Baudrillard, Globalization and Tourism: or the dialectics of the nothing?

by Dr. Maximiliano E. Korstanje


For some reason, which is very hard to precise here, Jean Baudrillard was an author who is not widely cited in tourism studies. This happens simply because he reads as a complex writer whose theses are mainly characterized by a critical approach to consumerism. A second reason rests in the fact that tourism studies keep a difficult relationship with Marxism and critical studies. From its inception, Marxism developed a pejorative definition of tourism as strictly associated with naïve consumption and alienation. For this reason and of course others, the tourism Academia have never been captivated by the advances of Marxism over the recent years (Korstanje, 2019). As Dean MacCannell puts it, tourism eradicates not only social cultures but also the present time from where all human relations are formed. As an industrial activity that continues with the influence of the Totem in tribal life, tourism proposes a type of staged authenticity which alienates the workforce. Leisure activities that are orchestrated by the capital owners absorb the surplus generated by workers (MacCannell 1976; 2002). Such a viewpoint not only kept stable in the academic circles in the threshold of time but also led sociologists to have a negative view of the tourism industry (Korstanje & Seraphin, 2017). It is important to clarify that Jean Baudrillard has never approached tourism-related issues, but he laid the foundations towards a new radical understanding of globalization and its impact in semiotics (Kellner, 1987; 2006). Furthermore, he never turned his attention to tourism as his main object of study. In the present book, which titles Globalisation, tourism and Simulacra, professor Kunphatu Sakwit explores the conceptual applications on Baudrillard`s legacy to tourism research, to be more exact selecting Thailand as a preferred study case. Organized in eight chapters, the editorial project is part of the author´s doctorate dissertation defended at the University of Kent, the UK under the guidance of Larry Ray & Vince Miller. The present full-length review explores not only the potential of Jean Baudrillard in tourism studies but places Sakwit´s book under the critical lens of scrutiny.

 Baudrillard in tourism fields: a short introduction

In the introductory section, Sakwit acknowledges that Jean Baudrillard is not a well-received author in the tourism field. His critical insight does not bode well with the economic-based paradigm which postulates the managerial viewpoint of the industry. Scholars often connote to tourism as a commercial activity which encourages economic prosperity and political instability. Of course, though they recognize the industry generates inequalities and imbalances the nature of the industry is never questioned. The cultural incompatibilities of local cultures respecting Western rationalism are seen as the main causes of the problems tourism ultimately generate (Korstanje & George 2022). In 1993, Chris Rojek & Bryan S. Turner edit their seminal book Forget Baudrillard? The resistance of Academia to Baudrillard is given by countless factors. To some extent, his notion of hyper-reality or the idea that the Gulf War never existed has been widely criticized in classic philosophical circles. Perplexed and chafed at Baudrillard, scholars systematically overlooked part of his legacy and pungent questions over decades. At a closer look, Baudrillard´s theory is an encoded world that ushers philosophers into a labyrinth; his works describe the symptoms of the world but he never clarifies as symptoms of what? Rojek & Turner add.   Above all, he is resisted by the assumption the body is enslaved as a mere extension of the network television (Rojek & Turner, 1993). Nonetheless of this fact, the success of his text is certainly determined by his eloquence in dealing with a consumerist society as well as his theory about simulacra and the hyper-reality without mentioning his observations about the Spectacle of Disaster. To cut the long story short, the culture of simulacra recreates the conditions of future risks which never take place in reality. In so doing, the present is finally governed by the future and reality becomes a pseudo-reality (Korstanje, 2010; 2014; 2016). As Professor Gerry Coulter puts it, most certainly Baudrillard has been misjudged or misinterpreted in the decades. His principle is based on the fact that at the time a structure expands its bases are being eroded. Professor Coulter explains this is the ancient principle of reversibility which remains obscured for classic philosophers. Paradoxically, whether reality and historical events set the pace to pseudo-reality, there are some doubts cast on the principle of gamification. What are the games or tourism for Baudrillard? Since the life we live, the world we inhabit is a simple simulacrum where the connection of causality and time evaporates, Baudrillard assumes (though never explicitly) the wonderland of tourism and games are the real world. There is nothing real in the palpable world, so our quest for authenticity is far from being an ossified form of consumption, but rather a human need for freedom. The eradication of the present is only possible by the urgency of colonizing the future (Coulter, 2007; 2008; 2010; 2012; 2015). In consonance with this, Dean and Jullie Flower MacCannell overtly said that the consumer society crystallizes an American carnivalization of European cultural values. Like the copycat of an original, the US historically moved in contraposition to Europe. The consumer society, doubtless, resulted from cultures that lack history while looking for security through mimicry. The MacCannells convincingly argue that capitalism engenders a desire for the desire which never is satisfied. This desire is even founded in a lack in which case we always come back. In this vein, consumption radically transforms human reciprocity.

