By Jim Miller
Upon returning from my travels it was with some amusement that I noted the tag at the end of my “greatest hits” series of columns in June: “We’re re-running some of the best of his columns while Jim takes this ‘vacation’ thing we keep hearing about.” I was amused because I hate “vacations.”
Hate vacations? What am I crazy? No, not crazy just not a fan of the way our consumer culture steals our lives and sells them back to us. As Michael Ventura notes in his seminal essay, “Report from El Dorado”:
Our idea of “a vacation” is an idea only about 100 years old. To “vacation” is to enter an image. Las Vegas is only the most shrill embodiment of this phenomenon … People come here to step into an image, a daydream, a film-like world where “everything” is promised.
No matter that the Vegas definition of “everything” is severely limited, what thrills tourists is the sense of being surrounded in “real life” by the same images they see on TV. But the same is true of the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park or Yosemite or Death Valley or virtually any of our “natural” attractions.
Indeed, when we consume packaged experiences, even the most beautiful “natural” phenomenon can be drained of any wonder. When all that was once directly lived moves away into the realm of representation, we struggle to escape from the poverty of our experience. Thus, as the Situationists put it back in the 1960s, tourism is “the chance to go see what has been made banal.”
And the sad truth is that virtually the whole world has been given this treatment, theme-parked to the point that what was once a provocative rhetorical flourish by Jean Baudrillard in the 1980s now elicits little more than a knowing shrug from the honest:
Disneyland is there to conceal the fact that it is the “real” country, all of America, which is Disneyland (just as prisons are there to conceal the fact that the social in its entirety, in its banal omnipresence which is carceral). Disneyland is presented as an imaginary in order to make us believe that the rest is real when in fact all of Los Angeles and the America surrounding it are no longer real, but of the order of the hyperreal and of simulation.
Back in 2011 in this column’s OB Rag days I noted how this phenomenon plays out here in San Diego where “one of the centerpieces of our economy is the marketing of ‘spectacular nature’ at Sea World, the zoo, or even the ‘experience’ of the beach as mediated by tourist propaganda. Even many of our urban spaces like Old Town, Balboa Park, and the Gaslamp have been carefully constructed and sold as ‘history’ whether or not they bear any resemblance to it . . . A vacation offers the consumer packaged ‘leisure’ and ‘fun’ rather than spontaneous play or joy.
In the tourist city all that was once directly lived has moved away into the representation. To visit San Diego as it sells itself is to visit no place in particular, to encounter nothing new or even real. Some people live here and know this while others live here their entire lives without ever really being here.”
And we are vulnerable to this because, as Ventura puts it in another essay, “Someone Is Stealing Your Life.” It’s the folks who’ve been making the American workplace more efficient by working us harder and longer for less money and fewer days off. It’s the people who own and market the world without consulting you about it. It’s our faceless masters who have come to dictate the rules of the game so thoroughly to their benefit that we no longer even recognize it. As Ventura explains, after a lifetime of working for other people, he had an epiphany:
That it didn’t matter how long I worked or what a good job I did. I could get incremental raises, perhaps even medical benefits and a few bonuses, but I would not be allowed power over my own life – no power over the fundamental decisions on which my life depends. My future is in the hands of people whose names I often don’t know and whom I never meet. Their investment is the only factor taken seriously. They feed on my work, on my life, but reserve for themselves all power, prerogative, and profit.
Slowly, very slowly, I came to a conclusion that for me was fundamental: My employers are stealing my life.
They. Are. Stealing. My. Life.
So when we vacation, we are buying back our lives from the people who stole them from us in the first place. In the final analysis, the question about how you spend your time has to do with who owns your time and ultimately who controls your life. And most of us are a lot less free than we think we are. It’s not just whether corporations and the government can mine our personal information or listen to our phone calls. It’s about the conditioning and restricting of our view of reality to the point where we don’t even think we have any real choices left.
So if or when we are lucky enough to have some time for ourselves, we should heed the words of my favorite sign greeting the rare speeding tourist on a back road in Molokai: “Dis Not America. Slow Da Fuck Down.” Because if we really slow down we can think about stopping. And if we stop running, we might just start to ask ourselves some fundamental questions.
It’s one thing to be savvy enough to steal back a little bit of life by refusing to vacation and owning your own experience instead; it’s another thing entirely to ponder how we could steal back the whole thing. That’s the real work. What has to be done.