It’s about this time of year that I leave the soft skies of this damp, north-western archipelago of the European continent, just as spring starts to unfurl, with its gusts and constant showers and wild extravagant clouds and head to Las Vegas, with its diamond hard desert skies, unforgiving landscape, and total artificiality.
It’s what I always remember on returning to the UK – the softness of the skies.
I’m not going this year, and do you know, I almost regret it.
From an unfinished letter to a friend:
What was really interesting was when I went to Vegas. Vegas is conservative middle America, and businessmen, it’s devoted to commodification and manipulation of desire. I’m going back to my notebook, where I started taking a few notes for a mail I was going to send you while I was out there but which I never got round to…
I thought I’d put down a few informal thoughts about my NAB time in Vegas. Partly to give you a sense of what it’s like, partly as process. Also partly because I feel the way to understand a thing is not to view it directly, but as Thomas Browne had it in his posthumously published Christian Morals (1716):
Besides, many things are known, as some are seen, that is by parallaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper beings; the superficial regard of things having a different aspect from their true and central natures.Thomas Browne – Christian Morals
Vegas is so strange. The elements are incredibly simple, almost abstract.
There are two monads: the city of Vegas and the Mojave desert around it. The desert is a place of a fierce allegiance and antagonism between the sun – which burns very fiercely in the arid air – and the rock – that strata of organic matter, a result of the permian-triassic megadeath, a graveyard of 96% of all marine species laid down 252 million years ago in the shallow seabeds that covered the area, lithified and compressed by the winds and deep time.
JB Priestley said that as you travel southwest in the united states, you become more aware of geology than of human history. you can see the levels of geological time, and the contours and fluidity of the sierra, moving like waves through vast epochs (which is after all what they are doing).
The Paiute indians communed with the gods in the cosmos, and by the position of the stars, divined to know when the minimal sustenance the desert offered would be available: pine nuts from the pinyon tree, roots, and sagebrush.
And in the centre of this harsh geometric plane, there is a central node, which is Las Vegas – The Meadows.
I stopped there, or rather my writing disintegrated into the usual mess of half-legible notes and arrows &c. that represents a diffusion of thought. But if i had continued more coherently, I would have pointed out that, imagining that geometric plane of the Mojave Desert, with its vivid night sky and cosmic holism, in which sits that single point of Las Vegas, formed by the intersection of four very basic vectors: money, energy (namely electricity), water, desire. The manipulation and output of these comprises, in Aristotlean terms, the four causes of Vegas. There is one further coherent phrase in my notebook:
The single point of connection between these two monads is the Boulder Dam, now more commonly known as the Hoover Dam, across the Colorado River.
It may also be seen as the point of conversion – taking the cosmic system of the desert and canalising it into those four elements out of which Vegas was constructed and through which it is controlled or should i say through which it controls.
This is as much the case in its efficient cause as it is in its material cause: The Meadows came into being as a consequence of the vast numbers of workers brought in to create the Boulder Dam. Out of the Great Depression and Roosevelt’s New Deal, this Fantasy Land was builded, designed to part people from their hard-earned dollars as efficiently as possible.
To my mind the Great Depression is still present in its working. It still designed to appeal more to middle America than any notion of the high roller – all the Middle Eastern gambling takes place in Macau, I think.
But what is that appeal? Maybe some people think they will go to Vegas and make it rich, but the whole thing is constructed to fulfill desire. Its formal cause, the methodology of its design, is to monetise this process as efficiently as possible. In its commoditised, processed versions of desire-fulfilment, deployed into its vast air-conditioned halls, it represents an emptiness. Its final cause is of course death and the constructions of life and desire presented there flicker grotesquely against that dark backdrop.
You can have a very good time eating, drinking and gambling in Vegas; I don’t mean to patronise: the obvious extent to which Vegas goes about its business with such pathological determination suggests the people who visit are, to a certain extent, happy with what it has to offer, that they recognise the facade, and that what it gives is a proxy for desire fulfilment in return for cash. It’s good enough, it’s fun. But it’s also pretty bleak.
