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Public Culture 16.2 (2004) 265-288

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Compulsive Gambling, Diagrammatic Reasoning, and Spacing Out

I am not, at present, prepared to believe, as William James did, that he was, permanently and as a finality, incapable of conceiving that Achilles could traverse an infinite succession of points.
Charles Peirce, Collected Papers

The past two decades have seen an extraordinary growth in regulated casino gambling and state-run lotteries in the United States. This expansion was spurred by the 1988 passage of the Indian Gaming Regulatory Act, which mandated state governments to enter into good-faith negotiations with Indian tribes seeking to operate casinos and high-stakes bingo games. Concurrently, a series of decisions by various state governments (worried about tax revenue), municipalities (worried about jobs), and gaming corporations (worried about profits) has led to the development of Nevada-style casinos in non-Indian jurisdictions as diverse as Gary, Indiana, and Biloxi, Mississippi. Finally, during the 1990s, state lotteries began pooling monies into so-called interstate games (like Powerball), which are able to award jackpots of up to hundreds of millions of dollars and have substantially [End Page 265] boosted the popularity of these games. In 2002, state lotteries generated $18.6 billion in revenue, while gaming corporations and Indian tribes earned $42.3 billion from casino gambling (American Gaming Association n.d.).

One consequence of this rapid expansion of casino and lottery games has been the emergence of compulsive gambling, both in fact and as a focus of social science research, public health and policy debates, and media coverage. Recent studies estimate that at least 5.5 million Americans could be diagnosed as compulsive gamblers (NORC 1999: viii). While compulsive gambling is less prevalent than either alcoholism or tobacco addiction, compulsive gamblers have the highest suicide rate of any addict population. The perils of gambling lie not in direct physical injury but in bankruptcy: one informant pointed out to me that "if you spend $1,000 a day on drugs, you'll kill yourself, but you can drop $1,000 in a casino like that." The compulsive gamblers I met through Gamblers Anonymous (GA), a twelve-step recovery program based on Alcoholics Anonymous, were generally intelligent, sensitive men and women who were capable of reasoning why they should abstain from gambling but entirely without insight into their condition. Psychologists and microeconomists working within the decision theory literature have done no better; systematic biases in the perception of risk and utility cannot be extrapolated to a "functional" model of compulsive gambling. Biopsychological research has established interesting correlations between gambling behavior and organic substrates (hormone and neurotransmitter levels) but has failed to address the more fundamental question that motivates this essay: Why is casino gambling—in particular—such a potentially addictive activity in the first place?

Although GA members were unable to provide transparent explanations for their gambling, they could track the basic contours of the paradox that motivated it. For many—but not all—GA members, gambling was oriented toward a problematic object I refer to in this essay as the jackpot. One informant described the sense of exhaustion he felt when he won the maximum prize (several thousand dollars) on a slot machine he was playing. He knew he would remain in the casino until he had gambled away his winnings—and he did so on the very same machine. This story presents the jackpot as neither an impossible nor a possible event: not impossible because it is figured as winnable; but not possible because no empirically giveable prize is adequate to it. What is at issue here is a kind of subreption by which two negatives are seen to cancel each other out, as if reframing in positive terms the lottery advertisement, "You can't win if you don't play."1 This paradox [End Page 266] is schematized by formal aspects of casino games, but it also depends on the fact that these games are played with and for money.

Indeed, the broadly compulsive nature of capitalist rationality has been an ongoing focus of nineteenth- and twentieth-century social theory...


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