Vegas Sociology

There is no moon now in the sky, only a black and artificial harvest.

August 27-30th, 2011, there was a sociology conference, the largest in the world, held in Ceasar’s Palace. Here is an article in which sociologists talk about the city, where the conference was moved after a labor dispute in Chicago forced their hand. Exploitation of women, environmental depredation, a hyper-real facade of consumerist horrors, an extended  desert solenoid racing with the feverish American pulse. Read the comments at the end. They complain that there is nowhere to sit that isn’t also a toilet to catch the continual incontinence of wealth that the strip induces. They don’t phrase it like that, of course.

I walk into the Casino and my eyes get hard. There is nowhere to sit you don’t have to pay. I rest with a friend of mine, a sociologist, on the rim of a fountain running the edge of the lobby, where imitation busts brood over the flashing light-scape of mechanized loss. To our right is a noodle shop filled with huge aquarium slabs, the shoulder-bumping goldfish as lost-looking as the sociologists. Screens for the “pussycat club” gyrate with hips and torsos, smaller than the asses, pecs, and breasts six stories high on the buildings outside, but smaller than those on the pornographic cards purveyed every dozen steps on the streets by aggressive men and women wearing neon T-shirts reading “HOT GIRLS IN YOUR ROOM IN 5 MINUTES,” or something similar. Nickels and pennies, only a few, rest in the bottom of the pool, as if epidermis from the gold-plated niches of naiads and emperors, or as if, even here, the fiscal diarrhea of the place is pulling small change from our colons.

“I’ve heard people compare the U.S. to Rome before it’s fall,” I mention to my friend as I look around, “you know, amoral decadence, conspicuous tributes to imperial power in vain attempts to mask the chaos at the periphery and bankruptcy at the core…But I just don’t see it. I mean, where’s the comparison?”

Not being a sociologist, I can say nothing about society. The standard critique, I gather, is that nothing in Vegas is real. What Umberto Eco calls “hyper-reality” or Marx might identify as “commodity fetishism” has replaced the actual with mirage. There is a psychological disorder, a type of schizophrenia, where the patient feels that everyone they know has been replaced with exact copies of themselves. Her or his loved ones may act, talk, and look the same, but they have no souls; sometimes this leads to murder. It reminds, me, too, of the post-structuralist view of language: the words that we once loved have been replaced by ghosts and semblances. What we write can no longer have any meaning.

The strip is a killer vine wrapped around the exposed spine of consumer ephemera, sending signals to the brain of intense desires destined never to be fulfilled. You are smart enough, and lucky enough, the casinos assure you in their smoky bedroom voice, to win where others have failed. Take a chance, go into debt if you have to. Because I’m not a sociologist, I can say this: it sounds a lot like graduate school. It sounds a lot like the economy in general.

I’ve taken a part time job as a black jack dealer. I don’t want to talk about it. Every other day or so I take a plane to Vegas, take off my head and replace it with a question mark. They give me a syllabus of dirty and sexist jokes, and we aren’t supposed to deviate from the script. “This isn’t the only game,” I whisper to them. They hired me because I can speak, with banter bling enough to keep them at the table. My throat is coated with cigarette smoke and lights. Vegas is the meme-plex queen, an assault against the strongest mental immunologies. What doesn’t kill you makes you cynical.

Even writing this, I know I am not safe. When I whisper, I whisper also into microphones. They know me as closely as the airport scanners, every private outline of my speech. The jealous lover/government we’ve slept with since our birth: Amon Ra, the ASA, the MLA, the CIA. The casinos, superficially different, are all owned by Harrahs and MGM. In my mind I carry contraband.

I drive two hours to the airport every other day, before I make the flight to Vegas. There are no buses, but plenty of police. I got pulled over yesterday, and when the cop asked for my insurance card I only had one that was out of date. I’m afraid he might have been made suspicious by my question-mark head. When he fined me hundreds of dollars, I realized that Vegas had followed me here, to, the midnight strip spilling along Midwestern highways like a bloody mary tipped over on a long, flat bar. There is nowhere to sit without paying. Traps, fines, tolls, and trolls. He asks my job, where I am headed. “I’m a black jack dealer,” I say. I missed my flight, and had to buy another.

I don’t believe in the hyper-real, post-structuralist critique. Las Vegas is real. Even the gaudiest bust of Ceasar is assembled from real plaster, Disney-esque monuments to monuments are made from real concrete and stone, and the ghouls of the strip have real bodies they have just forgotten, or been forced to sell. The water has to come from somewhere. Every Helsreach has its 1491. I was reminded of this, thankfully, when some of my family, who live in Vegas, picked us up from the lobby of the Imperial Palace, and drove us up out of the bowl of the city, into the mounded mountains stubbled with Joshua trees. They paid for a dinner at a lodge looking over a real landscape, with hummingbirds and pines.

It’s dark when as we drive back down, the beam from the apex of the Luxor, the brightest light in the world, pointing upwards to the absence of a moon. A species of Egyptian bat, unknown to this continent, was supposedly found fluttering around this luminous beacon: more victims of the strip. Let me be clear: I don’t believe in pyramids, and I don’t believe in war. If I am helping to build them, it’s because there are no jobs for hummingbirds.

Take your cards. Be careful. You never heard this from me.

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