Monday, November 15, 2010

Tourists of History by Marita Sturken

Proposed subtitle: When Teddy Bears Attack

The US sucks.  One of the places we suck hardest is dealing with things in any sort of context.  Bible quotations and celeb interviews just to name a few.  And also horrible incidents of tragedy.

tourists cover

Another thing about Americans is that they like to consume things.  Stuff provides a barrier between the American and the scary, unknown world, or thoughts thereof.  After 9/11, instead of being encouraged to volunteer or reach out to their neighbors, or even join the military, Americans were pushed to buy things by their political leaders.  Buying things will save you; buying things will save us.  Guns, duct tape, bottled water.  Buy cell phones in case of an emergency, buy cars and houses to get out an economic depression.  Combine this mantra of consumption and consumerism with places of tragedy and what do you get?  Kitsch.

Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero is an important book, although so densely packed with ideas that it's difficult to easily grasp.  Instead of trying to summarize it (Sturken herself took over thirty pages to do so), it's probably better to give an example of how Sturken frames her argument--namely through teddy bears.

Teddy bears are symbols of innocence, childhood, and comfort.  At both the Oklahoma City National Memorial and Ground Zero, one can buy teddy bears inscribed with something like FDNY, their arms lifted "as if about to give the visitor a hug."  This fluffy little souvenir may seem harmless, even charming, but in fact it represents everything wrong with the way Americans interact with historic sites.  These little symbols of childhood suggest a healing that can only take place through infantilization of their owner--they are children's toys but they're made for adults, returning their owner to a naive mindset and allowing them to walk away with a child-like understanding of the site just visited and its historical context (which is to say, none).

Sturken also looks at other kitsch items like snow globes, the pink ribbon campaign, and the visual culture surrounding events like the OKC bombing and 9/11, all of which are fairly disgusting from the standpoint of morals and taste.

For the most part I agree with Sturken's argument.  For a long time I've been wondering to myself:  why the sudden obsession with zombies?  They've become a part of our popular culture, but who or what do they represent?  I think in part the answer lies in Sturken's book.  We have this morbid need to consume everything--tragedy, stories, video of the event, reenactments--on tv, on the internet, and in person.  Yet we're also encouraged very strongly not to give any of these things too much thought.  Have we become mindlessly insatiable in our gathering of memories and pursuit of "culture"?  My guess is Sturken would say yes.

Sturken's book is one I would definitely recommend if you have an interest in this sort of thing, but I can't help feeling that artists have been making this point much more elegantly and for a longer time than Sturken has.  "Windowsill" by Arcade Fire is pretty much Sturken's entire argument in a kick-ass four minute song.  You don't need to be an academic to notice what Sturken points out, you just have to be paying attention.

Powered by ScribeFire.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...