At the same time, the structure of global culture in general has become so complex that Jameson himself begins the conclusion of his encyclopedic Postmodernism by posing his own conundrum: the feeling among many of his critics that “having ‘become’ a postmodernist I must have ceased to be a Marxist in any meaningful…sense.”20 All of which makes the polemic around Venturi and Scott Brown’s analysis appear a little naive in retrospect– which in this context is only to say that it has become a fundamentally historical issue.
Needless to say, however, Venturi and Scott Brown’s attempt to understand Las Vegas as a concatenation of particular communicative structures did not seem to everyone to be freighted with the kind of ideological baggage inherent in Jameson’s Marxist account. Rather, issue might be taken with the observational strategy by means of which the actuality of the city and its structures were to be recorded. Piggybacking on Ruscha’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip, Scott Brown referred to the strategy as “deadpanning,” the achievement of a supposedly objective representation of the city through what I might have described in 1972 as maintaining a “hiply ironic distance.”21 Yet the final representation of the city produced by Venturi, Scott Brown, and the members of the research studio was in fact hardly superficial in the irony of its construction of a carefully modulated distance from its subject. Dense yet pellucid, nuanced and subtle in its complexity, it was a documentary itself structured by a sophisticated “rhetoric of objectivity,” where frankly “creative interventions,” to quote Stierli’s critique in Las Vegas Studio, were employed to focus and articulate the analysis. “It goes without saying that this attitude represents a highly artificial artistic position.”22
Indeed, Stierli’s comments here are right on the money, at least as far as they go. Yet it might be possible to read the representational strategy in a rather different way: that the already feigned objectivity of Ruscha’s Every Building On the Sunset Strip was appropriated by the seminar and redeployed as if it were a genuine anthropological, sociological, or city planning strategy, where, as along the Vegas Strip, the subject matter under examination has no claimed inherent interest. It’s as if to say, almost certainly with tongue in cheek, “We’re only attracted to Las Vegas as a set of functional and iconological relations in kinesthetic space.”23 This attitude generates a tension–the possibility for crafting or, apparently, eschewing, “artistic interventions” in the act of framing the visual field to be recorded, something of which we can be sure the studio participants were well aware.
Thus, some of the photos in the exhibition appear flat, without affect, slightly overexposed in the brilliant desert sunshine; others are beautifully framed as formal exercises in their own right: naive tourist snapshots on the one hand, artful architecture school photos on the other. One can see the same radical dichotomy in the films: compare Las Vegas Deadpan with the much more artificial and “avant-garde” Las Vegas Electric. And I have seen exactly the same phenomenon in my own Las Vegas photo work as an automotive “flaneur” on the I-15.
Although Venturi himself claimed the strategy of “deadpanning” as a “poetic [device] of long standing,”24 he must also have been aware that the strategy was imbued almost by definition with a kind of iconoclastic humor. We see this, for example in the “comparative analysis of ‘billboards’ in space,” where artifacts as disparate as Amiens Cathedral, a Roman triumphal arch, an Egyptian pylon, a highway billboard (the ever-present Tanya), and the Stardust Casino are analyzed with respect to “scale,” “speed” [pedestrian as opposed to automotive], and the relative weight of symbolic form vs. symbolic signage.25
So what exactly can we still learn from Learning from Las Vegas? That “Billboards are almost all right.”26 Or, more seriously, that “There is a perversity in the learning process: We look backward at history and tradition to go forward; we can look downward to go upward. And withholding judgment [in the last analysis, this is what constitutes ‘deadpanning’ for Venturi and Scott Brown] may be used as a tool to make later judgments more sensitive. There is a way of learning from everything.”27