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‘Authenticity vs. Staged experiences’

Christian Engler

MA studies intourism management at the University of Brighton / England

1. Introduction
2. Is there any objective authenticity?
3. Constructed authenticity
4. Giving meaning to the world
5. Why the concept of objective authenticity is still preserved
6. Conclusion

1. Introduction

It is a commonly held view that mass tourism and the commodification of attractions are a threat to the ‘uniqueness’, ‘authenticity’, ‘natural state’ (Galla, 1994) or ‘scholarly credibility’ (Goulding, 2000) of ethnicities, heritage and culture (Wang, 1999). Many people fear that these valuable assets are sacrificed for the sake of entertainment, popularity, and profit (Goulding, 2000; Lancaster County Heritage, 2002) and hence agree that the ’original’ and ‘indigenous’ has to be protected from these ‘evils of late-capitalism’ (Taylor, 2001).

At the same time, in tourism, the binary opposition of ‘authentic’ and ‘inauthentic’ is fundamental in the creation of product value (Taylor, 2001). The label of ‘authenticity’ is used to sell festivals, rituals, cuisine, souvenirs, dresses or accommodation with the meaning of ‘made or enacted by local people’, according to ‘custom’ or ‘tradition’ (Wang, 1999). In ‘authentic’ landscapes the relation between local people and Mother Nature is still in balance (Nishimura, 2005).

In both ways, the term poses as objectivism, holding the power of ‘the truth’ both spatial as temporal (Taylor, 2001). However, the myth of an ‘objective authenticity’ has been disassembled by supporters of constructivist, post-modernist and existentialist thinking (Wang, 1999). This essay will explore different approaches to authenticity and verify their meaning in the context of tourism. The question will be raised if not every tourism offering can be considered a ‘staged experience’ and if not everything, from a museum object to a medieval town to the infamous Disneyland can be seen as equally authentic.

2. Is there any objective authenticity?

Objective authenticity assumes that there is something inherently ‘authentic’. This is a very ‘museum-linked’ way of perception, based on ‘original’ objects, such as an ‘authentic Roman coin’ to which ‘authenticity’ attributes a certain origin in time. However, tourism transfers this concept to people, sites, services, or events and any subsequent modification, transformation or creativity to the ‘original’ idea is negatively seen as inauthentic (Wang, 1999). Towns, regions and countries publish authenticity guidelines to preserve historic structures, culture and tradition. Tourism councils define criteria of authenticity to award tourism businesses with accreditation and logos of ‘official heritage’. The criteria and terminology used are based on an objective understanding of authenticity. Examples are the County of Lancaster’s (2002) ‘Authenticity Guidelines and Criteria’ or the Baltimore City Heritage Area Association’s (2001) ‘Authentic Baltimore Program Guidelines’. Such an understanding of authenticity is rejected by other authors as ‘antiquarian’ and ‘elitist’ (Schoorl, 2005).

One problem of objective authenticity is that nothing is static but in constant change, so there is no absolute point of reference (Wang, 1999). Just as heritage is ‘fabricated’ over time (Schoorl, 2005), so are tradition (Hannabuss, 1999), custom and culture (Wang, 1999). Urry (2002:9) asks what the difference is between an ‘apparently inauthentic staging for the tourist’ and the ‘process of cultural remaking that happens in all cultures anyway’.

Something that initially has been considered ‘inauthentic’ can subsequently with the passage of time even widely be perceived as ‘authentic’ (Wang, 1999). Examples of tourism sites that by the time of their creation could not objectively have been called ‘authentic’ in reference to their time and place, but that are today seen as important heritage monuments are the Grotto de Thetis at Versailles, an ancient Greek underwater world designed in 1665 (Hedin, 2001), or the landscape garden of Stourhead in England from 1745, hosting a Greek temple, a copy of the Roman Pantheon and a gothic cottage (Viau, 2002a). The Neuschwanstein Castle in Bavaria, a medieval style castle, was accomplished in 1886 ‘in the authentic style of the old German knights' castles’, as Ludwig II, King of Bavaria wrote in a letter to the composer Richard Wagner (Bavarian Department for State-owned Palaces, 2003). This shows that in the past people were less concerned about ‘authenticity’ than today. Eco (1990) recognizes that the reproduction team of the Getty Museum, faithfully reconstructing an ‘authentic’ Herculaneum villa in Los Angeles, were in fact reproducing an ‘inauthenitic’ copy of a Greek villa, because Herculaneum patricians used to copy Greek buildings in a way far less ‘faithful’ to authenticity than the contemporary reproduction team. Even Disneyland, 50 years after its opening, is nowadays widely recognized as an ‘authentic’ theme park (Wang, 1999). In order to find cultural ‘objective authenticity’ one might have to go back to prehistoric times. However, nostalgia for a wild, prehistoric, hunting-gathering past is not widespread (Young, 1999).

