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Framing The Sign:
Criticism and Its Institutions
© University of Oklahoma Press, 1990
The Semiotics of Tourism
Tourism is a practice of considerable cultural and economic importance and, unlike a good many manifestations of contemporary culture, is well known in some guise to every
literary or cultural critic. Some may claim ignorance of television or rock music or fashion, but all have been tourists and have observed tourists. Yet despite the pervasiveness of tourism
and its centrality to our conception of the contemporary world (for most of us, the world is more imperiously an array of places one might visit than it is a configuration of political or economic
forces), tourism has been neglected by students of culture. Unlike the cinema, popular romance, or even video, tourism has scarcely figured in the theoretical discussions and debates about popular culture of recent years.
The problem may be that tourism has so few defenders, constitutes an embarrassment, and seems such an easy target for those who would attack modern culture. The tourist, it seems, is
the lowest of the low. No other group has such a uniformly bad press. Tourists are continually subject to sneers and have no anti- defamation league. Animal imagery seems their inevitable lot: they are said to move in droves, herds, swarms, or flocks; they are as mindless and docile as sheep but as annoying as a plague of insects when they descend upon a spot they have ‘discovered’. Here is Daniel Boorstin, Librarian of Congress and guardian of
our cultural heritage, on this contemptible species of American: The tourist looks for caricature; travel agents at home and national tourist bureaus abroad are quick to oblige. The
tourist seldom likes the authentic (to him often unintelligible) product of a foreign culture. He prefers his own provincial expectations. The French chanteuse singing
English with a French accent seems more charmingly French than one who simply sings in French.1 There are perhaps interesting reasons why this should be so, but Boorstin does not stop to inquire. ‘Tourist “attractions” offer an elaborately contrived indirect experience, an artificial product to be consumed in the very places where the real thing is free as
air’. What could be more foolish than a tourist paying through the nose for an artificial substitute when the real thing, all around him, is as free as the air?
This discussion is not untypical of what passes for cultural criticism: complaints about the tawdriness or artificiality of modern culture which do not attempt to account for the curious
facts they rail against and offer little explanation of the cultural mechanisms that might be responsible for them. If cultural criticism is to go beyond nostalgic vituperation, it needs to find
ways of analyzing the cultural phenomena in question, and tourism, that marginalized yet pervasive cultural practice, seems to demand a semiotic approach. If for the tourist the French
chanteuse singing English with a French accent seems more charmingly French than one who simply sings in French, the reason might be not stupidity nor moral turpitude but a semiotic
code. American films treating foreign people and places characteristically have minor characters speak with charming foreign accents, to signify Frenchness, Italianeity, Teutonicity,
while the main characters (even though foreign) speak American English. There are mechanisms of signification here with which tourism is deeply intertwined.
Roland Barthes, who might be regarded as the founder of a semiotics aiming at demystification or culture criticism, writes in
1Daniel Boorstin, The Image (New York: Atheneum, 1967), p. 106
his Elements of Semiology that ‘dès qu’il y a société, tout usage est converti en signe de cet usage’ [once society exists, every usage is converted into a sign of this usage].2 By wearing blue jeans, for instance, one signifies that one is wearing blue jeans.
This process is crucial, Barthes continues, and exemplifies the extent to which reality is nothing other than that which is intelligible. Since it is as signs that our practices have reality, they swiftly become signs, even if signs of themselves. Of course, once a sign is constituted in this way—a usage become a sign of this usage—society may very well refunctionalize it and
speak of it as a pure instance of use. A fur coat one wears is a sign of its category; it signifies fur coat as one wears it. But, Barthes says, a society may well attempt to mask this
mythological function and act as if the coat were simply an object that serves to protect one from the cold.3 This process is what Barthes in Mythologies calls the ‘alibi’, or the general
tendency of a culture to convert history into nature.4 The task of the semiotician, according to Barthes, is to penetrate the alibi and identify the signs.
The notion of a usage become sign of itself might remain somewhat obscure and offer the analyst little methodological instruction in how to penetrate alibis and what to look for were it
not for the exemplary case of tourism, which can provide considerable guidance and illumination. The tourist is not interested in the alibis a society uses to refunctionalize its
practices. The tourist is interested in everything as a sign of itself, an instance of a typical cultural practice: a Frenchman is an example of a Frenchman, a restaurant in the Quartier Latin is
2 Roland Barthes, Elements of Semiology (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), P.
3 Jean Baudrillard writes, ‘Far from the primary status of an object being a
pragmatic one, it is the sign exchange value which is fundamental - use-value is
often no more than a practical guarantee (or even a rationalization pure and
simple). Such, in its paradoxical form, is the only correct sociological
hypotheses.’ For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign (St Louis:
Telos, 1981), p. 29.
