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Tourist/Other and the Unconscious

I am thinking of getting rich in order to be able to repeat these trips.

-Sigmund Freud, letter from Florence to Wilhelm Fliess, 1896

Tourism and its subjective field

In important ways, those of us who study tourism have been let off the hook by the magnitude of our subject. Few assessments have been made more often or contested less than "tourism is the world's largest industry." Several recent empirical studies qualify this statement, finding most trips classed as tourism began as family visits. If that is true, it would be no less accurate or more absurd to say "family is the world's largest industry." My central argument here is that tourism contains keys to understanding recent changes in the ways we frame our humanity, and key to understanding tourism are some delicate, decidedly noneconomic relations that I gather under the term "the ethics of sightseeing."

Tourism statistics usually do not distinguish between a trip to a trade show (or a family visit) versus travel for the sole purpose of enjoying a destination's beauty, culture, and amenities. From the industry perspective (which is increasingly also that of academic researchers) trips away from home are measured as X revenues from plane tickets, hotel bed nights, entertainment receipts, museum and other attraction entrance fees, and restaurant meals. Tourism is approached as an "industry" even though it is far more dispersed, diversified, and less concentrated than other industries. This would be a good thing if researchers adapted their studies to its unprecedented disarticulation. But tourism research today is mainly focused on market factors affecting competition for tourist numbers and dollars and creating successful tourist business models. Tourists themselves are taken for granted. Their relevant traits are their "free" time and disposable income. Whoever they might be, however their needs are met, and whatever the reasons for their travels, they continue to circulate by the millions with only temporary declines after natural, social, and economic disasters. They have been called "the golden hordes."

We know little more today about tourist experience and tourist subjectivity than we did thirty years ago. Tourism researchers conduct surveys, form and test hypotheses, undertake ethnographic field studies, and make mathematical models. They seem to assume, in Goffman's words, "If you go through the motions attributable to science, then science will result." From an industry perspective, "tourist experience" can be reduced to questions of whether the check-in clerk at the hotel desk smiled or not. Recent gains in knowledge about the tourist industry may be taking us further from what it means to be a tourist. Much is known about demographics, spending patterns, destination decisions, amenity satisfaction, and the like; almost nothing about the depths and intimate contours of tourist curiosity, subjectivity, and motivation. A casual attitude has taken hold-so long as the golden hordes continue to circulate, do we really need to know more about what is going on in the mind of the tourist or the relationship of tourist and attraction?

Recent reports assert that people from different backgrounds experience travel differently. Not all these studies can be dismissed as merely tautological. Tom Selanniemi asked Finnish husbands and wives to keep vacation diaries of their feelings. Both husbands and wives expressed pleasure on letting go of responsibilities, but wives reported greater pleasure. Wives were also more likely to write about their mildly transgressive behavior (sleeping late, eating or drinking too much) because it was more of a novelty to them. Thus the "same" vacation was not actually the same for the woman as for the man. In a massive study of tens of thousands of visitors, Erik H. Cohen discovered sharp differences in the ways Jewish youth from the United States, France, and Eastern Europe experienced Israel. This, even though the heritage tours they took were organized by the same company and had substantially similar itineraries and programmatic content. Eastern Europeans uniquely claimed that after the tour they were less proud of being Jewish. They were also the most enthusiastic about the prospect of eventually emigrating to Israel. Go figure. Social class and ethnicity also make a difference-not always in expected or consistent ways. Upper-class British gentlemen willingly sit upon rough ground when the occasion (bird watching, hunting, picnicking) calls for it. However, according to my colleague, landscape architect Walter Hood, working-class black American women refuse to sit on the ground, even well-kept turf, because it is "dirty." Perhaps English gentlemen think themselves to be existentially so much removed from dirt that intimate physical contact with it cannot possibly contaminate them.

I highlight these findings to mark my intent to go in the opposite direction. My aim is to show that beneath every difference in age, gender, ethnicity, sexual preference, nationality, et cetera, at a level that is ineluctably human, there are subjective kernels insulated from the influences of demographics. This is not to suggest that demographically driven insights are wrong or trivial, only that they are not germane to the questions I ask.

