Three prisoners are put to a test. One of them is to be freed, but as all three are equally deserving, it is not clear which one should benefit from this unique act of mercy. They are toldHere are three white disks and two black ones. Each of you will have one of these disks attached to his back, and you are going to have to work out for yourself so as to be able to tell us which one you have been stuck with. Obviously there is no mirror, and it isn’t in your interest to communicate, since all it needs is for one of you to have revealed to another what he has got on his back for him to gain by it. So each of them has a disk on his back. All any one of them sees is the way the two others are connoted by these disks (287-88).
If you think about this situation, you’ll see that it makes plain the implicit enjoyment of gambling in that it places your very subjectivity into doubt. But it is gambling itself that will free you. The specific problem in this gamble (and here we think of card games more than, say, the roulette wheel) is that it allegorizes, spatializes, what is called the “tell,” the unconscious communication of knowledge between players. Bridge players of course develop elaborate stratagems or lures for “letting the unconscious speak,” but only to their partners; unfortunately, this parody of the analytic session often devolves into grimacing and kicking legs under tables, since the ego is really at the wheel here. In this respect, the logic of this exchange runs thus: “Why did you let me think you had Diamonds so I’ll believe you have Hearts, when what you really have is Diamonds?” But I digress. Let us return to the parable. Lacan goes on to say that the problem could be quite easily solved if two of the men are wearing the two black disks, then the third, secure in the knowledge of his whiteness, will be free. In this respect, we see that subjectivity and race are not divorced from each other, since this is exactly the means by which a version of white imperialism functions (e.g. I’m free because I’m not black ....).
But, of course, the game is not that easily solved. No one, we are told, is wearing a black disk. The prisoners’ dilemma thus bears affinities to the rhythmic problems implicit to any game of even and odd. The rhythms of the game, in terms of playing to win, cannot be determined by logical means. The succession of guesses in games of even and odd is what transforms the match into an event in the sense that the rhythms of succession generate difference, since, as Lacan tells us, winning or losing is differentially determined, and “consists solely in the dissimilarity (dissemblance) of plus and minus” (Seminar II, 183). The difficulty is that the prisoners do not possess this knowledge. The space of the room is governed by a particular relation to time: the game is spatializing the temporal element of what Lacan calls “apres coup” or retroaction. That is to say, it introduces the difficulty of working through what one’s subjective position is in terms of the temporal gazes of the others. What this game reveals is our symptomatic relation to time as fate through a series of moments; an event is a moment whose spatial rhythm, the difference generated by repetition, is either apprehended or misapprehended. What we are doing when we try to work out our identity in such a context is that the symptom throws our understanding of linear time into flux, or that we are working to apprehend the rhythm of the symptom. The moment of recognizing not only the alterity of the other, but also the alterity or alienation of the subject, is crucial to working through the unconscious rhythm of the subject’s relation to the other. Causality is undermined in the sense that what the symptom shows us is that effects precede their causes. By way of explanation, let us turn to Mallarmé’s famous poem “Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hasard”; that is, “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance.” In other words, the throw of the dice will “make a decision,” or the act of throwing will let us know the outcome- boxcars, snake eyes, whatever-but the very possibility of producing a result is dependent upon chance. But let’s take this etymological analysis even further; the throw of the dice attempts to make sense of chance. We construct any number of games and laws around contingency . We, in other words, try to symbolize chance through the exchanges implicit to gambling. Such an exchange is part of the spatial history of the word symbol. For the Greeks, the symbolon is a concrete object, divided in two, “that was used as a sign of mutual obligation between friends” (Economy of the Unlost, 18). The two pieces are brought together again when they meet or literally “thrown together.” The “throwing together” is then an emblem of the event that produced to exchange and the obligation. These two words: symbol and symptom - one referring to “a throwing together,” and the other, “a falling together,” “coincidence or chance” - the symbol is thus determined - willed - and the other - the symptom, appears as mere chance. If I return now to Mallarmé’s famous line “A throw of the dice will never abolish chance,” you’ll see that another way of putting it is to say “A symbol will never abolish the symptom.” This is what Deleuze, in The Logic of Sense, calls “ a game of problems and of a question, [and] no longer the game of the categorical and the hypothetical” (60). What we notice is that the symptom is not simply the bothersome enigma that refuses symbolization; it is not, in other words, absolutely “negative.” In fact, our attempts to symbolize, to represent, to read, are productive, that is, produced by our relation to the symptom, that our sense of reality, or, in this case, subjectivity itself, is governed by what Homi Bhabha, following Lacan’s parable, calls the “time-lag” (The Location of Culture, 191). The time-lag is produced by our relation to the symptom in relation to its return. Each of the prisoners is not only reading the other’s disks, but in a sense returning to the others’ readings of the others’ disks.
