Notes on MacCannell, D. (1989) The Tourist: a new theory of the leisure class, New York: Schocken Books, revised edition, with a new introduction by the author.
This is a very complicated book, with an argument that far transcends the usual interpretation of it, which is that MacCannell is pleading for some version of 'authentic tourism'. As he points out himself, this is an old theme in cultural commentary which reproduces a class dimension in leisure, in this case by distinguishing authentic proper travel from nasty degraded commercialised tourism. MacCannell's analysis is far more subtle, devoted to exploring the dimensions of authenticity in tourism and in everyday life. It's also possible to see a despair about whether authenticity can ever be achieved, and certainly a scepticism about the kind of authenticity offered in 'authentic tourism'. It is in this sense that the famous phrase that tourism is a 'search for authenticity' needs to be understood. It is not simply that people go on holiday to foreign locations hoping to encounter people who still lead real lives, somehow closer to nature or to the real being of mankind. MacCannell knows very well that it is practically impossible to organise such encounters, partly because the tourist industry has been there first, and partly because insuperable barriers to participation remain in tourism, not the least of which is an inability to understand foreign languages. Instead, the search for authenticity should best be understood, in my view, as a rather desperate search for meaning in life, a way of managing the diversity and novelty, the cultural instability that modern life presents. It is 'a kind of unrealised mourning in which all of life has become reorganised around something that "died"' (xi) .'Only "middle-Americans" (if such people actually exist) and primitives -- peoples whose lives are "every day" in the pejorative, grinding sense of the term -- may feel fully a part of their own world. 'Modern man has been condemned to look elsewhere, everywhere, for his authenticity, to see if he can catch a glimpse of it reflected in the simplicity, poverty, chastity or purity of others' (41).
The theoretical resources used to ground the analysis are rather eclectic. There is structuralist analysis, or semiotics, based on Levi-Strauss and Barthes (especially Mythologies), but also Peirce. This form of analysis leads him to a framework to begin to investigate the tourist attraction 'as an empirical relationship between a tourist, a sight and a marker (a piece of information about a sight' ) (41). This framework helps him explore the crucial role of such markers which include guidebooks, and helps him stave off another naive view of authenticity --'Note also that no naturalistic definition of the sight is possible' (41), in other words nobody just goes to a sight and experiences it directly, immediately, without a number of meanings and a structure to organise them, alreeady provided by markers. This relationship is seen as a universal structure in tourism, a very common logically inclusive relationship that can manage any aspect of the tourist experience. This relationship is very rarely deconstructed by the tourist. For most 'the tourist world is complete in its way, but it is constructed after the fashion of all worlds that are filled with people who are just passing through and know it' (51). The tourist experience can thus structure a whole world, including aspects thought usually hidden, as in the 'Paris sewer tour' (55). Thus, 'Although the tourist need not be consciously aware of this, the thing he goes to see is society and its works' (55) [rather like Durkheim on religion here], although this is disguised as 'leisure... and fun'. In this way, 'society is renewed in the heart of the individual through warm, open, unquestioned relations, characterised by a near absence of alienation when compared with other contemporary relationships' (55). Even work becomes part of the tourist experience, and it has been common to offer tourists backstage tours of such organisations as a printing office, a mint, a stock exchange, or a slaughter house (all on offer to the C19th Paris tourist). Such tours offer 'experience', but not understanding, and this is an increasingly widespread element of popular consciousness: it is also what prevents serious alienation, which requires an understanding and a set of deeper meanings.
Ethnographic analysis is also deployed, with a particular mention of American interactionism, especially Goffman, and even what MacCannell calls, rather idiosyncratically, 'ethnomethodology', which turns on attempts to explore the ways in which tourists themselves makes sense of their experiences. The analysis begins with a return to noting that commonly 'the term "tourist" is increasingly used as a derisive label for someone who seems content with his obviously inauthentic experiences' (94). This leads to the work of Goffman on 'false fronts'. Although this is admired, and the particular distinction between front and backstage activities is deployed to get to grips with the way in which the tourist industry manages the search for authenticity, MacCannell wants to modify Goffman quite considerably -- to argue for several stages between front- and backstage, for example, which include stages where 'the front region... is totally organised to look like a back region... [or]... a back region that is open to outsiders... [or even] a back region that may be cleaned up or altered because tourists are permitted an occasional glimpse in' (pages 101 - 2). Once again, the structure of the tourist experience deeply limits the ability of the participant to gain any insight. Nevertheless, MacCannell wants to insist that tourists are not cultural dopes easily satisfied by superficial sights, but 'demand authenticity' (104). As a result, it is no good blaming tourists if they fail to find it, especially where this blaming stems from the long bourgeois disdain for popular pursuits: '... once tourists have entered touristic space, there is no way out for them so long as they press their search for authenticity' (106).
