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