Sunday, December 29, 2013

Interdisciplinary Journeys: Serendipitous fortune telling

Interdisciplinary Journeys: Serendipitous fortune telling: Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli, Leeds Coffee reading’s folk origins I never thought that my childhood’s magic would be stolen by a coff...

Serendipitous fortune telling

Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli, Leeds

Coffee reading’s folk origins

I never thought that my childhood’s magic would be stolen by a coffee machine. Like many other modern people with little time to waste and much accumulated taste for conspicuous consumption of technology, I tend to start my day with latte or cappuccino produced out of cachet-measured portions of milk and coffee. Nostalgia or decades of cultivated taste do nevertheless dictate the occasional return to cups of Turkish coffee (corrected to ‘Greek’ or even ‘Cypriot coffee’ by the ardent culinary nationalist who refuses to acknowledge that such nominations do not correspond to the produce’s hazy Arabic origins). Humorously, sentiment brings back sediment – and this allows space for a return to the disreputable rituals of fortune telling disowned by the Orthodox Church a long time ago.

In closed communities such as that in which I born (a not so ‘closed’ or ‘open’ one in the current conditions of cultural globalisation, bilateral economic migration and technological transnationalism), fortune telling was habitually entrusted to ‘readers’ of one’s destiny who were older and more experienced than younger generations. These readers are today replaced by machines. To put this in appropriate scholarly jargon, a techne (= art) born amidst feminine kitchenalia (coffee prepared, drank and read in household kitchens) is replaced by inanimate technology. Still coffee reading necessitated technical components and processes (‘rituals’): it could not be performed without coffee sediment and a ‘knowledgeable’ fortune teller; it could not be done at any time of the week (some days were not appropriate, especially for the religious reader who had somehow managed to merge sorcery with Christian rules); nor could it be transmitted to a stranger. 

Photo: Rodanthi Tzanelli, Viyan (Roundhay), Leeds

Pop hermeneutics: Soothsayer’s hype sociality

My latte gets cold now that we get to the hot aspects of fortune telling – for, letting a reader look into your destiny presupposed trust. Friends met and shared secrets and household worries; gossiped over other people’s affairs; and read the coffee. In the same context readers could set up their own ‘masterclass’ for apprentice readers (I too became initiated in coffee symbolism by my grandmother on such an occasion).

Trust was the front prerequisite for the techne of coffee reading: visitors had to trust, readers would be entrusted with their affairs. In today’s globalised environments of the circus (complete with a card-reader’s Orientalia and crystal balls) and the Internet (reading is offered to web surfers for a fee), trust is replaced with credit(able) CVs (readers post their credentials on their respective website to attract customers). For non-believers, there is no question of trust, only credulity and stupidity on the part of the customer, who is conned into parting with their money. But this is an issue I reserve for future analysis. Suffice to mention here that traditional and (post-) modern readers share a flair for hermeneutics: it is vital to both facilitate trust and interpretation of their interlocutor’s circumstances. But coffee readers in particular used to read their visitor’s fortune out of a repository of knowledge about local gossip and personal affairs as much as they would draw upon cues provided by the visitor’s current emotional state. If one wanted to be a successful and reputed fortune teller they had to be either a good gossip, or a psychoanalytical interpreter or (preferably) both. Either way, a soothsayer had to display a propensity to constant socialisation in the community.

Orientalist discourse is embedded in this background by a particular sociological hermeneutics. So, in Merton and Barber’s (2006) study of serendipity we learn that Victorians first discussed the term’s etymology by reference to the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of" (pp. 2-3). The word ironically reiterates coffee reading’s ambiguous Oriental journey, passing though Arad traders’ inflections of as diverse country mythologies as those of India (Kerala or Cheranadu) and Sri Lanka (Ceylon). Not only does such an etymological journey reveal hermeneutics as gendered but also racialises them ‘along the way’, as it were. 

 Photo: Crystal Ball by OlivIreland (Creative Commons licence

Coincidence, contingency, serendipity

I stopped reading coffee in my Master’s years when international friends and classmates began to take my credentials seriously. About the same time a friend experienced personal grievance wrongly connected to my ‘successful forecasting’ of a terrible event. Moreover, I had already begun to declare God and demons dead. Magic had decisively and irrevocably transformed into an object of scientific study. My fascination with custom was now an attraction to scientific paradigm in the purest Kuhnian terms (The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 13 August 2004), without it ever becoming detached from the custom of household reciprocities nevertheless (Polanyi 1944): humans – mostly women – read destinies for reasons I am yet to fully comprehend.