My interest began when I noticed the monumental indifference of the world's great attractions to social divisions within the multitude of tourists. I am drawn to the peculiar tendency of sightseeing to democratize desire. When I visit one of the great global attractions I find a vast throng of every imaginable human type: men and women, adults, youths, and children; Europeans, Americans (North, Meso-, and South), Africans, Asians; Buddhists, Muslims, Jews, Christians, atheists. Mark Twain told of trying to keep his eyes on the attractions at the 1867 Paris International Exposition. Whenever he saw something of interest he was immediately distracted by the more interesting tourists passing by. Successively he saw "a party of Arabs" in "quaint costumes," "some tattooed South Sea Islanders," "the Empress of France," a "Turkish Sultan," and "an old Crimean soldier" with a "white moustache." The middle classes and above are overrepresented in these throngs but the working classes and below are never absent. I encounter nearly penniless students at famous attractions in every corner of the world. The black gang members I worked with in the Philadelphia jails were intrigued by my descriptions of Paris and confessed a desire to go there to see it for themselves when they got out. An old Papuan in Dennis O'Rourke's film Cannibal Tours earnestly explains to the camera that the only difference between the European tourists and his people is money: "If I had money I would be on the boat traveling to Europe to look at them."

While I understand how it is supposed to work in principle, I do not believe we are all equal before the law in practice. We are all equal before the attraction. There is no one so poor as to be precluded from sightseeing. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, without money or prospects, walked from Geneva to Paris. His account of what he saw and experienced is now an indispensable part of our literary heritage. One need not be white or wealthy to desire to see the South Pole. One need not be a man to desire to fly around the world. Any day of the year, weather permitting, a tourism researcher can position herself mid-span on the Golden Gate Bridge and observe every kind of human being passing by: males and females and transsexuals from every corner of the globe, homeless and billionaires, every age and every ethnicity, the so-called "disabled," the content and the suicidal. Even the blind express enthusiasm for sightseeing on the bridge, which they experience as a unique combination of undulating movement, low frequency vibrations, humming sounds, the excited cries of other tourists, and wind that comes from below.

The democratization of tourist desire is the reason I depart here from current practice in cultural studies, which foregrounds gender, class, and ethnicity as "independent variables" du jour. It has been amply demonstrated that these do influence the ways tourists "process" their experiences. Knowledge of external factors that can be used to divide tourists is crucial to destination marketing and will perforce continue to grow. What will not advance, unless attention is specifically directed toward it, is understanding of the kernel of human subjectivity at the heart of sightseeing.

This is not to suggest all tourists are the same "underneath." Far from it. My aim is to explore differences in the ways tourists see and experience attractions independent of how much or little wealth they possess, independent of their ethnic background, or their gender. Crucial to any ethics is an assumption that no one should be excluded from the ethical field, that is, there should not be different ethical standards for rich and poor, men and women, black and white.

This is a study of the responsibility we take, or do not take, for our sightseeing choices and our subjective assimilation of tourist experience. Sightseeing is one of the most individualized, intimate, and effective ways we attempt to grasp and make sense of the world and our place in it. Sightseeing is psyche. Sightseeing/psyche can be shaped by the design of attractions engineered to enhance, repress, enable, or mystify tourist enjoyment. This enjoyment, the engineering intended to shape it, and our ethical responsibilities for what we take away from our travels are the broad themes here. The ultimate ethical test for tourists is whether they can realize the productive potential of their travel desires or whether they allow themselves to become mere ciphers of arrangements made for them.

Sightseeing is among the best ethical tests humans have devised for themselves. It is an ancient and ubiquitous experimental mode we can fall into at any moment and take our companions with us-"Look! Did you see that?" It is done badly without social consequence and well without reward. While its usual objectives are monuments and details of the social and natural worlds, history and culture, its influence can be intensely personal and private. The domain of its influence is on conscience and character.

Crucial to an ethics of sightseeing is the imagination needed to bring fresh meaning to a tourist experience. This is severely tested at major sightseeing venues where the same vista has been taken in millions of times across hundreds of years-for example, standing at the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. Two individuals, demographically identical, can form profoundly different impressions that are nevertheless far from unique or idiosyncratic. It may seem impossible for the tourist in this situation to see, say, or think anything new. The ethical demand, in part, is for tourists to discover ways to relate to their own subjective grasp of an attraction. Or, to their failures to understand. Children and adults learn most about their own psyche and the world as they acknowledge they do not completely "get" what they are witnessing, though in these circumstances, the child may have a comparative advantage for new self-awareness. Tourists of any age, ethnicity, class, or category discover something about themselves and the world by acknowledging the gap that separates them from the other-as-attraction. There is nothing in this gap but the entire field of ethics.


There is no ethics without the presence of the other, but also and consequently, without absence, dissimulation, detour, différance, writing.

-Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology

For present purposes I define the act of sightseeing as effort based on desire ethically to connect to someone or something "other" as represented by or embodied in an attraction. Sightseeing is couched in hope that good will come from it, not harm. I willingly stipulate that not all tourists make a strong effort and they often fail to "connect." This has been noted by every critic of tourism and sightseeing, which is as close as the current literature gets to an ethics of sightseeing. What often happens is a tourist's desire for the "other" lacks passion-like a man who makes a pass even though he has no real interest in his date, only because he believes he is expected to make a pass. There may be no specific desire to see the Mona Lisa beyond the fact that it is something one is supposed to, or expected to see when visiting the Louvre, which is someplace one is supposed to visit on a trip to Paris. Merely discharging one's tourist obligations is not ethical. Even failed tourists confess a desire to really experience and grasp someone or something "other," especially the highlighted attractions everyone is supposed to see.

What is the "other" of tourist desire? Three decades ago the figure of the "other" appeared in humanistic and social theory. In cultural studies, "other" usually refers to a human subject or subjectivity currently undergoing intellectual rehabilitation. The "other" is any one of a number of human types that were historically undervalued, denigrated, ignored, and otherwise marginalized by dominant academic discourse-women, people of color, gays, the poor-who now receive belated attention supposedly recognizing their value and restoring their dignity. The negative status of the "other" is a lingering diffuse effect of the arrogant old Western ego which rated everything other as lesser by definition. All negativity surrounding the "other" needs to be precipitated before the concept is useful for a theory of tourist experience. Tourists hold "the other," or believe they hold "the other," in a positive embrace.

A helpful book for tourism studies, though not intended as such, is Edward Said's Orientalism. Said aimed to counter the damaged identity of the largest category of "other" in Western letters: occidental/oriental. He documents a pervasive tendency in Western literature to attribute negative traits to the "Oriental." Theoretically, by "other" Said means every not-occidental people or place on earth. In practice, his illustrations and examples are drawn from the Muslim Middle East. He provides a catalogue of pejorative characterizations of the "Oriental" in Western writings that emphasize the "Oriental's" general turpitude and willingness to accept despotic regimes. A vast literature has been perverted to justify the subjugation of this "other" by imperial Europe and the United States. Orientalist literature and the policies it supports aim to demonstrate that Arabs and others under colonial regimes are better off than they would be under their own homegrown despots. Recent history amply demonstrates the continued salience of Said's Orientalist hypothesis.

Said was aware of the other side of Orientalism, the positive side, what can be called the tourist version, the allure of the Near East and beyond-the Near East as attraction, as the birthplace of religions, the cradle of civilization. Still, he does not let off the hook Westerners like Lamartine, Chateaubriand, Flaubert, even Herodotus who went to the Holy Land with unalloyed enthusiasm for what they would find. He suggests that putative enthusiasts use the poverty they observe to inflate their own value, and Oriental excess to accentuate their own modesty and prudence. He acknowledges positive Orientalism while making the point that it too has been historically co-opted as justification for European conquest and domination-for example, the crusades and today's oil wars. The ultra-touristic version of the Near East proffers an endless open air bazaar by day and the romance of men on stallions, dancing girls, hashish, and moonlit oases at night. He excuses himself from serious engagement with this version saying, modestly, that it is beyond the scope of his study: "Why the Orient seems to suggest not only fecundity but sexual promise (and threat), untiring sensuality, unlimited desire, deep generative energies, is something on which one could speculate: it is not the province of my analysis here, alas, despite its frequently noted appearance." Alas, yes, but also an opening and opportunity for those who study tourism and ethics.

One cannot help wondering how things might stand if Said's dream of erasure came true, if all the nasty things colonial technocrats and their academic and literary enablers said about the Near East could be expunged from the historical record, and only the tourist version remained. This, of course, does violence to Said's argument. He would not accept that choice is limited to the colonial technocratic view of the undisciplined "Oriental" needing our governance on the one hand, or, on the other, tourist desire to walk in Christ's footsteps while experiencing exotic sensuality at a moonlit oasis. He specifically did not compare Orientalism to the Orient. Still, he left no doubt he believed the Orient exists apart from its distorted image in Western letters. He comments, the "written statement is a presence to the reader by virtue of its having excluded, displaced, made supererogatory any such real thing as 'the Orient.'" Throughout the text, he refers to something he calls "the Orient's actual identity." I bring this matter up not to chide him for committing the same error he attributes to Orientalists, namely essentializing a vast region, myriads of different peoples and histories, as if they could be subject to a single appropriation. I bring it up because Said's Orientalism encompasses as neatly as any book the range of ethical positions available to the tourist relative to the other. Tourists can believe their travels have put them in the unmediated presence of the "real other." They may hold this putatively authentic real other in a negative (instrumental) or a positive embrace. Or they may believe what has been passed to them across the subject-other divide is a symbolic construct of the other.

