Monday, December 30, 2013

Dean MacCannell: The Ethics of Sightseeing

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While I was reading this book to me, someone (half-jokingly?) said to me, "themacinator, we've been out of school for a billion years." This is (partially, since she meant undergrad, not #onlineschool) true, and if I weren't such a dork, I would have put "The Ethics of Sightseeing" where it belonged: down. But I'm a dork, so I kept reading. If names like Lacan, Freud, Derrida, Butler, Foucault and (a new one for me) Erving Goffman make you want to erase your memories of liberal arts seminars, you don't need to read anymore. Just travel and go about your business, because MacCannell wants to make sure you will never step out of your house without thinking through the lens of someone or other. (Other, get it?)

This is a difficult book that is even more difficult to explain. MacCannell is a pioneer in the field of tourism studies (that exists) and is not particularly happy with the direction the field is going in. "The Ethics of Sightseeing" appears, to the rookie in the field, to lay out a new direction. A tourism scholar, John Urry, didn't like MacCannell's original work and argued (perhaps missing MacCannell's original point? Who can keep track of scholarly infighting?) that tourist travel is about freedom, and that the "tourist gaze" is what makes it so. (Don't say I didn't warn you about the college-y stuff.) MacCannell, explaining Urry, writes that "We can disrupt the order of things... Paris is familiar to me and Kansas remains foreign. Even if the global system of attractions is a fixed grid, it need not function to determine tourist priorities, tourist behavior, or tourist thought." But MacCannell isn't having this. It's too simple: Urry believes that tourists travel just to get out see something different, which just isn't enough for MacCannell, as it suggests that what's at home is "unpleasurable, flat, and dull." MacCannell agrees that some people might be bored and need to get away, but also thinks that some people have great lives and also like to travel (I can think of a couple). Second, it also posits the "boring ordinary" as the frame of reference for the tourist gaze. MacCannell again: "He also suggests the tourist extra-ordinary should not be so extreme as to make the tourists feel 'too much out of place.' This is not a high standard for tourist attractions. It makes sightseeing closer than it need be to television."

MacCannell posits a Lacan-based gaze, where the viewing subject is not so free after all: "the viewing subject is caught, manipulated, captured in the field of its own vision." It's a little depressing, but MacCannell takes it as a jumping off point. If one is aware of this gaze, one realizes that the object/other is as limited as the subject: we have a hard time seeing anything outside of our ego (or our guidebook's definition of the subject). Once we recognize this, we can resist the tourist representation with an awareness "second gaze:" one that is "capable of recognizing the misrecognition that defined the tourist gaze." Subjects are incomplete, objects are incomplete, there are layers of meaning, we'll never get it all.

I'm already thinking about sightseeing differently. MacCannell is clear from the beginning that he's talking about sightseeing specifically, not tourism as a whole, which is a useful, if murky distinction. There are a variety of reasons to do this, and he sums one up like this: "sightseeing involves the whole person, mind and body, being and existence. It is about the person's connection, or lack of connection, to nature, heritage, other human beings, and especially, their own psyches. It is the one activity that any tourist can enjoy, old and young, the fit and the infirm, women and men, from every nation and class. The other tourist activities may have their own distinctive qualities, but none are more totalizing than sightseeing." Basically, sightseeing is both an end- something people go out to do- and involved in all tourist activities. I might go out to sunbathe at the beach, but I can't avoid taking in the sights. MacCannell has other reasons for choosing sightseeing including sociological and ethnological, and one of these is that "it has the greatest potential to bestow insight upon general social and humanistic fields." This is where the ethics come in.

And this is where I'm left most confused: I just don't get what exactly, in MacCannell's mind, "ethics" is. I'm sure it's very clear to people who study things like Lacan and philosophy and sociology and are still in school (not #onlineschool). But it's not clear to the average reader, and "The Ethics of Sightseeing" is not prescriptive about how we can go about being ethical sightseers. It's dazzlingly complex and thought provoking, if you can stand it.


thb said...

thanks for the plug!