Scott A. Lukasstudies of cultural remaking

ANIMAL PEN

I do not remember when--mainly because the days and nights that I have spent in Vegas as an anthropologist merge into one bloated memory, one macro foam to consume the rest--but I was in the arcade passageway that connected the MGM and Bally's. Much like the original arcades of Paris, this version includes novelty shops, food stands, and personal services like hydro massage tables, pick your own pearl stands, and stores selling rotating devices that when placed on the head will relieve an alcohol headache. A small shop is there, completely nondescript and full of worthless knickknacks, Vegas refrigerator magnets, toys, adult games, drinking paraphernalia and, of course, the ubiquitous stuffed, battery-operated, moving animals. There is a circular pedestal, upon which a pig, a horse, and a dog are interacting, looking odd due to their mismatched scales, much like the rest of the city. They are scurrying around the pedestal while an additional figure--a male with rifle, one-eighth of the size of the animals--is bouncing up and down in a prostrating position, as if in ecstatic anticipation of picking off one of the creatures with his rifle. There is something wrong, though--some of the animals are on their backs and then begin to waddle around in the circular pen, making unexpected trajectories and occasionally bumping into one another. People begin to gather around the pen, following me and a few others who have made this stage as significant as the ones upstairs in the casinos' performance halls. A few of us think about righting the overturned animals that are beginning to look pathetic and uneasy in their uncertain movements, but a woman shouts out, "No, wait!" So no one makes a move and, instead, we watch some more. And we discover the oscillations, the pushes and the pulls, the sense that destiny is just around the corner, like the slot machine that is ready to spill.

Looking at some of the onlookers' faces, I feel that something else could be had--some greater destiny could be achieved--yet there is some presence that is keeping everyone focused on the kitsch animals. The entertainment seems to grow. Like life, the unpredictable animals take on varied trajectories--one mounts another and the third stumbles into the pile. It appears that the animals are having sex, and at first, no one in the crowd seems to mind, this is Vegas after all. But then, an impeccably dressed woman points to the fornicating stuffed toys and says, "That's disturbing," looking at me, perhaps thinking that a moment like this is exactly what I have come to Vegas to see. I raise my eyes and say nothing, expressing just curiosity about the scene and the strangely large crowd. As the animals spin and the crowd grows--some people among it laugh hysterically--I begin to feel that I have witnessed something of some other force's making. What Jean Baudrillard spoke of as "objective irony"--inanimate objects, things, animals, and even buildings taking on their own agency--seemed to be taking place inside the plastic pen of animals inside the mall. Or, is it that they are there to help metaphorize our world, these plastic creatures of our own making are thrown back at us as conceptual waves, reminding us of the many human creations that inevitably amount to nothing. The universe says to us, "A plastic horse, a stuffed pig, and a fluffy dog, writhing around in a pen, nothing more."

After ten minutes I make my way past the mass of plastic animals and people. On the escalator, I see my reflection on both sides and on the ceiling, and in the short time up the escalator, more metaphors spin inside me: the mirror of the self, the rite of passage, the journey through, the abyss, the motion of life, the cave. Like the animals in the plastic pen, most of these are clichés--overburdened by the burn of simulation that has taken effect in the city--but a few remind me why I am there. The purpose of the anthropologist is to understand, to take on the unexplained, the unexpected, the intangible, and make sense of it and, at the same time, I am in Vegas to enjoy what it offers me. At the top of the escalator my mind wanders on the semiotic cesspool that is this city: pyramid, Eiffel tower, sphinx, waterfall, European garden, Roman column, coliseum, gondola, volcano, white tiger, thatched hut, rock n' roll diner, Statue of Liberty, golden movie lion, bronzed butt, Arthurian turret. Like anyone else, I could blow ten bucks in one of the slot machines, but there is something else that is leading me along—the movement of the crowd.

© 2013 Scott A. Lukas Contact Me