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Considering Tourism

Many years ago, way back in 2013, I was invited to contribute something for The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Materiality. I wrote what I thought at the time was my strongest piece about a topic that I have built my scholarly reputation on, religion and tourism. Working from a footnote in David Foster Wallace’s essay “Consider the Lobster” about tourists as “economically significant but existentially loathsome,” I focused on the existential conundrum of tourism in regard to the aesthetics of authenticity and its commodification.

I was pleased with what I had written and looked forward to its publication. But it would be another seven years before the book would appear. The usual sort of delays for such projects were compounded by the career-ending fall from grace of the lead editor, and complications in dealing with the publisher’s unwieldly bureaucracy plus a general lack of enthusiasm made it seem that my essay would never make it into print. At one point I considered withdrawing my submission and sending it elsewhere, doubting that the book would ever be published.

In the end, patience paid off. By the time the publisher sent me an edited version for review (roughly five years after my original submission), it needed some revision of details which by then were obsolete. Finally, the book came out in the spring of 2020 in the midst of pandemic, although I didn’t realize that it had been published until six months later. But I am delighted my essay finally made it into print, even if only as a chapter in an overpriced volume that has received practically no attention (not even a single comment in Goodreads).

Here are some of the highlights of my essay, “Consider the Tourist”:

  • David Foster Wallace, despite his own dislike of tourists and their pursuits, concedes in his essay “Consider the Lobster” that “it probably really is good for the soul to be a tourist, even if it’s only once in a while.” He explains, “Not good for the soul in a refreshing or enlivening way, though, but rather in a grim, steely-eyed, let’s-look-honestly-at-the-facts-and-find-some-way-to-deal-with-them way.”  Wallace concludes, “As a tourist you become economically significant but existentially loathsome, an insect on a dead thing.”
  • “For many people the perceived existential value of recreational travel relies to some extent on the desire for authenticity.  Most tourists, if not all recreational travelers at some level, desire some sort of authentic experience, or at least they want their travels to reveal their own potential for living an authentic life.”
  • “Consider the tourist in nature.” Nineteenth-century American cultural fascination with the redemptive qualities of nature contributed to the establishment of Yellowstone National Park.
  • “Consider the tourist encountering unfamiliar people and cultures.” At the Newark Earthworks in Ohio, contemporary travelers seek authentic existential validation in their imaginative engagement with ancient indigenous cultures. 
  • “Consider the tourist encountering the charismatic power of celebrity.”  At Graceland, the Memphis, Tennessee, home of the late Elvis Presley, visitors encounter the charisma of the late “King” of rock-and-roll.
  • “Consider the tourist as a modern religious subject.” At many tourist sites, “authenticity reigns as the holy grail of the religious quest, a sacred commodity positioned to seduce touristic desires.”

The complete essay “Consider the Tourist” appears as Chapter 9 in The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Religion and Materiality, ed. Vasudha Narayanan, Wiley-Blackwell (2020): 187-206.

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