“Commodity production, even the production of simulacra, continues to require an organization of work and the economy continues to require an uneven distribution of work and reward. Structure does not depart the scene in modernity and postmodernity. It just slips underneath desire where it seems to disappear. Consumption replaces production as the site of libidinal and other psychic investments. The social class difference as determined by one’s position relative to production processes fades into triviality when compared to a common desire for prestigious consumer goods: ‘There comes a time in everyone’s life when they want a Mercedes Benz—Follow your instinct.’ (MacCannell & MacCannell 1993: 127)

As the previous argument is given, they hold the thesis that tourism activates a simultaneous belonging simply because workers are consumers and consumers are workers. Baudrillard put his finger on the stability of industrial social class and its gradual evaporation. In this post, industrial world classes are not structured to synthesize the interplay between the added value of commodities and products. Now, the newly emerging social classes pay extra money to get a mark of class otherwise they never reach. This is the world described by Baudrillard in his different texts (for further details see on Baudrillard, 1994; 2003; 2016). Dean and Linda MacCannell go beyond claiming that many of the problems revolving around Baudrillard´s theory revolve around his notion of reality. What is equally important, there is little evidence that proves humans are moving now in the world of fantasy (MacCannell & MacCannell 1993). Aside from this, Baudrillard never explored the dimension of modern tourism nor mobility theory. For that, scholars have fallen into serious misinterpretations of his original ideas. This does not mean that Baudrillard would not shed light on the problematic fields of current tourism anthropology. It is noteworthy that is the point of departure of Professor Kunphatu Sakwit and his new editorial project. The present essay review is not an exploration of Jean Baudrillard in the strict sense of the word, contrariwise it is an academic lecture on Globalization, Tourism and Simulacra and the problems the book ultimately leaves unresolved.

Globalization, Tourism and the Simulacra: a new perspective

The first (introductory) chapter invites readers to imagine the complex impact of the tourism industry in the geographical landscape of Bangkok (Thailand). As a part inherently based on the globalization process, tourism re-draws the geographies of those cities recycled to captivate the international demand. The book revolves around two study cases mainly centered on the sociological study of two floating markets, Damoen Saduak and Pataya in Thailand. His efforts are orientated to describe the cultural effects of globalization in the Thai culture; and of course, Jean Baudrillard plays a leading role in laying the foundations towards a new fresh way of understanding tourism. These are spaces of simulacra, citing Baudrillard, emulated to engage with the tourist gaze. Having said this, Sakwit explores the ebbs and flows of globalization as well as its contradictions and complexity. For some reason, social scientists fall into a type of academic indiscipline at the time of approaching globalization. To put this simply, what is globalization now remains unclear even for specialists. He toys with two ideas. On one hand, globalization theory falls in a one-size-fits-all approach which looks at explanations in the roots of the process, mainly marked by economic reductionism. On another, globalization interrogates furtherly the locals imposing standardized –but not for this less inexpugnable- forms of relations. This begs a more than an interesting question, is tourism an alienable force that cannibalizes locals?

