Exploration, Travel, Tourism and the Anti-tourist:

Looking for Authenticity in All the Wrong Places


The idea of human movement is an objective one, i.e., how humans move from place to place can be talked about either in terms of the shifting of the center of gravity and compensating for the shift, which we call walking, or, when we employ technological devices, such as trains and boats and planes, the physics of the movement of the devices that carry humans. But when we talk about human travel, we are no longer in an objective realm, but instead find ourselves with a phenomenon whose definition is a function of its historical and social circumstances. Paul Fussell's Abroad suggests that the only possible form of travel left to us today is tourism. Why? To better understand what Fussell means, we should back up a couple of steps and look at what means of travel are possible, other than tourism. He suggests there are four: exploration, travel, tourism, and anti-tourism.

In Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness, Marlow talks about maps:

Now when I was a little chap I had a passion for maps. I would look for hours at South America, or Africa, or Australia, and lose myself in all the glories of exploration. At that time there were many blank spaces on the earth, and when I saw one that looked particularly inviting on a map (but they all look like that) I would put my finger on it and say, When I grow up I will go there.

By the time Marlow becomes an adult, however, there wasn't much "blank space any more":

It had got filled since my boyhood with rivers and lakes and names, It had ceased to be a blank space of delightful mystery--a white patch for a boy to dream gloriously over. It had become a place of darkness. But there was in it one river especially, a mighty big river, that you could see on the map, resembling an immense snake uncoiled, with its head in the sea, its body at rest curving afar over a vast country, and its tail lost in the depths of the land. And as I looked at the map of it in a shop-window, it fascinated me as a snake would a bird--a silly little bird.

Marlow, the "silly little bird," decides to explore this snake-river, the Congo, and goes to the offices of the Company, a trading corporation. In the office he sees a map:

Deal table in the middle, plain chairs all round the walls, on one end a large shining map, marked with all the colours of a rainbow. There was a vast amount of red--good to see at any time, because one knows that some real work is done in there, a deuce of a lot of blue, a little green, smears of orange, and, on the East Coast, a purple patch, to show where the jolly pioneers of progress drink the jolly lager-beer. However, I wasn't going into any of these. I was going into the yellow. Dead in the centre. And the river was there-- fascinating--deadly--like a snake.

Marlow, like his Renaissance forebears, Drake, Magellan, Columbus, Balboa, Pizarro, Cabeza de Vaca, and Cortez, was an explorer. The explorer quests after the undiscovered, and along the way encounters the dangers of disease, equipment malfunctions, penury, mutiny, hostile natives, and, perhaps most dangerous, the loss of civility, the tenuous veneer of humanity which is always on the verge of breakdown, a breakdown chronicled by Conrad and others, most recently by two brilliant films, Francis Coppola's Apocalypse Now and Werner Herzog's Aguirre, Wrath of God. For the explorer, the passage from Civilization to Nature and back again has in it the character of a victory. While this form of travel may seem to have as its goal exploration of the unknown, except in exceptional cases, such as Conrad's Lord Jim, the true goal is to go There and return.

Exploration is virtually impossible today, simply because almost all the planet has been explored. What remains for the person with an explorer's personality is Adventure. But the Adventurer is not an Explorer: the Adventurer seeks not to encounter the unknown, but to experience a physical challenge and succeed at it, such as climbing a high mountain or rafting down a raging jungle river. In addition, the Explorer's journey had real social, that is economic value. The explorer opens up new markets for the mercantilists to exploit, whether it's the darkest Africa of Conrad, or our own New World. The Adventurer's victory, however, has no social utility, unless he sells his video tape to National Geographic. Instead, his victory is one over himself and his fear, and remains, as I say, a private one.

With the earth explored, and the development of a bourgeois class, the next possibility for Western Europeans was travel. For a person to travel, several things are required. First, one needs leisure time, as opposed to a vacation from work, since in travelling one is never sure of the possibilities of transport, lodging, and general civility. Second, one needs to be educated, since to travel one needs learn about the region beforehand, which requires study, and one of the goals of travel is to be instructed about new and little-known places. (Part of a traveler's education should, by the way, be knowledge of at least one other language.) Third, there has to be an economic disparity between the traveler and the place traveled, in the traveler's favor. As Fussell points out, one of the delights of travel is the chance to live like a king. What discomforts one experiences in the way of the absence of toilet paper or a regular transportation service is more than made up for by the chance to eat every delicacy known to the region, attended by sycophantic help, and get a bill for two dollars.