Another problem of objective authenticity is that – even if one accepts that there might be ‘authenticity’ of single objects such as a costume or a building in reference to a certain time or place - the selective portrayal of these components will always be based on the taste and perception of a modern biased society (Goulding, 2000). Hence, the meaning of the ‘authentic’ object gets both disassembled and reassembled in a new context (Hannabuss, 1999).

A third problem is to decide who has the power to decide what can be regarded as objectively authentic and what not. Many historic developments are controversial even amongst academics and scientists and there is no clear evidence to the exact manifestation of many things from the past. So a great portion of portraying the past is merely ‘guesswork’ (Fuller, n.d.).

3. Constructed authenticity

Assuming that there cannot be objective authenticity, why do people ‘believe’ in its existence? Constructivist philosophers assume that there is no real pre-existing world independent of human activity. Nothing is inherently authentic; authenticity is constructed by a society based on points of view, beliefs, perspectives, interpretations or powers. Therefore, what consumers or tourists do is projecting their expectations, preferences, consciousness and stereotyped images onto toured objects and sites and believe them to be authentic when they meet their expectations (Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999). For constructivists, authenticity is elative, negotiable, contextually determined and even ideological (Wang, 1999).

According to Urry (2002), today’s mass media are constructing and sustaining the consumers’ concept of authenticity. In a ‘three-minute-culture’ people ‘gaze’ upon and collect signs and images of many cultures in an extreme form of ‘time-space compression’ or ‘global miniaturisation’. In that way they acquire an extensive reference system of semiotic signs such as ‘timeless romantic Paris’ or ‘real olde England’. Beeck (2003) characterizes this perception as plural, fragmented and decontextualised.

Taylor (2001) describes the observations of MacCannell (1992) how the West’s image of the ‘ideal primitive’ is teaching native ethnicities how to act primitive for tourists. The concept of the ‘performative primitive’ has also been addressed by Desmond (1999), manifested in the way ‘authentic Hawaiian hula dancers’ have to look like in tourism shows and tourism marketing, always featuring a slightly Polynesian black-haired and brown-skinned Sophia Loren look, which has little to do with the ethnic composition of the island being the ‘melting pot’ of the Pacific. Beeck (2003) writes that for tourism purposes, European inner cities get a ‘historical staging’. They are becoming symbolic spaces with little relation to today’s everyday life. They are merely scenery in which tourists would consider heterogeneity as irritating and molesting. All these examples are a blurry mix of ‘objectively authentic’ elements and a big portion of myth (Hannabuss, 1999).

Such a view of the world and the past however is not a product of today’s media consumption. An earlier ‘media mix’ constructing ‘authenticity’ was set up for example by explorers’ reports, ‘missionary diatribes’ (Desmond, 1999), and works by fictional writers and artists such as Mark Twain, Herman Melville, Robert Louis Stevenson, Karl May or E. T. A. Hoffmann whose views were based on different concepts such as colonial expansion, racial discourse (Desmond, 1999), romanticism or classicism. Eighteenth century English gardens introduced ‘the tourist viewpoint’ into park design, displaying miniaturized scenes from other times and places (Beeck, 2003). This is an early form of ‘sampling’, as post-modern artists would call it, which through simplification, reproduction and decontextualization blurs the concepts of ‘real’ and ‘fake’ (Hannabuss, 1999).

Some authors think that today’s consumers are aware of the constructiveness of their ‘authenticity’ (Beeck, 2003; Hannabuss, 1999; Urry, 2002). For instance, tourists know that sitting at the Bellagio Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas in the middle of an Italian setting with a view upon an artificial ‘Lago di Como’ does not mean being in Italy. The point is that they do not have any problems with this ‘cultural discrepancy’ (Beeck, 2003). They do not seek ‘authenticity’, but enjoy the staged experiences like playing a game (Urry, 2002; Xie, 2004). The change of the perception of authenticity in media consumption is often illustrated with the anecdote of the first public performances of the Lumière brothers’ film ‘Arrival of the train at La Ciotat’ in 1895, where a terrified audience stampeded the exits seeing the train approaching on the screen (Suttner, 2000).

