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Tourists of History: Memory, Kitsch, and Consumerism from Oklahoma City to Ground Zero

by Maria Sturken
Duke University Press, Durham, NC, 2007
360 pp., illus. 119 b/w. Trade, $24.95
ISBN: 978-0-8223-4122-2.

Reviewed by John F. Barber
Digital Technology and Culture
Washington State University Vancouver


Beyond death and destruction, the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, on 19 April 1995, and the attacks of 11 September 2001, which included plane crashes at the Pentagon in Washington, DC, and Shanksville, Pennsylvania, and the destruction of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in New York City, share a consumer commodity: teddy bears.

Starting in the early 1980s, when they were given to AIDS victims, teddy bears have increasingly symbolized the promise of empathy, companionship, and comfort. Relief organizations gave them to returning evacuated New York City residents. Oklahoma City sent 60 thousand stuffed bears to New York where they were distributed to schools, support organizations, and fire stations. Thousands more continue to sell in both Oklahoma City and New York to tourists eager to document their presence at these sites of destruction and lost innocence. Not a single one of these teddy bears promised to make things better for those affected by tragic events, only to, hopefully, make their owners feel better about the way things were.

This notion of comfort culture and consumerism is the heart of a new book by cultural critic Marita Sturken. In Tourists of History, Sturken, examines the complex intersection of cultural memory, tourism, consumerism, paranoia, security, and kitsch that has defined America for the past two decades, and how they are related to the broad tendency to see United States culture as innocent, distanced from and unimplicated in global strife.

In using the term "tourists of history" Sturken speaks to a mode of experiencing cultural memory where the public is encouraged to consider itself the subject of history through consumerism, media images, souvenirs, popular culture, and memorial or architectural reenactments that have as their goal catharsis. Despite, or perhaps because of, their uncritical participation and minimal effect on what they see, tourists of history help promulgate a far-reaching cultural, economic, and political structure whose authenticity is subjective, mediated, removed, and reenacted.

Of course, the practices of tourism of history and pilgrimage at sites of collective trauma–like the Oklahoma City Memorial or New York's Ground Zero–are often concurrent and intermingled. One can cry for the loss of life at memorial sites, and take pictures. One can leave a personalized object, and purchase a souvenir, perhaps a teddy bear, snow globe, pin, T-shirt or small American flag–all examples of kitsch, and most all made in Korea or China.

Sturken argues that memorial sites proliferate kitsch–mass produced objects that offer easy formulae for the relief of grief, without addressing any of the complex and interrelated economic, social, or political causes that lead to the traumatic event they symbolize. In this way souvenirs protect a sense of innocence that has been key to national identity throughout much of American history. This notion of innocence sees America as a good, virtuous nation, distant and disconnected from world history, culture, and politics. Occasionally, bad things can happen, but these acts of violence are perpetrated by outsiders, popular culture, or, as noted in defense of the American military's role in the torture of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, "a few bad apples." As a result, the innocence narrative is reaffirmed, after the fact, and reasserted, or rhetorically twisted, as it was following the attacks of 11 September 2001, to form the basis for a military invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq, even though the latter had no role in the attacks.

In Tourists of History, Sturken focuses on this relationship between the practices of consumerism and the maintenance of the idea of innocence. A kitsch culture, she argues, promotes a tourist relationship to global perspectives that distances and insulates the individual or national culture from any engagement with underlying causes and effects. Instead, Americans are encouraged to consume a rhetoric of fear, along with its attendant commodities: SUVs (because they are "safe"), duct tape, plastic, and bottled water (because they provide protection), loss of civil liberties and invasion of privacy (because they are necessary for "homeland security") and teddy bears, arms seemingly outstretched, offering a hug (because they provide comfort and continued innocence).

While she argues for the importance of remembering the tragic loss of lives in Oklahoma City, Washington, Shanksville, and New York City, Sturken urges attention be paid to a dangerous confluence of memory, tourism, consumerism, paranoia, security, and kitsch that promulgates fear in order to sell safety, offers prepackaged emotion at the expense of critical thought, contains alternative politics not always seen until after the fact, and facilitates public acquiescence in the federal government's repressive measures at home and its aggressive political and military policies abroad.



Updated 1st February 2008

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