Sunday, June 2, 2013

A Berlin Chronicle

Under the S-Bahn arch on Knesebeckstraße, across the street from the Joan-Miró-Grundschule, which a century ago had been the Kaiser-Friedrich-Gymnasium that Walter Benjamin attended as a child, the Sandwichman was accosted by a Franz Biberkopf look-alike who pretended to have just found a gold ring on the sidewalk. Complete with illegible hallmark inside! Had I dropped it?

The gold ring drop -- akin to the pigeon drop and the Guinea drop -- is a venerable scam, the latter version of which was mentioned by John Gay in his 1716 poem, "Trivia -- Or, the Art of Walking the Streets of London,":
Who can the various city frauds recite,
With all the petty rapines of the night?
Who now the guinea-dropper's bait regards,
Trick'd by the sharper's dice, or juggler's cards?
Why should I warn thee ne'er to join the fray,
Where the sham quarrel interrupts the way?
Lives there in these our days so soft a clown,
Brav'd by the bully's oaths, or threatening frown?
I need not strict enjoin the pocket's care,
When from the crowded play thou lead'st the fair;
Who has not here or watch or snuff-box lost,
Or handkerchiefs that India's shuttle boast?
Charmed by my ersatz Biberkopf's supplications for "ein Bier!" I offered him two Euro for his performance but balked at his demand for "funf!" Having puzzled now for a week about the persistence of this archaic hustle, I am beginning to wonder if perhaps it doesn't embody the transition from gift to market exchange. The operator doesn't attempt to sell the counterfeit item to the mark but presents it as a gift -- or under the pretence of a gift. If it was the item it purports to be, such a valuable gift would impose an obligation on the receiver to reciprocate.

Utilitarian analysis operates on the unspoken assumption that fraud, misrepresentation and adulteration are the anomalies and that the normal course of business entails the exchange of items that are what their purveyors claim them to be. This is not the case with advertising, which incessantly alludes to social joys the products themselves are incapable of delivering. So although the value of a utility may be subjective, any correspondence between expected utility and objective fulfilment is strictly coincidental. "Value" is the hallmark of the discrepancy. Perhaps the bourgeois lifestyle, broadly speaking -- career, private life, mortgaged abode, social relationships mediated by possessions -- can be better appreciated as a macrocosm of the counterfeit gold ring drop scam. And then there are the various Ponzi schemes of the macroeconomy. "Lives there in these our days so soft a clown..."

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