Tourist theory, authenticity, and archaeology

Tourism is widely acknowledged as a modern phenomenon (Culler 1990; Enzensberger 1996; Gemünden 1996; MacCannell 1989†), and theoretical discussion of the tourist and tourism probably started as early as in the 1950s (Enzensberger 1996). Even though the beginning of tourism can be dated back to ancient Greece and the beginning of the modern era (Adler 1989 in Chi 1997: 63), it was not until well after colonialist times and the WWII in the 20th century that saw the beginning of mass tourism, which in turn sparked the theoretical considerations of tourism.

Gerd Enzensberger’s A theory of tourism, first published in 1958, is probably one of the first attempts to theorize tourism as a modern phenomenon. In his article Enzensberger sees modern tourism still being motivated by romantic ideas of untouched (authentic) worlds. This quest for authenticity then paradoxically falls in on itself since it becomes harnessed by the very same society that in all of its incoherency produced the need for authenticity in the first place. (Gemünden 1996: 113.)

If the modern world is incoherent and unorganized and therefore continually in search for authenticity and a kind of fulfillment, is it not because of the chaotic nature of the modern society that an idea of a stable, coherent and unified society is held. Is it somewhat an illusion that such an authentic past in the form of the rural and pheasant society would ever have existed? And, furthermore, if authenticity is indeed an illusion, how come we usually accept that illusion with such happiness, joy and content.

Dean MacCannell formulates his theory of modern tourism and approaches the question of authenticity in The tourist (1989). He uses the concept of staged authenticity to explain the tourist experience; people know what they are experiencing is not real and authentic but feel content with it anyway. According to MacCannell (2008: 334) staged authenticity is authenticity’s negation, an attempt to move beyond the front-back binary made famous by Erving Goffman (1958), very much similar to what Edward Bruner, also hoping to transcend such binaries as authentic – inauthentic and front – back, wrote in Culture on tour (2005: 5).

To Goffman, all social action is play, and he uses theater as an analogy when he explains how people will alter their social roles according to their position (front or back) on the stage. The idea of people necessarily withholding some aspects of their personality will ultimately lead to a position where the tourist is always confronted with a staged play, never allowed backstage to experience authenticity. Bruner and MacCannell have, however, different ideas about what is to be found backstage. For MacCannell the back is a place where secrets are only popularly thought to be kept but, in fact, do not exist (1989: 93). While MacCannell explicitly denies the possibility of authenticity residing in the back regions, Bruner stated that MacCannell believes there is always true and real at the back (2005: 5). MacCannell then replied to Bruner’s accusations in Why it never really was about authenticity (2008: 334) by stating that staged authenticity is the very opposite of authenticity. More confusingly in his response, however, MacCannell maintains that he still thinks there is “real”, “true”, and “authentic” to be found at the back.

Despite MacCannell’s ambiguous statements, there seems to exist somewhat a consensus of denying authenticity in tourist theory (see also Urry 1990: 11††). It has been treated as a “red herring” (Bruner 2005: 5). Both MacCannell and Bruner are what I may call non-believers in authenticity. The same can be seen in archaeology.

In archaeology, authenticity’s ambiguous nature has often been explained with context. Cornelius Holtorf in particular sees authenticity as a highly contextual attribute that varies when an artifact or a heritage site is brought into a different context (Holtorf 2005: 117-118; Holtorf and Schadla-Hall 1999: 230). Holtorf and Schadla-Hall (1999) write that less emphasis should be placed on the importance of authenticity. Holtorf (2005: 115) states, however, that “[d]espite the theoretical difficulties in defining it, authenticity is arguably the single most important property of archaeological finds and exhibits”. I agree!

  • Adler, Judith. Origins of sightseeing. Annals of tourism research 16: 7-29.
  • Baudrillard, Jean 1987. Ekstaasi ja rivous. Gaudeamus.
  • Bauman, Zygmunt 1996. Postmodernin lumo. Vastapaino. Tampere.
  • Bruner, Edward M. 2005. Culture on tour: ethnographies of travel. The University of Chicago Press. Chicago.
  • Chi, Robert 1997. Toward a new tourism: Albert Wendt and becoming attractions. Cultural Critique fall 1997: 61-105.
  • Culler, Jonathan 1990. The semiotics of tourism. Framing the sign: criticism and its institutions. University of Oklahoma Press.
  • Eaglestone, Robert 2001. Postmodernism and holocaust denial. Cambridge.
  • Enzensberger 1996 (first published in 1958). A theory of tourism. New German Critique 68: 117-135.
  • Gemünden, Gerd 1996. Introduction to Enzensberger’s “A theory of tourism”. New German Critique 68: 113-115.
  • Goffman, Erving 1958. The presentation of self in everyday life. Anchor books.
  • Holtorf, Cornelius 2005. From Stonehenge to Las Vegas. Archaeology as popular culture. AltaMira Press.
  • Holtorf, Cornelius and Schadla-Hall, Tim 1999. Age as artefact: on archaeological authenticity. European journal of archaeology 2(2): 229-247.
  • MacCannell, Dean 1989. The tourist. Schocken Books. New York.
  • MacCannell, Dean 2008. Why it never really was about authenticity. Society 45: 334-337.
  • Thomas, Julian 2004. Archaeology and modernism. Routledge.
  • Urry, John 1990. The tourist gaze. Leisure and travel in contemporary societies. SAGE publications.

Although in the introduction to the 1989 edition, the introductory chapter of his 1989 reprint of The Tourist, MacCannell admits that the tourist and tourism is also a postmodern phenomenon, and all that has been written in the first edition still applies and is valid today. The Tourist was first published in 1976, and at that time postmodernism was not a well established concept. The end of modernity, and in a way the advent of postmodernism [although Zygmunt Bauman (1996) does not see the transition from modernity to postmodernity to be a form of liberation, but rather the modern becoming self-aware], is often thought to have happened right after the Holocaust (Eaglestone 2001: 7 in Thomas 2004: 50). If the beginnings of modern tourism are said to date to the postwar period after the WWII, then it is a truly postmodern phenomenon.

††John Urry draws his idea of tourist gaze from the Foucaultian and Baudrillardian postmodernism. His notion of post-tourism can be seen to originate from Baudrillard’s idea of postmodernism as a process of the disappearance of the stage (Baudrillard 1987: 13).


One comment

  1. matthew michael

    pls i need a clear statement on Enzenbergers theory of tourism

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