The author reviews the different sociological theories on globalization. Going from Giddens to Bauman, even Baudrillard, he offers a conceptual model where human practices are structured and restructured by the globalization process. As he goes on to say: “as an ongoing process, it happens to reshape social forms, social practices and individual way of life. The influence of globalization permeates into social units and everyday life, which change according to the global flow. (Sakwit 2021: p25). Here two assumptions should be at least made. On one hand, globalization includes some actors while excluding others. As a cyclical process, globalization accommodates social relations but at the same time creating irreversible inter-class inequalities. On another, technology plays a leading role in marking a line between those who are the salved and doomed under-class. Thousand of actors who have no regular access to digital technologies (i.e internet) are simply debarred for the opportunity to get a decent job as well as social life.  At a closer look, the ideology of globalization rests on its efficacy to create binary oppositions. The idea of the West is finally contrasted to the “non-West”, the global to the local, leisure to work and so forth. Having said this, the term globalization speaks us of something more complex than a hybridized process, rather it punctuates the fact the local cannot be globally offered or consumed unless through globalization. To some extent, globalization mediates between the local landscape and international tourism demands. The author continues Kellner´s discussion left in globalization from above, where locals are empowered to offer cultural products for poverty alleviation. After all, locals react or accept globalization according to their specific contextualized interests. This moot point is discussed in the next third chapter which focuses on the urgency to re-discuss how the dimensions of globalization affect tourism. Per his viewpoint, what happens in globalization resonates in tourism and vice-versa. Tourism and globalization are inextricably intertwined. Since tourism adopts different shapes varying from culture to culture, as the author overtly says, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that the specialized literature should be empirically adjusted to Thai culture. Tourism embodies an uncanny dichotomy that alternates home-and-away experiences with tourist performance. Following this, tourism is a process that is being produced while consumed. Local culture is reconstructed at the time it is consumed by foreign tourists. In this point, the author interrogates furtherly the limitations of tourism sociology which sees tourism as a destructor of local culture. Instead, he toys with the belief that “local people can exercise agency to construct culture and add value to a place. Instead of being disadvantaged by tourism, local people are a productive force in manufacturing tourist objects and tourist places, where they can play an important role in marketing, managing information, technology and advertising. The interaction between the global and local brings about the production of the cultural meaning” (p. 39). To put the same in other terms, the production –and reproduction- of culture offers a fertile ground to be exploited as a tourist attraction leading locals in a new economic stage of social upward. In so doing, globalization works as an “invisible hand” which guides the presumption process (citing Ritzer) that mainly marks tourism consumption. The point will be re-approached in the sixth chapter. For the sake of clarity, tourism is not a global phenomenon; rather tourism becomes global to reposition the local culture in the international demand. In his words, tourism expands according to the global forces that penetrate the locals. Professor Sakwit coins the term “globalized tourism” to denote the complex interconnection between the cultural value and the tourist gaze. So to speak, the best example of this appears to be Thai floating markets where local culture is recreated to offer a multiplication of tourist gazes. Here a point surfaces, what would say Baudrillard about this?

The fourth chapter dissects Baudrillard´s works to give a snapshot of his applications on tourism research. To be more exact, Sakwit argues convincingly that Baudrillard should be thought in four clear-cut stages: the representation theory, the sign-exchange process, the play of differences and simulacra. The division between free and working time rests on shaky foundations. As Sakwit recognizes, Baudrillard is not a theorist of globalization. He anyway gives his own interpretation of Baudrillard theory to approach globalization. The simulacrum takes two orders well distinguished but interconnected. At a first stage, the simulacrum punctuates the natural value of an original object. In this way, these signs are designed to be proliferated (through the economic exchange). In this first order of simulacrum, also the counterfeit represents the original while the copy melts in the sign. At the second stage, the simulacrum is conditioned by the commercial law given by the capitalist system. The market accelerates the process characterizing the liquidity of the sign. As a result of this, the globalizing process disengages the local habits –as well as local customs and culture- from the external needs of the tourist market. This suggests that globalization evolves successfully in the combination of orders of simulacra. The tourism industry is finely enrooted in the economic cycle of production-consumption. What workers want is not enjoying free time but rather wasting their economic resources to emulate a leisure activity –most certainly paying for a unique experience. Hence this opens the doors to a sign-exchange process where hosts and guests are offered as cultural products. To wit, the play of differences signals the manifest impossibility to separate the original from the copycat. This leads tourists to the world of simulacra, where the future eradicates the pastime. Heritage is unilaterally fabricated and sold to cause a present (ephemeral) experience which far from being outstanding is cyclically mechanized. Needless to say that in this fictional world the authenticity evaporates in the air.

