[Paleopsych] CHE: Insight Seeing: Cultural Tourism Across Disciplinary Divides

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Insight Seeing: Cultural Tourism Across Disciplinary Divides 
The Chronicle of Higher Education, 5.1.14


    In Cologne, the bus was waiting as the last stragglers sprinted across
    the street. Our German bus driver, unaware that his fetish for
    punctuality was verging on caricature, was once again tapping his
    watch and preparing to admonish the latecomers. The rest of us braced
    ourselves -- for yet another day devoted to grappling with German
    culture both high and low.
    Participants in a three-week Fulbright German Studies Seminar, we
    traversed the country last June in search of its "visual culture,"
    defined as a mix of film, television, video art, and Internet sites.
    Our group of academics, video artists, filmmakers, and journalists
    heard lectures, watched movies, and visited studios, schools,
    regulatory agencies, and museums. Interacting with our German hosts,
    we felt sometimes like schoolchildren, other times like tourists.
    By the end, we were questioning the seminar's concept of visual
    culture. (Why, for example, video art but not painting? Film but not
    theater?) But we were also remarking on the surprisingly rich film
    legacy of East Germany, the lingering institutional schism between
    East and West, and the declining quality of German television. We
    devoted much less reflection to the ambiguities of our own role as
    both observers and participants -- including the ways in which our
    seminar offerings and sightseeing excursions overlapped, and diverged
    from, more conventional itineraries.
    The topic would have been a provocative one for our mixed group of
    academics and practitioners. These days, tourism has become a lively
    object of study, transcending traditional disciplinary divides. And
    the old sociological model that saw tourism as just another aspect of
    neocolonialism is gradually ceding to more nuanced approaches. Edward
    M. Bruner's Culture on Tour: Ethnographies of Travel (University of
    Chicago Press, 2004) is a bracing compendium of anthropological essays
    decoding specific tourist sites. Harvey A. Levenstein's We'll Always
    Have Paris: American Tourists in France Since 1930 (University of
    Chicago Press, 2004) serves as an excellent example of the social
    historian's art. And Michael Gorra's The Bells in Their Silence:
    Travels Through Germany (Princeton University Press, 2004) filters
    contemporary and historical German realities through a literary prism
    -- a promising approach that is perhaps too coolly cerebral in the
    Bruner, professor emeritus of anthropology at the University of
    Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, is one of the pioneers of ethnographic
    tourism studies, along with Dean MacCannell (The Tourist: A New Theory
    of the Leisure Class, Schocken Books, 1976) and John Urry (The Tourist
    Gaze: Leisure and Travel in Contemporary Societies, Sage Publications,
    1990), among others. Bruner's emphasis is on complexity and process;
    he declines to disparage tourists as a class or to assume that local
    residents are objects of exploitation. He sees multiple, competing
    meanings in individual sites, contrasting meanings in different sites
    in the same country, and changes in the meaning of sites over time.
    Bruner relishes ambiguities, including those involving his own role.
    In 1987, he says in his introduction, he signed on as a guide for a
    deluxe tour of Indonesia in order to study tourism from the inside. "I
    was an anthropologist," he writes, "but, also, in effect, one of the
    tourists." But Bruner's boss, who accompanied the group, was not
    amused by his photographing of tourists as they photographed
    Indonesians, nor his attempt to explain that a folk ballet at a
    princess's home was a performance constructed specifically for
    tourists. Instead of making his fellow tourists more self-aware, as
    he'd intended, he got himself fired.
    The episode underlined for him the contrast between a "master tourist
    tale" that sees tourist performances as "representations of an
    authentic culture" and his view -- that they are "contemporary rituals
    offered in a particular political and touristic context." Bruner's
    often fascinating book also whirls through Africa, the Middle East,
    and the United States, delineating what he calls "touristic
    border-zones" -- real places where tourists encounter locals in
    performance. Tourism, for Bruner, is "improvisational theater ...
    where both tourists and locals are actors."
    Sometimes, of course, the performance goes awry -- or the context
    changes. One chapter, "Maasai on the Lawn: Tourist Realism in East
    Africa," written with Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, of New York
    University, describes Mayers Ranch, where for years tourists enjoyed
    Maasai tribal dancing followed by an elegant tea on the Mayers' lawn.
    This juxtaposition of the (constructed) primitive with the
    retro-colonial eventually proved offensive to the Kenyan government
    and was shut down.
    Closer to home, Bruner examines New Salem, Ill., a popular
    reconstruction of the town where Abraham Lincoln spent his young
    adulthood. Bruner brilliantly dissects contending messages at this
    "pioneer" village, including tensions and overlaps between historical
    and mythic versions of Lincoln. The importance of New Salem as a
    tourist attraction has arguably inflated the significance of those
    years in Lincoln biographies, and so, he writes, "may have distorted
    the discourse of professional historians." This, he adds, "reminds us
    that tourism and scholarship are not as independent as might be
    Similarly, in a comparatively dense chapter, "Dialogic Narration and