So what will it be? Ethics provides unique access to the subjective and intersubjective relation in tourism. While many are, not every ethical question is difficult. Questions about ethics and instrumentality are generally straightforward-does the tourist relate to the other as a means to an end? Or does the tourist relate to the other as an end in itself, something to be enjoyed even if it serves no purpose? Examples of instrumental reduction in tourism come readily to mind: travel to enhance social standing, or to enjoy badgering and demeaning low-wage service providers, or the act of gulling tourists just to take their money. A demeaning instrumental reduction that routinely occurs in tourism is the tendency to view native peoples as just another component of the local landscape, or nothing more than scenery to be gazed upon and photographed. Ethics 101 teaches that treating the other as instrument is unethical. Every negative example in Said's account can be traced back to an imperial desire to treat the peoples and lands of the Near East as accessory to European economic domination and colonial expansion, as justification for controlling their oil and trade routes and to objectify them as tourist attractions.

The Symbolic Relation and Authenticity

The ethical issues discussed in the following chapters are not susceptible to such easy determination. After sociology, de Saussure, Derrida, deconstruction, and Lacan we know there is no possibility of an unmediated intersubjective relation. No matter how we might try to get close to an other, via anthropology, sightseeing, marriage, or any known method, there are always symbols and signs between us. Our only apprehension of the other is via symbolic representation. Accordingly, any belief in authenticity-that is, any notion that one might bypass the symbolic and enter into a complete, open, fully authentic relation with another subject-obviates questions of ethics. Authenticity as a substitute for ethics can be regarded with suspicion that it is either intentionally or unwittingly unethical.

The Other of Tourism

Permit me a shorthand here to outline an answer to the question provisionally asked above: What is the other toward which the tourist subject launches itself? In order to accommodate the full range of tourist desire, it is necessary to raise the bar above where it has been set by cultural studies and critical theory. Certainly the other of tourism is the cultural other, including the "Oriental," found everywhere else in the world. It is also the cultural other found beyond the reach of geographic space, and back and forth in time, forward into the paranoid fantasies of science fiction futures, and back through history, antiquity, prehistory, to savagery. It includes the reversal of the gaze when the "exotic" other looks back at the tourist. It is also the other sex, which remains a perpetual enigma, the other intense pleasure, and the other love: that is, improper love which must coexist with "proper" love (for one's country, father, mother, spouse, and children) in order for the human subject to struggle into being in its full libidinal and ethical complexity. Can a tourist love her country of origin and also love Greece? Can a tourist love his own wife's nakedness and the nakedness of the other women on the beach at Cannes? This was nicely conflated by Said in his comments on "untiring sensuality" and "unlimited desire." Eventually I will argue that the ultimate other of the tourist subject is the unconscious, also intimated by Said when he suggested that that the Orient functions as the "underground self" of the European. The other as unconscious contains every lost object of desire. Finally, the other of tourism is the destination, an other place-especially the other place sensed as the (im)possible locus for all of the above variations on the other-that is, place as symbolic shelter for every tourist desire, the ultimate destination.

If the last paragraph conveys an impression that each step of a tourist's journey might result in a free fall over a subjective precipice, my goal for this introduction has been realized. Sightseeing can have no higher purpose than to rearrange the ground of subjective existence. I claim no originality. It was the French author Stendhal for whom place first appeared as a shelter for desire and as an analogue of the unconscious. He begins his "fictional autobiography" with these lines:

I was standing this morning, October 16, 1832, by San Pietro in Montorio, on the Janiculum Hill in Rome, in magnificent sunshine. A few small white clouds, borne on a barely perceptible sirocco wind, were floating above Monte Albano, a delicious warmth filled the air and I was happy to be alive.... The whole of ancient and modern Rome, from the ancient Appian Way with its ruined tombs and aqueducts to the magnificent garden of the Pincio built by the French, lies spread before me. There is no place like this in the world, I mused, and against my will ancient Rome prevailed over modern Rome; memories of Livy crowded into my mind. On Monte Albano, to the left of the convent, I could see the fields of Hannibal.... I sat on the steps of San Pietro and there I day-dreamed for an hour or two over this thought: I shall soon be fifty, it's high time I got to know myself. I should really find it very hard to say what I have been and what I am. I'm supposed to be a very witty heartless man, even a rake, and in fact I see that I've been continually involved in unhappy love affairs.

Sightseeing can shift the foundations of existence and, as Stendhal never fails to remind us, establish new possibilities for shared subjectivity. This sharing is not limited to exchanges between tourists and their hosts. It extends to every relationship an ethical tourist will ever have.