4 Roland Barthes, Mythologies (New York: Hill and Wang, 1972), pp. 128-9.
an example of a Latin Quarter restaurant, signifying ‘Latin Quarter Restaurantness’. All over the world the unsung armies of semiotics, the tourists, are fanning out in search of signs of
Frenchness, typical Italian behavior, exemplary Oriental scenes, typical American thruways, traditional English pubs; and, deaf to the natives’ explanations that thruways just are the most efficient way to get from one place to another or that pubs are simply convenient places to meet your friends and have a drink, or that gondolas are a natural way to get around in a city full of canals, tourists persist in regarding these objects and practices as
cultural signs. They put into practice jean Baudrillard’s claim that an accurate theory of social objects must be based on signification rather than needs or use-value.5 Dean MacCannell,
author of a superb study, The Tourist, records his pleasure and surprise in discovering that the tourists he was studying were in fact his allies in the sociological study of modernity: ‘My
“colleagues” were everywhere on the face of the earth, searching for peoples, practices and artifacts that we might record and relate to our own socio-cultural experience’.6 In their most
specifically touristic behavior, however, tourists are the agents of semiotics: all over the world they are engaged in reading cities, landscapes and cultures as sign systems.
If semioticians have not recognized tourists as their allies, it is perhaps because they are so universally maligned. Even books that celebrate travel engage in denigration of tourists. Paul
Fussell, a reputable and intelligent literary critic, in a celebration of British literary traveling between the wars, attempts to convey ‘what it felt like to be young and clever and literate in the final age of travel’.7
‘Final age of travel’ because since 1939 there is no more travel, only tourism, which is totally different. ‘Perhaps the closest one could approach an experience of travel in the old
5 Baudrillard, Political Economy, pp. 29-30.
6 Dean MacCannell, The Tourist (New York: Schocken, 1976). Henceforth
cited as T.
7 Paul Fussell, Abroad (New York: Oxford University Pres, 1972), p. vii.
sense today would be to drive through Roumania or Afghanistan without hotel reservations and to get by on terrible French’.
What distinguishes the tourist, Fussell continues,is the motives, few of which are ever openly revealed: toraise social status at home and to allay social anxiety; torealize secret fantasies of erotic freedom; and mostimportant, to derive secret pleasure from posingmomentarily as a member of a social class superior to one’sown, to play a role of a ‘shopper’ and a spender whose lifebecomes significant and exciting only when one isexercising power by choosing what to buy. Cant as thetourist may of the Taj Mahal and Mt. Etna at sunset, his realtarget today is the immense Ocean Terminal at Hong Kong,with its miles of identical horrible camera and tape recordershops. The fact that a tourist is best defined as a fantasist
equipped temporarily with unaccustomed power is better
known to the tourist industry than to anthropology. Theresemblance between the tourist and the client of a massageparlor is closer than it would be polite to emphasize.8Fussell’s hysterical smugness is puzzling until one realizeswhat the problem might be. When this Professor of English atthe State University of New Jersey, as he then was, goes toEngland, the natives probably mistake him for another Americantourist. Ferocious denigration of tourists is in part an attempt to
convince oneself that one is not a tourist. The desire todistinguish between tourists and real travelers is a part oftourism—integral to it rather than outside it or beyond it.
The ubiquity of the distinction between travelers and touristsis quite striking. Fussell contrasts the fake travelers of the pastthirty years with the real travelers of the inter-war period: young
Englishmen, generally of the better classes, who went off to thesouth of France, or to Italy, to theMiddle East, to Tahiti, and
8 Ibid., p. 42
wrote about getting drunk in run-down hotels. But for Boorstinthe character of travel begins to change markedly in the mid-nineteenth century, with the success of Thomas Cook and Sons:
mass transportation—railways and ocean liners—brings aboutwhat he calls ‘the decline of the traveler and the rise of thetourist:The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was
a pleasure seeker. The traveler was active; he wentstrenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience.The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen
to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing’ (a word, by the way, whichcame in at about the same time, with its first use recorded in1847). He expects everything to be done to him and for him.