Travel is like study. A traveler, as the etymology of the word indicates, suffers travail (Fussell). Like the scholar's life, which, according to Samuel Johnson, is filled with "toil, envy, want, the garret, and jail," the traveler may suffer genuine discomfort, lousy lodgings, and misunderstandings with the local constabulary. The reward for these experiences (which at home we all seek to avoid), is the same as the student who experiences the fatigue and isolation of the scholarly life: knowledge, both of a little-known region of the planet, and, like the adventurer, knowledge of himself. For those with the leisure, education, flexibility and stamina, travel can be one of the most rewarding ways to move from one place to the other.

Unfortunately for those of us with aspirations toward being a travelers, Fussell believes that travel is impossible, that it has be unalterably replaced by tourism, a phenomenon that began in 19th century England. Several factors contributed to the rise of tourism. First, the rise of industrialism brought with it a migration of people from the country and the establishment of a proletarian working class whose lives were controlled by the owners of the means of production. Second, and entailed by the victory of industrialism in England, time was rationalized. Until the Industrial Revolution, humans had lived in agricultural time, in which change was experienced as an ever-recurring cycle, the natural changes in seasons and growing things. Following the Industrial Revolution, agricultural time was replaced by the uniform and unidirectional tyranny of the clock and the sixty hour week. Third, the exploitation of the proletariat resulted in the development of a bourgeois class, and the owners needed a break from urban bourgeois overwork. Unlike their employees, the bourgeois owners could afford to take a break. Hence, the modern concept of the vacation, and the implicit requirement to leave one's common surroundings and move to uncommon ones. However, since a vacation is the mirror of work, vacation time was both rationalized and limited. If one left one's surroundings, one needed to be confident that one could return to them at a strictly appointed time. Hence, unlike the traveler, the vacationer had to have his vacation time strictly regulated, so that he could return to work on time. Note also that since the concept of the "vacation" gains its sense from work, then a vacation becomes defined as the absence of work, clearly separating the "traveler's time" from the bourgeois "vacation time." A vacation for a tourist is in this sense a short stretch of time in "heaven," a heaven of perfect idleness, and, in the American capitalist world, consumption. Unlike the traveler's leisure time, the tourist's regulated vacation time becomes one not of re-creation, which requires effort and sometimes pain, but idleness, in which one pays others to do the "work" that the vacationer tries, for his brief period of release, to avoid.

With the urbanization of Western Europe, and the movement of people from agricultural environments to those of the office, with the consequent growth of the economic power of a large proletarian class that serves the interest of enormous, interlocking corporate industries, vacationing itself became a corporate industry, and a wildly successful one, what we know as the tourism industry. Not only could the bourgeois afford vacations, in post-war America even the proletariat could afford them.

In addition to the goal of perfect idleness, surrounded by servants working to fulfill his heavenly desires, the tourist has other goals while on vacation. Fussell points out that while both tourist and traveler can be defined as `... temporarily leisured persons who voluntarily visit a place away from home for the purpose of experiencing a change,' their motives differ. The tourist seeks to raise social status at home and relieve social anxiety, to realize fantasies of erotic freedom, and most important, to derive secret pleasure from posing momentarily as a member of a social class superior to his own, to play the role of a "shopper" and a spender whose life becomes significant and exciting only when he is exercising power by choosing what to buy; a fantasist equipped temporarily with unaccustomed power.

The tourist industry, then, is not selling transportation; it's selling a commodity, and that commodity is the fulfillment of a fantasy of upper class idleness, often combined with illicit erotic intrigue. Turn the pages of any newspaper travel section or travel brochure and you'll find endless variations on one narrow theme: the opportunity to consume a fantasy sanctioned by others as a reward for hard work, offered with fantasy images of beachside idleness (accompanied, no doubt, by the slender blond in the ad), or fantasy names: Paris, London, Rome. The tourist vacations not in hopes of experiencing the New, but the Socially-elevating, and potentially erotic Sanctioned.

