The New Age of Tourism:  Postmodern Tourism for Postmodern People?

 Paul Sutton and Joanna House

 Discussion welcome –

No matter how troubling it may be, the landscape of the postmodern surrounds us. It simultaneously delimits and opens our horizons.’

(Huyssen 1990 :375).


Since its inception, the history of the tourism industry has been one of exponential growth and increasing diversity. The number of activities and experiences that can legitimately be categorised as tourism has increased significantly. It seems that nearly every dimension of human culture now has the potential to become a form of tourism. Thus, cultural pluralism, a major characteristic of  the postmodern landscape, is no where better illustrated than by the expanding horizons of  the tourism industry.[1] 

The principal aim of this paper is to use  the idea of  the postmodern in order to understand and explain the phenomenon we describe as New Age tourism. 

New Age tourism has its roots in the counter cultural movements of the 1960’s (Rigby 1974) and the New Age Movement (Heelas 1996) of the 1980’s.  The most salient characteristics of  this form of tourism are a preoccupation with the self, in which self development becomes a leisure  activity, (people become tourists in their own identity), and an ecological sensibility. It is our contention that New Age tourism, although relatively marginal and  undeveloped, is a significant form of tourism which reflects the influence of  postmodern culture. Before elaborating this idea, a brief description of the New Age centres researched will be offered. This will be followed by a definition of the New Age, and the Postmodern, in order to dispel some of the confusion surrounding these troubling terms, and by a justification of why New Age activities and experiences can be legitimately categorised as  tourism. The final section of the paper will focus upon some important characteristics of the postmodern landscape which may be used to understand the type of tourism offered by New Age centres

It is, however, beyond the remit of this paper to discuss at length the complexity of the debates concerning the idea of the postmodern.[2] Rather, we offer an analysis of selected regions of the postmodern landscape in order to provide an understanding of our case study material.

Research Centres

The data for this paper are derived from observational field work undertaken at three independent tourism centres, situated in similar geographic area in the South-West of England, whose raison d’etre and type of product are in keeping with the term New Age (House 1997). 

Ecologic College provides the bulk of  the empirical material for this paper: the other two destinations being used mainly to corroborate and elaborate important themes and issues.  Ecologic College,  a community of international renown, was established in 1989 and has a staff of approximately five salaried workers who are aided by a body of approximately six resident volunteer workers.  Its stated aim is that of cultivating and fostering spiritual and ecological awareness through re-establishing the importance of relationships and ‘community’ within modern society.  An aspect of a larger experimental and philanthropic rural regeneration project established in the 1920's, its heritage is one of agrarian and environmental innovation and experimentation (House 1997). 

The two supplementary centres offer a similar approach. Recton Farm, was established in the early 1970's and is a communally organised tenanted farm whose ten occupants advocate self-sufficiency and environmental sustainability.  Hence, this center offers a number of specialist short courses on sustainable farming, organic gardening and permaculture.  The third centre, Alston Manor, is probably the most overtly commercial of the three operations. Established by a syndicate of six like minded individuals whose ambition was to create a ‘more spiritually satisfying and meaningful space’ an autonomous community whereby the principles of alternative living could be realised, it consists of a large manor house and grounds.   In this centre, as with Ecologic college, the need to offer a commercial product was integral part of its philosophy and thus since its creation, it has played host to a variety of leisure and study experiences in the areas of personal development and holistic lifestyle. 

This said, financial gain is important, for some New  Age tourist destinations this seems not to be particularly significant; education and the transmission of an alternative ideology being the primary concern. The former is viewed as a way of facilitating an alternative lifestyle and culture.  While vital for survival, the financial imperative is contained by the cultural imperative of  encouraging holistic self-realisation and environmental awareness.  At such destinations, tourism is more a means than an end in itself (House 1997), thus the essence of this type of tourism is in the exploration of an alternative culture as a leisure activity. 

