The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class

A serendipitous outing at the California Historical Society put me onto MacCannell, after I heard his lecture on how San Francisco has become stale as it rigidly defends its tourist front, how the best parts of the city are those you stumble upon, like the Poem House, or murals in the Mission, or great street art. After some searching, I also found him mentioned in the excellent Reclaiming San Francisco as one of the merry pranksters that took visitors on an un-tour of the city, unleashing them on the casting pools in Golden Gate park to imagine what they were. Some bits I learned from the lecture: the “Mish” dialect in the Mission from the Irish immigrants that was very similar to Brooklynese, the “embalmed palm” bragged on by the Las Vegas architect who stressed palm trees then dunked their root balls into epoxy, the plant sucks the epoxy to its very tips and embalms itself. Also the nature of transitory art, street art that is no longer there, but you can take a visitor to the spot and tell the story of what was, and everyone leaves with a full belly of stories and experiences, chronotopic attraction.

The book is at times painfully packed with everything you’d expect from a PhD dissertation (“The more I examined my data, the more inescapable became my conclusion that tourist attractions are an unplanned typology of structure that provides direct access to the modern consciousness or “world view,” that tourist attractions are precisely analogous to the religious symbolism of primitive peoples”). He argues that tourism is a useful lens through which to understand modernity, noting the transition from valuing the fruits of our labor by the time it takes to produce something to valuing the experience of the product more highly, searching for meaning in life through experiences yet surrounded by the clutter of souvenirs that drive deeper appreciation for the experience. He analyzes the idea of tourism through perspectives of Marxism, semiotics, ethnomethodology and structuralism, and the net result is a deeply thought-out, analytical social criticism of tourism. Below are some tangled quotes and thoughts that struck me.

Cultural productions are powerful agents in defining the scope, force and direction of a civilization. It is only in the cultural experience that the data are organized to generate specific feelings and beliefs. Cultural experiences, then, are the opposite of scientific experiments – opposite in the sense of being mirror images of each other. Scientific experiments are designed to control bias, especially that produced by human beings, out of the result, but cultural experiences are designed to build it in. The attitudes, beliefs, opinions and values studied by sociologists are the residues of cultural experiences, separated from their original contexts and decaying in the minds of individuals. p29

He quotes Max Weber, but I’ve added emphasis where my skin crawls, p33:

No one knows yet who will inhabit this shell [of industrial capitalism] in the future: whether at the end of its prodigious development there will be new prophets or a vigorous renaissance of all thoughts and ideals or whether finally, if none of this occurs, mechanism will produce only petrification hidden under a kind of anxious importance. According to this hypothesis, the prediction will become a reality for the last men of this particular development of culture. Specialists without spirit, libertines without heart, this nothingness imagines itself to be elevated to a level of humanity never before attained.

MacCannell notes the removal of leisure and culture from everyday life and working life, producing “the central crisis of industrial society,” then quotes Edward Sapir (my emphasis, p35):

The great cultural fallacy of industrialism, as developed up to the present time, is that in harnessing machines to our uses it has not known how to avoid the harnessing the majority of mankind to its machines. The telephone girl who lends her capacities, during the greater part of the living day, to the manipulation of a technical routine that has an eventually high efficient value but that answers to no spiritual needs of her own is an appalling sacrifice to civilization. As a solution to the problem of culture she is a failure – the more dismal the greater her natural endowment.

There is an interesting correlation between the removal of culture from work and the huge interest in tourists to see people at work, in authentic situations that are removed from their own daily experience. While the author jokes with a shoeshine man at O’Hare, a mother and son pull up within earshot while the mother points out “Look, he’s working.” Tours of factories, engine rooms, you get the feeling that you are backstage, but in reality you are in a sanitized version of backstage made suitable for the public.

The tourist has no difficulty deciding the sights he ought to see. His only problem is getting around to all of them. Even under conditions where there is no end of things to see, some mysterious institutional force operates on the totality in advance of the arrival of tourists, separating out the specific sights which are the attractions. In the Louvre, for example, the attraction is the Mona Lisa. The rest is undifferentiated art in the abstract. Moderns somehow know what the important attractions are, even in remote places. This miracle of consensus that transcends national boundaries rests on an elaborate set of institutional mechanisms, a twofold process of sight sacralization that is met with a corresponding ritual attitude on the part of the tourists. p 42

…resulting itineraries rarely penetrate lovingly into the precious details of a society…, peeling back layer after layer of local historical, cultural and social facts, although this is the ideal of a certain type of snobbish tourism. Such potential exists in the structure of the tour, but it goes for the most part untapped. Attractions are usually organized more on the model of the filing system of a disinterested observer… the tourist world is complete in its way, but constructed after the fashion of all worlds that are filled with people who are just passing through and know it. p 51

I was unaware of the insanity that happened in 1911 when the last surviving member of a California Indian tribe was brought to live out the remainder of his life in a University of California museum. Ishi, the Indian, excited such interest of people wanting to shake the hand of the last wild man in America, that the museum suggested putting Ishi in an exhibition case during visiting hours to protect him from the crowd.

In highly developed tourist settings such as San Francisco and Switzerland, every detail of touristic experience can take on a showy, back-region aspect, at least for fleeting moments. Tourists enter tourist areas precisely because their experiences there will not, for them, be routine. The local people in the places they visit, by contrast, have long discounted the presence of tourists and go about their business as usual, even their tourist business, as best they can, treating tourists as a part of the regional scenery… In the give-and-take of urban street life in tourist areas, the question of who is watching whom and who is responding to whom can be as complex as it is in the give-and-take between ethnographers and their respondents. p106

This quote struck me as apt, considering what is happening to San Francisco, as the quirky parts of the city are pushed out by high rents. (With regards to London building high-rise hotels to accommodate the millions of tourists): “The irony is, they are destroying the very character and scale of the city their customers are coming to see.” (p 126).
His final paragraph of the 1998 epilogue is worth quoting in full:

It is important to recall that most things that are now attractions did not start out that way. In San Francisco, there was a time when Mission Dolores was just a mission, when Fisherman’s Wharf was just a fisherman’s wharf, when Chinatown was just a neighborhood settled by Chinese. What transformed these places into the centerpieces of the enormous tourist industry of the City of San Francisco? In the beginning it was not hype. The key I have been suggesting is that the place became something more than a spatial coordinate, something more than a spot of protected intimacy for like-minded individuals. It became, in addition, the locus of a human relationship between un-like-minded individuals, the locus of an urgent desire to share – an intimate connection between one stranger and another, or one generation to another, through the local object. It is the “you have got to see this,” or “taste this,” or “feel this” that is the originary moment in the touristic relation, which is also the basis for a certain kind of human solidarity. And it is precisely this moment that has become depersonalized and automated in commercialized attractions – the reason they are at once both powerful and dead. But “the touristic” is always being displaced into new things as cause, source and potential. All that is required is a simultaneous caring and concern for another person and for an object that is honored and shared but never fully possessed.