I have decided to interrupt my series, “Trauma and Intoxication”–inspired by my recent reading of Annäherungen, Ernst Jünger’s 1970 book on “drugs and intoxication”—to do this two-part interlude. I’ll resume my series on traumatic intoxications and intoxicating traumas with my post after next. I hope the delay in my turning to pain–which, as promised, will be where I start when I eventually resume my Jünger-inspired series–will turn to no undue pain of their own for my readers.
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A piece in the editorial section of the New York Times last Sunday (12/9/12) reminded me of the visit to Las Vegas my wife and I took last spring, a trip I have blogged about before. The piece was by Oliver Burkeman, identified by the editor as a columnist for The Guardian. It appeared under the headline: “Suffer. Spend. Retreat.” The side-blurb, “Holiday shopping is designed to make you uncomfortable,” did a good job of pointing to what the column addresses: How what counts in the retail business when it comes to shoppers and their shopping is not to please customers, but to agitate them, like a washing machine.
That analogy to a washing machine is mine, not Mr. Burkeman’s; but it certainly fits. A washing machine is not in the business of catering to the fancies of the clothes that are thrown into it. It is in the business of washing them—of cleaning them out of all the filth that they have accumulated since their last washing. Just so is holiday retailing (or that of any other season, for that matter) designed not to boost shoppers’ egos, but to boost their wallets of whatever money they may have managed to accumulate since they were last boosted. As washing machines clean clothes of filth, so retailers clean shoppers of their money, their “filthy lucre.” The business of the such business is not to fluff shoppers, but to fleece them. To do that effectively, moneyed shoppers, like dirtied clothes, must be agitated: The greater the agitation, the deeper the potential fleecing.
Mr. Burkeman’s analysis of the principles governing contemporary retail sales reinforces a similar analysis of another business field, namely, contemporary banking, by professional market analyst Richard X. Bove, that was already recounted in the Times back in July of this year, this time in a column in the business section, by Nathaniel Popper. I have already blogged about Mr. Popper’s column presenting Mr. Bove’s analysis, and interested readers can refer to that earlier post. It appears at this site under the same general, “occasional series” title I have chosen as appropriate also to today’s post: “ The Traffic in Trauma.” That earlier post carries the subtitle, “Legitimations? Legitimations? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Legitimations!” That same subtitle would also be pertinent to some of what is at issue in today’s post, too.
In its turn, that earlier post under “The Traffic in Trauma” was, in common with the whole occasional series of that general title, occasioned by my wife’s and my trip to Las Vegas last May, as my regular readers may remember. On my notes to myself during that trip, when the idea of such an occasional series–devoted to what I also call the institutionalization of trauma–first came to me, I jotted down, as one possibility under the general title at issue, a post on “Forcing Rudeness,” an idea which has now found its way into my subtitle for today’s post. It is to that topic, and the trip to Las Vegas that provided its biographical context, that I will now turn.
As my wife and I experienced and discussed between the two of us during our trip there last spring, it is not possible to walk the Vegas Strip (the Las Vegas part of Las Vegas, as it were) without walking within and/or through the various casinos along the way. All pedestrian traffic is inexorably directed into and/or through them. I’ve already remarked on that at this blog-site before. Wherever one goes in the Vegas of the Strip, one goes either within or through one casino and/or another–take your pick which, since they’re all alike anyway, just as all the products competing with one another in our “consumer society” are all alike, just under a bunch of different brand names (maybe most owned by the same business conglomerate).
What I have not till now blogged about until now is how, coupled with that recurrent, ubiquitous casino-entrapment, the pedestrian is also recurrently harassed unto rudeness, as I would put it, all along both the intra- and the inter-casino stretches of a walk there. We were left un-accosted during our arrival at the Las Vegas airport and even during our shuttle-bus ride to the casino-hotel where we had booked a room for our stay. But then, literally as soon as we entered the doors into the belly of the beast, before we could even visually locate the registration desk to check in, the assault began. Approached just inside the doorway by a be-suited, clean-shaven, well-groomed man we took to be part of the hotel welcoming staff and who inquired if he could be of help, we asked him the way to check-in. He offered not only to tell us, but also to accompany us there in person. Duped by his apparent solicitude, we gladly accepted his offer, and set off with him.
Our guide did indeed prove to be solicitous. It is just that his care was not for us, but for the potential profit we represented to him—or, rather, to the enterprise whose morning’s minion (pace G. M. Hopkins, who also has a place in Las Vegas for me, as some of my readers may recall) he was. In that sense, there was even something self-less about his service, since his own interests were entirely subordinated to those of the firm or enterprise that employed him, and into which everything of whatever might have been his “self” had all but vanished. That selflessness, however, was that of the walking dead, rather than that of one who, as St. Benedict recommends to his monks, was ever zealous to seek the good of others rather than of his own—the emptiness of the zero, rather than of the womb: a place where nothing can grow, save the wasteland.
