Ground Zero: Las Vegas' Luxor

An Imagined Archaeology of American Post-Civilization

Flying into McCarran International Airport in the morning offers little relief from the empty ripples of the Nevada desert floor. However, the terminal exudes commercial activity - eateries with cinnamon rolls and foot-long hotdogs; a surprisingly legitimate bookstore with a greater selection of titles than the standard airport fare by Tom Clancy, John Grisham, and Danielle Steel. Then there are the ubiquitous logo shops with gambling paraphernalia, cheesy T-shirt displays, and, of course, the metallic jangle of slot and draw poker machines. ATMs whir, while expectant arrivals eagerly get their first taste of gambling hope; departures grumpily withdraw a sufficient amount of money to get their cars out of longterm parking. Even while awaiting their luggage, restless tourists drop quarters in machine-gun rhythm into the insatiable maws of the Double Diamond and the Triple Seven. A kiosk outside baggage claim offers dour but dutiful visitors tickets to EFX and Mystere and Siegfried and Roy's Siberian Tigers. Outside the airport's doors, taxicabs file into numbered spots, whizzing excited yet anxious patrons from the airport to the Strip. Once there, the traffic inches along, meters relentlessly ticking. Caesar's Palace, the Stardust, the Mirage, Treasure Island, MGM, the Excalibur dwarf more customary businesses - Denny's, Travelodge, and McDonald's brazenly sport their own oversized signs, providing familiar landmarks to those bewildered by the crowded, sensory overload of the Strip. To the north of the airport and on the Western edge of the Strip sits the avatar of transnational corporate lucre - the Luxor Hotel. Seen from the air, the black pyramid flattens out, a permanant melanoma on the desert skin, spreading in all directions. Yet only from the ground does one discern its hugeness, an architectural anomaly towering above its casino neighbors. The acres of glass that form the Luxor's outer skin absorb both the glare of the sun during the day and the pink, neon electricity at night. The bright-blue kitsch recreation of the Sphinx that arches directly in front of the hotel's entrance clashes jarringly with the dark, forbidding mass that is the Luxor, a postmodern simulacrum of Egyptian monumentality and empire formed from raw economic logics and deeply etched into the American desert.

Event Scene I: Balsamic Notes of Sandalwood

A cross between maudlin New Age sentiment, Rodeo Drive decadence, and endless and prolific icons of popular culture, the Luxor By-Mail Catalog vigorously promotes King Tut sweaters, polo shirts, and teddy bears (also known as Teddy Tuts); Nefertiti pyramids cut from Austrian crystal; Limoges china plates of Isis and Ramses; durastone statues of Bastet, as well as hand-fashioned replicas of Bugs Bunny, the Tasmanian Devil, Tweety Pie, and Sylvester and Son dressed as ancient Egyptians. (These replicas, gold plated and hand-painted, are not for the beer and skittles crowd - Bugs costs $130.00 while Sylvester and Son retail at $230.00). For women who wish to escape the joys of Obsession knock-offs and Calgon Bath Oil Beads and to lux(o)riate in the hypo-hygienic products of the imagined postmodern Orient, the Luxor Collection can be conveniently purchased, which includes Body Silk, Bath and Shower Gel, Cologne Pour Femme, and Parfum Pour Femme (which comes in the compact, blue pyramid bottle).

Men attracted to a commodified exoticism may acquire a special cologne that the catalog describes as "a spontaneous burst of bergamot, encens, and pineapple accented by natural seaweed with balsamic notes of sandalwood, warm amber, and sweet vanilla." Spliced, fractured, recombined - these expensive souvenirs do not authentically evoke Egypt's history or culture; rather, their "balsamic notes" seem better attuned to the massive clink of monied interests and images that actively conceal themselves from public scrutiny, shielding themselves from ideological attack. Hiding behind the nurturing ethos of the "family", the Luxor's management even encourages the kids to participate in a fest of sartorial appropriation: Egyptian swatches and fez hats accessorize boys' Pharaoh costumes and girls' queen outfits (all made from 100% Lycra). By excavating and exploiting the rubble of a distorted Egyptology, Circus Circus Enterprises (the backers of the Luxor) actively produce very profitable consumer lemmings, tourists with so little historical knowledge of their own culture that they quickly dive into the soupy Nile of the Egyptian Other, seizing upon the glitzy, simulated fragments that have been exhumed, recombined, displayed, and marketed because they are easily digestible, portable, and chic.

