Scott A. Lukasstudies of cultural remaking


Once, there was a small casino located on the now dilapidated Fremont Street in Vegas that was fined for its unique approach to casino marketing. Whereas many casinos use direct mailing, enticing commercials, and the spectacle of their architecture and shows to lure people inside them, this casino used brute methods: as people walked by the doors, workers would jump them and forcibly pull them inside. While this casino’s practice may seem unscrupulous, it was perhaps the most honest and it helps highlight the existential issue that we all face when we arrive in the city; namely, one of choice v. destiny, of certainty v. uncertainty. Once while aboard the Vegas monorail, I noticed a monorail worker taking interest in the prerecorded spiel on the loudspeaker. We were nearing the MGM—the last stop of the monorail in the southbound direction. The recorded message tells passengers that they must disembark, as this is the last station. The doors open and the worker asks me, "Did it say must or should?" He is speaking about the message and wonders whether it said, "All passengers must exit the monorail," or, "All passengers should exit the monorail." After we both confirm a "should" and not a "must," he smiles and says, "That's good, because in Vegas we're not supposed to say must . . . ever."

When we watch an ennui-ridden art film, we may be expected to have a deep reflection on what Heidegger called our "being in the world," our Dasein or average everydayness, but while wandering along the alleys of Fremont Street, between the Vegas bicycle cops and the stray person turning a trick, we are expected to be only thinking about getting to the next casino, whether we plan to drink a shot of Jägermeister, meet a prostitute, or lose everything we have in the slot machine. Vegas is supposed to be a dream world, a place where the only point of reference is everything that is not Vegas: it is not your shitty job and asshole boss back home; it is not your sexually boring spouse in your bed; and it is not the tumult of wars, genocide, and famine on your television. Vegas exclaims, in the highest, loudest, and most dramatic pitch: "Here you are." When you arrive in the city, a rite of passage occurs and the individual is remade: I am no longer me, but re-me. And, in this way, the greatest trick that the city turns is the one that makes us believe that we are the show, the event, the destiny, and that we can achieve this essential state of being by making choices, acting on our impulses, and doing it all over again.

Walking down Fremont one day, I am struck by the lack of major theming--something that characterizes the Strip as a world icon. While there are a few examples, especially of New Orleans/Mardi Gras themed casinos, their theming is underdeveloped and serve to mostly remind Vegas visitors that the real show is down the street. Whereas the Strip speaks of choice in its abundance, possibility, and excess, Fremont represents destiny: the worker I see who is speaking to passersby the line (over and over), "Are you havin' fun yet?" As each person passes her, there is stoicism, with only a rare few actually responding to her query, perhaps with "Yeah," or "So far," or even, "Not yet, but I’ll try." It is as if they are the expression of Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer—the exposed life of the individual who is asked to think in nearly every moment on the Strip, "Are you havin' fun yet?" In this moment the person becomes a bare individual left only to contemplate this one matter for the entirety of their time on the Strip.

When we walk through the city, we act on our emotions, desires, and innermost feelings, but what is key is how we are directed to decide between a 99-cent shrimp cocktail at the Barbary Coast or the latest Cirque de Soleil show at the MGM Grand. This particular "foam" is of pointing and directing the customer to move places and to do certain things, all the while giving the appearance of choice. In the city, each neon sign, each themed signage and façade, each performer in front of the casino, and all other forms of pointing and their informational content (their "memes") compete in a survival of the fittest, winner-take-all contest that, like evolution itself, results in a disproportionate outcome in reality. Everything in Vegas, including its dramatic themed façades and architecture, demands that we accept the value of pointing. Every corner of a themed casino is a semiotic boot camp for us—reasserting what it means to be human, how to interact with others in strange spaces, and how to interpret and use the themed spaces themselves. This is why there is so much joy found in the Vegas tourist who can express to a lost tourist, "Oh, this is how you get to the Mirage," or "The best time to see the show is at dusk." In that moment, the expert tourist schools the novice and reaffirms that he or she has some meaning left in a world that is all about pointing out and which often points out his or her multiple forms of inadequacy. But, above all, Vegas’ pointing makes us consider language itself, even in its smallest forms.

I only realized it after I had gone through my digital stills of the casinos along Glitter Gulch; there was one photo that had no meaning to me when I took it, but later spoke to me as prophecy. It is a strange electronic billboard near a strip club and a casino, and it reads in garish and flashing neon, "What!" The exclamation point signifies strength, volume, scale, a bang, and thus it is the mark of choice and certainty: you can do anything here! While the question mark denotes interrogation, query, questioning, the unknown, and thus it is the mark of destiny and uncertainty: what will happen to me? In the case of the strange sign, in that moment of linguistic presence, we find a tension between ! and ? The replacement of the question mark with the exclamation mark on the billboard signals the existential issues that accompany all of us during our time in Las Vegas, and probably ones that follow us back to our homes with the hope of ! (I can be myself; I can act boldly, even like a fool; I can challenge social and personal conventions that I must adhere to at home), and we go home with the persistence of ? (our senses of self-doubt, the problems that loom with our jobs, the issues of the home, how to raise our kids, and deal with the mounting bills, even gambling debt). Many Vegas "signs" express the visitor’s desire to escape the ? with the ! On the interior and exterior spaces of multiple monorails, I have read the claims, "More choice than a casino buffet" and "there’s no I can’t in Vegas." Whatever our reasons for coming to the Strip, signs like the one on Glitter Gulch portend to send us home with a better resolution to one of life’s greatest struggles--that which exists between ! and ?

© 2013 Scott A. Lukas Contact Me