What makes perfectly reasonable people turn to sorcery to learn about their future? Is it madness propelled by grief and social pressure? More importantly, however, why do people constantly interpret events a posteriori in ways that give credit to someone else’s hobby (or these days, shadowy business)?  A rather disconcerting, but fascinating, link to science and technology is readily available in anthropological studies of magic and sociological theorisation of serendipity. Whereas the former (magic) is constitutive of the reproduction or consolidation of social order (Evans-Pritchard 1940, 1956), the latter (serendipity) works as a mechanism of moderating interpretation, controlling how this is done plausibly so as not to implode. Simply put, you read coffee out of current events to survey society’s particular state – e.g. who does what and why and under whose jurisdiction (human for things such as, say, arguments or divorce, Godly for life or death). Here I concur with the pop repository of Wikipedia (2013), which explains that

The original definition of serendipity, often missed in modern discussions of the word, is the need for an individual to be "sagacious" enough to link together apparently innocuous facts in order to come to a valuable conclusion. Indeed, the scientific method, and the scientists themselves, can be prepared in many other ways to harness luck and make discoveries.

This discourse suggests that forecasting social events always walks a fine line between natural phenomena – hence their phenomenological descriptors – and technological invention – hence human intervention on the natural course of things. I suspect fortune telling is a serendipitous activity that modulates social chaos, pronouncing that there is middle ground between natural positivism and human interpretation that claims poetic licence and ‘messes social things’ up.

PS: Any connection to medical research is unwelcome.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E. (1940) The Nuer. Oxford: Clarendon.

Evans-Pritchard, E.E.(1956) Nuer Religion. Oxford: Clarendon.

Merton, R.K. and Barber, E. (2006) The Travels and Adventures of Serendipity: A Study in Sociological Semantics and the Sociology of Science. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Polanyi, K. (1944) The Great Transformation. Boston: Beacon Press.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (13 August 2004)‘Thomas Kuhn’. Available at

Wikipedia (2013) ‘Serendipity’. Available at

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Technopolis and the glamour of dark futures

Departure (from where it all began)
The ways graphic, cinematic and literary art envisage the future of humanity still connects to a modernist, and at times almost phobist, fixation on darker arcs. Dreaming of electric sheep or confronting mechanical terminators is just an angle to this claustrophobic – but never obsolete – scenario of having to live in dystopian frames, ultra-exclusive urban landscapes that mirror real social zoning, and through corporate policies that flavour everyday interaction with whispers and ocular symbols of conspiracy. Fear is here coterminous with repetition and lack of change as encroaching ailment – an incurable disease collectively afflicting the dispossessed and threatening to spread to privileged populations. But physical disease is just a metaphor. It is significant that Raymond Williams’ (1973) much-debated binarism between the city and the village is absent from such audio-visual scenarios. Cityscapes and technocracy dominate human horizons, drafting the rules of our participation in the pólis (as city, state and society). It seems as if we never had an intimate, inescapable relationship with nature.
Science fiction films nicely encapsulate this recurring metaphor.  Indeed, from the rise of The Terminator genre of man-machine intersubjective conflict;  to the migrant and racial allegories in Children of Men and District 9; Avatar’s lament of human destruction of alien indigeneity; Casshern’s impossibility to rescue political solidarity from greed; and Elysium’s critique of class and health inequalities, nature is erased from collective memory. In other words, the postmodern dialogics of Enlightenment dictate a move away from Nature and towards technocratic perceptions of the Environment (Ingold 2000). Peculiarly, however, the future of humanity is crowned with an environmental ambiance that still resembles modernity’s industrial soot, whereas at the same time constant aerial traffic in such plots suggests automobility’s complete triumph over ecosystemic balance.

Nature’s place in artistic imagination
What might have condemned (at least since the release of Lang’s Metropolis) several generations of literary and cinematic artists to repeat this audio-visual leitmotif of hyperbolic darkness (for, film music composers usually follow suit in such futuristic articulations)? The paradox of symbolising our progressive mastering of natural danger, our prosperity and technological advancement in grim moral colourations suggests a return to classical thanatotourist themes. There is a constant fear that diverse mobilities (of migrants, industrial and post-industrial workers, viruses, or even alien species) will destroy human harmony – an ironic recurrence, given that the allegedly threatened privilege is all about socio-cultural change and ‘movement’.
 And there is more: such imagined visits to sites of imminent death (of human solidarity, bonding with nature and rurality) via encounters with technology (terminators, cybernetic monsters or urban surveillance structures) speak the language of heterotopia. Unlike utopia - the non (:) or good (:) place (:tópos) of futurology and social theory - heterotopia is the ‘other’ place. This héteron (:othering) of tópos (:place) involves intentional misplacement of time-space levels, enabling human actors to re-arrange experience and re-conceptualise phenomena (Foucault 1986: 16–17). Cinematic heterotopias suggest that the goodness of nature (and human nature) has migrated elsewhere in the future, leaving us bereft of human(-ist) qualities, more mechanic than human. 

