Special Session Summary Three Coins in a Caesar’S Palace Fountain: Interpreting Las Vegas

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah
[ to cite ]:
Russell W. Belk (1998) ,"Special Session Summary Three Coins in a Caesar’S Palace Fountain: Interpreting Las Vegas", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, eds. Joseph W. Alba & J. Wesley Hutchinson, Provo, UT : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 7-9.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 25, 1998      Pages 7-9

SPECIAL SESSION SUMMARY

THREE COINS IN A CAESAR’S PALACE FOUNTAIN: INTERPRETING LAS VEGAS

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

The latest Las Vegas megaresorts mix preposterous fantasy facades, huge hotels, gambling casinos, amusement rides, carnival midways, film studio shows, theme park adventures, shopping malls, and musical concert spectaculars in highly successful offerings. Entertainments and amusements now potentially appeal to children as well as adults. Despite the rapid proliferation of legal gambling, Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the United States with the largest number of hotel rooms of any city in the world. It has been vigorously praised, condemned, and defended, but there has been little systematic research. This session reported three coordinated but independent interpretive studies attempting to understand the improbable rise of the city some have called Disney in the Desert.

The significance of the topic derives from three primary factors. First, Las Vegas is arguably the most successful consumption phenomenon of the late Twentieth Century. It has become a tourist destination without parallel and a financial success that has now attracted huge investments from tourism, recreation, and entertainment corporations that once avoided any association with the gambling mecca. Secondly, gambling has become a worldwide source of concern. The amount spent each year at casinos has grown by 1800 percent since 1976. As an epitomT of the gambling explosion, Las Vegas raises important social and policy issues that may be enlightened by the present analyses. A Third significance of this session was that it brought together three very different researchers using similar data collection methods but differing individual and analytical perspectives, all focusing on the same research site: the casinos of Las Vegas and their ancillary shopping and entertainment attractions.

It has often been suggested that different qualitative researchers studying the same site would (or more often, would not) reach the same conclusions. Yet tests of these propositions, especially in consumer research, have been lacking. As researchers, we worked largely within the same time and space, but collected, analyzed, and wrote up our data independently. Thus the results and conclusions of the three papers in this session also provided an opportunity to examine the extent to which different researchers will or will not arrive at similar interpretations and conclusions when they study the same research site. In addition, the session brought together a large audience interested in qualitative consumer research methods, social issues involving gambling, tourism, recreatio, and leisure consumption, critical theory, postmodernism, semiotics, and consumption trends. The familiarity and popularity of Las Vegas also seem to have made for a well-informed audience.

 

PRESENTATION ABSTRACT - S

LAS VEGAS, THE VICTORIOUS DEATH-SPASM OF TOURISM AND LUXURY

Dominique Bouchet, Odense University, Denmark

In this paper I try to show that Las Vegas is not a herald of the future but much more the last manifestation of an outdated understanding of luxury and tourism. Vegas has more in common with old amusement parks and old casinos, than it does with coping with change. Also, and contrary to its universal claims, it appears to be very culturally specific. Of course Vegas is used in different ways by its visitors, but its dynamic essentially proceeds from the social imagination of North American culture.

In Alexandre Dumas’ 1848 novel La Dame aux Camlias (which inspired Verdi’s opera La Traviata) Marguerite Gautier explains to Armand why she and courtesans like her succeed: "Unfortunately, it is not our qualities they are after. To the contrary, it is our faults, our extravagances. It is our luxury that attracts them like light attracts moth." This is how I perceive Las Vegas: an extravagant yet conforming, glorious yet decadent, puzzling yet predictable, playful yet deceiving, pretentious yet ridiculous manifestation of frustrated Puritanism. What you see is not what you get; it is what you can’t get. And you can’t get no satisfaction, because it is a new kind of narcissistic onanism where no one is supposed to touch, smile or even talk; only to watch and spend. Eroticism, according to Georges Bataille, is assenting to life up to the point of death. Vegas, in my view, is assenting to death up to the point of life. And what a life! Millions of watts for all the Frankensteins and Fausts coming back to life and childhood in a soft cocoon filled with colorful pillows and Teddy Bears and tiled with hundreds of TV screens. In Vegas life doesn’t stink, it sucks. Sucked down and gently rocked while riding back to future or mutating into a one-armed bandit, the tourist turns into a supernumerary in a Neiman-Marcus movie or spaceship staringCor steered byCDollar Bill. They come to this showcase-luxury because they are fed up with the gadget-luxury of middle class society. They go on a tour to escape stress or apathy. They contribute to the success and glory of the latest form of luxury and tourism, which might also be the last. Adventure and futility are absent in Vegas. When every thing is so big, everything feels so small. When so many colors abound, they turn to grey. Welcome to Vegas! Welcome to the morgue of luxury and tourism, where around the clock eruptions, sea-battles and indifferent guided tours are there to dispose of you. Take a picture where you are supposed to. Put your money through the slot. You don’t need to go anywhere else, you have it all here. You shouldn’t expect anything else; this is supposed to be the best, the most luxurious; the Gargantua of our times. But there is no Rabelais, and no humanism to educate this one that it is self-eluding itself to death. It is not the death of a clown and there is no swan song; only fireworks over the heads of the customer-ants of this Sim-city town (or is it a store?). What did you expect? In the age of Pulp Fiction, Short Cuts, Casino, and virtual reality, luxury and tourism cannot remain untouched. Didn’t you have the feeling that you would be deceived? It’s all there and it’s big. But it’s all fake and it’s like religion: if you don’t believe in it, then there is nothing to it. The rituals and totems seem pretty common, especially to the non-anthropological tourist. And what’s the good of being a tourist if all is the same? What’s the good of luxury if it is lss fascinating than what’s on the movie screen or in the local restaurant? The moth is attracted by light and burned to death. But where there is nothing to see, Peeping Tom turns his back.

