June 20, 2002, Episode Seven:   Simulated Vacations

Victoria, British Columbia is a premiere vacation spot.  Canadians and Americans are joined each summer by visitors from all over the world to see a "bit of old England" in a mild climate called "the city of gardens."  We spoke with people on the street about their dream vacations and then discussed the tourism industry with Melissa McLean of Tourism Victoria.  What is your dream vacation?  What is a soft adventure vacation? an active adventure vacation?  an eco-vacation? an enrichment vacation?  Bird-watching, anyone?

When we moved to Victoria, British Columbia from Winston-Salem, North Carolina in the Summer of 2000, we drove across the mid-Atlantic, midwestern and northwestern United States before entering Canada at Osoyoos, British Columbia.  Taking our time, we stopped at several tourist attractions along the way including The Mall of America in Minneapolis/St. Paul, The Corn Palace in Mitchell, South Dakota, and Badlands National Park, Wall Drug, Mount Rushmore National Park, and the Crazy Horse Memorial (all around Rapid City, South Dakota).  This made for a study in contrasts between what was kitchy and seemed fake and what was closer to nature and seemed real.  However, in the end, all of it had some element of simulation, including the antelope at play.

By the 1950s, with the invention of plastics, the popularity of the car and the vast open highways of the North America, the summer road vacation became an important part of the culture.  Tacky souvenirs have spread to kitschy places to visit, stay and eat.  More and more North Americans are seeking simulated theme parks, malls and adventures to thrill and entertain them.  We reviewed Jean Baudrillard's Simulations and George Ritzer's Enchanting a Disenchanted World: Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption in light of these vacation trends.

PATTIE: So, we are about to embark on an experimental style of book review -- a kind of duelling book review in which we place two books in comparison to each other in order to understand a topic more thoroughly. I will be discussing George Ritzer's "Enchanting a Disenchanted World:  Revolutionizing the Means of Consumption." Along with his book "The McDonaldization of Society" Ritzer's project is to look at the ways in which consumption economics are changing social relationships. I really like his work. His writing is accessible, especially for a postmodern approach, and yet, he doesn't dumb his stuff down. He challenges capitalism where it lives at the end of the 20th Century.

CARL: My book will be "Simulations" by Jean Baudrillard. "Simulations" consists of two essays by Baudrillard, the first of which is entitled "The Procession of Simulacra," and the second of which is entitled "The Orders of Simulacra." The essays are an attack on metaphysics, both deconstructing the notion of a pre-existing "real," a notion Baudrillard calls the "reality principle," and rhetorically reversing the privileged status of any pre-existing real over its simulations, assigning privilege instead to the simulations Baudrillard calls "hyper real."

PATTIE: I would like to discuss Ritzer's text and Baudrillard's text in light of vacations. As a mobile society, Canadians hold their quote holidays close quote as sacred. It is a time when people go somewhere. Ritzer would suggest that the somewhere is changing as North Americans become more consumption driven. A great deal of the consumption done on holidays has always centred on food, a place to stay and souvenirs. The latter has been kitschy for quite awhile, especially with the advent of plastics in the 1920s and 30s. But Ritzer asserts that the fakeness has spread to the food and the places to stay as well as the little plastic trinkets marking the trips. Amusement parks have outgrown the Ferris wheels and roller coasters of the 1950s and 60s to become full-scale shopping meccas where people eat, sleep, shop and get thrills:  Ritzer writes, quote For one thing, malls have become tourist destinations. ... Malls have everything. They have an amusement park. They have a roller coaster. Mom and dad can get what they want. ... this combination is spectacular and a powerful lure to the traveler. In Canada, the largest tourist attraction is not Niagara Falls but rather the Edmonton Mall. close quote.

