This post concludes my two-part “interlude” to my series on “Trauma and Intoxication,” to which I will return in my next post—which will not be until sometime after the beginning of next year.
* * * * * *
Trying to walk along the Vegas Strip, routed into and through one casino after another along the slow, crowded way, the pedestrian is subjected to a non-stop barrage of aggressive solicitations. Outstretched hands thrust stiff, glossy advertising cards for “escort” services upon one, with soft-core pictures of alluring, available young women, each time one enters or exits any of the casinos one finds oneself in turn thrust into and drawn out of as one walks. One’s feet tromp over the young, pretty faces as one goes, since the ground is already strewn with the refuse discarded by earlier passers-by. One follows suit, and adds one’s own contribution to the litter, if not with such “escort” titillations then with the flyers, cards, or pamphlets hawking other wares, from eats to funhouse rides, theatrical performances to manicures, to real estate, to burial plans, to various drugs delivered by various delivery systems. As one walks along one is recurrently urged to indulge all one’s rawest appetites–especially those one never even knew one had till then, enticed to birth by all the opportunities being suddenly so obtrusively thrust upon one to give those appetites satisfaction.
Simultaneously, one is no less bombarded by appeals to help those less fortunate than oneself. Along with the hands of the “escort” promoters and other pimps trying to grab one by whatever vices one may have or they can give, other hands reach out as well, pleading and beseeching help–by way of donations on behalf of the homeless, the addicted, the lost, the abused, the disabled—for all our consumer society’s damned, damaged, and depleted.
Thus, the walker is pulled in two affectively opposite directions at once. One set of imploring hands outrageously tempts and titillates one to indulge one’s lowest appetites. At the same time, another set of hands yanks at one’s sense of moral responsibility and aspirations to generosity. The all but inevitable result, which occurs at levels of the self little amenable to conscious deliberation and intention, is to awaken a deep-seated sense of fundamental, and fundamentally un-assuage-able, guilt.
First, there is guilty shame for even feeling the strong pull toward abandoning one’s own moral inhibitions (whether the sense of them being “one’s own” is somehow existentially authentic, or wholly socially constructed, makes no difference, since either way the shame and guilt are felt the same). Inextricably intertwined with that goes guilt for one’s own perceived prosperity, relative to all those obviously less prosperous than oneself, and whose conditions cries out for help. Thus, one’s own “good fortune” is turned against one. To use a term more appropriate to Las Vegas, one’s own “good luck” is cast in one’s face, to one’s shame and guilt–all one’s good luck relative to all the bad luck that has struck all those socially outcast and downtrodden for whom one’s donation is being no less solicited as one walks along the Vegas Strip than is one’s abandonment to all those sins for being the city of which Las Vegas celebrates—or at least advertises–itself.
My own reaction to having my chains pulled in two different directions that way, choking me off even more tightly that usual, as my wife and I first tried to walk the Las Vegas Strip, was, I think, not uncommon: Growing irritation. At first, I tried to maintain some semblance of politeness, as I turned down one salacious or solemn solicitation after another. I smiled and said “No, thank you!” Then as the assaults continued I began to omit the “No, thank you!” and just waived all the proffered hands off with my own hand, but still accompanied that gesture of refusal with a slight smile. That, in turn, was soon replaced by only the gesture of waiving away with added no smile to soften the rejection. After yet another brief while, as my irritation continued to mount, I simply did my best to ignore the solicitations altogether. Locking my eyes straight ahead, I tried to walk as though oblivious of them all, most definitely including those that implored me to give to the deserving needy. That, of course, only added to my sense of guilt, now for being so callous as to lump the disabled with the pernicious–which in turn increased my irritation, which hardened what I perceived as my own rudeness, which gave me more guilt, which made me more irritable yet, and so on, round and down the sewer-tending spiral.