 

LAS VEGAS: STILL LEARNING?

A. Fuat Frat, Arizona State University, West

This paper investigates the reasons why Las Vegas has become a city that is considered to be a prototype postmodern space. Two reasons, its position as the excess of modern America, and its representation of motion and speed as the defining moments of life, are elaborated. The allure of Las Vegas for contemporary consumers through its fragmented, hyperreal, thematized, spectacular, and enclavized hotels is explored, and the reasons for its falling short of postmodern consumers’ desires are discussed.

The paper begins with the author’s initial encounters with the "gambling"cities of the United States. These encounters reinforce the modernist judgments, especially Las Vegas. This city is the aberration, where sleazy and illicit activities are sanctioned. Las Vegas is the excess of the American way of life, where many went to let goCthe city of abandon. It also represented the dreams of America, however, where one could get rich and enjoy the modern promises of material well-being and the good life. This paradoxical condition of being the aberration and yet, the dream, results in a Las Vegas that is disliked and rejected, yet seductive and pleasurable. People go there to have fun and get rich, yet they become "processed" and used.

The paper goes on to examine these paradoxes, first trying to explain how Las Vegas has become "The New All-American City" proclaimed by Time Magazine in 1994. The city has gained a special status in the American economy and culture. It is a model of "success" and seen as a prototype for the future, yet it presents dangers for the future of the surrounding environment. Las Vegas remains a paradoxical place that draws people from all around the world and from all walks of life; and no longer just to gamble.

The reversal of Las Vegas, from the renegade to the prototype, is explored through two themes: defining excess and exploring the defining moments in the transformation of the modern city in the life of late modernity. Excess, as Bataille and Baudrillard have analyzed it, represents the seduction in human economy and life. It is, at once, the excrement of fixed production, and, by virtue of its indeterminacy and uncontrolled nature, the embodiment of fascination and desire. As modern culture sought to have total(izing) control over meaning and life, it tended to suppress and veil the elements that it could not determine and fix. These surfaced in excess, as in the case of Las Vegas. Excess provides play and freedom to the individual/consumer. It is understandable, therefore, that as the grip of modern ideologies wane, Las Vegas waxes.

Yet another reason for the prominence of Las Vegas is that it represents the reversed status of modern means and ends in its architectural organization. The modern city was built around the spaces of public congregation and common discourseC"piazzas" or squares. In modernity motion and speed gained greater importance; they functioned as the means to an end: arrival at the points of common presence, achievement, and reflection. In late modern and postmodern times, motion/flow and speed have become the end. In Las Vegas this reversal is represented by its construction around "The Strip," on which the points of momentary lull and restCthe theme hotelsCbecome way-stations to energize the consumer on her/his constant and ever speedier motion.

The rest of the paper is a study of the prototypical postmodern character of Las Vegas. It explores the fragmentation, hype, spectacularization, thematization, and enclavization facilitated by the "theme" hotels, as well as the affinity and allure of these conditions for the contemporary consumer. The paper concludes with an evaluation of the shortcmings of Las Vegas in not being a truly postmodern space, and proposes that the major reason for non-realization of the goals of the postmodern consumer lies in the hegemony of the market.

 

LAS VEGAS AS FARCE, CONSUMPTION AS PLAY

Russell W. Belk, University of Utah

The farcical theater-of-the-absurd character of contemporary Las Vegas is neither intended nor taken seriously by the tourist consumer. Las Vegas, like the medieval carnival, the peddler, and those festivals that occur at the margins of daily life, offers a time and place for self-transcendent play. This analysis finds that by infantalizing consumers, Las Vegas promotes this spirit of play while simultaneously creating more indulgent gamblers and shoppers. This is neither new nor bad. It is instead a reemergence of preindustrial bounded play in postindustrial times.