Back home to (in) the future
What exit strategy is left after such a damning verdict? The original symptom of futuristic fear, artistic creation, is called upon to weave nostalgic tales of redemption. And we, the faithful fans, redeem through novel-reading, cinema-watching or music-listening the nóstos (:the journey back home, whether this be the family, nature or the ‘source’ of our humanity) that causes this heart-throbbing (:álgos). We ache collectively for a return to a time when the fear of social plagues was absent and we enjoyed the benefit of peace, harmony and unchallenged inner order. Does this not encapsulate the original travel in paradox, during which the Edenic Garden is always eluding grasp despite our centuries-long effort to relocate it on earth?

Foucault, M. (1986) ‘Of other spaces’, Diacritics, 16(1): 22-7.
Ingold, T. (2000) The Perception of the Environment. London: Routledge.
Williams, R. (1973) The Country and the City. London: Chatto and Windus.


Sunday, October 6, 2013

Cerebrity culture: changing registers of beauty

Public sculpture outside Trinity Shopping Centre
Briggate, Leeds, UK
Image: Rodanthi Tzanelli

What is the trouble with today’s celebrities? There is certainly a perceptible shift in associations between different artistic personalities and their cinematic signification. Of course, Dyer (1982) was aware of such associations when he debated ‘seriations’ or classifications of true lives though fabulist cinematic scenarios. Indeed, real biographies of actors often continue to blend with specific fictional ‘types’ that these actors play into a seamless narrative befit for press and internet dissemination.

During the late 20th century the phenomenon flooded gendered life politics: Rockies, Rambos and Terminators or their Nemeses slowly gave way to Matrix Neos who could think before they acted. One might focus on commercial imperatives guiding such genres and their characters, but even such a discussion would revert to the socio-cultural and political scene of production (Langford 2005: 123-6). Though the change was prefaced by the techno-masculine Michael Knights (or their feminine Bonnie counterpart) and the crafty MacGyvers of the 1980s, it was not before the dawn of the 21st century that global cultural scenes experienced a true revolution in such public narrativities of individualised character. A renewed emphasis on technologized and embodied knowledge and knack was combined with promotions of speed to a universal value. These were embraced by both actors and their cinematic personas. For women, ‘being pretty’ also had to be matched with being agile, with a conscience and involved in cultural commons. And there is more: this new ‘cerebrity culture’ appears to shift public attention from externally manifest mobilities (travel, technology and all sorts of human-artefact movement) to our inner (emotional and cognitive) world. For example, Zeta-Jones’ Entrapment or Jolie’s Tourist roles seem to follow both actresses’ real-life characterisations as bright, resourceful, dynamic and committed to political, family or self-betterment causes dictated by our era’s individuating motifs (Bauman 2001; Beck 2002).

But it may be incorrect to confuse the shift from outer, physical movement, to inner, cognitive and emotional kinesis with a withdrawal from the commons. The ascetic surface of the movement hides a different sort of social engagement, which can be equally calculative with that of older paradigms of action or even activism.  Whereas new ‘cerebrity cultures’ enable celebrities to achieve public recognition by prioritising invisible human virtues over the visible ones they do not break the bond between beautiful surfaces and good depths. The modern interpretive ambivalence of the ancient Greek motto καλός καγαθός (kalós kagathós=good/beautiful and noble in a polemical/chivalrous sense) has acquired new meaning in postmodernist articulations of celebrity without losing its original phenomenological moorings altogether.  For celebrities such as George Clooney, Angelina Jolie or Tim Robbins, the inner-as-outer beauty certainly communicates with an artistic vision that is not devoid of political commitment. This model of celebrity excises exceptional glamorous humans from the antiquated plane of religious devotion while simultaneously encouraging admiration of their secular aura (Rojek 2001). Public scrutiny thus reveals an impeccable endogenous image – even though such images re-assume less scrutinized motions after their technological immortalisation.

