial social order gave way to the bourgeois society in the nineteenth century, casinos have become embedded into related cultural practices, such as opera performance attendance, leisurely newspaper reading, public social ceremonies and tea society circles. As Benjamin in his citations from Joseph Joubert4 and Ludwig Börne5 suggests, overinvestment into dress and appearance is not a mere waste of time, but a transformation of temporal relations that the modern society produces, as social and cultural time becomes achieved in leisure-related, ostentatious activities.6
Likewise, as sites of expensive leisure, casinos can be approached as socially sanctioned means for the destruction of excessive labor time and financial capital. As the quotation of Benjamin from Honoré de Balzac’s La peau de chagrin7 also indicates, casinos as institutions for games of chance can also be seen as sites of capitalist sublime joining the emotional economy of gambling and addiction with fate-defining economic events, especially as losing gamblers are engulfed in a catastrophic vortex of increasing stakes and financial ruination. This, thus, makes casinos into hallucinatory reflections of capitalism and modernity that conjure up spectacular architectural and urban forms through the interplay of social and economic forces that they unleash.
In this regard, gambling is as much as figure of modernity as is flânerie, as Stefano Gulizia suggests, especially as the certainties of traditional societies have become replaced with the vagaries of random macro- and micro-level economic events.8 Whereas in the nineteenth century Fyodor Dostoyevsky9 has been attempting realist depictions of gambling, the twentieth century has seen the rise of game and rational choice theories that explicitly address the place of risk in the choices individuals make.
In this respect, Birgit Wagner also indirectly indicates that in Benjamin’s fragmentary writing, casinos are associated with disorientation, the play of appearances and the contrived, orchestrated representation of passions urban life inspires.10
As the term casino capitalism11 also suggests, casinos can be, therefore, interpreted as the sites of the phantasmagoric spirit of capitalism, as its delirium-inspiring essence.
Featured Image Credits: Casino Lisboa, Macau Peninsula, Macau, July 20, 2008 | © Courtesy of Mark Huguet.
- Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Trans. by Howard Eiland, and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2003.
- Talmeyr, Maurice. La Cité du Sang: Tableaux du Siècle Passé. Paris: Perrin, 1901, pp. 276-277.
- Benjamin, Walter, Gesammelte Schriften: Bd. 5. Das Passagen-Werk. Teil 1 and 2. Ed. by Theodor W. Adorno, Gershom Scholem, Hermann Schweppenhäuser, and Rolf Tiedemann. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2001, p. 212.
- Joubert, Joseph. Oeuvres: Précédées D’une Notice Sur Sa Vie, Son Caractère Et Ses Travaux Par Paul De Raynal Et Des Jugements Littéraires De Sainte-Beuve, Silvestre De Sacy, Saint Marc De Girardin, Géruzez Et Poitou. Paris, 1883.
- Börne, Ludwig. Gesammelte Schriften. Hamburg: Hoffman & Campe, 1962.
- Benjamin, Walter, ibid., pp. 640-642.
- Balzac, Honoré . La Peau De Chagrin: Balzac Illustré : Etudes Sociales. Paris: Delloye, 1838.
- Gulizia, Stefano, “Walter Benjamin, Gambler”, A Danubian Review of Books, January, 2013, http://www.verbunkos.org/2013/01/walter-benjamin-gambler-preview.html.
- Dostoyevsky, Fyodor. The Gambler. Trans. by Jessie Coulson. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1975.
- Wagner, Birgit. Walter Benjamin de passage In : À la rencontre. : Affinités et coups de foudre [en ligne]. Nanterre : Presses universitaires de Paris Nanterre, 2012 (généré le 29 juillet 2017). Disponible sur Internet : <http://books.openedition.org/pupo/2508>. ISBN : 9782821851054. DOI : 10.4000/books.pupo.2508.
- Strange, Susan. Casino Capitalism. Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1986.