It is America’s theme park, to an extent I didn’t really realise – L and her husband live in Lubbock, Texas, and regularly fly to Vegas at the weekend. It astonishes me that anyone would want to do this at all regularly, but people do. The US ability to enjoy, in all sincerity and with full awareness, the ersatz is impressive really, or at least very un-English1I think reading this back, this is wrong, or at least it is not true across all the English who, like most nations, are perfectly capable of having a good time no matter where they are or go. This is different from the ironic enjoyment or awareness of the kitsch in the ersatz. Having said all that, I’m sure you like me have encountered many Americans who have an equally strong desire to consume that dangerous commodity, so effectively auctioned off in the 20th century by Old Europe – authenticity.
As for the material causes, the Boulder Dam generates the electricity (much of this is I believe sold to California, which then sells it back to Vegas O_o), and the water from Lake Mead. This water needs chlorinating because it needs constant recycling to irrigate the Meadows with its pleasure fountains and pools. The heavenly mirage of the oasis comes at a huge exertion of energy sucked out of nature. The infernal equivalent in the desert is the Dust Devil raised out of a compact of convecting desert heat and wind to erect a violent whirlwind of dust above the ground.
As is well known, I believe, Las Vegas negates the organic diurnal rhythms into a perpetual neon, oxygenated twilight in order to keep people gambling. I’d walk through the casinos listening to DAMN., across the grimy soft carpets, taking in the smell and texture of chlorine, ionized fag smoke, the chill of the aircon, sickly floral smell of industrial perfumes, ceilings painted like skies.
The same mechanisms Vegas pioneered have since long been used in supermarkets and in all sorts of areas designed to optimise the ability to extract cash. Now many of the physical mechanisms seem quaint, with newer, more sophisticated mechanisms and algorithms sinking into the structures behind society and manipulating desire in ways harder to perceive than the gaudy excess of Vegas. As I say it seems almost innocent. And there is always an advantage to crudely set out versions of the mechanisms that control our lives in more sophisticated and hidden ways.
The architecture is of course, in a raw sense of the word, incredible. It reminds me of a science-fiction short story2which I can’t for the life of me find, surely PKD?, where a doomed planet was forced to emigrate to another, fresher planet, suitable for existence. First they sent the engineers, who perished on landing, in a crash, then they sent the anthropologists, to recreate the cultural landscape – they also perished, and so on. Finally they sent the blue-collar workers, who created a bizarre fantasy world that represented their image of the world they had come from. So Vegas, as you know. Vast storage facilities, for people, cars and entertainment, bedecked in fantasy. Excalibur has knights in armour, kilted Scottish lairds, maids in dirndles, Robin Hood, and Celtic trappings, Paris has the Eiffel Tower jammed in it and quaint 19th century facades, Venice is all hispanic gondaliers and chlorine. (It is interesting that the Trump Hotel is the only hotel where its theme is itself3again, on a reread this isn’t entirely true, Steve Wynn has his personality themed pair of hotels is another example). Behind these frontages are those huge car parks, separate ones for staff and for patrons, themselves the true backdrop of US desire. They’re beginning to have to charge for the use of car parks, one sign among many that Vegas is in decline.
As far as I can tell one area it still continues to do well from is business conferences. I think it’s the largest conference facility in the US. And of course the answer to the question ‘Why Vegas?’ is because business was always the domain of men and so basically it was the place they could go to booze, get laid and gamble. According to a colleague, even comparatively recently (like in the last 20 years) some clients still expected to be taken to brothels. In fact, I don’t know why I’m so naive – I’m sure that still happens.