To develop a geographical local worthy of becoming Sanctioned, two groups must work in concert. The locals must develop the sanctioned area so that on the one hand, it resembles America as much as possible, so far as amenities are concerned: restaurants must take VISA cards, hotels may not gouge, toilets must flush, transportation must function efficiently and so forth. At the same time, the geography itself should be non-American (which usually gets translated into quaint: different, but non-threatening). Cozumel and Cancun are excellent examples of this process. Second, the tourism industry in this country must develop in image for the place suitable for consumption. Among the many elements of this development is demonstrating to the consumer that the place can be "done" in a limited amount of time, since the vacationing tourist is always on a schedule. Hence, the concept of the travel "package": if you pay the tourist agent money, he can assure you that from your departure until your return others will be hard at work to insure your complete, idle passivity.

Once these groups, working in tandem, accomplish their goal, what had once been a place becomes a pseudo-place. Just as a celebrity is someone who is famous for being well-known, a pseudo- place is celebrated for being well known, to tourist agencies, that is, and in turn to the hard working proletarians who form the bulk of their customers. (Fussell defines a pseudo-place as "one that has been constructed for the purpose of being recognized as a familiar image.") Pseudo-places are non-threatening, convenient, and can be "done" in a pre-calculated amount of time.

At the beginning I mentioned the comment by my hairdresser about going to EPCOT in lieu of France. What her understanding of the meaning of places suggests is that Walt Disney and others have transcended the concept of the pseudo-place in their development of artificial environments. The France of EPCOT doesn't resemble, or simulate France; it resembles the pseudo-France of the tourism industry, complete with the symbols-made-flesh of the boulangerie, the patisserie, the sidewalk café, and the beret-clad help. EPCOT France is not a pseudo-place, it's a meta-pseudo-place.

It may be fun for all us travelers to laugh at such a concept, but Disneyworld is merely the harbinger of Things to Come. Science fiction has suggested the creation of the artificial meta-pseudo- place. You may recall, for example, the film Westworld. Philip K. Dick has given us a comic nightmare of a future in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? in which not only have places become pseudo-places, but, owing to the destruction of animal habitats and their virtual elimination, animals themselves have become pseudo- animals. William Gibson's science fiction novel of a few years ago, Neuromancer, suggested a world in which, owing to the power of computer simulation, one is never sure whether one's luncheon companion is a real person or a simulated one. With INTEL's recently developed microchip that contains one million transistors, I don't think that Gibson's world is too terribly far in the future. Given the potential for simulated environments, tomorrow's tourists may never leave their couch.

Just as the tourism industry required developing pseudo- places, forms of transport themselves have been influenced by tourism. Two good examples are the cruise ship and the modern airplane. Both have been designed to efficiently transport as many people as possible without giving them any sense of having traveled. Thus, in the beige-on-beige airplane one sits militarily forward, accompanied by a dull hum for several hours, after which one arrives someplace new. Whenever I fly I'm reminded of Mission Impossible, in which the Bad Guy is put on what he thinks is an airplane, but is actually a capsule in a warehouse somewhere. Our airlines could pull a similar trick on us without too much effort. The cruise ship, "a small moveable pseudo-place making an endless transit between larger fixed pseudo-places," panders not to the desire to travel, but primarily to the stomach and the desire to recline.

Admittedly, this is a bleak view of the possibilities for travel. One wishes, in the light of tourism, to travel instead. As Fussell says,

If the explorer moves toward the risks of the formless and the unknown, the tourist moves toward the security of pure cliché. It is between these two poles that the traveler mediates, retaining all he can of the excitement of the unpredictable attaching to exploration, and fusing that with the pleasure of "knowing where one is" belonging to tourism.

But, if, as Fussell asserts, travel is no longer possible, bludgeoned out of existence by the globe-covering efficiency of the tourist industry, perhaps when traveling one could be in the tourist class, while not of it. One could become an anti-tourist:

Unlike the traveler, [the anti-tourists's] motive is not inquiry, but self-protection and vanity. The anti-tourist tries to merger into the surroundings: don't carry a camera, shift your wedding ring from left hand to right, stay in unlikely hotels, programmatically consume the local food, avoid the standard sights, etc. The anti-tourist tries to persuade himself that he's really a traveler instead of a tourist.