CARL: Baudrillard implies inevitability of the simulacrum. He attributes to it a presence that trumps that of the objectively existing, not merely mocking the validity of the original but superseding it. It begs the question of what is "real" and does so in a way that exposes the term as untenable. He sets up a hierarchy of simulation, four levels which he calls orders. The first order is that which attempts to emulate an original. The second order is that which misrepresents an original. The third order attempts to create the impression of an original where none exists. The fourth order is that which bears no relation to anything that could be called an original. He delights in exposing the self-consciously artificial. Among his examples are the Tasaday tribe being returned to its quote, natural habitat, close quote, and quote maintained there close quote by the quote scientists close quote who had discovered them. Also cited are the caves of Lascaux, which subsequent to their discovery were barred to public inspection beyond glances through a small plate of clear plastic but whose discoverers constructed a replica nearby for the purposes of public inspection. Our travels have produced a similar experience. We travelled through the Badlands of South Dakota in the summer of 2000 and were surprised to encounter, among other things, a number of antelope at play in the region, as in the song "Home on the Range." I had been under the impression that they had been largely driven off or killed outright by Caucasian settlers in the nineteenth century. My confusion was ended by a sign by the road informing passers-by that the area had been "restocked" with the creatures, reintroduced to the area for reasons upon which I dare not speculate.

PATTIE: Ritzer points out that malls are full of simulations as well. Not only the obvious amusement park simulations that take traditionally outdoor products and place them in the confines of monstrously large buildings, but also simulated quote natural close quote experiences such as rain forests (the Rain Forest Cafe). He also talks about quote authentic simulations close quote such replicas of historical places such as a colonial village in Williamsburg, Virginia or a visit to the Windsor Castle in England. While the site of the vacation is, quote, real, close quote, in some sense, the experiences is manufactured and is offered as a spectacle. I guess Baudrillard would call these first order simulations, though I doubt that the Raintree Cafe is trying to accurately emulate a rain forest. Still they had real parrots as I recall.

CARL: Baudrillard has a section in his book devoted to Disneyland. He calls it a third-order simulation, not because it is a deliberately infantile quasi-culture, but because its latent function is to deter visitors from the realization that the world outside Disneyland, meaning the rest of California, the rest of the United States, and the remaining area of the globe, is just as simulated as Disneyland. When one leaves Disneyland, one is not going back to the quote, real world, close quote. Baudrillard's proposition is that Disneyland was made manifest to combat the notion that there was a border defining and enclosing its imperatives. 

PATTIE: That's interesting in light of Ritzer's theory regarding why these simulations exist. Ritzer uses Max Weber's understanding of institutional rationality to contrast how these consumption meccas actually function and how they feel to the consumer. On the one hand, places such as Disneyland or Mall of Americas are a controlled environment complete with surveillance, guards, gates, fences, etcetera. They are also places of business and are discussed in boardrooms and portfolios in terms of growth rates and returns on investments. These symbols express a rational view of such places, measuring, calculating, and controlling these institutions with precision and predictability. In this discourse, such places are disenchanted and rational. On the other hand, these places are meant to be sources of escape from the rationalized world. People who deal in highly rationalized spaces pick vacation spots as quote getaways close quote. Disney is supposed to be a place far removed from bottom line thinking, a place where troubles are forgotten and fantasies come to life. Ritzer writes, quote the cathedrals of consumption can be described as being highly rationalized...rationalization leads to disenchantment ... rational means of consumption can themselves have enchanting qualities inherent in their rationalized natures. In spite of the latter, the central problems confronting the cathedrals of consumption remain rationalization and the disenchantment engendered by it. close quote.

CARL: However, Baudrillard regards the historical genesis of simulation as running counter to the conceptual underpinnings of capitalism, and of communism for that matter. He typifies the industrial revolution as being informed by certain ideas of a teleological nature regarding materialism, production, and universalism. The revolution, like all other revolutions, needed an ideology, and it had one. But the onset of simulation disinformed the precepts of the industrial ideology, making them obsolete from the day that reproducibility became the criterion for what would be produced. Baudrillard cites Marshall McLuhan's work and notes its similarity to his own.

