Sunday, 6 January 2008

Tourism as the last Utopia?

In an interview with the e-zine atopia, antropologist Marc Auge has agured that tourism might be the last Utopia. He explains:
Despite appearances, the everyday world already knows some utopias. Tourism is one of these. The tourist is the one who is able to imagine the whole of the planet as places of transition. This utopia can be judged in two different ways. Either one considers that this is the final stage of the consumer society, you are sold movement, displacement, with some sun or sand to boot. Individuals buy their capacity to move and one is therefore at the limit of the system. According to the utopian perspective, the individual who moves around, who is unattached or, more precisely, who plays with attachments, free to choose these bonds, seems to me to have a highly commendable value. Quite the opposite of solitude then, a freedom of choice that no longer roots itself in identity, a given culture.
Auge is well known and has been critized a lot for his notion of non-places, in which he described airports and shopping malls to be lacking of a distinct local quality. In his discussion here of tourism as utopian he repeats a fallacy that often governs the thinking of modernism from the perspective of a "post".
Tourism is used here, as it is frequently and by no way without sense, as a metaphor of modernism while the tourist becomes an expression, an examplification of modern man. Modernism is conceived as a condition in which the individual identity looses its authentic and genuine reference to one place. The tourist, that is the modern person, is able to imagine the whole of the planet as places of transistion, places to play, in which no attachment of any seriousness is needed anymore, no foundation in a given culture or identity.
The problem with this view is of course, that it doesn't understands the dialectic of attachment and play, or of necessity and freedom to use the concepts of Hannah Arendt. While the modern man is understanding himself as being homeless and uprooted, the promise of freedom that this situation seems to entail is seriously hampered by his own constant fear, that - really - this apparent freedom is an illusion. Auge's postulation of a tourist utopia has often been described by authors both in literature and in theory. For Adorno as much as for Guy Debord, the fun and spectacle of a modern society of tourists was the place of a dystopian horror of the same uncanny qualities as Huxley's brave new world: Drugged into consent by the cultural industries, human beings lost their capacity to critically reflect their condition and lost their freedom altogether.
Hannah Arendt has convincingly argued (in the human condition) that modernity is marked by a loss of understanding about the relation of necessity and freedom. The conditionality of human life is linked to its transcendence and therefore man cannot be free without an understanding of her conditions because freedom means nothing but the repeated transcendence of conditions and necessity. While modern man might feel free and uprooted, he really has lost the understanding and capacity to see the conditions that govern her life. This makes modern politics at the same time inherently utopian (a free society seems near) and paranoid (as a conspiracy is always threatening to spoil the promise).
The utopian value that Auge argues for is nothing new, but remains firmly in the realm of modern thinking and concepts. Naively he repeats that it would be nice, if everybody was at play with their identity and cultures. The modern play he rightly observed is at place not only in the tourist encounters with locaties but in as much in the invention of tradition, the construction of imagined communities and the extinction of the ones we identify as conspiring against us. The modern play is dead serious. In as much our capacity to understand where we are actually located in this world is limited, we should be rather sceptical about the utopian promise of our apparent homelessness.