Vacation Autopsy

There’s something about a mass-market Luxury Cruise that’s unbearably sad. Like most unbearably sad things, it seems incredibly elusive and complex in its causes yet simple in its effect: on board the Nadir (especially at night, when all the ship’s structured fun and reassurances and gaiety ceased) I felt despair.
— David Foster Wallace, A Supposedly Fun Thing I will Never do Again, 1997

Leop­ards break in­to the tem­ple and drink all the sac­ri­fi­cial ves­sels dry; it keeps hap­pen­ing; in the end, it can be cal­cu­lat­ed in ad­vance and is in­cor­po­rat­ed in­to the rit­ual.
— Franz Kafka, The Zürau Aphorisms, 1931

This will constitute my end of summer report. Not that anyone commissioned an end of summer report, or even that there really is something called an end of summer report. But as an American in Norway, I have had to adjust (more than even in France) to this idea of an almost obligatory vacation somewhere in this period (brief in Norway) called summer. I think when David Foster Wallace wrote A Supposedly Fun Thing I will Never do Again (The Atlantic, 1997) he about covered the vulgarities of American culture on holiday. And he touched on the specific nature of packaged Ocean Cruises. So fast forward some 25 plus years and certain of the irrationalities of leisure time have shifted. That shift, though, is subsumed by the massive intensification of the war on the working class, and holiday and not. It was certainly there in 1997, but today it is naked. It is overt and even become a part of the marketing of tourist destinations. It is now the Kafka leopards in the temple.

Class was never Foster Wallace’s thing, and so while his instincts were keen, his politics were muddy.  Today, though, this assault on the working class (and underclass) is reaching, I think, unprecedented intensity and magnitude. Everything about the so called digitalization of life is actually a form of attack on workers and the poor. Literally everything. Since I did a lot of driving on this vacation I could not escape the weaponizing of parking costs. Everything to do with parking, the permits, the fees, the meters, the lack of spaces TO park, all of it is targeting those not driving expensive cars into reserved special spaces, spaces that are not for use except by them, the brahmins, the aristocracy. The rest of us can circle and circle and circle and circle and circle for shockingly long periods of time searching for an empty space. It is a cliche, of course, kids crying in the back seat, kids needing to use the restroom, not to mention the general atmosphere of hostility in what is supposed to be an escape from stress and anxiety. This, on a larger scale, is mirrored by the private jet industry vs commercial airline flights.

There  are never enough public toilets at amusement parks or resorts. They get by with the absolute fewest possible allowed by law. Nothing is free. N O T H I N G. The sense now is that those paying these extortionist level costs should be grateful. After all, you are one of the lucky ones, you got to come and suffer this assault on mind and body.

You can reserve a hotel room online, pay online and then check into said hotel, go to your room all without speaking to a single human being. There is a new feature in hotels involved this key-card system. To turn on lights you have to slip the card into the holder by the entrance. But at night, when you want to charge your phone or hearing aids, or computer, you can’t do it because the electricity is turned off when the lights go off.  The hotel is saving on costs, you see, anyway they can. And it’s always ‘green’. The excuse is always we must sacrifice for the environment.  One night we were awoken at 2 am by an emergency announcement to immediately leave the building because of fire. Of course, once outside, holding half asleep kids, in their underwear, it turned out to be, as the front desk put it, a computer malfunction. During this 8 day trip the news was mostly about ‘boiling earth’.  Turns out nearly all of it was exaggerated, fires in Greece were arson, the floods in Nova Scotia affected only a tiny part of the island, and reports of forty plus degrees in Lyon, Palermo, Wyoming, were all simply lies. But then everything today is a lie. And that begins with the climate change hysteria (fast on the heels of Covid and Ukraine).

Now I should add that all of these online and digital procedures, from reserving a hotel room, to buying a coke at the local pizza joint often don’t work. The platform or page is badly designed and there is, literally, nobody to ask for help. There is zero support. You have simply, sometimes, to abandon the idea of two nights at this hotel, or just leave the registration unfinished and go ahead anyway and hope for the best.