Fortress Luxor

While the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, lying southeast of the Luxor, lumbers along with its functionalist and streamlined Bauhaus architecture, industrial tubing connecting its library with other, equally drab (if clean) buildings, the Luxor's iconography and architecture demand an unquestioned orgy of submission to the delight of sheer consumption and the accumulation of debt. A laundry list of the material used to construct and maintain the Luxor reads like an entry from the Guinness Book of World Records: the atrium encloses 29 million cubic feet, the River Nile Ride holds 275,000 gallons of water, an argon laser beam equivalent to 40 billion candle power sends piercing, coherent beams of light into space. The hotel's exterior is a dermis of eleven acres of glass [Weathersby and Ruling]. In a state and a city that increasingly must become more ecologically aware if they are to maintain their furious consumption, the Luxor's sheer scale of ostentation seems problematic, grossly at odds with the natural ecology that surrounds it (and proud of it!). Rather than minimize their display of consumption, however, at least by giving lip-service to "green" concerns (unlike the managements of the Mirage and Treasure Island that have erected signs informing the public of their water-recycling systems), the Luxor's management relies on the public's automatic association between the barrenness of the desert and the opulence and magnificence of pyramids, muting the ecological damage that the Luxor's continued maintenance entails. But for the parched throats of post-civilization, PC America, any mirage that attempts to quench the thirst for a cultural center only succeeds in reinitializing that thirst and justifying heedless abandon. And at the outer edge of consumers' consciousness lies the titillating appeal of illicit grave robbing - exhuming icons from the mythical detritus of a culture that is easily recognized, mined, and profitably commodified. The myriad hieroglyphs that festoon the Luxor pyramid signify more than mere iterations of the Oriental (Egyptian) Other; instead, they reify the corporate desire to remain unreadable, inaccessible, anonymous, and infinitely resellable. No longer literal linguistic signifiers, the glyphs accrue non-linguistic signification. They remain deliberately obscure, metonymies of a new economic geography that dislocates the formerly public exhibition of state-sponsored, corporate capitalism. Instead of indulging in civic parades or basking in the glow of politicians' podium accolades, the corporate owners of the new Vegas prefer continuous campaigns of public relations to occasional public spectacles because an uncovering of such untrammeled excess would be unacceptable. In an age where ersatz "green" ideology has cachet with Republican spin doctors, tourists must not be permitted to encounter their own complicity in such excess. At the Luxor, vestiges of social conscience are obliterated by the playful innocence of its VR theme park rides and an endless flood of attractive commodities. Glyphs are even programmed into the ATM machines by the casino cages, signs that point to a corporatism that dare not allow its monetary gluttony to be deciphered.

More and more, however, theme hotels like the Luxor become self-contained, self-sufficient citadels, fortresses that lure clients into the hotel with easy access, but whose public activity is thereby "internalized," privatized, and policed [Davis 226]. Caesar's Palace was one of the first theme hotels to implement a control of this type. Their sidewalk mover into the hotel permits tourists walking along the Strip to gain entrance with ease. But the sidewalk moves only in one direction, forcing patrons leaving Caesar's Palace to make the long march out to Las Vegas Blvd. Other theme park hotels like Treasure Island, the Mirage, and MGM Grand use different control mechanisms. The Mirage, for example, uses its enormous lobby aquarium to calm impatient guests in its long check-in, check-out lines. Meticulously constructed and stocked with sharks, eels, and painted coral, the aquarium cost over two hundred thouand dollars and requires a full-time keeper to maintain its pacific effects.

Nevertheless, for several reasons, the Luxor has the most subtle controls, controls that have permitted management to be the stewards of a new Panopticon. Like the 18th-century prison or insane asylum, the Luxor's design permits management to maintain its surveillance and socialization of crowds by "burying" them in the pyramid's interiors, a labyrinth of staircases, escalators, "inclinators" (elevators), and ramps intersecting the lobby, casino, and the various exhibits throughout the main atrium. Not unlike the recesses of Old Kingdom pyramids, the Luxor's floor plan deliberately disorients one's sense of direction - the points of the compass are skewed. Finding an exit can be harrowing. Even going up and down is discomfiting because the inclinators travel up the sides of the pyramid, forcing riders to lean uncomfortably (if imperceptibly) forward for balance. Negotiating other parts of the hotel is equally precarious, hampered by muted color schemes and dim lighting. The semi-darkness contributes to the Luxor's imagined archaeology, reinforcing a mythos from which management can erase its own visibility and carefully monitor exiting and entering visitors. In effect, the hotel's design decenters conventional signs and directions in order to refix and restabilize the tourist's identity, shifting it onto commodities. The tourists who sip their rum drinks from enormous, blue pyramid glasses, gawk at Jody and Elias, the animatronic talking camels, or fete themselves at the Luxor's dinner theater (The Winds of the Gods), remain blithely unaware of being ensconced in a policed fortress: they can check in, but they can never leave.