But it is the time of hesitancy, in waiting to decide if the effect of his readings, the effect produced by their return, can proceed to the cause, which is his freedom. Another way of describing the situation is to say that our relation to the symptom is governed by lateness; can we, as effects in space, catch up to or follow the causal rhythms in time? Waiting and haste are thus linked; one must be in a state of waiting-in-haste or “hâttendant,” as Lacan might put it. That is, if one doesn’t solve this conundrum quickly enough, one is left “not only to ambiguity, but to error” and will lose the game because success in the game depends entirely on the ungraspable nature of the symptom. All three are put in the space of waiting, waiting for the moment when their fantasmic relation to each other, as imaginary objects which speak enigmatically, silently, to them, becomes symbolized. It is the space, in other words, of what Deleuze names the “event-effect.” The event-effect is explored through the Aion, which “endlessly subdivides the event and pushes away past as well as future, without ever rendering them less urgent. The event is that no one ever dies, but has always just died or is always going to die, in the empty present of the Aion” (The Logic of Sense, 63). This is precisely the space in which the prisoners find themselves; they await the moment of the “tell,” the moment (temps) of affirmation by the other in the symbolic order. But the problem of the tell is that there can be no lag or hesitancy between the moment of affirmation and the act of heading for the door. This problem is further complicated because the moment of affirmation cannot be self-generated; this moment is metonymically deferred because the source of that affirmation must come from the other.
Moreover, these problems are themselves the problems of agency, which gambling tries to stage or, in some cases, to resuscitate. What Lacan refers to as a “temporal break” in representation is also an opportunity for the act:
the intervention of a scansion permitting the insertion of something which can take on meaning for a subject .... We thus find ourselves with the problematic situation, that there is in fact a reality of signs within which there exists a world of truth entirely deprived of subjectivity, and that, on the other hand, there has been a historical development of subjectivity manifestly redirected towards the rediscovery of truth, which lies in the order of symbols (Seminar II, 284-85).
Another way of framing this insight is that the truth the prisoners face is a world deprived of subjectivity (since their only chance to become subjects “again” depends upon it), even as they wait to rediscover that truth (that is, know when they can leave and why) by working through the historical burdens, the spatial contingencies, attached to symbols, to language itself. One way the prisoners’ dilemma can be solved is to recognize that their hesitancy, their doubt, is not the obstacle to the solution, but its path. (More on this problematic in a moment). Of course, subjectivity in its own way is a burden that the gambler wants to tarry with; the stakes he’s prepared to put up are his symptom, his identity, the very thing which permits him to live.
Before I turn one final time to the Parable of the Prisoners, let me turn briefly to the film Rounders, with Matt Damon and John Malkovich. It’s a familiar story, one we’ve seen in such films as The Hustler, with Paul Newman and Jackie Gleason, or The Cincinnati Kid, with Steve McQueen and Edward G. Robinson. Rounders is, in part, the story of a young card shark-cum-law student Mike (Damon), who in order to save his life and that of his reckless debt-ridden friend (Edward Norton), locks chips with a more senior, virtually unbeatable gambler Teddy KGB (Malkovich).
