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Field Notes From a Mirage
The scientists say
It will all wash away
But we don’t believe any more
Cause we’ve got our recruits
And our green mohair suits
So please show your I.D. at the door
– “Sin City,” Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman
The sidewalk is so hot the soles of shoes are melting, leaving faint footprint traces on the concrete. On this late June afternoon, the air temperature is 112 degrees in Las Vegas and considerably hotter down in the mirrored chasm of the Strip.
The merciless heat works its spell, luring the hordes into the cool labyrinths of the casinos, where even Ariadne could get lost amid the flashing neon, the hypnotic swells of electronica, the eerie moans of the losers at the tables.
Inside is right where they want you. That’s where your pockets get picked on high-tech slots (the funniest machine: KISS; the creepiest: the Joker, featuring video of Heath Ledger), Cirque du Soliel shows (at $155 a ticket) or extravagantly priced and barely digestible food prepared under the trademark of the omnipresent Mario Batali.
We came here for the American Library Association’s annual conference, where my wife Kimberly and her colleagues at Portland State University’s Millar Library are slated to receive a major award for innovation. After enduring the tedium of 1001 PowerPoint demonstrations on subjects like “Threshold Concepts” and the bibliographic perils of e-publishing, normally prim and sedate librarians are primed to cut loose for a week of licentious abandon in the desert. Las Vegas offers a celebration of the uniquely American version of the Id, a perpetually uncoiling knot of simulated desire with strobe lighting and a cheesy soundtrack.
What is a Threshold Concept, you inquire? Good question. I sat through a rather opaque and intellectually arid hour-and-a-half presentation by three leading practitioners of the theory and remained baffled, as did, I’d wager, many of the librarians in the hall. If you distill it down to essentials, a Threshold Concept seems very similar to what we used to call in philosophy seminars on the intractable (ahem) theories of Wittgenstein “getting a friggin’ clue.” But clarity is not the surest path to tenure.
The philosophy propelling this new trend in “knowledge management” is even more ominous than its mystifying nomenclature. In an age of Google, Edward Snowden and Wikipedia, some academic librarians feel that their tenuous position as gatekeepers of knowledge is under siege. The theory of Threshold Concepts seems to provide a last desperate shot for librarians to reassert their role as information power-brokers, herding naïve students and guileless library patrons toward “authoritative” and “credible” sources of news (such as the New York Times, naturally.) It’s the latest reactionary counter-attack on the man who swung a wrecking ball through the brittle pretensions of the profession’s old-guard: Michel Foucault. In The Order of Things, Foucault exposed the repressive political engines driving the classification and regulation of knowledge and the arbiters of “worthy” texts have been on the run ever since. (More on this at a later date.)
Many of the 12,000 or so librarians who converged here during a week of pitiless summer sun seem displaced, wandering aimlessly down De Chirico-like corridors, looking at Google maps on their smartphones. Perhaps they are scanning the dreamscape for a bookstore. They will search in vain. Here the only books are kept by sports bookies, those exacting archivists of accounts that must be paid.
Kimberly and I set up camp in the Riviera, a bum choice on my part. I wanted to stay in the old Vegas, the sand-blasted city of mobsters and show girls, Howard Hughes and the honorable Dr. Thompson. That Vegas is long gone and the Riviera is a decaying relic of its passing. The crumbling hotel is wedged between vast parking lots on the north end of the Strip, across Las Vegas Boulevard from the even more decrepit Circus Circus, which resembles a sinister abandoned set from a slasher film.
Behind the Riviera looms a stout white warehouse. On the side of the building in large red block lettering is writ: Indoor Skydiving. Think about it. Just another tantalizing episode of the Vegas alt reality show. Of course, most of the indoor skydiving in this city is done on the floors of the casinos.
The traffic on the Strip is dominated by a dizzying circuit of cabs and trucks hauling advertisements for shows by unknown magicians, and fading stars like Celine Dion, Olivia Newton-John and Rod Stewart, who seems intent on completing his 30-year-long arc of descent by becoming the town’s new Engelbert Humperdinck. But the most frequent mobile ads were for “Direct to You” prostitutes, “girls who really want to meet you.” These emaciated blondes all sport immaculately redesigned breasts and exquisitely polished nails on delicate feet that apparently leave behind quite heavy carbon footprints.
Nevada is fast becoming a Tea Party sanctuary, but Vegas remains a solidly union town of culinary, hotel and casino workers. But even this is beginning to change. You can see the future on the gaming floors of the Bellagio and the Venetian, where more and more operations are becoming automated. The real surprise for me was the number of virtual black jack tables, where dealer avatars with distracting cleavage run the games on widescreen monitors. The human players, perhaps visually sedated by years of video gaming, sit silently at the tables, clinging to a desperate faith in the fairness of the casino’s poker algorithms. Call it an Homage to Catatonia.
