Despite its carnivalesque reputation, what stands out more than anything in Las Vegas is just how repressed everyone is. Walk along the floor of a casino at 8am, and you see hundreds of people parked in front of slot machines, smoking cigarettes or drinking gin and tonics, the sums on their credit cards slowly but surely climbing. None of us are smiling.
Some have been there all night. The casinos are designed in such a way that you can never tell what time of day it is. Look around and you’ll notice that there are never any clocks around. Theoretically, a traveler hailing from Seoul or Durban can land in Vegas and spend days indulging without ever having to adjust to the time difference.
We tell ourselves this is all fun. That it’s not desperation. But the most desperate thing in the world is someone convincing themselves that they aren’t desperate. We all do it. Even on a subconscious level. Perching ourselves at a roulette wheel or craps table gives us a chance to tame that quiet shriek by letting it out for a meal. We get up and walk away, feeling a bit lighter in our wallets and psyches, acting like what weighed us down was never there in the first place.
But what happened when we were standing there, those moments that passed in a blur of seizure-inducing lights and frantic tapping of buttons? We gave ourselves over to a dream that is only borne of a world where the solution to every problem is hitting the jackpot. Dumb luck as belief system. What about that doesn’t reek of desperation?
That’s the crux of Vegas. Or at least the version of Vegas we’re encouraged to attend, which strangely never seems to include its residents. The wink-nudge of everything happening here and staying here is such an effective one because it validates a deeply embedded vision of ourselves that we outwardly deny. It isn’t our “true selves.” That would be too easy. Too neat and convenient. In fact, it is a part implanted, an artificial shame, cut from the same cloth as the guilt that fills you when you take a day off or forget to pay a bill on time.
Nothing in the experience of Las Vegas is authentic. It is a city designed with this in mind, deliberately-yet-haphazardly. Up until the Hoover Dam was built in the 1930’s it wasn’t even much of a city. Just an old outpost that had cropped up around a fort occupied first by the Mormons and then by the US Army, always at the expense of the Paiute people. Organized crime got involved, and the rest is history, but the corrupt penchant for cutting corners every step of the way in favor of spectacle is still very present. My partner’s observation of Las Vegas, that it “looks like it was designed by a horny, Fortnite-obsessed fourteen-year-old,” is apt.
The minute a casino hotel is in the black, after the investors have gotten theirs, any meaningful budget for upkeep or maintenance evaporates. Every repair is on the cheap, enough to keep things running so that the last penny can be squeezed out before it’s time to knock the building down and make way for the next one. Frequently, the money will run out halfway through construction. It’s not uncommon to see a building’s oddly-shaped skeleton marring the Las Vegas skyline for years at a time.
Casinos and their attached hotels are abstract space personified, the kind of space that removes us from the context of reality in favor of numbing overwhelm that is itself constitutive of that reality. Pull yourself out of it for long enough and you can see the lack of regard these places have for us, how atomized we are even as we are whipped into the illusion of fulfilling experience.
To walk through the Paris or the Venetian is to walk through dazzling but obviously fake versions of each hotels’ namesake city. The ceilings of both are painted sky blue, punctuated by fluffy clouds. The Venetian even has working canals in its street-like promenades. The storefronts shallowly ape the old world charm of Paris or Venice, save for the fact that the shops themselves are for Gucci, Jamba Juice, Nike, and the restaurants of Martha Stewart and Lisa Vanderpump.
There are two ways to look at this. One is that the designers of these hotels truly believe that we buy the conceit, that we can wrap ourselves in the spectacle and come close to fooling ourselves that we are actually in Paris, in Venice, or in some dazzling-but-nondescript space where the shiny marble will hold us and cater to our every desire. If that is the case, then it ranks the designers of Vegas as among world’s most cynical.
I see it in a slightly different light. Vegas is not about lived experience, or even its simulation, but its complete elimination. “The devastating conquest of the lived by the conceived,” as Lefebvre called it. Its designers have internalized what most people in America have: that ordinary people will never afford to see Paris or Venice, and that even if we could, would we really want to rub elbows with a bunch of greasy Europeans with their strikes and riots and licentious views on fornication and sickening multiculturalism?
No, better to settle for the simulacrum, the marginally more affordable, controlled carbon copy. Sure, you’ll be served chicken fingers that are called chicken confit on the menu, but at least we knew something like this was in the pipeline from the word go.
Of course, appearances aside, Vegas doesn’t run on sheer magic. One wonders how its shape would change if the tens of thousands of cooks, bellhops, dancers, and croupiers who actually live there – many of whom are members of a Culinary Workers Union with a militant rank-and-file – were given carte blanche to let their own hopes and dreams run wild.
The challenge, then, is the same as always. “In a society that has abolished all adventure,” the graffiti on the Parisian walls read in ’68, “the only adventure left is to abolish that society.”