One of the more interesting features of the film is its meditation on the moment of the “tell,” the unconscious symptom that registers itself on the body. Teddy KGB’s tell has thus far remained a mystery. In this regard, he functions in a way startlingly similar to Lacan’s designation of the analyst as le Mort, the dummy, in a game of Bridge. Mike plays three games of poker with him; the first time, he loses his entire stake; the second time, he wins enough to save himself. He succeeds, wins enough to save himself, but is goaded by Teddy KGB to risk everything, who claims that he “feels so unsatisfied” by the game. In this sense, economics and enjoyment are intimately linked. A means of explaining this moment is to turn more properly to Lacan’s discourses. First of all, the encounter between Malkovich and Damon would seem to be a clash of the Master (Teddy KGB) and the Hysteric (Mike). The nature of the transference or identification with the Master is structured by a relation to production. The work or money the Slave produces for the Master by losing is not what interests the latter. Money is a lure; it is in fact a question of the Slave’s enjoyment. That is why Teddy KGB feels “unsatisfied.” In the second game, he has simply returned a fragment of the pot of enjoyment he has already taken from Mike. The spectre of enjoyment is what prompts Damon’s “hysterical” reaction, as he risks everything to return to the table a third time. The Hysteric makes this surplus of enjoyment the stake of the game; it is the Hysteric’s search for the “moment of truth,” that is, the moment when the truth of the Master’s enjoyment is revealed to him, making it possible to re-imagine his relation not only to enjoyment, but to political action. As Lacan tells us, his discourses, with each turn, revolve around a particular impossibility. If political action is a possibility, it revolves upon the impossibility of Mastering enjoyment itself. As every real gambler knows, the Master signifier is held by the “empty” time of Fate; in the film, the rookie’s fascination with the veteran player is a potentially dangerous identification with a particular mode of enjoyment. Winning a high-stakes game is playing with that very impossibility; for a moment, it paradoxically makes the impossible, the space of truth, appear.
But what happens in the third and final game? I would say that it is consistent with the “third moment” of realization that Lacan describes in the dilemma experienced by the prisoners. How this third moment appears is in Teddy KGB’s “tell.” Fittingly, it also involves black and white disksthe black and white disks that make up Oreo Cookies! Each time Teddy has a good hand, he “listens” to the object voice of the cookie as he twists the black disk off, and eats it. Of course, Mike spots this tell and uses it to his advantage. But here’s the real twist (or twist of the real, if you prefer): Mike lets Teddy know that he knows his tell. The Master is furious, having had his enjoyment revealed to him so brutally. Yet the question is: why does Mike do it? An obvious misreading of the film would be that he’s so flushed with victory, that he can’t help himselfit is the coup de grâce (dealt by the coup de chance, as it were). But, what becomes obvious is that it raises precisely the problem of temporality with which the gambler must tarryattempting a scansion of what could be called the rhythms of enjoyment. Rather than let him continue to enjoy the cookies while losing his shirt, Mike avers “I don’t have that kind of time” (my emphasis). He reveals his knowledge of the other’s tell, of the disk on his back, by folding on what he calls “a monster hand.” In other words, the Master and Hysteric are now placed in different temporal spaces: respectively, they occupy the spaces of anxiety/doubt and anticipation. In moving hastily, the Damon character makes the moment of realization and the moment of action virtually coterminus. The love of the game has prompted another turn in Lacan’s four discourses; Mike frees up the possibility of action by occupying the position of the Analyst in the Analyst’s discourse; in this third moment, he masochistically reveals the truth of the other’s enjoyment, which has been hidden in plain view all along. With this moment comes a “settling of accounts” in which the Damon character, much like Kenny Rogers’ Gambler, “breaks even.” The Damon character has reached the “end of the analysis,” since he no longer wastes time having his masterful “analyst,” Teddy KGB, count the money he egoistically insists on losing to him. The third game has revealed to him the purpose of his sinthome. Now that he knows what to do with it, Mike takes it, and his stake, to Vegas in order to become a professional gambler.
