Sunday, 20 November 2011

The Fetish of Travel

When it comes to travel, why is it that we focus on specific sights or objects, to the point of fetishisation? For instance, the 'Mona Lisa' in the Louvre or the Spanish Steps in Rome. Sure, these sights are worthy of our attention, but the attention they attract and the pleasure they give seems excessive. Two theories of fetishism may explain what is going on.

Image by StephEvaPhoto

First, Freud's definition of fetishism. In typical Freudian fashion, the scene imagining the origin of fetishism is male-centric: upon seeing the female genitals for the first time, a boy supposes that there has been a castration. To shield himself from the fear of his own castration, a penis substitute for women is installed, such as the foot, and thus the fetish begins. The fetish supplements or even displaces traditional sexual pleasures. So, translating this into the traveller's scenario, the 'castration' is the fear of losing oneself in the pleasures particular to the local culture. Instead of adapting to local tastes, certain experiences (eg seeing the 'Mona Lisa') are fetishised as substitutes for an authentic experience of the destination.

In the 1950s Roland Barthes finds the tide turning against this sort of fetish (his terminology for it is 'myth') and returning to a love of the everyday: 'travel has become (or become again) a method of approach based on human realities [...] it is everyday life which is the main object of travel'. While this tide of human realities has continued to flow, the fetish of travel has yet to ebb. Marx's theory of commodity fetishism is helpful for understanding why some travellers still find fetishised objects more interesting than a destination's 'human reality'.

With the transition from feudalism to capitalism, most workers move from selling or using their products, to selling their time. In this change they become alienated from the commodities they help produce. Instead of owning the fruits of their labour, they own the money they have exchanged for their labour. As a cog in the machine of manufacturing, the workers' self-worth is diminished while products increase in worth (quite literally, as commodities are sold for more than what workers are paid to make them). Consequently, society values the relations between commodities more than between people. And persons are defined by the commodities they own.

When I recall my travels, my favourite memories are frequently the conversations I've had with locals — not the paintings I've seen or the architecture I've walked around. Not that these sights aren't also appreciated by me, but society has fetishised them above the equally interesting daily realities of the locals.

Monday, 9 February 2009

The Pensive Lions

[Parque Lezama, Buenos Aires.]

This lion is mentioned in the opening of Ernesto Sabato's novel On Heroes and Tombs. There is another lion guarding the right-hand side of the gate. Their bronze has been painted since 1953.

"On a Saturday in May, 1953, two years before the events in Barracas, a tall, stoop-shouldered youngster was walking along one of the footpaths in the Parque Lezama. He sat down on a bench, near the statue of Ceres, and remained there, doing nothing, lost in thought. 'Like a boat drifting on a vast lake that is apparently calm yet agitated by currents far beneath the surface,' Bruno thought when, after the death of Alejandra, Martin recounted to him, in a confused and fragmentary way, some of the episodes connected with that story. And he not only thought this but understood it -- indeed he did! -- since that seventeen-year-old Martin reminded him of his own forebear, the remote Bruno whom he glimpsed at times across a distance of thirty years, a nebulous territory enriched and devastated by love, disillusionment, and death. He had a melancholy image of him in that old park, with the dying afternoon light lingering on the modest statues, on the pensive bronze lions, on the paths covered with limp, dead leaves."

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

The Sorrow of War

In less than two weeks I will be in Ho Chi Minh City. This is one of the books that is part of my pre-trip reading (I will add an appropriate photo when I get back).

"The sorrow of war inside a soldier's heart was in a strange way similar to the sorrow of love. It was a kind of nostalgia, like the immense sadness of a world at dusk. It was a sadness, a missing, a pain which could send one soaring back into the past. The sorrow of the battlefield could not normally be pinpointed to one particular event, or even person. If you focused on any one event it would soon become a searing pain." The Sorrow of Warby Bao Ninh

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The Narrative: Part 2

[Fawkner Park, Melbourne]

One of the reasons to travel is to escape the everyday, the boring, the expected, the things that hold us back. I feel free in a new environment because I am anonymous. While I can get anonymity in Melbourne (because it is a large city), I am still restrained by the all too familiar everyday: the same food, the same clothes walking by, the same streets I know too well. Travel offers me freedom from this familiarity. Even if my everyday is only a little bit different (say I go to Sydney), then there is a exponential rise in my freedom.