PATTIE: Ritzer doesn't believe that this tension between rationality and simulation works out as intended. Disney only thinks its in control. Malls only think they are controlling the experiences. It is a story told about a spectacle. He uses Baudrillard's concept of quote implosion close quote to help understand how all these things are making previously well-defined boundaries fade into what calls quote dedifferentiation, quote a growing inability to differentiate among things and among places close quote. These spectacles are undermining the very rationality upon which they were built. Like a perfectly charged demolition, the structure is collapsing on itself. This implosion has implications for society and human relations, many of which are negative. I imagine Baudrillard isn't that concerned with what his orders of simulation mean for society in general and consumption in particular.

CARL: He doesn't seem to be. Regarding the control and stability issues you have raised, I note that he is unimpressed by the hierarchical. Like the agnostic who would know if, given that God is all-powerful, whether he could make a rock too heavy for him to lift, Baudrillard notes a suboptimality of presence in any original that cannot create a duplicate of itself. He spends much of the second half of the book advancing the duopoly as a more stable form than the monopoly and the symbolic exchanges between the two poles of a duopoly as becoming more defining than any residual grounding their system might have in the routinely substantive. Ritzer's cathedrals of consumption must fail, according to Baudrillard's paradigm, unless they resign themselves to forming a totality with the customers.

PATTIE: Explain what he means by totality. Does he mean that they must seek to totally control customers or does he mean that the cathedrals must adapt to the customers as readily as they expect their customers to adapt to them?

CARL: I used the word totality just now to invoke a yin yang relationship. It implies a lack of primacy and a resistance to the imposition of models featuring linear causality. If my understanding of the text is adequate, the supercession of production by reproduction necessitates our modelling the situation as analogous to universal gravity:  the Mall of America pulls on the consumer, but the consumer pulls on the Mall of America as well.

PATTIE: Then Ritzer and Baudrillard are on the same page. Ritzer writes, quote, this analysis was put in the context of the overall shift from production to consumption. However, one of the things that this work indicates is that it is increasingly difficult to sustain a clear distinction between production and consumption, especially in the contexts analyzed. ... In the new world of consumption, especially as it is increasingly dominated by entertainment, it will make less sense to distinguish between production and consumption. close quote. I think this is where I start to differ with Ritzer. An important point that he never quite makes in the book is that much of the so-called production down by consumers really is replications of consumptions. Instead of making music, they reproduce music through their CD-Rs and DVDs and MP3s. Instead of creating a cultural alternative, most people simply repeat what they hear and see on television, in the movies and in magazines. It is true that distinct categories of quote producer close quote and quote consumer close quote are difficult to differentiate due to the ways in which many spectacles are simulated through several orders by the participation of those who are paying for the experience. But in the end their stuff gets replicated over and over again in a mindless fashion. Ritzer doesn't really address consumer as mindless sheep in a direct manner.

CARL: What becomes important to the producer of the culture is that you buy the medium, not the message. It is essential that you buy CD's and cassettes; what is of peripheral concern is the content that is carried by these media. This fits Baudrillard well:  although technically the essential point is that you must pay the producer for the material aspect and the content, which is certainly symbolic in the conventional sense, I would point out that a reversal of form holds here:  the audio content is the original which must be protected from replication, via intellectual property laws and so forth, and the items that are prized because they can be replicated, because they can be standardized, are the CD's and cassettes, which must be playable on CD players and cassette recorders. There is an italicized passage in the book where Baudrillard writes, quote, the true ultimatum was in reproduction itself, close quote. This is where he considers the most distinct break from capitalist and Marxist ideology to occur. He states explicitly that the global process of capital is founded in what Marx called quote, the nonessential sectors of capital, close quote, and by the way those are Baudrillard's words, not Marx's. He believes that technique dominates value both by the utility theory of value and by the labour theory of value. Reproduction is not contingent on its products for its justification; it can stand on its own conceptually.

