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  • The Con
  • Aliza Shvarts (bio)

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A con, or confidence game, formulates a future that will not come to bear. As the sociologist Erving Goffman describes in "On Cooling the Mark Out: Some Aspects of Adaptation to Failure" (1952), a con involves the triangulated interaction of several roles: the con artist or operator, who sets the plan in motion; the sucker or mark, who is the con's victim; and, most importantly, the cooler, who ensures that the mark not go to the police or take other types of vengeance, and upon whom the con—the reproducibility of the act, as well as the future of the man—depends. The cooler cools by providing the mark basic "instruction in the philosophy of taking a loss." Yet at the same time, as Goffman insists, "cooling the mark out is one theme on a very basic social story." From the worker whose expected promotion was denied, to the lover whose marriage proposal was refused, to the patient who has been told there is no cure, to the soldier who realizes there is no return, there are endless instances in which marks must be cooled: in which people who once believed something must be adjusted to the impossibility of that belief.

It is no coincidence that Goffman—who would go on to become the first theorist of the "total institution" in his later and more influential work—would take such an interest in the dynamics of cooling, for cooling the mark out is the central feature of institutionality as such: as he points out in this early work, "an institution, after all, cannot take it on the lam; it must pacify its marks." The institution's systemic operations constitute both the force that cools and the new reality to which we are cooled; that is to say, it is the totality of the institution that pacifies or cools, and yet, that totality depends on a continued process of cooling. In this sense, we are reconciled to the impossibility of a future by those very structures that serve to guarantee the future: those stable enclosures upon which confidence itself is premised. Appeasing individual workers, or lovers, or patients, or soldiers allows the structure of the office, the marriage, the clinic, the nation to continue to function; and in a broader sense, capitalism, heteronormativity, and biopolitics are all strategies of appeasement, acclimating us to the impossible situations they produce, the impossible conditions we come to accept, conditions in which we nonetheless figure out how to live. It is through this process of adjustment to the impossibility of a future that such structures are able to insure their own.

Through this broader understanding of the ubiquity of cooling, we are better able to understand the capacity of the con: a capacity to act in bad faith rather than good, to formulate a plurality of possible futures when the future we are assured arrives only as an impossibility. After all, to talk about confidence—or trustworthiness or honesty in general—is to talk about an attitude toward the future, an assurance that things will be as we have said, that we are able to rightfully inhabit the language through which we make such assurances and the presumptions of subjectivity it presupposes. The confidence of the honest, trustworthy man operates with the privilege of a temporal inheritance, a heritage of futurity that presupposes a neutered, deracinated, and naturalized universal subject historically figured against a ground of marked bodies and identities: the drudges, breeders, and transients to whom that future has always been foreclosed. The con, however, operates outside the futurity of this cohesive rational actor—outside the perspicacity of one man, with his one name, his one truth, and his one vote. The con artist acts at a temporal dissonance to that good citizen, out of sync with the rhythm that reproduces such men. As both an identity and an operation, the con violates not only the dictum that things will be as we have said, but that a self will be continuous over time. As an identity that is nothing more than an operation, the con challenges the idea that everyone...


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pp. 2-3
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