Bruce Begout wanted to get below the surface of 'Sin City'. He found a capitalist virtual extravaganza, with no past and no present, bent on forcing everyone into submission or exile
So what was I up to in Las Vegas? Didn't I have better things to do than hang around in this world capital of gambling and entertainment, a theme park that has shamelessly taken over its surroundings and assumed the monstrous proportions of a city that has grown much too fast, an expression of that "stylised barbarism" of the culture industry that Adorno and Horkheimer held up to public scorn?
I could have spent my time on the Hopi Indian reservation studying the ancestral culture that so fascinated Aby Warburg and Max Ernst. I could have headed for the little town of Abiquiu in New Mexico to seek out the house where Georgia O'Keeffe had lived and painted. But that's not what I did, at any rate not this time. Instead, I took a room in a seedy and faintly menacing motel on the outskirts of the city. And I gave myself over, body and soul, to this new Babylon of commerce and infantilism, to this gaudy Nineveh of impeccably bright neon lights where the rabble of initiates has come to gorge itself on fake sensations.
With a patience unswayed by all excesses, by whim, by sundry attractions of the most extravagant nature, all of them equally exhausting, I underwent the Las Vegas experience. Driven not by any prudishness or contempt, nor by any fear or disgust, I put my head in the maw of the Leviathan and set out to read its entrails. Rather than disparaging this Sin City that has based its wealth on the trade in depravity and drawn the fruits of its capital from the seven deadly sins, my humble aim - if humility can still be meaningful in Las Vegas - was to describe it, lay bare its lineaments, understand its workings and take the measure of its effects. So what did I see on this physical and intellectual adventure?
A lot and nothing much, or rather "a lot" that amounts to "nothing much". A lot of advertising signs, attractions, slot machines, gaming tables, gamblers who were het up or worn out, waiters who were surly, sour or merely sporting the standard fixed smile fresh out of the freezer. A lot of signs and images, symbols and spectacles. A lot of noise, light and hustling.
But behind this bounteous façade with its casino hotels that vie with the open-air shows, its mega-spectacles and illiterate millionaires, the impoverishment of experience has done its work. For me, the fact that the experience of Las Vegas is a shoddy one does not just mean that the options on offer boil down to something quite abject when you consider the emotional and intellectual complexity of any normal human being. But it does mean that they ultimately settle for so little, for the kind of moronic quick thrills that block off all desire. The acme of this shoddy experience is the amnesia that is the outcome of prolonged exposure to the city's atmospheric rays.
Las Vegas is a city without a future as much as it is one without a history. It confines itself to the fleeting moment and no more, cramming it, like a sausage skin filled to bursting, with all the latest technological inventions, with the stars currently in vogue, with whatever is all the rage. In breaking down duration, it experiences itself as a kind of instantaneousness that stands for time in all its tenses, a nunc stans that releases all those who live there from any future horizons and from any moorings to the past.
This is why Las Vegas blithely disregards its own memory and endlessly destroys and rebuilds the very edifices that are supposed to endow it with a certain reality (a neglect of inheritance that is made all too apparent by its repudiation of those old casinos it demolished without shedding a tear: the Sands, the Dunes, the Sahara and so on). Like a tower of Babel that does away with the lower floors to construct the upper ones, forever wishing to climb ever higher, to see on a bigger scale, Las Vegas maintains its equilibrium in the void.
But for how much longer? What does it matter when the essential thing is its grandiose bid to measure up to the immeasurable? In its total surrender to oblivion and diversion, in its everyday passion for the superfluous and the ostentatious, there is something sublime, a kind of serene abnegation to the world's incomprehensibility. It has to be recognised that Las Vegas has a genius for vulgarity of a wholesome and vigorous kind that is lacking in any scruples or compunction.
Nothing, therefore, could be further from my intentions than some puritanical condemnation of entertainment and its excesses. Play, be it rough or a matter of wits, is an activity fundamental to the human species.