Thus foreign travel ceased to be an activity—an experience,an undertaking—and became instead a commodity.9Boorstin here echoes Ruskin’s view that ‘Going by railroad I
do not consider as traveling at all; it is merely being “sent” to aplace, and very little different from becoming a parcel’. Thissounds strange today, when travel by rail, like travel by
steamship, has become the last refuge of the traveler trying toavoid being a tourist and is celebrated nostalgically as true travelreminiscent of a bygone age. But Ruskin is not alone in
denigrating the mass of nineteenth-century travelers as tourists;
nineteenth-century travelers are as ferocious in theirdenunciation of tourists and tourism as twentieth-centurytravelers. Boorstin quotes an Englishman in 1865 fulminating at
the race of tourists:The cities of Italy are now deluged with droves of the
creatures, for they never separate, and you see them forty in
number pouring along a street with their director—now infront, now at the rear, circling round them like a
9 Boorstin, The Image, p. 85. Baudrillard notes that ‘the structure of the sign is
at the very heart of the commodity form’, Political Economy, p. 146.
sheepdog—and really the process is as like herding as
maybe. I have already met three flocks, and anything so
uncouth I never saw before, the men mostly elderly, dreary,
sad-looking; the women somewhat younger, travel-tossed,
but intensely lively, wide-awake, and facetious.10
Even earlier, in 1826, Stendhal complained, when writing a
book for tourists, Rome, Naples, et Florence, that ‘Florence is
nothing better than a vast museum full of tourists’.11 The true age
of travel has, it seems, always already slipped by; other travelers
are always tourists.
This repetition and displacement of the opposition between
tourist and traveler suggests that these are not so much two
historical categories as terms of an opposition integral to
tourism. The historical explanations are excuses for what
travelers always do: feel superior to other travelers. As
MacCannell notes, denigration of the tourist ‘is so prevalent, in
fact, that it is part of the problem of mass tourism, not an
analytical reflection upon it’ (T, p. 104). To be a tourist is in part
to dislike tourists (both other tourists and the fact that one is
oneself a tourist). Tourists can always find someone more
touristy than themselves to sneer at: the hitchhiker arriving in
Paris with a knapsack for an undetermined stay feels superior to
a compatriot who flies in on a jumbo jet to spend a week. The
tourist whose package tour includes only air travel and a hotel
feels superior, as he sits in a cafe, to the tour groups that pass by
in buses. Americans on bus tours feel superior to groups of
Japanese, who seem to be wearing uniforms and surely
understand nothing of the culture they are photographing.
Tourism thus brings out what may prove to be a crucial
feature of modern capitalist culture: a cultural consensus that
creates hostility rather than community among individuals.
Tourism is a system of values uniting large segments of the
10 Ibid., p. 88.
11 Stendhal (Henri Beyle), Rome, Naples, and Florence (London: Braziller,
1959), p. 317.
world population from the richer countries. Groups with
different national interests are brought together by a
systematized knowledge of the world, a shared sense of what is
significant, and a set of moral imperatives: they all know what
one ‘ought to see’ in Paris, that you ‘really must’ visit Rome,
that it ‘would be a crime’ never to see San Francisco and ride in
a cable car. As MacCannell points out, the touristic code—an
understanding of the world articulated by the moral injunctions
which drive the tourist on—is the most powerful and widespread
modern consensus, yet the effect of these shared values is not to
create solidarity within the international community of tourists
but hostility, as each wishes the other tourists were not there.
The idea of a consensus which sets members of the group against
one another is a remarkable feature of modernity which demands
Once one recognizes that wanting to be less touristy than
other tourists is part of being a tourist, one can recognize the
superficiality of most discussions of tourism, especially those
that stress the superficiality of tourists. Tourists are inevitably
reproached, by Boorstin and his ilk, for their satisfaction with the
inauthentic, the spurious: ‘the tourist seldom likes the authentic
product of a foreign culture’, Boorstin writes. ‘The American
tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than for what is
Japanesey’.12 We shall later take up this semiotic structure, but
one should emphasize that tourists do set out in quest of the
authentic. Proof of that desire is that authenticity is a major
selling point in advertisements and travel writing. Perhaps the
most common motif in travel columns is the hotel, restaurant or
sight ‘just off the beaten track’. The genre is familiar: ‘Only a
couple of blocks from the main tourist hotels lies a street of
small shops where one can see real native craftsmen at work and
whose wares sell for a fraction of the prices charged at tourist
traps on the main street’. Or, ‘only ten miles further down the
coast you will find an unspoiled fishing village with a few inns
12 Boorstin, The Image, p. 106.
patronized by locals, where the innkeeper’s wife will happily
make you a hearty lunch to take on your rambles’.
