Ethnography and anthropology at Vegas

Vegas_fountain

Ok, this is my last day in Vegas.  The speech is behind me so I am free to have a look around, the off-duty ethnographer hoovering up data in spite of himself.

But I can’t help noticing that my noticing does not escape the noticers.  A non-official noticer puts them on alert.  Am I here to hack the system, a journalist here to report on the system, a casino watch-dog here to monitor the system, or a rogue noticer here to [something else] the system? None of these is a welcome option, particularly the last one because it is, for the moment, inscrutable.

So it’s observation under glass.  I have two things to report:

One is anthropological. 

I think it’s fair to say that there are many more LVs since the last time I was here.  LV was once ruled by the resort culture regime, the one that said people came here to consume as much sugar, fat, salt, nicotine, alcohol, sex and, well, risk, as possible. There are lots more things going on here.  Rita Rudner appears to have a show here for instance.  Talk about not being risky.  Sorry, that’s unkind.  I like Rudner’s humor.

One way to think about the flowering in the desert is to think about Steve Wynn.  I don’t have the whole story but listening to bar chatter, here’s what I gather.  Wynn began by opening the Golden Nugget, a place so true to the old Vegas, it embraced the earliest, corniest metaphor: (i.e., gambling as prospecting, dig here for your next big strike!)  He succeeded with this and subsequent resorts and a virtuous circle was set in train: each execution funded Wynn’s growing  sophistication which funded his next execution, which funded his growing sophistication….  Thus did Wynn move from the Golden Nugget to the Bellagio to the Wynn. 

As Wynn moved, he stretched Las Vegas up market.  This brought in new segments, new kinds of entertainment, new kinds of criminals, an arc-ful of possibilities.   Apparently many of the great chefs working in the US now have places in LV.  Who would have imagined this in the days of the Golden Nugget, when the international house pancakes was as cosmopolitan as you could hope for? 

The question is this: is there any part of America that the new Vegas cannot accomodate.  Any part of the new Vegas that America cannot accommodate?  We shall see.  It’s an experiment.  Another question: what would have happened without Wynn?  Was this evolutionary change inevitable?  What difference did Wynn make? 

As LV expands, you can’t help feeling that this local economy grows ever more complicated.  There are markets within markets, white, grey, and black.  The sex trade market must be an elaborate hierarchy all on its own, variously encouraged, ignored, scorned the mainstream world, with various creatures, trading youth and beauty in what is not always a descent into misery.  This shuttle system, or something like it, is probably at work on the casino floor where people descent from the top tip-earning spots down through the system as youth and beauty fade until finally there are disinvited altogether, or at least removed from public view. 

It is wheels within wheels, markets within markets, cultures within cultures, and the interesting thing is, I think, that more parts of American culture are now represented in Bugsy’s experiment in the desert, and this place is more experimental and generative for America than was the case in the Golden Nugget days.  In short, this is an interesting intersection of anthropology and economics. 

The other is ethnographic:

The best moments in ethnography are the ones in which you glimpse something that is really totally removed from the world as you know it, feel it, and experience it, when it lets you into someone else’s experience. 

I am constitutionally incapable of gambling.  I was raised a Canadian Presbyterian.  My Protestant notion is that you make your own life, that you construct your own fate.  Gambling is asking for something else to participate in this devotional act of self construction.  It’s not that I disapprove.  It’s that at a fundamental level I don’t "get" gambling.  It’s predicated on something I am predicated against. 

But I am piecing together observations and conversations, and I think I have glimpsed the appeal of LV, especially the new Vegas, the one occupied by people with lots of disposable incomes and sophisticated styles of life, the ones who could just as easily afford Paris or Rome.  (A good deal of the more traditional approach to gambling in Vegas is, of course, the promise that you could, at the single roll of a dice or pull of a handle, change your life extraordinarily.  In a moment of involuntary empathy, I "got" this "off" a couple who had just changed money into chips.  They were vibrating with excitement at the prospect of this transformation.  What I am talking about are the players of privilege.  After all, they are pretty darn happy with their lives.  They are not in LV looking for a secret way out.)

I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s something like this.  It is something to do with a controlled bouleversement where the spectacle of water shows, mosaic tile work, spare no expense design schemes, extravagant moments where things are put off kilter and out of scale in the most cheerful and certifiably unmysterious ways possible.  Add to this the gambling, the induction into its arcane languages, quiet codes, insider understanding, and risk running around the upper reaches of the cage of consciousness like a wild thing.  (You only need to say, "hey, get down from there" and it will.)  But enough of this and the world feels like it had lifted off its moorings as if onto a small current of air.  Risk that releases.  Risk that hints at the catastrophic but never threatens it.  Enough distance and differences from daily life as to make even the most habitual and confining aspects thereof let go their icy New England (aka Protestant) grip. 

This is not mysterious, I guess. Van Gennep would tell us the liminality always removes us from the daily world, even if we are obliged to return there.  But I guess what captured me was the palpable sense of effervescence, as if the body were actually undergoing a rolling, contained, active bouleversement, a kind of "controlled accident," to use a term from yesterday’s post. 

