“Rabelais does Las Vegas” summarises Mike Davis from the front cover of ‘Strip Cultures’ and this is indeed a refreshing new exploration of Sin City unlike your average “history of” or “economic breakdown” that seems to clog up the bookshelves at your friendly gambling bookshop in 2015.
It’s certainly a mind-bender. You don’t expect a book entitled Strip Cultures to be quoting Barthes and Baudrillard; more Donald Trump or Larry Flynt perhaps.
Heavily academic – it took me right back to my turgid research days at university – but that’s a good thing if you want to delve into the real nuts and bolts about what makes Vegas tick.
The Project on Vegas (actually a group of four academics) is a sociological study of the city we love to analyse, love and glamorise. And why does Vegas continue to draw in the crowds? Because it is a city of extremes, contradictions, fickleness, and one that possesses an almost inexhaustible ability to reinvent itself.
It’s these qualities that keep us coming back for more, and that’s what fascinated the four co-authors enough to start their research project – a project that proved so fruitful it spanned a decade. These professors of literature and art and film were drawn by the bright lights and the thinly veiled glamorous façade as well as the truths that lie beneath the surface. But, more than that this book is about our reactions to Vegas, both as audiences and consumers.
What does Vegas do to us, how does it make us behave, and how does that compare to other cities? Why is it acceptable here for a married man to pose with a woman from the Folies Bergeres as his wife takes a photo? What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, after all.
The journey starts mundanely enough riding the deuce up the Strip and so begins a map of a journey that jumps from philosophers Barthes & Foucault to anthropologist Hurston and photographer Sontag. One minute Vegas is likened to the self-referential drama of Brecht and the next being compared to Disneyworld.
Strip Cultures explores all aspects of Vegas from the perspectives of art, photography and the visual, from the sensory experience to nature and technology, and brand and image. Every facet goes under the microscope, which makes for diverting reading in itself – viewing this city, its culture and its bizarre mix of inhabitants for the sheer theatre it is.
But, The Project on Vegas doesn’t stop there. This isn’t just a view of one small, crazy city in the middle of the desert. These findings, The Project claims, are, in microscopic scale a projection of the USA as a whole. What they examine of art/ technology/ image and how we respond and behave in relation to that are a reflection of America as a wider culture.
As the subtitle, “Finding America in Vegas”, suggests, the authors are looking to explore the bigger picture by looking at the fine detail.
Strip Culture is absolutely the last thing you want to read if you’re relaxing on a beach or catching five minutes while the kids snap round your heels. But despite its weighty themes, the book is a great read for anyone studying Las Vegas in any detail and perfect for those looking for something a bit more academically challenging than ‘101 Ways to Make Your Las Vegas Trip More FUN!’