[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
By JULIA M. KLEIN
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,"
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
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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