The New Age

As Sharma (1992:222) observes, the rather imprecise term New Age describes:

‘... a rather broad group of contemporary movements, therapies and quasi-religious groups which have in common a concern with personal self-realisation, liberation or fulfilment.’ This rather heterogeneous group of movements, therefore, are linked by their concern with the self, whether this be in an ascetic or hedonistic fashion or indeed a mixture of both. Some of these movements explicitly draw upon the spiritual traditions of  the East or other non-European cultures and most renounce Cartesian mind-body dualism which underpins the Enlightenment notion of  the person (Sharma 1992: 222).[3]

Also described as the ‘human potential movement’ (Parsons 1993, Heelas 1982, Anthony et. al. 1983), the New Age movement,   tends to be discussed within the rather narrow rubric of  new religious movements.  The New Age movement is alleged to be suffused with egoism and narcissism (Wilson 1976, Lasch 1978, Anthony et. al. 1983, Wallis 1984), and, in its ostensible quest for self-development, it has been accused of an over emphasis on the subjective (Heelas 1982) and emotive (MacIntyre 1981) aspects of existence, therefore offering a ‘psychological alternative’ to religion (Parsons 1993:288).  It has also been categorised as ‘world affirming’ (Wallis 1984) and thus resting easily with the individualistic values that underpin capitalism. Similarly described as an ‘offshoot of the encounter group movement’ (Wuthnow 1986, Back 1972) and therefore associated with the ideology of counter cultural movements, it is also described as ‘focused upon an alternative lifestyle’ which emphasises ‘community, ecological sensitivity and holistic elements’ (Parsons 1993:284). 

At first sight there appears to be little common ground between the above positions. As one participant commented, the New Age is “just one of these terms that’s come to mean so many different things.  It’s just become almost a cliché hasn’t it like political correctness” (Avril ref?). Another commented that “There’s New Age products.  Ways of dressing can be classed as New Age ...  but I think it basically started off as people looking for a better way of life and I think New Age probably came from people talking about the golden age that’s supposed to have gone and it’s a sort of resurgence of it” (Pete ref?). The common denominator can be found in the way that New Age people attempt to find new ways of living. That is, their goal is self-realisation, liberation and fulfilment and their means to achieve that end is a socially responsible, ecological approach  which facilitates the realisation of both the individual and the wider community's potential; the desire to transform self and society.

New Age tourism is intimately connected with the desire for new, exotic and transformational experiences, and it is unsurprising that the human development activities offered by New Age centres might lend themselves as tourism products. At these centres a variety of courses, activities and experiences are on offer  ranging from; traditional ‘hands on’ or skills based workshops (hedge laying and wood turning); aesthetic development, (art, drama and music); formal scholarly learning, (including courses hosted by visiting New age spiritual and intellectual ‘gurus’); experiential and personalised self-development, (courses on meditation, personal relationships and self knowledge); and finally, courses on alternative approaches to health and welfare (including homeopathy, acupuncture, hypnotherapy and Shiatsu massage).  At the centres visited, commonly a blend of the above was offered to guests at any one time.

Thus, an often quite astoundingly diverse range of activities to be found at New Age tourism destinations. The tourist can opt for the complete personal overhaul or ‘maintenance service’, can learn a new skill, re-define their spirituality, locate and re-define their identity, improve their physical and mental health and receive a hearty dose of ‘real’ country living! 

A New Age of Tourism?

Can such practices and experiences be legitimately categorised as a form of tourism?  Although the type of  tourism is, at best peripheral, in comparison to ‘mass’ tourism its marginality does not compromise its definition as tourism. As with more mass forms, New Age tourism involves travel to particular destinations, situating it beyond the realms of everyday experience (Smith 1989) and advance planning by the tourist (Graburn 1989). It alsoinvolves activities which take place in a leisure setting and during leisure time, necessitating a ‘voluntary self-indulgent choice on the part of the practitioner’ (Graburn 1989:4).  Furthermore, this form of tourism consists of a commercial transaction, the consumer not only purchasing a tangible product, but also the possibility of a novel, exotic (Cohen 1974), life transforming and even sacred experience (MacCannell 1976, Graburn 1989, Nash and Smith 1991). 

