I wouldn’t quite say I was surprised at this report of unrest within the American Sociological Association over the choice of Las Vegas as the location for the 2011 meeting. And I’m fairly certain that some of the more extreme sentiments of disdain for the choice of venue reported in this Inside Higher Education article will eventually be disavowed as misquotes or distortions by the scholars quoted in the article. (Despite the fact that they’re fairly detailed comments.)
Most professional associations of academic disciplines rather markedly avoid Vegas as a venue. Despite what gets said by some sociologists in the IHE article, that can’t be about cost. Las Vegas is consistently one of the cheapest airfares in the country from almost any location within the United States. It has a huge price range of accommodation, particularly if you’re willing to stay somewhere a bit away from the Strip. There are way more beds at affordable prices in Vegas than in Chicago, New York, or San Francisco, the perennial favorites of most of the big disciplinary associations. In the current recession, which has had an especially sharp effect on Vegas, I would think that most professional associations could negotiate deeper discounts than in any other major American city with a large range of hotels and services. If you really wanted to do graduate students and adjunct faculty who may need to attend a professional meeting to be interviewed a favor, you’d put the meeting in Las Vegas every single year. I’d even bet that at least some hotels or conference centers in Vegas gouge less on providing projection services or wireless connections to presenters. It would be nice to attend a major professional meeting where presenters aren’t left to scrounge for their own presentation technology, as has happened at some of the meetings I go to, because “it’s too expensive for the association to deal with”.
So take cost off the table. What’s the problem with Vegas? Some of the sociologists interviewed by IHE complain that Vegas is more complicit in the exploitation of women, the reproduction of capitalism, or the exploitation of low-wage workers than other possible venues. It’s odd, you know. I’ve attended big professional meetings in San Francisco, New York and Chicago where the main hotel venue is right around the corner from one of several red-light districts or businesses without hearing that this makes that venue unacceptable. I’ve been to New Orleans for meetings, both pre- and post-Katrina, in hotels right on the edge of the French Quarter, where solicitations to come inside sex-related venues are found in plenitude, drunken young men harass women, and gambling is right nearby. Philadelphia will soon have yet more gambling near its downtown. If you’re so upset by capitalist excess that you don’t want to go to your professional meetings, I assume you always complain when the meeting is in New York.
I’m not saying that you have to like Vegas as a destination. I have weird, conflicted feelings about it as a place, like many people do. I straightforwardly like some things about it (the restaurant scene is great, I like poker, and there’s some beautiful places to hike nearby.) I personally dislike the timeless, adrift feeling of most of its internal architecture, which is totally intentional. But that’s the problem with this whole story: that it should be a non-story. Meaning, that it’s fine to say, “Look, I find this is a creepy place, that’s just me, I have more fun or prefer or enjoy another venue,” in which you admit that at least one of the reasons why you attend a professional meeting is because you enjoy the venue. And in which you admit you are drawn to some aesthetics and not to others, that you find some places pleasurable and not others. I can completely sympathize. I didn’t attend one professional association meeting once because it was in Gary Indiana. Not because I object to Gary for political reasons, or believe there is something uniquely critique-worthy about it. Because I didn’t want to go there. That’s all. Nothing grand, nothing I’d make a fuss about, no sentiment that I’d care to soapbox about.
For some reason, this really reminds me of a passage in Ta-Nehisi Coates’ The Beautiful Struggle. Describing his father’s commitment to being “Conscious Man”, he writes “To be Conscious Man was more than just the digestion of obscure books that happen to favor your side. It was a feeling, an ingrained sense that something major in our lives had gone wrong. My father was haunted. He was bad at conjuring small talk, he watched very little TV, because once Conscious, every commercial, every program must be strip-mined for its deeper meaning, until it lays bare its role in this sinister American plot.”
I don’t think the academics who go beyond personally disliking Vegas as a venue to argue that there’s something structurally or institutionally wrong with being there are Conscious People in quite this sense. It’s more that they think performing Conscious Personhood is a necessary affect of their professional identity, like a psychoanalyst’s couch or a physician’s lab coat. Vegas is like TV: it presents a surplus of meanings that can’t be accepted or enjoyed as such, that allow no escape into some safe meeting ground between bourgeois academia and the Authentic Masses. It’s all small talk, it pre-empts profundity.
Which, honestly, might be a good reason why more academic conferences ought to be there.