Frontline combat veterans sent to the rear with what was once called “battle fatigue” were also once said symptomatically to display “the thousand-yard-stare.” The assault of being in Las Vegas can produce the same sort of emptiness behind the eyes of those who spend time there, on the frontlines of our consumer society as it were. We might call that “the Las Vegas stare.”
That empty, frozen stare is something one can see, of course, in the gambling addict’s fixation on the slot-machine, roulette wheel, velvet dice-roll surface, or other gaming equivalent. One can also see it in the eyes of the homeless and the drug-addicted who are permitted to manifest on the Strip only during the deadness of early dawn, when the mass of tourists and gamblers are briefly off the streets, readying themselves to reenter the action by a bit of boozy, fretful sleep. Even more significantly, one can see it even—and indeed especially, judging from my own, admittedly limited but still convincing experience—in the eyes of those who “make their living” in Las Vegas–make it in, on, and out of everything that itself makes up what I earlier called the truly Las Vegas part of Las Vegas, namely, the Strip.
Our helpful guide to what we presumed would be the hotel registration desk had the Las Vegas stare. So did the woman to whom he guided us first, before taking us to the front desk, and who, he told us, would provide us with some tokens of welcome to Sin City, U. S. A., as Las Vegas likes to advertise itself. One of the welcoming tokens that latter person, the friendly token-giver, gave to us was an offer to receive even more such generous—that is, more expensive—gifts than the trinkets she’d already given us, if we would only agree to take a short bus trip to a nearby condominium development to be given to a standard “time-share” tour and spiel. For just the short span of time it would take to do that, she told us, we would be given free meal tickets for breakfast, lunch or brunch at the hotel’s buffet restaurant, free tickets to dine one evening during our stay at a dinner theatre chosen from a brief list of such places, and free tickets to one of a number of public exhibitions around town. In short, she appealed to our own base and basic greed in hopes of hooking us into a slick sales-pitch, which in turn would, it was of course hoped, hook us into impulsively buying something we did not need, could not afford, and did not really want in the first place.
No less ample than in most other couples, our own greed was enough for us to take the bait, even though we knew better from earlier, equally basely greed-induced misadventures with time-share huckstering. Once again, played upon through direct, intentional appeal our own greed, we yielded once again to temptation. So we once again had to undergo the humiliating process involved in such matters, the humiliation that comes from feigning, out of motives we ourselves consider base, to have interests or feelings or thoughts or concerns we really do not have—in short, the humiliation that comes from knowingly violating our own best conscience, and becoming dishonest, in our own (often unconscious) assessment. It is the humiliation that accompanies all such deliberate self-abuse, in the properly basic, non-euphemistic sense of that term—the sense that makes the self-abuser at one and the same time both victim and perpetrator.
Abuse by one’s own hand is no less still abuse. And abuse traumatizes. As Freud knew, one of the affects that goes with trauma, or at least one of the expressions of the affect that goes with it, is numbing, denying, distancing–in short, shutting down, as in shock–in the face of the trauma. That let’s one survive, to be sure; but only as benumbed. If the numbing goes deep enough, which can occur through repetition or intensity of the trauma, one thus develops the empty stare that goes with numbness—“the thousand-mile-stare” of the frontline veteran suffering from “combat fatigue,” or what I’ve just labeled “the Las Vegas stare.”
Because it makes no difference, when it comes to developing such a stare, where the abuse that elicits it comes from, whether oneself, others, or an inextricable tangle of both (as in the Nazi camps or even in a typical, everyday scam like time-share huckstering), that stare is equally common among both victims and abusers. Let oneself get greed-hooked into going to enough super-hyped time-share presentations, and one will develop that vacant, far-away stare; but so will those who–no doubt most often for far better motives, chief among which is the desire to support oneself and one’s family–get hooked into having to make a living by selling goods of questionable good, and/or by selling good goods through questionable means. For example, the time-share saleswoman who drew our names when my wife and I degraded ourselves by going to yet another time-share presentation in Las Vegas last spring, was a nice, likeable, obviously intelligent, attractive-looking, middle-aged mother. She had come to Las Vegas in her youth, with dreams of becoming a showgirl. Then she had fallen in love and married there, and had children. The demands of family life soon forced her to abandon her showgirl ambitions to find a more reliable, steady way to help support herself and her family. By an unkind irony, she had ended up in her present position, which required her, in effect, to prostitute her own performing talents and dreams by hawking overpriced time-shares to greed-crazed consumers like us. She was caught in a cycle no less vicious—though perhaps less often visibly so–than that of heroin addicts “on the nod.”
That brings me back to “the Las Vegas stare,” and, to the conditions designed, in operation if not in intention, to call it forth. Thought of those conditions brings me back, in turn, to what I referred to above as “forced rudeness”—specifically, to how the management of pedestrian traffic along the Las Vegas Strip is designed, intentionally or unconsciously, to force pedestrians to become rude.
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My next post will conclude this two-part interlude to my discussion of “Trauma and Intoxication.”