I had no idea.  Now, I do.  I am not a better person, but I am a more responsive one.  There are some part of Vegas I do not want to understand, some parts of Vegas so grim I do not want to know about them, but this, this is a relatively painless and useful addition to the ethnographer’s set of templates for investigating contemporary culture. 

Painless and useful but perhaps not altogether unalarming.  I mean "rolling, contained but active bouleversement," is this any way for a Presbyterian to talk?  I am calling room service for sedatives right now.

5 thoughts on “Ethnography and anthropology at Vegas”

  1. Heh heh woow that was nicely done. I don’t gamble either. I don’t get it either. I was raised Dalai Lama initiated Buddha…yeah yeah I know, I’m the worlds worst buddhist, its true…but somehow…Vegas is captured by your words and the feelings you had…but also by what I sense and called the concept of maya.

    When you wrote…I haven’t quite put my finger on it, but it’s something like this. It is something to do with a controlled bouleversement where the spectacle of water shows, mosaic tile work, spare no expense design schemes, extravagant moments where things are put off kilter and out of scale in the most cheerful and certifiably unmysterious ways possible. Add to this the gambling, the induction into its arcane languages, quiet codes, insider understanding, and risk running around the upper reaches of the cage of consciousness like a wild thing. (You only need to say, “hey, get down from there” and it will.) But enough of this and the world feels like it had lifted off its moorings as if onto a small current of air. Risk that releases. Risk that hints at the catastrophic but never threatens it.

    To me, what I struggle to say, is that THAT is a representation of the way the dominant culture works everywhere. That is it, and why I find Vegas so attractive. It’s like mice in a lab…a very large lab. It might be called a microcosm in some old fashioned movie? Couldn’t the actual NY and Paris and Mexico City and Rome be easily described the way you say? Instead of seeing the illusion revealed by meditation, or peyote, or ecstacy or rapture…go to Vegas. Not that I’ve ever done peyote. People laugh and go to Vegas and participate (okay well you and I don’t) and say oh what a place, the lights, the crime, the gambling, the food..and I think, wow didn’t you notice that you just separated your self from your everyday world and saw it under a piece of glass?

    Um, an interesting thing about Wynn is that he managed to convince (I think Ceasars) to sell hima parking lot. He had nothing. So he buys a parking lot and I believe if I recall the mythology properly…he sits on it, Vegas booms, and Ceasars needs to add some space…and they buy the parking lot back off of him for a lot of money. He really is a dreamwonderboy who put shit on a stick and called it something else and made a million.

    (and just before the Paris casino opened they had brochures everywhere for its arrival…one of the blurbs said, “It’s like Paris, but without the French” I kept it for years especially as a Canadian it elicits quite a guffaw, it was so politically incorrect I couldn’t believe it)

    In the early 90′s Vegas was so sick of people complainting about the food that casinos went out of their way to seduce the worlds best chefs to come and work for them. Really, and many people don’t believe me, but some of the best meals I’ve ever eaten were in Vegas. I’m a foodie so you can trust me :)

    Um Grant, have you checked out Bill Mahers Fishbowl on Amazon? Or did I miss you talking about that. It’s very sweet little show and he is quite funny in even such a pedestrian venue, its a compliment to his edge.

  2. It’s interesting in the very abstract sense that you talk about, and dismaying in a very real sense. The idea of “something for nothing” has permeated American culture; the idea that you can get a lot without ever giving anything in return (in fact, that it is a “right”); to take the Jared Diamond / James Kunstler approach, Las Vegas is also an incredibly resource-intensive society that ignores its literal desert environment – and doesn’t require very much for it to collapse – lack of water, oil/gas or electricity and the place will dry up (literally) and blow away, something to think about in an age where arizona, nevada and california have legal squabbles over water diversion, peak oil is upon us and electricity usage has doubled since the 1970s. I think on some subconscious level, the people who go there know this. Why else name a place “the mirage?”

  3. It definitely has changed. They’ve buffed the rough edges off. And their new slogan seems to capture the variety of experience now available there: “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”. Whatever your personal brand of sampling the boundaries are, you can do it safely in Vegas. Kind of like risk-free risk taking.
    As well as an amazing display of conspicuous consumption of water and fuel in a desert during a middle-east war.

  4. Great post. I’ll now have to go look up half the words you used, but great post regardless. I was just there a few weeks ago visiting a friend. I was left with a distinct feeling of weirdness that I haven’t yet succeeded in describing. There seem to be a lot of “shady characters” who gravitate to the seedy glamor and the hint of lawlessness. It seems like a very transactional city to me. I met a couple of “mortgage brokers”, if that’s any indication. People who can’t really describe their jobs but feel a need to be close to money, even if they’re not generating it or making it grow. They’re satisfied just to lay their hands on it.

    My background’s similar. New England Catholic. I don’t understand gambling one bit, though everyone in my family likes it quite well, particularly as they get older and the # of casinos in our home state grows.

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