'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Las Vegas and the Simulacrum of Desire 

Preliminary, I appreciate the kind remarks that many of you have posted about my mother's decision to enter hospice. It is something that is emotionally difficult to deal with in unanticipated ways. Besides the frequent travel between Sacramento and Kingman, Arizona, where my mother lives, there are all those thorny emotional issues that come to the surface when we have to accept that one of parents is about to die. So again, thanks. At some point, I may post about the more concrete aspects of my mother's situation, because some may find it useful, but I am still ambivalent about that, because, as most of you are probably aware, I emphasize ideas over my personal life on this blog, and want to respect my mother's privacy.

In any event, I thought that I might share some of my more sociological impressions gleaned from traveling between Sacramento and Kingman, with an emphasis today upon Las Vegas. To get to Kingman, I fly to McCarron Aiport in Las Vegas, and then go there by way of shuttle or rental car to Kingman, about 100 miles southeast of the airport. McCarron is one of the most inhospitable, unpleasant airports in the United States. Perhaps, I am spoiled by the geniality of the people who work in the small, accessible airport here in Sacramento, but McCarron is bad, even when compared to an overcrowded facility like Hartsfield in Atlanta. At least in Hartsfield, the employees are friendly, even in stressful situations, displaying a self-deprecating humour about the poor performance of Delta Airlines, the airline that uses Hartsfield as a hub.

By contrast, the employees at McCarron, especially the TSA ones, are arrogant and condescending. They order passengers around the way bouncers treat undesirables at a prestigious nightclub. Food service is awful, with a poor selection at ridiculously high prices. Space is at a premium, as passengers for flights are confined in clastrophobia inducing conditions. Paradoxically, there are long distances from terminal to terminal for no apparent reason before one arrives at the absurdly cramped gates. Of course, it takes about 10 minutes to get from the rental car center to the airport.

After my second or third trip through the airport, I finally understood the purpose of subjecting passengers to such treatment. Las Vegas is a resort city, but one in which spontaneity is rigorously suppressed, and the airport, as the port of entry for many people who travel there, is operated so as to convey this to arriving tourists. One may do many things in Las Vegas, but only within the strictly controlled conditions imposed by the gaming industry. Gambling, voyeuristic entertainment, prostitution, one may partake of all of these forbidden pleasures, but only on the terms dictated by the casinos who provide them. Rarely has eroticism been exploited to such profitable effect while simultaneously being rendered so dispassionate and sterile.

Oddly enough, I came to such a conclusion while watching the movie 1984 at my mother's house on one of those few remaining channels that broadcast over the airwaves. Towards the end, there is a scene where Winston Smith, along with many others, goes to a conference room to hear a presentation. During this presentation, he learns that the scientists of Oceania have discovered a way to eliminate the orgasm, which was considered one of the primary sources of the familial bonds that the regime is intent upon eradicating because they constitute a social identity independent of the regime. Relying upon Stalinist methods, the scientists of Oceania cannot pursue methods of social control separate from the destruction of the undesirable behavior or physical attribute in question.

But the capitalists who have created and modified Las Vegas over the decades have been free to do so. For them, sexuality is not something to be erased from human consciousness, but, rather, something to be manipulated and commodified. Central to such an endeavor is the prohibition of any kind of spontaneous expression of sexuality, as everything is typecast according to commonly known stereotypes of male and female desire. For straight women there is the Thunder from Down Under, an Australian beefcake show, while, for straight men, there are numerous strip clubs and shows with busty, athletically built blonds and brunettes. For gays and lesbians, there are apparently nightclubs, but that wasn't so heavily advertised. Subjected to the billboards for these shows while traveling between the rental car center and the airport, I recalled how a middle aged executive, Mr. McGuire, told Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate that there is a great future in plastics. Clearly, although McGuire is presented as a character to be ridiculed, he knew whereof he spoke, as the transformation of human drives and desires into a profitable simulacrum has been one of the defining characteristics of our times.

For capitalists, one of the allures of this process has been that it is profitable while enhancing social control over much of the populace. And, in Las Vegas, it is not limited to sexuality, one finds much the same outcome in regards to gambling, the original reason for the development of this desert resort city. Gambling, historically associated with the challenge of trying to prevail over unequal risk in favor of the house, is now merely a form of entertainment in which the house invariably wins. Here, too, the unpredictabililty, the spontaneity that was a significant part of the psychological motivation for gamblers has been routinized away. People putting coins into slot machines for hours on end, or playing bingo in a casino restaurant, do so with a discipline evocative of a proletarian factory worker. Hence, we can say that, in 1984, Orwell presented a fundamentally flawed vision of the future, because he failed to recognize that Stalinism, with its Calvinist excesses, was already a thing of the past, and, thus, presented a threat to no one, while the commodification of human needs and desires was the real, emergent peril, for it is much easier to modify human behaviour under the guise of libertinism than it is to compel conformity through punishment.

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