All of which put me, of course, just where the sunny City of Sin would have me be: in a thoroughly agitated place–and, therefore, primed to spend. On what I spent, mattered not at all, really, just so long as I spent on something (or on nothing at all, so far as that goes). So long as I just kept spending, I was dutifully playing my part, which is the part of the good consumer. After all, in our contemporary global market society–consumer-based “to a fault,” to use a duplicitously apt expression, most especially apt today, when I post this, poised as we in the United States currently are to go over the ostensibly officially dreaded “fiscal cliff”—all that really counts, as we are so often reminded by all the “authorities,” is to keep the current of currency flowing, the consumer-expenditures expended in consumption. On that, the health of the entire system depends, however much of a disease that entire system itself may be.
It may make a difference to “escorts” and their pimps, or morticians and theirs, and so on down the line of businesses and their human sales-resources, just where one “spends” oneself–that is, puts into re-circulation any money that spends time in one’s own spending-pocket. However, to the business in general that was once famously—or infamously—said to be, among other things, America’s business, it doesn’t matter where one spends one’s spending. All that matters is that it be spent. “Cast your fate to the winds!” as an old saying goes. Since in our society our fates are a function of how much money we make, that becomes “Cast your money to the winds!”–any winds, just so long you cast it, and keep casting it.
In Vegas, one is forced to be rude. The only alternative to being rude is being taken, and feeling like a fool once one realizes that that’s what’s happened. Be rude, or be robbed! That is the Vegas option.
Except it is really no option at all. That’s because, as I’ve been trying to show, forced into rudeness, one will only find oneself set up to be robbed more surely. While I’m diverted by rudely pushing away the hands thrust into my face, other hands are busy behind my back picking my pocket. What’s worse, so far as I can tell my pockets are not being picked at all. Instead, I’m emptying them voluntarily, and am even convinced I’m enjoying the process. While assaulting me, my assailant has managed to convince me that I’m not being assaulted at all. Rather, I am a willing participant. It’s not rape—it’s consensual sex!
Sure it is.
At any rate, once sensitized to the mechanism at work in forcing pedestrians into rudeness—the method to that apparent Las Vegas madness—I began to see it at work in other phenomena as well. For one thing, I was stuck by how everything is set up in Las Vegas to encourage good old-fashioned gluttony—or, to use less Medieval terminology, recurrent overeating. It is easy to put on weight in Las Vegas, especially by eating in the buffets that are ubiquitous there. Such dining places are designed to tempt one to pig-out on all the goodies available, for example by trying out at least a few of all the different, delicious looking deserts that are always offered in such places. Most of the casinos/hotels offer discounts or even dine-free passes to their affiliated buffets, and such offers are customary in a variety of others scams being continually run on visitors to Sin City, just as they were part of the package my wife and I received “at no charge”—save that of our dignity and sense of decency—just for taking a brief bus trip and undergoing a (not so) brief sales pitch for some sleazy time-share.
It should really come as no surprise, therefore, to discover that everywhere one looks in Las Vegas, one sees, to put it crudely (which means appropriately in this case), fat people. In a nation that is already faced–as we are constantly reminded by the media, the government, “health-care” workers, and other fonts of information–with “an epidemic of obesity,” Las Vegas is once again surfs ahead of the wave.
That was evident to me when my wife and I visited there—and added our own overweight selves to the scale: Two of the fat people we saw in Las Vegas were ourselves. What’s more, not only was it enough just to look at one another to see fat people in Las Vegas. All either of us had to do, to see a fatty, was to look in the mirror.
That in turn, is all but impossible not to do in Las Vegas: look at oneself in the mirror. In Las Vegas, one doesn’t have to be a narcissist to find oneself riveted before one’s own image. That’s because it’s not only casino’s and pimps and overweight people who are everywhere in Las Vegas. So are mirrors. One cannot escape one’s image, in Las Vegas.
When I combined seeing all the mirrors with seeing all the encouragements to indulge gluttony, for an instant it struck me as making no “casino-sense,” so to speak, to insist on constantly reminding people how fat and unattractive they looked in a mirror, and at the same time to prod them non-stop to stuff still more food in their already obviously overstuffed mouths. But a moment’s reflection let me quickly see the logic at work. Once again, it is the same old story of the spiral of addictive and/or compulsive behavior: The negative affect one’s own addictive or compulsive behavior elicits in one becomes itself a yet stronger impetus to perform yet more of that very same behavior: The shame of alcoholics over their own drinking behavior just gives them more reason to drink; the self-loathing compulsive overeaters feel when they look at their own image in a mirror can only be assuaged by food; and so on.