The playful consumption mode in which we experience the latest Las Vegas themed resort casinos has been labeled post-tourism or post-shopping. But such postmodern concepts fail to fully address the farcical aspects that I believe account for the city’s spectacular consumer success. Farce, fairs, and consumer indulgence can be traced to medieval carnivals, beguiling peddlers, and theater. All offer magic, seduction, and the promise of something marvelously different. By offering alluring illusions of otherness, they release a spirit of license and licentiousness. These liberations of spirit offer to transform and transcend our ordinary lives.

The farcical, not-to-be-taken-seriously, nature of its newest casino theme resorts echoes the theater of the absurd and the ridiculous. Las Vegas is instructing us through its farcical architecture and spectacles to adopt a playful mood of irreverent disregard for our normal behaviors and sensibilities. Although over 80 percent of tourists to Las Vegas gamble while they are there, only 11 percent come expressly for this purpose. Most come to be entertained, amused, and amazed. The new theme resorts have not attracted droves of children, but they have infantalized adults. Tourists wandering from slot machine to slot machine with their cups full of coins mimic children in a candy store with their coins clasped hotly in their hands. The low-rollers in their sweat suits mimic children in pajamas. They share with the child in the candy shop the hopeful anticipation that happiness may be a purchase (or handle pull) away. Las Vegas is a playpen for the middle class and middle aged. It is a never-never land for all those Peter Pans who don’t want to grow up. Las Vegas reawakens childhood dreams. It is a liberated and liminal town where nobody can make us go to bed.

This infantalization nourished by the more playful and farcical character of the current Las Vegas, fosters a willing suspension of cognitive, rational, adult control and a welcome succumbing to a dreamworld of possibilities. This triumph of fun and magical belief over purposive cognition and rationality is precisely the spirit most conducive to gambling. Not only do infantalized adults make better gamblers, they also make better consumers generally. They play games of "dress up," "pig out," and "shopping spree." All the normal inhibitions against too much of too many things that are all bad for us are energetically broken in Las Vegas. This is not a place for those hard-headed adults who cannot abandon the control, rationality, and incredulity of adulthood. But it is Mecca for those who can indulge themselves in the magic, fun, and fantasy of childhood.

Although there is much in Las Vegas to criticize, most such criticisms are elitist, excessively rationalistic, or overly Puritanical. There is more that is good than bad in the new Las Vegas. The childishness and playful spirit of tourists is the same frame of mind that nourishes imagination, hope, and unapologetic fun. We need play as a joyful, self-transcendent part of life, even if we must pay for the privilege of being infantalized. And we have always found our most intense carnival at the magins: in medieval fairs, on leisure beaches, at festival days that occur at the seams between seasons; on the edges, far away on foreign holidays, and whenever and wherever we can partition off time and space to create an enclave of nonreality. What has changed, and what makes Las Vegas unique, is simply the scale of the carnival.

 

DISCUSSION AND SYNTHESIS

Gnliz Ger, Bilkent University

The papers provided an opportunity to see whether different researchers will arrive at similar interpretations. Audience discussion led by the facilitator, Gnliz Ger, also focused on the substantive phenomenon (what is Las Vegas?). Ger began by attributing the differences in the analyses of the three male analysts to our cultural, personal, and theoretical lenses.

Bouchet’s reference, Ger said, was the past and his analysis was grounded in the French-Euorpean intellectual tradition and critical sociology. He took the role of a detached outsider and did not write in the first person. His critical analysis sees Las Vegas as an outdated manifestation of luxury and tourism and as a particularly American cultural phenomenon. It left unanswered, Ger noted, the question of why Las Vegas is nevertheless so successful.

Turning to Frat’s paper, Ger specified that his reference was the future and his analysis was grounded in critical theory and postmodernism. It focused on the excess of contemporary America and how Las Vegas presents this excess as well as how it reflects speed and motion. The paper was focused on things more than people, Ger observed. It left unanswered the question of the universality of the phenomena discussed.

In characterizing my own paper, Ger observed that it was steeped in the present and drew parallels between Las Vegas and television, malls, theme parks, and fairs. She detected an attempt to normalize the city. My reference perspectives were seen as American, historical, popular culture, and cultural relativsm. Accordingly, Ger asked whether Las Vegas can be a universal phenomenon, whether I am defending it against elitist critiques, and whether it is transgressive enough to continue to appeal.

Ger concluded that Las Vegas is: excess, amazement, childishness, artificial reality, grand spectacle, playful, puzzling, and erotic. But Las Vegas is not: exploration, discovery, imagination, spontaneity, flow, quotidian regularity, or romantic. She noted two particular absences: the voice of the consumer and a female perspective. Discussion raised several conceptual issues. How are we to understand the commodification of difference and the appropriation of world cultures? How much control versus decontrol is there in Las Vegas? How can the city’s fully open display possibly seduce visitors? Why is the Las Vegas phenomenon found only in the U.S.? And what are the culturally specific meanings here of such constructs as play, transgression, and the erotic?

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