Bingo in Utopia

Denver-bingo-card-2012Kieran Healy in Crooked Timber:

Will there be Bingo in Utopia? It is hard to say. The emancipatory potential of bingo as praxishas been criticized from the earliest days of modern social theory. In 1862 Marx was prompted to write the first draft of what became Theories of Surplus Value during very straitened financial circumstances (he had pawned the clothes of his children and his maid, Helene Demuth) brought on mostly by clandestine visits to an East London bingo emporium, where he would play games of “Housey-Housey” while his wife Jenny believed him to be at the British Library conducting research. The game itself was for some time believed to be mentioned by Marx directly in a well-known if difficult section of the Grundrisse:

Capital’s ceaseless striving towards the general form of wealth drives labour beyond the limits of its natural paltriness, and thus creates the material elements for the development of the rich individuality which is as all-sided in its production as in its consumption, and whose labour also therefore appears no longer as labour, but as the full development of bingo itself, in which natural necessity in its direct form has disappeared; because natural need has been replaced by historically produced need.

This passage provoked considerable confusion—and a substantial amount of theoretical debate—amongst the small circle of scholars who had access to it from 1935 onwards.

Following the thaw and wave of rehabilitations during the Khruschev era, however, it transpired that David Riazanov’s original transcription of this passage (with a reading of “activity” and not “bingo”) had been correct. It was altered by an unknown member of theNKVD as part of the effort to falsify evidence establishing the existence of a so-called “United Front of Mensheviks and Mah-Jongg”. The unhappy fate of bingo as an element of emancipatory praxis was sealed by Adorno, who intensely disliked the game (and indeed much else) in all its forms, defending instead what he saw as the more austere but purer pleasures of the tombola.