New Age tourism, then, can be loosely situated within the realms of alternative tourism.  Alternative tourism is characterised bya rejection of the traditional approach of Fordist ‘mass’ tourism, in favour of a more innovative, specialised, greener Post-Fordist approach which has been shaped by the values and practices of the counter cultural movements of the 1960's. New Age tourists ideological commitments vary considerably (House 1997) and this form of tourism offers activities and experiences which reflect this broad ideological spectrum (Weiler and Hall, 1992:5). New Age tourism usually embraces some form of environmentalism (Frommer, 1988), community values (Murphy 1992) and constructive ‘host and guest’ (Smith, 1989) interactions (Eadington and Smith, 1992), takes the notion of social responsibility seriously (Krippendorf, 1987). Although it does not compete directly in the corporate, global market place, but rather occupies a niche market. Thus New Age tourism is, in part, a re-inflection of the ideologies encapsulated in antecedant counter-cultural movements, but also an interesting and important manifestation of a growing preoccupation with the self (identity tourism) and the environment (sustainable tourism) which are important currents within the postmodern cultural ‘sea change’ (Harvey 1989). 

The Postmodern

The postmodern may be defined as a “a slowly emerging cultural transformation in Western societies, a change in sensibility” (Huyssens 1990:335). Postmodernism is a general orientation to the world, a way of apprehending or experiencing the world which challenges Enlightenment notions of reason, truth, and through ‘an incredulity toward all meta-narratives and totalising thought’ (Lyotard 1984). This incredulity takes the form of eclecticism, fragmentation, pastiche, cultural pluralism and playfulness.

The postmodern sensibility problematises Enlightenment conceptions of reality: the distinction between reality and representation disappears. Indeed postmodernism is characterised by the blurring of  boundaries between true and false, fact and fiction.

Correlatively, postmodern people do not have a coherent sense of self and other but posssess a fragmented identity and celebrate cultural pluralism. No longer is there an Enlightenment belief in progress, uncertainty and environmental risk erupt into the postmodern landscape. Indeed in the postmodern the distinction between the past, the present and the future implode, and time and space have been compressed. Finally, the postmodern condition is that of the consumer. Consumption and instant gratification are the liet motif of the postmodern. 

An increasing preoccupation with consumption could be said to make tourism the archetypal postmodern activity, as by its very nature it relies on the consumption of artefacts, natural and built environments, and cultures.[4]  If everything and anything is becoming commodified and consumed, then it is logical to assume that the boundaries of tourism will also expand and diversify.  Similarly, if the postmodern landscape is characterised by uncertainty about the present and the future, this may indicate why tourism is well placed to satisfy a nostalgic desire for a past golden age of certitude through heritage sites and New Age centres. Through colourful invention and pastiche tourism too trades on how the real  has disappeared into images: reality is no longer important, it is the idea of the reality and its representation that matters.

We will now apply the idea of the postmodern to New Age tourism through an analysis of four regions of the postmodern landscape: hyperreality, egocentricity, ephemerality and incredulity. We will suggest that a New Age of tourism is dawning but that the people who practice this form of tourism though similar to postmodern people, possess important differences.

Regions of the Postmodern Landscape


In the landscape of the postmodern  the surface and quantity of experiences seems to have surpassed depth and quality.  Thus, there is no need to visit the “real” India for an exotic experience, a hyperreal Anglicised experience of Indian culture is just as good. In New Age tourism the emphasis is on the idea of the experience being experienced: reality has disappeared in images. Thus, tourists can be in communion with Hindu gurus without having to endure the painstaking and challenging physical journeys involved in the ‘real’ thing; the experience of an image or representation, what Baudrillard calls a ‘simulation’, is just as real, indeed it is ‘more real than real’, that is ‘hyperreal’ (Baudrillard in Kellner 1989:68).

What does Baudrillard mean by the terms simulation and hyperreality ? As Poster (1988:6) comments ‘simulation is different from a fiction or a lie in that it not only presents ... the imaginary as the real, it also undermines any contrast to the real, absorbing the real within itself’. Reality has been absorbed by images which refer to other images. We now experience the world as hyperreal, as a Disneyland[5] of media images.

Thus the New Age tourist playfully enters the postmodern, hyperreal Indian landscape, a Disneyland of simulacra, in which it no longer matters if a real Indian guru is encountered. It is the image of the activity or  the idea of themselves as engaged with the “divine within” (Parsons 1993:284)  that is important. 

This may, in part explain why a significant number of  projects at New Age centres, initiated by both staff and visitors, are enthusiastically begun but never finished.  For example, at Ecologic College a course entitled 'The Voice of the Land', aimed to examine human relationships with the landscape, stimulated the idea of building a pond.  The pond was impulsively and enthusiastically dug by participants and volunteer helpers during the duration of the course, the idea being to use the technique of ‘puddling’, a traditional method of using clay and cow’s excrement, to make it water tight.  Several months later however, the project had been abandoned. It transpired that the enthusiasts had been unable to make this technique successful and had lost interest.