The distinction between the authentic and the inauthentic,
the natural and the touristy, is a powerful semiotic operator
within tourism. The idea of seeing the real Spain, the real
Jamaica, something unspoiled, how the natives really work or
live, is a major touristic topos, essential to the structure of
tourism. It is even the explicit selling point of commercial tours:
‘Take “De tour”, Swissair’s freewheeling fifteen day Take-a-
break Holiday that lets you detour to the off-beat, over-looked
and unexpected corners of Switzerland for as little as $315 ...
including car. Take de tour. But watch out for de sheep, de goats,
and de chickens’. Even tourists who take the most packaged
package tours, who are indeed, as Ruskin predicted, sent from
one place to another like a parcel, venture bravely forth from
their hotels in search of atmosphere and discover something
which for them is unusual, authentic in its otherness, a sign of an
alien culture—say a butcher’s shop with undressed fowl and
rabbits hanging in the window. And characteristically tourists
emphasize such experiences—moments regarded as authentic—
when telling others of their travels. The authentic is a usage
perceived as a sign of that usage, and tourism is in large measure
a quest for such signs.
In their quest, tourists engage in a practice which attracts
volumes of scorn: they purchase mementos of various sorts. The
denigrators of tourism make fun of the proliferation of
reproductions associated with tourism: picture postcards, travel
posters, miniature Eiffel Towers, piggy banks of the Statue of
Liberty. These reproductions are what MacCannell in his
account of the semiotic structure of the tourist attractions calls
markers. Like the sign, the touristic attraction has a triadic
structure: a marker represents a sight to the tourist (T, p. 110). A
marker is any kind of information or representation that
constitutes a sight as a sight: by giving information about it,
representing it, making it recognizable. Some are ‘on-site’
markers, such as plaques telling that ‘George Washington slept
here’ or that this vial of dust comes from the moon. Some are
mobile markers, such as pamphlets and brochures designed to
draw people to the site, give information at the site, and serve as
souvenirs or representations off the site. MacCannell quotes a
brochure which marks and thus constitutes tourist sights in the
state of Iowa: ‘Kunkle cabin site. In 1848 Benjamin Kunkle and
his family became the first permanent settlers of Guthrie County.
Mr. Kunkle raised the first hogs in the county. The marker is
attached to a large elm tree in the Myron Godwin farmyard’ (T,
p. 114). Finally, there are off-site markers, reminding one that
the attraction is an attraction, such as a kewpie doll bearing a
flag that reads ‘Souvenir of Yellowstone’.
The proliferation of markers frames something as a sight for
tourists. The existence of reproductions is what makes something
an original, authentic, the real thing—the original of which the
souvenirs, postcards, statues etc. are reproductions—and by
surrounding ourselves with reproductions we represent to
ourselves, as MacCannell astutely suggests, the possibility of
authentic experiences in other times and in other places (T, p.
148). One of the characteristics of modernity is the belief that
authenticity has been lost and exists only in the past—whose
signs we preserve (antiques, restored buildings, imitations of old
interiors)—or else in other regions or countries. ‘The United
States’, MacCannell writes, ‘makes the rest of the world seem
authentic. California makes the rest of the United States seem
authentic’ (T, p. 155). And, of course, Los Angeles makes the
rest of California seem authentic. But the semiotic process at
work has a curious effect: the proliferation of markers or
reproductions confers an authenticity upon what may at first
seem egregiously inauthentic. The discussion of Los Angeles,
the reproduction of its features in a variety of media, creates
originals of which these reproductions are reproductions and a
desire to see the signified of which these markers are signifiers.
Describing what he calls ‘sight sacralization’, MacCannell
writes, ‘it is the mechanical reproduction phase of sacralization
that is most responsible for setting the tourist in motion on his
journey to find the true object. And he is not disappointed.
Alongside the copies of it, it has to be The Real Thing’ (T, p.