Bauman, Z. (2001) The Individualised Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Beck, U. (2002) Individualization. London: Sage.
Dyer, R. (1982) Stars. London: British Film Institute.
Langford, B. (2005) Film Genre. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.
Rojek, C. (2001) Celebrity. London: Reaktion.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Public and private ghosts

Ghosts on the beach’ by Francesco Ianett, Flickr (Creative Commons)

A while ago I was intimated by someone that you should not play with ghosts in some countries. Pop fiction teaches that there are ghosts creeping out of houses, possessing people with no warning and articulating collective fears with no remorse. A friend of mine who is a seasoned South Asian traveller pointed that Thai ghost stories have now made it to the cyberspace, acquiring personal websites and spreading stories  in as elaborate classifications as those one encounters in the world’s scariest bureaucracies. Likening ghosts to bureaucracy seems to be a surrealist pursuit but there are similarities between phantasms and bureaucrats: both fit a culture’s specificity into neat boxes for identification purposes. There is no ghost without home and no home without rooms designated to different people and social functions. But ghosts somehow manage to dominate the house and cast their shadow or their light upon everybody. Hence my likening of phantoms to bureaucracy: both are pursuers of impressions for mass consumption and they use classification and surveillance of humans and environs to achieve this effect.

So, are there ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ghosts? And why should this ghost-mania comprise the subject of a blog entry? The answer is emphatic and on the positive side: yes and it should. Note also that the answers I collected in my virtual journeys and collegial interrogations in digital networks did not put the subject to rest (or ‘tomb’ if you like this sort of thing). On the contrary, they suggested that we set aside fantastic Ringu plots (see Wikipedia and IMDB entries), and think instead of the multiple cultural backgrounds of such ‘ghostologies’ or ‘phantasmologies’ as gateways to deferred, delayed, failed or re-worked modernities. But since I mentioned a cult film, we might want to consider how new technologies interpellate anew, fashion and call into being old ghosts in new global sites, as well as who consumes these cyber and cinematic stories, how and why. Ghosts are always-already part of social group ‘hauntology’-as-ontology: they both possess collective imaginations and create collective ways of imagining the world.

All cultures have ghosts. It is a human need to think of an afterlife, where everybody gets ‘their dues’ and everybody’s soul transcends its bodily materialities. Brazilians cook the bones of their predecessors and drink the soup to be imbued with ‘good’ ancestral qualities. The Zulu cure their patients using a number of spirits, some general - such as ‘the water people’ who originally afflicted the person to ‘call’ them to their profession or ‘whistling spirits’. In Laos, but also next door in Thailand, spirits are a motor-force known as khwan but when one dies the khwan stops moving and decays. The vinyarn inhabits the same body but is the immortal personality subject to transmogrify – hence to move from a dead body to a new one (reincarnation). Only the khwan becomes involved in problems of the body and mind. Though this can be redressed by a ‘spirit doctor’ or a specific ritual only the actions of the individual can influence their path. Spirits are not to be confused with the bad ghosts that have become the subject of TV programmes and films. The same differentiation applies to Indian customs. In India spirits designate the life source, which gets our physical body moving. Ghosts are spirits that have escaped the body but have not been liberated from this world for various reasons, such as untimely death, unfulfilled desires or inability to disconnect from this world. And there are of course various vampires, including the vrykólaka or Dracula of the Balkans that colonised subjugated peoples like the ‘evil Ottoman Turks’ or the Lao (i.e. all Thai groups) phii dip, a gender-neutral nasty spirit that is nevertheless imagined as female by foreigners.

The transition however from ‘ghosts’ to ‘spirits’ parallels a folk rendition of established political divides between unwanted pasts lagging behind and dragging whole cultures down the drain of non-development, and spectacular Geistes or spirits that state machines nationalise and global capitalism markets to tourist visitors (remember the Thai website on ghosts). Celebrated by parades and national days, Volksgeistes or folk spirits can be equally domineering, turning into a form of heritage that demands ossification and repetitive display. Nevertheless even Volksgeistes mutate into public and private spirits: the public continue to glamorise national culture abroad but the private are demonised and demonic. Take for example one of my other investigations into evil female spirits. These have been the object of fascination across cultures, here asserting matriarchal hegemonies, there colluding with sexist cultural cosmologies. Such is the articulation of the hag or strìggla, the ancient woman in Arvanite and Greek folk cosmology whose soul is possessed by an evil spirit. Strìggles were believed to eat infant souls and many were rumoured to change into crows or enter the bodies of hens (see Vampire Chickens?).