Everything must be pre-ordered. Nothing is spontaneous anymore. And this sense of determinism, as it were, dulls the excitement of the entire adventure, especially for the young. This, all this digital payment and reservation and ordering, is exhausting. For older people it is often impossible, and highly stressful. They stay home. And that’s the idea, really. For children, I suspect there is a lingering unconscious anxiety associated with ideas of ‘fun’, or rather with officially sanctioned organized ‘fun’. My children had a great time, but I suspect they noticed the adults were highly stressed.

…one could not avoid the suspicion that ‘free time’ is tending toward its own opposite, and is becoming a parody of itself. Thus unfreedom is gradually annexing ‘free time’, and the majority of unfree people are as unaware of this process as they are of the unfreedom itself.
— Theodor Adorno, Free Time, 1991

The growing restrictions on movement (under cover, again, of climate change or boiling earth or whatever) are obviously an intensification of control. The idiocy of the fifteen minute city is but one example. But here one bumps into tourism.  Everyone hates tourism. Even tourist operators, who make their living from tourism, hate it. Even tourists hate other tourists. And this concept, ‘the tourist’ is worth unpacking a bit. Traveling is invaluable for the young. And even the Euro or North American white backpacker has more positives to their endeavour than negatives. The spectre of white privilege visiting the colonies still exists, or the echoes of it, and certainly the institutional aid, whether Church or NGO is basically another form of colonial appropriation, but the answer to these issues does not lie in allowing the ruling class exclusive access to the world.

Does tourism and/or postmodernity, conceived in the most positive possible way as a (perhaps final) celebration of distance, difference, or differentiation, ultimately liberate consciousness or enslave it? Is modernity, as constituted in the system of attractions and the mind of the tourist, a “utopia of difference,” to use Van den Abbeele’s energetic phrase~~Or does it trap consciousness in a seductive pseudo-empowerment, a prison house of signs?
— Dean MacCannell,  The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, August 31, 2013

Well, post modernity aside, this is the question. And the answer has to do with several expressions of ‘tourism’. The traveller, the visitor to distant lands (Romans allocated several months each year to visit relatives in the provinces; a kind of ur-vacation time slot) and the seeker of otherness and cultural expansion is something that I think is inborn almost. People (peoples) have always migrated. People have always travelled and returned, too. The figure of the exile is hugely significant in modernist art. I might argue it is hugely significant in all art. Homesickness being one of the themes of all artworks. This is important to distinguish from corporate mass profit based tourism. Such tourism actually is designed to remove any sense of the unfamiliar. It is designed to remove anything that might expand one’s consciousness or lead to actual experience. It is designed to give the average affluent Westerner an ersatz experience of owning slaves.

There are countless studies on the exploitation of resorts located in the global south. And the strange tribalism of the ugly American (or Canadian or British, or German et al) on vacation. The very idea of pre-packaged tours of limited duration carries an unsavoury quality of white supremacism because the destinations are almost always poor countries crippled by western debt and restructuring. It promotes the ugly trinket industry, and the colonial displays of local authentic natives and handicrafts. I mean , it literally, in places today, is nearly identical to the ‘human zoos’ of the fin de siecle.

But there are less vulgar expressions of holiday travel. The post 60s American tendency, or corrective of sorts, was a search for simplicity and naturalness. Vacations included camping, natural fibre clothing, and sometimes fishing or even hunting. This was the Sierra Club idea of re-visiting ‘nature’. But all of this was shaped by the forces of marketing. And it was highly bureaucratised, with a fair amount of cost for permits, etc.  And not only marketing, but more sinister themes or narratives were being imposed on the public. This was also the era (or first era, really) of the overpopulation fanatics. Those readers of Pogo who bought into a fear of a Soylent Green future. This era constituted the precursors for global control of the wild. The domestication of nature became a given, and cloaked in a brochure prose akin to that selling cemetery plots.

