Madness of crowds: Will Self visits Las Vegas

It's gone family-friendly.

Welcome to family-friendly Vegas. Photograph: Getty Images
I was reading Jean Baudrillard’s meditation on Las Vegas – on an iPhone sitting in a sushi bar in the dead centre of the casino at the Mandalay Bay resort in Las Vegas. “It is in such a universe,” Baudrillard wrote of the contemporary mediatised world, “that what [Paul] Virilio calls the aesthetic of disappearance gathers strength, and that the following begin to appear: fractal objects, fractal forms, fault zones that follow saturation, and thus a process of massive rejection, of the abreaction or stupor of a society purely transparent to itself.
 
Like the signs in advertising, one is geared down, one becomes transparent or uncountable, one becomes diaphanous or rhizomic to escape the point of inertia – one is placed in orbit, one is plugged in, one is satellised, one is archived – paths cross: there is the sound track, the image track, just as in life there is the work track, the leisure track, the transport track, etc, all enveloped in the advertising track.”
 
My friend and colleague David Flusfeder has written eloquently for the NS on gambling in Vegas but my journey to the dark heart of the American dream possessed not even the impetus of the adrenalised: I was there because it was the obvious stopover on a family trip back from the wilds of Zion in Utah to our jetting-home point: Los Angeles.
 
Flusfeder observes that Las Vegas presents the best exemplar of the great democratic denomination of American culture: the dollar. Anyone can lose their shirt in Vegas – so long as they have a shirt to lose. He also points out the strange Manichaeism that invests American debauchery: everyone is entitled to go to Vegas, get drunk and stoned, have commercial sex and gamble – so long as the shit they do stays steaming in the desert, while when they return home they continue to say grace before dinner.
 
However, in recent years this dichotomisation has been undermined by the drive of the big casino hotels to broaden their market base. Hit hard by the recession, no longer do gamblers flow through the flashing mandibles of the gaming rooms like so many krill being sifted by an avaricious leviathan; and so the monsters of the deep have gone looking for smaller fish to fry. Strolling through the vast halls and Babylonian corridors of the Mandalay Bay, what struck me was not cod-opulence but the complexion of the crowds thronging them.
 
Men-in-black and ladies-in-couture conventioneers were massing for the evening’s moral turpitude, crepuscular gamblers were a-creeping and demi-prostitutes a-sidling but just as thick on the polished ground were family groups returning from the artificial beach (the vast pool had been closed due to proximate lightning strikes, not even Moe Greene would relish his punters being stir-fried in chlorine). In the teeth of recession a plush room that more than comfortably houses a family of four was going for $200 a night, all in – about £35 a head – so it was cheaper to enjoy all this largesse than it would be to put up at your local bypass-bound Travelodge. On our first trip down from the 15th floor the lift was full of little girls in swimsuits sitting cross-legged in pools of water – clearly they’d been playing in there. Elsewhere stolid Midwestern families sauntered past the blackjack tables as they might stroll past the enclosures in a petting zoo.
 
What this infusion of genuine – rather than feigned – juvenescence does for Vegas I’m not altogether qualified to assess, but my hunch is that it spells out T-H-E  E-N-D, as clearly as the final credits of a major sword-and-sandals motion picture. It wasn’t the public exhibitions of hyenas being induced to rape female slaves that did for the Roman empire – it was the presence of Patrician kiddies in the stands of the Colosseum. There’s something about the mass acknowledgement of transgression as a trans-generational phenomenon that does for a culture. In Vegas I was witnessing Baudrillard’s society that is transparent to itself – and therefore invisible: the point about the children trotting through the casino was that they couldn’t really see it, while the gamblers couldn’t really see them. Both moieties were childlike in their belief that by covering their own eyes they could somehow not be perceived by others.
 
Baudrillard, who didn’t live to see the final ­familiarisation of the Vegas mirage, would undoubtedly have appreciated it as the complete confirmation of his view that under conditions of late capitalism the very notion of “the social” becomes a product to be marketed exclusive of any real relations. But then, speaking as rhizome, what would I know: I just eat raw fish and extend my filaments through neon loam.