Event Scene II: A Tale of Two White Archaeologists

Across from Sobek's Sundries, the accidental tourist seeking the bathroom is greeted by a most unusual mural. It is the only iconographic representation in the Luxor hotel, in which two white people are depicted, archaeologists wielding the tools of their trade - a pick axe and shovel. The woman's tight skirt and flowing blonde hair and the man's Indiana Jones hat and vest suggest the adventuresome archaeology of the twenties and thirties, a time when the discovery of lost cities and ancient artifacts was not regulated by unruly, meddlesome Third-World governments. Four pyramids dot the horizon, monuments to the archaeologists' extensive efforts as much as to the toil of generations of Egyptian slaves who actually built them. Thus, the pyramids represent the colonization project as much as they do cultural authenticity, for the presence of the white archaeologists obliquely alludes to the Luxor's own rise from the Nevadan desert, a tribute to American capitalist, colonialist ingenuity that appropriates Orientalist culture as profitably as they once stole actual relics. The Egyptian slaves, thousands of years dead yet responsible for the pyramids at Gizeh, eerily resemble the thousands of workers - a huge percentage of them "Oriental" - who outfit the blackjack tables, clear the hotel suites, cook the meals, mix the drinks, mop the floors, make and cancel the reservations, sell the tickets to the VR rides, stock the buffet, and run the arcades and gift shops; in fact, the better the service, the more invisible these workers become - faceless drones whose ceaseless work feeds the Luxor's money machine. Reimagined as commodity, the new archaeology becomes the center of its own consumption, and its artifacts become a series of representational displacements that consistently refer back to the corporate "archaeologists" that exploit them. Not coincidentally, the mural is out of proportion: the archaeologists' size far outstrips the pyramids that lie in the background.

Utopia Luxor

Aspiring to surpass a mere "theme park" designation, the Luxor's management propagates the notion that the Luxor hotel has been erected over a legitimate archaeological dig. In front of the first VR ride, a billboard has been posted that claims a business connection with MacPherson Development Enterprises, the imagined corporation that has developed an under-the-casino archaeological excavation, one that is said to host an ancient pre-Egyptian civilization. The Luxor's pseudo-subterranean ruins, lying 8,527 feet below the surface of the hotel's foundations, appear to have concealed a simulacrum of an archaeological prize - a sacred obelisk that (according to the storyline of the three VR rides) controls the flows of space and time. Not surprisingly, the simulated obelisk is appropriately commodified, having been duly incorporated into the Luxor hotel's logo. In front of the hotel and in direct alignment with the Sphinx, there is also a replica of the obelisk, that is, a simulacrum of a simulacrum. In the VR "adventure" "In Search of the Obelisk," the obelisk holds the key to the technological mysteries of the ancient pre-Egyptians - a key desired by both the evil Dr. Osiris and Mac Macpherson, the fictitious, white male land developer of the Luxor properties and capitalist cyberfrontiersman. Osiris, who runs the Society for Global Transformation and Enlightenment, steals the sacred obelisk in order to manipulate time and build a militarized and policed empire. Mac, protecting his investments in the Luxor Company, while fighting Osiris, travels to the future in a pre-Egyptian time machine and eventually wrests the obelisk away from the evil, Orientalized other. Because he restores the timeline in which he (and presumably the audience) would wish to live, Mac is given a beneficent glimpse of the future. At the center of the futuristic utopia of bliss is the Luxor Pyramid, a blue, glowing monument built by Mac's descendants as a testament to the wholly benign corporate empires of the future. Far from eliminating empire and colonial domination, the Luxor's corporate interests have used VR entertainment to justify their own imperialist bids for commodity empires.

In effect, the tourist is interpellated into a choice between two versions of empire, one governed by a tyrant, the other governed by a benevolent and faceless, if glistening and monumental, corporatocracy. Through the virtual Luxor Company, the Luxor's real corporate heads promise to restore the glory of a lost techno-civilization. Its virtual utopia represents a cultural implosion, completely self-referential, the utopian center of its own consumption. Hence, the Luxor signifies a new impulse, a new ground zero in the post-Copernican revolution. It is not a revolution in science, but in the social construction of meaning. The Luxor is a bellwether for a utopian promise, a dystopian effect; it is a sign for America's cultural implosion wrapped in its shroud, a black melanoma, consuming everything, even the desert floor.

Works Cited

Davis, Mike. City of Quartz. New York: Vintage Books 1992 (1990). Luxor By-Mail Catalog, 1994.

Weathersby, William and Karl G. Ruling. "Las Vegas/Luxart." TCI. May 1994. Internet Access.

A critic of 19th-century women's fiction and 20th-century popular culture, as well as a handicapper of thoroughbred race horses, Jeffrey Cass is an Associate Professor of English at Texas A&M International University.

A son of Holocaust survivors, Dion Dennis, before his reinvention as an academic, was everything from a Fuller Brush salesman to a garbageman. Now armed with an Interdisciplinary Ph.D, he teaches at Texas A & M International on the US-Mexico border.