Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Reflections on Travel 2

5. Such is the fate for those whom we derogatorily call ‘tourists.’ The tourist, as the story goes, is obsessed with the newness of an environment so long as a fitting record can be made of it. Most often, they take pictures of things for which pictures have already been taken, from the same angles, with the same lack of photographic skill. But, as taken by the tourist, they condition the truth of the journey. The photo then stands as a testament not to the environment, but to the presence of the tourist. With camera in tow, they move through a supposedly new environment that has been constructed just for the industry they have spawned. Most often, they remain within the designated tourist space, an economic space that is also a space of souvenirs, of tourist meanings. At the center of these spaces are the beacons of history, or art, or spectacle whose call they have answered. But they have come not to study, not to know, but to see. To become of a part of the community that has seen, as though this membership itself transcends the dullness of untravelled life.

6. But the distinction between the “tourist” and the true traveler often stems from an impossible presupposition: that one can get a “real” experience of a place. This notion of the real is, upon further examination, a kind of suggestion. “The real” prescribes a set of experiences, perceptions and understandings that we “real” travelers think one should get in a new place. When we say things like “come see the real Texas,” we are in fact just making recommendations about what elements of a place we think the traveler should go experience.

7. Thus, our questions concerning travel are inherently normative. In addition, the notion of an “authentic experience” is the result of a confusion about what types of experiences there can be. The “real” is merely the recommended, but is not experienced as such by the real traveller. At the heart of this deception is the traveler’s idea that there are authentic experiences. This notion is most often a unconscious extension of the material fact of authenticity. If a product of some sort is copied, such as a designer purse, the copy is necessarily inauthentic, that is, it does not find its origin in the production pipeline of the designer’s company. The authenticity of commercial objects thus gives way to the idea of the authenticity of experiences. But the “authentic” finds its legitimacy at least partially in the inauthenticity from which it must differentiate itself. The designer purse must have a seal of approval, which becomes a mark of its distinction, a sign that it is valued so highly that its valuers are willing to imitate it. The real traveler searches for a similar seal in his experiences, though he very often finds little evidence more than the absence of other tourists. If the markers are sufficient, the experience is deemed to be more “real” than that of the tourist. The traveler has failed to see that he has merely consumed a slightly different commodity than the tourists in the tourist square.

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