I know I’ve gone on at length, but this is the backdrop for NAB. At NAB, as at its European analogue, IBC (in Amsterdam obviously), you can buy everything you need to create, edit, post, manage and distribute TV (in its broadest sense) and films. The show is, to my mind, all non-trivially weird and calculating at the same time. There is, as I say, a nauseating pathology to it all, especially when it comes to the cynicism of the corporate side. The male gaze is totally legitimised there. Men are released from the daily bullshit of having to pretend, and exchange conspiratorial glances and innuendo. That almost tactile male atmosphere a friend mentioned in corporate offices becomes a disgustingly thick fug, and there is a naked contempt if you are not of it. Call it Guild culture. I do not want to come across as a blowhard puritan, but there is something about the rotten core of male business that gets exposed here. What am I saying, entirely appropriately, it exposes itself.
When you get to NAB on the first day it’s all still being put up – the chipboard stands will, in 24 hours, be glittering with encrusted media technology. It is all as flimsy and gimcrack as hell of course, like everything else here, including the people, including me, when I am there. It somehow drains a sense of substance, all that’s left, a dessicated and materially nugatory body.
There was a passage that struck me with great but enigmatic force in Gershom Scholem’s account of his friendship with Walter Benjamin:
Among the books he [Benjamin] read in connection with this seminar was Daniel Paul Schreber’s Denkwürdigkeiten eines Nervenkranken [Memoirs of a neuropath], which appealed to him far more than Freud’s essay on it. He also induced me to read Schreber’s book, which contained very impressive and pregnant formulations. From a salient passage in this book Benjamin derived the designation “flüchtig hingemachte Männer” [hastily put-up men]. Schreber, who at the height of his paranoia believed for a time that the world had been destroyed by “rays” hostile to him, gave this as an anaswer when it was pointed out to him that the doctors, patients, and employees of the insane asylum obviously existed.The Story of a Friendship, Gershom Scholem
Flüchtig hingemachte Männer. I would like to know what Benjamin so designated by this phrase. It seems to me incredibly useful. So useful, that it’s tempting to use it for every damn person you come across at an event like this. And yet it means more than just empty or fraudulent. There is of course the notion of a deception, not an individual deception, but structural, organised deception.
But there is more than just the notion of the Potemkin Village, designed to assure anyone reviewing the event that all is well. It is a structural deception designed to undermine a sense of reality. It is a sort of power-structure gaslighting, which will imply insanity for anyone who doubts it. With the façades of Vegas, the temporary shanty town of media technology, the trouser-hoisting, proud droit-de-seigneur surveillance of the men, mutually assuring each other of their power and virility, it was a phrase that continually occurred to me, with a sort of haunting hypnosis.
And DAMN. went from being something which seemed totally, socially rich and democratic in San Francisco, played by everyone, played by and defining community, to something that felt protective. I heard no Kendrick in Las Vegas. I’d put in my headphones and I’d find space to breathe. I remember listening to LUST on the monorail, with its line ‘might as well overheat’ and thinking yes, just let go, stop trying to control it, just overheat, let the pain overtake you, let it overcome you, stop trying to control it, allow it to annihilate you – it was also incredibly hot outside of course – and I just felt a sense of tranquility, and of distance from it all. At this point the entire album seemed to ward off the bad spirits of Vegas. It was private, and contained within it the world that I’d seen in San Francisco.
Transactions: money, electricity, desire, water, and in the conference centre, the end to end ability to create and distribute stories, events, occurrences, audio-visual confections of all sorts, to screens all over the world.
Vegas, and NAB, have an elemental, unfulfilling, contaminating strangeness.
Postcript: This was written prior to Covid, and seems rather sour in retrospect, though I stand by its principles.
Vegas did very well out of Covid, once it had come out of the initial phase of being a haunted town, where doors that were never designed to be locked had to be obstructed and chained.
Taxi drivers were enthusiastic, it had never been busier, hotels were bustling. Americans unable to go abroad were congregating at a place that to preserve its very existence leaned into doing business during a time of plague. And people came.