Actually, self-discovery through a complex and sometimes arduous search for an Absolute Other is a basic theme of our civilization, a theme supporting an enormous literature: Odysseus, Aeneas, the Diaspora, Chaucer, Christopher Columbus, Pilgrim’s Progress, Gulliver, Jules Verne, Western ethnography, Mao’s Long March. This theme does not just thread its way through our literature and our history. It grows and develops, arriving at a kind of final flowering in modernity. What begins as the proper activity of a hero (Alexander the Great) develops into the goal of a socially organized group (the Crusaders), into the mark of status of an entire social class (the Grand Tour of the British “gentleman”), eventually becoming universal experience (the tourist).
— Dean MacCannell, The Tourist: A New Theory of the Leisure Class, August 31, 2013

MacCannell’s perspective is interesting but also reductive to the point of neglect. Still, it makes a point. And if Odysseus (per Adorno) was the original bourgeois exile, the Aeneas was the original tourist. The Crusades, of course, ushered in Euro racism under cover of the Church, and by extension, later, slavery and occupation and land theft. Resource theft. The Grand Tour of the British (it’s always the British) was the precursor of Carnival Cruise lines, and the precursor to ‘safaris’ in Africa today (for white Europeans). In between was the hard fought wars of independence for African states, the assistance of the USSR and the obstacle that was the interests of western capital. Remember Dick Cheney called Mandela a terrorist into the 90s. Orson Welles once said whenever something becomes folkloric it has died. He was thinking of bullfighting which no longer was part of the religious/ cultural makeup of Spain. He noted he cannot go to the Corrida only to see Japanese tourists in the first row with their cameras. Today, there are very few spots on earth where some aspect of this folkloric corruption does not exist. But there ‘are’ places. There are even places all over Europe free of U.S. and U.K. tourism. Hungary’s Lake Balaton, for example, once the site of Communist vacationers, from all over the Soviet Union, is today hugely popular with Hungarian families and largely vacationers from Eastern and Central Europe. It is a bit of a throw back to mid century ideas of summer holiday. It is not a resort for the elite, but it retains its own elegance.

But then, today, there has also been a transformation of the idea of leisure. Leisure under capitalism has always resembled work but today they are often positively impossible to separate. The destruction of unions, the drastic contraction of industrial labor sites (in the US and North America), but in the EU as well, has made ‘industry’ a kind of touristic attraction itself. Like some nearly extinct species, an old steel mill is given guided tours with commentary in several languages.  Tours of old factories, and photography shows of abandoned industrial parks or quarries or mines is now commonplace. Industrial activity is now hid, much as death is hid by the aforementioned mortuary business. And that those highly extractive and invasive mining or industrial factories are now located in remote corners of usually very poor countries is never mentioned. Nor that the cameras around the neck of these tourists have lenses made by Zeiss or Nikon, et al. The making of just the lenses involves melting of silica glass at very high temperatures (lenses used as well for microscopes, digital signage and TV flat screens) that is produced by chain reaction and is massively energy inefficient. And highly toxic. Among the minerals used, variously for various photographic products, include antimony, arsenic, barium, bromine, platinum, tungsten, palladium, mercury and indium. And quite a few more, actually. But you get the idea. The disposal of these chemicals is done exclusively in the very poorest countries in the world.

