“To be a mass tourist, for me, is to become a pure late-date American: alien, ignorant, greedy for something you cannot ever have, disappointed in a way you can never admit. It is to spoil, by way of sheer ontology, the very unspoiledness you are there to experience.”
-David Foster Wallace, “Consider the Lobster”
If you are reading this essay, and have not read the essay by Mr. Wallace, you should. Over roughly a decade, straddling the millenia, Wallace invented 21st century travel writing, with works on the Illinois state fair, cruise ships, and the Maine lobster festival (natch). I mentioned these three work in this (chronological) order because I think they’re his best, and because reading them in that (chronological) order lays out easily his evolving theory of tourism, summarized in the epigraph, whose cynicism and incisiveness evolved sharply between 1994 and 2004. While it could be said that, as a midwesterner, his sympathies were always primed to give the Illinois state fair a more generous treatment, I think it more accurate to draw a distinction between such a fair being an object of regional tourism, at best, if not just local routine, and the Maine lobster festival, an explicitly tourist event.
This distinction is important.
Beyond his emphasis on the distinction between local and capital T Tourism, you should read Wallace’s non-fiction because he is one of the best writers, ever. I aspire as much to being able to mimic his use of language as tool, a breaker bar as weighty and crude as it is precise, as I do to his careful, entirely genuine use of situation and detail. (” The corn starts just past the breakdown lanes and goes right up to the sky’s hem.”) The mechanics of his writing, which is to say his style, cannot be separated from his ontology, from the way he understands and thus creates his worlds.
The foundational insight which runs through most of Wallace’s books and essays is that entertainment has, by the late 20th century, become the essential question of humanity. It is not so much that the items on the fatter end of Maslow’s pyramid have been so well provided for as to become background, though for the bourgeois they have, as it is that entertainment has veiled food, security, and human connection so well that today we struggle to understand them through any other window. Thus the prominent place of food in all of the three aforementioned essays, and the muted, rather squishy, and distinctly uncomfortable way physical movement is incarnated in a place like a cruise ship, state fair, or destination food festival. Entertainment is not, first and foremost, participatory, at least in the 21st century, and this passivity is why Wallace’s object lessons are so properly lugubrious, and why modern Tourism is so consistently and gratingly at odds with things like National Parks. Abbey’s most famous chapter in Desert Solitaire was a precursor to Wallace in this, and while at first the two may seem of an awkward lineage they share an intellectual heritage which makes the comparison as coherent as it is efficacious.
To whit: if the prime mover of tourism, of travel, of physical movement beyond the familiar, is to experience aura and garner the unquantified benefits thereof, the move for Tourism to become a form of entertainment rather than experience is a shortcut to knowledge that must always be a contradiction. Knowing a thing, be it the view over the Maze at sunrise or a sleek prize winning calf, has never been possible via anything other than process. And process has never been built out of anything other than time. This is why Wallace is at his most sympathetic discussing his home state fair, and at his most lyric within that essay discussing two distinct things. First, the livestock judgings, the core functions of a fair which are only about entertainment in the best sense; a venue for one insider to communicate experience to others. Second, the final visual sequence of the east coast interloper being hauled through elective torture on a carnival ride. In the first case you have pure, native entertainment, any by extension people who have staked their right to the impure diversions Wallace details elsewhere in the fair. In the second, an abject example of intrusion, of Tourism, being roughly and justly handled. And what might happen were Tourism to take over the become the default means of being? That answer is Infinite Jest, in whose fictional president one has a functionally endless number of chilling parallels with Donald Trump.
So; Tourism must go. The cheap pursuit of novelty and in it the illusion of profundity has in the social media age (Facebook as The Entertainment? Florida as the Great Concavity?) never been not only easier, but as enveloping. If ‘gram-ing is a complete enough facsimile for experience that many of us actually believe it, the only reason to leave home at all is to keep that facade aloft. Thank goodness then that the pandemic made doing that at least a little less respectable, for a little while, and that maybe entertainment and Tourism will each suffer and be deflated together.
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