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American Quarterly 53.4 (2001) 703-709

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Tourism in Performance

Shannon Jackson
University of California, Berkeley

Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display From Waikiki to Sea World. By Jane C. Desmond. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. 336 pages. $30.00 (cloth). $15.00 (paper).

"The genesis of this book," writes Jane Desmond, "came from a sense of shock" (xiii). Indeed, the tourist experience can be quite a shocker--perhaps more disturbingly so when its conventions of display and appropriation pass unnoticed. In her book, Staging Tourism: Bodies on Display From Waikiki to Sea World, Professor Desmond transforms her initial reactions into a full-scale analysis that is both rigorously researched and affectingly represented.

As the subtitle suggests, Staging Tourism includes a number of examples. The first half of the book investigates Hawaiian tourist performance, specifically focusing on Waikiki; the second explores the display of animals, including sites such as Marine World, the Monterrey Bay Aquarium, and Sea World. Throughout, Desmond is interested in tracking how tourist displays create embodied representations of the "natural," the human, the family, and the primitive past, transforming discourses of gender, scientific racism, and colonialism into spectacular forms. Along the way, Desmond argues for the utility of a performance paradigm in the analysis of tourism. As an interdisciplinary field that combines theories from anthropology, sociology, media studies, folklore and more, performance studies offers a "more fully embodied concept of the tourist, expanding the notion of the 'tourist gaze' to include other embodied aspects of experience (movement, [End Page 703] sound, touch, and so forth) both in the physical and imaginary realms" (xxi). Using her skills as both a dancer and a scholar, Desmond seeks to foreground the kinesthetic dimensions of experience, suggesting how such realms use a kind of "physical foundationalism" to instantiate unequal relations of power (xiv).

The analysis of Hawaiian tourist performance draws from a range of documents. Desmond has delved into the archives of the Sheraton hotel, analyzed the oral histories of Hawaiian performers at the Midway Plaisance, and poured over photographs, postcards, travel brochures and other souvenirs of "Hawaiiana" (19). Indeed, Staging Tourism is particularly interesting in its use of several types of synchronic and diachronic methodologies. One of the first chapters offers a thick description of her contemporary fieldsite in Waikiki, describing in the ethnographic present a "typical" tourist recreation of the lu'au. More of the chapters in this half of the book are organized historically, however. They include early representations of Hawai'i from 1880 to 1915 in order to track the period after the U.S. government otherthrew Queen Lili'uokalani's monarchy. Subsequent chapters situate ads, pamphlets, films, hotels, songs, and changing cultural performances within an increasingly complex commodity culture in the United States at mid-century. Desmond is careful to position such historical documents as representational practices. She imports a theory of the souvenir to her analysis of the postcard and its role in constituting a tourist imaginary. She considers the history of the stereoscope and the operations of perspective in her analysis of photographs, showing how the arrangement of celluloid bodies positioned performers and spectators--native and tourist--in a spectacularly hierarchized relation. Throughout her analysis of these and other tourist mechanisms, Desmond is particularly attuned to their synecdochic and "decontemporarizing" effects. Reconsistuted narratives, images, and performances installed the belief that single representations--a lei, a song, a tropical drink--could stand in for an entire Hawaiian culture. Moreover--and in a familiar primitivist move--Hawaiian culture was continually framed as an element of the past rather than as extant, dynamic, and contemporary.

The lu'au and the hula are of course some of the most significant performances in the construction and consumption of "Hawai'i" as a tourist destination. As such, they provide the occasion for a variety of exploratory critiques. Such performances are central to the maintenance [End Page 704] of what Desmond calls Hawai'i's "soft primitivism," a representation that "proffers a gentle, sensuous encounter with difference, different enough to be presented as 'alluring' but not threatening" (12). Installed within an Americanized version of a colonial encounter, this...


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