Supporters of objective authenticity do not accredit tourists the capability to differentiate between ‘fake’ and ‘real’. Kelleher (2004) refers to Bryman (1995) who argues that for tens of millions of people the Disney version of history becomes ‘real’ history. Xie (2004) names a lack of depth of understanding of history and culture as the reason. Mc Kenzie (1996) remembers that when Disney planned to construct a theme park on American history, ‘Disney’s America’, they had to face very strong resistance. The president of the Society of American Historians, David McCullough, began a campaign to stop Disney’s plan with the argument that Disney would provide a ‘synthetic history by destroying real history’. However, other historians credit Disney for having taught more people more history in a memorable way than they have ever learned in school (Kelleher, 2004).

4. Giving meaning to the world

Eco (1990), in his collection of essays ‘Travels in Hyperreality‘, originally published in 1975, goes on a pilgrimage through the USA in search of ‘hyperreality’. The hyperreal world is the world of ‘the Absolute Fake’ where imitations do not only reproduce reality, but try improving it. Wang (1999) gives the example of recorded birds singing at zoos, which makes the visit more ‘authentic’ than the actual birds singing, because the latter cannot guarantee the presence of a bird and a performance for each and every visitor. Today, with the advancement of technology, a reality ‘better than the real’ can be created that even Eco couldn’t have imagined in the seventies. In the world of zoos, Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Florida is the epitome of improved reality and simulated authenticity.

Sanes (2000) writes that Animal Kingdom makes fantasies remarkably lifelike, taking visitors back into a world of innocence where they should save Eden from falling into the ‘realm of death brought by society’. A central symbol of the park is ‘the Tree of Life’ visitors have to pass through, a fabricated fourteen stories high tree with more than 100.000 artificial leaves. Sanes quotes Disney’s promotional materials, comparing its choice of words with a televangelist’s Sunday sermon: ‘It is a tree like none other, rising fourteen graceful stories into the sky, its leafy canopy spreading 160 feet across the landscape, its upraised branches beckon: Come, take a closer look.’ The tree becomes a godlike symbol, the symbol of Mother Nature.

This symbol becomes readable to visitors because social and cultural context provides the ‘correct’ or widely accepted interpretation (Gottdiener, 1997). Postmodernists such as Eco refer to this as the ‘metaphysic of the code’. They say that it is irrelevant whether something is authentic or inauthentic, because in a world of representation, industrial reproduction and simulation there is no original that can serve as a reference (Wang, 1999). Encoded signs, however, have always existed in the history of human culture in the form of texts, images, myths or symbols defining an individual or a society (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997). Gottdiener (1997) gives the example of the cave of Lascaux in France. Its wall paintings are symbolic productions projecting a window into the past and giving meaning to every object of nature. The author argues that conceiving the natural world as a meaningful and significant place created the earliest instances of themed environments as they are known today. During prehistoric life, everyday life was fully themed: every stone, tree, place or individual had a connotative symbol attached to it. Also ancient cities such as Athens or Beijing were over-endowed with cosmological and religious themes.

A theme can be anything that provides a symbolic readability. The Latin and Greek origin of the word ‘theme’ is ‘thema’, which literally means ‘something set down’, based on the Greek verb ‘tithenai’, ‘to place, put down’ (Harper, 2001). The same meaning has the French term ‘Mis-en-scene’ used in theatrical language synonymously to staging (Bordwell and Thompson, 1993). Hence the terms ‘themed environment’ and ‘staged environment’ are used synonymously. Today tourism and leisure make extensive use of theming and staging, not only in theme parks, but also in zoos, shopping malls, restaurants, festivals, hotels, tours, video games or virtual reality.

Just as their prehistoric and ancient religious and cosmological predecessors, themed environments make use of ‘the code’ to provide orientation and identity (Gottdiener, 1997). Sanes (2000) states that these ‘symbolic arenas of simulation’ make it possible for participants to act out their fantasies, fears and desires, giving them the illusion of transcendence from time and space, and from the roles they play in society. These roles are larger and more exciting than those of everyday life. Psychoanalytic concepts of Stoller, Freud and Kohut dealing with power, phallic aggression, revenge, sex, love and success can be used to explain the underlying motivation of using simulation. Simulation can also be seen as an integral part of nature in the struggle for survival. Plants and animals manifest deceptive appearances in great profusion and early humans possessed the ability to walk with stealth, to act threatening, to communicate through iconic behaviour – doing something that seems like something else - and to play.

Rousseau used the word ‘authenticity’ to refer to the personal integrity of man being good by nature, a ‘noble savage’. In his opinion, authenticity was destroyed by the desire to have value in the eyes of others (‘Jean-Jacques Rousseau’, 2005). This comes close to the idea of existentialist philosophers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre who see authenticity related to the conscious self and its relation with the world (‘Authenticity [philosophy]’, 2005). For Heidegger, to look for the meaning of authenticity was to ask about the meaning of Being. Freud considered a person to be ‘authentic’ when he or she was in balance between reason and emotion (Wang, 1999).