Fussell suggests the appearance of the anti-tourist:

Perhaps the most popular way for the anti-tourist to demarcate himself from the tourists, because he can have a drink while doing it, is for him to lounge--cameraless- -at a café table and with palpable contempt scrutinize the passing sheep through half-closed lids, making all movements very slowly. Here the costume providing the least danger of exposure is jeans, a thick, dark-colored turtleneck, and longish hair. Any conversation gambits favored by lonely tourists, like "Where are you from?" can be deflected by vagueness. Instead of answering Des Moines or Queens, you say, "I spend a lot of time abroad" or "That's really hard to say." If hard-pressed, you simply mutter "Je ne parle pas Anglais," look at your watch, and leave. Fussell suggests that Anti-tourism is an index of class. Working class people find nothing embarrassing about tourism, only the middle to upper-middle class, who have heard and read just enough to sense that being a tourist is somehow offensive and scorned by an imagined upper class which it hopes to emulate, and, if possible, be mistaken for. The anti- tourist deludes himself [into becoming a fantasy traveler].

Are things this bleak? Let me suggest some limitations in Fussell's approach. Fussell's notion of tourism is a Western European, historically progressive, "materialist" one, in that the status of human travel is a function of social development. That is, if people have explored a region, then it's no longer available for exploration, or if the tourism industry reaches a certain critical mass then travel is no longer possible. However, one can also look at the exploration, travel, tourist, anti-tourist progression epistemologically as well as historically, that is, one can look at travel as a way of knowing, about the places you see, but, more important, about yourself. The distinction between the tourist and the traveler can be made by regarding not only the goal of travel (the fantasist tourist, the student-traveler) but also the epistemological lenses through which the tourist or traveller sees the terrain. Are the eyes those of an inauthentic or authentic soul? By definition, we must say that everyone's eyes, traveler or tourist, in the modern world are inauthentic.

Walker Percy, the wonderful Louisiana novelist, has addressed the problem of the inauthenticity of vision in several excellent novels, among them The Moviegoer, The Last Gentleman and Love in the Ruins.

One of the most arresting scenes in Percy's The Last Gentleman occurs in Section Five of Chapter One. The main character, Bibb Barrett, visiting the Metropolitan Museum of Art on a rainy Thursday afternoon, pauses before a Velázquez. He has found it impossible to simply look at a painting. Something is denied to the observer, "for the paintings were encrusted with a public secretion. The harder one looked the more invisible the paintings became" (27). To divest the painting of its public secretion one must play a trick on oneself. Barrett's trick in this case is not to look at the painting, but to watch others watch the painting. This particular Thursday, however, vision of the painting was denied to Barrett, "even when one used all the tricks." The air was "thick as mustard gas with ravenous particles which were stealing the substance from painting and viewer alike." Unexpectedly, a workman falls through the skylight in front of Barrett. Fortunately, no one was hurt, but this minor catastrophe did have an effect:

It was at this moment that the engineer happened to look under his arm and catch sight of the Velázquez. It was glowing like a jewel! The painter might have just stepped out of his studio and the engineer, passing in the street, had stopped to look through the open door.
The painting could be seen.

In The Last Gentleman, the distinction between sight, the physiological process of seeing, and vision, the epiphantic revelation of something not ordinarily given in sight, plays a crucial role. The central problem that most of the characters in the novel face (or choose not to face) is authenticity. Authenticity is the enduring experience of the physical directly as the physical, not mediated through another's understanding of the physical.

The possibility of recovering his physical sensorium is evidenced at the outset of this novel by Barrett's purchase of a telescope. The telescope takes the everyday world and somehow changes it. "It was as if the telescope created its own world in the brilliant theater of its lenses" (5). Like the accident in the museum, the magnification of the telescope stripped the world of its public coating and allowed things to be seen. "These lenses did not transmit light merely. They penetrated to the heart of things" (29). The heart of things is not a metaphysical essence, but the empirical qualities of a thing, stripped of the abstracted public vision of the world. [ref. to Plato/Existentialist views of the real] Barrett having purchased the telescope, sets it up in his room and looks at a building:

There sprang into view a disc of brickwork perhaps eight feet in diameter. Now stripping to his shorts, he drew up a chair, made himself comfortable, and gazed another five minutes at the bricks. He slapped his leg. It was as he had hoped. Not only were the bricks seen as if they were ten feet away; they were better than that. It was better than having the bricks there before him. They gained in value. Every grain and crack and excrescence became available. Beyond any doubt, he said to himself, this proves that bricks, as well as other things, are not as accessible as they used to be. Special measures were needed to recover them.
The telescope recovered them.

The telescope, traditionally used to discover the truth of the transcendental heavens, is symbolically turned down to earth by Barrett, to discover the truth of the world around him, a truth concealed from him by the coating of "everydayness" that prevents him from seeing the world as it should be seen.

