Scott A. Lukasstudies of cultural remaking

I (heart) Power

Jean Baudrillard wrote, "We always harbour the illusion that something will have an end-point, that it will then take on a meaning, and will allow us retrospectively to restore its origin and, with this beginning and this end, the play of cause and effect will become possible." On every trip to the Strip I feel, like Baudrillard’s sense, that some meaning will appear before me, that all of the questions of life that I, and others, channel through the Strip will be magically put to rest and that some destiny will be achieved. On one occasion it occurred to me that I might discover such an endpoint at the northernmost tip of the Strip, in Glitter Gulch--the geographic beginning of Las Vegas and, now, perhaps its symbolic end, its escape.

I find my way through Neonopolis, a small mall near the edges of the Gulch. There is a scene in front of my eyes, next to the 1965 neon lamp from the Aladdin that is displayed in a case. This scene is of old Vegas, but it appears before me as an apparition of the present: a sign that says "Gambling," others that read "Buy Cheaper," "Mexican Food," "Cigar Factory," and many others that I cannot make out. Unlike the Strip, there is no theming here except the theming of bare life. I snap a photo of this end of Vegas, hoping to someday place it and the corresponding memory inside my story of Las Vegas, but upon returning home, I discover that the photo is blurry, and most likely it will be discarded like many other photos that I have collected in the city.

When I find the Gambling Museum and Store nestled inside of Neonopolis I wasn't sure what I would discover but I expected that it would be nothing like the high-end shops of Caesars Palace, the Bellagio, and the Wynn. The store has an old smell to it, much like the defunct New Frontier casino. I discover gambling dice and chips from old casinos, numerous panorama photos of the city, bucket after bucket of old prize giveaways from places like Harrah's and the Aladdin, random photos of Vegas celebrities whose visages are there just because, and loads of toys and games like mini roulette wheels and plastic slot machines that thwart the player because they only spit out plastic coins. A gentleman greets me and asks if he can help me find something. I realize, at that moment, that I have no idea what I am looking for, but perhaps for some solace amidst the heaviness of Vegas' postmodernist present, I look to the past. I immediately ask for any Vegas postcards, and he pulls out a large paper box containing hundreds of images of Vegas casinos, past and present, each denoted by a flimsy cardboard divider: Sands, MGM Grand, Castaways. The system ordering the postcards is similar to a Linnaean biological taxonomy, with every imaginable casino--some with themes, some not--making an appearance between the dividers. The whole system resembles an order like the one that I have created for my Las Vegas photos on the laptop computer, but with cardboard dividers replacing the electronic folders on my desktop. In fact, the place is more museal than consumer, but that thought escapes me as I look for something in the box: what would end up being Jacques Lacan’s objet petite a, Alfred Hitchcock’s "MacGuffin," the death drive or thing that causes me to change my being, or as Slavoj Zizek writes, that "lack, the remainder of the real that sets in motion the symbolic movement of interpretation." Unfortunately, I have no idea for what I search, and as I flip through the postcards of the past, the situation becomes more aesthetic and less ethnographic in the sense that I would find the pieces that would complete this study.

After looking at it for ten minutes with occasional comments of "Oh, you have this one?" I return the box to the man who, perplexed with my actions, expresses disappointment that I will not indulge in any of the historic cards, which "start at five dollars and then go up from there." I continue to wander the store, and the man begins to tail me, perhaps thinking that I will swipe something. After my experience with the postcards, I am intent on finding something to take with me and something that will take me—a piece of the city’s memory that will bring the study to a close and sate the observer who grows tired of the postmodern non-closure of the city. Somewhere near the back of the store, there is a white plastic bowl, ordinary looking but containing a strange array of thousands of tiny white mugs. It is impossible for me to determine how many are in the bowl, but each is smaller than a penny, not even an inch tall, and I am immediately curious as to the miniature writing on each of them. "I {heart} basketball," "I {heart} fish," "I {heart} tennis," "Emily," "John, "Sam." The most obvious one that I search for--"I {heart} Vegas"--doesn’t exist, instead, in its place, I discover another one, less obvious but perhaps more profound: "I {heart} Power."

I ended up purchasing three of the "I {heart} Power" mugs, what I imagine later to be the smallest mugs in the world. Here, at the very end of literal and symbolic Las Vegas, these mugs represent one possible answer to my search for the meaning of Las Vegas. While many would say that Vegas is about unreality, simulation, and "what happens in . . . stays in," an opposite perspective is that Vegas is inherently about us: it is normal, but its greatest special effect, of which we are all victims, is getting us to believe that it is what everything else is not. Whether we cheat on our spouse in a room at the Tropicana; or we vomit on the sidewalk outside Paris; or we drink too much at the New Orleans-themed bar inside the MGM; or we spend the money we had planned to use for our kids' education at the Bellagio’s craps table; or we think on our return home of the Egyptian hieroglyphs, statues, and dioramas inside the Luxor; or we scribble a small note on the New York-themed stationary inside our hotel room ("I've spent so many hours inside the casinos here and I still can't get to the bottom of it all…"); we may come to realize that as much as the city is about the play of choice and destiny; the roles of chance and transgression; the magic force of addiction of machines, elixirs, and stripped bodies; the constant instances of self-experimentation and identity-play; Vegas is, in the end, a phantom power. Not, meaning a power that is ineffective, but one that is ghostlike, hidden, liquid, unable for us to ascertain even when we look it directly in the eyes. It is an escape attempt that leads us nowhere. And while we may use this power for our own ends--whether we find it in the Strip’s most spectacular themed architecture or in the smallest of its souvenirs--ultimately we cannot take from the city either what it wants to give us or what we want from it.

© 2013 Scott A. Lukas Contact Me