In the modern world rational factors often over-control non-rational factors (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997; Wang, 1999) and tourism activity is expected to activate the ‘authentic self’ (Wang, 1999). People seek to alleviate the anxieties in their lives through a ‘pilgrimage’ to places of self-fulfilment (Young, 1999). For this ‘existentialist authenticity’ the objective authenticity of toured objects becomes irrelevant or less relevant – both an artificial hyperreality and tourism that includes elements of ‘objective authenticity’ serve the same existential needs (Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999; Xie, 2004). Urry (2002) quotes MacCannell (1999) noting that anything is a potential tourist attraction; it just takes one person to point it out as something worth seeing.

Disney designers understand how to make use of symbolism to provide an ‘existentialist authenticity’ that serves middle class Americans (Beeck, 2003). Offering relief from the constraints of everyday life, tourism in general and theme parks in particular, have often been described using religious terminology. Substituting Jerusalem or Mecca, they are new pilgrimage sites that serve utopian ideas selling consumers the myth of a perfect world (Eco, 1990; Gottdiener, 1997; Sanes, 2000; Urry, 2002; Viau, 2002b; Young, 1999). There are many similarities between Thomas More’s (1901) island of Utopia, released in 1516, and modern theme parks. Today‘s ‘Waltopias’ (Viau, 2002b) are often designed and marketed as removed in space and time, such as ‘Universal’s Island of Adventure’, ‘Terra mítica’ or ‘Isla mágica’. At the same time they are bound so that ‘the outside world’ would not ‘leak in’ (Naversen, 2000; Young, 1999). Gottdiener (1997) contributes the point that theme parks provide the illusion of escaping from the demands of economy. Once paid the admission fee, all the rides and attractions are ‘free’. More’s (1901) Utopia - often used as a reference model for socialist fantasies – features a similar egalitarian distribution of goods, and money is abolished. Both theme parks and ‘Utopia’ seem to remove physical and economic barriers to pursuing authenticity. All-inclusive holiday packages are a very similar phenomenon.

However, theme parks and holidays packaged for ‘mass tourism’ are commonly defamed as two examples of absolutely ‘fake’ forms of pleasure-seeking. Urry (2002) observes that there is a growing clientele for ‘real holidays’ instead. ‘Real holiday’ seekers tend to go to places well away from the masses, such as Bolivia or Syria, buy at small ‘delicatessen’ travel agents and educate themselves through books and travel guides. They have an interest in cultural, heritage and ‘green’ tourism. The constructiveness of this ‘authenticity’ and the underlying concept of the search for existential authenticity however are the same, only the fetishes may differ. Wang (1999) gives the example of Daniel (1996), about tourists learning to dance Salsa in Cuba which transforms their reality into near-ecstatic experiences. This ‘authenticity’ can be seen as a constructed romantization of non-western societies, whose people are supposed to be freer, purer, more innocent, more spontaneous and spiritually more authentic than the self-constraint and rational tourist-sending societies (Taylor, 2001; Wang, 1999). In the case of the nostalgic reaction visitors have at heritage sites described by Goulding (1999), the positive orientation towards the past reflects a negative appraisal of the self in the present and feelings of a loss of ‘the golden age’. Also ‘green’ tourists’ ‘obsession with the countryside’ is a highly selective romantic gaze that comes close to a ‘theme’ (Urry, 2002).

5. Why the concept of objective authenticity is still preserved

Assuming that authenticity is only a construct to find existential meaning, why is the myth of objective authenticity still preserved?

The first motif is moral energy. The idea of an existing truth and the Christian concept of guilt are dictating a morality of duty to truth itself to many people (Dworkin, 1996). It is ‘political correctness’ to respect past ‘as it really was’ and failure to do so is not just considered as wrong, but as ‘wicked’ (Fuller, n.d.). This aligns with a ‘fear of pleasure’ that is equally seen as guilt, prohibiting the fusion of the ‘truth of the past’ with ‘the vulgar’ (Urry, 2002).

A second motif is that of social class affiliation. It is especially a habit of the ‘service class’, those with professional managerial jobs, to defame staged experiences as ‘fake’, ‘tastelessness’ or ‘kitsch’ in the sense of modernists such as Dorfles (1968) or Broch (1968) and to associate staged experiences with social classes of lower education (Urry, 2002). The wish to experience something ‘more authentic’ instead, is the wish to be distinct from the masses and to belong to a certain elite (Beeck, 2003; Gottdiener, 1997; Hannabuss, 1999; Urry, 2002; Wang, 1999).