The denigrators of tourism are annoyed by the proliferation of
tacky representations—postcards, ashtrays, ugly painted plates—
and fail to grasp the essential semiotic function of these markers.
Not only do they create sights; when the tourist encounters the
sight the markers remain surprisingly important: one may
continually refer to the marker to discover what features of the
sight are indeed significant; one may engage in the production of
further markers by writing about the sight or photographing it;
and one may explicitly compare the original with its
reproductions (‘It’s not as big as it looked in the picture’; or ‘It’s
even more impressive than I imagined’). In each case, the
touristic experience involves the production of or participation in
a sign relation between marker and sight.
Moreover, the sight/marker relation in the sign structure of
the touristic attraction is responsible for the phenomenon that
Boorstin and others deplore when they complain that ‘the
American tourist in Japan looks less for what is Japanese than
for what is Japanesey’. This is scarcely surprising, for to be
Japanesey is to signify ‘Japaneseness’, to be marked by various
sorts of representations as typically, interestingly Japanese.
Boorstin and his like assume that what is reproduced,
represented, written about, is inauthentic, while the rest is
authentic: tourists pay to see tourist traps while the real thing is
free as air. But ‘the real thing’ must be marked as real, as sight-
worthy; if it is not marked or differentiated, it is not a notable
sight, even though it may be Japanese by virtue of its location in
Japan. The authentic is not something unmarked or
undifferentiated; authenticity is a sign relation. Even the sights in
which the most snobbish tourists take pleasure are not unmarked;
they have become for these tourists the ‘real’ Japan by a process
of semiotic articulation, only their markers are more recondite
and less tacky than the plastic reproductions or souvenirs of the
most famous sights.
There is, nevertheless, a problem about the relation between
these two sorts of authenticity that I have been describing: the
authenticity of what lies off the beaten track and is thus
apparently unexpected and the authenticity a sight derives from
its markers, so that tourists want to encounter and recognize the
original which has been marked as a sight. These seem rather
different cases but they are in fact intimately related in a process
which can be approached through a description of another
talented author, Walker Percy. His book of homespun semiotics,
The Message in a Bottle, makes naive assumptions, but its
account of tourism is rich and suggestive.
Percy’s ‘The Loss of the Creature’ begins with a myth of
origins, the story of a first traveler who can experience
authentically—as a pure unmediated experience—what later
travelers can only experience superficially and mediately: ‘Every
explorer names his island Formosa, beautiful. To him it is
beautiful because, being first, he has access to it and can see it
for what it is. But to no one else is it ever as beautiful’.13 This is
an attractive myth but highly dubious, especially in its notion
that the context in which the explorer first comes across a sight is
so much the privileged context as to make the sight what it truly
is. (One should note, by contrast, Prosper Merimée’s astute claim
that ‘Rien n’est plus ennuyeux qu’un paysage anonyme’
[Nothing is more boring than an unnamed landscape]. A visitor
to Niagara Falls who does not know that it is ‘Niagara Falls’ he
is seeing, will immediately demand, ‘What is this place?’ since a
great deal of its interest comes from its relation to its marker or
When Percy turns, though, to the Grand Canyon—
discovered by a Spanish explorer and then set aside as a National
Park so that others might see and appreciate this sight—his
13 Walker Percy, The Message in the Bottle: How Queer Man Is, How Queer
Language Is, and What One has to Do with the Other (New York: Farrar,
Strauss, 1975), p. 46. Henceforth cited as MB
reflections become more pertinent. When a man from Boston
takes a bus tour to the Grand Canyon, does he in fact see the
Grand Canyon? Possibly, answers Percy,
But it is more likely that what he has done is the one sure
way not to see the canyon. Why is it almost impossible to
gaze directly at the Grand Canyon and see it for what it is... ?
It is almost impossible because the Grand Canyon, the thing
as it is, has been appropriated by a symbolic complex which
has already been formed in the sightseer’s mind. Seeing the
canyon under approved circumstances is seeing the symbolic
complex head on. (MB, p. 47)
This is why I suggested earlier that tourism was an
exemplary case for the perception and description of sign
relations. The sightseer confronts the symbolic complex head on
and explores the relation of sight to its markers. ‘The term of the
sightseer’s satisfaction’, writes Percy, ‘is not the sovereign
discovery of the thing before him; it is rather the measuring up of
the thing to the criterion of the preformed symbolic complex’
(MB, p. 47).