When discussing 'ethnomethodology', MacCannell considers a more active role for tourists, and offers insights 'on the authentication of experience or the accomplishment of touristic certainty... [but notes]... The ideas we have about the things we see are already organised before we see them in terms of the sight - marker relationship' (136). In detail, MacCannell notices that tourists makes sense of what they see by deploying the classic binaries of Piercian semiotics --'Truth emerges from a system of binary oppositions to information that is designated as non-truth' (139), and this is a structure found in the collective considerations of tourists, and in guide books as well. It is a tourist truth, though, not necessarily the actual historical truth.[ This connects rather well with discussions of authenticity in media studies which usually refer to how the piece looks to the viewers rather than its historical accuracy].
As his introduction points out, many of the results of his analysis have been popularised and extended under the guise of 'postmodernism', but MacCannell prefers the terms modernization and modernity, partly for the familiar reason that postmodernist analysis tends to neglect the shaping effects of capitalism on culture. But at the same time, he offers certain criticisms of marxist analysis, especially of the notions of 'alienation' as being far too grounded in underlying economic mechanisms -- cultural practices, especially tourism, display best the cultural mechanisms and the dialectical processes, including resistance and the continued search for real meaning, that marxist analysis overlooks. In particular, marxist critique itself has been 'absorbed into the dialectics of authenticity' (146), in that the relentless criticisms of capitalism themselves presuppose 'an as yet unattainable authentic ideal' which itself stems from the processes of modernization (147). Even the profit motive does not explain all the details of the tourist business [I don't think commodification is as simple as this], since some of the essential experiences, the sights themselves, are not charged for. Indeed, any attempt to charge for an attraction means a loss of credibility for that attraction, since it becomes mundane, obvioulsy partial and tainted, not representative of the whole of society.
MacCannell wants to compare several ways of understanding the experiences of modernization. The various social science methods he selects are all seen as useful but inadequate on their own, as we have seen. Tourism offers a practical way of encountering cultural diversity and managing it, and is thus also a 'method' in this general sense. However it is clear that there are various ways of managing cultural diversity, including devices to preserve 'the fragile solidarity of modernity... When tradition, nature and other societies, are ... transformed into tourist attractions, they join with the modern social attractions in a new unity, or a new universal solidarity, that includes the tourist... the solidarity of modernity,... elevates modernity over the past and nature. There's nothing wilful in this; it is automatic; it is a structure sui generis' (83) [ another reference to Durkheinm who argued that society has a reality sui generis -- in and of itself]. Part of the trick is to emphasise the continuities between the past and the present, so that tourists themselves can 'construct a world which is complete and total in and of itself' (176). For their part, ' traditional folks' also like to 'dramatise their backwardness as a way of fitting themselves in the total design of modern society as attractions' (178): the tourist industry helps here by producing 'highly fictionalised versions of everyday life of traditional peoples, a museumization of their quaintness' (178) .
Tourists can try to engineer a genuine encounter with others, establishing a 'utopia of difference', if they are prepared to analyse the tourist attractions that they encounter, especially being willing to see them as 'authentic otherness... as having an intelligence that is not our intelligence' (xv). However, it is equally or more likely that this whole question of otherness will be deferred or managed, enabling the tourist to 'emerge as a miniature clone of the old Western philosophical Subject, thinking itself unified, central, it control, universal... mastering otherness and profiting from it' (xv). Tourism has penetrated everyday life itself, offering the same combination of alienation and authenticity. 'This structure is, I think, the source of the social fiction that the individual's personal experience is the centre of this, our most depersonalised historical epoch' (160).
MacCannell clearly wants to celebrate the complexity of tourist activities, and the relatively unfinished nature of tourism as a practice aimed at regulating authenticity and inauthenticity, despite the examples of clever forms of regulation that he lists. He claims to display the complexity using an empirical method of the visiting tourist sites and trying to understand tourists and how they find meaning in them, but this effort is clearly informed by some fancy theory. The legacy of structuralist semiotics leads him to look in particular at the contrasts and differences which tourists have to manage in order to make sense of their lives -- another kind of search for authenticity perhaps. This includes making sense of their home lives too of course, as we have seen. The processes of modernization make this increasingly difficult, as they drive forward an increasing differentiation in modern life. This differentiation is primarily encountered and managed by tourism, but it is also found in home neighbourhoods, most obviously as people from different societies move in, and as a bewildering collection of artefacts from other societies become part of everyday life. However, modernization produces a drive towards internal differentiation (much as Baudrillard was to argue). The role of the mass media is mentioned here too but not that well-developed. There is also a hint of the commercial culture industry which not only searches for increasing novelty, but also offers a way of integrating novelty back into some sort of structure -- MacCannell refers to this as 'spurious structure' and illustrates some of the possibilities by referring to sites such as Walt Disney World. MacCannell even anticipates one of Baudrillard's famous insights that the obvious fakeness of spurious sites help other places preserve their status as 'real'.
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