The Tourist Gaze
Globalizing the Gaze
As a result of technological developments, people have now been brought closer to each other than ever before. A kind of time-space compression has occurred through the use of mobile phones, television and the Internet, creating an ‘omnivorous production and consumption’ of space through remote images and sounds. Virtual travel is easier than ever before. Our imagination is easily assister (or restrained?) by images wired from the other side of the planet accompanied by unfamiliar voices and strange sounds. This virtual travel also stimulates physical, corporeal, mobility. We want to see and experience things directly. We want to see, though, smell taste the actual thing ourselves.
John Urry discusses this virtual/physical distinction, as well as the implications of virtual/physical tourism in his book ‘The Tourist Gaze’. Chapter 8 in this book, entitled ‘Globalizing the Gaze’, explores how tourism has become a globalised phenomenon and how cultures become commercialised, created and re-created in producing the convincing image of the ‘Other’.
There exists a dominant ideology of sight in contemporary Western culture. Western ideals have developed through a culture of image, including film, photography and other media. There is a sense of ‘what you see is what you get’, although looks can, of course, be deceiving. The significance of vision, hence also the gaze, has originated from the scientific method. A priori knowledge (reasoning) has gradually become considered inferior to posteriori knowledge (observation).
Constance Classen writes the following on the subject of sight in Western culture in her 1998 book ‘The Colour of Angels’:
“Modern Western culture is a culture of the eye. We are constantly bombarded, seduced, and shaped by visual models and representations, from maps and graphs to pictures and texts. This rule of sight carries with it a powerful aura of rationality and objectivity, even though many of its contemporary manifestations, such as advertising. seem designed to manipulate the emotions more than to exercise reason. The photographic nature of much of twentieth-century representation helps maintain this aura of objectivity by appearing to provide the viewer with direct access to reality, rather than only mediating reality.” (p.1)
Being part of a culture often necessitates corporeal travel. In order to see sacred sites, read sacred texts, gaze upon sacred objects or take part in sacred rituals rather than looking at their representations in photographs or videos, bodies have to physically move through space.
Corporeal travel, the physical movement of bodies in space, has become a core component of modern life. Whether it is the daily commute to work or holidays in South East Asia, we often assume mobility to be one of our rights. Urry identifies a ‘nomadic quality’ of contemporary social life, embodied for example in the Sony Walkman - a device designed for listening to music whilst on the move. This device was, of course, soon followed by advanced mobile phones, mp3 players, laptops, iPads, Kindles etc. Most everyday facilities are today designed to be carried around on the body. Expectations are to eventually carry them within our bodies.
The modern corporeal travel has produced a number of bi-products. Architecturally significant are the so-called ‘non-places’; train stations, air ports, ferry terminals and the like. These spaces are not seen as destinations, but represent the ‘pause’ before the tourist moves on. Of course, these locations are more than non-places to certain people. For example, employees at these hubs experience close relationships to them.
Further bi-products include the vast production of images, icons and the mediatising and circulation of them. As Urry explains, tourist experiences are primarily visual. Our gaze orders and regulates what is presented to us. It defines and identifies the ‘Other’. Sight sacralisation, the way an object is turned into a ‘sacred site of tourism’ occurs through a series of stages. Mechanical reproduction of souvenirs and images is one of the most important. Repeatedly seeing images of the Eiffel Tower makes the icon seem more important and it turns into a destination.
Urry does acknowledge the importance of other senses in ‘The Tourist Gaze’, but maintains that vision is the most important one. Visual consumption has become an everyday commodity in the society of spectacle where we travel to and pay to enter through the gates at sites of visual stimulus. The creation of the ‘hyper-real’ is the physical manifestation of vision’s triumph over the remaining senses. In these simulated places with exaggerated visible features, fake objects appear more real than the original.
The interconnectedness between tourism and culture is strong in today’s mobile world. Not only tourists (or worshippers) travel, but so do objects, cultures and images. Tourists travel to cultural sites to witness the ‘Other’ culture and reinforce their own identity. The culture of film can necessitate corporeal travel in order to experience sites through the ‘mediatised gaze’. This gaze occurs at sites where scenes or aspects of a mediated event can be relived, ‘seen with one’s own eyes’. Such sites include Hollywood, Disneyland and the Bradbury Building.
Urry also touches on the development of so called ‘dark tourism’ (thanatourism), the travelling to former war zones, concentration camps and areas hit by natural disasters or nuclear fallout, or as the Institute of Dark Tourism Research (iDTR) at the University of Central Lancashire puts it: ‘Dark tourism is travel to sites of death, disaster, or the seemingly macabre’. Urry refers to a couple of books on the topic, including ‘Dark Tourism’ by John Lennon and Malcom Foley (London: Continuum, 2000).
Dark tourism is an aspect of Urry’s book that ties in closely with my thesis work. Although gaining in popularity, it is not strictly a modern phenomenon. Professor Tony Seaton cites a number of attractions including graves, prisons, and public executions and, in particular, the battlefield of Waterloo to which tourists flocked from 1816 onwards in his 1996 article ‘Guided by the Dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism’.
Why are we attracted to scenes of death and disaster? Is it way for us to come to terms with our own end? Is it because we only truly appreciate beauty once it has been destroyed? Is it a morbid kind of satisfaction, ‘better them than me’? Does it all originate from jealousy? Or are we simply adrenaline junkies looking for another high?
Urry indirectly offers one explanation of what disaster films (and dark tourism) attempts to do. He explains how public perception of nature gradually changed over an extended period of time. As a familiarity with nature developed through expeditions and adventure trips, descriptions of nature changed from ‘a wild, frightening beast’ to ‘alluring, picturesque scenery’. Is this what disaster films try to achieve? By allowing the audience to visit dark, frightening places (in the comfort of our own home and the pause button within reach) can we familiarise ourselves with these places and make them appear less frightening?
Maybe it is just another way of identifying the ‘Other’ in order to reinforce our own identity. We have not been hit by an alien invasion/hyper resistant virus/environmental disaster. Yet.
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Classen, C. (1998) The Colour of Angels. London: Routledge
Seaton, A.V. (1996) ‘Guided by the Dark: from thanatopsis to thanatourism.’ Journal of Heritage Studies. Vol 2(4) pp. 234-244.
Urry, J. (2002) The Tourist Gaze. 2 ed., London: Sage