On the plane from Portland, I sat next to an engineer who has been working for the last decade at Lake Mead. The reservoir is shriveling, drying up before our eyes. The water level drops each year, leaving a baleful white stain on the walls of Black Canyon. His company’s job is to paint the freshly exposed bone-white walls of the canyon back to their accustomed color, so as not to frighten the tourists.
Of course, it’s not the tourists who should be petrified by the dwindling of Lake Mead, but the moguls of the Strip. They are the retailers of illusion. The biggest Mirage in town isn’t the shimmering gilt-colored casino, with its topless poolside bar ($40 entry fee) and ghastly aquarium, but the illusion of water. Slotted on the desiccated basin floor of the Mojave, Las Vegas is moistened by less than four inches of rain a year. That’s the old average. The future looks even drier. Yet there is water everywhere on the strip: the vast pools of Caesar’s Palace, the waterfalls at the Wynn, the gondola-festooned lagoons of the Venetian, the dancing fountain at the Bellagio. The biggest illusion, the one that must be maintained at all costs, is that in Vegas there are no limits.
Over the course of the last 30 years, Vegas has been transformed from Sin City to a family theme park to an unapologetic advertisement for boundless gluttony. You can thank Steve Wynn for this grotesque metamorphosis, the man who punched his elbow through Picasso’s “Le Rêve” while showing off his most celebrated possession to friends. Wynn later unloaded the re-stitched painting of a masturbating woman for $154 million on his noxious pal Stephen A. Cohen, the billionaire hedge funder whose SAC firm is perennially under investigation for insider trading.
Wynn made his mark running bingo parlors in Maryland. In the early 1970s, he came to Vegas and made a speculative land deal with Howard Hughes, which netted him a few million and controlling interest in the Golden Sands, where he lured Frank Sinatra and his entourage. The game changer occurred in 1989 when Wynne opened the first mega-resort casino on the new Strip, the Mirage, a 3,000 room Polynesian-themed gilded palace of sin with an erupting volcano. The construction of the Mirage was financed by another master of illusion, junk bond king Michael Milken. Treasure Island and the Bellagio, at the time the most expensive hotel ever built, soon followed.
In 2005, when Wynn opened his towering 650-foot tall luxury resort hotel and casino on the north side of the Strip he said he had wanted to call it Le Rêve. In the end, he opted for something a little less exotic: the Wynn. The décor of the Wynn (and it’s twin curving bronze tower the Encore) is a wispy simulacrum of oriental opulence, designed to excite the sensibilities of Saudi princes on the prowl, Russian oligarchs with millions to burn in a weekend, and the Kardashian brood. In elegant harmony with this theme, the resort boasts two iridescent sculptures (Popeye and Tulips) by the con artist of tasteless triviality: Jeff Koons. It struck me that the basement of the Wynn is the perfect tomb for Koons’ moronic confections.
In the end, Wynn lent the name of the Picasso painting to the popular permanent show at his resort. Le Rêve (curiously translated as ‘A’ Dream) is a kind of aquatic Tempest, featuring bald men making dare-devil dives in Speedos, frisky Flappers splashing in platinum blond wigs, and synchronized swimmers flashing red stilettos. In other words, yes, a wet dream.
But the dream is coming to an end. A reckoning is fast approaching. The water is running out. Today 90 percent of the city’s water is sucked from Lake Mead and Lake Mead is drying up. The latest forecasts predict the once vast reservoir may be completely tapped out by 2021. Count ‘em: That’s seven years. After that, all bets are off. No water tunnels or emergency pipelines can possibly compensate for the shortage. Vegas’s days are numbered. Deal with it, baby.
Sitting at a bar inside the Luxor’s dark pyramid, watching a feisty Algerian team push the haughty German squad to the brink of elimination in the World Cup, I struck up a conversation with a Mexican-American man who works down in the canyon. His company performs a macabre service. They fish out the bodies of the jumpers: Vegas’s losers, the victims of the gaming tables, the aging strippers and hookers, the dead-enders, those who have maxed out, those who have reached their last threshold and take a leap off the new Pat Tillman Memorial Bridge, sky diving into the Colorado River, 840 feet below.
“We snag four or five bodies a month,” he tells me, as he tosses back his third Jack and Coke of the afternoon. “Vegas is still a hard town. Eventually your luck is going to run dry. Know what I mean?”
Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book Killing Trayvons: an Anthology of American Violence (with JoAnn Wypijewski and Kevin Alexander Gray) will be published in June by CounterPunch Books. He can be reached at: email@example.com.