PATTIE: Ritzer writes, quote, another self-destructive aspect of the cathedrals of consumption is the ever-escalating need for spectacle. No matter how astonishing, consumers grow accustomed to extravaganzas. In order to attract their attention, let alone their business, the next spectacle must be even more spectacular than the last. Also contributing to this escalation is the competition among the cathedrals of consumption, each trying to put on an extravaganza that is more astonishing than that of its competitors. close quote. This means that we are going further and further into orders of simulation because what we construct as quote real close quote is no longer interesting. I think, though Ritzer only implies this, that this further alienates us from each other and our own desire. We no longer know what we really want or what is fun, we only know what they think will be fun. Though I think moviemakers are beginning to catch on to the fact that it becomes so surreal to us at some point that it is better to do less not more at times. Witness George Lucas's approach to the Star Wars Episode Two -- very little hype on this movie, compared to a Jurassic Park or even his own Episode One. Instead, he goes around to openings in small venues and gives the proceeds to charities. He constructs a new kind of campaign that is gentler and seems more honest and yet it too is a simulation of a simpler time and not the simpler time itself.

CARL: Just so. The existence of spectacle, to use Ritzer's word, makes it irrelevant to both Ritzer and Baudrillard whether an "original" can be located. I think that Ritzer is afraid that one has lost something vital at this point but that Baudrillard is unconcerned with the question or regards it as meaningless. I wasn't aware that Lucas was doing what you say he was with the new Star Wars movie. It's typical of a movie mogul to believe, or rather, to act as if he believed, that so far from one's not being able to go home again, if one simulates having gone home again, one has.

PATTIE: Ah Hollywood, now there might be some who would argue that the movies are exactly how we ended up in hyperreality. I thought it was rather poignant that people on television news programs, which is a first order simulation at best, were discussing how watching the towers collapse on September eleventh felt like quote watching a disaster film close quote, which would be a third order simulation in that disaster movies are not claiming to be reality, but they are claiming to seem like reality. Quote, unbelievable, close quote was the word I most frequently heard. It was unbelievable because we are so used to simulations, to being able to say to ourselves when things are uncomfortable, this is not real. Of course, since September 11 we have managed to experience a number of fourth order simulations including a recent fund-raiser where George Bush gave pictures of himself on Air Force One at the command post after the attacks to anyone who donated one hundred fifty dollars to the Republican Party. Of course, I heard about this fiasco on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show, which is not really the news, but a simulation of the news meant to poke fun at the news and yet I bet I get more of my news information by watching him than from any other source. And now my brain hurts.

CARL: The key point about the comparisons of the events of September eleventh to motion pictures is that their surreality was used to demonstrate their reality:  it was BECAUSE the footage bore a closer resemblance to a Hollywood action film than to the mundane world that one was to conclude how really real, how uber-real, the World Trade Center attacks were. The simulation had become, in practice, the standard by which reality was to be gauged, with an ontological hierarchy granting primacy to that which resembled the simulation above that which did not.

PATTIE: I think that reaction to the attacks afterward have served to further blur the lines between phenomena and representation, between what we think is real and what we think is simulation. That's why I bring up Jon Stewart. The truth is that I get as much if not more information about the world from his show as I do from CNN and I am entertained in the process. In some ways it is like the simulation of the news is so self-aware that it is a simulation that it becomes more believable. CNN is a simulation as well, but it pretends not to be and that leaves me feeling cheated.

CARL: I remember immediately after we visited the Badlands and saw the simulated herds of antelope, meaning not that the antelope were simulated but that the herds were, and wouldn't THAT make an amusing case study in the rudiments of organizational studies, that we went to Wall Drug in Wall, South Dakota, which is in the westernmost part of the state. Wall Drug had started as a simple pharmacy in the 1930's and had gained international fame by advertising free ice water to visitors. The idea began quote logically close quote, as the owners had noted that motorists arriving in the town of Wall in summer after traversing South Dakota in the days before air conditioners were installed in cars tended to be thirsty. So they put up signs throughout South Dakota offering free ice water to visitors. The whole thing turned into a game. The signs started popping up throughout the United States, and then internationally. I have seen a photograph of one in Kenya, with two Kenyans standing nearby looking irritated. The site has gone from being solely a drugstore to being a block-long tourist attraction, with souvenirs and other thematic efforts. It isn't quite a third-order simulation, because a third-order simulation would purport to be about something when in truth there is nothing behind it, but it's close:  it started with a seed consisting only of free ice water. And the owners let you know, via the tone of it all, that they're in on the joke, that it's an attraction stemming from next to nothing, so I'd call it a simulated third-order simulation.

