Scott A. Lukasstudies of cultural remaking


The first time that you hit the buffet, you are likely in a state of agitation, excitement, and even suspense. The Strip is a conceptual buffet of themed architecture, space, and decor, and inside most casinos--from the glamorous Bellagio to the kitschy Excalibur--there is a buffet. The Oxford English Dictionary classifies the buffet as an eating space in which food and refreshments are extended over a long space and in which customers are served standing up, and inherent in the idea of all buffets is the concept of the patron serving him or herself. While many of the nation's top chefs—including Joël Robuchon, Thomas Keller, Bobby Flay, Wolfgang Puck, and Charlie Palmer—have opened up fine-dining establishments, thus expanding the growing cultural gentrification of the Strip, the buffet preserves Vegas' proletarian roots. For a nominal price (as low as $5.99 in some cases) the patron can experience a Marxist dream: an abundance of food items all laid out in front of you, and as long as you pay, you can have any of the same items as the next person, and unlike a stuffy, upscale restaurant in which even the sides can be ten dollars, here there are workers who continually replenish the resources so you can eat at length, in excess, and of your own accord. Like many of the Strip's trappings, the buffet speaks to the core of the individual and tells him or her that it is OK to go back and fill up one’s plate, again, again, and again.

While it may appear on the surface that the buffet is all about abundance--after all, the piles of shrimp, mounds of crab legs, slabs of beef, and platters of bread rolls seem to scream of accumulation above all other things--it is, in fact, a phenomenon of loss, of unwanted expenditures. Observing a buffet as a casual customer, one may encounter the urge to speak of this Vegas feature as one of pure abundance, but upon closer inspection of people in the space, a different and opposite trend emerges: one notices that people become obsessed with issues of quantity, not quality. Even when there is a pretense to strive for more quality in the food—Bellagio's Sunday Brunch, Rio's Seafood Buffet, and the Wynn Las Vegas Buffet—patrons of these establishments still focus on their concerns with loss, much in the respect of, "What if we do not eat everything?" "What if we forget to eat something" or, "What if we lose something?" I once observed a curious man and his family at the Rio’s Carnival Buffet. His family spoke of their urges to "try everything" laid out before their eyes, but he, resolutely, refused such dreams of accumulation.

Instead, he proclaimed to them and anyone in earshot, "All I care about is the shrimp!" One of his kin then asked, "Can’t you try something else, for a change?" "No, just the shrimp." While they go back for more and cover every variety of food with each scoop onto the plate, he sits, solitary, with a mound of shrimp, almost eight inches high at the peak, a giant bowl of cocktail sauce at the base. My mind begins to wander…thinking now only about death and sacrifice: the shrimp are Aztecs being led to slaughter, mounded on the temple like animals, and the cocktail sauce a pool of blood. The precedent of such a thought lies in Georges Bataille's work on sacrifice and excess, which described the ways in which all economies end in forms of waste, excess, and sacrifice, and it of this thought that I am continually reminded while in Las Vegas, especially at the buffets. Like the Aztec's bludgeoning of their own, the man's act of eating up all of the shrimp--and going back for a second full plate--speaks of the sacrificial underpinnings of the Vegas buffet: while he can go back, like his kin, and pile up other items on his plate--rolls, salads, soups, and a variety of iced, colored cakes--he refuses, disavows accumulation in favor of sacrifice, and says to the world in the process, "This is all that I want." In this moment he wastes his opportunity to take up more items--to consume the world--and he instead fixates on only one, the shrimp. The man's example of wasted effort at the buffet is symbolic of the many forms of excess and sacrifice that, hidden beneath the surface of the Strip's seeming accumulation and abundance, make themselves visible if we are willing to look for them.

If there are two things that I think of when I am perched above the nose guard at the buffet they are sex and death. Even when I am at the Bellagio's expensive version of it, I focus, like the man’s family, on trying everything. But like them, in the end I fail to achieve the state of ecstasy that can be given to me by overconsumption of food. Like sex and death, which Freud told us are always interconnected, the buffet represents an absolute inability to persist, a form of impossible exchange that represents an excess of being from which we can never recover. Bataille denoted eroticism as the most profound way of calling one's being into question, and the assent of the sexual is, always, a simultaneous meditation on death. The social world of the Strip, in many ways no different than that of the Aztecs, is built on rituals that cleanse the social body: we cannot really exist in harmony among our buffet compatriots--after all, they may get in front of us in the line and steal the most perfect piece of porterhouse steak--so we use the excess that the food of the buffet gives us and the power that it provides to preserve the fragile social world around us. As we stand in line for a plate hotter than we can handle, we might think that we want to fuck someone in front of us--but we can’t--and we might also think about how we could kill someone who cuts in front of us—but we can’t--and thus we are denied at every turn. We can, however, use the buffet to achieve a similar sex-death state: get food, consume it, go back and eat it again, and vomit or shit it out later. We become the perfect sacrificial machine in which food is not the sacrificial victim but the means to sacrificing ourselves. And, for all our efforts to eat everything in this sacrificial process, we cannot: it will always be refilled and replaced by happy buffet attendants, and thus we consent only to waste what we cannot, ever, actually consume. And when the buffet closes, the remainder of the ears of corn, the bread rolls and the butter, the cuts of prime rib, the salads and everything else all are ground up, reduced to a pulp and fed to pigs that live on the outskirts of the city.

© 2013 Scott A. Lukas Contact Me