In Greece the strìggla was also mobilised in literary representations of disreputable forms of heritage: a secular version of the strìggla appears in Alexander Papadiamantis’ novel I Fónissa (The Murderess, 1903), in which old Frangogiannoú is condemned to relive her past in her nightmares and victimize her own daughters’ children (whom she eventually murders).  Significantly, the anti-heroine dreams of and returns to the same places in an attempt to ‘recapture the past and obliterate time’ (Tziovas 2003: 91). Her attachment to Castro, the medieval fortress Skiathans (Northern Sporades Island) built to defend themselves from foreign invasions, becomes another allegory for tradition’s feminized introversion (Tzanelli 2011: chapter 4). Frangogiannoú kills herself on the rocks but her spirits lingers on the lives of her relatives – the ideal image of the family. Nations-families are scared of spirits that have lost their way and turned into ghosts, for they always come back to claim the family’s progeny – hence its unhampered continuation.

Next time you visit castle hills in Romania and Transylvania, swim in Thailand’s exotic seawaters, climb remote mountains in Greece, join ghost walks in UK or play voluntourist amongst the Hmong, scrutinise the stories of the tour guide against whatever local ghost itineraries you may retrieve. Ghosts-spirits are not there just to scare or entertain you but also to help you interrogate the cultural soil you tread, avoid its nasty holes and skip its dirty puddles. Tread softly and carefully, for few outsiders can distinguish between ghosts and spirits.  


Thanks to Ian Ball, Simeon S. Magliveras, Gerald Sack, Robert Cooper, Sylvia Davies, Prakash Kumar Rath, Anima Sharma for the animated discussions on ghosts and spirits. The information on ghosts that I present in this blog draws on our discussions but the views expressed should not be attributed to them.

Friday, August 2, 2013

Style, genre and human expression

The web and its weavers
Camera records everyday classifications of humans into ethnic, gendered or racialised types with varied degrees of accuracy, fairness or appropriateness. Whether we like it or not, scholars from various disciplines have turned this into their ‘expertise’, constructing and de-constructing such technological records. The belle artes contingent does not always agree with academic verdict, but one thing is sure: we are all rocking the same boat of ‘style’, ‘type’ or ‘genre’ in our audio-visual and written musings (though for different intends and purposes). 

We may question this alleged commonality anew: are we on the same page, lens, or computer screen and canvas? I would contend that even when we traverse different ‘surfaces’, our calibration of stylistic fundamentals always becomes implicated into some form of quest(ioning) regarding human nature.

Style, type, and genre: what sort of quest do they graft? What kind of ‘significance network’ are we all caught in – and are we its spiders or mere consumable victims? Significantly, ύφος (ýfos=style) (Georgopapadakos 1964: 240) communicates a distinctive habitus complex, whereby facial expression (ýfos’ first connotation), mentality (ýfos as emotionally communicated attitude) and artistic style (ýfos’ third connotation) are weaved (ýfos from υφαίνω=to weave, create but also articulate) into tactile communication with the world (yfí is literally the somatosensory faculty). Nevertheless, such weavings are also cognitive, sensory and emotional phenomena, not mere material manifestations of our place in the world.

An Aristotelian and Kantian twist lurks therefore in the tangible and intangible traces of our vision du monde (=vision of the world) that consolidates the creative dimensions (poesis) of work at its phronetic (=practical) basis (Trey 1992; Ricoeur 2005:  157, 260-2). All spiders weave because they must do so – their whole existence is based on the act of weaving. But humans weave also because they connect basic needs to desires – to tell stories to others, for others, about others and for themselves.

Expression and (post)modern imperatives
Style sells artwork and academic work alike, but the pen slides across the paper and the fingers punch the keyboard in idiosyncratic ways. Here stylistic έκφραση (ékfrasis=expression) is simultaneously emotional, embodied and cognitive expression, and what we choose to erase matters as much as what we emphasise. A practicality arises for scholars, which is ultimately shared with (commercialised) artists, to both preserve individual style and to subject it to sets of rules. The annoying request of journal editors to eliminate your ‘Is’ from the text ceases to be revelatory of individual preference and turns into a plead to join the rules of professionalised mass production that is acceptable or even ‘felicitous’ - in Ardener’s parlance – of cosmological styles.

Once more the politics of gender, racialised/ethnic honour and shame articulate a whole writing community’s normative parameters. What is excluded, edited beyond recognition or modified is the basis of all human technology, after all. We are all too familiar with concept(tion)s of kitsch, libel or excessiveness as nominated linguistic tropes and normative topics. All of them comprise phenomena ‘out of place’ in a decent (artistic and scholarly) community: we either find ways to compromise with some rules or we break boundaries to our own peril.

