08 June 2010

Reading list: THE TOURIST

Just finished reading The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class by Dean MacCannell (1976). It's an academic book with a light touch and a lot of surprisingly playful prose mixed in with the theoretical bits and the name-checking of Emile Durkheim and Claude Levi-Strauss.  If you're interested in the sociology of travel, even just on a general rather than theoretical level, I really can't recommend this book enough.

MacCannell has a knack for expounding on some of the complicated issues around tourism with a concision and balance that I envy. Take the matter of whether or not tourism is implicitly good for the preservation of culture. I've been thinking about rather a lot--it's clearly an important issue, one that is central to the ethics of and reasons for travel. I can tell you that keeping an entire town under glass, artificially stuck in time for the amusement of visitors, is bad; I can tell you that maintaining longstanding cultural traditions is, in general, good. But I've never been able to articulate where I think it's appropriate to draw the line between what is "good" preservation of culture and what is "bad." MacCannell, though, nails it:
The common goal of both ethnography and tourism is to determine the point at which forced traditionalism ceases to base itself on the truths of day-to-day existence and begins to crystallize as a survival strategy, a cultural service stop for modern man [by which MacCannell means the observer--the tourist].
Right. When it's about being entertainment for outsiders, about conforming to their expectations of how you should live rather than living the life that you would have without their interference, that's where it becomes objectionable.

I was also pleased that MacCannell is very much of the "let's face it, we are all tourists" view--in fact, he uses those exact words, quoting a student of his, "a young man from Iran dedicated to the revolution," who then emphasized his point "dramatically in a hiss: 'Even I am a tourist.' " MacCannell tweaks those who fall into the cheap and false dichotomy of "tourist" vs. "traveler" and points out the futility of the quest of the traveler--and the "modern man" in general--for authenticity. These comments ring particularly true today, thirty-four years after he wrote them, and seem all the more insightful, even prescient, given that they were written before the full-fledged influx of theme parks, interactive museum displays, and infotainment, and other ways that reality and amusement increasingly blur together in what MacCannell terms "staged authenticity."

One of his best lines on the subject--which, again, seems prescient and twenty-first-century in its postmodern view and snarky tone--comes on page 155:
For $200,000, one can buy an "authentic" French country home on Philadelphia's Main Line. The modern world institutionalizes spuriousness in the values and material culture of entire wide areas of society. Puritans, liberals, and snobs call it "tacky" when anyone can afford it and "pretentious" when it is dear. Pretension and tackiness generate the idea that somewhere, only not right here, not right now, perhaps just over there someplace, in another country, in another life-style, in another social class perhaps, there is a genuine society. The United States makes the rest of the world seem authentic; California makes the rest of the US seem authentic. 
To be clear, MacCannell is at pains to note--as I try to do as well--that the "inauthenticity" of much of the tourist experience is manifestly problematic. It can, and all to often does, distort our understanding of the culture, and detrimentally affect the culture itself. But there's no one pure way of travel that avoids this--we are, indeed, all tourist, all guilty of our own sins and our own self-delusions about the cultures we visit, as well as our leaving our own imprint, for better or for worse, on the places we visit.

[CONTINUED after the jump]

It's jarring, then, when MacCannell's tone turns peevish and at times polemical in the epilogue, which he added for the 1998 edition. In the twenty-two years since his book was released, he says, the biggest change in travel has been the influx of corporations everywhere--he singles out Gap, Planet Hollywood, McDonald's, and Imax theaters and notes the chains that have popped up all along the Champs Elysees. Yes, agreed, they're everywhere. And, yes, I wholeheartedly concur with his immense frustration at this development: it's clearly detrimental to a sense of place and cohesive, traditional culture.

But it's also part of the reality that he's just spent an entire book documenting: cultures and cultural markers are always evolving, and (therefore) tourist expectations are essentially impossible to fulfill. If you're going to decry those who would put an entire society under glass, you have to be willing to concede that, whether you personally approve or not, the people in that society may, in fact, want a McDonald's. To keep the Champs Elysees free of non-French chains is to keep it artificially preserved. A somewhat related point: In the 1976 text, MacCannell points out that some tourist infrastructure benefits the locals, and that he knows of New Yorkers who used a book called (wait for it ...) New York on Five Dollars a Day (by you-know-who) to get around their own city. Well, when I was in Venice, I went to the McDonald's not because I wanted to patronize them (I didn't spend a penny) but because they offer that rarest thing in all of Italy, the free public bathroom; I also talked to locals using the free WiFi.

It also strikes me as entirely incorrect to say that the commodification of travel didn't really get going until after 1976. There might be more global chains all over the place--McDonald's, H&M, Virgin--but I'd argue that the very framework of the travel experience is actually less connected to specific companies than it once was, thanks to the rise of internet planning tools and guidebooks. I'd wager a large amount of money that the average American traveler in 2010 or even 1998 is/was less likely than his or her 1976 or 1957 counterpart to see Europe via a package tour through Pan-Am or Thomas Cook or any other single company. (Though I suppose the broader concern about the rise of corporations is also an indication of a major generational difference between me and MacCannell: I, a child of the 1980s and '90s, have grown up in a McDonaldized world, so it is perhaps less noticeable and less alarming to me.)

Furthermore, and perhaps most of all, the borderline-dyspeptic MacCannell of 1998 seems oddly blind or perhaps immune to the intrigue and even charms of some of the outside influences, namely immigrant groups. With the modern age comes not just fast food hamburgers but falafel, enchiladas, curry, and music and religion and art and people--a mixed-up tapestry that I, for one, find both disorienting and, more often than not, delightful. I'm all in favor of authenticity, but in an evolving world, "authentic" should not be a synonym for "static," and a desire for authenticity should not be an excuse for xenophobia or a myopic worldview that sees change as inherently harmful.

MacCannell attempts to get at this same point, I think, in the final page of his epilogue. He seems cautiously optimistic at first glance, but pay attention to his wording:
Anyone who tries to budge the grid of human experience slightly off its current numbingly predictable coordinates revitalizes "the touristic." Anyone can discover the grounds for new desires in the abundant stuff that is overlooked by sightseers who follow commercialized routes. 
I'm totally on board with the sentiment that one can still find intrigue, joy, and even authenticity within the well-trodden realm that we call the beaten path. That is, in fact, pretty much the point of my own book. But it seems to me that MacCannell, once the clever mocker and rebutter of the knee-jerk tourist-dissers is resorting to the same eye-rolling and name-calling, just with a different choice of pejoratives, substituting "sightseers" for "tourists" and both "numblingly predictable coordinates" and "commercialized routes" for "beaten path."

In doing so, he seems, once again, entirely modern--only this time, exasperatingly so.

Has anyone else read The Tourist? Or any other books that have examined what it means to be a tourist and how tourism represents or affects the modern world? 

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