Tourists of History by Marita Sturken

[17 February 2008]

By Ryan Gillespie

Beyond Irony and Kitsch?

An exploration of the link between consumerism and mourning, Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Okalahoma City to Ground Zero examines the complicated relationship of public memorials, private grieving, and kitsch. Particularly fascinated by snow globes sold at sites of national disasters, Sturken opens her book by describing American consumerism as a dangerous substitute for, or distraction from, the serious work of grieving. By mistakenly participating in the simple act of purchasing a kitsch product instead of the complicated act of mourning, Sturken argues, we maintain an uncritical distance from the horrific events themselves and act as tourists (rather than citizens or locals, one presumes) of history. 
Essentially, the practice of tourism in relation to national tragedies like Oklahoma City and the World Trade Center obscures the deeper, private task of mourning for individuals as well as the political implications and ramifications for our nation at large. “Tourism is about travel that wants to imagine itself as innocent,” writes Sturken. “A tourist is someone who stands outside of culture, looking at it from a position that demands no responsibility.” The continuum of innocence and responsibility is another theme that runs through Sturken’s book, and the ability to capture that dichotomy through the figure of the tourist is clever. The question is, however, whether clever helps us understand these complicated processes and practices better than a framework that is less concerned with irony and assumptive narratives of (public) mourning.
Now the infantilization of citizens through a consumerist relation to national tragedies by purchasing kitsch products such as snow globes, rugs, or teddy bears is certainly problematic in many ways. Indeed, this “kitschification” (her word, not mine) does not encourage a citizen to ponder the political, social, and personal implications of national tragedies. But does that mean that participation in these practices necessarily produces infantilization and uncritical thought?  Sturken seems to say no, that one can participate in kitsch culture in an ironic frame (presumably as she does, admitting to owning one of the snow globes). 
But is an ironic frame a better frame than a genuine one?  It is here that Sturken’s argument, and the entire assumptive crux of the book, falls short. Throughout Tourists, Sturken denigrates participation in these public memorials and acts of consumerism in non-ironic ways, thereby claiming (at least implicitly) the superiority of an ironic relation as a “right” relation to these events. 
For example, Sturken writes that “kitsch is the primary aesthetic style of patriotic American culture, indeed that American political culture can be defined by and thrives on a kind of kitsch aesthetic”, and that “[t]hese forms of consumer culture enable a political acquiescence, in which consumers signal their ‘categorical agreement’ through the purchase of tokens.” This is quite a jump, from consumer action to political acquiescence; it is a jump in logic, attempting to deduce motive from an action. In other words, Sturken asserts a consumer practice as an implicit endorsement for a political agenda, but in this view, one must also conclude the same thing for those who consumer kitsch objects in irony. But those who consumer in irony seemingly do so in negotiation with—if not in opposition to—the dominant consumer kitsch practice, so how then are we to distinguish between those consuming kitsch within an ironic frame and those within an affectively genuine frame? 
The answer, of course, is that one can’t—at least not without drawing some assumptive conclusions about motive and purpose based upon the surface of an issue. How can we be sure that the person who displays an American flag in their front yard, along with a snow globe in the window, isn’t a critically reflective person? Why is it assumed that displays of banal nationalism aren’t done so consciously? Sure, the nation is (re)inscribed through such practices as flag waving and even the subtle ‘we’ in newspaper articles, as Michael Billig says, but how is it fair to equate such displays and articulations, however banal, as passive endorsements of political practices? They might very well be active endorsements, reasoned and considered political displays in favor of not necessarily current political policies but in the founding principles of a given nation (in this case, America). The assumption that one who displays a flag blindly acquiesces to those in power and maintains the hegemony of the nation-state and its interests out of ignorance of alternatives is as short-sighted as someone who actually fits that profile. What makes one think that those who own snow globes don’t stay awake at night pondering the personal and political implications of September 11, pouring their hearts into journals by candlelight, crying and crying until sleep offers a temporary reprieve? 
It is a challenging task to look at material artifacts and make judgments about narratives, either personal or political. How does one know how kitsch is being used in people’s grieving narratives or in public discourse without an examination of any actual narratives? In other words, by examining only material artifacts and cultural practices, narratives are necessarily woven on one’s assumption of another’s consumption of kitsch and the pacification of mass society through consumer practices. This is a definition of elitism, in which one assumes that he/she—the educated one—knows better than the uneducated (or who is perceived to be uneducated) under neo-Marxian rubrics in which education operates as liberation from oppression. 
But the idea of education as liberation is a poor one; education might allow a critical perspective on cultural practices (or political practices, or to see them as one and the same) but asserting that ironic frame helps an individual grieve, or mourn, or live a richer and fuller life, is a mistake. To be fair, Sturken does not fully engage in such fallacious thought, noting that many people are “just trying to get through the day, to provide for their families and to make a small bit of meaning somewhere, somehow.”
Indeed, education can give one a critical distance, an ironic frame. But, while the consumer practice of purchasing a snow globe might obscure and infantilize political practices and public processes of mourning, this is true, as previously suggested, whether the purchase is made for genuine or ironic purposes. Given that it is impossible to distinguish personal narratives (ironic or genuine) based upon the material artifact or the act itself, there is nothing logically different about consuming in an ironic or genuine frame, leaving one wondering how useful such distinctions are.   
Toward the end of the book, Sturken begins to acknowledge this issue. “Yes, I write this book with a sense of urgency, in which such an ironic pose seems so inadequate,” she eventually admits in the concluding chapter, roughly one full page from the end of the book. So, indeed, if an ironic pose is lacking, what does a viable alternative look like? She hasn’t the space to examine this issue, and one feels that where Sturken ended is precisely where she should have begun her book. 
Overall, there is some insightful work here—chapter five, “Architectures of Grief and the Aesthetics of Absence” (extending on her contribution to the Understanding September 11 volume), is an especially careful and intriguing analysis, and many of the narratives and relations Sturken critiques and analyzes throughout her book are indeed unhealthy ones; the reader is unconvinced, however, that the complicated interplay of mourning, memory, politics, and public and private grieving are best understood by examining a material act such as the purchasing of a teddy bear at Ground Zero.

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