Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Leaving the Casino

I’ve never been to Las Vegas, and my experience of gambling casinos is limited to a short visit to a modestly sized casino in Windsor, Ontario. The experience was, however, quite  memorable.  I went in prepared to lose $100 just to have the experience of gambling in a casino.  Surprisingly, I ended up some $121 and change to the good.  But leaving before losing wasn’t the only lesson.  The enlightening moment was walking out the doors of the casino and noticing the difference as the summer glare and the wave of hot humidity hit me in the face and everything shone brilliantly in the sunlight of the northern summer. 

Many observers have pointed out that the artificially illuminated 24-hour world of casinos seems timeless.  What I noticed was that the flashing of the lights brought attention to the slots and the overhead lighting brought the other gaming tables into focus.  Everything else was in a kind of twilight, and the message was clear: What’s important is where the light is.  Of course, in these windowless rooms, the only vote as to what’s important came from those who designed the environment.  The generous impulses of the sun were excluded.  Sunshine is, perhaps, too egalitarian in its deployment for the designers of the casino, playing no favorites by shining on everything alike.

So, there’s a moment of disorientation on leaving the casino environment, and especially on such a blue-sky afternoon in July here in North America, when the contrast between the cave of the casino and the light of day seemed particularly strong.  After only a couple hours in the tight focus and eternal twilight of the casino, jazzed as I was on the juice of momentary gains and losses, natural light and the vivid expansiveness of external reality seemed strange.  Further, after looking at emotionally charged numbers and symbols for a time, encountering outdoors the plain inscrutability of everything, everything, everything . . . right down to the stones shining with traffic wear through their encasement in asphalt, was in a way appalling: What does it all mean?  It means nothing.  I cannot “read” it.  This is no game.  And without the game, there is no meaning.

No wonder people can get used to being in casinos.  They are womblike in their dark constancy, and simultaneously dreamy and intense in their abstractions and symbolism.  The spinning wheels, shuffling cards and rolling dice are their eternally recombining DNA.

People are wonderfully adept at hypnosis via their own abstract dreams and symbol systems.  Seeing this, I work with the assumption that waking up to Peak Oil and preparing for Transition is just a special case of awakening in general, and that waking up requires really looking at the symbols we’ve created and how we relate to them.  The casino is a creation of the mind.  With casinos as with the rest of modern infrastructure, the power of fossil fuels has been applied to the manifestation of an abstract dream, just as the energy available in every previous society has been applied to the creation of symbol systems and their related artifacts--- in a word, culture.  What makes fossil fuels special in a historical sense is that their concentrated energy has allowed for an unprecedentedly rapid expansion of these abstract symbol systems and artifacts, to the point that many people in Western society are predominantly occupied with the maintenance of abstract sign systems and held firmly in their thrall.  Somewhere, it is true, ore is mined, and somewhere the mechanized combines thresh the grain that keeps us going, but these are not immediately present in the lives of many people I know, and even then often seem to become just another layer of abstraction and dream projected upon the body of the earth.  Pork bellies perhaps represent a mortgage payment for the farmer, and for the commodity broker they are even more abstracted as they are traded on paper or in pixilated bytes. 

So the experience of the casino is useful because it epitomizes the human capacity to get lost in our own abstractions and can help us discern what’s going on as this takes place.  We look and we see money changing among nervous hands, all right, but strangely, no work is being accomplished and it is dissociated from external realities to remarkable degree.  Perhaps this is why, for most of the history of the United States, gambling was outlawed as a dangerous and socially corrosive vice.

But there is a yet deeper level on which casinos provide an illuminating glimpse into the challenges of waking up within our entrenched and often tyrannical systems of signs, which is one way of describing the challenge of responding effectively to Peak Oil and Climate Change.  As a mental creation, the casino can also be likened to the mind itself.  While there is creativity and beauty in how our dreams can be projected outwardly to shape our feelings and the world, there is also an awful tendency for humans to be trapped within their symbol systems.  At my blackjack table, as the cards fell and the $5 chips appeared and disappeared, what mattered to all present was the next card, and the next, and the next to fall.  The logic and energy of the symbols within the construct of the game compelled the players to stay, and in fact to stay overlong, while the mathematics intrinsic to the system ensured that on the whole they would lose.  

And here’s the big question that occupies me today: how is sitting at a gaming table any different than when, in our ordinary awareness, we remain ensconced in a habitual series of thoughts? Thoughts have their own internal logic, their own compelling rhythm of signs, and in daily life they tend to follow, for the most part, as card follows card from the familiar deck.  It’s rare, in our thoughts, to turn up the mental equivalent of the Jack of Nasturtiums, or anything else that doesn’t fit into our established patterns.  And, just as with the blackjack table, there is a very strong tendency to stick with our mental games even when their intrinsic structure and logic mean we will come out the loser. 

The fact that this happens in poeple as individuals helps to understand how it can happen in groups. In Jared Diamond’s description of the Easter Islanders in Collapse: How Societies Choose to Succeed or Fail, the author vividly describes how an entire society can be undone when its abstract dreams collide with the systems within which they are embedded.  Diamond describes the enormous energy and resources devoted in that island’s culture to the quarrying, transport, and erection of their famously gigantic stone statues.  Others have written about it also, wondering what might have been going through the minds of the people who cut Easter’s last trees in this pursuit, thus also cutting off the means to leave the island via the oceangoing canoes that brought them there. 

While the social significance of the statues is still a matter of conjecture, what is clear is that the people did not find the capacity to collectively get up from the blackjack table of culturally determined significances before they bankrupted their environment and endured devastating losses.  And before we are quick to judge them, try, for example, getting by as a pedestrian in modern American infrastructure, or to imagine living without the gigantic corporations that have insinuated themselves into every aspect of our lives.  In most places in the United States, the inner logic of the dream we’ve projected onto the landscape compels us to continue to move 2000 pounds of glass and metal wherever we travel, even as we go broke doing so, even as the environment is paved over and polluted and our communities disintegrate.  The call then goes out to bring gas prices down; within the game we’re playing, that seems the only desireable option. 

Likewise, people in our culture have invested their lives in corporate success through their careers, retirement plans, and general participation in the money economy, and we look daily to these abstract entities to sustain us with the resources they have commandeered through symbol manipulation or brute force, much as the social structure on Easter demanded participation to build ever larger and more numerous statues.  In time, however, I am guessing that people will look back and wonder at the significance of our automobiles and corporations, just as explorers and archeologists wonder today about those statues on that desolated island.  And they may ask: Why did those people drag those things around so long?  Couldn’t they see the staggering losses mounting all around them?

Being human, we’re going to create signs and significances; that’s a given. We’re going to dreamily think and thoughtfully dream, project our dreams onto the world, be at times delighted by and at other times undone by them, and then, if we will, wake up to think and dream again.  Personally, I like the Green Hand and what it has come to represent to me, but there are many many ways of stepping into a new game and finding a new system, perhaps more in harmony with the larger systems in which we are embedded.  Maybe you can try putting your hand out, too.  

I’ll see you outside; I believe the sun is shining!

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