Personal styles differ and the ways these are mastered in public also differ. Intimacy, propriety, aggressiveness or reservation, tell gendered, racialised, ethnicised or class stories in context. There are numerous variations of public style:

-         ‘My amorphous sensory palette acquired colour, taste, odour and sound thanks to the inexhaustible support of this great master’ (appreciative and expressive)
-         ‘I trace the memory of your stories in my creative journeys’ (rhythmical and poetic)
-         ‘The discursive rules of this text need adjusting to the journal’s stylistic format and reference guidelines’ (authoritative in more than one ways)

On the verge of a war?
To play the game of convention still leaves some space of innovation, but perhaps not as much as one might have wished to have. In any case, on such occasions the web is often taken away from its weavers under so many excuses and for so many ‘legitimate’ reasons that the final stylistic outcome we get is never original. From then on, a different debate commences over what is lost, how it can be retrieved and by whom. These are the moments in which the plight of originality and authenticity returns to haunt us.

Georgopapadakos, A. (1964) Dictionary of Irregular Verbs (in Greek) (Thessaloniki: Molcho).
Trey, G. (1992) ‘Communicative Ethics in the Face of Alterity: Habermas, Levinas and the Problem of Post-Conventional Universalism’, Praxis International, 11(4), pp.412-27.
Ricoeur, P. (2005) The Course of Recognition (Cambridge: Harvard University Press).

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Beyond academic polarities on pastiche

Academic discourse has positioned time and again pastiche on the self-same principles of binary generalisation from which artwork suffers. Based on the principles of parody, pastiche has been discussed both as an empty ‘blank parody’ without political content (Jameson, 1991: 16–17) and as a genre that subverts fixed attitudes to history and habitus (Hutcheon, 1989: 101), sharpening the artistic subject’s reflexivity (Hutcheon, 1988: 122). Derived from older stylistic hybrid, pastiche is a sort of medley that creates identities for mass consumption – just like family or mass tourism advertising.

The very origins of the term should alarm us when it comes to such academic polarisations: pastiche is derived from Italian pasticcio which is a famous meat-pasta dish. Just as moussaka that – I kid you not – is not a Greek but a Turkish dish, pasticcio is served across different Mediterranean culinary domains as a local delicacy, and is constantly hybridised. Under this light pastiche could be examined as a process enmeshed into global value systems pertaining commoditisation, economic exchange and reciprocity in equal measure. As a result, pastiche is a collective, social phenomenon of creativity in arts and tourism. Who would want to create a dish and eat it alone, after all?

John Urry (1995), who is convinced that tourism as mass mobility connects to the changing nature of ‘Europe’, cites Berman on what it means to be modern. As a Marxian manifesto, All that is Solid Melts into Air (1983) elaborates on the perpetual disintegration and renewal of human sociality, the making of human subjectivities in what Baumann (2000) calls Liquid Modernity. But as we enter this maelstrom of (post-) modern life, through constant movement and of self-fashioning through travel experience, we often find that we recreate the strategies that once allowed us to ‘make [ourselves’ somehow at home in the maelstrom’ (Berman, 1983: 15). Home and away, the meaningful and the fluid – indeed the serious and the humorous – begin to blend with unexpected consequences.

Such observations reveal pastiche as the domain of social reproduction – a ritual artists and tourists alike tend to enact on a grand stage and for the sake of diverse audiences. For all its alleged ‘liquidity’ and ‘homelessness’, pastiche can speak a universal language that is unable to eliminate its location in rooted cultural idioms.

Bauman, Z. (2000) Liquid Modernity, Cambridge: Polity.
Bermann, M. (1981) All that is Solid Melts into Air, New York: Simon and Schuster.
Hutcheon, L (1988) A Poetics of Postmodernism, London & New York: Routledge.
Hutcheon, L. (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism, London & New York: Routledge.
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, Durham: Duke University Press.

Urry, J. (1995) Consuming Places, London: Routledge.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Touring and digital humanities

What does it mean to be a fully entitled citizen in a digital polity? The cybersphere is a vast (multi-)space with zillion of global corridors constantly diversifying and ramifying – and yet, at the same time also constantly subjected to the games of governance. How else could one account for its etymological roots in κυβερνώ (=to govern)? One may also stress that, despite any programmatic statements to digital equality or pluralism, not everybody truly entertains equal communicative entitlements. Access does not necessarily grant a voice, and voices can be distorted to conform to specific interests. Content might be managed by centres of governance, such as corporations and governments, to everyone’s best interests and with the best intentions but the message might still fall through the cracks of everyday communication or be erased by collective anger or mere indifference.

