Poker as Poetry of Money

by Shaun Manning on November 28, 2011

Bjerg_finalFrontGuest blogger Ole Bjerg is the author of Poker: The Parody of Capitalism, available now from the University of Michigan Press. His book argues, among other things, that the poker is a form of cultural expression not unlike fine arts and literature, and here he discusses briefly how to consider the game in similar terms.

The relationship between money, economy, and gambling is comparable to the relationship between language, prose, and poetry. In prose, the functioning of language is more or less taken for granted, and language is used as a medium for conveying meaning, for instance, stating a fact or telling a story. In (good) poetry, however, there is a wondering and probing into the very character of language. Rhythm and rhyming make us aware of language as an independent entity with material properties; verbal ambiguity questions the very signifying function of language; and so on. Similarly, in our use of money in “ordinary” economy we take for granted its function as neutral medium of exchange, measure, and store of value. In gambling, however, money enters a different kind of circulation whereby the very functioning of money is put into question. Playing with money means experimenting with money, revealing properties not otherwise immediately visible. In this sense, gambling may be viewed as a kind of “poetry of money.” Gambling offers the opportunity to play with money in the same way that poetry offers the opportunity to play with words.

In Slavoj Zizek’s words, “Poetry takes place within language, but twists and turns it against itself, thus making it tell the truth.” Truth in poetry is not the kind of truth found in propositions about a factual state of affairs in the world. It is perhaps rather a kind of truth about language itself. Along similar lines, there is a certain kind of truth about money that reveals itself in gambling.

In gambling, money enters a form of circulation that is distinct from the way it circulates in the “ordinary” economy. As we know from the Marxist analysis of the transformation of money into capital, the properties of money are contingent upon the form of circulation in which they appear. The same applies to money in gambling. When money is introduced into the gambling game, the very properties of money are transformed. This extends to poker in general and Texas Hold ’Em in particular. What is particular about Texas Hold ’Em as a gambling game is that it offers the opportunity to play with money in a way that is both distinctively different from the circulation of money in the “ordinary” economy, yet at the same time very similar to the “ordinary” economy. Texas Hold ’Em is an eminent parodic simulation of the circulation of money in contemporary financial capitalism.


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