The rest of The Last Gentleman chronicles Bibb Barrett's other attempts to restore his vision of the world, to wrest it from the tyranny of seeing it through the inherited, and inauthentic definitions of the things of the world.

Percy is not the first person to approach the problem of authenticity in general, and authenticity of sight in particular. One of the most interesting thinkers on the issue of authenticity is Martin Heidegger, a German philosopher whose book, Being and Time, inspired the development of existentialism. In Being and Time Heidegger discusses how newspapers, television and other forms of pseudo-contact with the world has created an anonymous, inconspicuous, and average world of the "they," what we in America call the phenomenon of "the Joneses." In this public world, Heidegger claims that "... everything gets obscured, and what has thus been covered up gets passed off as something familiar and accessible to everyone" (165). This rulership of the "they" may appear to be tyranny (for example, the "they" of fashion: "they're wearing these outfits this Spring") but an essential characteristic of the "they" is that life is made easier through its rulership. The "they" relieves us of many troublesome decisions. By following the "they," we don't need to worry about what to wear, how to act in certain public situations (Miss Manners, for example, is the very embodiment of the "they"), what to think about our actions (television, particularly situation comedies, plays an increasing role in determining what is proper moral behavior, particularly among young people, who, when faced with a moral dilemma, can ask, `what would Michael J. Fox do in this situation?'), and, in general, how to conduct our lives. And, although Heidegger doesn't mention it, I would suggest that the tourism industry, and one's own vision of one's self as a tourist, is the work of the "they" par excellence. When travelling, the vacationing tourist wants to go where "they" go, and if he doesn't know what that location is, his travel agent will be happy to supply him with a list of possibilities, all packaged for ready consumption.

Heidegger, and Percy as well, suggest that the way to free oneself from the tyranny of the "they" is to contemplate the only thing that you can call your own: the possibility of your death.

Heidegger calls it one's "ownmost possibility." Naturally, the "they" has an attitude toward death, as a public phenomenon: "Everybody's got to go sometime," or "When you're number's up, you're number's up" are efforts of the "they" to tranquilize one's feelings toward death. Facing death as a possibility for one's self produces an anxiety that the "they" wants to prevent at all costs. However, it is precisely this anxiety that frees one from the tyranny of the "they" and compels one to view one's self as one's own and no one else's. For Heidegger, a recognition of death as one's ownmost possibility is the beginning of the establishment of authenticity. The authentic self arises from the resolute confrontation with the anxiety produced from a recognition of death as one's ownmost possibility.

Someone once defined an artist as someone without health insurance. Correlatively, I'd like to define a traveler as someone without hotel reservations. Lacking the security of a place to stay, stumbling through a foreign language, being exposed in public to things usually done at home in private, lacking secure transportation, all these experiences produce anxiety. And yet, the anxiety itself puts you in closer touch with yourself as yourself, yourself and nobody else, as a person who has to handle This, Now. While the disorientation produced by voluntarily placing yourself in an anxiety-producing foreign situation pales before the prospect of your death, I'd like to suggest that travel provides the collateral possibility of rescuing your vision from the predefined categories provided by others, and increasingly, institutionalized by print and broadcast media.

Travel, then, is an opportunity, an always-uncertain possibility, to regain the authenticity of sight, not only of the foreign environment but, on return, of one's own home environment. In this sense, travel becomes a chance for epistemological redemption. Like religious redemption, it involves a recognition of one's fallen condition, a solitary quest to regain a lost innocence. Unlike religious redemption, what is re-gained is a condition of knowing heretofore closed off from one, instead of a renewal of the condition of the soul.

So, sitting on a one lane gravel road in the jungle with my truck's engine covered with battery acid, I didn't look like an advertisement for the Guatemalan tourist agency. However, my naiveté, poor planning, and refusal to permit someone else to take responsibility for my travel plans made me envision Guatemala, and myself, in an new way. Like Bibb Barrett's vision of the Velázquez, the disaster in the jungle permitted things to be seen.

Even though Fussell may be right, even though travel may be impossible nowadays, we must, when we decide to travel, mount Rocinate, call Sancho Panza to our side, and set off to tilt at the windmills in a strange and exotic land, alive to the possibility of restoring our visionary capacity to its authentic promise.

Copyright © Steven E. Alford