The pleasure that comes from all real recreation increases our feeling of being alive and, in this sense, enhances the potential of our lives. But that said, I am not sure whether people really do play in Las Vegas. They let off steam, they get carried away, they feel exultant, but this is thanks to operations devised by other people, in which they participate passively and impersonally.
I am well aware that no one is taken in by the bogusness of this phoney, virtual town (walls of digital images have replaced the neon signs that nowadays seem as out of date as gaslight). No one is fooled by its simplistic and childish imagery. But how does it make a difference if everyone rushes off to Nevada in full knowledge of this, even if only to make sure of their own perspicacity?
The hotels are full, and the craps tables aren't emptying. Hyper-critically aware, everyone joins the stampede for the laser shows and trudges along from attraction to attraction, saying all the while that they're not falling for any of it. At a certain stage, the clear-sightedness begins to border on submission. Modern man's perspicacity becomes impotent at the point when his awareness of falsehood does not prompt him to speak the truth. However much he grasps the workings and devious wheezes of the system brazenly exploiting his credulity, he draws no conclusions from this. Instead, smugly sustained by his futile shrewdness, he acts as if everything were just fine.
What took me most by surprise in Las Vegas was not the town centre, which is wholly the domain of gambling and entertainment - I already had a vague idea of what a giant amusement park might be like - but all the rest: the baleful uniformity of the suburbs, the ghastly trailer parks, the gated communities, the little shopping malls on the outskirts; that residue of city life that can't hide away behind the tinsel and glitter of its onstage outfit. The most tragic thing about Las Vegas is that its binary system empties of its substance everything that is reluctant to enter into the dance of total entertainment, turning it into something drab and devoid of interest. There is no other city available, just the garish and flashy centre or the dismal, monochrome suburbs. Las Vegas probably represents one of the first examples of town planning as a form of cleansing, whereby the city's different classes are distributed according to grades of fun. Those who have no wish to mingle in this riskless and danger-free bacchanal, or who lack the means to do so, get by on the margins of the city, banished to the wretchedness of a space with neither identity nor definition.
Nevertheless, there is a notional consolation prize; the ludocracy of Las Vegas, which mixes fun with authority, sincerely aims to fulfil the aspirations of all and sundry, without exception. Its diktat is nothing less than our happiness, strictly in so far as this maintains the forward progress of the economy. These inclinations are praiseworthy; one might even imagine that this roving and fun-loving neo-capitalism can succeed in its social enterprise of satisfying everyone, even in the desires apparently least likely to be met by the market system. There is a fine line between the artificial and the natural whenever, by dint of daily repetition, the former becomes transformed into the latter.
I have no doubts whatsoever about the sincerity of Las Vegas. I am grateful even for what turns out to be its good-natured frankness in staking its all on the combination of power, money and entertainment, so long as business keeps rolling. While malcontents bicker and curse, it cleverly devises showy palaces, labyrinths of bronze and fairytale arcades for 5c. When can we expect a casino hotel of social subversion and the critical faculties, a Frankfurt School Inn? Those wandering past me in disordered groups are unconcerned by my wry look of doubt. They would like me to return a dazzling smile of confirmation in acknowledgement of reality as it is, along with unreserved enjoyment of what can be taken for granted. I very nearly weaken.
But at the end of the underground passage that leads to the New York New York parking lot, the haggard look of a little old lady rummaging in her pockets for her car keys and dropping a book of discount coupons stops me from tipping over into the fake satisfaction of my fake needs. The spell of the artifice racked up in the loony decors and the unreal lifestyle is abruptly broken, and everyday life is returned to with no further ado. The horde of those the spell has conquered passes alongside her without a glance. The blaring complexion with which they are tinged by the tunnel's heavenly glow somehow lends their collective amnesia a touch of happy resignation.
Bruce Bégout is a lecturer in philosophy at the University of Picardie, Amiens, France. His book Zeropolis: The Experience of Las Vegas is published by Reaktion Books in September (£14.95). This article was translated by Liz Heron.