The question for Percy, then, is ‘How can the sightseer
recover the Grand Canyon?’ How can one escape semiotic
mediation? He imagines various strategies: one might get off the
beaten track and come upon the canyon through the wilderness,
avoiding markers, trails and lookout spots. Or one might attempt
to recover the canyon from familiarity by an exercise in
familiarity, visiting the canyon ‘by a Greyhound tour in the
company of a party from Terre Haute’. The visitor ‘stands
behind his fellow tourists at the Bright Angel Lodge and sees the
canyon through them and their predicament, their picture taking
and their busy disregard’ (MB, p. 48-9). This technique is
superior to the first—getting off the beaten track, he admits, is
the ‘most beaten track of all’—but it is not satisfactory either, for
it does not deliver an unmediated experience.
Committed to the idea of an original, authentic experience,
Percy finds that the strategies he imagines all involve semiotic
mediation—as any semiotician could have told him—and so falls
back on the stratagem of apocalypse: a war destroys civilization
and, years later, an expedition from Australia lands in southern
California and makes its way east. ‘They stumble upon the
Bright Angel Lodge, now fallen into ruins. The trails are grown
over, the guardrails fallen away, the dime telescope at Battleship
Point rusted. But there is the canyon, exposed at last’ (MB, p.
49). Percy here follows Victor Hugo who, in a poem of 1837
about another tourist attraction, ‘A l’Arc de Triomphe’, imagines
that three thousand years hence, when all Paris save Notre Dame,
the Vendôme column and the Arc de Triomphe has fallen into
ruin, a shepherd making his way at dusk will come upon the Arc
de Triomphe, and it will, at last, be truly beautiful.14
more astute than Percy, recognizes that this situation of a
civilization in ruins is a very particular semiotic frame which
confers a conventional authenticity on what persists amid ruins.
The sublimity of the Australian explorers’ experience (assuming
that they did not boorishly consider the canyon just an obstacle
to their eastward progress) would come from the juxtaposition of
the canyon with the markers which it had outlasted.
Percy tells another story which in fact illustrates very well
both the impossibility of escaping semiosis and the complex
relation between authenticity in touristic experience and
mediating sign structures or symbolic complexes. He imagines
an American couple visiting Mexico, who see the usual sights
and enjoy themselves, yet feel that something is missing.
Although Taxco and Cuernavaca are interesting and
picturesque as advertised, they fall short of ‘it’. What do the
couple have in mind by ‘it’? What do they really hope for? ...
Their hope has something to do with their own role as
tourists in a foreign country and... something to do with
14 Victor Hugo, Poésie (Paris: Seuil, 1972), I, pp. 375-81.
other American tourists. Certainly they feel that they are
very far from ‘it’ when, after traveling five thousand miles,
they arrive at the plaza in Guanajuato only to find
themselves surrounded by a dozen other couples from the
Midwest. (MB, p. 51)
Their problem, as he diagnoses it, is to find an ‘unspoiled’
place, an attraction that has not attracted tourists or become
encrusted with renown. While driving to Mexico City they
accidentally do so. Lost on back roads, they discover a tiny
Indian village where an elaborate native ritual is in progress.
They know at once, Percy says, that this is ‘it’. ‘Now may we not
say that the sightseers have at last come face to face with an
authentic sight, a sight which is charming, quaint, picturesque,
unspoiled, and that they see the sight and come away rewarded?
Possibly this may occur. Yet it is more likely that what happens
is a far cry indeed from an immediate encounter with being’
(MB, p. 52). The failure to have an immediate encounter with the
sight, which Percy earlier attributed to symbolic encrustations
with which a culture has surrounded the sight, is here recognized
as a feature of the encounter itself—intrinsic to it and not an
accidental corruption that might be put right. The village seems
unspoiled; there are no signs of other tourists, so the couple
ought in principle to be like Percy’s explorer, coming upon an
authentic sight and finding it splendid. But in fact their pleasure
is anxious and divided, not a plenitude of fulfillment.