The pond was a simulacrum, an idea or image and it was this idea or image that was important to their ‘ecological sensibility’ (Huyssen 1990:374 ) not whether it was successfully realised. It appears that people dip in and out of projects like surfing channels on television, it not mattering if the whole programme, is not watched. [6]

Furthermore, these two examples suggest that postmodern tourism represents both ‘a clear enunciation of the fetishism of the ordinary’, the disappearance of everyday reality within ‘an overstated version of the Real’ and  ‘a Technicolor version of what is’ (MacCannell 1992:188).  This ‘Technicolor version of what is’ is also reflected, according to MacCannell (1992:188), through a ‘postmodern valorization of surfaces’, destinations developing a consciousness of themselves ‘as a model’ learning to ‘profit from .. [their own] image’.  At all three centres there was a consciousness of what the centre signified, namely that of a model of an alternative and superior culture. The members of these communities strove to valorize this image both for themselves and for their guests in a number of  ways.  For example at Alston Manor, on several occasions one of the more members of the community would articulate an ‘overstated version of the Real’, insisting that all those present form a circle and, holding hands, repeat some celebratory statements about the uniqueness of the community and of its human potential and ecological orientated goals.  Thus the boundaries between what the centre is, what it would like to be, and of how it perceives itself, become blurred in the simulation of the centre as an alternative cultural model. For this is a model of a model with no original, a simulacrum of the technicolour hyperreal.

The blurring of the boundaries between boundary between host and guest seems to inhabit this strange relationship too.  At Ecologic College and Recton Farm, guests are required to complete chores and visiting speakers and teachers are expected to sit with their students at meal times, on the basis of eroding the boundaries between server and served, and expert and novice.  Although, there is likely to be a pragmatic dimension here, any ‘pitching in’ undoubtedly contributing to the overall financing of the project, it seems this is also geared to the destinations’ signifying to both participants and residents and the outside, that the culture of these centres is alternative and rejects the traditional division of labour. Similarly it seems every aspect of the tourists’ stay is in some way de-commodified: familiar experiences, (such as gardening and cleaning), are made attractive on the basis of their self-developmental potential and on the basis of their facilitating a new relationship with the environment.  It seems that through ‘the fetishism of the ordinary’ the  familiar is transformed into the exotic and the exotic into the familiar. The transposing of cosmopolitan foods, and exotic artefacts and  activities, (such as meditation and chanting), into the daily routine, for example, is commonplace. Thus the ordinary and the exotic, the profane and the sacred are eclectically mixed and matched.  Eclecticism is also demonstrated by the variety of activities that can be combined: Buddhist and Hindu meditation with Native American Shamanism and Neo-pagan ‘earth and birth’ blessings.


The postmodern is characterised by a ‘preoccupation with identity’ (Sarup 1996:97). As outlined above, New Age tourism destinations offer a variety of self development activities and experiences ranging from alternative therapies to self development workshops, and from intellectual courses offered by visiting scholars to art and craft production and alternative lifestyle courses all of which can and have become a tourism commodity. The global intensification of the commodification process has lead both to a cornucopia of media images of tourist opportunities and lifestyles possibilities and a proliferation of the means to realise these opportunities and possibilities. This process is double edged: it opens up many new horizons but also stimulates a profound sense of insecurity. Postmodern cultural pluralism threatens individuals’ sense of their own ‘ontological security’ (Giddens 1991) and has stimulated an egocentric preoccupation with identity. Individuals no longer find identities based upon nation, ethnicity, gender or class credible. Such incredulity has encouraged a narcissism in which the hyperreal becomes the frame of reference for all activities and experiences.

New Age tourism is very much focused around the self and the development of self awareness, it is as if it is endeavouring to locate authentic experiences for individuals to explore so that they become in effect tourists in their own identity.  While New Age tourists are busy attempting to become more ‘tuned in’ to themselves, this may bring them perilously close to self obsession. As MacCannell (1992:188) suggests ‘in precisely those regions that are most markedly postmodern, where overdevelopment of the surface is most advanced, we also hear almost constant chatter about “getting in touch” with one's own “true”, “inner feelings”, “centring,” and so on.’. 

