Saturday, September 22, 2007

When in Rome... The Spring Break Sex Hypothesis

During my self-imposed blog exile, Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG interviewed Mary Beard, Professor of Classics at Cambridge. She had an excellent take on the consumer psychology behind tourism:

We tend to think that tourists are dupes being flogged crap which they don’t realize is crap. Actually, I suspect that most people, like you and I, do realize that it’s crap. The point is to buy crap, because that’s part of what the deal is – that’s the transaction which you’re doing.

I suppose it’s all part of what I’m thinking in general: people are much smarter about their engagement with these places than we often give them credit for. They/we have quite a highly developed sense of what the touristic game is all about. I might be an expert when it comes to the Parthenon, but I go to hundreds of places where I know nothing at all – but I still know what the contract is, between the tourist and the monument.

I heard Steven Pinker on Science Friday last week talking about the linguistic/organizational categories we have for verbs in our brains that help us order the crazy amount of raw information that we encounter. Here, Beard is describing a similar phenomenon. In a world full of dislocated people, artifacts, products, plants, animals, and buildings, we need guidelines for how to interpret the demands placed on us by situations that would have been incomprehensible a few short decades ago.

So, we have a category for the human encounter with the ancient monument within the tourist context, and that distinction allows us to behave and consume in ways that would otherwise not be acceptable. In this case, it tends to loosen our wallets for things that we wouldn’t buy at Cost Plus World Market. Other specialized social situations allow all sorts of novel behaviors. Let’s call this idea the Spring Break Sex hypothesis.

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