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  • The Subject as Phil LaakPoker and the Politics of Intersubjectivity
  • David Wittenberg (bio)

Later in this essay, I will suggest that the game of poker offers a prototype for what we are in the habit of calling, in the structural vocabularies customarily used to express psychoanalytic insights, "the subject." Politically speaking, the most salient aspect of the subject is its distinction from the self, the individual, the human, and so on—in a word, its nonspecificity or interchangeability, which also lends a pathos to the term's ambiguity: Is someone the subject of political acts, or subject to (or subjugated by) politics, culture, language, and the law? My choice of poker to elucidate this structure may seem odd, since poker is a game self-evidently concerned more with microeconomics than with politics. Therefore, along with my discussion of one particular poker hand, I will take time to outline more generally the features of poker that underlie its value as an illustration or allegory of political subjectivity. In brief, the poker hand will show why only the subject, not the individual, can play the game in which it finds itself, even as the individual player must continually fail to believe in the extent of that subjugation.

Game theory, for which poker "remains the ideal model of the basic strategical problem" of socioeconomic decision-making, is an obvious rubric for any such analysis, as it also is for most books, articles, and blogs that poker players themselves consult in order to improve their games, some of which I will briefly reference.1 For my purposes, a second and more crucial rubric is the canonical subsection of Hegel's Phenomenology of Spirit titled "Independence and Dependence of Self-Consciousness," more commonly referred to as the master–slave dialectic, a fragment of [End Page 40] philosophy that, "throughout 150 years" of political and cultural theory, has effectively steered sociological analysis away from questions of either psyche or rational self-interest and toward structural relations of power.2 Hegelian dialectic reconfigures the significance of the individual under broader conditions of subjectivity, or to put it more concisely, subordinates the particular to the universal. To offer just one description of how such a political dialectic plays out—a description reminiscent of a Christian ethics to which it is nonetheless radically opposed—Alain Badiou, adapting language from both Marx and Lacan, proposes that "the individual, truth be told, is nothing" and that "it is only by dissolving itself into a project that exceeds him that an individual can hope to attain some subjective real."3 Touchstones for an objectified subjectivity, or at least its type or tendency, include Marx's "species-being," Freud's "super-ego," Merleau-Ponty's "embodied subject," Althusser's "interpellated" individual hailed by the state, and so on.4 In light of my specific interest in poker, I opt for a less canonical touchstone for the objectified subject, one that connects Hegelian dialectic directly to the terminology of game theory: Jacques Lacan's 1945 essay "Logical Time and the Assertion of Anticipated Certainty," in which Lacan analyzes an adaptation of an archetypal game-theoretical problem, the "three prisoners" puzzle.5

Three Prisoners

The "logical problem" at the heart of Lacan's essay is presented in the guise of a cocktail party brainteaser and may originally have come to Lacan that way.6 A warden (for reasons ostensibly outside the scope of the game) intends to free one prisoner and selects three inmates to compete for this opportunity. The three prisoners are isolated in a room, each with a disk affixed to his back that only the other two can see. The first prisoner able to deduce the color of his own disk and explain his reasoning to the warden will be free to leave the prison. A total of five disks are employed, two black and three white, determining the game's possible outcomes with a strict binary calculus: if I am the first to deduce the color of my disk, black or white, then I will be freed; if I cannot do so before the others, I will remain imprisoned. The crucial aspect of each prisoner's deliberation is that, because...


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