Young (1999) shows a repeating pattern of acceptance and refusal of European gardens, which are commonly regarded the progenitors of theme parks, depending on social class affiliation. First, it was the aristocracy that built early ‘hyperrealities’ for their private pleasure, including grottos, artificial landscaping, foreign and historic buildings and staged performances. In the eighteenth century, the bourgeoisie imitated this lifestyle by having pleasure gardens that were situated out of town to exclude visitors that could not afford to come by carriage. In the nineteenth century, the gardens became popular for the working classes, which were fusing their own tastes with upper-class styles. The wealthy as a consequence avoided their formerly favourite places. Urry (2002) observes that today in ‘rural tourism’, certain kinds of transport and accommodation are necessary to show affiliation to the ‘intellectual’ social group capable of appreciating ‘authentic rural tourism’. A convoy of motorbikes for example would be unacceptable.

The service class’ aversion of themed environments is based on the philosophy of ‘modernism’, that in Europe still is ‘a commonly held set of beliefs’ (Thomas, 2000:54). Modernism and its various subforms, such as futurism and progressivism, proclaimed that all ‘traditional’ forms of art, literature, social organization and daily life had become outdated. For modern creations, all forms of symbolism and the process of codification and decodification were rejected in favour of structure, function, efficiency and abstraction (Beeck, 2003). Modern cities were reduced to basic geometrical shapes (Gottdiener, 1997), where ‘overt theming is not just professionally taboo [for architects]; many ordinary people are likely to have reservations about its more exuberant manifestations’ (Thomas, 2000:54). Modernism is a philosophy of differentiation, between high and low culture, between art and popular pleasures, and between elite and mass forms of consumption (Urry, 2002).

Postmodernists criticize modernists for this ideology as being ‘cut off from the culture of society’ (Gottdiener, 1999) and inhuman (Alexander, 2003). Cities became characterless, ties to home and the familiar got diminished (Corbin, 1999), and societies had to find other ways to acquire meaning in their lives (Gottdiener, 1997). While some people can find this meaning in ‘inauthentic’ experiences, the ‘elite’ still is dominated by the rationalism of modernism, only allowing existential authenticity to be set free with the help of fetishes that they construct into pre-modern times and cultures.

The third motif, tourism marketing, is rather a consequence of the previously mentioned motifs. ‘Malaysia truly Asia’, ‘Tanzania – Authentic Africa’, ‘Bodegas España Auténtica’ - tourism marketing takes advantage and fuels the simple black and white concept of authenticity and inauthenticity, because the ‘authentic’ becomes ‘a stylistic reference’ (Hannabuss, 1999) that gives value to tourism products tailored for its target group (Taylor, 2001). When ‘inauthentic’ experiences such as Disneyland are criticized for having ‘a single authority, a common viewpoint, and homogeneity of experience’ (Corbin, 1999:187), dominated by consumption and profit-seeking (Gottdiener, 1997), the same can be said about ‘authentic’ holidays. The Baltimore City Heritage Area Association’s (2001) webpage clearly states that the city’s strict authenticity program, condemning all kind of tourism activity that is not ‘providing authentic interpretations of local heritage’, has been established with the only purpose of increasing visitor spending and have tourism boost the local economy.

6. Conclusion

Besides the concept of single ‘museum-style’ objects, the whole idea about authenticity in tourism is that of a socially constructed existential authenticity. To reach existential authenticity, it does not matter whether the tourism experience includes objectively authentic elements or not, so Disneyland is as ‘authentic’ or ‘inauthentic’ as Hever Castle.

The morality of guilt and pressure of social group affiliation however preserve the myth of authenticity, which marketing takes advantage of and fuels.

The postmodernist approach is adequate, because it combines a scepticism about and awareness for the ambivalence of provided experiences and at the same time accepts it as natural and inevitable (Hannabuss, 1999). This does not mean the decline of culture, but the exact opposite: as part of a dynamic concept of history it opens the way ‘away from an untouchable pigeon hole’ to a more democratic understanding of the term, giving new combinations of symbolic meaning, sense and identity to the people (Schoorl, 2005:80). It is a way to see authenticity as de-differentiated and anti-elitist, which is particularly suitable for tourism because tourism combines ‘the visual, the aesthetic, the commercial and the popular’ (Urry, 2002:78).

Schoorl (2005:84), responsible for the Netherlands’ policy on World Heritage and member of the UNESCO’s World Heritage Committee is content that ‘the Netherlands in the last few decades has undergone a tremendous paradigm shift in which it freed itself from the illusion of a fixed past with sacrosanct originals to a more socially based, dynamic and integrated approach.’

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