Thus the more postmodern the culture, the more superficial and individualistic it becomes and the more a preoccupation with identity prevails. The self-development orientation of New Age tourism is, on the one hand, a manifestation of the superficiality of this preoccupation, but on the other, the endeavour to get beneath the surface to an underlying reality.


According to Harvey (1989) the postmodern preoccupation with the identity is, in part, a consequence of  the intensification of time-space compression. Since the 1970's the experience of time and space has been compressed as a result of the acceleration production, exchange, and consumption and communication. Not only has this lead to an intensification of  ephemerality in commodity consumption but also in the consumption of ideas, images and beliefs. In the landscape of the postmodern  an intensification of ephemerality has intensified the desire to search for  or manufacture ‘eternal truth’, ‘authenticity’, ‘historical roots’, ‘more secure moorings and longer lasting values’ (Harvey 1989:292).  The ephemerality of existence has resulted in a loss of a sense of place and an anxiety about identity.  We no longer know where we come from, where we are going and who we are, and the compression of time makes the quest to find out ever more pressing. Indeed, concomitant with an intensification of ephemerality in postmodern cultures is the intensification of ‘instantaneity’ (Harvey 1989:286); the New Age tourist desiring instant gratification of the self.  This type of tourism offers the possibility for individuals to attend  week end courses in self realisation ! At the centers visited it was possible to search for your ‘inner child’, to discover your inner Goddess or Shaman, or to make yourself into an organic ‘son or daughter of the soil’.

In the ‘maelstrom of ephemerality’ (Harvey 1989:292) the desire for instantaneous truth and authenticity has resulted in a playful nostalgia for the natural and the sacred. There is a sense of a pilfering from history and pre-modern culture in order to experience the idea of a lost golden age. The search for a sense of self and place is linked intrinsically to postmodern nostalgia, again the eclectic plundering of history in an attempt to quell postmodern insecurities.  The re-invention or re-presentation of pre-modern ‘folk’ religions (such as paganism), ‘natural’ healing methods (acupuncture, herbal medicine, reflexology) and in ecological principles which celebrate ‘organic’ agriculture and self-sufficiency  is a testament to this. At the three centres studied a postmodern eclectic nostalgia is reflected at every turn, in the mixture of modern ‘techno’ and natural fibres that are worn in the ethnic jewellery used for self adornment and in the panoply of different games, musical instruments strewn around the social areas. As MacCannell (1992:94) observes, ‘everywhere in the archetypal postmodern community there is an emphasis on 'folk art,' 'natural,' or 'natural seeming' materials, wood, fabrics and fibres’ . 


Lyotard (1984: page no) defines the postmodern sensibility as characterised by ‘an incredulity toward all meta-narratives and totalising thought’. New Agers and Postmodernists share an incredulity towards the meta-narrative of the Enlightenment. But, whereas Postmodernists are incredulous toward all meta-narratives, New Agers retain a credulity in the meta-narrative of nature.  Nature is the ‘domain of intrinsic value, truth and authenticity’ (Soper 1995:6). Nature does not offer ‘a transparent  reflection of some objective reality of fields and animals’, but rather reflects New Agers’ ‘inner preoccupations’  (Coward 1989: 15). The narrative of nature and how they  as individuals ‘fit into patterns of nature’ (Coward 1989: 17) are of central concern to New Age tourists as it provides them with a framework to think about life, the world and what it means to be a human being.

Nature, then occupies a different place in the preoccupations of  New Agers and Postmodernists. The  ‘ecological sensibility’  (Huyssen 1990:374) of  Postmodern people overlaps with but is not identical with the sensibility of New Age people. Both New Agers and Postmodernists resist modernity through a loss of faith incredulity in the Enlightenment meta-narrative of science, and particularly the scientific exploitation of nature. Both share an incredulity toward Newtonian (industrialised) science[7] as it has lead not to universal progress and happiness but to disenchantment and increased environmental risk. However, whereas the New Age sensibility  regards nature as the source of  truth and authenticity , the postmodernist sensibility regards ‘nature as entirely linguistically constructed’, as a representation and a concept (Soper 1995:6) . Thus, whereas the New Age tourist endeavours to valorise and conserve nature, and recognise human dependence upon it, the Postmodern tourist explores ‘the cultural construction of nature’ and of  ‘the relativity and ethnocentric quality of our conceptions of it’ (Soper 1995:7). Thus,  New Age tourists possess a realist ontology but a relativist epistemology and the Postmodern tourists an anti-realist ontology and a relativist ontology. They are similar in that both embrace and explore cultural pluralism and acknowledge that their are many valid ways of knowing nature. They are different in that unlike Postmodernists, New Agers see nature as possessing a reality independent of its representation and conception.