As a sort of side bar, it is interesting to note the changes in the funeral parlour business. New green start ups are taking a huge chunk of the business now. After all, ‘burials are polluting’. Here from a piece on trends in Canada:

Lucille Gora is 73 and lives alone on the outskirts of Amherst, N.S. According to StatsCan, single-person households like hers are now the most common in the country—it’s a demographic that has more than doubled in the past 35 years. Since she doesn’t have children, Gora has been taking on end-of-life planning on her own. “I don’t want anyone else to have to do it, and I certainly don’t want them to do it in a way I don’t like,” she says. Gora, who’s retired from a career in health care, is very familiar with issues of death and dying and adamant that she doesn’t want to “be put in a hole in the ground.” “Cemeteries are polluting,” she says. “They put all sorts of chemicals like formaldehyde into the ground, and we’re running out of space anyway.” Some studies estimate the carbon emissions of a typical funeral—from chopping down trees to manufacturing a casket to transporting said casket to the cemetery—to be upwards of 245 kilograms of CO2, which is akin to driving 4,000 kilometres. Then there’s the cost. Like most real estate, cemetery burials in Canada have skyrocketed in price: In Amherst, a plot alone costs up to $10,000; a plot in Toronto’s Mount Pleasant Cemetery starts at $31,000. Caskets range from $1,000 to $10,000. Opening and closing up a grave for burial is about $1,500, and a grave marker or head-stone can run up to $3,000. Fees for the ceremonies themselves vary widely based on location, size, required staff and even season, but the average funeral bill—obituary, church rental, flowers, reception—is between $5,000 and $10,000. Beyond her ethical concerns, a traditional burial exceeded Gora’s budget. So she took to Google to explore alternatives.
— Rosemary Counter, “A Wave of Start-ups Are Disrupting the $2-Billion Funeral Industry”, Canadian Business, February 2023

This is, I would argue, inextricably bound up with the cultural shifts in travel. Today, one’s death and remains can become fertilizer for a tree of your choice, or can be covered in mushroom spores, and THEN used as fertilizer, or even, from a company in Texas (where else?) pressed (through some sort of process using carbon pressure) into a diamond. And then I guess you can wear Aunt Tilly on your finger. And there are several digital funeral directors who can do the planning for you online or with Zoom. But this all reflects a kind of fear of mortality. A growing number of people, apparently, celebrate their death before they actually die. Pre-packaged death and pre-packaged travel. I am reminded of those many scenes in the novels of Dickens or Eliot or Hardy, where the weary travellers get out of their coach and find refuge at the inn, before a hearth with a burning fire. Strangers share stories, share some soup or bread. They process the experience of their journey. They reflect, and no doubt some of that reflection is on their death. Why do I think Disneyworld makes sure you do NOT reflect on that.

The traditional funeral is, though, admittedly a Victorian leftover. And David Bowie apparently had what is called a ‘direct cremation’ that cost 700 US dollars. And perhaps the idea of tourism is Victorian, too, in a sense. Those travellers in Hardy did not need passports, for they were not even invented at that time. Today there is a dramatic increase in tracking and surveilling all cross border movements.

In mid-to-late 2023, U.S. citizens and nationals of over 60 other countries will need an electronic travel authorization to visit much of Europe. Travelers to any Schengen-zone country will have to register with a European Travel Information and Authorization System (ETIAS). ETIAS will be similar to the Electronic System for Travel Authorization (ESTA) already used in the United States.
— James Bridges InterExchange, 2021

This sort of additional gratuitous digital infrastructure, and bureaucracy, is hardly a gesture of green. The public seems stunningly ignorant about server farms or the costs and expense of maintaining these infrastructure.

All publicly accessible digital material—including data that is personal or potentially damaging—is open to being harvested for training datasets that are used to produce AI models. There are gigantic datasets full of people’s selfies, of hand gestures, of people driving cars, of babies crying, of newsgroup conversations from the 1990s, all to improve algorithms that perform such functions as facial recognition, language prediction, and object detection. When these collections of data are no longer seen as people’s personal material but merely as infrastructure, the specific meaning or context of an image or a video is assumed to be irrelevant.
— Kate Crawford, The Atlas of AI: Power, Politics, and the Planetary Costs

Increasingly travel, in fact, all movement today, has begun to feel fungible, and this in large part because the technologies of public management are the same wherever you go. The surveillance system in the airport at Buenos Aires is the same one used in a dozen other major airports, or in super markets in a dozen countries, or at the unemployment office in Des Moines.