But if there is no easy way to explore issues pertaining to definitions of universal fairness, then the very idea of globally shared goods is also not as easily defined as one might initially assume. Choosing to share ideas, images and visions with strangers in a global digital polity – for example, choosing the path of ‘creative commons’ – promotes new conceptions of rights and duties all parties ought to observe. A similar philosophical discussion that stays true to humanities and social sciences is attributed to Julien: he stresses that a distinction needs to be made between what is ‘universal’, what is ‘uniform’ and the ‘common’ (Julien 2008: 213)  – and that these  differentiations have real life consequences and implications. The universal does not alter its premises wherever it is studied in the universe, whereas the uniform has universal impact just because of a skilfully engineered ease of access (Cronin, 2013: 138).  Contrariwise, what we understand as ‘common’ is fons or source – what is potentially shareable because of its global intelligibility – rather than fundus – the sediment once everything else has been removed or diluted in the cup of globalisation.

Such conception of commonality remains sine qua non in the production of hybrid digital cultures through interactivity. Cronin (ibid.) follows up Julien’s argument in the following way: ‘As becomes all too apparent when you travel abroad, being similar to someone […] does not mean that you necessarily have everything in common with them. This construed nature of the common, which is conflated and processual, must be at the core of any digital humanism if the latter is not to be indiscriminate, ‘massive’ and manipulatory in its effects’.   

Should we then consider electronic reproductions of the resources generated in a different culture as an act that harms native communicative capabilities and this culture’s symbolic capital? Or is their global dissemination a liberating choice for native cultures with limited resources to do this sharing themselves? In the budding trade of digital tourism, where exotic images and customs are turned into de facto commodities for the global ‘tourist gaze’, sharing itself becomes a point of contention. The reintroduction of ‘governance’ as a gateway to tourist pedagogy literally guides (άγειν, ágein) the student-child (παίς, paìs) to learn about other cultural ways and styles through digital tools (websites trading on and introducing visited cultures). But to whose interest does this happen?

Cronin, M. (2013) Translation in the Digital Age. London: Routledge.

Julien, F. (2008) De l’Universel, de l’Uniforme, du Commun et du Dialogue entre les cultures. Paris: Fayard.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

Post-European journeys: dark to slum tourism

What’s for dinner?
Camera work and audio recording thrive on symbolic colouring: training the eye to see the nuance and the audience to look at perspective, requires, after all, the employment of various tools and forms of sensory mediation. Yet, no audio-vision is neutral: as it produces meaning in its makers and recipients, it is bound to generate plural interpretations while also hinging on hegemonic understandings of the original broadcast message.  Any broadcast sign can be used in ways that its original maker would not have necessarily endorsed. Academics know this game only too well: their work enters so many different scholarly and policy channels that its initial intentions and agenda eventually become diluted in a murky pot of utilitarian discourse. What is eventually served is as likely to have a very disagreeable flavour as it is to inspire globally renowned ‘Master Chefs’ or intellectual visionaries.
My focus on ‘edible’ (art) work is a recognisable trend in academic elaborations of tourism mobilities: eating as consumption of the other is at the core of being human equipped with inquisitive capacities and desires to know more. What in not as well explored in the field is the nexus of mediated art style during one’s exploratory journeys – hence my reference to ‘colouring’ – and the cultural politics of racialization of landscapes and their inhabitants. This observation applies both to ordinary tourists, academic ethnographers touring other cultures equipped with video cameras and professional filmmakers en route to producing audio-visual narratives of other cultures. It is not that we seem to avoid explorations of art styles that become enmeshed into tourist mobilities as racialised vehicles. The essential link that some of the finest theorists in the field (Seaton 1999; Dann 2001; Tribe 200) provide to European artistic cultures of postcolonial travel often recedes in a historical background. Rather it is that sometimes we cannot differentiate between our very own interpretative recipes and their cultural origins on the one hand, and the original ingredients and cooking on the other.

Thanatotourism, dark tourism and continental trends
The near-absence of what I regard as an essential connection between representation (in film and other media) of otherness, and two forms of tourism we know as ‘thanatotourism’ or ‘dark tourism’,  and ‘slum tourism’ is telling of the contemporary human condition. Thanatotourism has been defined as a sort of tourism that invites visits to domains haunted by histories of slavery, oppression and abject working class cultures. This is already an awfully long list of alternative ‘sites’ and ‘sights’ to account for – for, how much does industrial sites share with former European death camps and the Ground Zero monumental tribute to the 9/11 victims? But more intriguingly, this definition is rendered almost obsolete when one recalls thanatotourism’s interchangeable coding with ‘dark tourism’. Who is dark in such instances, how and why: is it the slaves’ skin complexion or the industrial soot of working-class enclaves around the world?
Things become even more complicated when one also considers representational conundrums in art and tourism theory. Often, even academic accounts of thanatotourist journeys cannot avoid a (however schematic) tour into those presents and envisaged futures of mobility that transform ‘death’ (thanatos) and darkness into a commodity that can be displayed to strangers (Halgreen, 2004). For any public sociologist ‘death’ is also the regenerative social force par excellence: anything that dies is ritualistically commemorated, remembered and reinstituted as a token in its social cradle. Any journey to sites of death as organised tourism might also involve the proud display of one’s heritage to strangers – even if this heritage incorporates national traumas, wars of shame or civil extinction. Death as a dark momentum in the human lifecycle can turn into a reproductive force for community building.