Although the everyday offers me a form of freedom (freedom from thinking, freedom from care, freedom from myself), the downside is that it is what Jean-Paul Sartre would call viscous. Sometimes it is hard to even realise how stuck I am in the everyday. In his novel Nausea, the main character is sitting on a park bench when he notices the root of a tree. It is then that he realises how everything gets its meaning from its entanglement with other elements. 

"And then, all of a sudden, there it was, as clear as day: existence had suddenly unveiled itself. It had lost its harmless appearance as an abstract category: it was the very stuff of things, that root was steeped in existence. Or rather the root, the park gates, the bench, the sparse grass on the lawn, all that had vanished; the diversity of things, their individuality, was only a appearance, a veneer. This veneer had melted, leaving soft, monstrous masses, in disorder -- naked, with a frigthening, obscene nakedness." -- Nauseaby Jean-Paul Sartre 

While travelling I have these moments all the time. I see everything as a mass. The freedom of travel is this distance I have between myself and the everyday. For a short while I can escape its viscosity.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

The Narrative: Part 1

[Grand Central Station, New York City, May 2008.]

It is a truism that a destination is never exactly as you expect it to be. Multiple factors undermine the purity of desires. The weather determines your impressions more than the architecture; authenticity is diluted by coca colonisation; ease is impeded by language barriers; insouciance is defeated by tiredness; freedom is curtailed by financial limits; and so on. All these factors are present in my everyday at home, but somehow I imagine them vanishing in a distant land of travel utopia. And luckily I persist with these delusions, no matter how statistically improbable their success becomes after the failures mount up, for I would embark on fewer quests without them. But the delusions have now become ironic. It is only natural to desire the perfect encounter with a destination, but thankfully reality steps in.
The travel utopia doesn't exist outside my mind because it has no narrative. Before seeing the museum's masterworks I must wait in line for two hours; before waiting in line I must eat breakfast at an over-priced cafe. Utopias don't have narratives, but narratives are the things that make a trip a trip. I need obstacles to trip myself up, to make me see the everyday as a local would see it, not as a tourist.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Egytian skies

[View of Cairo from the minaret of Ibn Tulun mosque.]

It is quite surprising how distinctive a destination's sky can be. It is as distinctive as a person's hair style.

The sky may not always be grey in England, but even a blue summer sky over Hyde Park does more to prove the sovereignty of grey than diminish it. When it returns, the English Grey stalks you like a melancholic just above you. 

In comparison, the sky is big in Australia because the clouds often hang so high.

Gerard de Nerval, the man famous for walking his pet lobster, Thibault, wrote of Cairo's sky in 1842, and I found the same sky in 2008 (above). It is a large grey, as opposed to the small grey of England.

"The turbid dust that clogs the horizon never breaks up into fresh clouds, as our European mists do; even at zenith the sun only manages to pierce a course through the cinereous atmosphere in the form of a fiery red disk that might well have emerged from the Libyan forges of the god Phta. At this prospect you understand the melancholia of ancient Egypt, preoccupied, as it so often was, by sorrow and tombs, that profound melancholia which is also transmitted to us through the extant monuments."
Gerard de Nerval, Journey to the Orient


Two panorama photos of cafes. 
[El Fishawy, Cairo, May 2008.]
This cafe is in the Khan el Khalili market district of Cairo. I had a honey sheesha. I found it very relaxing to smoke. It doesn't give you much nicotine (at least for me, a smoker). I was told the best time to visit was late at night when there are fewer tourists. However, when I visited in the afternoon I was the only Westerner. 
I took a dozen photos with my Nikon D80 and the Sigma 10-20mm, then stitched them together with PTGui.

[La Puerto Rico Cafe, Buenos Aires, March 2007.]
An out-of-the-way cafe, seemingly ignored by tourists. And as a consequence, much more authentic than the hyped Cafe Tortoni, where Jorge Luis Borges used to go. 
I took multiple shots with my Canon Powershot S3, then stitched it together with Canon's software.