What follows is inspired by posts here and here.
Everyone knows that tourism is the world’s single largest ‘industry.’ But, as in pornography, it’s rare to see much group awareness or consciousness-raising on the part of the customers, who as in the rest of the service industry are also products. Only criticism, endless, moralizing criticism, the polling and profiling carried out by the industry itself, and sociological studies, which could be even more useful for travel organizations if they weren’t so pointedly academic. Tourism is primarily a social relation, mediated by the market economy. The tourist industry’s function is to profitably organize human activity, whether worker or consumer. There is such a thing as ‘tourist rights,’ but no one marches for them. And why should they? They’d just look like a bunch of fucking tourists.
The subjectivity of the tourist has already been understood, though (and this would excite any tourist) under different names which have perhaps not yet been compiled in a satisfactory way. Today its essence can be summed up pretty easily. One feels a certain nostalgia for objects, coupled with a strange identification.
“It is the gaze of the flaneur, whose way of life conceals behind a beneficent mirage the anxiety of the future inhabitants of our metropolises. The flaneur seeks refuge in the crowd. The crowd is the veil through which the familiar city is transformed for the flaneur into phantasmagoria. This phantasmagoria, in which the city appears now as a landscape, now as a room, seems later to have inspired the decor of department stores, which thus put the flanerie to work for profit. In any case, department stores are the last precincts of flanerie.” (Walter Benjamin, Paris Expose 1939)
The ‘phantasmagoria’ Benjamin is talking about here in relation to Baudelaire’s flaneur, the perambulating urban bourgeois or ‘painter of modern life,’ resembles film montage, but as the tourist environment becomes more and more attuned to the ‘needs’ of its customers (more like a department store), the overriding characteristic of film, passivity before an expressive genius, is eradicated, replaced by Internet-like ‘browsing’ among modular image-objects whose superficial differences are bounded by certain common parameters. (Its soundtrack can be found here.) Maybe we can understand the impersonality said to dominate contemporary life as an effect of confrontation with a mass of singularities, addressed to no one and nothing in particular.
“In the person of the flaneur, the intelligentsia becomes acquainted with the marketplace. It surrenders itself to the market, thinking merely to look around; but in fact it is already seeking a buyer. In this intermediate stage, in which it still has patrons but is starting to bend to the demands of the market (in the guise of the fueilleton), it constitutes the boheme. The uncertainty of its economic function corresponds to the ambiguity of its political function.” (Ibid.)
The precarity experienced by the ‘new working class,’ interns, students, freelancers, and entry-level media professionals of all stripes, ground into conformity (or pushed toward dissidence) by the mere prospect of a middle-class career and financial ‘independence,’ their lack of any determination whatsoever, is sometimes romanticized because it resembles the fantasy pursued by the tourist. The content of this fantasy is the experience of an older upper class, or the assorted adventurer archetypes: celebrities, spies, artists, nomads, the ‘jet-set.’ As demonstrated by a back-to-back viewing of Total Recall and The Devil Wears Prada, the tourist and the permanently entry-level pseudo-professional share apparently contradictory desires. First, freedom from place in the most general sense — location, class, history, individual limits — through the consumption of other places. Second, a reason to be there (wherever) besides shopping. What they both dream of is a contradiction in terms: a satisfying job. Both are necessarily plagued by humiliating failure.
“The flanuer plays the role of scout in the marketplace. As such, he is also the explorer of the crowd. Within the man who abandons himself to it, the crowd inspires a sort of drunkenness, one accompanied by very specific illusions: the man flatters himself that, on seeing a passerby swept along by the crowd, he has accurately classified him, seen straight through to the innermost recesses of his soul — all on the basis of his external appearance.” (Benjamin, Ibid.)
Believing the tourist experience to be restricted to traveling to distant and exotic places is buying into the sole selling point of the tourist industry. As a powerful branch of the culturally dominant service industry, design modelled around the tourist gaze has made increasing inroads into all consumptive activity today, all social interaction, from department stores to the spread of outdoor mall-like ‘entertainment districts,’ from ‘surfing the Web’ to perusing the archives of a university library. Tourism is the crushing awareness that whatever you were planning to do has already been done by just about everyone else. Every vacation photograph posted on Flickr has made someone somewhere feel depressed.
As consolation, it helps to assume everyone conforms to a ‘type’ despite apparent distinctiveness. If one feels barred from participating, at least one can be a knowing observer, a sort of intellectual, a novelist, a critic (‘people-watching’ is only this attitude’s most banal form). Any attempt at self-expression is a priori converted into its opposite. I’ve even noticed a perverse quasi-ethical imperative to ‘admit’ conformity, as if authentic human relationships can now only be achieved if everyone fully identifies with some ideological construction or other. According to facebook, for example, half my sister’s friends are ‘nerds’ or ‘sluts.’ Then there’s these gag personality quizzes (which Sex and the City character are you?), the modern replacement for astrology. A friend once proclaimed with redemptive glee that “we’re all commodities,” like it was a fifth Noble Truth. This sort of ‘debunking’ is the conservative function of criticism, the cynical transformation of humans into objects of exchange, carried out in the name of a purified abstraction: authentic humanity, real revolutionary praxis, scientific objectivity, convenience, whatever.