PATTIE: Ah yes, kitsch. Kitschy souvenirs and kitschy buildings. The interesting thing in our experience was that we had just been in the Badlands and even with the simulated herds, it felt more real and grounded. We had visited the Corn Palace the day before the Badlands and revelled in the kitsch, but by the time we got to Wall, I was tired of it. It was boring. I'll save my feelings about Rushmore as a simulation for another discussion. But Carl I wonder, what kind of a simulation are we engaged in right here and right now. We are conversing on the radio, but is this a real conversation?

CARL: According to Baudrillard, if I've understood him, the simulated IS the "real," and it is real because it can be simulated, more real, at least, than what cannot be simulated. Realest of all is a simulacrum that can reproduce itself, and the distinction between the original, a word I've used here only for pedagogical purposes, and the simulacrum is no distinction at all. So I don't know how to answer your question.

PATTIE: Well let's see. A first order simulation would be an attempt to sound like a conversation, which we've tried to do up to this point. However, now that I am deconstructing our conversation, we might be entering a second order simulation. Do we dare admit to what has actually been happening? Are we engaged in yet a greater order simulation that it seems?

CARL: I'm afraid we are. This entire, quote, conversation, close quote, is really a transcript of an Internet chat session. We have spent several hours, cumulatively, using a popular chat utility, a program allowing real-time text messaging using TCP/IP protocol. [[Fade in computer generated "Peter" voice]] We decided it would be a clever way to generate a script, as it indicates who has said what throughout in a style similar to that used in stage plays and, yes, you guessed it, radio dramas.

PATTIE: So instead of quote talking close quote we have been typing and this twenty minute conversation has taken several hours over two days to produce. [[Fade in computer generated "Mary" voice]] By the time the radio audience hears it, we will have edited and recorded the original text. Then digitized the recording and prepared it to air from the computer to the radio waves. Now we leave you to wonder if we are real or simply computer generated simulations.

carl_wilkerson:  And whether the former possibility can have the rigorous grounding it would need in order to be valid, internally consistent, feasible, or anything like that. Objective, global, . . . oh, well, you get the idea.

pattie_thomas:  my name is actually Mary and I am a computer-generated voice made by TextAloudMP3. With me is Peter, also a computer-generated voice. Baudrillard says that it does not matter that whether we are real or not. So now that we have admitted to being computer generated, Peter, are you having run? Ritzer says that all this consumption is expanding because it is fun. I think it is fun to produce radio as well. How about you Peter?

carl_wilkerson:  Are you talking to me? I'm not trying to evoke Robert DeNiro by asking you, I'm pointing out that I'm not sure that I'm Peter. My voice is Peter's, but Carl Wilkerson is writing my lines. If it helps, I have no idea whether I'm having fun. Or at least Carl Wilkerson has no idea if I'm having fun. Moreover, what is a voice without anything to say? Can it be said to have presence? Perhaps Carl Wilkerson is part of me in the specific case. How am I supposed to know? This is radio. I'm just the voice talent. And even that observation is not mine.

pattie_thomas:  Now my brain really hurts. Who knew that first person plural would mean that we each would have a plurality. Pattie Thomas is writing my lines, Yahoo is recording the written text, Mary is speaking the lines, Cool Edit is recording them, but Pattie is editing them and Carl is controlling how they get on the airwaves, but C F U V is actually broadcasting them. Where is reality? Does it end with Pattie's typing or with the listener listening and now I believe this has all become too deep for me. The problem with all this is that if we think about it too much, it just keeps getting more complex. I think I'll suspend my disbelief and just be happy to be on the radio, pretending that the illusion is real.

Yahoo! Messenger:  carl_wilkerson has left the conference. Yahoo! Messenger:  pattie_thomas has left the conference.

Yahoo! Messenger:  carl_wilkerson has logged out. (6/8/02 at 11: 03 AM) Yahoo! Messenger:  pattie_thomas has logged out. (6/8/02 at 11: 04 AM)

copyright by Pattie Thomas and Carl Wilkerson 2002


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