It is about extraction, capture, the cult of data, the commodification of human capacity for thought and the dismissal of critical reason in favour of programming. . . . Now more than ever before, what we need is a new critique of technology, of the experience of technical life.
— Achille Mbembe, Critique of Black Reason, 2017

In the late 19th century there was a revolution going on in photography (see Jonathan Beller, The Message is Murder, or any of Jonathan Crary’s books) that allowed for the white public in Europe to *see* the people of Africa; ‘primitive’ people. This entertainment carried a scientific veneer that was couched in the slave trade. Photography grew and was shaped by racial ideologies.

David Livingstone’s instructions to his brother, a photographer, transpose William Holman Hunt’s ideas into the incipient scientific language of the day: he asked Charles Livingstone to “secure characteristic specimens of the various tribes … for the purposes of ethnology.” Unlike “exhibitions,” traveling shows, and museums, photography illustrated Africa primarily by means of iconic signs, not indexical ones; like mobile displays, photography transferred “the location of analysis” back to the comfort of the metropole. Photography greatly increased people “in-the-know”: postcards, magazines, white hunter’s books, illustrated travel stories all yielded their messages in urban living rooms and studies. The trajectory from painting to mechanical reproduction traced the shift from public display to private viewing.
— Paul Landau, Empires of the Visual: Photography and Colonial Administration in Africa, October 2002

Landau added:

John Tagg has argued that such a history of photography’s use, rather than any of its intrinsic properties, is what has made photography “realistic.” Thus from police records, the photograph matured in institutions concerned with the establishment of truthful identities: security clearances, medical records, state permits, and the like, often in the service of institutional power.

The white western vacationeer still sees his vacation destination as a colony. As sites of occupation. Israelis I know often take vacation in Arab countries, at beaches in Tunisia or Egypt. I asked one, once,  about this. I thought you hated Arabs (he was a military guy for the IDF) I said. He answered, oh, they are perfectly great as servants.

But under capitalism the home market is inevitably bound up with the foreign market. As the export of capital increased, and as the foreign and colonial connections and spheres of influence of the big monopolist associations expanded in all ways, things naturally gravitated towards an international agreement among these associations, and towards the formation of international cartels.
— Lenin, Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism, 1917

As the internet complex expands and aggregates, more facets of our lives are funneled into the protocols of digital networks. The disaster is the irredeemable incompatibility of online operations with friendship, love, community, compassion, the free play of desire, or the sharing of doubt and pain.
— Jonathan Crary, Scorched Earth: Beyond the Digital Age to a Post-Capitalist World, April 12 2022

This (the Crary quote above) is really the story of my summer in a nutshell (to employ a cliche). The new protocols are incompatible with libidenal openness, with humanness. This, the vacation panopticon, is an emotionally denuded landscape as imagined by the sociopath. It is not conducive to enjoyment, certainly.
 One should not have to suffer while spending time with your family.
 This is just more work. Alienated work.
John Steppling is an original founding member of the Padua Hills Playwrights Festival, a two-time NEA recipient, Rockefeller Fellow in theatre, and PEN-West winner for playwrighting. He's had plays produced in LA, NYC, SF, Louisville, and at universities across the US, as well in Warsaw, Lodz, Paris, London and Krakow. He has taught screenwriting and curated the cinematheque for five years at the Polish National Film School in Lodz, Poland. Plays include The Shaper, Dream Coast, Standard of the Breed, The Thrill, Wheel of Fortune, Dogmouth, and Phantom Luck, which won the 2010 LA Award for best play. Film credits include 52 Pick-up (directed by John Frankenheimer, 1985) and Animal Factory (directed by Steve Buscemi, 1999). A collection of his plays was published in 1999 by Sun & Moon Press as Sea of Cortez and Other Plays. He lives with wife Gunnhild Skrodal Steppling; they divide their time between Norway and the high desert of southern California. He is artistic director of the theatre collective Gunfighter Nation. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.