Saturday, September 12, 2015

Staged (un)authenticity?

     An early influential idea by MacCannell, namely the concept of staged authenticity tried to explain why tourists are fascinated by other cultures and societies. He believed that by seeking to partake in the lives of other cultures and societies, tourists try to find the authentic, which is not given in their monotonous and unauthentic own societies and everyday life.  MacCannell took over a basic idea of Goffman, who divided the social spheres into ‘front’ and ‘back’. Thus the former is the staged encounter between locals and tourists, while the latter constitutes the private and real lives of locals taking place without the tourists’ observation. Because tourists seek the authentic ‘back’ sphere of cultures and societies, which is however inaccessible them, they experience staged (un)authenticity on the ‘front’ sphere. As a consequence seeking the authentic has a contrary effect as it has to be staged to please the tourist eye and distorts the actual authenticity, maybe even causing a false image for a local community.  
I observed this counter productivity on two occasions, at the mosaic shop and the La Storia Tourism complex. We first visited Madaba and had the chance to see the oldest surviving cartographic depiction of the Middle East. Followed by a bus ride to the Mount Nebo, the burial place of Moses, and finally a mosaic shop and a tourism complex. As we entered the mosaic shop, we saw two tables covered in little mosaic stones and two unfinished mosaic pieces on which we were shown and explained how this handicraft is best practiced. We were lead to the shop to then continue with the visit of the La Storia Tourism complex. This complex had reproduced Jordan’s history, monuments, handicrafts and scenes of everyday life with puppets. I can surely not say that I have seen everyday life to a large detail in Amman, but what I have seen on the streets looked differently to what the museum tried to depict. I immediately realized that this was way to stage the authenticity that the museum thought we sought when visiting Jordan, however, I can also say that the group seemed very disappointed by the unauthentic image it conveyed. Realizing the inauthenticity, I did not even take any photographs. Leaving the museum I glanced into the mosaic shop several times while waiting for the group and the man who was working when we entered the shop was not sitting at his working place anymore. This made me think that the tables at the entrance of the shop were maybe also only a way to stage the way in which the mosaics are crafted while the actual work was done in the back of the shop, where tourists had no access, thus confirming the existence of the ‘front’ and ‘back’ sphere.

John Urry and Jonas Larsen, The Tourist Gaze (3, Los Angeles: SAGE 2011), ch 1, 10.
Stephen Williams, Tourism Geography: A new Synthesis (2, Routledge, 2009) pt 2 subsection 6, 135.

The oldest surviving cartographic depiction of the Middle East - Madaba

Demonstration of the mosaic handicraft
View from the top of  Mt. Nebo, Moses' burial place

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