As a participant on Yogic meditation course commented:

“I think the earth is a sentient being and that’s a secret we’ve lost really and it seems an important one to rediscover to learn to live in a way where you are in balance and harmony rather than exploiting.  That’s a problem that the mind set we’ve got at the moment is western 20th century mind set, is one of exploitation, not one of balance”

(Joe Alston Manor 30.7.95)

 Indeed New Ager tourists seem enchanted by nature: the playing out of this enchantment with the natural may enable them to forget their insecurity, to believe in the possibility of finding their place in nature.  As mentioned, each of the research centres is situated in a rural area, operates what can be described as an organic, ecological and back-to-nature policy and is keen to impart an ideology based on this to its visitors, who overwhelmingly live an urban lifestyle in their everyday existence.


We have argued that an understanding of regions of  the postmodern landscape provides a fruitful context within which to view an emergent form of tourism. However, while the context of the activity of New Age tourism may be postmodern the sensibility of the people who participate in this form of tourism is not wholly postmodern. Like Postmodern people New Age people believe reality has disappeared into hyperreality, into images. Unlike postmodernists however they believe that they can find it again. Tourism is a search for that reality (Corrigan 1997:137). Whereas both Postmodern and New Age tourists can be said to share a preoccupation with identity, to be tourists in their own identity, the egocentricity of the former leads to solipsism and that of the latter to the desire for the recovery of an authentic experience of self and community in nature.  Both Postmodern and New Age tourists inhabit a maelstrom of ephemerality, seek instant gratification through a playful, nostalgic and eclectic plundering of the past and other cultures and.  Postmodern and display an incredulity toward the meta-narrative of the Enlightenment. Unlike Postmodernists, New Age incredulity stops short of the natural. New Ager tourists possess a very real concept of nature in which the natural is a domain in which eternal truth and personal authenticity reside.

Through an application of the categories of hypereality, egocentricity, ephemerality and incredulity to an emergent form of tourism we discovered that the New Age and  Postmodern sensibilities, whilst overlapping, do not exist within the same cultural space. Thus, on the horizon of the postmodern landscape, a New Age of tourism is dawning: New Age tourism for New Age people.

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[1]See Featherstone (1991):  postmodern cultures are characterised by the implosion of boundaries, eclecticism and the aestheticisation of life. It is in this vein that Baudrillard (Simulations 1983:148) argues that we now live "in an aesthetic hallucination of reality" 

[2] The complex and unresolved debates surrounding the family of related concepts  postmodernism, postmodernisation and postmodernity are beyond the remit of this paper (see Kellner 1994, Featherstone, 1988, Sarup 1993 ). 

[4]Indeed Jameson (1984) contends that postmodernism is the cultural logic of late capitalism. Postmodernism is characterised by the implosion of the autonomy of the cultural realm which has resulted in ‘a prodigious expansion of culture throughout the social realm’ (Jameson 1984:87) For Jameson (1984:87) all dimensions of life, even ‘th very structure of the psyche iself’, are becoming cultural.

 {5] Reference to Disneyland in Baudrillard.

 [6] The failure of such projects may also illustrate how  modernist concepts of purpose, design, and heirarchy have been displaced by postmodernist play, chane and anarchy. (Harvey1989:43)

 [7] Gerber (1996:416) states that “we are in the midst of a massive paradigm shift from the older mechanical worldview of the Newtonian pragmatists to the new perspective of an interconnected universe as envisioned by the Einsteinian thinkers”. The new Age is characterised by great interest in the  Einsteinian new physics as represented in the work of Fritjof Capra The Tao of Physics & The turning point (1983) & Danah Zohar’s The Quantum Self (1990)