The fifth chapter brings interesting reflections revolving around the circulation of signs and values in the floating markets. What seems to be more important, since tourists pay for the service they ultimately receive, no less true is that tourist-based places should be understood as artificial sites associated with it the economic and sign-value exchange. The author describes in this chapter how these two floating markets become gradually in tourist-orientated places. Globalization opens the doors to the flow of capital which articulates in some material asymmetries. It is safe to say that these flows of cash grease the rail for the circulation of signs and values which adjust to the tourist place. The Thai floating markets serve as spaces where the exchange-and-use values of commodities have coalesced. This means tourists find these markets acceptable simply because they navigate through the flows (narratives) auto-generated by cultural globalization.

The sixth chapter places George Ritzer´s theory under the critical lens of scrutiny. Let´s remind readers Ritzer acknowledges that globalization divides two conceptual indivisible categories, nothing and something. For Sakwit, this model does not suffice to explain the floating market as a social phenomenon. It is not simplistic to say that the cultural content and value do not vary on Thai floating markets. In sharp contrast with Ritzer, Baudrillard observes that the cultural content of any object appears not to be determined by the practical application; but it molds the emerging relationship between the object and the subject. For Baudrillard, any object is phenomenologically interpreted in a dialogue with its context (for further detail see the theory of the system of objects).

The seventh chapter is entitled Globalization and Simulacra. Here Sakwit scrutinizes the effects of globalization and tourism in the constellations of floating markets. At a closer look, tourism leads to a culture of simulacrum –at least for Thailand- but in so doing, the markets, unfortunately, lose their real identities. These transformed and standardized human landscapes (treated as commodities) are carefully designed for being consumed by the tourist gaze.

The eighth chapter synthesizes the author´s concluding remarks which punctuate that tourism not only creates hybridized cultural products but transform local cultures. Local culture never disappears rather it mutates –through globalization- towards a new fabricated context. To put this bluntly Thai culture is inherently part of a timeless simulacrum.

The present book combines a more than fresh insight –based on Baudrillard´s originality- with an elegantly written text which is proper of a doctoral thesis. At least for this reviewer, this situates a must-read book which fills some of the gaps unresolved in tourism sociology and anthropology fields today. There are some pending issues respecting what would say Baudrillard in person about Thai culture. As Coulter brilliantly noted, Baudrillard kept a caustic viewpoint of reality. However, he casts some doubts at time of dealing with liminoid objects as the video-games, tourism or even dreams. He even uttered that gamification and tourism are reified instruments fruitful to escape from the pseudo-reality. To what extent globalization serves as the hand-tied that molds the “glocal” remains an open question. In his book Dialectics of Social Thoughts, Geoffrey R. Skoll (2014) asserts that psychoanalysis and Marxism have evolved according to the thesis of dialectics, which means a synthesis that unites two objects. But given some conditions this synthesis disappears in it-self. This is the direction Prof. Sakwit gives to the global process. Echoing Skoll, there is a symbiosis (dialectics) between society and agency which is far from being resolved by current sociology. No matter their status or the value of each one in the market they seem to be molded by social dialectics that precede them. Out the society, the agent has no significance and society disappears without agents. Capitalism successfully orchestrated an ideological platform where the process of negotiation between two or more actors alludes to the presence of a third object which is never questioned. The synthesis resolves partially the discrepancies between the two objects, but in so doing, their causality melts in the air. To put this in bluntly, social thought is structured on Hegel´s dialectics which serves as an ideological narrative of domestication for thinkers. In this way, whether Marx believes that the capital mediates between workers and the structure, while Freud gives the same position to super-ego. Neither capital nor ego explained with details the objects these two scholars studied, as Skoll concludes. At a closer inspection, capital is the ghost in the machine of capitalism. Capital mediates between production and workers whereas the super-ego tries to explain the complexity of reason and repression. In fact, both correspond with ideological allegories oriented to give a coherent diagnosis regarding the problem of reproduction which obscures the real causality between objects. The idea of the social, as well as dialectics, following Skoll, is ideological in essence.  The same applies in Sakwit´s book and the place he situates the globalization process as a mediator between the global and the local. To solve this gap, probably an interesting point of connection with Marc Auge or Paul Virilio should be at least made. Whatever the case may be, it is one the pioneering efforts to adapt Baudrillard to tourism studies, and simply for that it deserves my recognition.



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