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MacCannell, Dean. The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, 3rd Ed. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999 (231 pp.). "Wow!" is about all one can say after reading this book. MacCannell’s is one of the first and still most relevant sociological studies of the tourist, whom he sees as the exemplar for the postmodern figure: "alienated but seeking subjectivity in his alienation." The thesis of this expansive, insightful, and still applicable book is that modern society ("complicated, competitive, rat racy, dog-eat-dog, racist, exploitative, slick, superficial and corrupt") is linked to and in many ways is most represented by tourism, especially mass leisure, through the tourist’s quest to experience authenticity, which he or she finds absent from everyday life. But, says MacCannell, sociologists, who purport to study underlying social structures, have, for the most part, ignored tourism as a benchmark for modernity. MacCannell sets out to fill that gap and succeeds remarkably, providing what Claude Levi-Strauss said was unrealizable: an ethnography of the modern, one that pulls disparate disciplines of social inquiry – sociology, semiotics, linguistics, history, religion, philosophy – into a coherent substructure that has "museumized" the postindustrial experience. Readers who are not familiar with the ideas of Marx, Hegel, and in particular the sociologist Erving Goffman may find themselves somewhat lost in the dizzying array of theories – and application of those theories – that MacCannell tosses around in the early chapters. Stay with him, though, and you’ll be rewarded as he builds upon these concepts and draws clear and profound connections to contemporary lifestyles, especially as they relate to tourism (applying Marxist thought on the value of commodities, for example, to our relationship with tourism products and the experience — or "value" – they afford). His comments on differentiation, "staged authenticity," and the different levels of reality tourists confront are still debated and often cited in the literature. The Tourist is filled with specific examples of the "touristic" experience, i.e., the ways in which travelers relate to different attractions (MacCannell coined the word touristic); and from these examples he draws a wealth of conclusions about the nature of attractions (why they are, who says so, what they mean) and how these leisure experiences define modern man – replacing work as the principle activity that provides one’s identity. Unlike other contemporary studies that criticize tourism as shallow and superficial (usually written by scholars who are themselves tourists), MacCannell’s book takes a more inquisitive view (not blaming the tourist), and ultimately sees most travelers as people who do want the authentic – who, more than most, are moving beyond "the frontiers of existing society" through inquiry into cultural otherness. This review used the third edition, which includes a recent (1999) epilogue by the author. He (and most other readers) still find the basic message of The Tourist intact; what he adds is a valuable chapter on the modern tourism "industry," which has effectively been appropriated by corporations. To combat this rapid and homogenizing development, MacCannell sees hope in the newer and more localized forms of cultural tourism. This is a special, prophetic book that deserves more than one read.


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