Not that critical dehumanization is unprovoked — the silencing or ignorance of negative criticism is the conservative function of the individual. The whole point, the zero-degree of ideological compliance, is for criticism to equal misanthropy, and for the self-actualized individual, the ‘impossible’ ideal that keeps the whole machine running, to equal heroism. Novel heroism. Here are its ethics:
If I speak of love in the context of dandyism, the reason is that love is the natural occupation of men of leisure. But the dandy does not consider love as a special aim in life. If I have mentioned money, the reason is that money is indispensable to those who make an exclusive cult of their passions, but the dandy does not aspire to wealth as an object in itself; an open bank credit could suit him just as well; he leaves that squalid passion to vulgar mortals. Contrary to what a lot of thoughtless people seem to believe, dandyism is not even an excessive delight in clothes and material elegance. For the perfect dandy, these things are no more than the symbol of the aristocratic superiority of his mind. Thus, in his eyes, enamoured as he is above all of distinction, perfection in dress consists in absolute simplicity, which is, indeed, the best way of being distinguished. What then can this passion be, which has crystallized into a doctrine, and has formed a number of outstanding devotees, this unwritten code that has moulded so proud a brotherhood? It is, above all, the burning desire to create a personal form of originality, within the external limits of social conventions. It is a kind of cult of the ego which can still survive the pursuit of that form of happiness to be found in others, in woman for example; which can even survive what are called illusions. It is the pleasure of causing surprise in others, and the proud satisfaction of never showing any oneself. A dandy may be blase, he may even suffer pain, but in the latter case he will keep smiling, like the Spartan under the bite of the fox.
Clearly, then, dandyism in certain respects comes close to spirituality and to stoicism, but a dandy can never be a vulgar man. If he were to commit a crime, he might perhaps be socially damned, but if the crime came from some trivial cause, the disgrace would be irreparable. Let the reader not be shocked by this mixture of the grave and the gay; let him rather reflect that there is a sort of grandeur in all follies, a driving power in every sort of excess. A strange form of spirituality indeed! For those who are its high priests and its victims at one and the same time, all the complicated material conditions they subject themselves to, from the most flawless dress at any time of day or night to the most risky sporting feats, are no more than a series of gymnastic exercises suitable to strengthen the will and school the soul. Indeed I was not far wrong when I compared dandyism to a kind of religion. The most rigorous monastic rule, the inexorable commands of the Old Man of the Mountain, who enjoined suicide on his intoxicated disciples, were not more despotic or more slavishly obeyed than this doctrine of elegance and originality, which, like the others, imposes upon its ambitious and humble sectaries, men as often as not full of spirit, passion, courage, controlled energy, the terrible precept: Perinde ac cadaver! — Baudelaire, The Painter of Modern Life
So conformity to established type is a just or at least reasonable law, superseded by its heroic exception, who is not quite a sovereign — too much responsibility — more like a pirate. Smooth criminal. Creative genius. Secret agent. Nor is the dandy’s originality more human than anyone else’s, in fact it is less. He is simply better at sublimating himself into the objects that surround him. The ‘doctrine of originality’ demands that he transform himself into the desire for his own transcendence, past the vulgar commodity to the all-seeing eyes of Capital. The one we love for being truly above the law is so by dint of ultimate indifference, who would look just like everyone else, if everyone else weren’t the walking dead. The tourist haunts the ruins of this fantasy.
I don’t want to discredit heroism; I like heroism. The world needs more of it. What I want to do, someday, when I’m more able, is to acknowledge the reversibility between living and dead, novelty and revival. Adventure and tourism. One is always in danger of flipping over into the other, and this ambiguity is not always decided, certainly not by any ‘knowing observer.’ Nothing ever begins by being decided.*
Incurable observers who run up against their own limits respond, like marketers, with another absurd fantasy, that newness depends on the rearrangement or rejection of old categories (which were impositions to begin with), or that we need to ‘stop being’ tourists, critics, adventurers, consumers, and replace them with something new and improved, though assembled from their remains, that the future is determined aesthetically by committee. Oblivious to the creativity it pretends to value, this brand of criticism kills the living and mystifies the dead.
“The final voyage of the flaneur: death. Its destination: the new.”
* I wonder if this is the irony of Hegel’s response to the Kantian antinomies, the undecidables of reason (i.e. “The world has a beginning in time and is limited as regards space” vs. “The world has no beginning, and no limits in space”). Hegel posits an imaginary sensual unity, then presents his philosophy as a formal ‘demonstration’ of its inadequacy, all to justify the advance of progress.