Death of Marxist darkness, birth of the slum
But tourist reproduction also has another side: that of commercialisation. The aficionados of Marxist theory would claim that the commercialisation of dark tourism ‘kills’ creativity and its very object (the alienated labourers). For Marxist postcolonial theorists, the very same commercialisation traumatises or obliterates subaltern, subjugated voices. And by extension, for film analysts of the same political convictions or filmmakers that aspire to debate the same phenomena merely reproduce this (reproductive!) representational vortex. There is, of course, no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ argumentation here, but for the purposes of my exploratory link between dark and slum tourism I can point readers to this sharp comment on problematic Marxist conceptualisations of the economies of experience and desire: ‘much tourism analysis has, until recently, been narrowly driven in its explanations of human behaviour….Nevertheless, due to the globalisation of mediascapes those in economic need are accurately aware of the desires of others around the world’ (Hannam and Knox, 2010: 12).
The authors illustrate their analysis with the example of newly instituted tours to Mumbai’s greatest slum, Dharavi, after the global success of Slumdog Millionaire (2008, dir. Danny Boyle). Such tours are also run by locals who refuse to be paid tips and merely confirm an all-too-familiar Orientalist stereotype of Indian subjects. The Dickensian parable is mobilised only so much (to attract clientele) – beyond that, relevant websites resort to idyllic communitarian images of the slum as a topos where children can play with carefree abandon. So, one stereotype is traded with another. And yet, the film itself – a product of Westernised Asian and Western European artists -  is much more ambivalent in its political colouring: it passes its 'slumdog' heroes through dark sites of suffering before redeeming them to the hands of Western audio-visual and embodied technologies (music, dancing).

The movement of travel
But my aim is not to reiterate Marxist accusations directed against affluent artists. Rather, I seek ways to illuminate this unique sentiment that characterises ways of seeing, listening and engaging with ‘other’ cultures in need. Originating mostly in old Europe’s traumatic and guilty encounters with the other, this sentiment is as problematic as it is productive – just as ‘death’ and darkness are essential for global communities. Connections between dark and slum tourism in film and academic musings are culturally situated constructs that produce new forms of social action. In Slumdog Millionaire’s case, they endorsed collective mobilisations in the filmed slum, enabling new self-presentations to emerge.
I recall from my philosophical and philological years in Greece that the Greek word for cinema, kinimatográfos (κινηματογράφος), refers to the inscription (grafì from gráfõ=to write) of movement (kìnima). Artistic and academic inscriptions of the other, the exotic, are forms of social movement with various results and consequences. ‘Colouring’ the other through all our senses is perhaps a notable example of the ways we externalise our inner audio-vision – more correctly put, the ways we conceptualise and communicate phenomena in visual, auditory or kinaesthetic and olfactory ways. But to what end and with what cost? These days, both academic and artistic communities undergo a double (inner and outer, terrestrial) journey to produce such cinematographic kinìmata or actions. One might ask whether replacing darkness with the full palette can rectify the Western European sadness, or just erase cultural specificity in a novel way. Both art and social/tourism theory are socially produced viewpoints and some may contend that the institution of external observatories may resurrect old censorial phantoms. But this is an on-going debate.

Dann, G.M.S. (2001) ‘Slavery, contested heritage and thanatotourism’, International Journal of Tourism Hospitality and Administration, 2(3/4):1-29.
Halgreen, T. (2004) ‘Tourists in the concrete desert’, in M. Sheller and J. Urry (eds.) Tourism Mobilities, London: Routledge.
Hannam, K. and D. Knox (2010) Understanding Tourism: A Critical Introduction, London: Sage.
Seaton, A.V. (1999) ‘War and thanatotourism: Waterloo, 1815-1914’, Annals of Tourism Research, 26(1): 130-59.
Tribe, J. (2009) ‘Philosophical issues in tourism’, in J. Tribe (ed.) Philosophical Issues in Tourism, Ontario: Channel View.
**Rodanthi is currently completing a book on Slumdog Millionaire as an instance of cultural globalisation