So it makes perfectly good sense, from the wholly non-sensical perspective of “Las Vegas”–that is, of our own contemporary society as a whole, for which Las Vegas serves as an emblematic symbol—to push food upon people in restaurants and then to show them just how fat and ugly they are when they get up and leave once their binging has ended, at least for a little while. That just guarantees, as effectively as it can be guaranteed, that they’ll follow the admonition to “Come back soon!” They will do so—and often.
At work in all such cases is precisely the same principle that Mr. Burkeman laid bare pertaining to holiday retailing strategy, in his Sunday New York Times column of December 12 of this year: What counts is not customer satisfaction, but customer agitation, as I put it before.
To sum up so far, then: Forcing rudeness is an effective way of enforcing consumption. That takes care of the first two parts of my three-part subtitle to this two-part interlude to my discussion of “trauma and intoxication.” But what about the third and final part of my subtitle? That is, what about enclosing stampede?
Well, to state the point as a thesis, using the three terms of my subtitle: Forcing rudeness is and remains in the service of enforcing consumption only if the stampede set in motion by the former–or by any other mode of agitating consumers so that they will consume all the more—is properly enclosed within certain limits, those set by the underlying conditions of the global market system as such. That is, if consumer-agitation is to stay directly proportional to consumption, so that they rise together, that agitation must be properly contained (“properly” from the perspective of, for, and through the economic system: i.e., “profitable,” that itself taken in the sense of “filthy lucre,” of course). Once again, the analogy to a washing machine is helpful. Were the agitation of dirty clothes in water not held within the confines of the washing machine itself, it would not serve to clean the clothes of dirt, but would just throw them around to gather more dirt, or rip them apart. In the same way, to serve the consumption -based economic system for cleaning consumers out of all their filthy lucre, consumer-agitation must be kept properly within the limits of that system itself.
Thus, for the good of the system what above all must not under any circumstances be allowed ever to happen is for the stampeding herd of agitated consumers, such as the mobs of those who compete viciously with one another over the stuff put on sale on Black Friday, to break out of all constraints and just run free. As Mr. Burkeman’s observations in the recent Sunday Times make clear, today the herders have discovered that stampedes are really not disruptive annoyances for their herding ventures, to be avoided if possible. Instead, they are, when properly contained, indispensible devices of herding itself, at the highest levels, with potential for the greatest yield. Stampedes belong to super-herding, in effect.
Las Vegas provides a model for the profit-proper enclosure of stampedes. The agitation of consumers by forcing them into rudeness, for instance, is carefully contained there. In an earlier post in this occasional series on “The Traffic in Trauma,” the same series to which this post today itself belongs, I already wrote about how true it is that, as an already now clichéd advertising slogan for the city says, what happens in Las Vegas stays in Las Vega. I pointed out that the truth of that remark is beyond doubt, precisely because nothing ever happens in Las Vegas. There’s no room for anything to happen in Las Vegas, as I said then, because every inch is already filled—filled with scams and scammers of all imaginable varieties, diversions of every conceivable sort: all sorts of opportunities to spend one’s spendings, whatever they are. That is also exemplified by what I’ve written about in today’s post–how every inch of sidewalk along the Strip, filled as it is by pimps of all kinds pimping all kinds of zero-good goods, offers no room for anything but even more spending–which really never needs, and, more importantly, never leaves, any room at all.
Regardless of hotel vacancy rates, there’s never any room at the inn in Las Vegas. Unfortunately for mere managed herd members (but all to the good for their managing herders), there are no mangers there, either. The glittering, overfilled emptiness of Las Vegas is an altogether empty emptiness. It leaves no room anywhere, room where something, anything, might happen—something such as, for example, a triggered agitation passing over into something else, no longer of service to the system that triggered it, but instead a threat to the very foundations of that system. (Something such as, perhaps, a truly uncontrollable riot–an Arab Spring in Las Vegas! Now that’s an intoxicating thought!)
* * * * * *
My own thoughts will return to intoxication, and its interconnections with trauma, in my next post.