Now, how might this film help us think through the deadlock that imperils the prisoners
In Lacan’s parable? It is in the temporal breaking of the tell, of seeing in it the rhythm of an event, in which one scans or gains the perspective necessary to act. Since, as Lacan insists, the order of symbols must be rediscovered, this rediscovery comes in scanning the very break in causality that comes with the emergence of the symptom. So, rather than have doubt be the obstacle to freedom, doubt can become the very condition of it. But how? Rediscovery is not simply discovering again; it implies that the contingencies which inform its uncovering necessarily re-shape and re-cast those truths. One feels the rhythm of time in the same way that Lacan’s notorious short session attempted to produce. Analysis works to re-imagine the analysand’s symptomatic relation to time. In the short session, the act of speaking is not structured by the knowledge of the fifty-minute hour, but rather is inscribed by a cut in the temporal ego, to undercut, if you will, the ego’s resistance. If the analysand (or the prisonerlet’s face it, analysis often has affinities to an episode in the life of Cool Hand Luke) works to fill up the time of the session by procrastinating, then he or she keeps the possibility of the act at bay. Further, procrastination is a means of erasing the path of your desire, and of your relation to the Other’s desire. If the prisoner’s dilemma is an allegory for the subject’s relation to the social, then following the rhythms of the temporal break or cut make it possible to re-imagine the social itself.
In the opening of the parable, Lacan insists that each of the prisoners is equally deserving of freedom, of this apparently unique mercy. If the prisoners take the judgment literally, that is, that the circumstances of the judgment have themselves produced this symptom, then what is placed in doubt is not simply the dictates of the symbolic order, but rather the ability of the symbolic order itself to account for this symptom, that it can never account for every contingency, that the symbol will never completely abolish, throw away, chance. The radicality of their situation is that they find themselves in the “zone between two deaths.” It clears a space for action, even as it holds out the lure of procrastination, of refusing to seize upon the freedom that the second death extends by revealing to them that they are already “undead.” What then is the chance they have to take? That the time-lag has produced the conditions for all of them to become subjects, to rediscover for the first time, as it were, the temporality of the subject in the signifier. In effect, it offers the path not yet taken in the rhythm of history, but has already been, in a sense, scored by it; in other words, it is a lesion or sinthome that appears in the form of a disk. The reason they remain in the room is that they are all free to go; the opportunity afforded by the time-lag (which the second death opens up) is that very realization. It presents the chance to “re-synthesize the past,” not simply to constitute a so-called real sequence of past events. What the parable demonstrates is that the truth or knowledge of one’s identity resides not in the other prisoners, but “in a relation to a speculation on the reciprocity of the subjects” (Seminar II, 288). In order to be free, they wait for the “tell” to speak; that is, they await the realization in the moment that their identities depend upon the unconscious, upon an act that cannot be constituted by consciousness. It is consciousness or discourse, in other words, that not only keeps them in the room, but also prevents them from acting. Another way of phrasing it is to say that just as one must speak well of one’s desire, one must act in the name of one’s desire. Lacan is in effect calling for a radical re-imagining of one’s relation to gambling. If gambling, in its most destructive form, is typically a “passage Β l’acte,” a flight from the symbolic into the pure contingency of the real, then gambling at its most revolutionary is the unconscious recognition of the distinction between a moment of anxiety and a moment of anticipation.
The act, in Lacanian terms, is the unconscious recognition that you know “when” to act; it is a gambling on the tell. Truth, for Lacan, is understanding the rhythm of speech, not discourse, in time. For him, the rhythm of truth-as-knowledge and act must coincide. As he puts it in “Le Temps Logique,” the “moment de conclure” (Écrits, 209) is an anti-cipation, a seizing of Fate in advance of its happening. It is prophetic only insofar as it performs, through speech, and not discourse, the conditions for the act to occur. It is the symptom’s arrival in the future, in the time-lag, that makes the act possible. With the arrival of the cause, then they can now re-imagine the effect that brings them together, that all three of them are already free to enjoy“the time enough for countin’.”
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