This weekend gave me the last little break before the race to end of my sabbatical. So I took a bit of time to try to understand what I’m doing with my academic life. In particular, I tried to figure out why I’ve been so fascinated with the Atari excavation, tourism, and the T.V. series Archer. What brought these three things together?
Reading parts of Marita Struken’s Tourists of History this weekend helped bring my research into greater focus. She considered the relationship between kitsch and tourism, arguing that both have a way of simplifying the complexities of the world and promoting a kind of innocent detachment. Kitsch often evokes the simple pleasures of childhood and frequently emerges at moments of trauma as a kind of social therapy that restores the world to recognizable order. Sturken’s work, for example, examines the appearance of kitsch in the aftermath of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and contemplates the innocence of a Twin Towers snow globe purchased from vendors serving tourists at Ground Zero in New York.
The ritual of visiting a site of trauma as a tourist provides the modern visitor with a way to organize, apprehend, and ultimately control the power of the traumatic event. Viewing the Bakken, for example, rationalizes the oil patch in a way that allows for action and allows the visitor to experience the rhythm and reality of extractive industries in a way that photography, video, and media coverage leaves open ended. In fact, tourism has tended to emphasize authenticity of experience as a way to transcend the limitations of a world shaped by media and seemingly outside our reality. The immersive character of tourism makes it real.
As numerous scholars have noted, all tourism is a form of industrial tourism. So tourism of industrial sites – like the Bakken – make the connection between our industrial world and the sites of industrial production explicit. Driving on a busy Bakken highway with trucks, equipment, and workers engaged in the extraction of oil from deep beneath the earth makes clear the link between tourism and industry, but framing this encounter as tourism allows the visitor to the Bakken to realize this as a form of authentic experience comprehensible as part of a larger view of the region and its activity. In short, by understanding the inconvenience, danger, and processes at play as a tourist, the Bakken becomes part of a shared world that allows the tourist to tame and organize reality by subjecting it to modern criteria of experience.
The resurgent fascination with Atari games in the 21st century represents an effort by a middle age population to reclaim their childhood innocence. As I noted in my review of Zak Penn’s Atari: Game Over documentary, the excavation of Atari games from an abandoned landfill is like so many archaeology of the contemporary world projects in that it endeavors to systematize our past experiences. Like the modern encounter of tourism, archaeology of the contemporary world renders the recent past understandable. By recreating and reordering our experiences it allows us to manage the trauma of the past, evokes a lost innocence, and bringing the complexity of a uncertain world into order by appealing to archaeology’s claim to authenticity (and authentic knowledge). In the case of Penn’s documentary, this process is couched in explicitly Freudian terms. Digging into our own past (and the past of Howard Scott Warshaw, the developer of the E.T. Atari game), we discover parts of our primordial childhood and makes our past and our present seem normal, under control, and safe. Our childhood experiences are valid and linger just below the overburdened and neurotic world of the adulthood.
Finally, this brings us to Archer. I’ve started watching the first four or five season of the T.V. show called Archer. I think it probably dances the line between being a legitimate hit and having a cult following. The 30-minute, animated TV show centers on the antics of Archer, a secret agent for the free-lance intelligence firm called ISIS run by his overbearing mother. Archer is a handsome former college lacrosse player who drinks, parties, and shoots his way out of innumerable jams. While at times crass, cavalier, and irresponsible, Archer is perpetually innocent. He lacks any clear moral compass (unlike his beautiful and perpetually conflicted ex-girlfriend Lana), but also lacks any clear guile. He is honest and literal to a fault. In fact, he represents the American middle and upper-class male as the perpetual innocent. Archer is the same person who remains fascinated with Atari and, as the show’s frequently flashbacks make clear, continues to struggle to overcome and understand his own emotionally empty childhood.
Archer resonates with a generation of American males who are looking for a way to stay innocent in a world that seems impossibly complex. Tourism, nostalgia for our kitsch-inflected childhood, and a TV show staring a child-man who always makes the right decisions because he is capable of any moral reasoning, all reflect strategies to organize our past and our present in a comprehensible, authentic, and un-ironic way.
For more on this check out my Tourist Guide to the Bakken Oil Patch and come and see a showing of Atari: Game Over with a panel discussion and vintage Atari games starting at 3:30 on Thursday at the Gorecki Center on the lovely campus of the University of North Dakota.