A recent trip to Las Vegas reminded me of the work of Walter Benjamin, a philosopher whose work I was very taken with as a graduate student. The surreal quality of the city and its surfeit of gamblers and prostitutes got me thinking about some of the more elegant and opaque passages from his unfinished Arcades Project. In Convolute O, Benjamin wrote that “the figure of the gambler becomes a parable for the disintegration of coherent experience in modern life.” He went on to connect the gambler to the life of a worker in a capitalist society: “Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.” The gambler thus becomes a model for modern man, cheated out of experience and driven by boredom to endless repetition of an activity that never satisfies. The dehumanizing character of modernity is likewise found in the prostitute who becomes an exploited and fetishized commodity. Benjamin equates labor with prostitution, writing that “the prostitute [as] the ur-form of the wage laborer, selling herself to survive,” and a “figure of the denigration of the human body and of nature itself through the process of commodification.” The gambler and prostitute are significant for Benjamin’s understanding of the diminution of human experience and the distortions of commodification in the modern capitalist city.
Contemporary Las Vegas would seem to validate elements of Benjamin’s perceptive analysis of the relationship between capitalism, gambling, and prostitution. Indeed, as the place where American capitalism has perhaps found its purest expression, it hardly seems surprising that so many of those he regarded as its casualties call Las Vegas home.
Sources: Walter Benjamin. The Arcades Project, Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin, (New York: Belknap Press, 2002)