Markets in Culture, History, and the Past

From A Book of Migrations, Rebecca Solnit writes on the impacts of the tourism industry on local culture:

There are situations in which tourism can encourage the preservation of a place, but far more frequently, tourists inadvertently stimulate an industry at the cost of local culture. Cultures, after all, evolve and change, but tourists most often want an unchanged version of the past. The ultimate versions are in colonial Williamsburg in Virginia and the Irish-American Folk Village in Omagh, County Tyrone, where the past is reenacted with actors, costumes, props and sets for the audience of travelers. It’s hard to say to what extent a real past has been resurrected in these places, but the present has certainly been vanquished. Such tourist accommodation raises the question of whether a tradition still exists when it’s no longer carried on for traditional purposes. Thus an Aran Isles sweater knitted for an international market is not the same as an Aran Isles sweater knitted for the fishermen in the family. It looks the same, but it’s part of a market economy, not a subsistence economy; subsistence and handicraft have become an aesthetic of authenticity. The vast and ever-expanding industry of tourism threatens to turn the whole world into a series of theaters whose companies perform palatable versions of their culture and history. Tourists thus possess a perverse version of Midas’s touch: the authenticity and exoticism they seek is inauthenticated and homogenized by their presence.

Naturally, there is a strong subset of the leisure market which seeks either “tradition” or “culture.” And it may be such that this market exists to the detriment of the present as Solnit laments. Yet, from an economic perspective, it’s difficult to deny that tourists are getting precisely what they are looking for. If I visit a small fishing village, naturally I cannot obtain a sweater knitted for a fisherman in the family – I’m not a fisherman! However, the next best thing may very well be an identical sweater which still embodies the style of the original. An outsider is not able to obtain the exact “authentic” experience of the locale, precisely because he is an outsider. Is Solnit saying this should preclude the attempts of outsiders to understand and take part in those cultural traditions?

It’s true that culture and tradition changes over time. In some ways, the tourism industry can help to keep some traditions alive (albeit in an admittedly perverse or inauthentic form). Perhaps the small fishing village is no longer the bustling hub of activity it once was – but instead of disappearing altogether, the village may still live on through the story written in that fisherman’s sweater.

Solnit continues on the tourism industry:

The English call their tourist business “the heritage industry,” which makes it clear that it is an industry and its product is the past, as it is in Ireland. The past is an odd product. In fact it’s not a product at all, since it is too unknown, unpleasant, and unimaginable for vacationtime consumption; the heritage industries instead supply their audience with versions of selected aspects. The word industry is as peculiar as the word heritage, since nothing is produced but opportunities to consume and some of the necessary artifacts, from historic markers to shamrock-bedecked salt and pepper shakers, and since its purpose is leisure, which was once the opposite of industry. It is the perfect industry for the information age: one of leisure, consumption, displacement, simulation. It seems to both reverse colonialism and to repeat it; it is a means by which some of the wealth of rich nations returns to poor ones, but is also a means by which the former continue to invade and dictate to the latter.

And yet, the past is indeed as legitimate a product as anything else. We continue to be fascinated by stories of history, and for a product so foreign in many ways, any small window to the past can feed our curiosity. The product will be an imperfect and inauthentic representation (I’m not sure you can get an “authentic” representation of the past without time travel), but so is any retelling of history. A fan of American history attends a Civil War re-enactment not because he expects to see the actual Civil War being fought, but because he or she wants to witness what it was like. Naturally, no one will get shot and killed during the re-enactment, and this is inauthentic. Indeed, as Solnit points out,

Tourism reconstitutes as play all the endless tides of humanity that constitute war, invasion, and exile, reenacts the tragedies of population shifts as comedies of desire and expenditure.

But perhaps this is the only way to pass the lessons of history on to new generations. A historical performance or a tourist’s foray into tradition and culture can, without subjecting the individual to the suffering of the past, simultaneously educate and entertain. So the market for the past, just as the market for cultural experience, is imperfect, like donning a replica of a fisherman’s sweater – and this may be precisely what tourists are looking for.

(Hat tip: CF)


One comment

  1. Love this in its important truth: “– but instead of disappearing altogether, the village may still live on through the story written in that fisherman’s sweater.”

    Happy to have encouraged a blog post. Wonder what other great conversations the book may bring!

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