The clue to the spuriousness of their enjoyment of the
village and the festival is a certain restiveness in the
sightseers themselves. It is given expression by their
repeated exclamations that ‘this is too good to be true’,
and their anxiety that it may not prove to be so perfect,
and finally by their downright relief at leaving the valley
and having the experience in the bag, so to speak—that
is, safely embalmed in memory and movie film. What is
the source of their anxiety during the visit? We have
another clue in their subsequent remark to an ethnologist
friend. ‘How we wished you had been with us! ... Every
minute we would say to each other, if only you were
here! You must return with us’. (MB, p. 52-3)
This is not, Percy notes, a desire to share their experience
with others but a need of a different sort, essential to the semiotic
structure of tourism: ‘They need the ethnologist to certify their
experience as genuine. This is borne out by their behavior when
the three of them return for the next corn dance. During the
dance the couple do not watch the goings on; they watch the
ethnologist! Their highest hope is that their friend should find the
dance interesting. And if he should show signs of true absorption
... then their cup is full. “Didn’t we tell you?” they say at last’
(MB, p. 53).
To be truly satisfying the sight needs to be certified, marked
as authentic. Without these markers, it could not be experienced
as authentic—whence the couple’s anxiety, anxiety from the
absence of markers. The paradox, the dilemma of authenticity, is
that to be experienced as authentic it must be marked as
authentic, but when it is marked as authentic it is mediated, a
sign of itself, and hence lacks the authenticity of what is truly
unspoiled, untouched by mediating cultural codes. We want our
souvenirs to be labeled ‘authentic native crafts produced by
certified natives using guaranteed original materials and archaic
techniques’ (rather than, say, ‘Made in Taiwan’), but such
markers are put there for tourists, to certify touristic objects. The
authentic sight requires markers, but our notion of the authentic
is the unmarked.
Percy’s idea of a friendly ethnologist who accompanies the
tourist is the most positive version of this double bind. Theexpert here is in fact nothing other than a personalized,individualized projection of the cultural sign systems that
articulate the world, attaching labels, producing reliable andunreliable markers, certifying sights as genuine instances of whatone should look for. The authenticity the tourist seeks is at one
level an escape from the code, but this escape itself is coded inturn, for the authentic must be marked to be constituted asauthentic.
Another version of this basic semiotic mechanism is thedialectical relation between what MacCannell, following ErvingGoffman, calls front and back regions. In their quest for an
authentic experience, tourists want to see the inside of things, sosocial and economic arrangements are made to take them behindthe scenes, ranging from guided tours of the Paris sewers, themorgue, or the stock exchange to schemes whereby small groups
of tourists willing to pay handsomely for the privilege can stay ata ducal castle and breakfast with the duke. The authenticitymarkers attached to these tourist attractions indicate that they arealready coded, and therefore not the true back regions, which
become in turn a further source of attraction (the dream that theduke might invite one to see something he does not show to tourists). In English stately homes that are open to the public, the
grandest and most attractive regions are generally turned over to the tourist parties, but visitors avidly hope to catch a glimpse,through an open door or down a passageway, of the smaller andarchitecturally ordinary back regions where the noble familynow lives in bourgeois style. In regions frequented by tourists,MacCannell observes, the distinction between front and back, or
between what is there to be shown to tourists and what isgenuine, is operationally decisive but has become highly
problematic: ‘the continuum is sufficiently developed in some
areas of the world that it appears as an infinite regression of
stage sets’ (T, p. 105). Every ‘original’ is a further
A semiotic perspective advances the study of tourism by
preventing one from thinking of signs and sign relations as
corruptions of what ought to be a direct experience of reality and
thus of saving one from the simplistic fulminations against
tourists and tourism that are symptoms of the touristic system
rather than pertinent analyses. Tourism, in turn, enriches
semiotics in its demonstration that salient features of the social
and natural world are articulated by what Percy calls ‘symbolic
complexes’ and its revelation of the modern quest for experience
as a quest for an experience of signs. Its illustration of the
structural incompleteness of experience, its dependency on
markers, helps us understand something of the nature of semiotic
Particularly interesting are the processes by which touristic
attractions are produced. We have already noted the dependency
of sights on markers: ‘empty’ sites become sights through the
attachment of markers. An unremarkable piece of ground
becomes a tourist attraction when equipped with a plaque
reading ‘Site of the Bonnie and Clyde shootout’, and as more
markers are added—informative historical displays, a little
museum, a Bonnie and Clyde amusement park with shooting
galleries—the markers themselves quite explicitly become the
attraction, the sight itself. These markers would then have further
markers attached to them: postcards depicting the Bonnie and
Clyde Museum, pennants depicting Bonnie-and-Clyde-Land and
its more famous attractions. MacCannell notes that analysis of
the touristic attraction demonstrates the interchangeability of
signifier and signified: the Statue of Liberty, originally a
marker—a sign welcoming travelers to New York—has become
a sight; but then as a celebrated tourist attraction it has become at
another level a marker, used on posters and travel displays as a
marker for the United States as a country for tourism. The Eiffel
Tower, a major touristic signified, represented by a variety of
different signifiers, is itself a signifier which signifies ‘Paris’.
