I just got back from my annual two week travel class with Creighton students which visits Las Vegas for a week and Los Angeles for a week with a camping trip in Joshua Tree National Park in between. (Its a nice sandwich, with two slices of concrete, neon and plastic surgery on either side of a night in the wide open desert hills– we get to see a bit of what LV and LA were before people started building…) Las Vegas of course has the highest rate of home forclosures in the nation– 13% of homes there are in foreclosure. LA is in California which is facing a budget deficit of over 41 Billion dollars. Both of these cities are known for a certain amount of pretending, as well as exuberant (probably more like irrational) behaviors. They use water they don’t have (from hundreds of miles away), they spend money they don’t have, they get facelifts and artificial reductions and enhancements of body zones which make you wonder what people there would look like without plastic surgeons… One topic we talk about is hyperreality– and there is a lot of hyperreality creation in these towns. A hyperreality is something which immitates reality, but in a way which actually improves on it. For example: the Venetian Hotel and Casino is based on Venice– there are canals and venice-style shops inside– but the canals are filled with clean filtered water, the gondolla boats are motorized, and the boat operators will not steal your money. In short, the Venetian hotel, while imitating Venice, in some ways improves on it by sanitizing the original. Disneyland in California is another nice example– A french philosopher (leave it to the French!) said that he took a ‘huck finn riverboat ride’ in Adventureland at Disneyland, and said that the boatride was a lot of fun. But then he went to the mississippi to get some idea of the original on which the adventureland cruise was based, and found the mississippi to be dirty and stinky in comparison…in other words, the immitation was better than the original reality, and left him a bit dissappointed with reality. Hyperreality can do this– cause false expectations. Vegas is built in some sense on false expectations– the idea that everyone can be a winner (if that was so, why would investors build 12 Billion dollar casino projects like the new City Center on the Strip?) Hollywood in LA is a factory of false expectations through their storybook endings, hyperreal actors and actresses, and their fantasy portrayals of ‘normalcy’. Perhaps a more frustrating bit of hyperreality is the way in which sex is portrayed, through the huge pornography industry in LA, through the airbrushing and special effects redos and reimaging of the fashion and movie industries, through the plastic surgeries, nips and tucks, breast enhancements, etc etc. When ‘reality’ is portrayed and altered by these hyperreality processes, we find ourselves a bit disappointed with reality, with the day to day life of quiet. We come to expect oceans 11 (or 12, or 13) as a daily practice, we come to expect supermodel sensuality as the norm, and find ourselves slightly bored with the reality as it seems to be given off-screen or off-line. But this frustration is the result of lies, in some sense. LA and Vegas, from the Fashion District and Hollywood to the Strip, give us escapes, fantasy worlds, and hopes of something quite different than what we’ve got. They encourage us to desire what we don’t have, and to pursue and escape from it. In this sense, they foster an unauthentic existence, where we spend our days wishing we weren’t living them, wishing we could have what we don’t and really can’t have, and after subtly buying in to unrealistic expectations, wondering why we are frustrated and have a general sense of getting ripped off (“this is not my beautiful house– this is not my beautiful wife” as the Talking Heads song goes…) Now, I’m not advocating lowering your expectations so you don’t get disappointed, in some stoic-protective manner of turning your collar to the cold and damp reality of your life that stinks. But I do think that spending your life gazing at hyperreality and fantasy expectations as a guide to life will more likely than not disable you from authentically engaging in the life you were meant to live– your own life. We are sometimes scared to live our own lives and to face the reality of our own lives. The easiest way to not face that reality is to look away to hyperrealities, but like any life-escape (alcohol, drugs, porn, food-binging, etc) the attempt to escape life makes us lose our lives in vain. I love to go to LA and Vegas each year, in part because they are beautiful cities, with interesting characters and a lot of very alive people in them. But they also remind me to live my life for real, as they confront me with so many hyperrealities that eventually only highlight their own lack of connection to the real world.
- Fremont Street in Vegas