    the Paradoxes of Masada," written with Phyllis Gorfain, of Oberlin, he
    explains how different stories told about Masada -- the mountain
    fortress that was the site of Jewish opposition to Rome and, in AD 73,
    of mass suicide -- interact with one another, and with the larger
    themes of Israeli history. While the establishment narrative
    emphasizes heroic resistance and the rightness of the Jewish cause, a
    leftist challenge views Masada -- and, by analogy, contemporary Israel
    -- as a fortress state, making "absolutist and isolationist choices"
    that are dooming it to destruction.
    Levenstein's Paris seems like a prime example of a "touristic
    borderzone," where the continuing drama is the turbulent love-hate
    relationship between the resident French and the invading Americans.
    In the preface to a preceding volume, Seductive Journey: American
    Tourists in France from Jefferson to the Jazz Age (University of
    Chicago Press, 1998), Levenstein, professor emeritus of history at
    McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, cites MacCannell and other
    writers on tourism. But the themes Levenstein pursues are the gradual
    democratization of travel, the changing balance between cultural and
    leisure travel, the association of France with sexual license, the
    (usually better) treatment of African-American tourists, and
    continuing tensions in the tourist-host relationship.
    In place of ethnographic observation and interviews, Levenstein leans
    on an array of written primary sources, encompassing the experiences
    of celebrities, intellectuals, and also the soldiers, students, and
    middle-class masses who (even today) whiz through the Louvre, seek out
    hamburgers, and generally disdain the very culture whose allure
    presumably inspired their visit. Along with diaries and other
    first-person accounts, Levenstein draws on contemporary guidebooks,
    women's magazines, films, and other products of popular culture to
    trace changing attitudes and mores.
    If the second volume grows repetitive, it's because many of the
    complaints remain the same: The French are surly and price-gouging,
    the Americans boorish and ignorant. France's very dependence on
    foreign, particularly American, tourism is a harness that Parisians,
    in particular, don't wear lightly. Every so often, despairing French
    tourism officials launch themselves into the fray. It's amusing to
    read of such efforts as a mid-1960s National Campaign of Welcome and
    Friendliness, including the distribution of "smile checks" given to
    tourists "to hand out as rewards for cheerful service." The 50 French
    workers who received the most checks were awarded prizes such as a car
    or a vacation in Tahiti. "But the French reputation for surliness was
    too well established among Americans to be dissipated so easily,"
    Levenstein writes.
    Two decades later the industry tried again, setting up "welcome
    offices," training language students as interpreters, and mounting a
    "sensitivity" campaign that stressed the importance of hospitality.
    "It is impossible to tell what effect these measures had on the
    French," Levenstein comments dryly, "but once again they hardly dented
    the persisting negative image of the French among Americans." Still,
    Paris -- Levenstein barely touches on other French locales
    -- continued to exercise its enchantments.
    It would be hard to contemplate Germans -- even Bavarians -- cottoning
    to a smile-check campaign. And yet what European country has a greater
    image problem? Six decades after the war, sites of political
    repression and mass murder remain among Germany's most popular tourist
    draws. Buchenwald will soon be selling souvenirs. The Nazis attract us
    now, as much as they repel us.
    Michael Gorra, professor of English at Smith College, argues that
    Germany is a tough subject for conventional travel narratives. In
    fact, he says, "nobody in the Anglo-American world writes travel books
    about contemporary Germany." He intends The Bells in Their Silence as
    almost an anti-narrative, a deconstruction of the genre, and compares
    it to what James E. Young has called the "countermonuments" to the
    Holocaust scattered across the German landscape. But Gorra's
    idiosyncratic tour of Germany, undertaken during his wife's sabbatical
    year in Hamburg and filled with references to writers such as Daniel
    Jonah Goldhagen, W.G. Sebald, and Thomas Mann, is annoyingly
    digressive and emotionally distancing. Despite his considerable
    erudition, he also displays a surprising naïveté. Surely, he doesn't
    imagine himself the first tourist or travel writer to marvel grimly at
    the chasm between the literary heritage of Weimar, with its monuments
    to Goethe and Schiller, and the horrors of Buchenwald just half an
    hour away.
    One larger concern he raises, about the "shards and fragments" -- the
    gaps -- in Germany's recounting of its own recent history, does ring
    true, even today. In contrast to three decades -- a generation -- ago,
    the Holocaust is a subject encountered regularly on German television,
    in museums, in bookstores. And yet, on a personal level, reticence
    still prevails. During our Fulbright-sponsored tour of Germany, we
    were invariably too polite to ask family histories, to probe too far
    into the miasma of wartime memory. As highly educated cultural
    tourists, we did possess what Bruner refers to as a "questioning gaze"
    -- within limits. But we were also invited guests, and unlike the
    worst of the Americans profiled in Levenstein's books, we kept our
    most skeptical observations and mordant humor -- about obsessively
    punctual bus drivers and far more troubling matters -- to ourselves.

    Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia.

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