The Empire State Building is a sight that serves as a marker for
the sightseer’s Manhattan. Buildings constructed to mark and
preserve sights often become the sights themselves: the Sainte
Chapelle, built to contain and display for visitors the ‘true crown
of thorns’, is now the principal sight and the crown is forgotten.
The arbitrary nature of the sign, we can infer, prevents there
being a difference of nature between signifier and signified, so
that not only may the signified marked by a marker prove to be
another marker or signifier in its turn, but—a less frequently recognized semiotic possibility—a signifier may itself functionas a signified.
The production of touristic sights relies on semioticmechanisms whose operation may seem quite local andcontingent, but the general framework and product of these
signifying mechanisms, the touristic code, is a modern consensusof vast scope, a systematized, value-laden knowledge of theworld. Groups which disagree on a range of moral and politicalissues know what tourists ought to see and, when they flout thevalue system to ‘get off the beaten track’, for instance, they do soin terms that are already prescribed by that system. Our primaryway of making sense of the world is as a network of tourist destinations andpossibilities which we ought in principle tovisit. Tourism, MacCannell writes, ‘is a ritual performed to thedifferentiations of society’, an attempt to overcome
fragmentation by articulating the world as a series of societies,each with its characteristic monuments, distinctive customs orcultural practices, and native scenery, all of which are treated assigns of themselves, non-functional displays of codes.
This touristic system accompanies and is tied in with theworld system of multinational capitalism, which has createdmuch of the infrastructure, such as airports and Western hotels,
on which tourism depends. Like tourism, this capitalism seeks tomake the world a series of accessible sites, equivalent as marketsfor goods and interchangeable as sites of production according tothe momentary advantages of wage scales and local conditions.
Could one not say that modern tourism, with its reduction ofcultures to signs and celebration of the distinctiveness of thosesigns, is a mask for the capitalist world system, a celebration ofsignification and differentiation which conceals the economicexploitation and homogenization that underlies it; that tourism,which celebrates cultural difference, makes cultures museumpieces to conceal their destruction at the hands of the world
economic system? One could certainly make this claim, but asFredric Jameson notes when discussing the post-modern cultureof the simulacrum, while this cultural practice to some extent
masks the economic reality, it also reveals aspects of that system,foregrounding its mechanisms, making clear, for example, thatwhat we visit is not an organic, autonomous native reality butattractions marked and thus constituted by an internationaltouristic practice—signs produced within a international systemof signification.15 Moreover, there are few clearer indicators ofshifting lines of force within the economic order than changes in
the flow of tourists.
Tourism reveals difficulties of appreciating otherness exceptthrough signifying structures that mark and reduce it. It istempting to see here nothing more than the result of an
exploitative international order. But the Marxist condemnation oftourism as the reduction of otherness to caricature in complicitywith multinational capitalism risks falling into a sentimental
nostalgia for the organic or the unmediated that resemblesnothing so much as the vituperative nostalgia of conservatives,who fondly imagine a time where the elite alone traveled and
everything in the world showed itself truly to them. Baudrillard,in his critique of the Marxist appeal to an authentic ‘use-value’,maintains that ‘Every revolutionary perspective today stands orfalls on its ability to re-interrogate the repressive, reductive,rationalizing metaphysic of utility’ so as to study sign relations.16
Certainly in the case we are dealing with, to condemn tourismmay be morally satisfying, but to do so is also, I fear, to rely onthe naive postulate of an escape from semiosis and to cut oneself
off from the possibility of exploring semiotic mechanisms whichprove persistent and ubiquitous, central to any culture or socialorder.
See Fredric Jameson, ‘Postmodernism, or The Cultural Logic of Late
Capitalism’, New Left Review, 146 (July/August 1984), pp. 53-92, especially,
16 Baudrillard, Political Economy, p. 138